The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
18
A Strategy of Posing Questions



Anthony Vidler is a historian and critic of modern and contemporary architecture. He is Dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, The Cooper Union. From 1965 to 1997 he taught in the School of Architecture, Princeton, where he chaired the PhD program and Directed the European Cultural Studies Program. He served as professor and Chair of the Department of Art History at UCLA, with a joint appointment in the School of Architecture, and as Dean of AAP at Cornell University. He has published widely—his study of James Stirling was published by Yale University press in 2010, and his latest book Scenes of the Street and Other Essays was released in 2011.
In conversation with Carly Dean, Le Luo, Alison Nash, and Ishita Sitwala

Ishita
You studied in Cambridge with Colin Rowe in the early 1960s: what is your view of the “mathematics” he espoused in his 1947 essay “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa?”

Anthony
This essay was, in fact, hardly concerned with mathematics, but rather with the ordering device identified by his teacher Rudolf Wittkower in the Palladian villa plan. Rowe took this A-B-A-B-A rhythm that was allied either to the square of the Villa Rotonda or the rectangle of the Villa Malcontenta as a strategy for the analysis of Le Corbusier’s two paradigmatic villas, Poissy and Garches. The only time that geometry came into question was the sense that underlying all these plans was some version of the Golden Section rectangle—Rowe was taken by the newly translated book by Matila Ghyka, Le Nombre D’or [The Geometry of Art and Life] and illustrated one of his diagrams. The question of proportion was widely discussed in Britain after the war—from about 1946 to 1949—inspired by Le Corbusier’s publication of the first volume of Le Modulor, and Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism [1949]. This led to what Banham described as a “Palladian revival” although Peter Smithson, whose Hunstanton School and entry for the Coventry Cathedral rebuilding subscribed to geometrical principles, announced that this revival was already over by 1948. Colin was, however, always fascinated by the properties of the “Palladian” grid, and used to try it out at all scales when drawing at the desk. For him, geometry was never a rigorous ordering system but rather a visual mnemonic. I remember his critique of Peter Eisenman’s doctoral thesis, that it was all too “systematic.”

Le
I am intrigued by Palladio and Palladian ordering principles. I would like to ask about a derivative of that system: the nine-square design problem that has been very important pedagogically at Cornell and also at the Cooper Union, begun by John Hejduk there. Do you believe that the exercise is still relevant in today’s architectural education and that it is a satisfactory method for teaching the basics of architecture?

Anthony
There is a vast range of different pedagogical techniques used for students to understand formal relationships. Paul Klee’s pedagogical sketch books demonstrate the curriculum that he developed for teaching his techniques in the Bauhaus, following his inquiries into the psychology of perception. Gestalt theory, as explored by Kohler and Arnheim, was a central interest of Colin Rowe’s, allowing him to identify figure-ground relationships, and thence to draw the connection with the ambiguities of Mannerism. Eisenman’s first exploration of the formal principles of modern architecture was also based partially on the Gestalt theory of vision, embedded as it was in the active qualities of form in itself.

Certain pedagogical devices are extremely important as introductions for students to manipulate the distribution of volumes and masses. Hejduk’s abstraction of the nine-square problem, in two and three dimensions, proved a powerful teaching vehicle for the exploration of themes and variations. The moment he realized that this exercise was becoming too formulaic, he switched to other strategies, such as the three dimensional analysis of two-dimensional paintings. Pedagogical techniques have continually to be renewed.


Alison
Are ordering systems still relevant as a device for integrating contemporary mathematics into architecture?

Anthony
That, of course, depends on what ordering systems you are deploying—geometri­cal, topological, parametric and so on. The A-B-A-B-A structure is less of a mathematical system than a spatial device for the organization of a parti. Such devices were very common in the Renaissance, and continued to be used throughout the Beaux Arts in the 19th century.

Ishita
Do algorithms have the potential to create a new architecture that goes beyond the failed objectives of modernism? Could this potentially implement social change and be closer to its social obligations?

Anthony
First, there is no “new” architecture, in the same sense that Bruno Latour claims that “we have never been modern.” Parametricism is one of a wide range of numerical controls that have been applied to architectural solutions. Mario Carpo has made the point that even Alberti was “parametric” in his approach. While there are those who claim that parametricism has produced a new “style,” and it is certainly true that it has produced a proliferation of curvilinear schemes, its “newness” seems relative when compared, for example, with the work of a pre-digital architect like Hans Scharoun.

Second, architecture has only a responsive relationship to social and political production. It cannot form society. Architecture can develop spatial organizations that are more or less inhibiting or accommodating to certain social operations, and it is clear that the so-called Deleuzian school has appealed to the flows and networks envisaged by post-Fordist managerial theory. Absent advanced technology, however, the demands of habitat do not necessarily fit into folded envelopes.

Ishita
New techniques incorporating numbers and data, in your opinion, do not implement any social relationship of the architecture?

