PRINT December 1980


IN THE WORK OF REMARKABLE writers, artists or composers one sometimes finds disconcerting elements located at the edge of their production, at its “limit.” These elements, disturbing and out of character, are misfits within the artist’s activity. Yet often such works reveal hidden codes and excesses hinting at other definitions, other interpretations.

The same can be said for whole fields of endeavor: there are productions at the limit of literature, at the limit of music, at the limit of theater. Such extreme positions inform us about the state of art, its paradoxes and its contradictions. These works, however, remain exceptions, for they seem dispensable—a luxury in the field of knowledge.

In architecture, such productions of the “limit” are not only historically frequent, but indispensable: architecture simply does not exist without them. For example, architecture does not exist without drawing, in the same way that architecture does not exist without texts. Buildings have been erected without drawings, but architecture itself goes beyond the mere process of building. The complex cultural, social and philosophical demands developed slowly over centuries have made architecture a form of knowledge in and of itself. Just as all forms of knowledge use different modes of discourse, so there are key architectural statements which, though not necessarily built, nevertheless inform us about the state of architecture—its concerns and its polemics—more precisely than the actual buildings of their time. Piranesi’s engravings of Prisons, Boullée’s washes of Monuments, have drastically influenced architectural thought and its related practice. The same could be said about particular architectural texts and theoretical positions. This does not exclude the built realm, for small constructions of an experimental nature have occasionally played a similar role.

Alternately celebrated and ignored, these works of the limit often provide isolated episodes amidst the mainstream of commercial production, for commerce cannot be ignored in a craft whose very scale involves cautious clients and carefully invested capital. Like the hidden clue in a detective story, these works are essential. In fact, the concept of limits is directly related to the very definition of architecture. What is meant by “to define?”—“To determine the boundary or limits of,” as well as “to set forth the essential nature of.”1

Yet the current popularity of architectural polemics and the dissemination of its drawings in other domains have often masked these limits, restricting attention to the most obvious of architecture’s aspects, curtailing it to a Fountainhead view of decorative heroics. By doing so, it reduces architectural concerns to a dictionnaire des idées reçues, dismissing less accessible works of an essential nature or, worse, distorting them through association with the mere necessities of a publicity market.

The present phenomenon is hardly new. The 20th century contains numerous reductive policies aimed at mass media dissemination, to the extent that we now have two different versions of 20th-century architecture. One, a maximalist version, aims at overall social, cultural, political, programmatic concerns, while the other, minimalist, concentrates on sectors called style, technique, etc. But is it a question of choosing one over the other? Should one exclude the most rebellious and audacious projects, those of Melnikov or Poelzig for example, in the interest of preserving the stylistic coherence of the Modern Movement? Such exclusions, after all, are common architectural tactics. The Modern Movement had already started its attack on the Beaux-Arts in the ’20s by a tactically belittling interpretation of 19th-century architecture. In the same way, the advocates of the International Style reduced the Modern Movement’s radical concerns to homogenized iconographic mannerisms. Today, the most vocal representatives of architectural “postmodernism” use the same approach, but in reverse. By focusing their attack on the International Style, they make entertaining polemics and pungent journalism, but offer little new to a cultural context that has long included the same historical allusions, ambiguous signs and sensuousness they discover today.

Architectural thought is not a simple matter of opposing Zeitgeist to Genius Loci, conceptual concerns to allegorical ones, historical allusions to purist research. Unfortunately, architectural criticism remains an underdeveloped field. Despite its current popularity in the media, it generally belongs to the traditional genre, with “personality” profiles and “practicality” appraisals. Serious thematic critique is absent, except in the most specialized publications. Worse, critics, there, are partial to current reductive interpretations and often pretend that plurality of styles makes for complexity of thought. Thus it is not surprising that a solid critique of the current frivolity of architecture and architectural reporting hardly exists. “The bounds beyond which something ceases to be possible or allowable”2 have been tightened to such an extent that we now witness a set of reductions highly damaging to the scope of the discipline. The narrowing of architecture as a form of knowledge into architecture as mere knowledge of form is matched only by the scaling down of generous research strategies into operational power broker tactics.

