A para-political discourse: fragments
1. Architecture and power: capital, the generic and the exception
“What can be considered as an exception today?” Such seems to be one of today’s most anxiety-inducing questions in the architectural debate: when our society is asking for newer and newer “stuff” on a daily basis, hasn’t the “exception” become the new normal?
In order to try to give an answer to this question, it is at first necessary to deal with a larger discussion about the association between architecture and power (whether it is economic or political), and – more importantly - its representations; its imaginary. Indeed, when discussing this issue, it is not uncommon to hear expressions such as the following: architecture has always been and always will be a manifestation of power. Even though this formula has become a cliché - because it does not consider the possibility of breaking, or hacking, the connections of architecture with power - it is partially true in admitting the inextricable relationship between architecture and authority. In fact, since the power – whether public or private – commits vast amount of money in building plans, architecture cannot be considered just as the activity of the architect. Rather, it is one of the core activities of the political and economic authorities too. Michelangelo and Bernini had to work for the pope (and at the same time used the occasion given to them by him) to realize their ideas, giving to the Catholic Church some of the most iconic symbols and wonderful buildings in architecture’s history. 20th century architects Albert Speer, Marcello Piacentini and Boris Iofan contributed in the formal definition of Nazism, Fascism and Stalinism, helping the transformation of theoretical ideologies in terrible realities (yet, they were very good architects; particularly Piacentini). More recently, architects, usually defined by lazy critics as star-architects, have been building in the rich societies and emerging economies of China and United Arab Emirates, taking part in the construction of our society’s imaginary: the so-called late capitalism. So much so that, today, the only true theoretical statement for architecture might seem to be “ubi pecunia, ibi patria” (1). In fact, the main characteristics of today’s social and economic paradigm are the run-up to continual growth, to more and more performative production, reproduction and consumption, the reduction of all the forms of inefficiency and the need of increasing profit (at least, it was so until yesterday). A condition that, according to Frederic Jameson, becomes particularly clear in the use of the word “late” as a prefix to “capital” (or capitalism):
“What “late” generally conveys is rather the sense that something has changed, that things are different, that we have gone through a transformation of the life world which is somehow decisive but incomparable with the older convulsions of modernization and industrialization, less perceptible and dramatic, somehow, but more permanent precisely because more thoroughgoing and all pervasive.” (2)
Furthermore, late capitalism’s cultural dimension is characterized by a massive expansion of the space of culture to the point of invading the space of consumption. In other words, as we live in a state of constant enjoyment and search for new products, so it happens for culture; we drool all over the new “fancy schmancy” concept. Thus, every cultural discipline – including architecture – can be extremely productive in the development of our cultural imaginary. Late-capitalism, then, besides being a “kind of leftist logo which is ideologically and politically booby-trapped” (3), as once again Jameson says, has to be understood as a sort of transformation of classical capitalism, which has been happening within its own axiomatic rules and laws. In other words, today’s socioeconomic condition is a sort of “capitalism” in which the economic needs become beliefs: the belief in consumption and the belief in communication; in turn become “spectacle”.