Anthony
Of course new technologies of testing and evaluating, and new technologies of construction, allow for a greater sophistication in the calculation of the environmental characteristics of a building. But that is only a part of the equation in social terms. The selection of materials, their appropriateness to context, the compositional strategies relating to use, and a host of other concerns make up the social relations of architecture.

Carly
Perhaps the way that we start to think about mathematics in this new global climate has more to do with urban density, numbers, and data.


Anthony
Data is data. It is the interpretation of data and its translation into spatial terms that is important. When John McHale, who worked with Bucky Fuller for many years, wrote his masterpiece The Ecological Context in 1971, he collected and used data in such a way that he was able to analyze in each chapter, according to different perspectives, a different weighting of the data, to talk about the limited resources of the world for supporting human life. In that book, his four pages on global warming reads as potently now as it did then.

A simple diagram of the data can sometimes produce an interesting if not a radical re-shaping of a problem—that is Koolhaas’s brilliance. But all his emphasis on research does not get over the fact that he is first and foremost a designer, using his design of the data to produce programmatic transformations of traditional typologies. Beneath the semblance of the data forming a tabula rasa for architecture, there is a calculated and subtle re-working of modern types whether taken from the “standard” versions, from his preferred masters Mies and Corbu, or from hidden sources from Constant to Amancio Williams. In this sense, he frames himself as the new Mies-Corb. Colin Rowe claimed that Corbusier took the Palladian villa and re-worked it for modernism, so Rem takes the Corbusian villa and upends it in the Bordeaux house. No data in the world can take away from him his architectural imagination, or his design skills.

Carly
We watched the lecture “The Crisis of Modernism: James Stirling Out of the Archive” that you gave at the Architectural Association in 2010. You mentioned using James Stirling’s drawings as an example and means of instruction for your own thesis students because of the transparency of his iterative thought process evident in his drawing.

Anthony
I show his thesis to my thesis students because of the completeness of the project: program, plan, city center, individual buildings, resolved in the detailed elaboration of a single building. I also advance Stirling’s design method, in its developed iteration of scheme after scheme, drawn at the smallest and largest scale, as a model of process. Nevertheless, these remain examples of process not of form or style. Students should learn to analyze, interpret, and abstract from precedent, composition, distribution, and organization of architectural ideas, rather than emulate a particular style.

Carly
Considering the importance of James Stirling’s iterative thought-process demonstrated through his drawing, do you think that a parametric design process detracts from one’s ability to iterate like this? Or can new digital techniques together with a traditional iterative thought process produce transformative architecture?


Anthony
I think it is very important to be able to draw. I think drawing actually trains you to judge distance, to measure scale, to form detail, and to control design. There is something about the relationship of the hand to the eye and thence to thought that still embodies form and space in a human dimension. Iteration in two and three dimensions is at the root of a thoughtful design process. Certainly, digital iteration if carefully controlled can extend our knowledge of a hand-drawn sketch, can develop technical information, and present alternatives—always as long as it is not seen as an end or an authority in itself. Iteration for me is a way for understanding your own thought process. It’s a way of thinking through a design. Every drawing is a thought about architecture and every drawing leads to another drawing. What I privilege is the idea, the concept of the building itself: its relationship to its culture, its cultural context and its lineage, where architecture stands at a particular time and place, its role and its material being in the world is. If you can control that in thought and design, you control the work. In the process of elaboration, technologies, spatial organization, and contextual questions all have to be worked out, sometimes in sequence, sometimes in reverse.

Alison
In an era of increasing unpredictability and uncertainty in terms of climate, economy, and government, is it possible for architecture to express power and control?

Anthony
We have never not lived in a period of uncertainty. All periods, in the present, have been uncertain. Accidents are uncertain. The notion of chaos is uncertain. The problem at the moment is that we are in a period where too many people are too certain. Opinion rules politics, as it does crucial debates over climate change and economic development.

But in what way should architecture need to express control? Why should architecture demonstrate any form of power? Should not architecture be accommodating? Fascist architecture certainly wanted to demonstrate power. I think that neo-liberalist capitalism in its corporate forms wants to assert iconic power. But, in the end, the inhabited forms of the cctv building are just office floors. The office is cloaked in an iconic shape but it doesn’t do anything different than a standard office building.


Ishita
The Baroque period tells a similar tale of uncertainty, of tension, of a sense of dissatisfaction. Do you think we are revisiting the Baroque in contemporary practice?

Anthony
“Baroque” can mean many different things. It can mean religious revival, it can mean using architecture as propaganda [propoganda fide]. “Baroque” is also a stylistic and formal concept developed by art historians. Colin, in his article from 1950, “Modern Architecture and Mannerism,” tried to demonstrate that modern architecture had a “Mannerist,” component. Indeed, seeing “Mannerism” everywhere and in everything in the 1930s and 40s was very fashionable—a way of speaking of uncertainty in the wake of the loss of Enlightenment certitude. Similarly, attributing the curvilinear forms of a Guggenheim Bilbao to a “new” Baroque is a merely stylistic comparison—“stylistic” in the terms established by art-history in the 1900s.

