Producing the Contemporary City

24 May - 2 September 2007
PowerNotes #06
Elia Zenghelis: The "immeuble-cité"  a strategy for Architecture

Elia Zenghelis (architect and cofounder of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture) is one of the masters of the Master class Form and the City. During the conference Visionary Power - Producing the Contemporary City he gave a very inspiring lecture:

Architecture is the servant of political authority; architects comply, explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously. Those who oppose find themselves unable to realise architecture: confined to the symbolic realm of the imagination, they can only project by conjecture and propose alternative models. Often these are harbingers of the future.


There is a noticeable feeling of unease, growing within the architectural community of today, as it has started to sense that the current political and economic policies of globalisation are breeding an architectural culture that contributes to an environmental cycle that threatens our survival; indeed, it is beginning to wonder whether the most celebrated form of this culture is not the emblem of this cycle. But while the fashionable architectural production begins to appear polluting, the idea of the city and the idea of architecture as instrument of the city remain elusive.


On the one hand, the city is dissolving within the sea of urbanisation, the generic habitat of absolute individualism. On the other hand, architecture seems to have become the exclusive domain of market forces.


By now, the statistics of urbanisation growth have replaced the metropolitan consciousness that once formed the urban ideals of the great metropolis - and the city has become a mall, where pluralism and diversity are the features of its form. But City Form is the product of fabrication and sense of belonging to an idea that is incarnated by the city itself in its collective spaces. Today as the loft of the middle-class, the city is the space of mass servitude to an existence nurtured by the market.


The phenomenon of urbanisation does not exemplify an idea of human cohabitation; it is merely the methodical rendering of population on the territory, devoid of any social or political content: and in the current architectural jargon, the tendency to confuse the term Urbanisation with the City hides a symptom of post-modern culture that sees the city as an aesthetic category, applicable everywhere.


What syndrome afflicts us?


Dizzy from a cruel century of political turmoil and confusion, our insight into the relative values of architecture is deformed by an unprecedented disorder of bewildering conditioning, to which we have become the prisoners. In reappraising the priorities of our thinking, we have blocked from our consciousness the fact that the essence of architecture's intrinsic uniqueness is its Form: that it is the relative and pertinent use of form, its significance and appropriateness to our public life - and within the context of a political ideal - that should be our primary concern.


It is peculiar how, in the framework of our profession's accepted wisdom, all this engenders a generic sense of fear, to confront, rethink and revise our immobilized and conditioned reflexes.


The debate within the architectural discourse today persistently revolves around a preoccupation with aesthetics: it is essentially all about unacknowledged ‘aesthetic' anxieties, albeit against assertions to the contrary - and behind a pseudo-scientific pragmatic façade - a near-paranoia that has become a cheerless demonstration of deluded claims. In the name of analytical thoroughness it always come down to a discussion of style, of big or small, human or contextual, modernist or post-modernist, fashionable or outmoded, with all the fears that this engenders.


It is a syndrome we have been handed down by, I believe, our fear of facing the paradox of our present day reality: the paradox of our unresolved conflict between the idea of democracy (as a publicly administered decision-making process) and the currency of our blind belief in the rights (and absolute power) of the individual. In other words, it comes down to our refusal to confront the paradox of pluralism: our surrender to liberalist tyranny. Prisoners to the predicament of the free market, we find ourselves uninvolved in the name of consensus - and in a bind that immobilizes our ability to decide: and architectural Form is the object of absolute decision.


Form is the carrier of beauty in human culture. No work of Art has ever been conceived without it. But beauty has become the intangible concept nobody risks to define. It is a conditioning that, ever since we consigned beauty to the realm of perception - or more precisely the realm of aesthetics - has now ripened into full maturity. An "invention" of the Enlightenment, when "Nature" was re-perceived as the object of individual contemplative activity, aesthetics, together with "economics" has increased the allure of consumption and with it, fashion. In the process, our consciousness of a tangible idea of beauty has been lost in a world where everybody can be self-indulgent, in a carefree celebration of the individual, to lavish care on one's own pleasure and without reference to others. This has been, in the main, the drive of Art for over a century now and it is the prominent affliction of Architecture today. It has been a retreat, from the symbolic realm of the imagination, to the concrete and earthly world of nature.


To experience and define beauty, we need to have recourse to the time when things were recognised as being invested with it because they were the idealised representation of a collective faith. Beauty is the representation of an ideal, a matter of conviction rather than perception. Inextricably tied to our senses, perception invokes our private insecurities and our behavioural conditioning against norms, rules, competition and survival. Conviction on the other hand, being a response of our consciousness, is tied to principles and ideals evolved from within the collective sphere. It is within this sphere that we can make decisions - and within this sphere conviction has a political dimension: outside of it, beauty is indecipherable - within it, it is a historical fact.


Meanwhile the fate of cities today, is in the hands of those who maintain that our current status (Liberal Democracy) is the end-of-(city)-history and who claim that this hybrid process has finally had the conclusiveness of reconciling the individual with the collective, arguing that what works for one person works for everybody: a process where anything goes and where the possibility of judgment is denied.


