2018 Plenary Talk by Kenneth Frampton

by Kenneth Frampton, Columbia University GSAPP | May 21, 2018

The following is a transcript of the plenary talk by Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, delivered on Friday, April 20, 2018, at the 71st Annual International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The double honor of being made a Fellow of the Society of Architectural Historians and being asked to give this year’s plenary address, leaves me with a  great deal of uncertainty as to what would be an appropriate topic. This dilemma arises in large measure out my being somewhat manque, since, despite my formal education as an architect at the AA School of Architecture in London, I am neither an architect nor strictly speaking an historian. I prefer to think of myself as a teacher of architecture, having spent most of my adult life in this activity, although even this is somewhat questionable since it is by no means clear that the art of architecture can be taught; witness all the great architects of the 20th century who never set foot inside an architectural school; among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Henri Van de Velde, Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Tado Ando. Further proof this, if any more were needed, is the fact that I have spent consciously or unconsciously a great deal of my time trying to ascertain the grounds upon which a significant culture of modern architecture may still be effectively cultivated. My first move in this direction was the book Modern Architecture: A Critical History, which aside from being an operative history of the rise and fall of the Modern Movement was also the agency with which I first observed the inroads made into architecture by the advent of high-speed film and the impact that this invention had on both our reception and conception of architecture. I am alluding to the, all but prophetic last paragraph that ended the first edition of this book dating from 1980.

"The veil that photolithography draws over architecture is not neutral. High speed photographic and reproductive processes are surely not only the political economy of the sign but also an insidious filter through which our tactile environment tends to lose its responsiveness. When much of modern building is experienced in actuality, its photogenic quality is denied by the poverty and the brutality of its detailing. Time and again an ostentatious display of either structure or form results in the impoverishment of intimacy, or that which Heidegger recognized as a “loss of nearness”. How rarely do we encounter a modern work where the inflection of a chosen tectonic penetrates into the innermost recesses of a structure, not as a totalising force but as a declension of an articulate sensibility. That modern society still possesses a capacity for such an inflection finds its confirmation in the finest work of Alvar Aalto.”

What I had in mind when I wrote this text was the way in which both high speed film and the reflex camera had facilitated a proliferation of images at a lower level of resolution than what had previously been achieved by the plate camera with its capacity to reveal the tactile grain of the diverse materials from which a building may be composed. For me the proof of this lay in my experience as the technical editor of the British magazine Architectural Design when we published Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester Engineering Building in 1961 with the remarkable photographs of this work taken by Richard Einzig with a plate camera. I realised then that these changes in representational technique affected not only our perception of built form but also our conception of the relationships obtaining between constructional form and the organisation of space. With this I already became preoccupied as I would be for the rest of my career with trying to determine the basis upon which a rationally responsible culture of architecture could still be pursued.

It is ironic and always somewhat surprising to me that my account of the Modern Movement would be published in the very same year as the first Architectural Biennale staged in Venice in 1980 by Paulo Portoghesi as a postmodern mise en scene centered about the axis of the Arsenale in the form of a so called strada novissima, comprising a series of scenographic facades, designed by the emerging architects of the moment and built by the operatives of the Italian film industry. This new street was, in effect, a seemingly spontaneous reification of Robert Venturi’s postmodern, populist concept of the ‘decorated shed’ as this had appeared in 1963 in his MoMA paper entitled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. My resignation from the commissioning body of the Biennale came well before the opening and eventually led to my essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance” which was first published in 1983 in Hal Foster’s anthology The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture. Apart from its attempt to save architecture from its reduction to scenography, this essay was inspired by two quite independent intellectual reflections; in the first instance by Paul Ricoeur’s 1961 essay, “Civilizations and National Cultures” in which he discriminated between civilization as universal technology and culture as “the ethical and mythical nucleus of mankind” and in the second, by Alexis Tzonis and Lianne Lefevre’s first coinage of the term critical regionalism in their 1981 essay “The Grid and the Pathway” featuring what could surely be recognised as regionalist mannerisms in the work of the leading Greek architects of the 1950s, namely, Dimitri Pikonis and Aris Konstantinidis.

