Current Views in Architectural Theory

Vol. 9, No. 2
March 2005


___Gerd de Bruyn
  Society and Theory
Satiety and Plenitude Architectonic Revaluation



From the very beginning modern architects were caught in the dilemma of claiming universal prestige for the exclusivity of their construct(ion)s. Thereby they manoeuvered themselves into a contradiction which does not let itself be resolved, but with which they could successfully mislead their followers and critics. That happened with the help of a ploy. In its heroic phase modern architecture presented itself with two viewpoints: that of the expert and that of the layman. Let us first consider the layman. Naturally he profited in that modern buildings wanted to be functional. Yet should at the same time a new idea of beauty rise in him from their utility, although it could be assumed that the wider population would continue to insist that “Beauty“ is to be surmised there where blatant functions have no place to be.

That didn’t bother modern architects very much. They qualified themselves with a Marxist and Messianic based social psychology and hinted to the so-called metropolitan masses that they would suffer from a wasting away of their sensorial-aesthetical requirements. This is regrettable and encouraging at the same time, as it points the way into a world of equitable poverty distribution. It was Walter Benjamin who, in this connection, spoke of a rampant loss of experience which, in this era of unleashed technology, overcomes ever larger communities. He confronted the reduced emotional-constellation of the pauperised classes with the cleared out interiors of modern architects and could assert, that the spiritual impoverishment of humans passes only too well to the aesthetic face of the Bauhaus.[1]

From the analogising of spiritual and architectural misery a preference culture arose which was set on formal ascetics and, precisely through that, helped train a second view, one that made contrary experiences possible. This second view was set aside for the experts. To them the purism of the modern turned out to be a mask, behind which many kinds of attractions could be hidden. On their forays they met up with subtle forms of aesthetic outlay, blooming in concealment. They appeared to have been developed on the quiet and condemned to a form of shadowy existence. Mies van der Rohe was in that respect a champion Love of detail and high demands on quality appeared to guarantee him the discretion of the forbidden. But forbidden was luxury. Behind the wish of its confidentiality the belief also germinated that the social division of society is, with the concealment of its wealth, already half banished.

The ambivalence of modern building aesthetic existed in that the layman should learn to confuse beauty with functionality, so as to apply himself in an abstinence that matched his wallet and “reduced“ sensuousness. In contrast the expert was allowed to confuse functionality with beauty and carry himself off on the search for concealed luxuries, hidden in the details, in the material, the workmanship and the benevolence of light-flooded rooms. The one was as strenuous as the other, both players were after all bowing to the same moralistic principle. This all regulated access to modern architecture through the workaday diligence of the one and the artistic perseverance of the other. The homonomous moment aroused the impression that the avant-garde is about to effect the reconciliation of art and workaday. Whereas however their contribution lies, above all, in that our senses for the differences of both spheres were sharpened by their fully intended confusion.

The Janus-face of modern architecture lets itself be used not only as a form of explanation to describe a divided society, it also accounts for the problem that one has to deal with when a discipline condemned to professional optimism is caught in the fangs of an “unhappy science“. As such had Theodor W. Adorno named one of his major works, Minima Moralia (1951). Superlatively it reflects the depressive climate in which the post-war modern was built. Its inhospitality was not only a consequence of minimal building costs, but also the result of a penance routine on the wrong things. Instead of embedding new generations in an environment in which “thriving fantasies“ may be squandered, the design dictates of the modern were reconstructed under the auspices of a negative theology. Naturally this occured due to the fear of architecturally indulging a people that had become guilty and thereby lapsing in to the false exemplar, which could have been interpreted for the Germans as the long-term consequences of Fascism.

This is all too understandable as that one wants to ask how processes could have been hindered which have almost naturally consummated. We would therefore be better seeking an answer to how developments, which since postmodernism became criticised, are to be corrected through the coalition of positive philosophy and celebratory architecture. It is not our past that is no longer an issue, but certainly its coverage through an ill-humoured leftist, in which “the elementary occurrence of the 20th century, the elimination of material mass poverty in the
First World, without an echo“ remained.[2] It only scattered further ashes onto the head of an architecture that was already long weary of the embellishment. But with what result? Was it not the taboo of the ecstatic outlay which the Alpine architect Bruno Taut already had in mind that helped unleash the vulgar prodigality ritual of the Event culture, which is just in the act of gambling away the future of our planet?

