Manfredo Tafuri: Architecture and Utopia

I bought my copy of Architecture and Utopia in 1991 or 1992 so I’ve been carrying this little book around for about 20 years. I mean literally carrying it around – I tend to pick it up two or three times a year to dip into. I often take it on holidays or on long train rides. For those of you who know the book you may not think much of my holidays now. It is small – both in dimension and total pages – and I always have the impression that I will read it all the way through and understand it all. I fail each time. But that is the beauty of this little book. This is a book that still has scholars and theorists scratching their heads. So it is worth warning you that you need a fair bit of knowledge of architectural history to make sense of this book. The reason for this is not that it written in philosophical or theoretical speak but because it is about the history of architecture over the last 250 years. More than that, it is a challenge to that history is generally written. Specifically it addresses the relationship between architecture and capitalist development (as suggested by its subtitle ‘Design and Capitalist Development’). It is, as such, a political critique, and a harsh one at that. Tafuri has been accused of having written the most pessimistic analysis of architecture ever put on paper, but it’s not because he particularly wants it to be that way. When you start to understand this history, and specifically the ineffectiveness of avant-garde approaches, you are not left with much hope. This critique has been important to me because I have argued that architecture is de facto a utopian act. That is, to design is to project into the future. You always build with the intention of resolving something or bettering a situation. I don’t think any architect would admit to wanting to make things worse or even leaving things as they are. Tafuri’s articulation of how architectural production is caught up in political economy shows how every attempt to break through the grip of contemporary ideology only acts to reinforce it. I do not necessarily disagree with this idea. It is important to be aware of what is actually achievable rather than be under any romantic illusion that architecture can transform or even critique society, political or economic reality. This doesn’t mean that what one does is futile; a sober approach to what is possible means you don’t waste energy with unrealistic goals. Although Tafuri’s critique is quite convincing there are other ways in which architecture contributes – through an engagement with everyday practices, for example – and which make architecture a positive and worthwhile activity.

Rather than be put off by Tafuri’s ‘closure’, his critique allows me to see how supposedly avant-garde work is fictive. So it is with scepticism that I approach anything by Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelblau, OMA, or the emerging work based around parametric design. It is maybe worth noting that Tafuri’s critique didn’t change my way of thinking but only confirmed suspicions I had about work claiming to be critical or avant-garde during the 1980s and early 1990s. In particular, Peter Eisenman’s work, backed up by sophisticated theory, always seemed to me to be explainable via the prevailing means of production. The nuts and bolts of his work – steel frame construction, plasterboard on metal studs, suspended ceilings, window and doors details, and such – are exactly the same as the most conservative and corporate work. The only thing that differentiated an Eisenman building from one by SOM was its outward appearance. Having practiced in the US I understood very well the limitations on architecture imposed by the way it was financed, by local regulations, health and safety laws and zoning guidelines. It was this realisation, first experienced in practice, which got me started asking questions and eventually led me to Tafuri and others. Ask yourself if you ever had cause in your education to discuss the relationship between real estate and architecture. Were you ever asked to qualify if the land your project was on was privately owned or publicly held? And if so, did your tutors discuss how that would affect the possibilities of what you could design?

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One of the clearer and more easily digestible points made by Tafuri is the relationship between the city and architecture (understood as a single building work). Before the capitalist transformation in how land is managed (bought, sold and owned as a commodity) the relationship between these two was intimate. Buildings determined the space and character of cities and a city’s character was determined by its architecture. The treatment of the urban territory as commodity means that larger structural relationships become a hindrance to the exploitation of individual plots to their maximum. What architecture loses its connection and ability to form and contribute to the actual functioning structure of the city each act of building becomes an isolated incident and an individual expression. Hence, you get a building as sophisticated as OMA Seattle Public Library – in terms of its internal programming and spatial organisation – sitting and expressing itself as a completely alienated object in the cityscape. What Tafuri allows us to see is that this is not OMA’s fault, it is simply the only possible outcome given the underlying conditions. This is not to say that OMA could not have tried to mediate their building to its surroundings (the streetscape, its pattern, the surrounding buildings and their character). However, any attempt would be nothing more than nostalgia and doomed to fail. Given that option, OMA will never choose the nostalgic option, and in a way they have done what is most honest. Does that make it alright? Does it make the specific resolution a good one?

