“..address the unequivocal social and cultural power architecture possesses to produce representations of the world through exemplary forms of built reality.” -P.V. Aureli, The Possibility of Absolute Architecture.
Architecture holds the potential to not only reflect society’s pressing issues and conflicts, but also propose solutions or take stands for or against through built expression. Given the suggestive and dictating nature of the profession, architects use their skill set to advocate for larger causes in society. One such prominent aspect that is closely integrated with architecture for decades, is politics.
The concept of politics has been theorized and implemented through varying perspectives, a key ideology is that of Pier Vittorio Aureli, an Italian professor at Berlage Institute in Rotterdam and the co-founder of the architectural practice DOGMA.
Aureli’s recognition as a notable theorist started with his book “The Project of Autonomy, Politics, and Architecture within and against Capitalism” where he expressed a highly informed relationship between the architecture of Italy in the 1960s and 70s and the then ongoing political movement. “The Possibility of Absolute Architecture” is, in a way, a continuation of the same beliefs, but the topic is addressed head-on and the architectural output is expanded on these premises.
The book was written as a reaction to the current form architecture has taken concerning urbanism. He mocks the current approach to architectural form by questioning their intent of holding a larger impact on the city. “But what form can architecture define within the contemporary city without falling into the current self-absorbed performances of iconic buildings, parametric designs, or redundant mappings of every possible complexity and contradiction of the urban world?” Instead, he proposes an absolute architecture that brings the form of architecture into light in a way that doesn’t sideline politics but confronts it.
To understand the possibility of an absolute architecture, we must first understand what Aureli means by ‘absolute’- it is not the traditional interpretation that is of purity, but the original meaning that an object is separated from its others. ‘Others’ here is used to denote the space of a city, its elaborate organization, and its governance. He states that absolute architecture is independent of its other but is derived from and constructed by it. He uses the concept of autonomy to explain this dialectical notion of separation and being separated, concerning architectural form.
The first chapter: Towards an Archipelago, is the thesis on which his ideology and the rest of the book are based. By using the political and the formal as concepts that define the architectural form, Aureli proposes a counter-form of the Archipelago, which is within and against the totality of urbanization. He defines an archipelago as a “city conceived as a group of islands within a sea of urbanization”.
Through Aristotle’s distinction between technè politikè and technè oikonomikè– politics and economics- Aureli defines the public space which is the agora, and the private space which is the polis in Greek and Roman architecture. Aureli endorses the idea of architecture positioning itself in a way that defines the infra-space i.e. the space between buildings. Hence, by defining civitas and polis– political forms of coexistence in the city- and urbs and oikos– material conditions and built aspects of the form- he deems the Greek polis to be an example of an archipelago. It not only took the geographical form of the city, but its insularity created a relationship that was essential to its political form at the time. It is this opposition that has been disregarded since modernity, that led to the dominance of the private sphere in today’s times.
It is the Spanish engineer Ildefons Cedra who first termed this phenomenon. Cerda expressed the relationship of urbanism which makes a city function economically. The circulation, management, and rapidly developing infrastructure are beyond just the symbolic frame of the city. The direct relation between growth, capitalism, and wealth is what determines the urban sprawl. Aureli critically examines this phenomenon through projects like Hilberseimer, Archizoom Associati, Rem Koolhas’ “The City of the Captive Globe” project, and Mies van der Rohe’s projects like Seagram, Federal Centre, and Westmount Square. These buildings are posed as modernist versions of his idea of “absolute architecture”.
He further iterates that absolute architecture takes form as an archipelago of the city through which not only its essence in the political light is revealed, but also the essence of the city. Aureli acknowledges the paradox in postulating that the right approach for agonism is through architectural form rather than the urban realm. However, he uses the works of Andrea Palladio, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Etienne Louis-Boullee, Oswald Mathias Ungers in the following chapters to defend it. The works of these architects reflect the transition into the current modern city and its urban implications through architectural forms. These projects do not mirror the overall form of the city but are an archipelago of several specific interventions responding to the immediate site and the larger context of the city.
While the book is a heavy read, Aureli touches upon important relationships between society, architecture, and capitalism. He brings the formal aspect of architecture back into the everlasting debate of the importance of form. He does it in a way that doesn’t shy away from politics but confronts and responds to it.
The book explains in grave detail the hypothesis he is putting forward and then expands into it with a chapter for each architect’s work for the reader to completely delve into the topic at hand. The case studies chosen are highly compelling and serve their purpose, however, it could have been taken further by using some contemporary examples as well.
What the book is missing is a concluding chapter that would possibly draw interesting parallels of urbanism and architecture through the case studies. Especially since the relationship between architecture and capitalism in the urban realm is a grossly under-explored topic.
- CANNIFFE, E., 2014. Pier Vittorio Aureli: THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ABSOLUTE ARCHITECTURE (2011). [online] Architectureandurbanism.blogspot.com. Available at: <http://architectureandurbanism.blogspot.com/2014/02/pier-vittorio-aureli-possibility-of.html> [Accessed 14 April 2021].
- Rumpfhuber, A., 2011. The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture. [online] Domusweb.it. Available at: <https://www.domusweb.it/en/reviews/2011/05/13/the-possibility-of-an-absolute-architecture.html> [Accessed 14 April 2021].
- Abrahamson, m., 2011. Book Review: The Possibility of An Absolute Architecture. [online] Critic Under the Influence. Available at: <https://criticundertheinfluence.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/book-review-the-possibility-of-an-absolute-architecture/> [Accessed 14 April 2021].