We are Architects. We are Designers. We ideate; we design; we build; we perceive; we learn; we grow. This is all but a generalized perspective of what we typically do. But we are all not the same, each of us has our own unique way of doing things. That we read; we write; we talk about things; we express; we inspire; we are inspired; we look up to; we idolize; we expect; we speculate; we dare; we realize.
The facts are that there are more than 2 million of us on the planet, but not all of us are celebrated as much for the work we do or for the projects we realize. It is only a handful of names that gain recognition worldwide, that continues to be talked about in history. Some call them starchitects, but the term gained momentum only very recently. Whereas, being a starchitect is almost always associated with being novel, innovative, sometimes radical, and initially unaccepted. These qualities could be attributed to people who are collectively identified as the avant-garde, an even older term, and the works of such people constitute avant-gardism.
We continue to celebrate and try to learn from avant-garde architects but it is equally critical to rethink and reassess the relevance – of us doing so. It is imperative for us to respond to progressing zeitgeists and stay relevant to time and place. Here follows an account of the origins of avant-garde culture, how it has progressed and how well it could be rethought to suit contemporary times.
Craft and Canon
The terms Architecture and Building have long been used in relation to one another, but what distinguishes them? The two seem paradoxical, in that they are both hierarchical as well as equivalent simultaneously. Pondering upon this dichotomy, one finds that the simple act of building, or let’s say, the craft of building does not right away classify as Architecture. This could be traced back in history, when palaces and churches and manses and the like were the only Architecture, whereas built forms of common civilians were just buildings.
Time progressed, and over the last few hundred years, ordinary typologies like houses, industries, hospitals, banks, museums also began acquiring the honour of being Architecture. Again, what made them so? It is the canon that makes a building Architecture – the canon is the diverse collection of books, buildings, paintings, drawings, etc., recognized by critiques for contemplation, admiration, interpretation, and determination of value.
In other words, a building has to be acknowledged and recognized by its contemporaries for considerable aesthetic merit, representation of cultural values, the embodiment of intellectual qualities, tendency to challenge, confront, question, and transgress established norms, historic specificity over the years, and a lot more. Works included by the canon become paradigms for subsequent practice. (Miriam Gusevich, 1991)
Ultimately, the canon is what makes Architecture the diverse, reputed discipline that it is now. In a way, the most celebrated works in the canon are those of the avant-garde, that they indirectly create standards for a building to classify as Architecture.
What is the Avant-garde?
Literally, avant-garde is French for the front part of a marching army, which goes forward first. Metaphorically, the term is associated with things that are ahead of their time, cultural objects and practices that are radical and innovative. Avant-gardism in Art and Architectural History refers to a series of progressive political, cultural, and artistic movements.
In almost all cases, each of these movements was perceived to be radical and controversial of their times but began gaining acceptance and recognition later, as they embodied cultural progress. Literary critic Matei Calinescu regards Avant-gardism as a conscious quest for the crisis, whereas Architectural theorist and researcher Hilde Heynen views it as the continuous cycling of short-lived movements in rapid succession.
The prime ideals of avant-gardism are the rejection of the traditional ideals of order, intelligibility, and the advocacy for continual change and development; this results in the avant-garde constantly being in a state of crisis with traditional establishments. It was also a view of the avant-gardists to abolish the autonomy of art as a separate, distinct institution, to give way for a new praxis of social order based on aesthetic sensibilities and creative potential of individuals. (Peter Burger, 1974)
Italian writer Renato Poggioli describes the various stages of avant-garde movements as four moments:
- Activism: Associated with adventure, dynamism, and an urge to act, not typically with a positive goal.
- Antagonism: Refers to Combativeness – to struggle against tradition and public establishments.
- Nihilism: Activism and Antagonism of the avant-garde lead to a nihilistic quest – an unending one for purity, refinement, and change, ultimately dissolving into nothing.
- Agonism: The avant-garde sacrifices itself at the end in the name of progress – an agonistic facet.
A prime reason for the controversy that avant-gardism creates is its unsuitability during its times, and its quest for perpetual progression – the avant-gardists try to answer questions and solve problems that are not the most important of concerns of that particular period. Nevertheless, such works become more relevant and sensible a while after they are created—as stated previously, they create standards, paving multiple ways for Architecture to progress as zeitgeists change.
An example would be that, during the time of Corbusier, modernism with its quest for stark, minimal aesthetics in form and character was avant-garde and radical; whereas, after World War 2, modernism became the norm – the style for reconstruction and development—as an appropriate answer to questions of the built environment. Here is where avant-gardism remains true to itself—it drifted apart from this newly created norm to favor International Situationism, along its quest for progression. That the avant-garde always favors radical innovation and rejection of traditions becomes apparent.
As unsurprising as it may seem, avant-gardism has received quite a number of critiques and criticisms over the years. Most of these focus on its irrelevance during its times: there have been multiple instances wherein works of Architecture were created to just make a radical statement.
