Manifesto Letter No. 2

by Christian Schweitzer

Dear Friends,

Annie [Pedret] has sent me into our first manifesto group meeting with the words: “Before grabbing a particular theme (…) we could grasp on the fundamental question “why collaborate?” It is the common theme underlying the National Pavilion statements. It is scalable at all scales – evidenced by the statements so far. Other questions are: What is a manifesto today? What agency can manifesto(s) have to deal with the big problems we are facing today? How could we write a manifesto together?” During the meeting, listening to you all, it became clear that we have to start at these fundamentals. More questions were raised than answered as we all felt too uncomfortable to already commit to a path forward; fundamental questions about architecture itself and its influence on our society.

I was glad when Alessandro [Melis] brought up Jaques Herzog’s letter to David Chipperfield. The day it was released on the Domus website my wife actually woke me up in the morning, dangled her smartphone in front of me and said: “You have to read this, we have to talk about this …now!” Herzog with his letter, willingly or unwillingly, lays open the urgent need today for architects to take a clear position on the issues facing our global society and thereby the need for a manifesto of some form or kind.

Just like with Valerio Olgiati’s recent book “Non-Referential Architecture”, where i share his analysis of the current framework in which we do architecture (although I’d rather call it the de-contextualized than the non-referential world) but highly contest his conclusions, in which he retreats to positions developed in the 1980s as the answer to phenomena that only fully formulated in the 2010s (oneness, newness, order, experience, sense making, to name some … and ‘authorship’ basically declaring that only a singular brilliant mind can save us) … I do share Jacques Herzog’s analysis of the influence of architects to address or solve our current global problems, which is ‘none’. But I highly contest his conclusions of what is left for us to do or to achieve through architecture, where he retreats in an Olgiati-esque way to positions of the 1980s. I can trace back his longing for materiality, his examples of incremental change (which in sight of the urgency of our current problems seems like a capitulation), to Alison and Peter Smithon’s analysis of the city not as bridges, streets and airports but as the recognition of a wall texture, an in-between space, as points of identification, as a Heidegger ‘place’ that I can identify as “mine”. From our own architectural praxis my wife and I know just too well about the limited influence we have to get our intentions heard by clients, city council members, competition jurors, contractors, etc etc; incremental change and ‘just simply a good living environment’, as the lowest possible dominator, already takes all our energy (and Jaques Herzog’s authority actually makes it much easier for him to implement these basic requirements). One architect alone cannot achieve much, never could. But by seeing the world of architecture from his point of view as the fountainhead-esque individualist and lone wolf, Herzog grossly underestimates the power of a movement, of a shared goal, of a shared idea or ideal … or as Sibyl Moholy Nagy would call it: of “an ideology”.

The last time, and maybe the only time, architecture actually had any influence on society was when it united in a movement. The Modernist Movement was driven by developing a solution to a set of severe problems, that got enhanced by the First World War, the catastrophic famine it caused and the following Spanish Flu, and only found an incentive to be addressed through the democratization of Europe, when the voice of the most affected suddenly gained a weight for decision makers. Browsing European architecture magazines between 1920 and 1933 (let’s take for example the German “Bauwelt”) the formation of this movement unfolds almost like in a time lapse; in the beginning as a single article or project that awkwardly stands out now and then in between an eclectic mish-mash of random styles and forms (very much like today), by 1925 occupying a good 50% of the content, and by 1930 dominating the entire publication. This movement was not the achievement of individual architects who gifted the world with their genius (as Giedion, Gropius, and Johnson rewrote the history in the 1940s) but the result of relentless collaborations, exchange, trial and error, testing, testing, testing of a whole generation of architects believing in being able to change the world to the better. Starting out as a deeply humanistic movement based on collaboration they developed a methodology and subsequently a technology that soon took on a life of its own. Margarete Schütte Lihotzky’s work at the Typisierungsabteilung of the New Frankfurt Initiative made its way in reduced form into Ernst Neufert’s “Architects’ Data” … made it’s way in yet reduced form into the head of generations of architecture students all around the globe … made its way in yet reduced form into our building laws … made its way in yet reduced form into our competition briefs, into program writing, into our fundamental belief system as architects without us even being fully aware of it. Postmodernism and subsequent styles wrapped new clothes around this core but never fundamentally challenged it. We are still deeply ingrained in the modernist paradigm, and I fear without overcoming it we will not be able to tackle the problems that lie ahead of us, or maybe more accurately: to tackle the problems that already threaten to swallow exactly the world that this paradigm built.