I should perhaps add that I was already moving towards a kind of regional awareness as a result of noticing in the '60s while working on Architectural Design the rapport that seemed to obtain in Europe in the late '50s and early '60s between local architects and the city states in which they happened to be working. I had in mind at the time the relationship between say Oswald Mathias Ungers and Cologne, Gino Valle and Udine and Ernst Gisel and the city of Zurich. But the final syndrome which gave my elaboration of the Critical Regionalist thesis its manifesto form was unquestionably Ricoeur’s recognition that culture as a mythical spiritual sense of belonging was no match for the cold instrumentality of universal technology. Ricoeur’s essay seemed to me to hold the key as to the potential accessibility of architectural form in relation to the ordinary members of society. This opposition between culture and civilization was for me the dialectic which I gave substance to my six points for an architecture of resistance, namely, the avant-garde versus the rear-garde of our late modernity, place vs space after Heidegger’s concept of space-endlessness versus the idea of bounded domain, i.e. in Greek peras which, as he puts it, is not that point at which something ends but rather the boundary at which something begins its prescensing.

In my view no one has understood what I intended by Critical Regionalism more sensitively than the Marxist critic Frederick Jameson, who in his 1994 book, The Seeds of Time, wrote:

… it can be said that Critical Regionalism shares … a systematic repudiation of certain essential traits of high modernism, it distinguishes itself by attempting at one and the same time, to negate a whole series of postmodern negations of modernism as well and can, in some respects, be seen as anti-modern and anti-postmodern simultaneously, in a “negation of negation” … the universal standardization of “life styles” are precisely what Critical Regionalism seeks to resist. Yet it positing of an a arrière-garde would seem to be incompatible with a postmodern end of history.

Jameson continues:

… the current slogans of marginality and resistance, as they are evoked by Frampton, would also appear to carry rather different connotations than those deployed in, say, current evocations of multi-culturalism…”

Jameson went on to relate my emphasis on the tectonic joint to my equally salient notion of the dis-joint, that is to say, an articulate junction which precisely expresses the point at which one formal/tectonic system ends and another begins. The one area of my regionalist thesis which Jameson understandably resisted was the implication that a region could consolidate itself in such a way as to establish a cantonal sense of political sovereignty. This he saw as a totally fragile proposition in the face of the world-wide Neo-Liberal hegemony which today is now more extensive than it was in the mid-'90s.

I have dwelt on Critical Regionalism because somehow it still remains as a cultural reference even after three decades, particularly in Latin America and South East Asia. While I have since moved on to the idea of tectonic form as the resistant stratagem within the long evolution of the Modern Movement, as this may be found in the poetry of construction in the work of such figures as Frank Lloyd Wright, August Perret, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Jorn Utzon and Carlo Scarpa, as these architects are critically interpreted in my Studies in Tectonic Culture of 1992.

However we cannot surely conclude that a poetic of construction is in and of itself sufficient ground from which to cultivate a critical practice of architecture and at this point I find that I have no choice but to re-assert the time honored need for a hierarchization of space and to argue that this must come as much from the society as from the relatively autonomous tradition of architecture as an end in itself.

This discourse returns me to the one book that has effectively determined my entire outlook on architecture, namely Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition of 1958, above all for the socio-cultural and political emphasis that she places “the space of human appearance” as the one value to be unequivocally articulated in development of environmental form. At the same time it is clear that we are more inundated with images today than ever before which is surely reflected in the fact that part of this convocation has been devoted to the challenge posed by the digital and its impact not only on the design and realization of architecture but also on historical research and on the writing of the architectural history and above all on the management of archives and the retrieval and general accessibility of archival material.

And while I continue to argue for the cultivation of a critically resistant architecture not only in terms of maintaining the Arendtian “space of public appearance” but also by virtue of integrating built form into its attendant landscape I am compelled to admit that today, we are ever more exposed to spectacularly irrational works, often of a gargantuan size, that are proliferated across the surface of the globe by one star architect after another. Thus whether we like it or not, we are all enmeshed in Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle as first identified by him as a syndrome in 1967.

One is reminded in this context of Karl Marx’s prescient prophecy made some 130 years ago, the immortal words, “All that is solid melts into air.” Today we are permially witness on a daily basis to the proliferation of ever higher, more meaningless high-rise structures, invariably curtain walled and clustered, cheek by jowl, around the financial capitals of the world irrespective of whether this happens to be Manhattan, London, Dubai, Jakarta or elsewhere in Asia and the Far East. Meanwhile the world continues to be overwhelmed by burgeoning refugee populations and extreme changes in the earth’s climate. This is surely among the more recent consequences of the Society of Spectacle of which Guy Debord wrote in 1988.

“It is indeed unfortunate that just at the moment when power is saved by the spectacle from having to take responsibility for its delirious decisions, thinks that it no longer needs to think and indeed cannot think.”

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