Architecture, Means and Ends

Architecture, Means and Ends

by Vittorio Gregotti

Vittorio Gregotti—the architect of Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium, Milan’s Arcimboldi Opera Theater, and Lisbon’s Centro Cultural de Belém, among many other noted constructions—is not only a designer of international repute but an acclaimed theorist and critic. Architecture, Means and Ends is his practical and imaginative

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Vittorio Gregotti—the architect of Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium, Milan’s Arcimboldi Opera Theater, and Lisbon’s Centro Cultural de Belém, among many other noted constructions—is not only a designer of international repute but an acclaimed theorist and critic. Architecture, Means and Ends is his practical and imaginative reflection on the role of the technical aspects of architectural design, both as part of the larger process of innovation and in relation to the mythic opposition between vision and construction.

Interweaving the seemingly irreconcilable concerns of aesthetics, meaning, and construction,  Architecture, Means and Ends reflects Gregotti’s overarching claim that buildings always have a symbolic, cultural content. In this book, he argues that by making symbolic expression a primary objective in the design of a project, the designer will produce a practical aesthetic as well as an ethical solution. Architecture, Means and Ends embraces that philosophy and will appeal to those, like Gregotti, working at the intersections of the history of design, art criticism, and architectural theory.

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University of Chicago Press
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By Vittorio Gregotti

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Gius. Laterza & Figli Spa, Roma-Bari
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30758-9

Chapter One

The Designer as Technician

"To arrive at an eventual understanding of the meaning of the real transformations of the activity of planning," Manfredo Tafuri says about the twentieth century in The Sphere and the Labyrinth, "it will be necessary to construct a new history of intellectual labor and its slow transformation into purely technical labor (into 'abstract labor,' to be precise). Besides, have not Rodchenko's productivism, Mayakovsky's work for Rosta, and the prophecies of Le Corbusier and (on the other side of the coin) Hannes Meyer raised the problem of the transformation of artistic activity into labor directly inserted into productive organization? It is useless to cry over a proven fact: ideology has changed into reality, even if the romantic dream of the intellectuals who proposed to guide the destiny of the productive universe has remained, logically, in the superstructural sphere of utopia."

Tafuri's statement provides us with a good point of departure for examining the motivations and the illusions of the modern movement in architecture concerning its connections with the later phase of the era of mechanization. At a distance of some eighty years, everything seems to begin symbolically with Le Corbusier's famous dictum "La maison est une machine à habiter" (the house is a machine for living), a slogan that neatly sums up the enthusiasm for technics during the 1920s, for industrial production as means for solving the problem of habitation, and, more generally, for assigning to architecture the task (surely an illusory one) of launching a discourse on social justice achieved through an egalitarian distribution of the fundamental commodity of housing.

Le Corbusier's slogan has prompted at least two different interpretations. Was he speaking of a machine invented by the new "civilization" for the purpose of dwelling within it and with the intention of providing a broader social distribution of a "comfort" (a word much in vogue in the 1920s) adequate to modern life, thus creating a clear separation between the idea of habitation and the instrument used for that purpose? Or does this statement conceal an invitation to consider the very function of living as a "machine," as something that can be reduced to an operation and that can be dismantled and reconstructed in its various part thanks to the energy—dissociative and positive—that imbues many of the positions of the avant-garde?

The two questions are connected in ambiguous ways, all the more so because in Le Corbusier and in a large segment of the modern movement, the idea of "machine" is accompanied by notions of "human scale" and bodily hygiene through contact with the sun and with nature. This implies the idea of the house as a "machine for happiness"—a vaguely obligatory happiness, founded on a specific order of things that is communitarian and aesthetic, the roots of which lie in utopian socialism.

A reference to the Enlightenment tradition of connecting "equality" with reason and progress (but leaving aside "fraternity") is obligatory here, but we should not forget that during the same period (between 1915 and 1923) Marcel Duchamp painted The Large Glass (Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) and coined the expression machine célibataire (bachelor machine), which served as a symbol, likening the human being to a machine for autonomy of functions, presenting production goals as a value in themselves, and even evoking a self-contained sexuality, a mechanical eroticism. Something similar was occurring in literature during those same years thanks to Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, and Gaston de Pawlowski and his Voyage au pays de la quatrième dimension. Guillaume Apollinaire declared in 1914: "Les poètes veulent un jour machiner la poésie comme on a machiné le monde" (poets want to mechanize [grind out] poetry one day just as the world has been mechanized [rigged]). As early as the mid-eighteenth century, Julien Offray de La Mettrie's L'homme-machine had already described the transformation of the dualism man-nature into man-machine, and the custom of using the machine as a model to explain physical reality went back to the mid-seventeenth century. La Mettrie, writing in the century of "automatons," launched a lasting debate on modifications of the human body that was further developed in the age of mechanization and continues today in robotization and bioengineering. In 1872, a century after La Mettrie, Samuel Butler writes in his Erewhon of machines as human beings endowed with intelligence, although ultimately he proposes that anyone attempting to build a new machine be punished. Much earlier examples could be cited of technics as a world of the marvelous portrayed in literary narration (beginning with Torquato Tasso's descriptions of war machines), but these narrations would also illustrate the ambivalence of persons of culture before such wonders. Human beings admire the magical fantasy of science, but they also claim the right to an imaginary independent of the scientific sphere.