If we are brutally honest to ourselves architects don’t have the influence we attest to ourselves. We see the world from above, from a distance, which creates in us the delusion we could change the world. In the 1st year of university I had to design a single family house, getting familiar with the notion of looking from above onto a plan; in the 2nd year I had to design a multi-family house, deciding the fate of multiple families; in 3rd year a city block; in 4th year an urban district; and for my 5th year diploma I overhauled the entire highway and railway system of my hometown Linz, basically ‘changing’ the lives of 200.000 people. Le Corbusier’s hand waving with an almost condescending gesture above his Plan Voisin in Pierre Chenal’s 1930 film “Architecture d’aujourd’hui” produced for the launch of the French architecture magazine with the same name, is deeply ingrained, consciously or subconsciously, in our self-conception as architects.(On a side note: the subversive idea to, when asked, not contributing an article but producing a film for the launch of a magazine could be applied to a manifesto. Who defines a manifesto as something written, it might be drawn or filmed.) Architects were always and still are highly respected, but oddly enough architecture itself never really was … There seems to be a disconnect between the image of the architect and the image of architecture within our society.

And yes, after this education I unconditionally believed I can change the world … top down, in control, unchecked … and we know never anything good came from that, and still we as architects hold on to that believe. When we today develop design methodologies incorporating broader collaborations, participatory models of design, we still see ourselves as the coordinators who stand on top, the ones in control. This belief of being in control was exactly the downfall of the Modernist Movement.

When Walter Gropius pushed his “High-Rise Steel Frame Apartment Building” at the second CIAM meeting in Frankfurt 1929 and Ernst May suppressed it in the adjunct publication “The Dwelling for Minimal Existence”, because he believed in the humanity of low rise social housing, the rift between “why are we doing this” and “to what end are we doing this” became evident; a cause turned into an ideology. Walter Gropius believed he could control the idea of high-rise social housing. Ernst May and his team believed they could control their idea of prefabrication, which enabled them to build 38.000 housing units in Frankfurt between 1926 and 1930 and then moving on to build Magnitogorsk within 2 years, a city from scratch of 150.000 housing units. Le Corbusier believed he could control his Dom-ino concept that became the canvas for almost every building around the world that is not “designed” by an architect. The systems they developed gained a life of their own and in consequence made the architect obsolete. And just like the car, that solved so many problems of the 19th century city but moved on to be a huge part of the mess we are in, this building philosophy moved on from a solution to a part of the mess we are in (as Jaques Herzog almost trivializes the impact of the use of concrete in his letter).

Today we again develop new technologies, like scale 1:1 3D printing, AI driven design tools, but unlike the Modernist, who developed their technology as a means to an end, it feels today we do it with no real agenda of how or what for to use them; cause and effect is reversed.

In contrast to the architects, the filmmakers in the 1920s were aware of the danger of obsolescence. In 1929, one year after the architects, Hélène de Mandrot summoned the European film avant-garde at her chartelet at La Sarraz. The list of participants was as impressive as it was one year earlier; among others: Walter Ruttmann, Hans Richter (co-editor with Mies van der Rohe of the G Magazine, and they both shared an office space with Bruno Taut in Berlin), Ella Berman-Michel (next to Paul Wolff the photographer and filmmaker of the New Frankfurt Initiative), Béla Balázs, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov (his Kino-Eye manifesto from 1923 is a must read in the context of manifestos “I am kino-eye. I am a builder. I have placed you, whom I’ve created today, in an extraordinary room which did not exist until just now when I also created it. In this room there are twelve walls shot by me in various parts of the world. In bringing together shots of walls and details, I’ve managed (…) to construct (…) a film-phrase which is a room.”), Pierre Chenal (Le Corbusier’s close friend, I think Le Corbusier copied Chenal’s look with his iconic glasses), Jean Painlevé, etc. etc. In awareness of the foundation of the CIAM they founded at this meeting the CICIM (Congrès International du Cinéma Indépendant et Moderne) and managed after huge fights between the Italian futurists and the French communists to agree on a shared declaration. In contrast to the La Sarraz Declaration by the architects, in which they called for a close collaboration with politics and building industry (believing they could control them), the filmmakers deliberately declared their independence from the film industry. They knew how the Hollywood- or the Berlin Babelsberg studio system disenfranchised any free expression that interfered with the maximization of profit. They knew they will lose control inevitably if they embrace this system even if it costs them fame it produces. Film today can still exist in any form to be relevant, from an abstract study of light and the absence of light to a social commentary of the condition of our society to the commercial blockbuster. Whereas architecture only exists in the narrow margin of problem-solving, of providing solutions.

The filmmakers met one more time in 1930 in Belgium. The meeting descended quickly into chaos and was cut short; the political gap between fascists and communists could not be bridged anymore. Margarete Schütte Lihotzky, as the only communist within the New Frankfurt Initiative, complained in letters home how apolitical her colleagues were. Architecture is a cultural act and it is a social act, but this in its consequence makes it a highly political act, and it has to be seen as such. We should not shy away to have political demands connected with a manifesto …

I know, I know, I am rambling … I am just endlessly fascinated by the 1920s and their relevance (good or bad) still for today.