The city is defined by opposition. Today this opposition is diluted and one can no longer talk of city and countryside as two distinct entities, as they hardly exist as such; what we have instead, is the latent opposition between cityness - the appearance of a dense and shared space - and urbanisation - the territorial consumption made out of individual dwellings. In present-day Europe, which is so densely urbanised, this covert opposition could nevertheless be made explicit, if the cities contracted into clearly articulated, bounded and intensely dense territories, within which, much of the outlying sprawl could be absorbed: a transaction that, under our current economic system and mental habit, is as unlikely as it appears undesirable. 


At this stage of geopolitical history however, it is clear that our illusion about the virtue of our post-democratic condition should be over; that it is a pastiche of Democracy, the power of a small oligarchy that detains power, eluding its responsibilities. The celebrated "informality" of our contemporary cities (sprawl, "bottom-up urbanism", "self-organization" and other similar "mythologies") is in the majority of cases a Trojan Horse for the manipulative politics of urban exploitation: an informal exploitation that reinforces the power of the market, a power in which everybody is welcome to participate as consumer, while nobody is invited as ruler.


In this respect, the task of rethinking the European city and its present-day reality, offers itself as fitting test bed for conjecturing an ideal model, where the relative and pertinent use of form, its significance and appropriateness to public life, can be considered within the context of a political ideal. As European cities have by now lost their homogeneous cultural constitution, and have become the home to diverse communities with multiple cultural, political and spiritual allegiances (physically exemplified by their heterogeneous cluster of distinct parts) they have become the sanctuary of a dormant - and often overt - conflict: and this is now, their defining factor.


But potentially, this is also their collective consciousness, if seen not as social affliction to be remedied, or negative confrontation in need of consensual harmony, but as positive tension, the ingredient of a collective coexistence that would reveal their public appearance, exemplifying the way present-day Europe can recognize itself assertively. Such a reinvention of the idea of the city of today and the recognition of it as the essence of our urban reality, can lead to a re-examination of the idea of the contemporary city as the place where differences and oppositions can co-exist rather than be absorbed into one another.


It is time to acknowledge that there is no way we can absorb, or be absorbed by "the other"; that what we have to confront, is not a clash of civilisations, but a civic and responsive enmity that embraces the irreducible property of difference. It is always within such oppositions that we can recognise ourselves and it would be a salient sign of civilisation to acknowledge the city's conflict as a potentially positive conflict of ideals: an existential struggle that ferments action and invests the city with its intrinsic political content: cityness, the "vita activa" of Hannah Arendt. This would require a qualitative upturn of our consciousness: and in the field of architecture, such regeneration can lead to a re-examination of the relative applicability of architectural form, having as aim to reinforce and transform the latent vision of the city - as a whole and in its constituent parts.


I believe that such an ideological conviction would lead to an emphatic reassessment of the symbolic power of the city over the generic immanence of territorial appropriation: for in the present-day process of urbanisation, we witness the gradual disappearance of any clear exteriority to the city, while older towns and villages are gradually being swallowed up by a relentless sprawl of private dwellings. On the one hand, historical distinctions between town (as a centre) and country (as the space in between) are being eroded by this quagmire and on the other, the new settlers' "raison d' être" for this option (finding private seclusion in the serenity of the countryside) is being cancelled out: environmentally, this inexorable process forms part of a broader entropy, the logical conclusion of which is the potential obliteration of life on the planet.


Therefore it seems to me that our present priority towards our Art - and our responsibility is to anticipate by conjecture, a possible future that would be an alternative to the one whose consequences are implicit in the present state of uncontrolled urbanisation and environmental decay.


It is inevitable that our mental habit will have to gradually change, as living conditions become more and more unbearable, with the luxury of private consumption withering away, in front of a painful realisation that life not only becomes unliveable, but is, in itself, threatened. Our consciousness is already beginning to adjust to the apocalyptic danger we are facing and it will have to - albeit gradually, begin to adhere to radically new priorities: priorities that no doubt are alien - and may even be repugnant - to today's heavily conditioned and cosseted European dweller.


In the process, political circumstances will necessitate transformation. Without wishing to predict the form this will take, one thing seems certain: the processes of individualism and consumption at the expense of the collective - and of survival - will no longer be possible and politics will not be sustainable as the by-product of the present, familiar, capitalist economic system. Leaving aside the fundamental steps to be taken to arrest the entropy of global warming (and the political and economic reversals these will require) and only by considering the quality of urban life, one can only conclude that the city and urbanization will have to be - symbolically and physically - separated, as two distinct - related, but juxtaposed ecologies. It seems inevitable that the need for cities to be confined into limited, coherent and clearly defined entities will become a capital political issue.


However, this could be the catalyst for a return to a genuine concern for the collective and the re-activation of a public domain in which the life of each member would become by necessity, an active and conscious act of participation in a collective way of living: simply because without this mental transformation, a life of enforced coexistence would become untenable. In such a scenario, the City, instead of being merely a geographic place-name, would regain its eminence, not only as desirable centre, but also given the application of an appropriate ideological, social and environmental vision it would become a real form-place of unprecedented beauty.


