Between Utopia and Reality Eight Tendencies in Architecture Since 1968 in Europe

Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre


1968, the year of 'the spring', of 'uncontrollable spontaneity', in Europe as in many parts of the world, when, in the words of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 'imagination is revolution' was declared, had a significant impact on the development of architecture. In no other major social political upheaval had architecture occupied such a privileged position. Admittedly, in the 18th century Rousseau had expressed strong ideas about socio-therapeutic landscape and Condorcet about participatory design.1 American and Russian radicals had also put forth clear concepts about architecture in response to revolutionary ideas of the time. These, however, were put into practice neither by the French, American or Russian revolutionaries. In the manifestos of Spring '68, from Berkeley to Berlin, from Paris to Prague, architecture became a central focus. In the varying degrees of sophistication or apocalyptic ecstasy typical of the period, architecture was used to attack the establishment in order to exemplify the poverty, pain and pollution of the modern machine civilization, or it was held up as the sensuous, visionary, Utopian 'alternative' worth fighting for.

As with every revolution, such ideas and feelings were brooding quietly in the background for several years before suddenly bursting forth as explosive issues, among both professionals and the wider public. Critical writings which up to now were to be found only in esoteric, small-circulation magazines, such as Le Carre Bleu (Paris),2 were suddenly the leading articles of new large-circulation magazines, such as Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, the French magazine of the younger generation of architects.3 The debt of the youth in revolt to the previous generation of intellectuals, such as Henri Lefebvre, C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, has been much written about.4 Their ideas about 'production', 'consumption', bureaucracy', 'alienation', 'reification', 'appropriation', 'community', 'direct democracy', 'survival', 'way of living', became an integral part of the new architectural proposals. Conversely, in order to demonstrate their ideas Henri Lefebvre and Herbert Marcuse referred to examples from architecture and urbanism.

This broadening and deepening of the horizon of architecture had both theoretical and institutional effects. It drew architectural thinking into discussions comparable in abstraction, and ambition, only to those which had taken place in the Renaissance and the 17th century. The difference now was that architecture was stripped of any claims to absolute and timeless principles or metaphysical eternal values. Design norms and their application became contextualized, relativized, politicized.

The earlier ideas of modern architecture and urbanism came under attack, especially when they made claims about truth, objectivity, process and social benevolence, notions which now came to be considered as arbitrary or suspect and as serving vested interests in much the same way as the traditional academic ideas of architecture they had replaced. Modern architecture and urbanism were now seen as expressing either a productivist ideology or an ideology of mass consumption. In other words, modern architecture was identified as serving a 'dominant class ideology'. As a whole, the doctrine of modern architecture was seen as being too reductive, too pragmatic, to satisfy deeper, even physical, human desires.5

From the point of view of cognition, this critique led to new ways of perceiving and understanding architecture. There was a shift away from spatial and aesthetic categories, away from terms which were supposed to describe shapes and feelings towards them. Buildings came to be seen as signs which carried mostly ideological messages expressing power and serving interests. In the new framework, such ideological messages were to be done away with and replaced by new ones. If buildings were to signify anything at all through image, it would be only on condition that they expressed 'liberation through imagination' or, in the manner of a billboard, a purely populist iconology. Buildings were now meant to be seen as networks where people moved and interacted, as platforms where they acted out their aspirations for emancipation.

Institutionally, the very presuppositions about the legitimacy of the architectural profession to impose its will on users through design were challenged. In scope, the assault recalled the challenging of fundamental institutional premises of the building guilds during the Renaissance and the Ancien Regime by the then young, upstart architectural profession. The authority of architects was seen as an anachronism in an era of 'consumer sovereignty'. Marxist, phenomenological, pro-consumerist, but also anti-consumerist, the new radical ideas about architecture all shared a radical liberationist approach to architecture,

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S. Woods, G. Candilis, A. Josic, University of Berlin (1963)


Chateau Eau Marne Val
Christian de Portzamparc, Château d'Eau, Marne-la-Vallée, France (1974)
Northern Europe Housing
Herman Hertzberger, Ministry of Social Affairs, The Hague (1989)

expressed to some degree through unleashing the imagination of the individual and opening the way for a populist, 'user lib' approach to design.

Such ideas about architecture, which had originated mainly among students, young practitioners and young user groups, soon had an effect on the views of an older generation, the generation of the 'clients'. If 1968 was the year when such ideas were conceived, 1972 was when they first took physical form. This book, therefore, opens with works finished during this year.