It is somehow possible to see the differences between capitalism and late-capitalism from an architectural and urban point of view. In this sense, it is easy to see how classical modern capitalism is embodied in New York City. Indeed, New York is a city that has used all of the possibilities given by modern technological advances (such as the power engine or the elevator) for the formalization of modernity: the construction of higher and higher skyscrapers, for instance. Nonetheless, the model for capitalism has been shifting since the 80’s. According to Jacques Attali, if it is true that the classical paradigm of capitalism can be explained using the “big apple” as its paradigmatic urban reality, the contemporary trend of capitalism can be described studying Los Angeles. (4)
According to Attali’s argument, Los Angeles can be defined as the city of nomadism and immateriality. In other words, LA is the city of the “economics of creativity” that transform technical innovations in products for the mass-market. Los Angeles is the city where inventors and actors from the creative industries live, and it is the city where the (historically) new enterprises have enabled the industrialization of the commercial goods, opening up for the so-called “industrialization of services”. Moreover, it must be remembered that two of the recent most revolutionary technologies have been either invented or further developed in the LA area: the mobile phone and the World Wide Web. These two media dematerialize the city, its infrastructure and our material lives, providing all of us a sort of reterritorialized personal address. As far as the discourse about the relationship between architecture, power and economy is concerned, Los Angeles shows how the real power is shifting more and more from the political side to the economic one, becoming dematerialized (as it is this city’s political structure). In this sense, Los Angeles is a particularly interesting city to study because it is one of those places in which architecture has learned how to relate itself with the expression of today’s capitalist imaginary, the market and its aesthetic dimension: the “spectacle”. In fact, if it is true that New York City has given some architects – think of Rem Koolhaas’ “Delirious New York” – the chance of rethinking the idea of modern architecture and its “capitalist” development, Los Angeles could actually be a model to study for the understanding of architecture today. In fact, in this city, it is easy to spot the double dimension of the architectural embodiment of today’s capitalist values. On the one hand, there are singular architectures (such as Frank Gehry’s “Walt Disney Concert Hall” or its recently added neighbour, Diller & Scofidio + Renfro’s “Broad Museum”) that are the main characters in the urban spectacle where glass, colours, lights and shapes embody power, glory, entertainment, memory and identity. On the other hand, the city of Los Angeles is a land of anonymous and generic buildings that seem to formalize the dematerialization of our lives. In this sense, Los Angeles can be described as the symbolic paradigm of our social and global world; an ecology in which people live in data, sleep in rooms (B’n’B, AirBnB, Couchsurfing), study and work in decentralized places. Lastly, if according to Reyner Banham are the Freeway and the beaches, the places “where the Angeleno is most himself, most integrally identified with his great city” (5), nowadays, we have to add to the list the Internet, new media and what they bring – for better or worse - in our life. Being such a paradigmatic example, Los Angeles could even be seen, nowadays, as the historical example of the late capitalist city: it can be seen as the prototype for the “infamous” megalopolises growing all over the world. These cities are urban realities conceived as a vast field of generic architecture, sometimes interrupted by literally spectacular buildings. These moments (these exceptions?) are monuments that embody the economic power, contributing to the social imaginary of today’s capital and globalization, creating a sort of new, hyper-technological and hyper-media-like collage.
As far as this essay’s topic is concerned, we clearly see how architecture needs “exceptions” in order to glorify the money and the power that produces it. Still…are these objects, today, still considerable as exceptions?
In fact, if these spectacular buildings – these global icons – are moments of exception in their urban context, it is necessary to question their status of “exceptionality” from a disciplinary point of view. Looking at MAD architects’ “Fake hills” in Beihai, or at any building built in cities by big companies or famous architects (to name a few: BIG’s “Lego House” in Denmark, Jean Nouvel’s “Louvre” in Abu Dhabi, Zaha Hadid Architects’ “Morpheus hotel” in Macau), it seems like that the exception has become the new normal (despite the possible qualities and/or flaws of these buildings in their singularity). This is the most obvious consequence of the episteme such as the one we live in; a cultural paradigm that ultimately digests everything, asking for constant innovation. If this is true, then, it is necessary to reformulate the initial question: what is an exception today?
2. A paradigmatic Example: Berlin’s Reichstag
In order to deepen a historicized understanding of today, we can consider the European metropolis as a more fruitful example, due to the layering of history that characterizes them. For instance, if we consider a city like Berlin, we easily see the traces of the different stages of western modern urban capitalist culture. This city is particularly interesting because, even though it is not as nomadic as Los Angeles, it has transformed its history, which has often been tragic, in a touristic value. In-fact, the tourists – the ultimate nomads of today – go to this city in order to visit places like the “Jewish Museum” built by Daniel Libeskind, the various Jewish Memorials, the Nazi bunkers, the wall’s fragments, museums, shopping centres as well as many others relevant buildings and places. Among these, we can look at the Berlin’s Reichstag as a case study in order to attempt a theoretical speculation. This building is particularly interesting because it is one of the most meaningful examples of architecture: a building with a symbolic status related to all the ideological hopes, tragedies and political changes of 20th and 21st centuries’ western culture. We can start to look at the Reichstag’s symbolic importance in history, starting from a precise day: the 9th of November 1918. This day, Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the institution of Weimar’s republic from the Reichstag’s balcony. With this event, the words “Dem Deutschen Volke”, added on the building’s facade in 1916 with the Kaiser’s discontent, became finally real. We can consider this event as the first symbolic feature of the Reichstag. In fact, this building, designed by Paul Wallot and completed by Philipp Holzmann in 1894, since then became the symbol of both the political power and struggle of Germany.