In the early twentieth century there were entire movements (such as the various expressionisms, or, in a quite different mode, cultural positions inherited from the thought of John Ruskin and William Morris some fifty years earlier) that defended the right to subjective expression, the probity of handcrafts, and "the spiritual in art," in contrast to form as a direct representation of the values of technics. Leaving aside academic resistance, many in those same years seriously advanced polemical positions attacking the avant-gardes, claiming that the total perdition of art lay in its marriage with technics—theses that were often connected with criticism of the thoughts on technology of some of the philosophers discussed in my introduction. Others, such as Lewis Mumford, formulated more moderate objections in the name of social psychology and an idea of community centered in a humanistic functionalism. Similar objections were revived and, where architecture was concerned, distorted during the 1980s (for example, by Léon Krier), to resurface in the nostalgic interpretations of so-called postmodernism.

This complex and often contradictory system of positions expressed growing fears, beginning in the late eighteenth century, of the miraculous productive power of the machine that devours art, of its apparent independence from the subjective will, and, consequently, of its capacity for substituting for the natural world. Technics has become—as we have already seen—a mark of the marvelous (as in the cliché "the marvels of technology"), replacing the marvels of art. Or, better, art seems forced to the sidelines, reduced to the task of providing a setting, an appropriate backdrop, for an invasive technics.

Nonetheless, even before the epoch of Le Corbusier's machine à habiter another imperative was quite clearly present in art, inherited from the historicism of the last three decades of the 1800s, and from the naturalistic evolutionism of the earlier years of that century (that of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, for example). Not only does form follow function; forms change as functions change. This means that every era requires its own forms, which must in some manner be coherent with the general characteristics of the times. Moreover, because the preeminent characteristic of our era is technics, founded on novelty and on productive inventiveness, novelty became the absolute standard of value in art as well. Technical creativity and figurative creativity are easily confused, and throughout the nineteenth century the inventor in large measure coincided with the technician (and often with the dilettante); eventually—why not?—the artist as well was dragged into the vortex of equating novelty and quality.

The human being as inventor and as machine was even transferred to the stage in ballets such as Parade (1917), Alexander Exeter's L'homme Sandwich (1922), and the Triadische Ballet of Oskar Schlemmer and plays an obvious role in the rhythmic sequencing and montage used as compositional techniques in films such as Fernand Léger's Ballet mécanique and Marcel L'Herbier's L'inhumaine. Photography and the cinema are in fact the two new and popular mechanical figurative arts. If photography offers an alternative to the pictorial representation of nature, cinema provides art with new materials in a new harmony of space and time in movement and a new simultaneity. These were themes that Walter Benjamin was to treat in the 1930s.

The relationship between the avant-garde, popular art, and cultural elitism was fairly ambiguous in the era of mechanization. On the one hand, journalistic "reportage" in literature, advertising, and the cinema (all of which had extensive contacts with avant-garde figuration), but also the idea of using the aesthetic object instead of simply contemplating it and, above all, improved quality in industrial products, all moved in the direction of a new type of popular art. On the other hand, although the very idea of avant-garde promoted the principle of the new and an infraction of rules as positive values, it also consistently represented a detachment from the immediacy of mass communication.

It is of course very difficult to draw a distinction between the positions of those who challenged the very existence of architecture as an aesthetic practice, preferring instead to define it in terms of social service, and the position of those who conceived of rationalism as a new form of the classical. It is not by chance that Paul Valéry and his absolute, transhistorical definition of poetry were more popular among architects than were Apollinaire and his ideas. The fact that Apollinaire found a new audience among the Russian Formalists and that his ideas are reflected in the interpretation of linguistics as a general theory of literature shows one aspect of a more general attempt to provide an objective basis for poetry, threatened by the culture of science. In a certain sense, this movement was symmetrical to the declarations of Surrealism.

Avant-garde art interjects the theme of the machine into its works in a number of ways: Dada used irony and radical challenge; the Bauhaus used a politically optimistic and pedagogical approach, asking the machine to perform the miracle of liberating humankind from wearisome labor in the hope of constructing a "cathedral of socialism" on that liberation. This aim required working as a group, against the subjectivism of the romantic artist, and in homage to the principle of a new form of objectivity (a new Sachlichkeit) of the artistic process—an objectivization that at times allowed the Dynamo to replace the Virgin as an object of devout contemplation and a hope for redemption from poverty and ingenuousness.

