A panel discussion organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society on February 7th, 2013 at New York University.
“Let us not deceive ourselves,” Victor Hugo once advised, in his iconic Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Architecture is dead, and will never come to life again; it is destroyed by the power of the printed book.” Both as a discipline and a profession, architecture lagged behind the other applied arts. Even when measures toward modernization were finally instituted, many of the most innovative, technically reproducible designs were hived off from the realm of architecture proper as mere works of “engineering.” Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, however, fresh currents of thought arose within the field to lend architecture a new lease on life. Avant-garde architects emulated developments that had been taking place in both the visual arts (Cubism, Futurism) and scientific management of labor (Taylorism, psychotechnics), advocating geometric simplicity and ergonomic efficiency in order to tear down the rigid barrier dividing art from life. Most of the militant members of the architectural avant-garde sought to match in aesthetics the historical dynamism the Industrial Revolution had introduced into society. Machine-art was born the moment that art pour l’art died. “Art is dead! Long live the machine-art of Tatlin!” announced the Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield in 1920.
The modernists’ project consisted in giving shape to an inseparable duality, wherein the role of architecture was deduced as simultaneously a reflection of modern society as well as an attempt to transform it. Amidst the tumult and chaos that shook European society from the Great War up through the Great Depression, revolutionary architects of all countries united in opposition to the crumbling order of bourgeois civilization, attaching themselves to radical political movements. Forced out of Europe by fascism and subsequently out of the USSR by Stalinism, the architectural avant-garde fled to North America. Following a second global conflagration — transposed into the postwar boom context of America with the GI Bill, Europe under the Marshall Plan, and Japan under McArthur — the modernists now reneged on their prior commitment to spur on social change. Abandoning what Colin Rowe had called “that mishmash of millennialistic illusions, chiliastic excitements, and quasi-Marxist fantasies,” they instead accommodated themselves to the planning agencies and bureaucratic superstructures of Fordism. “European modern architecture came to infiltrate the United States, largely purged of its ideological or societal content; where it became available, not as an evident manifestation or cause of socialism,” he wrote, “but rather as décor de la vie for Greenwich, Connecticut or as a suitable veneer for the corporate activities of enlightened capitalism.” Indeed, the International Style that premiered in 1932 at MoMA under Johnson and Hitchcock’s highly selective curatorial oversight had already been stripped down to its barest formal elements. Looking to revitalize revolutionary modernism, Reyner Banham thus declared in 1962: “Even when modern architecture seemed plunged in its worst confusions it could still summon up a burst of creative energy that gave the lie to the premature reports of its demise. Modern architecture is dead; long live modern architecture!”
Only a decade later, however, Charles Jencks calculated in his book on Post-Modern Architecture that it was possible “to date the death of Modern Architecture to a precise moment in time” (July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm, with the detonation of Yamasaki’s much-maligned Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis). Today it is postmodernism that appears to be aging badly. But if postmodernism, which stood for “the end of the end” (Eisenman), is itself at an end, does this mean the end of “the end of the end”? Just another stop along the way in an endless cycle of endings? — Or might it portend the beginning of a modernist renaissance? This prospect could prove bleaker yet. “In architecture,” writes Owen Hatherley, addressing the issue of “post-postmodernism,” “typically postmodernist devices seem to have entered a terminal decline, as historical eclecticism and glib ironies have been replaced by rediscoveries of modernist forms — albeit emptied of political or theoretical content. But does this trend represent a break with postmodernism — or does it merely mark the arrival of the pseudomodernism of contemporary architecture?”
In light of these considerations, Platypus thus asks:
Where does architecture stand at present, in terms of its history?
Are we still — were we ever — postmodern?
What social and political tasks yet remain unfulfilled, carried over from the twentieth century, in a world scattered with the ruins of modernity?
Does “utopia’s ghost” (Martin), the specter of modernism, still haunt contemporary building?
How can architecture be responsibly practiced today?
Is revolutionary architecture even possible?