As some environmental scientists phrase it: it is not 5 minutes to 12, it is already 12, and the next steps decide whether we fall down to one side or the other side of the clock. Which brings me to the addressee of a manifesto. Do we have to convince non architects or do we rather have to address our profession itself? In this question I tend to address our fellow colleagues in order to emphasize the need for a new movement, the need to gather behind an idea, and to commit to a common path; which might not require to formulate an agenda of action, but to question architecture itself, to broaden its definition, and open up new ways of understanding architecture and thereby tear us out of the narrow believe system we are currently vegetating in … which again … still is the modernist paradigm of rationality, functionality, systematization, ‘problem solving’ through literally “building” our environment. As Hans Hollein already said in 1960: “Architecture is in exile now, on the moon, or at the north pole, while people are building houses houses houses houses houses houses houses houses houses houses houses houses houses.” Can ‘building’ still be seen as the goal of architecture? Don’t we derive ourselves as architects from any influence by limiting the forms of expression of architecture in a media that we cannot control anymore since decades? I believe in the power of thought expressed through writing (which probably again makes me a modernist, hinting to the fact that even with awareness of it I cannot overcome my own limitations). Arundhati Roy, a trained architect, achieved with her novel “The God of Small Things” (written partly out of frustration about the limited influence she had as a practicing architect) more than she ever could through buildings. A text based architecture, a manifesto, in contrast to built architecture, can also not change the world, but it can change our perception and understanding of the world, which in consequence actually is changing the world.

Someone during the meeting mentioned the possibility of an “open source manifesto”. It sounds like a tempting idea as it suggests that though an open system of gathering knowledge every voice can find a forum. But at the same time it frees us from responsibility by trying to objectify the statement: “this is not my opinion, it is a universal opinion.” We already contain in ourselves all the knowledge that is needed to draw informed conclusions, we are witnesses of this time as well. With the words of Howard Roark: “I am an architect. I know what is to come by the principle on which it is built” (having in this context to quote Ayn Rand to make a point probably already invalidates this argument in itself). Maybe we just have to find ways to overcome our own bias to uncover this knowledge.

Any methodology to compile a manifesto runs the danger of applying known academic standards in order to objective, rationalize, standardize, in order to be ‘scientific’, not contestable, suggesting an universal truth. We are so scared today to be subjective.

Since when has architecture become a science? Architecture is the only profession that combines all transcendentals of Plato: the good, the true, and the beautiful. Thanks to the Modernists only the ‘true’ seems to carry value today. There are other ways of gaining knowledge as Lucy Cotter lays out in her book “Reclaiming Artistic Research”. Especially intriguing is the notion of non-knowledge: “Georges Bataille’s references to non-knowledge as something that is on the other side of knowledge. He proposes that if you really get into any kind of knowledge, you come to reach its limit and arrive on the other side of that knowledge into a kind of non-knowledge.” Sarat Maharaj adds: “[Non-knowledge] largely disappeared from Western thinking until it surfaces in philosophy of science with Karl Popper’s skepticism, his hypothesis that we can never know what knowledge is. We can only say that we have failed to attain it and in failing, we get a glimpse of what it might possibly be; an approximate to the state that we call knowledge.”

As someone socialized by rationality, functional thinking, quantifiable parameters, I don’t know how to react to the possibility of admittance of non-knowledge, but I know within it lies a key to overcome our current limitations.

At one point during the zoom meeting, I forgot in which context, Ryul [Song] turned to me and said: “From a feministic point of view we should only ask questions”. Following the advice of Elizabeth Grosz and Judith Butler: confronted with something, always ask “what is it?” “what does it mean?” “why is it said?” as everything that we think is obvious was thought, made, and established by men.

By coincidence I am just reading Clementine Deliss’ book ”The Metabolic Museum” in which she lays out alternative concepts for museum pedagogy, exhibitions, knowledge creation, and teaching. It contains several manifestos of which one is compiled in the form of an inner dialog: a multitude of questions that are only answered with a brief “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, “sure”, “why not?”. It leaves room for interpretation, for descending answers, the questions remain in the head of the reader, not the answers. I do believe as a first step we should compile as many questions as we can think of; questions free us of the need of knowledge, questions still can carry innocence. In cross-referencing these questions there will emerge patterns that will hint to the core of what actually will have to be addressed. This hint can point us also into a direction of what methodology is needed to uncover an answer to these questions.

Can we allow non-knowledge, coincidence, chance, conversation, possibility, a process (rather than a result), questions, knowledge creation to happen? Or shall we play it safe with known methodologies? In a way, saying “hallo” is also nice … saying “hallo” is the first step in any conversation …

Let me close with a quote from Herzog’s Domus text that i consider the most important message: “So, dear [friends], that’s enough. I’ve been rambling. If i keep going, my letter will turn into an essay, and you know only too well how we feel about that. There are naturally a lot of other concerns – but more about them maybe another time. Warmly,”

Seoul October 28, 2020

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