For the Futurists in Italy it was above all motion that opened up art to a constant state of creative instability, a state that they viewed as structurally connected to the idea of modernity as speed, dynamism, and even violence. In France the Purists took the mathematical and geometrical purity of the machine as a figurative model, whereas the Russian Constructivists viewed the machine above all as an ethical and practical tool for the construction of a new society. Social innovation and novelty in art found an ally in the machine as a symbol of technical progress.

Obviously, the trend to simple forms and geometrical purity (consequently, to composition through the use of autonomous elements in a "play of masses," as Claude-Nicolas Ledoux wrote in his late-eighteenth-century treatise on architecture) preceded by more than a century the avant-garde's fondness for strict connections between mechanized technics, absence of decoration, and architecture. These tensions remain dominant in strict adherence to "technical functionalism" in modern construction—in large glass surfaces that work against the requirements of air conditioning and heating, for example, or in white panel walls with no roof overhangs that soon deteriorate. These are contradictions, but they are coherent with an antimonumental ideological stance that proclaims the construction to be renewable, closer to a utilitarian manufactured object than to any notion of testimony, memory, and duration.

The widespread pessimism in artistic circles in the 1930s sprang from a diabolical combination of the economic crisis of 1929 and the stylistic conservatism of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes that concealed empires founded on a rigid organization of production techniques not unlike those of capitalism after Henry Ford, along with all of the literature describing their horrors. Despite this atmosphere, however, the theme of the machine continued to provide widespread inspiration for the arts up to the late 1950s, although when habit began to set in, machine-made products proliferated, and the rubble of machine culture became increasingly cumbersome, these too began to appear as material for art. The definitive consecration came in 1968 with a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted by Pontus Hultén: The Machine, as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. The exhibition, which had been planned before the outbreak of the major social crisis in France in May 1968, attempted to present a complete description of the relations between art and technics in the modernist tradition, in particular in connection with the diffusion of Pop art, which raised consumption and the market for the industrial product to the status of central materials for the figurative arts, ambiguously criticized for their obviousness and thrilling inevitability. This trend was reflected in the realm of architecture as a new pride in the traditional forms of American daily life and its representation. Robert Venturi's Learning from Las Vegas (1972) was the first explicit declaration of a theoretical base for postmodern populism.

Chapter Two

The Art of Technology

A new condition is typical of more recent years: the total absorption of humanity into the science-technics-production-market system, taken as a global value, has come to be experienced in the immaterial form of finance, information, and images in which all meanings are open to substitution. This being the case, we can look back on the machine in the 1920s as something material that was still regarded with affection, and we can smile at the arts' faith that machines could renew all aspects of life, including a radical modification of the environment and a definitive victory over nature, reduced to a hygienic and compensatory social commodity.

It is to that same faith that we also owe the growth of optimism, at least until the mid-twentieth century, regarding the development of a mature technological civilization and its capacity for self-regulation. Hence there was optimism too regarding an art that by representing itself could also describe the condition of modernity as civilization and as a common platform, at least among the industrially developed nations.

All this was marked by a gradual expansion of epistemological thought, to the point of claiming to be the sole philosophy of knowledge, and by the diffusion of an aesthetic principle (in the works of Max Bense, for example, or, in the case of industrial products and their forms, in those of Abraham Moles and Gilbert Simondon) that stated that the presence of the civilization of the machine would usher in a combinatory art with infinite possibilities, not only for artistic composition but also for social and individual liberty. For Bense, in fact, the intentionality of modern art of the 1940s was part of a utopian self-regulation of the entire system of technological society that went beyond any illusion of a revolutionary use of technology in the style of Walter Benjamin. Even the theories that Herbert Marcuse expressed in An Essay on Liberation (1969) are optimistic in this connection. Marcuse states that technical progress, freed from the ideologies of exploitation and competition (not a minor undertaking), would lead to the advent of "new modes and ends of production" in response to "different human needs." Lewis Mumford, a severe but positive critic of the mechanization of art in the midcentury, was also an optimist, in the sense that in his Art and Technics (1952) he followed a long tradition reaching from Ernst Cassirer to Suzanne Langer of defending the priority of the symbolic nature of art—that is, of defending the human tendency to translate experience into symbols—with the result that by achieving harmony with technics humankind could return to being master of its fate.


Excerpted from ARCHITECTURE, MEANS AND ENDS by Vittorio Gregotti Copyright © 2002 by Gius. Laterza & Figli Spa, Roma-Bari. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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