The symbolic status of the Reichstag became even more relevant when, after the failure of Weimar’s republic, the building was famously burnt on the 27th of February 1933 by the Nazi, in order to repress the communists, the socialists and all of the oppositions. Even though Nazi’s responsibility it is not completely proven (although more than presumably true), the Reichstag surely became the symbol of Nazi’s rise to power (6). In this context, this tragic act has to be understood for its symbolic status: the destruction of a building was used as the symbol of democracy’s failure and of Nazism’s superiority with respect to the presumed decadence of values implicit in the democratic government. Furthermore, it is not by chance that the Nazi used this building for propaganda. Finally, at the end of the Second World War, there would have been an “ironic” turn of fate for the symbolic status of the Reichstag in relation to Nazism. In-fact, if Hitler’s party used the building in order to humiliate its oppositions, the Russians, once they occupied Berlin in 1945, used this building as a symbol of the end of the war and the defeat of the Nazi-Fascism in Europe through the – actually posed – Yevgeny Khaldei’s famous pictures of a soviet soldier planting the red flag on the building’s roof.
Interestingly enough, during the cold war, the building was essentially a ruin. It was close to the border between the capitalist Germany on the west side of the Berlin’s wall and the communist one on the east side of it, standing as the allegory of Germany’s loss of political autonomy. In fact, and even though it was rebuilt in the 60’s by Paul Baumgarten, the Reichstag was only occasionally used for one-off events and few exhibitions. One among the few events that involved the use of this building, and probably the most famous one, was Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s installation entitled “Wrapped Reichstag”, realized for the first time in the 70’s and redone in 1995. The two French artists wrapped the Reichstag with polypropylene fabric, aluminium and 15 km of rope, in the attempt of generating a kind of urban estrangement. As far as this essay’s topic is concerned, it would be possible to propose an interpretation of this piece of art: this artwork could actually be read as the attempt to give back to the building its symbolic status by renegotiating its image with the viewer and giving to it a new meaning. In other words, the wrapping of the Reichstag was the symbol of Germany’s final loss of political autonomy, in 1975, and its opposite in 1995: Germany is back.
In fact, after the fall of the Berlin’s wall, the building became the most powerfully symbolic monument of Berlin. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Bundestag voted to move the capital city of the reunified Germany from the city of Bonn (the former capital of the Federal Republic of Germany) to Berlin. This change finally ended in 1999 when the last representative of the government moved to the new capital. Indeed, this political shift is well represented by the Reichstag’s restoration, when, in 1999, Norman Foster won the competition for the reconstruction and restoration of this building. In his project – that was actually very different from his competition entry – the most suggestive architectural element is a new glass dome on the Reichstag’s roof which refers to the original dome of the building built by Holzmann, and in which tourists and visitors are allowed to see the parliament and enjoy a pleasing view on the city (7).
Given the particularly troubled history of the building, Norman Foster’s intervention is usually understood as a metaphor for “transparency”, as if the new glass dome, allowing the visitors to see the Bundestag’s works, was a guarantee of democratic transparency. However, it is possible to give another kind of interpretation to this intervention, thanks to which it is possible to give back a radically different political meaning of this structure. In a sense, this “exceptional” intervention can be understood as the representation of the economic power. Indeed, since the Reichstag is one of the most visited monuments of Berlin, everyone going in there knows that he will have to wait a few hours in queue before being able to get inside the structure. Why? Because the Reichstag has today become an object of entertainment in Berlin’s urban spectacle. Consequently, the Reichstag’s new dome can be seen as the metaphor of the political power that pays its tribute to the economic needs of our system, allowing tourists to visit its democratic temple, rather than being a pure structure for democracy.
Of course, the Reichstag is one of the existing clearest and more obvious symbols of the relationship between power and architecture, because it is a public monument and - as such - it is meant as a representative object, to the point of even inspire – according to Georges Bataille - “socially acceptable behaviour, and often a very real fear” (8). In other words, since this building was born as the parliament house of Germany, it is inherently related to the representation of power, whether it is the political one or the economic one. Still, this example is useful in relation to the question of the “exception”. The exceptional new dome – an exception from what is considered to be a generic dome – shows how the idea of “exception” has by itself become a norm.