The impact of populist ideas on buildings completed in 1972 is evident. And, although finished two years later, no other project captures the slogan 'imagination is revolution' better than the then 27-year-old Christian de Portzamparc's Château d'Eau in Marne-la-Vallée outside Paris (1971-74). His design consisted in dressing a pre-existing water tower - a utilitarian structure frequently 'littering' the traditional French landscape with its oppressive, severe 'rational functionality' - in a mantle of luxuriant verdure. The result was a dream-like ziggurat reminiscent of the fantastic architectural inventions found Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499).6 In the same vein, Tusquets and Clotet's Belvedere Georgina (Gerona, Spain, 1972, see pp. 54-55) was a poetic, playful, Bunuel-like critical metaphor, unthinkable in its irony when compared to post-war architecture.

So infectious was the youthful vernal spirit of 1968 in Europe that the Centre Pompidou (Paris, 1971-77, pp. 84-89), that gigantic, multi-functional complex of networks and platforms, was not only conceived but actually commissioned and built. The protagonist of the building was to be 'the people'. Filling up the transparent escalators attached to the front of the building, 'the people' became the building's facade, a dynamic proscenium overlooking an amphitheatre-like square. Open balconies fed the crowds onto the escalators at each level, where a columnless, unobstructed platform offered the maximum of flexibility for expression.

Lucien Kroll's La Mémé (Louvain, Belgium, 1968-72, pp. 44-47), making use of John Habraken's minimal support system, also offered a series of platforms on which the users with maximum freedom could divide internal spaces at will with subdivisions, and even determine the external covering of the building. Here everyone was free to exercise their imagination. Similar processes of participatory design took place in Ralph Erskine's Byker Wall (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1968-74, pp. 68-71) and in Giancarlo De Carlo's much later Mazzorbo housing project (Venice. 1980-85, pp. 198-201), although in these two cases the process was much more directed by the architect, whose intervention, however, was not biased by formalistic architectural presuppositions and taboos. With Herman Hertzberger's Centraal Beheer (Apeldoorn, Holland, 1968-72, pp. 48-51), these ideas entered the workplace, the white-collar workplace, traditionally a much more constrained area than housing. Hertzberger's space was cellular as opposed to most massive workplaces which were open plan. Its modularity was homogeneous without being regimented. Within it, employees enjoyed maximum freedom of choice. The minimally standardized cells accommodated alternative lifestyles while the total vista of the interior offered the image of a participatory democracy of the street. The same effect was tried again, twenty years later, by Hertzberger in the Ministry of Social Affairs in The Hague and by Ralph Erskine in his Sanska building in Gotenberg, Sweden. Here, as in Portzamparc's Château d'Eau, Kroll's Mémé, or Piano and Rogers' Centre Pompidou, the building emerges as a cultural object that implements Henri Lefebvre's vision of 'overcoming the conflict between everyday life and festivity' and 'everyday life becoming a work of art', the building 'a play'.7

Although populist architecture continued to be produced well into the 1980s, by the early 1970s it had already lost its leading role. It had emerged to a great extent as a critique and as an alternative to welfare-state architecture. When the welfare state began to collapse in the 1970s, not only under the weight of criticism but mainly because of the 'fiscal crisis' which occurred in that decade, it became obvious that the ideals of populism were no longer viable. First, as putting such ideals into practice presupposed an economic basis and a certain redistribution of wealth, as propounded by the welfare state, they were no longer affordable. And second, it was increasingly apparent that putting into practice proclaimed ideals frequently invited conflict and led to a fragmentation of individuals and groups. In fact, this bottom-up procedure, which was aimed at gradually combining individual preferences into a global, polymorphic, heteroclite, joyful whole, very often created a confrontational attitude and an adversarial spirit that displaced not only conciliation but also creative synthesis. Also made evident was the erosion of skills and professional know-how which, it soon became clear, were only rarely linked with power interests and most often with highly collective needs of environmental comfort and quality. Soon, populist architecture's invitation to participatory design was to be greeted if not with outright hostility then with apathy.8

Le rappel à l'ordre

Le rappel à l'ordre ( 'call to order') is an expression often applied to the movement in art and architecture that followed a few years after the First World War and was characterized by a return to conservative values. The expression, borrowed from the title of a minor essay by Jean Cocteau which appeared in 1926, referred to a reaction against the radical, anti-institutional ideas which had dominated culture during the first two decades of the 20th century. We apply here the same term to the movement which appeared in the 1970s as a

Mazzuconi Avenue Matignon

Vittorio Mazzucconi, 22 Avenue Matignon, Paris (1972-76)

Mazzuconi Avenue Matignon

Francesco Venezia, Gibellina, Sicily (1981-89)

reaction against populism in architecture, a reaction which was generalized against much earlier expressions of experimental, adversary, emancipatory avant-gardism.

As opposed to populism, which subjected architecture to political, social, economic and functional programmes, the rappel a I'ordre declared the independence or 'autonomy' of architectural forms. Autonomy was a term much used in many areas of culture in the 1970s following the arguments of the French philosopher of the left, Louis Althusser. As opposed to the so-called vulgar economicist Marxists, he advanced the view that certain products of society were relatively independent of their economic substructure. This position made the reorientation of many young architects towards a new kind of approach to formalism which was then taking place appear more acceptable from a political point of view. For them populism was politically naive, socially destructive, culturally catastrophic.

