Post-mortem: collage city and the death of the architect

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Carola Ebert

Dipl.-Ing. Architect MSc | Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 11 | D – 10178 Berlin, Germany

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In many ways, the 1960s represented both success and crisis for modern architecture. At the end of the decade, the modern architect was severely criticised. The architect had been the draftsman and disciple of the new utopian world, which modern architecture had promised but the modern architect had not been able to deliver, and we may argue that the 1960s witnessed the Death of the Architect.

In the following speculative autopsy, I use two texts to consider this proposition: Collage City, written by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter in 1973, and Roland Barthes' ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968). Collage City offers a response from architectural discourse directly after the 1960s, and Roland Barthes provides a contemporary perspective on the relationship between criticism and creative production, which he considers with regard to the discipline of literature and literary criticism, yet the text with its suggestive title can also be usefully applied to other disciplines such as architecture.

The Death of the Author: In ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes claims that writing ”is the destruction of every voice”, a ”neutral composite space where our subject slips away” and he refers to creative strategies such as the Surrealist ‘automatic writing’, which acknowledge this fact in their practice. He criticises literary criticism for its obsession with the modern humanist subject of literature — the author and his biography — because it wrongly assigns primacy to the status of writing as the expression of an individual. ”To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified”. Barthes’ argument rests on the interpretation of writing as ‘neutral composite space’, as an eternal universal: ”the negative where all identity is lost […] No doubt this has always been that way”. However, there is another tendency in this short text. Barthes also announces the birth of the reader, who re-creates the text in the act of reading, and he introduces the new writer or scriptor. The scriptor's writing and the reader’s re-creation of existent text are both based on the inter-textual practice of all reading and writing. This re-creative act is portrayed as an individual response to the given material, which pre-existent interpretative concepts like the Author restrict. It is in this sense that "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author." Barthes may suggest that the reign of the Author had also been the reign of the critic, and thus imply that the Death of the Author is also to the critic’s disadvantage. Yet by stressing the intertextuality of all reading and writing, he also implies that the new scriptor in fact is both critic and author of text. In fact, there is little distinction between the two, if generally ”text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture.” With Barthes’ perspective — that "who is speaking thus" is the literary critic — taken into account, the death of the Author is no longer a disinterested announcement. Instead Barthes deliberately ‘kills’ the Author to enlarge the scope of his creativity.

Thus there is a tension in the text between its structuralist argumentation and its post-structuralist objective. Founded on writing as a post-humanist universal on the one hand, and establishing the individually responding, reading-writing scriptor on the other, ‘The Death of the Author’ relies on semiotic structuralism, yet the texts itself is also a manifestation of Barthes’ interest in a post-structuralist combination of critical and writerly creativity.

The Death of the Architect: In many ways, it appears easy to identify Barthes’ protagonists in the debate about architecture in the 1960s: Sociologists and the general public discovered their status as readers and started re-reading the outcome of the author/architect’s creative production. And although architectural discourse, similar to literary criticism, had attached certain intentions to the work of the architect, these new readers did not follow its interpretative dogma when their reading suggested otherwise. Also, the architectural discourse of the 1960s promoted various universalising design methodologies, e.g. architectural linguistics (which tried to clarify the capacities of architecture itself as language), ‘architecture without architects’ or design methodologies based on computerisation and technology. Thus, the creative decisions of architectural design became a kind of ‘automatic writing' and the ’Death of the Architect' directly leads us From Bauhaus to our house.

Based on the proposition that individual identity is lost in writing, Barthes proceeds to postulate the death of the author and the birth of the reader. Also, his strategic killing of the Author is means to a clearly defined end. In the architectural analogy, however, the crisis for the architect-author already existed. And it is unclear if architecture's universal concepts were directly chosen to solve the discipline's crisis and to what extent they had the capacity to do so. The 1960's analogy stresses the structuralist aspects of Barthes' text, and its problems thus correlate to problems that structuralism in its fixation on universal codes and their analysis generally experiences when faced with change and crisis. ”Structuralism may examine and appeal to existing practice; but what is its answer to those who say: ‘Do something else’?” Furthermore: how may it answer the need for change in a given crisis? Far from Barthes' self-assured killing of the Author architectural discourse's recourse to universal concepts feels more like imminent suicide. The question ‘Who is speaking thus?’ again helps to illuminate why the Death of the Architect resembles a discipline’s suicide. Unlike ‘The Death of the Author’, the above architectural analogy is not limited to the discourse within a discipline. It operates on what one may call the ‘scale of society’. And those who are ‘speaking’ are sociologists or ‘the people’, i.e. critics from the ‘discourse of society’, not that of architecture. Thus, despite the fact that Barthes’ protagonists appear to have obvious counterparts in The Death of the Architect, there are three main discrepancies between the two stories. Their Development: In Barthes’ text the death of the Author is a consequence, while in the case that this speculative autopsy investigates, the death of the architect it is a symptom. Their Setting: Barthes’ murder story is set within the boundaries of literature and literary discourse, while the analogy is set in ‘the world’. Their Voice: He ‘who is speaking thus’ is not the architect. While Barthes expands his and other critics scope of work, the results for the architectural profession from The Death of the Architect are comparatively dim, as the analogy takes the interpretative concept of the Author for the author as the creator of literature. Architects are thus associated with a restrictive concept, and under pressure from critics in a non-architectural discourse.