3. The Formal metaphor of Authority: the normative status of the Exception
As we see, architecture’s exceptionality has always had a symbolic content. Nonetheless, such a content is nowadays taken to an extreme. It the obvious consequence of today’s imaginary: More and more exceptions; to the point that – today – the “exception” is not felt (often) as such anymore. It is not sufficient for a building to have an exceptional shape –as the Reichstag’s dome– in order to really be exceptional, because being exceptional has become a normative value. Consequently, we cannot think of a formal exception as a real cultural value, at least for no more than a bunch of months, days, hours, minutes, seconds (some may call it “accelerationism”). Even if we look at the historical avant-garde, it is easy to see how “modern” architecture has become the expression of an ideal conception of society in which men’s and women’s subjectivities were inner workings of a linear system. In-fact, as widely discussed by Manfredo Tafuri, the avant-garde itself would have become an instrument for the same status quo they were fighting against (9). One example: the inventions of the Bauhaus that would have been copied by the non-exceptional IKEA.
If that is true for architectural projects that had a real utopian cultural agenda, it is even more obvious today, when there is not any real avant-garde. Charles Jencks has defined this condition as the paradigm in which it has emerged a new architectural typology: the “iconic building” (10). Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV in Beijing, Enric Miralles’ Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, as well as Norman Foster’s Reichstag, are all –above many others– examples of this new typology. According to Jencks, this typology is successful thanks to the use of metaphors and thanks to media attention, meaning that it is a proper “zeitgeisty” expression of today’s ethos: culture has become spectacle, money has become dream, architecture has become entertainment. Interestingly enough, these buildings, in order to be successful, have to be “exceptional”, meaning that they have to be different and, referring to a famous advertising of an even more known company, architects have to “think different”, yet producing easily legible objects. Here – in the need of being simultaneously exceptional and legible - lies a contradiction: when everything is exceptional and nothing is normal, the exception becomes the mainstream and the design process needed to produce it is transformed in a brainwashed design methodology which produces easier and easier exceptions: bananas, dildos, artichokes, clouds, elephants or, some would say, ducks.
To overcome this problem, many architects, nowadays, seem to be interested in the comeback to a “normality” that is, given the present cultural context, the definition of a new exception. The basic assumption is as simple as it is rhetorically effective: when everybody is “weird”, only the normal ones can be considered as “exceptional”. Consequently, the works of architects like Kersten Geers, Valerio Olgiati or Max Dudler (as well as many others), seem to suggest the possibility of developing such a cultural agenda. Nonetheless, thesis of this paper is that this approach to the problem is just a partial solution. In fact, their approach can be considered as the other face of the same coin of “iconism” or, referring to philosophy, it is an antithesis in a dialectical system that, at the end of the day, participates in the definition of a shared synthesis.
4. An architecture of exception(s)
If this is the case (inexcusably briefly exposed), how is it possible to solve today’s contradiction underlying the concept of the “exceptionality”?
It is possible to imagine an answer to this final question going back, once again, to the history of the Reichstag. In the very synthetic history of the Reichstag given before, it is possible to find a particular moment of this building’s life that might highlight some possibilities to make a case for an exceptional architecture. Indeed, it would be a huge mistake to consider this building just as an example of architecture’s ability to represent power. Thus, we can find in the building’s history an aesthetic element, designed by Wallot, that was able to symbolically “trouble” the “status quo”. This aesthetic element – which was only approved during the Weimar Republican government – attracted the critics and the disapproval of both the Kaiser and the one of the capitalist power, which during Baumgarten’s reconstruction of the building planned to remove it.
The building was considered to be somehow unpleasant because it was the result of a remix of typically eclectic and “Wilhelmine” elements – which in itself is already a mix of Neoclassical, Baroque and Renaissance stylistic quotations - in the building’s façade, with avant-garde structures (as the building’s dome) made in glass and iron. When it was built, the Reichstag was the expression of a different kind of exception: partly extravagant (the multiplicity of styles), partly ordinary (the formal principles); partly historical (the use of a dome recalling a long tradition of architecture’s history), partly new (the use of new technologies and materials).
