Two Stories for the Avant-garde

Michael Speaks

I have always found charming the late English architecture critic Colin Rowe's story about Modern Architecture's trip across the Atlantic Ocean ; how its physique flesh and its morale word, or its form and ideology became separated; how ideology either remained in Europe or dropped off somewhere in the cold waters of the Atlantic ; how form arrived on American shores to become the style of corporate America ; and how, as a result of American postwar military and cultural supremacy, this formalist architecture became the "international" style sold to the rest of the world as truly modern.

Rowe's little story is equally applicable to "theory" that set of mostly French, German and Italian philosophical tracts that arrived in the US in the late 1970s through departments of comparative literature and were disseminated to the rest of American academe as a wonderful new mode of contemporary thought. Theory, like Modern architecture, was detached from its continental origins and replanted here in the US where it took on a lighter, more occasional existence. This was enabled by the decoupling of philosophy and other traditional disciplinary fields, such as anthropology from their real material—from field analysis in the case of anthropology—by way of semiotic methodologies which purported a more scientific, universal understanding obtained by analyzing the structures of social organization. Language became preeminent, as was suggested even about our psyche in Jacques Lacan's assertion that the unconscious was structured in the most radical way like a language. Linguistics broke down disciplinary boundaries to such an extent that one could become a specialist in "theory" without disciplinary or material affiliation of any kind.

Theory was portable—it could be attached to almost any field of study, film, literature, anthropology, art history, even architecture. Portable also because by definition theory was translated into American English and could slip the surly bonds of national identity or specialist claims—everyone was reading theory in their second language, even American academics, many of whom had developed French theory expository styles and modes of analysis that appeared foreign to their colleagues. Theory carried all the punch of philosophy without the windy German preambles and recondite French qualifications, without, that is, years of study, political affiliation or deep knowledge. Theory was a weapon of the young, the post-68 generation wearied by the morality and slowness of their elders who seemed so untheoretical whether they embraced or rejected theory. Theory was fast philosophy and it made its way through various sectors of the US academy in the 1970s and 1980s and arrived to architecture, late, as Mark Wigley has so famously and so frequently pointed out. And when it did, it was inevitable that theory and the formalist modern architecture described by Rowe would cross paths.

Driven by an attempt to reconnect form and ideology, Rowe's storyline gives us a way to understand more clearly the contemporary avant-garde's ambitions to reestablish the social mission of modern architecture, and to do so in a formal vocabulary that is recognizably modern. Nowhere has this been more evident than in journals such as Oppositions, Assemblage, and ANY, and exhibitions such as "Deconstructivist Architecture" (1988) at MoMA or the "Autonomy and Ideology Symposium" also at MoMA (1996). In all of these endeavors, but especially in the "Deconstructivist Architecture" exhibition, theory (deconstruction) was attached to experimental form in an attempt to create a critical, resistant, avant-garde architecture with left-leaning sympathies. But sometime in the mid-to-late-1990s the avant-garde desire to reconnect form and ideology diminished as form began to melt into blobs and fields of data while ideology loosened-up and became reconfigured as identity branding and lifestyle. As pop science, new computer technologies and branding became more pressing issues in architecture, the "critical" position ostensibly enabled by theory began to loose its hold on the avant-garde. Resolutely critical and resistant to an emergent commercial reality driven by the forces of globalization ; weighed down by its historical attachment to philosophy ; and unable to recognize itself as a new mode of commodified thought, theory has not been free or quick enough to deal with the blur of e-commerce and open systems. Ultimately, theory, and the avant-garde project it enabled, has proven inadequate to the vicissitudes of the contemporary world. And so today we stand at the end of a historical period of experimentation dominated by Rowe's little story. But it is passing and another story has already begun to take its place.

Rarely told but no less influential on the direction and ambition of contemporary architecture, it is a story whose trip across the Atlantic in fact moves in the opposite direction of Rowe's story—from America to Europe—and is motivated not by ideology and form but by pragmatic lessons learned from Manhattan. That story has to do with the discovery of another American architecture than the formalist one Rowe narrates, and is told by Rem Koolhaas in his famous book, "Delirious New York". Koolhaas makes several discoveries in his research on New York, which serve to trigger the emergence of an experimental practice of architecture that has moved beyond the narrow ambitions of the avant-garde. Though many of the arguments for a new species of BIG architecture would not emerge until some years after the publication of "Delirious New York", in that book Koolhaas focused on an architecture less concerned with form and ideology than with the shaping forces, logics and technologies of the metropolitan condition ; an architecture of quantity not quality, where density and scale provide opportunities that outstrip the enfeebled art of architecture ; and on an architecture that exploits opportunities presented under conditions of constraint. All of this was brought together in Koolhaas's "Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan", where he argues for an architecture that needed no manifesto, no ideology or set of advance-garde ideas in order to be implemented ; such an architecture, he argued, had already occurred in America, without genius, without authority, and more importantly, it had accumulated more than enough evidence to be convincing.

