GAM 03


Ullrich Schwarz

GAM.03 “Architecture Meets Life“. The question as to the connection between architecture and life seems to require some explanation, even if we were to translate life simply as usage, utilisation and appropriation. Since the constitutive definition of architecture already incorporates usage. Historically, this had the side-effect that even the most tolerant aestheticians always had to deny architecture access to the inner sanctum of modern art – its autonomy – as it could not, by its nature, be free of practical purposes. Of course, this rejection was a snub for architects, who usually wanted to be regarded neither as upmarket craftsmen nor as engineers or commercial dealers in building plans. But in this case, as in all others, there was no problem in ignoring the philosophers’ judgement, and hence we need not do without the concept of Baukunst, or building art, nor the factual self-image of many architects as artists.

From the tradition of this self-image as artist-architect a first motive for the question as to the relationship of architecture and life is derived. The formation of the professional role of the private architect in the course of the 19th century proved to be an arduous process of adaptation of a profession to the prose of capitalist industrial society and the market, once princely and clerical clients had lost their dominant role. After the end of Historism, the ideology of “good form” presented itself – strongly supported by the Deutscher Werkbund – in order to assume a position that was unpolitical but nevertheless oriented to the good that sought to be regarded as an aesthetic opposition to the ugliness of contemporary reality. Design became the founding concept of life improvement through architecture, and the effects are still being felt today. This resulted in a work concept driven to push good design to perfection reaching the pinnacle of morals. To overstate it, this perfectly designed architectural object was sufficient unto itself from this perspective. The occupant was really just a nuisance. Or rather, he had to submit completely to the imposed aesthetic order. Aptly, just a few years ago, one wellknown German architect commented on people moving into the houses he had designed by saying: here comes the dust-cart.

But the faction of the twentieth-century avant-garde in architecture who were implicitly or explicitly sociopolitically oriented refused to concede any substantial elbow-room to the inhabitants of their buildings, i.e. to “life”. For Ludwig Hilberseimer, keeping the objectified geometrical forms of modernism clean of any “encroachments” by the inhabitants was the prime objective. Bruno Taut defended the empty walls against any decoration, advising inhabitants to keep their pictures, photos, etc, in drawers. Programmatically, Hannes Meyer formulated: “Our awareness of community does not tolerate any individualistic excesses.” And in “Experience and Grace”, Walter Benjamin, of all people, demanded an architecture in which you cannot leave behind any traces. In this historically rather desperate self-chastisement of a leftist middle-class intellectual, Benjamin understood this tracelessness as an anti-individualistic exercise – as practising collective class consciousness. Traceless architecture as the pre-school of revolution on the eve of Fascism. But even Le Corbusier, for whom nothing was further from mind than revolution, propagated this architectural ideal of tracelessness. As we know, he frightened his middle-class audience with the impending alternative: architecture or revolution. Of course, the only possibility for him was architecture, untouched architecture that not even children could harm: “Children don’t make any dirt – they love their kindergarten and are appalled at even the smallest stain made by one of them. They are self-policing.”

Be it in the dimension of a single building, or on an urbanistic scale: the “dictatorship of the philanthropists” (Gerd de Bruyn) remained the determining force for planning concepts even after the war and indeed until the early 1970s at the latest. The manufacture of final products that were resistant to change was now scientifically optimised: a taxonomy of objectified human needs was now confronted with a refined range of premises designed to satisfy these needs. Nothing was left out of account. There could now be no doubt as to the ultimate plannability of human well-being. But this phase of planning euphoria, fuelled by science, was to be relatively short-lived. The foundations of the classically Fordist reproduction model of Western industrial societies began to crumble at the end of the 1960s. The certainty about what people and what life to plan for also dwindled in the course of this development. Architecture and urban planning also lost their “grand narratives” (Lyotard).

Today, the situation has again changed radically. The effects of globalization have been constantly on the increase. If anything, the world-wide political situation has become more complicated since the end of the East-West conflict. Social change is speeding up at all levels. The predictability of future developments is extremely limited in all respects. The situation has implications for architecture and urban development. Every approach to planning that does not wish to ignore the current development in Western societies must now accept a high degree of uncertainty and can only translate this uncertainty into structures that are, to some extent, open and underdetermined.

The articles in this issue explore the methodical requirements for such a new approach to planning, referred to here as, among other things, “Architecture of Not-Knowing” (Kerstin Sailer). The question is, to what extent the design can adapt to such a situation of not-knowing. Evidently, we must assume that today neither methods of participative planning nor technological flexibilization (movable walls, etc.) will be of any great help. The empirical success of apartment layouts that are largely neutral in terms of functions is, however, still impressive. Do these findings corroborate the thesis that architecture is background? Architecture as the background of an indeterminate everydayness or as the trigger of all things special, new and unprecedented? Against this backdrop, Silke Ötsch investigates the event architecture of Bernard Tschumi and arrives at some sobering results. The mystification of the indeterminate and the auratisation of the new are not only cut down to size by reality, theoretically they also prove to be more affirmative than they appear. Tschumi, and perhaps even more strongly the late avant-gardist approach adopted by Eisenman, exhibits a latent version of determinism that is based on a more or less direct influence of architecture and space on perception and behaviour, albeit in the “critical” variety.

It is precisely this determinist relationship that results in growing doubts as soon as you begin to engage in what we might refer to as the reception history of architecture. The traditional history of architecture knows the history of form and style and the heroic history oriented towards individual architect personalities. What it usually offers is a general history of culture and ideas founded on the intentions of the actors involved. The standard works of architectural history do not deal with what became real of the architects’ intentions. As such, a reception history of architecture or, in other words, a history of its usage and utilisation, remains an urgent desideratum for science.

The first research results are now available and they are corroborated by the articles in this issue: there is no simple correlation between architectural form and the behaviour and perception of its occupants. Many questions, perhaps most, are as yet unresolved in this context. The discussion must go on. ■