Ishita
Your forthcoming book Utopian Transcripts, explores a subject that has always been fascinating to architects and urbanists. How was your book conceptualized and why is utopia important today?

Anthony
I have been interested in the concept of utopia from the very beginning of my life in architecture. My tutor at Cambridge, Colin Rowe, was obsessed with the idea—one of his first and best essays was for the Cambridge journal Granta in the 1950s, where he accurately characterized Modern Movement urbanism as utopian, and traced the intertwined histories of utopia (a literary mode invented by Thomas More) and the ideal city (an architectural mode invented by Filarete) and critiques the way in which they have influenced each other. Later he took up the idea of piece-meal utopia from the philosopher Karl Popper, and developed it as a basis for Collage City. My own work started with the study of Enlightenment utopia, and Ledoux of course. The new book traces the intellectual roots of More’s utopia in classical philosophy, and thence the history of ideal cities, not so much as a critique but as a re-reading that tries to de-monumentalize the diagrams and see them as so many instances of a dialogue—much in the way that Plato’s descriptions of Socrates’s search for the just city play out.

For Plato’s ideal republic was not one single, fixed ideal or a polis, but it was a series of dialectical discussions about the possible forms of an ideal state, of a city of truth, of beauty, each of which had its own deep dialectical disadvantages so that when you read the Platonic dialogues, you are reading a series of questions and answers which are a continuous process which never end: always that next question is emerging. Similarly, Thomas More’s conversations in letters with Erasmus, looked ironically at the conditions of life in Europe and England at that particular moment and dialectically posed counter-positions in order to critique his present. More’s Utopia is a playful critique, not a positivist solution. My understanding of the role utopia is very similar to that of Frederic Jameson in his recent book, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Poetics of Social Forms). There he argues that one of the most important aspects of utopian thought is to keep the possibility of change, and the possibility of critical thought alive in moments of the greatest despair.

Alison
So, utopia is an unreachable goal, simply a process?

Anthony
I would say it is a strategy of posing questions as opposed to a fixed ideal city. I am trying to undermine the idea of a fixed, ideal city by a strategic idea of critical questioning.

Ishita
How is this idea similar to Le Corbusier’s conception of Chandigarh? Can utopia be physically built in this way, or do you believe that utopia can be achieved through incremental change over time or even through informal means?

Anthony
I think the master-stroke of Chandigarh was to leave the building of the city to itself. All that was established was a network, communication, and then a group of symbolic buildings at the top. Corbusier did not build the entire city as a monument, but rather established a planned network to be filled in by developed growth. I am for a certain sense of incremental change, strategies that can, at the smallest scale of intervention, as opposed to the largest, physically transform a society’s life. In a sense it is a strategy of architectural micro-investment. Architecture has to be at the scale of transformation as opposed to the scale of the transformed.

Carly
Speaking of cities, scale, and numbers, what are the psychological ramifications of increasing density in cities in terms of claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and placelessness?

Anthony
In Warped Space, I was interested in looking at how the rise of psychology, and its transformation into psychoanalysis, was contemporaneous with the rise of the metropolis. Cities of half a million to a million turned into cities of three million, like Berlin, over a period of a few decades. This was accompanied by a series of social shocks, when rural populations moved to cities for industrial jobs and met head-on a rather comfortable bourgeois society. The individual, confronted by that strange, heterogeneous, and apparently unformed and threatening mass—a mass that seemed threatening—turned to psychology as a way of explaining the phenomena of urban alienation. I don’t have the social or historical knowledge to examine the massive social ramifications of the rapid urbanization of Asia or the Americas, and certainly not to analyze the role of psychoanalysis in cultures that are very different from that of turn of the century Vienna.


Alison
You mentioned how the Radiant City undermined the idea of utopia: that it is a mis-interpretation of the genre of utopia. Is perhaps one of the reasons you wrote the book today because of all the “ideal” building that is happening in the Far East right now; physical manifestations of the Radiant City?

Anthony
I don’t feel that a little book on utopia will have any influence on any of the great building campaigns of the next 50 years. It would be nice for architectural students to realize the limits of the discipline and to also understand the dialectical relationships of the discipline in relation to thinking about society. Like the Occupy Movement, people’s ability to self-organize into small communities seems much more the scale of desired architectural development in the future than control by large scale hedge fund investment. One, buildings made with huge investments face almost immediate obsolescence at the moment when they are built. Two, no amount of building at the scale that is it being built is going to ever deal or will ever serve a population that is growing at such a rate. Mike Davis pointed out, by 2040 80% of the world population will be living in cities. And 40% of that population will be living in slums. That is huge. What is clear, though, is that we have look on what we often call “informal settlements” in a totally different way. Architecture in the traditional sense has little role to play in this context. Very few of the experiments of the 60s and 70s were successful in re-building the favelas. One that has survived and prospered was the experimental siedlung of previ near Lima, Peru, and, to return to Stirling, his expandable house prototypes—what he called “climbing frames”—have remained favored among the twenty or so other houses proposed by the team of international and national architects in 1974. Interestingly enough, Stirling’s project is planned on a nine-square grid!



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