Dubbed the leader of the group of neo-Marxist and neo-rationalist intellectuals in the Architectural Institute of the University of Venice, Tafuri’s analysis and texts were often described to be pessimistic. His opinions and analysis were considered as those of an antagonist by many thriving architects of the period. His conferrer whom he vouched for, Aldo Rossi, defined his work as a ‘Diagnosis of an apocalyptic end of Architecture’.
The theorist, however, did not put forward unsubstantiated ideologies. Architecture had been failing throughout the century. Modernism had failed to understand and value history and context. ‘Form follows function’ was a set rule, functionality and anti-historicism being key features of the movement. The movement was built around the factor that 30% of the urban population had been displaced and left homeless and were living in poverty after the 2nd World War.
The movement being designed as a solution to the crisis at hand had simply brought to fruition a temporary answer. Tafuri had understood that this period in architecture had simply failed to grasp the social dynamic that people found familiar. In a process to bring about a quick fix that falsely created an illusion of a complete solution, Tafuri voiced his concern about the movement cutting corners in a race to fix more issues than it could handle. Tafuri heavily criticized the movement as being unable to carry and retain an understanding of social values which came from the past, for the sake of its search for utopia by giving precedence to utopia.
The historian did tag the movement as the culprit for the loss of value in the subject. He had recognized that it was simply a victim of political agendas. As there was an increased demand for housings, and the industry itself was on a quick rise and growth, the capitalist mindset had led investors and landowners to demand quick development plans and models that would be easily available to occupants. They had little concern for architectural ideologies and the role that architecture played in society. In the process of meeting the clients’ demands of mass development, architecture had become de-humanizing.
Postmodernism, the response to modernism, reduced the value of history, simply reducing it to a sense of ornamentation through complex models. The doctrines of ‘functionality’ of its predecessor were replaced with what Robert Venturi described as architecture of complexities and contradiction. In Tafuri’s eyes, architecture had lost its way. ‘History has been reduced to fashion and understood in the way Walt Disney understands it.’
History, for Tafuri, depicted the balance of society and did not simply exist in what could be physically manifested. It connected different periods through hidden lines and traces that would seem to have almost disappeared. And in turn, historical projects could only be brought when based on the crisis, a point of conflict in history. The neo-Marxist had deemed this too complex for the current practitioners of the dying art of Architecture to understand.
In the 21st century, while there are great examples of magnificent architecture, most are still run on the basis of defining power and wealth. Skyscrapers are built to represent the economy of a nation, and museums are built as if to make a fashion statement. While the subject mingles in such shallow aspects, it fails to provide for nations that are not able to provide shelters for over one-third of the population. While busy making a statement through the subject, investors and stakeholders in this capitalist society ignore the damage that we have caused to the environment.
Tafuri had foreseen a reduced role for architects. He had understood the irreversible situation of architecture with the discipline having deteriorated, and any attempt to prevent it being ‘uselessly painful’. Architects had to now practice the discipline, not as ideological philosophers, but as to accommodate for the social needs of the people.
The ill-effects of the deteriorating study are apparent, as aspiring architects of today assume that value in design lies in the form of it. Ironically, architecture that serves the ‘dead’ is often the more successful works, such as the Jewish Museum of Daniel Libeskind. We seem to be failing the glorious past that the subject holds.
But what is not to be forgotten is the understanding of the failure of the subject that student architects have been provided during their studies. Even as the subject continues to be reduced as a discipline of visually artistic sculptures, hope should never be given up, and faith must be put in the generation to come. For all of Tafuri pessimistic, though honest, criticisms, which were put forward in the 1980s and 1990s, the quote from Frank Gehry adequately provides us hope:
“You can learn from the past, but you can’t continue to be in the past; history is not a substitute for imagination.”
- Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture & Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, Barbara Luigia La Penta, trans. The MIT Press,1973
- Nesbitt, Kate.” Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965-1995: School of Venice. Princeton Architectural Press,1996
- Venturi, Robert. Complexities and Contradictions in Architecture. The Museum of Modern Art,1966