Of course the discoveries made in "Delirious New York" became a framework for all of OMA's work during the years following in Europe, but it also triggered the emergence of a new practice of architecture in the Netherlands. In an exhibition entitled BIG SOFT ORANGE, which has been on tour in the US for the last year, I argued that this new practice was one of the first responses to the emergent conditions of globalization, identified in the exhibition title. The BIG focused on the requirement to deal with quantity expressed in the Dutch Vinex requirement to build more than 1,000,000 new dwellings over the next 20 years. The SOFT signaled the emergence of a new approach evident in a renewed emphasis on the analysis and manipulation of material and immaterial processes, logics and codes and in the growing importance of scenario planning, profiling, as well as other temporally-based steering mechanisms. The third, related feature of this new approach, I identified as an avowed post-avant-garde attitude accompanied by an acceptance of the market as the preeminent reality of contemporary architectural and urban practice. Myy argument was that many of these young Dutch offices preferred to deal pragmatically though aggressively with the ORANGE reality of commercialism and artificialization, those two preeminently "Dutch" historical concerns which with globalization are rapidly becoming the concern of huge patches of the globe. Unlike early 20th century avant-gardes who wanted to clear away what was already there in order to establish a new social order, and unlike the theory avant-gardes of the 1980s which sought to resist what they found already there, many young Dutch offices, I argued, focus very precisely on what is "just there" on the constraints and limitations of a global market which they see not as an evil to be resisted but as a new condition of possibility.

Though I focused on this emergent Dutch architecture, it is today clear that many new practices and forms of architecture are arising to meet the challenge posed by globalization and many of them deal in one way or another with the three conditions catalogued in the BIG SOFT ORANGE show. Though these practices are singular and unique, many have begun to conform to an experimental managerial approach attempting to deal with the reality of a world dominated by Kevin Kelley's "New Rules for the New Economy" : 1) embrace the swarm ; 2) increasing returns come with increasing connections ; 3) focus on plentitude not scarcity ; 4) follow the free ; 5) feed the web first ; 6) let go at the top ; 7) from places to spaces ; 8) no harmony, all flux ; 9) develop soft relationships of all kinds ; 10) focus on opportunities before efficiencies. Indeed, around the world today, and especially in North America and Europe, there has emerged a new romance with business and corporate culture. Much of this attention has been focused on a new breed of managers and entrepreneurs who are now showcased in business lifestyle magazines such as Business 2.0, Fast Company, and Red Herring. Bolstered by the overwhelming success of the IT industries and fuelled by virulent and aggressive strains of venture capital that have sprung up in Northern California, these new managers have emerged as heroes in the struggle to tame and make sense of the complex world that has been thrown up by the forces of globalization.

Though witnessed primarily in the fast-paced world of global corporations, these managerial avant-gardists (and surely this is not the proper name for a class of doers who have altogether outstripped the ambitions of any historical avant-garde) are showing up with greater frequency in the world of high design, architecture and urban planning. Indeed, it is this managerial approach, and not an interest in the work of Gilles Deleuze, post-Euclidean geometries, diagrams or data that unites the work of the freshest architectural practices around the world today, including for example, those such as Greg Lynn Form, Rieser and Umemoto, Cortex, UN Studio, MVRDV, FOA, OCEAN, and others here at ArchiLab. A great deal of attention is now being paid to this new approach, especially in schools of architecture; one of the most aggressive is the AA's new Design Research Laboratory, the DRL, run by Patrick Schumacher and Brette Steel. The real import of this work—its managerial ambitions—has been obscured, however, because the primary focus has been centered on the more palatable, quasi-academic problem of "research". Daidalos, in fact, devoted an entire recent issue to this topic which featured the work of many of the offices just mentioned, and championed Rem Koolhaas and the OMA as pioneers and innovators in this new research based practice. In a yet unpublished essay entitled "Junk Space" Koolhaas admits as much when he suggests that his work at the GSD allows him intellectual latitude denied by the normative practice of architecture. The real ambitions and intent of this managerial approach only become clear, however, when we look closer at how research is understood in relation to corporate culture, and the multiplicitous ways in which globalization is transforming the practice of architecture. DRL co-head, Patrick Schumacher writes : Why research? The business of architecture is not excepted from the challenge of competitive innovation. The accelerating economic restructuring is affecting the organization of architectural production as much as every other sphere of production… In a time of momentous restructuring, questions concerning design product and process can only be addressed within an academic framework that understands architecture as a research based business rather than a medium of artistic expression (2).