It is for this and similar scenarios that the architect of today should be prepared and begin to project the appropriate visions. He should renounce any drive towards the self-indulgence of the contemporary Star Architect, whose realised work only contributes to the visual and environmental pollution created by the current economic power of pluralism - and of which he is only the slave. 


Instead of the present-day self-referential and narcissistic structures that are emblems of the market - such as landmarks or what today is called "Iconic Building" - we should begin to propose large-scale architectural installations of unprecedented size, punctual, limited and simple large-scale urban forms - topographic acupuncture with a big needle - capable of absorbing the urbanisation of the sprawl. Simple monumentalities that make their intention clear by means of their form (or the way their intention is instilled by the form) and their strategic positioning, as logical conclusions of the topographic dynamic and the social geography of the location (or the way the latent intelligence of each place is capitalised upon - and projected into a future evolution).


To the current fear of one of our taboos: monumentality (a fear that can be added to the list of our insecurities) there are several answers. To begin with, assuming the necessity - for environmental reasons - to re-arrange the reciprocal entities of the city and the countryside (albeit an artificial countryside) into distinct and separate but interdependent ecologies, it seems logical that the small footprint that large populations would have to occupy, will necessitate structures that would acquire monumental proportions. Because of their very size, these structures would inevitably contain all the communal ingredients of cityness, and be thus - as "immeubles-cités" - endowed with a public appearance. For these reasons, they could be symbols of the resuscitated city. And the idea of their image is already offering a priceless opportunity for the architects' symbolic imagination. Throughout history, big artefacts have always displayed the rituals of the city, symbolising urban life and exemplifying the property of "cityness": a property that cannot be sustained under present day preconceptions, restrictions, rules and regulations - which are blind to history and persist in retaining an aesthetic view of the city as exclusively frozen heritage.


Reminiscent in scale of the austere and daring visions of those prophetic harbingers, the critical radicals of the 1960s in Europe, such as Superstudio, Archizoom and Oswald Mathias Ungers, these would be pro-active rather that representing a Utopia. Critical visions such as the Continuous Monument (1968), Oswald Mathias Unger's theoretical projects for Berlin (1963-1969) or Rossi's archetypal project of 1972 - the Centro Direzionale for Torino, symbolically named Locomotiva 2; these were not simply affirming the autonomy of architecture as precondition of engagement with the city, but especially the possibility of using large-scale architectural interventions to politically question the city, and the forces that make it.


It is clear that in the present need for radical visions - and in this scenario, any mark of Utopia is not about Architecture; it is about politics. Thus the big needle is required to represent both the public (institutional) and the private (collective) realms. Such visions could be buildable, even today, given the political will. And indeed they are already needed; they simply do not have to rely only on the idea of the market opportunity.  But for the time being, a lingering question remains. What governs us: economics or politics?


In the meantime, projects engendered by this approach, would not need to invent programmes; conceived as a system of formal acupuncture, they would need to be strategically inserted within the existing urban pond: objects of absolute Architecture, seen as a system of walls and strategic partitions - Architecture's quintessence. In this way only, Architecture can embody the idea of the city, since the city is neither "given", nor devised by protocol. It is the by-product - and the resulting form - of conscious, collective conviction; and this is made (and represented) by Architecture. For this reason, not only can our present political system not sustain the city: it dismantles it - and is incapable of designing it.


In short, whilst taking a deliberate position against the current political correctness of pluralism, complexity and fragmentation, we must embrace the return to the Big Scale project within the cities: a project removed from aesthetics, located once more, in the political domain. The big scale project, as a system of punctual interventions that confront the given, individual patterns of the cities into which it is inserted, can in this way sharpen the real vitality of political struggle: not a hybrid, but the confrontation between collective decisions and individual action.


This is a position that I believe must be projected as a general polemic about the future inevitability of a new monumental urban form and its appearance in the post-urban world.


We have a challenging task ahead and an inspiring incentive: to formulate a radical strategy and paradigm for architecture in the 21st century. It is worth remembering that, like the rest of the Arts of the human establishment, Architecture proved unable to keep pace with 20th-century culture - if the 20th century can be said to have had a culture. The violent upheavals, radical reversals and unsettling riddle of an ever-present and unthinkable relativity that implied without revealing a new paradigm, stripped the established Arts of their former stable principles and left them in a state of permanent instability, triggering a cultural distress: representing an age of distress and confusion, the Arts were immersed in the un-gratifying agony of having to wrestle with the illusive effort of identifying "The New". It is not surprising then, that in this cultural conundrum, it was only the "New Art" of the celluloid - the movie, that was able to fulfil this mission and become the Art that represented with symbolic clarity and vision the 20th century's vicissitudes. If we took this challenge to heart and envisage the pro-active role Architecture could play in the near future, it may find itself being the Art of the 21st century.


Elia Zenghelis
“Power –whether political, economic, or social – treats urban and architectural form as a means rather than an end in itself. Revealing the ways in which this power is made manifest in built form takes an essential first step for a