Book Review: The Possibility of An Absolute Architecture

Yet another home run from the Writing Architecture series. With few exceptions, their second string of publications – restarting in 2007 after a six-year hiatus – have been outstanding, including such paradigmatic volumes as Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present, K. Michael Hays’ Architecture’s Desire, and Michael Cadwell’s Strange Details. The editors seem to have taken it upon themselves to assault the disciplinary borders between history, theory and criticism. All of their recent titles navigate between these established genres, simultaneously reflecting on the past and projecting to the future.

Written by a pair of Italian theorists – Mario Carpo and Pier Vittorio Aureli – this year’s models are no exception. Carpo’s The Alphabet and the Algorithm (reviewed here previously) tells the story of architecture’s engagement with the digital, and projects a potential future for said engagement. The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, Aureli’s contribution, recapitulates a political project not just for architecture, but for architectural form. He plots an alternative course through history, drawing together an unruly band of players, through whom a consistent project is articulated.

It may seem paradoxical, but Aureli argues that a strong attention to architectural form – rather than an attention to urban space – is precondition for architecture to act politically. Architecture, Aureli believes, must take a position within itself in order to define the infra-space of the city, the space between buildings. This bring us to the question of absoluteness. Aureli uses the word to mean “distinct from its other,” in this case the city. An absolute architecture, therefore, is independent of its other, yet still constructive of (and constructed by) said other. Their relationship is dialectical. Architecture must be absolute in order to be politically productive, and must be resolutely other in order to be absolute.

The process of such “positioning” is what, for Aureli, draws together the work of Palladio, Piranesi, Boullee and O.M. Ungers. These architects have a commitment in common: their work is ideological, but none ever explicitly stated a theory of urbanism nor designed an ideal city. Their visions of the urban environment were composed of “city parts,” providing concrete and conflicting alternatives to contemporary civic building. For these designers, and by extension Aureli, the city is a collection of contrasting and even contradictory pieces. Projects of the city need to project alternate models of living in common, and these must go beyond cohabitation.

Ultimately, Aureli’s argument has to do with the function of blockages within urban flows. Through an attunement to its formal possibilities, architecture can produce resistance to the seemingly unstoppable march of mundane urbanization. To consider the systems of the city (infrastructure) is not to act politically. Architects should instead refocus on the making of buildings that take a position.

Spurred by landscape urbanism, many competitions, books and design studios have recently applied architectural thinking to regional systems and infrastructure. Aureli thoroughly questions the sensibility of such thinking, and contends that acting dialectically within and against urbanization is the way for architecture to create political effects. This paradox is at the heart of Possibility, and I for one think a retreat from urban design to the safer disciplinary ground of the type of urbanism Aureli describes is well overdue. His is a rather damning indictment of the current preoccupation with infrastructure.

If there is a complaint to level against Aureli’s book, it might be that its chapters contain precious little relief. No matter how thrilling the content, a nonfiction book becomes difficult to follow when chapters stretch to forty or fifty pages without so much as a subtitle. A few breaks would be appreciated. In terms of content, however, Aureli has added a compelling new chapter to the ongoing and neverending debate over architectural autonomy. Rather than retreating into form to sidestep politics, Aureli here outlines a powerful model for doing both. A sharpened focus on form, he argues, can produce sharpened political effects. We would do well to heed his advice.

The MIT Press (Writing Architecture Series), 2011

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