The Architect as Scriptor — Collage City: Colin Rowe has been acknowledged as ”one of the earliest and bravest to articulate that modern architecture’s achievement was (...) not a better world”. And in Collage City he provides a critical, yet complicated assessment of the status quo of architecture and the architect after the 1960s. In the following, we search Collage City for its response to the 1960s and for potential support of the Death of the Architect.

For Rowe and Koetter, universal concepts do not seem to have potential for the redefinition of architectural practice. Their text does not support the proposition of The Death of the Architect. With regard to technology and user participation e.g., Rowe and Koetter merely state matter of fact that ”up to a point, science will and should build the town and, up to a point, so will and should collective opinion”. Yet a sense of crisis in the text implies that the end of the 1960s was in fact perceived to be a critical point for the discipline. Thus, there may be a different correlation to ‘The Death of the Author’. The first two chapters e.g. suggest a correlation for literary criticism’s interpretative dogma of the concept of the Author: The Author corresponds with modern architecture’s ideology whose death Rowe and Koetter proclaim. They critically analyse modern architecture’s use of ”utopia as a ‘blueprint for the future’ ” and investigate urban space for utopia’s detrimental effects on the ”present urban predicament”. The modernist split between architecture and urbanism is exemplified in a study of Le Corbusier and they discuss different contemporary phenomena like Disney World, Archigram, Team X, Townscape, etc. in relation to modernist utopia to reveal how much they are still suffused with this ideology.

Instead of a new ideology, Rowe and Koetter introduce collage as an architectural methodology, and urban design as a synthesising discourse. The death of modern architecture’s ideology thus gives birth to a discourse of urban design and to the architect as scriptor. Collage City discusses the status quo of the architectural object in relation to the city, introducing design strategies like collision and the figure-ground / poché as urbanistic devices. Collage itself holds a double function in Collage City: Along with ‘the politics of bricolage’, it is used first as a metaphor against modernist ideology. Collage is further used as scriptorial technique for the intertextual process of the reading-writing / analysis-design of urban space.

Similar to The Death of the Architect, The Architect as Scriptor addresses a given crisis and thus operates reciprocally. Yet the killing of an oppressive concept is used strategically to reinvent the architect and his means of production. Rowe and Koetter stress the architect’s right, and duty, to be his own critic, and simultaneously they prevent his creative production from being restricted by yet another ideological concept. Collage City thus mirrors Barthes’ text: while Barthes, the literary critic, usurps the dead author’s birth right to creative imagination, Rowe and Koetter's aim is the integration of criticism into the architect's creative work. The Architect as Scriptor may be a less thrilling story than Barthes', as it is obvious that what is ‘killed’ is only a concept. However, to be disappointed by this superficial lack of cleverness in terms of the ‘story’ would mean to overlook that it is the urban script that Rowe and Koetter want to change.

Rowe and Koetter actively object to The Death of the Architect when they assert that ”the never ending insistence on the incompetence of the architect […] should at least be recognized for the psychological manouevre that it is—a guilt-ridden attempt to shift the locus of responsibility.” Thus, it is indeed possible to discern a correlation between Collage City and ‘The Death of the Author’, yet not in form of The Death of the Architect, which separates the architect as author-of-buildings from external critics in a discourse of society. Collage City is written for the discourse of architecture, in a similar voice to that of Barthes, the critic. It is the architect who speaks and aims for the new role of the scriptor, who is both author and reader. Instead of proclaiming a whole discipline’s creative suicide, Rowe and Koetter ‘kill’ a design ideology that had fixed the signifying process of the architect’s creative production. Their main strategy collage unites the critical act of analysis with the creative act of urban / architectural design. The second analogy to Barthes' text thus stresses its post-structuralist aspects. "There is no clear division for post-structuralism between ‘criticism’ and ‘creation’: both modes are subsumed into ‘writing’ as such.”

