Joan Ockman: Manfredo Tafuri and the Historicity of the Avant-Garde

A PhD seminar held in Rotterdam, April 8th 2010

From the standpoint of writing the history of the avant-garde in architecture, there is no book more rigorous, challenging, and poetic than Manfredo Tafuri’s The Sphere and the Labyrinth, where the fragments of the history of neo-Avant-garde, like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, have been re-assembled in a poetic and Utopian construction.

Certainly no historian of architecture has ever produced such a challenging theorization of the relationship between architectural ideology and capitalist modernity. In fact no other scholars have ever attempted to write this kind of architectural history before. Despite Tafuri’s denunciation of what he called “operative criticism” – the tendency of a part of historians and critics to program architecture’s future direction – his own historical writing was unquestionably engaged political project in his own way. In the panorama of the rhetorical production of the architectural culture of 60’s and 70’s, Tafuri’s contribution must be accounted not just as an intellectual and scholarly exegesis, but an intervention in that culture, with rather profound evaporations throughout the international scene.

The seminar by Joan Ockman has been articulated around the “close reading” of the book, literally chapter by chapter, by looking especially at its narratives and rhetorical design and structure; the method, which has been elaborated by the Anglo-American new critics from 1930’s into the post-war period; the new critics who sometimes are known as the “formalist school” or “practical criticism”. This methodological reading illuminates not just Tafuri’s historiographic technique but also offers a key to his own ideological presuppositions and in this sense it is all together becomes a Tafurian “project”.

The 1980 book La Sfera e il Labirinto, translated into English in 1987 as The Sphere and the Labyrinth, is subtitled as Avant-garde and architecture from Piranesi to 1970’s. There is a certain similarity in the titles some of his books. Their double subjects Theories and History, Architecture and Utopia, Sphere and Labyrinth, give a first clue to Tafuri’s privileged historical method, one that Fredric Jameson had identified in his 1985 essay Architecture and the critique of ideology,[1] as dialectical historiography.

1. Fredric Jameson, “Architecture and the Critique of Ideology”, in Joan Ockman, et. al. (eds.), Architecture Criticism Ideology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 1985)

As Tafuri writes in the introduction of the book:

It seems to be a collection of essays. In reality, however, in writing the single chapters – published in provisional form in various Italian and foreign journals between 1972 and today [1980], and subsequently completely revised – we have adhered to a design that we invite the present reader to contrast with the theses expounded in this introduction. The themes that weave in and out of this design are, we believe, evident: at the beginning, the discovery of “transgression” and of formal writing as a perverse excess, as the subject’s voyage beyond the columns of Hercules, beyond the codified limits; then, the slow taking over of a “language of transgression,” the realization that the subject’s freedom was merely “freedom for techniques,” rather that freedom for writing.[2]

2. Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987), p.21

The book has a peculiar literally intensity and at the same time some kind of ideological violence, which can be read as autonomy of the text. Subsequently – as a reaction to biographical, historical, psychological reading of literature – it led to criticism and to the reintroduction of history and context as an antidote to textuality. History, as Tafuri writes “is always a project of crisis.”[3] It reflects in a paradigmatic fashion the crisis provoked by the collision between Marxist culture and the linguistic turn of the 1960’s and 70’s.

3. ibid., p. 3
4. Bürger, Peter, Theorie der Avantgarde (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974)

In his influential theory of the Avant-garde, originally published in German in 1974,[4] Peter Bürger privileged the emergence of Dada and Surrealism as the paradigmatic Avant-garde moments. Many historians and theorists have noted that this beginning reflected Bürger’s own particular interested research more than a kind of objective overview of this subject, while his primary definition of Avant-garde – the art as institution – is hard to apply to architecture which is inherently positive or constructive in nature. In contrast – inspired by Sergej Eisensten’s theory of Montage” – Tafuri marks the beginning of the history of Avant-garde modern architecture 150 years earlier, with Piranesi and his fevered inventions of Carceri and Campo Marzio.[5]

5. Sergei Eisenstein, made frequent references to Piranesi. In his essay ‘Piranesi and the fluidity of form’ he reads Piranesi’s drawings as an anticipation of his own technique of montage which he defines as the stage of the explosion of the shot, see Sergei Eisenstein, ‘Piranesi and the fluidity of form’ in Oppositions 11 (New York and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1978) and Tafuri, ibid., p. 56

Eisenstein suggested that the collision of the architectural elements in Piranesi’s Carcere oscura, which occurs between image and critical contemplation, produces a fragmentation that provokes re-combination; a new montage, or re-montage. This analytical synthetic technique is related to the semantic distortions of the Russian formalist poets, like Mayakovsky and Eisenstein.

6. Ibid., p. 54
7. Ibid., p. 47

Piranesi, in Tafuri’s portrayal, is a disenchanted critic of enlightenment values and forms; one who leaps over them with his secret aspiration to find new syntheses. And this leads straight to the emergence of the Avant-garde idea of art as dialectical becoming[6]. Art can only destroy itself in order to constantly renew itself. Piranesi is a wicked architect[7] – the architect as a transgressor. Thus, the theme of imagination enters into the history of modern architecture with all its ideological significance, as a source of hypotheses that cannot be formulated by science.

The Sphere and the Labyrinth can be seen as a unique Avant-garde historiography, characterized by the dialectics in the text itself, between the ideology of an architect and the structural forces driving capitalist society. Between utopian ideas and forms of architecture and the concrete reality which they always come into collision. It is not a piece of history complete in itself, but rather an intermittent journey through a maze of tangled paths, one of the many possible provisional constructions obtainable by starting with these chosen materials. Yet Tafuri’s pessimism or melancholy reading of the neo-Avant-garde of 60s and 70s becomes an end of architecture narrative. The pessimism of the intellect is not so much accompanied by the “optimism of the will”, unless we see this book itself among Tafuri’s other writings as a kind of poetic or Utopian construction, making a form precisely out of formlessness, a historical project.

The cards can be reshuffled and to them added many that were intentionally left out: the game is destined to continue.[8]

8. Ibid., p. 21