A classic example is Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modernist masterpiece, that was forced on clients who wanted a quaint house with a pitched roof (Alain de Botton, 2006). It became quite a tragedy owing to its leaking flat roof, which was intended to manifest Corbusier’s five points of a new architecture. The interiors of the house were later redesigned to match the clients’ aesthetic taste. Ivan Chtcheglov, a French political activist and theorist, states in his Formulary for a New Urbanism,
“We will leave Monsieur Le Corbusier’s style to him, a style suitable for factories and hospitals, and no doubt eventually for prisons. (Doesn’t he already build churches?) Some sort of psychological repression dominates this individual …. such that he wants to squash people under ignoble masses of reinforced concrete, a noble material that should rather be used to enable an aerial articulation of space that could surpass the flamboyant Gothic style. His cretinizing influence is immense. A Le Corbusier model is the only image that arouses in me the idea of immediate suicide. He is destroying the last remnants of joy. And of love, passion, freedom.” (1953)
Criticisms and critiques as attacking as this reveal the degree of acceptance avant-garde projects had during their respective times. True, although the innovative attributes of the avant-gardists are worth celebrating, it is still irrelevant to force a means of expression or a statement, especially in a discipline like architecture that is not just pure art.
Why celebrate the Avant-garde?
Despite all the critiques, both the canon and the craft, academia, and profession continue to celebrate Avant-gardism and Avant-garde projects for a multitude of reasons – prime among them are the degree of innovation and radical thought processes that inform the design. That they first attempted to speculate and pave the way for the future of the design discourse through experimentation. That they drifted away towards other allied disciplines and domains, encouraging interdisciplinary approaches in design and problem-solving. That they exemplified what Architecture could become, and set up ideals for the community to look up to.
As much as we celebrate the avant-gardists, there seems to be an equal degree of aspects that are not commonly spoken of, aspects that we hardly let non-architects come across. One of the most prominent claims of avant-gardism is to strive towards flattening hierarchies to create an egalitarian society. Whereas it was contradicted by their own crisis for perpetual progression—such works were realized for and represent the elite. This inevitably gives rise to elitist hermeticism, rendering its services inaccessible to the general public. (Hilde Heynen, 2004)
Furthermore, as it grew in popularity, it became that the people associated with the movements were celebrated far more, than the movements themselves – this might herald the beginnings of the starchitect era – by this time, such Architects were regarded by popular culture as celebrities. At the same time, buildings became frequently viewed as profit opportunities; that creating a certain amount of scarcity or rather uniqueness gives more value to the investment, thanks to the Bilbao Effect. (Wikipedia, Starchitect) As the same trend progressed, the canon, inevitably began idolizing starchitects, rendering them almost a god-like-complex.
It is again, not a surprise that Academia and Profession revolve around the works of the big names. The celebrity status conferred to the big names refrains them from designing for the general public, designing for welfare, or designing without making a statement. Plus, the degree to which architectural pedagogy depends upon avant-gardist ideologies and the relevance it possesses to real-life conditions is quite something to ponder over.
What more could the Avant-garde be? What more could the Architecture Community do?
Architect Chris Precht says that the era of the ego is over, the era of the star-architect is over. What this could mean for avant-gardism and the design discourse is that our profession could begin to move further towards solving actual issues that matter, beyond just progressing on and on to make statements. Of course, the avant-garde spirit for innovation and change could guide the discourse to go forward in providing answers to real-life problems. In this way, it is possible for the avant-garde to actually make the society more egalitarian; it is possible to direct all the zeal for change and progress to make life better.
If we were to relook the Four Moments of the Avant-garde in this light, it would very well make more sense to act with a positive goal, and to struggle against existing human issues like climate change, food scarcity, and homelessness, to retrieve the original avant-garde passion. In this way, it is possible to completely evade the avant-garde notion from being a nihilistic one: that inclusive be the new avant-garde; sustainable be the new avant-garde; zero-energy be the new avant-garde; resilient be the new avant-garde. The paths are many.
It might appear that it is not entirely on the avant-gardists, but also on the canon that recognizes them. It is time that we make sure that the works of a few do not overshadow the works of the others; that we equally recognize the works of younger, smaller studios, as much as we do the big names.
Again, it is time that we step back a little from celebrating modernism as much, and rather look at the zeitgeists of the present and emphasize the issues at hand. It is time that the canon challenges the avant-garde to not just design for statements or expressions, but rather for creating meaningful change and action.
In an interdisciplinary world, as now, where conventional labels and boundaries are blurring, the Avant-garde shall experiment, speculate, invent and innovate for the wellbeing of all on earth.
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- Vt.edu. (2019). Situationist International Online. [online] Available at: https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/presitu/formulary.html [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].
- Gusevich, M., 2021. The Architecture of Criticism: A Question of Autonomy. [online] Academia.edu. Available at: <https://www.academia.edu/2158889/The_Architecture_of_Criticism_A_Question_of_Autonomy> [Accessed 8 April 2021].