Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia – by LPP

Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia – by LPP

Progetto e utopia (translated in English as Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development) was published in 1973 as an enlargement of the essay “Per una critica dell’ideologia architettonica” penned in 1969 for the magazine Contropiano[1].

The book offers a survey of architectural poetics from the period of capitalism: for Manfredo Tafuri a period that began in 1753 when the abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier enunciated his theories of urban design “officially initiating Enlightenment architectural theory”[2].

From its initial pages, Architecture and Utopia is striking for Tafuri’s critical and disenchanted approach to hagiographic readings of architectural history, and in particular the Modern Movement.

Regarding this, it may be illuminating to compare, as done by Rixt Hoekstra[3], the incipit of Architecture and Utopia with affirmations such as those of Nikolaus Pevsner.

Tafuri writes:

“To ward off anguish by understanding and absorbing its causes would seem to be one of the principal ethical exigencies of bourgeois art. It matters little if the conflicts, contradictions, and lacerations that generate this anguish are temporarily reconciled by means of a complex mechanism, or if, through contemplative sublimation, catharsis is achieved”.[4]

While Pevsner instead had this to say:

“Architecture disposed of a new style. It was created by a group of determined and courageous architects, man [sic] of extraordinary imagination and resourcefulness. Since five hundred years… there had not been a revolution of similar impact”.[5]

On the one hand a vision of compromises, of defeats, of useless sublimations by architects to the logic of profit and the contemporary metropolis and, on the other, a heroic history that leads to a new vision and, consequently, a new world.

What was the source of Tafuri’s disenchantment? Clearly his Marxist approach and his reading during this period of the so-called componente operaista[6] and, in particular, the group of intellectuals gravitating around the magazine Contropiano, including: Alberto Asor Rosa, Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti and Massimo Cacciari. According to this group the power of capital was so pervasive that it included also the ideologies of those intellectuals who believed they were fighting against it. Hence criticism had no option but to demystify the false (or – for a Marxist it is the same thing – ideological) illusions of liberty, exposing them for what they really are: not tools for effectively bringing about the revolution, but pure utopias, destined to remain exactly that[7].

The ruthless Tafurian criticism of progressist ideologies espoused by architects was interpreted as merely the latest proclamation of the death of architecture. In the sense that, to avoid falling in the trap of utopian illusions, there was no longer any sense for architects to seek to imagine new worlds.

In reality, Tafuri’s objective, even while general in nature, was aimed at a more specific target: criticising the illusions of left-wing Italian architectural culture that, following the rise of the Socialist Party to the ranks of the national government in the 1960s, believed it possessed the ability to transform the country through an energic and enlightened architectural programme, moving it towards the ideals of socialism. This perspective was shared by critics with a radical liberal background, such as Bruno Zevi, who championed it in his books and in the pages of L’architettura cronache e storia, the journal he directed, and by intellectuals with socialist and communist leanings who came together in the pages of Controspazio magazine. The historical demonstration effected by Tafuri in Architecture and Utopia served precisely to dismantle these points of view, exposing their foundations constructed atop misinterpreted premises: hence the lengthy historical analyses that accompany the book, taking readers from the 1700s to the period of its publication.

However, Tafuri does not negate the possibility of a capitalist regime to produce good architecture: he affirms that it is possible to create architecture, what is more of optimum quality, so long as it nurtures no illusions about its ability to change the world.

This – he states in the introduction to Progetto e utopia – is “the ‘drama’ of architecture today: that is, to see architecture obliged to return to pure architecture, to form without Utopia; in the best cases, to sublime uselessness. To the deceptive attempts to give architecture an ideological dress, I shall always prefer the sincerity of those who have the courage to speak of that silent and outdated ‘purity'”[8].

Some years later, in an interview with Richard Ingersoll, he reiterated the concept: “I don’t see it as being prophetic, but what I was saying 15 years ago in Architecture and Utopia has become a fairly standard analysis: there are no more utopias, the architecture of commitment, which tried to engage us politically and socially, is finished, and what is left to pursue is empty architecture. Thus an architect today is forced to either be great or be a nonentity”[9].

Proof that contemporary architecture, even within these confines, may have meaning lies in the interest nurtured by Tafuri the historian for a number of architects who sought refuge in formalism: from Aldo Rossi to Peter Eisenman, from Louis Kahn to James Stirling.

Actually, observed from this point of view, Architecture and Utopia can be considered to have lived and breathed the atmosphere of the years when Tafuri wrote it: severely critical of the palingenetic ideas of the Modern Movement, wary of the architecture of technological progress and willing to lend credit to self-reflexive and self-referential poetics proposed precisely as ” form without Utopia”. It is thus a book open to the postmodern aesthetic. Even if the postmodernism that appeared to interest Tafuri was cultured, self-critical and nostalgic and not the nonchalant, kitsch and commercially sly version that instead was more widespread.

The critic Ignasi de Solà-Morales asked whether Tafuri truly held any love for architecture[10]. To be honest, in Architecture and Utopia he demonstrates a twofold defeat, or better yet – as Gregory Bateson would say – a twofold restriction. Those who believe in utopia are defeated by the cunning of capital, which renders vain any idea of revolution, absorbing the criticisms and negativity of the avant-garde. Those who are disillusioned are forced into a poetic that perennially contemplates its existence as void form, empty of any utopian strength: in short, an aesthetic that celebrates its own failure.


Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi

Published on JAE April 2013

[1] Contropiano n.1, 1969, pp 31-79. The book also contains the work from another essay, again for the same magazine

 (Contropiano n.2, 1970, pp.241-281) entitled “Lavoro intellettuale e sviluppo capitalistico”.

[2] Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, The MIT Press, 1976, p. 3.

[3] Rixt Hoekstra, Lost in Translation? Tafuri in Germany: a History of Reception. Text published on the Internet: http://www.tu-cottbus.de/theoriederarchitektur/Wolke/wolke_neu/inhalt/en/issue/issues/207/Hoekstra/hoekstra.php

[4] Manfredo Tafuri, quoted in Hoekstra, op. cit.

[5] Nikolaus Pevsner, quoted in Hoekstra, op. cit.

[6] An in-depth reading of the cultural context during which the theses of Architecture and Utopia were elaborated can be found in the article by Pier Vittorio Aureli, “Intellectual Work and Capitalistic Development: Origins and Context of Manfredo Tafuri’s Critique of Architectural Ideology”, March 2011. Article published on the Internet:: http://thecityasaproject.org/2011/03/pier-vittorio-aureli-manfredo-tafuri/.

[7] Tafuri often quotes Massimo Cacciari whose texts exercised a strong influence on his work, including Metropolis. Saggi sulla grande città di Sombart, Endell, Scheffler e Simmel, Rome, 1973. Here the metropolis resembles a (non)place structured by capital to absorb its contradictions. It is however interesting to observe how the notion of the pervasive power of capital, in its modelling of (non)places, ideologies and aesthetics, represents a constant in the thinking of Antonio Negri, who brought them to their extreme consequences in his last book, Impero, co-authored in 200 with Michael Hardt.

[8] Architecture and Utopia. Design and Capitalist Development, The MIT Press, 1976, p. ix.

[9] Manfredo Tafuri, “There is no Criticism, Only History”, Interview with Richard Ingersoll, in Casabella 619-620, 1995. The interview was first published in 1986 in Design Book Review, Spring 1986.

[10] Ignasi de Solà-Morales, “Beyond the Radical Critique: Manfredo Tafuri and Contemporary Architecture”, in C. Davidson and I. De Solà-Morales, Being Manfredo Tafuri, monographic issue of Any, nn.25-26, February 2000, pp.55-60

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