What happened to the architectural manifesto?

On the heels of a symposium on the status of the manifesto, the authors question whether the heroic rhetorical form can survive in an age of anti-heroic gestures.

As the Occupy Movement gathers pace without the rhetorical platform of a manifesto, and with sociopolitical tensions permeating across the world seemingly without the aide of a sole stringent mantra, the problematic for the form of manifestos in contemporary society is under scrutiny. It seems then, an opportune moment for Columbia University's GSAPP to hold a symposium with such a inquisitively tub-thumping title as What Happened to the Architectural Manifesto? (November 18 2011), with speakers including (in order of presentations) Craig Buckley, Anthony Vidler, Enrique Walker, Felicity Scott, Jeffrey Schnapp, Beatriz Colomina, Peter Eisenman, Carlos Labarta, Bernard Tschumi and Mark Wigley. It is postulated throughout the symposium that manifestos find themselves at a point of ideological impasse as a dying craft. The definitions of "manifesto" ranged from a definition in its purest form–with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' Communist Manifesto of 1848 a notable citation–to contemporary transitions into manifesto as built form and/or reactionary statement. Vidler began the event with an absolute definition of manifesto as a call-to-action through the power of rhetoric in times of intense political and economic uncertainty, as the symposium transpired, various transmutations and dilutions of manifesto became evident. Overarching points seemed to percolate; particularly through the notion of the historically "transformative" usage of the manifesto, culminating in the suggestion that in its purest form it is no longer referential nor is it relevant. Does the demise or dilution of manifestos have any impact upon the contemporary profession given the panelists' proviso that revolution, together with manifesto, usually fails?

It seemed the panelists were more concerned with the pragmatic resolutions of architectural manifestos, working within conventions and subtly breaking rules, as opposed to the bombastic manifestos of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, not least his legendary Futurist manifesto—contradictorily one of the most mentioned manuscripts in all of the presentations. With the possible exception of Felicity Scott, the pervading positions were that the manifesto was dead or its status diluted, primarily through the argument that it is no longer necessary in a profession driven not by the "lone genius", but instead by an agglomeration of anti-heroic gestures. Indeed, Enrique Walker pinpointed that the manifesto in its purest Marxian form vanished through the impact of Robert Venturi's "gentle" manifesto Learning From Las Vegas, and Rem Koolhaas' "retroactive" manifesto, Delirious New York. He stated that previously the manifesto was concerned with augmenting history as evidence in its formulation, whereas these texts reposition the evidence as the crucial element recoiling a manifesto, causing history. Walker continued by maintaining that the critical position found in Venturi and Koolhaas has all but disappeared, leaving books full off "stuff about the city for architects by architects" as opposed to decisively analyzing the city's relationship with its architecture. The manifesto has become "domesticated", lacking invention, investigation or interpretation. But does the very redefinition of the manifesto as retroactive already dilute its impact from its original intention as declaration? Perhaps Mark Wigley's definition of manifestos as a "call to change" is the in effect the counterpart to this. Wigley posed the question "are manifestos a Modernist affectation?" According to Wigley, the manifestos in general and Modernist ideology are akin due to the fact they are both distinctly future-oriented. They are not sole objects nor individual pieces of writing, they are an art form occurring independently of its consequential action. Therefore, the act of a manifesto and its actions operate in a non-linear manner, whereby "you can write your own history as well as your projected history". However, in what could be seen as a similar stance to Walker, manifestos-as-actions have been significantly weakened by a need for multiple actions. In an empowerment of the self through the 'mini-manifesto', Wigley cast an alluring analogy of ordering a coffee in the US. A customer feels empowered in ordering "a small double decaf mocha latte"—a pure action, overlaid by a multitude of actions.

Two relatively contemporary theory texts as operating at the forefront of architectural theory on manifestos: Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture (1975, Ulrich Conrads) and Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture (2006, Charles Jencks and Karl Kropf). Both contain a collection of manifestos from leading contemporary practitioners. The purpose of each text is for posterity—noting the ideas as ideas that reached a resolution, regardless of success or failure. Akin to Wigley's idea of mini-manifestos, the texts actually signify that the profession no longer produces manifestos and instead reproduces collections of manifestos so to provide future-oriented perspective. However, this orientation is skewed by the fact that these manifestos came at a time when there were quite different issues than there are today. As such, their relevance is somewhat lost. Furthermore, it suggests a wider problem: is no one in the contemporary profession willing to take a stand, to mount a soap box and exclaim a polemical notion, unless, perhaps in built form.

Throughout the event there seemed a sense of covert conservativism from the panelists' approach to the built formations that emanate as manifesto. Does Beatriz Colomina's example of the Miesian built form manifesto–culminating in the SANAA installation–at the Barcelona Pavilion, suggests that the profession must work within a given framework; to take preexisting "evidence" as the driver behind manifestos or positions, a point supported by Enrique Walker? Surely for the profession to produce more incisive manifestos it needs to first address its own lack of rule breaking or conventionality? The profession lurches toward an apolitical, acultural, atheoretical standpoint—a point that Walker proposes as already occurring in the period following the retroactive manifesto.

What the symposium revealed is that the ostensible purity of the more historical documents, such as the Futurist manifesto, is irretrievable. It would seem that if manifestos as historical revisions are now only debated rather than produced, then the contemporary manifesto is experiencing its own revision in the form of alternate or reactionary manifestos, anti-manifestos and built manifestos. But does this deviation actually move it away from that which a manifesto was first intended? Consequentially, does this symposium become polemical insofar as it opens up the question has the actual form of manifestos succumbed to historicist revision? Overall there seemed to be an overarching sense that there is no specific crisis of what has happened to the manifesto, nor a sentimental longing for the return of the grandiloquence of previous manifestos. But the concept of manifesto is in a crises, and its a crisis extends well beyond the profession. The power or relevance of writing, journalism and theoretical constructs has been pulverized by pragmatic approaches. The power of the media, technology and marketing–normally so reliant on rhetoric–no longer holds value in the written word. The manifesto is not dead, but in the throes of obsolescence. They have not died in their formulation, but perhaps instead it is that we have merely lost sight of their relevance.

Michael Holt and Marissa Looby are practicing architects in New York City whose collaboration began while pursuing post-professional Advanced Architectural Design degrees at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in 2009.

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