Peter Eisenman is design principal of Eisenman Architects in New York. His current projects include the City of Culture of Galicia in Spain; a master plan for Pozzuoli, Italy, and a residential condominium in Milan. His award-winning projects include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts in Ohio. In 2010, he received the international Wolf Prize in Architecture, and in 2004 the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Architecture Biennale. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his many books are Written Into the Void: Selected Writings, 1990-2004 and Ten Canonical Buildings, 1950-2000, on the work of ten architects. He is also the Charles Gwathmey Professor in Practice at the Yale School of Architecture.
Reinhold Martin is Associate Professor of Architecture in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, where he directs the PhD program in architecture and the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. He is also a member of Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Committee on Global Thought. Martin is a founding co-editor of the journal Grey Room and has published widely on the history and theory of modern and contemporary architecture. He is the author of The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space (MIT Press, 2003), and Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (Minnesota, 2010), as well as the co-author, with Kadambari Baxi, of Multi-National City: Architectural Itineraries (Actar, 2007). Currently, he is working on two books: a history of the nineteenth century American university as a media complex, and a study of the contemporary city at the intersection of aesthetics and politics.
Joan Ockman is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Before this, she served as Director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University from 1994 to 2008 and was a member of the faculty of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation for over two decades. In addition to Columbia and Penn, she has also taught at Yale, Cornell, Graduate Center of City University of New York, and the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. She began her career at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, where she was an editor of the legendary Oppositions journal and was responsible for the Oppositions Books series. Her most recent book is Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America. A twentieth-anniversary edition of her book Architecture Culture 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology will appear in 2013.
Bernard Tschumi is widely recognized as one of today’s foremost architects. In 1983, he won the prestigious competition for the Parc de La Villette. Since then, he has designed buildings such as the new Acropolis Museum; Le Fresnoy National Studio for the Contemporary Arts; the Vacheron-Constantin Headquarters; The Richard E. Lindner Athletics Center at the University of Cincinnati; and architecture schools in Marne-la-Vallée, France and Miami, Florida. Tschumi’s many books include the three-part Event-Cities series; The Manhattan Transcripts; and Architecture and Disjunction. Tschumi was awarded France’s Grand Prix National d’Architecture in 1996 as well as numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is an international fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in England and a member of the Collège International de Philosophie and the Académie d’Architecture in France.
Sammy Medina, Pam C. Nogales C., and Ross Wolfe gave teach-ins as part of the Free University during the Day of Action against Cooper Union’s unprecedented tuition requirements. Pam did a teach-in on 19th-century American history and struggles for emancipation, while Sammy and Ross talked about the sociohistoric project of early modernist architecture.
A panel event held at the New School in New York City on November 14th, 2012.
Transcribed in Platypus Review #56:
The present moment is arguably one of unprecedented confusion on the Left. The emergence of many new theoretical perspectives on Marxism, anarchism, and the left generally seem rather than signs of a newfound vitality, the intellectual reflux of its final disintegration in history. As for the politics that still bothers to describe itself as leftist today, it seems no great merit that it is largely disconnected from the academic left’s disputations over everything from imperialism to ecology. Perhaps nowhere are these symptoms more pronounced than around the subject of the economy. As Marxist economics has witnessed of late a flurry of recent works, many quite involved in their depth and complexity, recent activism around austerity, joblessness, and non-transparency while quite creative in some respects seems hesitant to oppose with anything but nostalgia for the past the status quo mantra, “There is no Alternative.” At a time when the United States has entered the most prolonged slump since the Great Depression, the European project founders on the shoals of debt and nationalism. If the once triumphant neoliberal project of free markets for free people seems utterly exhausted, the “strange non-death of neo-liberalism,” as a recent book title has it, seems poised to carry on indefinitely. The need for a Marxist politics adequate to the crisis is as great as such a politics is lacking.