The Politics of Intellectual Context: Responses to Collage City since 1974, however, have hardly interpreted it as pursuing a post-structuralist objective. The following partial account of Collage City’s history briefly contrasts its use in Switzerland with some reactions in the United States and suggests that the apparently incongruous responses to the book were based on its fragmentation into different sub-discourses.

In Switzerland, especially in Zurich, where Bernhard Hoesli placed the book at the centre of his teaching programme, Collage City became a fundamental text for an architectural design education interested in ”the house and the city”. The book was received as the urbanistic continuation of Rowe’s earlier writing on architecture. Together with texts like Camillo Sitte’s The art of building cities: city building according to its artistic fundamentals it sharpened the interest in and sensitivity to urban spatiality and had a profound influence on the development of German-Swiss architecture in the 1980s and 1990s, e.g. on the work of Diener & Diener.

In the U.S.A. on the other hand, a highly intellectualised avant-garde rejected the book on the grounds of its political ideas. ”The conventional wisdom on Colin Rowe holds that […] Collage City implicitly repudiates his famous essay ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’ […] Thus Collage City is credited with (or accused of) [...] shifting the concerns of formalism from an intensive scrutiny of individual buildings to an extensive elaboration of the incidental heterogeneity of American urbanism.” The architectural avant-garde dismissed Collage City’s urbanistic discourse as ”formal strategies in urban design”. Its importance was seen in the proclamation of ‘the politics of bricolage’, relating it to architectural post-modernism and architects like Venturi or Krier. George Baird recalls: ”I knew that it was largely on account of [Collage City] that [Rowe] had recently been relegated by the American architectural avant-garde to the position of reactionary apologist for Postmodernism.”

The same book was thus at once received as ‘formalist prescriptions’ of a previously praised ‘reactionary’ now associated with historicist architecture, and as an intelligent essay whose sensitivity for urban space inspired a new interest in the urban fabric, which became fundamental for much strictly modern-looking architecture. Each intellectual context focussed on certain chapters: either on the urbanistic chapters with their analysis of urban spatiality (ETH), or the more ideological chapters on collage and the role of utopia and tradition (U.S.A.). The identification of the book's post-structuralist objective, however, relies on the conceptual progression of this convoluted text’s entire argument

Post-mortem findings: With regard to the 1960s this speculative autopsy established two architectural analogies to Roland Barthes’ text. The Death of the Architect stressed structuralism’s influence and resorted to design methodologies based on universal concepts. It portrayed architectural design as a creative aspect of ‘the discourse of society’, while the architectural profession continued to rely on external critics and did not question the nature of architecture’s relationship to the discourse of society. The Architect as Scriptor announced the death of modernist ideology, questioned the role of the architect and synthesised architecture and planning into an inter-textual practice. It limited itself to the architectural discipline and its suggestions to aspects that architectural design could address, yet discussed these design suggestions in relation to society’s ideas.

Through 1960s architectural analogies to ‘The Death of the Author’, this speculative autopsy has thus produced a different interpretation of Collage City as a struggle to ‘open the writing’ for architects. Rowe and Kotter try to invoke new psychological models for the architect. They do not accept that architecture’s relationship to society should be ‘furnished with a final signified’.

Collage City's response to the 1960s on the other hand highlights the structuralist overtones in the decade’s architectural discourse: its problems to unite universals and theoretical systems with the particulars of a real situation and vice versa; its inclination to allow architects to remain creative executioners within a theoretical framework provided from outside the architectural discourse and the pressure on architectural design to signify according to this framework’s ideology. Thus, while other discourses had used the decade to identify the ambiguities of signification, for architects the 1960s had stressed the importance to control it.

The responses to Collage City in the decades after the 1960s show another persistent force beyond the universal or the individual: the dominance of the intellectual group. Intellectual groups, in which ideas of architectural significance are shared, are as such a profoundly ideological phenomenon, as they have an interest in maintaining the group ideology and rely on clear definitions that distinguish their group from another. These distinctions may be based on the importance of a specific post-humanist design methodology, on the belief that criticism is superior to design, or on the postulate that it is up to the architectural profession to change the world. It may be too simple to attribute it to group allegiance alone, that fundamental questions about architecture’s cause after the end of the utopian ideology or about architects’ relationship to society disappeared from the agenda. Yet certainly, this legacy of the 1960s had its share, and it continues to influence architectural discourse and architectural education to date.
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