The assertion is very bald, very clear : architecture should no longer recoil from the degraded world of business and corporate thinking ; on the contrary, it should aggressively seek to transform itself into a research-based business. Though not recognized as adherents of such a research-based business approach to architecture, I think it is fair to say that this managerial approach provides the intellectual infrastructure necessary for the fleet-footed generation of architects and urbanists who have emerged to meet the challenges presented by globalization : namely, the challenge presented by quantity and commercialization to develop softer design strategies flexible enough to deal with the challenges of the market. The tools of these new managerialists are no longer those of the traditional architect or planner but those of the scenario planner and animation specialist. Animation softwares such as those used by Greg Lynn or Datascapes employed by MVRDV are means of testing architecture's ability to interact with and transform hidden or embedded shaping forces.

Consistent with Koolhaas's story, Kelly, in "New Rules for the New Economy" argues that in the near future three features will distinguish the new economy: it will be global, it will favor intangible, soft things over tangible hard things, and it will be networked. Consistent with this, contemporary design practices favor time, interactivity, and innovation while space, originality, and the search for the new have fallen away as concerns altogether. Perhaps the most significant change in contemporary concerns the category of "the new," for which Jeffrey Kipnis argued so strongly in the AD : Folding in Architecture episode in the mid-1990s. Kipnis, along with Sanford Kwinter, who never tires of offering and then retracting manifestos, and even to some extent Koolhaas himself, often find themselves playing parts in Rowe's little narrative. Even though initiated by Koolhaas, the second story has taken off and in many ways has moved beyond Koolhaas's own flirtations with the market in his analyses of Jerde, Portman and shopping. One often gets the impression that Koolhaas is slumming, getting a taste of the degraded world of commerce so as to distinguish his avant-gardism from the old fashioned theory-dominated avant-garde of the 1980s and 1990s. The real point is that the avant-garde interest in the new has today been eclipsed by a demand for innovation. The new requires manifestoes of the kind Kipnis offered in his five points for a new architecture in AD : Folding and like Kwinter has so desperately tried to articulate for the last four years. Even Koolhaas's break with the Rowe narrative is enabled by a "retroactive manifesto". Unlike the modernist, avant-garde obsession with the new, innovators do not first create ideas or ideologies (designs or plans) and then implement them in the real world (final design). Ideas and things, the materialism that is so often invoked by the last and most hysterical of the theory avant-garde, should itself become part of a constantly transforming design in which design is never understood as a static object but is always a dynamic movement. This kind of design approach is perhaps best seen today in the emerging world of rapid-prototyping where the search for "new" prototypes that solve specific problems has been replaced by prototypes which are focused on binding together teams that innovate. It is a world that follows closely on management innovator Peter Drucker's insistence on exploiting opportunities rather than solving problems. As Harvard Business School Professor Michael Schrage argues in his recently published book, "Serious Play : How the best companies simulate to innovate". Quickly and continuously converting new product ideas into crude mock ups and working models turns traditional perceptions of the innovation cycle inside out: instead of using the innovation process to come up with finished prototypes, the prototypes themselves drive the innovation process. This is the status of design animations or datascape ; they are not final products but innovative designs that lead to more innovation. This was the status of a design created by MAXWAN and Crimson for a 30,000 house extension for the city of Utrecht. In a recent essay entitled "Orgwars" Crimson principal Wouter Vanstiphout recounted the ambitions of this soft plan : "Leidsche Rijn is an urbanism of negotiation, and proud of it. The negotiations were not done to get the design realized the design was made to negotiate with, to get the city built."

As one story ends and another begins confusion will be the only constant. Witness Sanford Kwinter's hysterical "FFE : Trahison des Clercs", published in a recent issue of ANY magazine. In this bi-monthly column, Kwinter attacks MVRDV and BIG SOFT ORANGE as b-versions, second rate rip-offs of what he calls the "greater sovereignty" of Rem Koolhaas and the OMA. Treason, sovereignty, religion ? However out of touch with contemporary reality, Kwinter identifies correctly the genius of these new managerialists when he says that they are "Disencumbered of all social or physiological intensity—that is, of anything with the historical, existential thickness of ideals, dreams, or ‘transvaluing values'". Blissfully free from the historical mission to create the future the designers he attacks are able to intervene in the contemporary. The difference between Kwinter's assessment of them and my own is that what he sees as negative or evil, I see as affirmative and opportunistic. Caught between two stories Kwinter, like many of us, is struggling to find a new part to play. As an active participant and contributor to a now global contemporary design culture, ArchiLab and the city of Orleans have provided us all a stage on which to tell new stories, meet friends, and discover new roles. For that I am thankful and look forward to the event and its afterlife.


(1) Kevin Kelly, "New Rules for the New Economy : 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World" New York, Penguin, 1999.

(2) Patrick Schumacher in Daidalos, Berlin, 69/70, 1998-99.