If for populists architecture was a political arena for acting out social struggle and cultural confrontation, for these opponents of populism architecture became once more a civil scenographic platform for people to perform politely their given, public roles. The accent was, once again, on architecture's rules and responsibilities, manners and masks. We can see this aspect of civic design in the almost theatrical decorum and the public face of the New State Gallery in Stuttgart by James Stirling (1977-84, pp. 126-31). Here, not only do the city fabric and the street pattern determine to a high degree the form of the building, but also the visitor, like the objects and architectural spaces of the buildings, has become part of a spectacle. A similar civic-theatrical quality characterizes Rob Krier's facades in his Schinkelplatz housing project in Berlin (1983-87, pp. 186-87).

Contrary to populism's 'spontaneous' design whose departing point was perceived as a tabula rasa, the rappel a I'ordre stressed the necessity of historical knowledge and the need to backtrack to tradition. This re-use of the past varied in degree from project to project. It is cautiously practised in the facade of Vittorio Mazzucconi in Paris (the 22, Avenue Matignon Building, 1972-76), where a small area of the front of the new building is made up of fragments from the demolished old facade, or, on a larger scale, the reweaving of fragments from the ruins of an earthquake into a new structural organization, as in the case of Francesco Venezia's project for Gibellina in Sicily (1981-89). It becomes a major concern in the Schinkelplatz housing of Krier (Berlin, 1983-87). In Erith & Terry's Richmond Riverside project (Richmond, England, 1985-88, pp. 202-03), historical precedents are indispensable in the design. In Terry Farrell's propylaeum at Clifton Nurseries (Covent Garden, London, 1980-81), the use of classical architectural historical elements is altogether different from the projects we have just mentioned. Although the gateway is classical in its entirety, the canon is applied only in bits and pieces. These are not fragments used in a nostalgic or even tragic sense, as above, but more in the jocular vein. Their light air, literally and metaphorically, alludes to garden follies of the past, appropriate to the context, but applied here in a more abstract, cerebral way - even though this cerebralism is not solemn but jocular.

The concept of 'typology' was central to the rappel a I'ordre. It linked its ideological commitments to autonomy, a civic design tradition with concrete architectural practice: a building type implied a thing in itself, an object apart from and prior to use, above and beyond social political and economic pragmatics. Furthermore, the belief in building types suggested the need for continuity rather than a break with the past. But as happens with many, in fact most, generic concepts that serve to reorient thinking, the meaning of type and typology was never defined precisely.

'Typology' meant many things to many people during the polemics of the mid- to late-1970s. It was at once a timeless metaphysical notion and a history-bound one. In applied design, moreover, typology was associated with borrowing very specific architectural forms from particular categories of buildings. Thus, the borrowings were not dictated by the specifics of the problem at hand. French Revolution, the Empire, the industrial complexes of the 19th century, the agricultural buildings of northern Italy, the light, ephemeral, seaside resort structures of the turn of the century, buildings of the Fascist regime of Italy and occasionally of the Nazi period in Germany, all these formed the canonical corpus of typological resources to be drawn upon.

Did these exemplars have anything in common? Although much has been said about their totalitarian origins, nothing seems to be ideologically consistent in the final analysis. What is totalitarian, for example, about the 19th century, or sea-cabins of the time? Neither is the theory that all these prototypes were of a consistent high quality valid as many have claimed, among them Vincent Scully in his text on Aldo Rossi,9 the person who definitely contributed most to the idea of typology and its concrete visual expression. A closer inspection, however, will easily reveal that they all share the same visual denominator', to use Heinrich Wolfflin's expression, the same universe of forms, the same style.

The characteristics of the canonical body of typology are to be found in projects as diverse as Aldo Rossi's Gallaratese housing (1969-73, pp. 60-63) or his San Cataldo Cemetery (1971-73, pp. 56-59), the Student House in Chieti of Giorgio Grassi (Italy, under construction from 1979) - who was also, with Rossi, a proponent of 'typology'-or Stirling's New State Gallery in Stuttgart (1977-84, pp. 126-31), O.M. Unger's Architectural Museum in Frankfurt (1981-84, pp. 134-35), Chemetov and Huidobro's Ministry of Economy, Finance and Budget in Paris (1982-90, pp. 244-45) or the work of Leon and Rob Krier.

Vittorio Mazzucconi, 22 Avenue Matignon, Paris (1972-76)

Francesco Venezia, Gibellina, Sicily (1981-89)

Terry Farrell, Clifton Nurseries, Covent Garden, London (1980-81)

Student Housing Chieti





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