And 2011 now seems to be fading into the past. In Greece today as elsewhere in Europe existing Left parties remain largely passive in the face of the crisis, eschewing radical solutions (if they even imagine such solutions to exist). In the United States, #Occupy has vanished from the parks and streets, leaving only bitter grumbling where there once seemed to be creativity and open-ended potential. In Britain, the 2011 London Riots, rather than political protest, was trumpeted as the shafted generation’s response to the crisis, overshadowing the police brutality that actually occasioned it. Finally, in the Arab world where, we are told the 2011 revolution is still afoot, it seems inconceivable that the revolution, even as it bears within it the hopes of millions, could alter the economic fate of any but a handful. While joblessness haunts billions worldwide, politicization of the issue seems chiefly the prerogative of the right. Meanwhile, the poor worldwide face relentless price rises in fuel and essential foodstuffs. The prospects for world revolution seem remote at best, even as bankers and fund managers seem to lament democracy’s failure in confronting the crisis. In this sense, it seems plausible to argue that there is no crisis at all, but simply the latest stage in an ongoing social regression. What does it mean to say that we face a crisis, after all, when there is no real prospect that anything particularly is likely to change, at least not for the better?
In this opaque historical moment, Platypus wants to raise some basic questions: Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today and, if so, of what sort — political? economic? social? Why do seemingly sophisticated leftist understandings of the world appear unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, can the world be thought intelligible without our capacity to self-consciously transform it through practice? Can Marxism survive as an economics or social theory without politics? Is there capitalism after socialism?
1. Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today and, if so, of what sort — political? economic? social? Is capitalism basically the same in its “laws of motion” and can it be grasped equally well today as it was by Marx? What difference, if any, does the collapse of the socialist workers movement make for our understanding of capitalism?
2. Why are sophisticated leftist understandings of the world seemingly unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, is the world intelligible despite our incapacity to transform it politically? Can the Left survive as an economics or social theory? Is our work more “difficult” today in theorizing capitalism, or of a completely different kind than it was for past generations of leftist intellectuals?
3. Many on the Left welcomed the #Occupy movement in 2011 because, above all, it responded to capitalist austerity in its slogans and characterized itself in class terms. Did #Occupy betoken a renewed salience of class? How did #Occupy and other movements worldwide differ from the political response — whether by the new social movements or other political expressions — to the crisis of Fordism beginning in the late 1960s and crystallizing with the Oil Crisis in 1973?
4. How does the present crisis compare with past crises of capital? What might we expect to be the duration of the present crisis? Is there an end in sight? Or are we witnessing the “terminal crisis” of capitalism? How do we know? If not the end of capitalism as such, does the present crisis at least signal an end to neoliberalism? If so, what will take its place?
5. How do your political views influence your understanding of capitalism and crisis? In what sense is economics as a science or discipline independent and autonomous from those politics? How do you avoid the danger of your theory from simply confirming your politics, rather than allowing our understanding of present circumstances to help push beyond our present political impasse?
6. At different moments of its unfolding the crisis has been differently expressed in different locations — a sub-prime mortgage crisis in North America, then a sovereign debt crisis in Europe, and now in a still different form in China. What is the extent of the present crisis and how has it been distributed globally? Unevenly? What does globalization look like in a period of prolonged crisis? Is the era of US hegemony at an end? If so, what will take its place? How is/was American imperialism connected to first Fordism and, later, post-Fordist capitalism and how does the new capitalism challenge a new American Empire-led global (re-)organization?
// Co-Editor at Insurgent Notes; ┇ Author (complete archive of writings available here): — Ubu Saved From Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974-1977 (2000), — “The Sky Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn: Class Struggle in the U.S. From the 2008 Crash to the Eve of Occupy” (2011), “Globalization of Capital, Globalization of Struggle” (2012)
// Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the CUNY Grad Center; ┇ Author: — The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), — A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), — “Why the US Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail” (2008), — The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2011), — Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2012)
// Professor of Economics at Pace University; ┇ Contributing author to the Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s (MHI’s) With Sober Senses since 2009; ┇ Author: — Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2007), — The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (2012)
// Teaches Philosophy at Adelphi University; ┇ Former editor of the International Journal of Political Economy (1987-2004), frequent contributor to The Brooklyn Rail ┇ Author: — Social Knowledge: An Essay on the Nature and Limits of Social Science (1986), — Art in Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics (2003), — Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (2011)