On Theory

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This article appeared in Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005, Number 22. To order this issue or a subscription, visit the HDM homepage at . © 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the publisher: hdm-rights@gsd.harvard.edu.

Critical of What?
Toward a Utopian Realism by Reinhold Martin
There has long been a tendancy in

vard Design Magazine

architecture to erect straw figures only to knock them down. In his article “‘Criticality’ and its Discontents,” published in the Fall 2004/Winter 2005 issue of dedicated to “Realism and Utopianism,” George Baird admirably—and, I think, accurately— summarizes recent efforts to do just that.1 These entail the identification of and subsequent assault on something called “the critical” or “critical architecture,” usually accompanied by a collateral assault on something called “theory.” At the risk of erecting yet another straw figure that tramples on the subtleties of Baird’s analysis, it might be fair to characterize such practices, variously named “post-critical” or “projective,” as sharing a commitment to an affect-driven, nonoppositional, nonresistant, nondissenting, and therefore nonutopian form of architectural production. But as Baird notes, these efforts have thus far failed to deliver an actual, affirmative project, settling instead for vague adjectives like “easy,” “relaxed,” and—perish the thought— “cool.” Baird therefore concludes his article by asking (with critical overtones?) what they expect to yield in the form of discourse or what he calls “critical assessHar-

ment.” In other words, by what criteria is the “post-critical” asking to be judged, beyond mere acceptance and accommodation of existing societal, economic, or cultural norms? This question seems worth pursuing but also, perhaps, rephrasing. Since, as with all the other “posts” that preceded it, the “post-critical” (or “relaxed” or “projective”) assumes the existence of what it denounces or, in any event, criticizes. Here Baird offers a useful, fair summary of the official history of “critical architecture.” To this, however we might append another question: critical of what? Since, it must also be noted that this history actually collapses two opposing positions into one, largely through generational iteration. In the first instance, the “critical” in architecture is assumed to have been defined by a Frankfurt School-style negative dialectics associated with historians and theorists such as Manfredo Tafuri and his American readers, such as Michael Hays. This position usually winds up testifying not to the existence of , but to its impossibilia critical ty, or at most, its irreducible negativity in the face of the insurmountable violence perpetrated by what the economist Ernest Mandel called, some time ago, “late capiarchitecture

On Theory



talism.” Meanwhile—as the story goes— architects like Peter Eisenman have explicitly professed their disinterest in either resisting or affirming such violence at the level of academic and professional practice, preferring instead to dedicate themselves to a vigorous negation and revision of the internal assumptions of the discipline, in the form of the so-called autonomy project. Thus Eisenman’s provocative turn to Giuseppi Terragni’s work for the Italian fascists as a model, under the argument that its formal syntax could be separated definitively from its political semantics. (This example is dutifully replicated—minus the theory—by post-critics such as Michael Speaks, in their championing of jargon and techniques associated with right-wing think tanks and the CIA.) Whereas, the traditional ground on which the two “critical” approaches have met is that of a dialectic, in which aesthetic autonomy acts as a kind of temporary stand-in for the autonomy of the Enlightenment subject pending the arrival of concrete social...
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