The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture

Pier Vittorio Aureli's book is an effort to redefine architectural form amid the current debates around its social and cultural power.

The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture
Pier Vittorio Aureli. MIT Press, 2011. (230 pp., PB, US $24.95).

In the last decade, the concept of the political in different understandings and variations has been positioned in architecture's discourse by various people. One particular position within this debate is taken by Italian architect and theoretician Pier Vittorio Aureli, who teaches at Berlage Institute in Rotterdam and is cofounder of the architectural practice DOGMA .

Aureli became wider known to readers of architectural theory in 2008, publishing The Project of Autonomy, Politics and Architecture within and against Capitalism (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008). In that book he presented us a highly informed and determined reading of the 1960s/70s Italian Autonomia political movement and its relation to architectural production in Italy at that time, including the writing of Manfredo Tafuri, and the practice of Aldo Rossi and Archizoom. It was a rigorous argument that discerned the initial re-thinking of Marxist theory by Italian philosopher Mario Tronti and his concept of autonomy from the latter trend of a post-political activist-thinking associated with Antonio Negri, that became popular with the publication of the infamous book Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000). In doing so Aureli opted for re-reading the formative period of the Autonomia movement, arguing that the possibility of autonomy was not a "generic claim of autonomy from, but rather a more audacious and radical claim for autonomy for " (Aureli, 2008: 4), thus constructing a source of alternative opposition to the hegemonic power relations maintained by capitalism.
Interior spreads from <i>The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture</i>.
Interior spreads from The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture .
Now, his follow-up book, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture , can be read as a direct, though much more accessible, historic and "architectural" expansion on these original premises. Somehow one can understand the text as a search for the author's own positioning within the architects discourse. As Aureli frankly begins his book (which is an obvious reworking of his PhD dissertation (Berlage Institute/TU Delft, October 2005), it was initially written out of a reaction to a contemporary condition of urbanism in which architecture has become popular in recent years, but "[i]ronically, however, its growing popularity is inversely proportional to the increasing sense of political powerlessness and cultural disillusionment many architects feel about their effective contribution to the built world." In other words the book is Aureli's elaborate effort to reactualize architectural form amid the current debate and through this to "address the unequivocal social and cultural power architecture possesses to produce representations of the world through exemplary forms of built reality." (p.1)

For Aureli absolute architecture is simply an island within the city; it is–in reference to the "Autonomia" concept of autonomy–separated from, but certainly not free from, the city. Aureli's concept emphasizes this sense of separation as a framerwork for opposition within the city. Through this opposition, architecture explicates its political, democratic dimension. Autonomous architecture thus fundamentally embodies agonism and through this unfolds its ultimate purpose: to accommodate and–at the same time–to govern differences.
Interior spreads from <i>The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture</i>.
Interior spreads from The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture .
Aureli's book has five chapters. In the introductory chapter "Toward the Archipelago" the main thesis and the two main concepts of the book–the Political and the Formal–are being clarified. In reference to the historic concept of the Greek polis, Aureli introduces the reader to the fundamental dialectics of the collective space (the agora) versus the economic space (the private) that for him make up the city as a democratic and thus agonistic territory. Aureli argues that it is exactly this opposition that has been abolished since the dawn of modernity, leading to the domination of the private sphere as the precondition of today's built environment. For Aureli it is the enlightened Spanish engineer Ildefons Cerdà (1815–1876) who termed this condition in the first place. Cerdà emphasised the circulation and the management of a city, its ever-expanding infrastructure over the city's centre and beyond the symbolic frame of the city. Urbanism makes the city economically functioning; Thus wealth and growth became the prerequisite of the contemporary urban sprawl. Aureli goes on to critically discuss this very expansionist condition and its managerial, capitalist paradigm with projects of Hilberseimer, Archizoom Associati, Rem Koolhaas' "The City of the Captive Globe" project, ending the first chapter with a provocative discussion of projects by Mies van der Rohe. Buildings like the Seagram in New York, the Federal Centre in Chicago, the Westmount Square in Montreal are presented here as paradigmatic examples, as modernist blueprints of an "absolute architecture", for a "city conceived as a group of islands within a sea of urbanization"(p.42).
Aureli's concept emphasizes this sense of separation as a framerwork for opposition within the city. Through this opposition, architecture explicates its political, democratic dimension.
Interior spreads from <i>The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture</i>.
Interior spreads from The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture .
After this elaborate introduction, Aureli tests his quest against projects from the past. What follows are four chapters that discuss the idea of the island, of the architectonic archipelago within the sea of urbanization. Aureli discusses Andrea Palladio and the Project of an Anti-Ideal City, Piranesi's Campo Marzio versus Nolli's Nuova Pianta di Roma, Étienne-Louis Boullée's Project for a Metropolis and finally Oswald Mathias Ungers, OMA and the Project of the City as Archipelago as read the subtitles of each chapter). These discussions seem not always straight to the point, but nonetheless always inspiring, worthwhile and wonderful to read.
Interior spreads from <i>The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture</i>.
Interior spreads from The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture .
Aureli deduces from all his examples different attributes of an "absolute architecture" and different ways architects reacted to historic developments in urbanism. All the different narratives about the historic projects Aureli collects in the book make clear a specific architect's attitude within the institution of architecture, no matter when in time. An attitude that goes along with the old Autonomia movement slogan of "within and against". It is an attitude that opposes architectural form as islands or archipelagos against an ever-expanding, growth driven, capitalist urban matter. It is thus a pity that on the one hand there is no specific and continuous exploration of the historic development of capitalism in relation to the expansionist, spatial concept of urbanism and its agonist counterpart, and on the other hand it is a pity that there is no concluding chapter, in which the very idea of the archipelago could have been discussed differently, ie. with contemporary examples, maybe even transcending the–sometimes all too straight forward–binary oppositions of urbanism versus architecture, thus ultimately complicating, what Maurizio Lazzarato claims: "In the societies of control, the aim is no longer to appropriate as in societies of sovereignty, nor to combine and increase the power of the forces as in disciplinary societies, but to create worlds."

Andreas Rumpfhuber is an architect/researcher/theoretician based in Vienna, Austria. His practice concerns interiors and its social, programmatic, cultural, political and symbolic organization.

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