This culture is not vulgar because it irritates Latin teachers and booksellers, rather while they serve themselves from a technology in which “contranatural, reductionistic and imperious intentions“ are assumed. The wastage which accompanies our lives is based upon the “allotechnical“ availability of cheap fossil energy. To their unrestrained consumption the dominant moral chants undeterred the song of the healthful shortage. In their towline there exists furthermore a building that pleases a costly ascetic in the ploys. More important would be the fostering of an architecture with which, in the middle of a self-destructive abundance, a celebratory culture could flourish that is familiar with nature-analogue technologies and thereby promises to restrain the destructive wastage of accumulated capital.[3]

However, before the images of new syntheses of culture and technology can be specified, the analysis must be driven further. Let us not leave unmentioned that to the extent in which the „Masses“ show themselves as brittle against the puristic architecture, pound further on the pleasure principle and want to be entertained, for architects the Aesthetic of Subtlety will become second nature. The dogmatic functionalism and the propaganda offensive of the International Style are a good yardstick for how a canon of the permitted and the forbidden gradually emerged, that crossed over into the flesh and blood of architects. Or should one better say that the hierarchy of functional argument and stylistic preference can be answered as firmly as the question about the which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Whatever ones views, fact is that sensible pleadings for light, air and sun, for social equity and technical progress, for „economic“ ground plans and constructions, for rationalisation and typification very quickly changed into aesthetic idiosynchrasies. Now the architects couldn’t do anything other than venerate flat roofs, narrow supports, white walls, smoothly finished concrete and generous glazing. In their platonic love for sharp edges it was soon brought to light what the intrinsic part of modern, from the beginning, was: the beauty metaphysics of a freemasons lodge, celebrated by a sworn-in priesthood which suggested the highest certainty where supreme doubt was more appropriate.

This very day the high doctrine of subtle elegance is taught by architect-priests in our universities and academies. In addition to this they invoke themselves to the ideal of the generalists, so that in the seminar they can spread the tone that echoes on the large construction sites. Too many specialists are working there, to whom no „Jack-of-all-trades“ is a patch on. Thus remains for the beauty metaphysics only the blind confidence on the skilled engineer and his own evangelism that preaches the unity of ethics and aesthetics. Nevertheless it is design in a limited sense that applies moreover for his main interest. And that is even more so when he thinks he has to disown it on moralistic grounds.

Architects are masters at the communication of artistic decisions with allusion to functional, technical and economical reasons. The protagonists of modern building already had sense for it, in that the economical is, contrary to all prevailing opinions, important both managerially and culture theoretically. One recognises it in that a calculation of costs which results in a tight budget could just as easily have an inexpensive as a costly frugality aesthetic underlying it. The classical victim of such refinements is the public purse. In its construction projects the culture economy not only stands up against the building economy, it also regularly upsets their apple-cart. As a result Boris Groys describes the economy of the culture as an attempt, “to grasp the logic of cultural development itself as an economic logic of the revaluation of values“.[4]

Exactly such a revaluation was already the background in the battle of modern architecture against the traditional building arts. Unexpectedly the residence of the poor in the scant interiors of Ferdinand Kramer and Hannes Meyer underwent an enormous revaluation. What was considered gothicism by the traditional audience won the greatest attention and saw itself catapulted into the centre of the avant-garde. Conversely the adornment of the bourgeois residence was declared as kitsch. Even today the majority of architects abide by their disdain of ornaments, wherein the self-hate of a previously unchallenged royal discipline is hidden, to which the lords of the world gave thanks for their splendid buildings, and which simply for this reason must descend lower than all other art forms into the deeper reaches of the modern workaday.

Different today: The puristic taste, which gazes out from the fissures of a lavishly operated brick culture in a similar way to the butt joints of Swiss concrete erotic, no longer can claim privileges. Once again a revaluation of values has announced itself. What in the modern only used to happen quietly and in the post-modern could be openly spoken about for the first time – an architecture of celebratory outlay – is beginning to appear on the horizon. The dismay of the sociologists is keeping itself in limits, and the audience is applauding. We seem to be actually on a good road.

If architecture plays a trump the theory may again moderate itself. Really that is a benefit. Architectural theory must no longer want to be proved correct, rather to think the virtuous. In addition to this belongs the insight that we are standing at the beginning of a development, in which the modern truth-pathos of an emancipated architectural theory and the up-coming architecture freed from frugality economics must themselves make friends with the most daring of the ideas aimed at the future from the philosophical and technical intelligence of our century. Subsequently can we first assist in the establishment of a culture which releases itself from disgruntlements, puristic secretiveness and vulgar expenditure.


[1] Walter Benjamin, Erfahrung und Armut, in: ders., Illuminationen, Frankfurt a. M. 1961, S. 313-318

[2] Peter Sloterdijk: Sphären, Band III: Schäume, Frankfurt a. M. 2004, S. 675

[3] To the contrast of a contranatural and naturalanalogue Technology see Peter Sloterdijk and Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs: Die Sonne und der Tod. Dialogische Untersuchungen, Frankfurt a. M. 2001, S. 328 ff.

[4] Boris Groys: Über das Neue. Versuch einer Kulturökonomie, Frankfurt a. M. 2004, S. 16



Vol. 9, No. 2
March 2005