The current confusion comes clear if one distinguishes, amidst current Venice or Paris Biennales, mass-market publications and other public celebrations of architectural polemics, a worldwide battle between this narrow view of architectural history and research into the nature and definition of the discipline. The conflict is no mere dialectic, but a real conflict corresponding, on a theoretical level, to practical battles that occur in everyday life within new commercial markets of architectural trivia, older corporate establishments and ambitious university intelligentsia.

Modernism already contained such tactical battles and often hid them behind reductionist ideologies (formalism, functionalism, rationalism). The coherence these ideologies implied has revealed itself full of contradictions. Yet this is no reason to strip architecture again of its social, spatial, conceptual concerns and restrict its limits to a territory of “wit and irony,” “conscious schizophrenia,” “dual coding,” and “twice-broken split-pediments.”

Such reduction occurs in other, less obvious ways. The art world’s fascination with architectural matters, evident in the obsessive number of “architectural reference” and “architectural sculpture” exhibitions, is well matched by the current vogue among architects for advertising in reputable galleries. These works are useful only insofar as they inform us about the changing nature of the art. To envy architecture’s “usefulness” or, reciprocally, to envy artists’ “freedom” shows in both cases naiveté and misunderstanding of the work. Building may be about usefulness, architecture not necessarily so. To call “architectural” those sculptures that superficially borrow from a vocabulary of gables and stairs is as naive as to call “paintings” some architects’ tepid watercolors or the P.R. renderings of commercial firms.

Such reciprocal envy is based on the narrowest limits of outmoded interpretations, as if each discipline were inexorably drawn toward the other’s most conservative texts. Yet the “avant-garde” of both fields sometimes enjoys a common sensitivity, even if their terms of reference inevitably differ. It should be noted that architectural drawings, at their best, are a mode of, working, of thinking about architecture. By their very nature, they usually refer to something outside themselves (as opposed to those art drawings that refer only to themselves, to their own materiality and devices).

But back to history. The pseudo-continuity of architectural history, with its neatly determined action-reaction episodes, is based on a poor understanding of history in general and architectural history in particular. After all, this history is not linear and certain key productions are far from enslaved to artificial continuities. While mainstream historians have dismissed numerous works by qualifying them as “conceptual architecture,” “cardboard architecture,” “narrative“ or “poetic” spaces, the time has come to systematically question their reductive strategies. Questioning them is not purely a matter of celebrating what they reject. On the contrary, it means understanding what borderline activities hide and cover. This history, critique and analysis remains to be done. Not as a fringe phenomenon (poets, visionaries or, worse, intellectuals) but as central to the nature of architecture.

I have called “reductionist” those attitudes that negate differences and limits. Canceling limits (through pluralism, for example) is canceling architecture altogether, for these limits are the strategic areas of architecture. We have seen that architectural drawings generally refer to something outside themselves, as opposed to drawings that refer only to themselves. A similar distinction occurs at another level within architecture, when the question becomes whether built architecture refers to some expressive meaning or symbolic content exterior to architecture, or whether it speaks only of itself, of its nature and its intrinsic condition. The question is, of course, one of representation. As the first of a series in Artforum, two key works are introduced here: a set of drawings by John Hejduk and an argument by Anthony Vidler. John Hejduk works on the elements of the language of architecture as well as on its means of representation. By pushing them to their respective limits, he suggests here archetypal correlations between materials, function and representation. Anthony Vidler’s analyses open a methodological field where the history of ideas, the history of language, the history of science all intersect and mingle with the history of architecture. Together with a few others, but each independently, they have significantly and continually contributed to “things having some quality or attribute of the highest possible degree,”3 constantly redefining the limits influencing the development of architectural thought, in order not “to bring it to an end.”4

Bernard Tschumi is an architect living in New York whose theoretical writings and drawings have been published in numerous publications, including Oppositions, A + U, Studio International, and Architectural Design.


1. OED, “to define.”

2. Ibid., “limit.”

3. Ibid., “limit.”

4. Ibid., “to define.”