Even though this particular feature of the building might look as a trivial matter, the consequences of this multiplicity can highlight some possibilities for the definition of the exception in times like ours, characterized by an almost eternal fight between the exception that becomes the norm and the norm that becomes the exception. The exception might be determined through a constant détournement; through a tension between values, rather than through the affirmation of one solid dogma (whether it is an absolute or a metaphor).
The Reichstag shows the possibility of an architectural exception in using different narratives simultaneously and in the tension between different values. In other words, the only possibility of having exception(s), today, might not be achieved by working for the realization of a new “absolute”, but by constantly renegotiating the mainstream with the new, as well as simplicity with complexity. This kind of aesthetic, is constituted - as such – in the tension between legibility and illegibility, and in the rejection of the positive language, using language’s contradictions and contrasts as positive values. Historical examples of this approach might be found in the work of Paul Wallot, as well as in the one of many architects of the past such as Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, John Soane, Robert Adam, or Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In this sense, the contradictory status of this aesthetics, produces a continuous displacement of values and carries out unexpected features of architectural language. Moreover, the idea of the exception can be related to what can be referred to as a “queer”, “post-humanist”, or even “Dadaist” idea: the interest in incorporating the “otherness” in one-/it-self. A kind of incorporation which adds meaning to the building and that changes the meaning of language’s standards as they are normally understood.
This way of thinking architecture might open unexpected paths for the discipline and, in order not to be understood as a mere eclecticism or as a kitsch formalism, the idea of incorporating the aesthetic of the “other” and the multiplicity of meanings, needs the introduction of a new critical category by which it would be possible to read the Reichstag’s first shapes as a meaningful and different approach to architectural design. In-fact, this kind of architecture needs what could be called as a “critical ontology” (11). We need to move from an ontologically strictly defined architecture that refers to an abstract truth (formalism, phenomenology, politics, discourse, discourse, discourse!), to a different idea of architecture that is determined by an ontology that is constantly criticizing itself. Wallot’s Reichstag might represent one idea for a cultural project which incorporates different interpretations of the same concept without solving contrasts and the problematic coexistence of differences. It invokes the need of an architecture that produces an exception in regards to the imaginary of both the “exception” and the normal, by simultaneously seeking for normality (simplicity) and exceptionality (complexity).
This kind of architecture might then be able to take advantage of the gap between the relationship of architecture with power and its disciplinary aspirations, representing what could be called today as an exception. While newest styles and formalisms try to promote a contemporary exception through the production of extravaganzas, when they are really only nothing more than the nice new fashionable effect (when I first published this essay everything had to “swarm”, today everything is about parts – possibly discreet – tomorrow we’ll see), and while the ordinary architectural are the product of an alternative yet equally rhetoric imaginary, this kind of critical multiplicity might allow architecture of being more than just one thing.
Then, the mix of languages, which is proper of this multiplicity and which is epitomized in the original project for the Reichstag, loses its status of newness without being nostalgic, becoming something different from, and critical of, the usual conception of architectural discipline. The original Reichstag ultimately shows us that the mainstream and the “new”; exceptionality and normality; simplicity and complexity; have to balance each-other in a condition of acute tension.
Fig. 1. New York City photographed on the 19th of January 1932.
Fig. 2. Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, Los Angeles.
Fig. 3. Reichstag building during the constitution celebration, 11 August 1932.
Fig. 4. Reichstag Fire, 1933.
Fig. 5. Soviet print representing the conquer of the Reichstag (printed in 1989).
Fig. 6. Christo’s & Jeanne-Claude’s team wrapping the Reichstag.
Fig. 7. Richstag’s dome, by Norman Foster. © Peter Dost.
Fig. 8. Paul Wallot’s perspective of the Reichstag, 1894.
Giacomo Pala is an architect and researcher based in Innsbruck. His work moves between the boundaries of architectural theory, history and architectural design. He is currently a PhD candidate with Peter Trummer at University of Innsbruck and research assistant at the department of architectural theory . Previously, he has worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Genoa and as an architect and external collaborator for various offices including Coop Himmelb(l)au in Vienna and Space Caviar in Genoa. Since 2013, he has been a member of Burrasca: a platform devoted to the exploration of architectural design and theory in the form of publications.