Pritzker laureate Rafael Moneo (1937) and the acclaimed historian and critic Kenneth Frampton (1930) converse in Madrid about the problems afflicting contemporary architecture.
The ever diminishing role played by theory and thought in professional practice is, according to Frampton and Moneo, one of the principal challenges that contemporary architecture is faced with. Add to this the great transformations taking place in society, the economy, and architecture itself, thanks to which the traditional discourses, based on concepts like Zeitgeist, rationalism, and faith in progress, are ineffective. Not to mention the precarization of the labor market, with its terrible effects on young people. In this situation Frampton and Moneo call for a more critical reading of globalization, and also an ethic of resistance grounded upon the principles of the architectural discipline.
Kenneth Frampton (KF): We have known each other since the mid-70s, a time in which theory was very important for architects. Forty years later, the role of theory and the dimension of architecture is sort of diminished in the current debate…
Rafael Moneo (RM): I think that the attempt to make architectural theory uphold architectural practice is nowadays completely gone, the battle has been lost. In the 1970s, Peter Eisenman and others probably had the idea that the pure visualism that was still embedded in building after Colin Rowe could be extended. Nowadays we say that theory fell into the hands of writers inspired by post-structuralism, French writers above all. It doesn’t at all have the presence that it used to have. Therefore it ought to be recognized that even in the entire second half of the 20th century, the true way to try to find out what architectural theory means ought to be figured out by reading historians. In a way, historians are depositaries, they have defined the paradigm of what could be considered ‘modernities,’ something that has changed radically in this new century.
KF: Yes, I think that’s right.
RM: The description of what architects have sought is in the hands of historians. You need to go through the reading to extract what actually matters: the way history has been told isn’t anymore as useful to what is happening today. That would be the point.
KF: This is why I think that philosophical discourse would be more useful. The question of whether the old city can sustain any continuity, given the modern reality, is really a deep problem. And one of the deep problems associated with it is the idea of progress and the question of whether that idea has real validity anymore, not only from the point of view of architecture, but altogether. The question of belief in progress is a problem.
RM: We are no longer able to think clearly in terms of progress.
‘Zeitgeist’ and Utopia
KF: I studied architecture in the 1950s in London, and within the British welfare state. It was possible then to think that the idea of progress was modernity, that modernization could only have a positive outcome for society. It was a naïve moment. I think that this is still reflected in the first edition of Modern Architecture: A Critical History. But, for whatever reason, it took me ten years to write it, and my views already had been modified – by coming to the States, as a matter of fact. The States was a big shock for me.
RM: I think that the big difference between what is happening today and what happened, say, in the period between the two great wars and developed in the 1950s and 1960s, is that in the 1920s we still had the sense that progress could be designed. You were able to think utopically in terms of how the idea of city could be. Now, I don’t believe we are able to foresee how things are going to be. And yet everybody believes in the future, but a future that is formless. Nobody knows exactly how this future is going to be. Therefore, architects are unclear today about times to come. I believe that the future is going to happen in a positive way but I wonder if we are able to foresee, and therefore to design, and therefore to think about ideas like Zeitgeist, now. That has been such a crucial word to talk and think about. How many times has it been said that we should be the spirit of the times? Right now, who is able to decide what today’s spirit is?
KF: I think one of the things that we haven’t quite yet embraced is to recognize the limit of the question of progress. And one of the things that have replaced the idea of progress, in my opinion, is the idea of maximization. So that in medicine, agriculture, and many fields, above all of course in late capitalist development, maximization is the driving instrumental force in society – such as to maximize agricultural production, maximize the direct treatment of sickness through pharmaceuticals, maximize development of cities in the sense of capitalist development. When you think of all these high-rise buildings everywhere, like London, they are so meaningless from the point of view of culture. They are simply machines to make as much money as possible.
RM: What comes together with this is that we have lost confidence in the value of the word ‘reason.’ We have to give reason another, different way of being understood, because, for instance, at this moment in time, that which can be rebuilt is reasonable. People often talk about architects who build, architects with a commitment to reflection, but where are the discussing architects nowadays? Architects now spend more time discussing the means of production at all the design moments. For instance, it would be difficult nowadays to establish the bridge between the work of artists and the work of architects.
KF: I think that one of the problems is that art itself, also, is becoming commodified. And commodification is one of the problems because architects tend to think of their work as large art. The problem with that is there is not the same dialectic between architecture and art that there was in the 1930s. When architects think in terms of building as large art, they run the risk also of the general commodification of art. That is the problem today.
Shaping the Void
RM: You used the term ‘commodification.’ It’s true that when architecture becomes that, it enters another order of things that doesn’t fulfil the duty of serving reason. Something that happens a lot nowadays and didn’t happen before.
KF: Somewhere, early on, Van Eyck, for example, says this aphorism about how architects can build if the society does not have form? How can the architect build the ‘counterform’ if it doesn’t have form.This is almost a prophecy because when you said that, it was thirty or forty years ago, but this is the problem now!
RM: It’s true that once the expression and the description of what architecture thinks about how it should proceed is in the hands of historians, you need to tell historians that the narrative they have followed is no longer valuable for explaining.
KF: That’s the problem. And you feel it. You feel it when you talk to students. There’s this gap. I try to cover the gap but it’s not easy.
RM: It has also to do with this respect or attempt to give the word ‘continuity’ a positive meaning instead of a bad one, in this case following the hints given by the place itself, by the reading of how this piece of land had been 200 years before… I still believe that you have to be careful about wasting…
KF: There’s this funny figure, an Argentinian Marxist, who had a big impact on me. He says somewhere (maybe Tomás Maldonado quoted him) that you can’t make anything without waste, this is distinguishable from ideology of waste. It’s an amazing statement. And this is really what we are facing.
RM: You always need to build. Building is an act of force that always means leaving something damaged somehow: no doubt about it. Besides, it’s impossible to repeat things. It’s impossible not to move. The more you know about architectural history, the more you realize how rapidly changes happen. It seems like a long period of time for evolving a type, and yet you have an alert eye. You see changes every year. But new architects are unable to go through this scheme of strict repetition.
KF: For the young generation, the whole question, for instance, of security of employment, is no longer so evident. There is no stability. The opposite, society is very unstable. And this is why I, however pathetic, think in terms of resistance. Not in the sense that one shouldn’t change, but in the sense that architecture still has that potential to give to human beings, in their own short life, some kind of ground. Otherwise there is no ground. Somehow here there is an ethical question.
RM: Even though we don’t know what the true expression of the Zeitgeist is nowadays, it is difficult to believe that what we do is outside what society wants done. From this point of view, it is not difficult to understand what the world will build. But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t accept that what is happening probably reflects, whether we like it or not, what is happening in the world as a whole.
KF: But I think somewhere there is this issue of class, because in a way you could say that the project of the Enlightenment is a middle-class project. And you could also say that the belief in democracy is also a middle-class thing. And when the middle class is eliminated, or suppressed, or when you don’t produce a middle class, you can’t have democracy anymore. This is the kind of situation we are in because all this money that is going to the top of the pyramid is also part of a movement that means to destroy the middle class. That is the danger of the moment.
RM: It seems that today the middle class is almost destroyed, and yet that means that the new proletarians have been taxed on many of the most valuable things culture and history has produced… You have to admit that never before did people have such a sense of fulfilment, of arriving at valuable things of life...
KF: The paradox is that when you begin to commodify, though, like everything, then the value desired starts to fall as something desirable. This is a funny kind of strange enigma.
The two engaged in dialogue while walking the streets of Madrid and visiting Moneo’s studio, where they discussed the latest projects and competition designs of the architect from Navarre.