“Thus urban planning and architecture are finally separated.” P.38

What OMA has done in that particular instance is what Tafuri would call ‘pure architecture’ or Form without Utopia. No utopia because OMA are too clever to think that they can affect the underlying capitalist conditions that determine the city’s structure (physically and bureaucratically, not to mention politically).

“In order to “sustain” the metropolitan space, architecture seems obliged to become a spectre of itself.” P.145

 Architecture and Utopia was written in 1973 and translated into English in 1976. The last few times I’ve dipped into the book I have begun to feel that the book is starting to age. That is, we are now in the midst of an economic situation that Tafuri could not have foreseen, at least not in its specific manifestations. Tafuri is writing about the way that capitalist development up to the early 1970s affects architectural production. The book remains relevant because Tafuri’s argument is conceptual enough not to be fixed to the specifics of the 1880s, 1920s or 1970s. It still made sense in the 1980s, 1990s. The fact that perhaps we are experiencing something that may go beyond his conceptual analysis doesn’t negate what he has done. Where ever we stand today, it is on the shoulders of what has come before. That said, parts of the book seem like they could have been written yesterday. During my first readings in the early 1990s I thought about how the work of Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Aldo Rossi, and others fit the pattern so perfectly. Reading it today it seems to explain why each of MVRDV’s buildings are utterly different, why the idea of ‘starchitects’ is now an accepted phenomenon, and why iconographic buildings are snapped up by every city vying for a position on the global stage.

 Grim reading indeed. Yet I believe in the concept of utopia and the idea of projective architecture (see my entry on Mondrian when it appears). It is not that I, or anyone, should ignore Tafuri’s argument. My view is that the conceptual framework does not describe how everything works at every level, hence my interest in the everyday (see my entries on Lefebvre and de Certeau when they appear). The book is a kind of inoculation against naivety. I believe that we should all be aware of the larger conceptual frameworks within which we exist – like them or not. Tafuri did not believe that architecture had the ability to be revolutionary (any longer) but he did allow that individuals still had the potential.

Notes: I re-read chapters and skimmed the whole book looking at underlined passages for useful quotes and nuggets I could put into this entry. However, the book and even its parts, indeed individual sentences, resist easy summary. Little tidbits seemed to require extensive discussions and I thought that would make things tedious. So as always, if this interests you, read it for yourself and see how you get on. In any case, this was a difficult book to discuss, but an essential one. I will probably refine and edit this entry from time to time – probably each time I pick it up and find that I see something different in it, yet again.

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2 thoughts on “Manfredo Tafuri: Architecture and Utopia

  1. Haven’t read this but have read a few things by Tafuri. Actually his thesis is more relevant than ever! You sound like a man in denial ;). My few is that architecture is important precise because the hybrid nature of of it’s knowledge-base (and perhaps it is unique in this) allows it the clarify reality in a way that few fields can. Unless architects (as Grassi wrote) are in involved in this project of ‘clarifying’ they (we) are simply agents of the problem. This may mean not designing buildings at all. There’s this story of a legendary fencing instructor who works in feudal japan (under the shogun system) and then without any warning, to the total shock of polite society, leaves his post and relinquishes his rank to become a farmer. Society rationalises his ‘career-move’ by saying he simply ‘went mad’. I like that story.

  2. Thanks for the comments! I don’t think Tafuri would disagree with the hybrid aspect of architecture. I don’t, at least. What is more difficult is the ‘clarifying’ bit. It’s noble to want to be critical but Tafuri questions whether you can really step outside the the system enough to do that. It’s part of the reason he believe architects should design, critics criticise and historians historicise. Put another way, the art historian Yve-Alain Bois suggested that you cannot be ‘immersed in a field yet survey it from above’. That’s where not designing, or perhaps doing paper architecture does have the capacity to be critical. The question is whether it really changes anything. But, as you point out with fencing story, it doesn’t mean historians (or whomever is in charge of narratives) is automatically right or that they have better vision. One can be wrong even with hindsight.
    I don’t fully agree with Tafuri – particularly about the separation of design, criticism and history – but it’s a point, a warning that is worth pondering. That’s what I like about him.

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