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Reinhold Martin, "In the Bank" (Thresholds 41)

Reinhold Martin, "In the Bank" (Thresholds 41)

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Published by Ross Wolfe
MIT's architectural journal Thresholds has released its issue on Revolutions, including a piece by Reinhold Martin based on his opening remarks at our Ruins of Modernity: The Failure of Revolutionary Architecture in the Twentieth Century. It can be downloaded for free from their site. A PDF of Martin's article is attached.
MIT's architectural journal Thresholds has released its issue on Revolutions, including a piece by Reinhold Martin based on his opening remarks at our Ruins of Modernity: The Failure of Revolutionary Architecture in the Twentieth Century. It can be downloaded for free from their site. A PDF of Martin's article is attached.

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Ross Wolfe on May 08, 2013
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05/09/2013

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thresholds 41
104
IN THE BANK REINHOLD MARTIN
The following text was read at “Ruins of Modernity: The Failure of Revolutionary  Architecture in the Twentieth Century,” a panel with Peter Eisenman, Reinhold Martin,
 Joan Ockman, and Bernard Tschumi, organized by The Platypus Afliated Society on
Thursday, 7 February 2013, at New York University. For more information seehttp://newyork.platypus1917.org/2-7-2013-the-failure-of-revolutionary-architecture/ 
As a way of thanking The Platypus Afliated Society for organizing this much-needed
discussion and also marking some common ground, I want to begin by citing a littlepiece of history that, I suspect, lies somewhere in the background of the questions towhich they have asked us to respond. If you go tomorrow to the Museum of ModernArt—which you must—and spend some time with the beautiful “Inventing Abstraction”show curated by Leah Dickerman, you will see amongst other “ruins” of the Sovietavant-gardes a diminutive study by El Lissitzky, executed in gouache, ink, and pencil,for a 1920 project commemorating the assassinated Spartacist leader, Rosa Luxem-burg. I deliberately refrain from showing you the drawing since you really must go tothe show, but also because I want it to stand as a placeholder for the great doublebind of modernist aesthetics, and particularly, of that elusive thing called “abstrac-
tion” as it crosses paths with that other elusive thing called “revolution.” Sufce it to
say that the drawing, which measures about 4 x 4 inches, consists of a deep black
square with razor thin white edge, set within (or oating above) a red circle, off cen
-ter, and surrounded by a concentric array of Suprematist shapes in red, black, white,and speckled gray, which at once appear to be attracted centripetally to the picture’sdecentered center, and to spin off centrifugally from it, while a larger pair of blackand gray bars seems to slip under or behind it. Over (or under) the black-square-in-red-circle is written, in half-obscured Cyrillic characters, the name “Rosa Luxemburg.”There is nothing the least bit original about citing this little piece of modernistesoterica in this way. Most notably, the art historian T.J. Clark has offered a vividlydialectical reading that pits Lissitzky’s ambivalent, proto-propagandistic realism—cap-tured in the half-obscured text—against the more uncompromising abstraction of hismentor, Kasimir Malevich. Clark, for whom “modernism is our antiquity,” ultimately judges Malevich the more faithful of the pair to the unbearable contradictions of thealready-ruined revolution. Wherein Malevich’s original, unmarked black quadrilateral(1915), unenlightened, so to speak, by writing, manifests a kind of constitutive revolu-tionary darkness.
1
Spring 2013, 104-109
 
105
But tables turn. Which is to say that our problem today may no longer be quite therealism-versus-abstraction problem faced by Lissitzky, Malevich, or their colleaguesat UNOVIS, in Proletkult, or in any of the other vanguard cultural-political organiza-tions of that heady time and place. Nor is it simply that the revolutionary or reformistintentions of the European avant-gardes ran tragically aground on the shores of the capitalist international, or even more misleadingly, that they were mysteriously“co-opted” by very real reactionary aesthetes at the Museum of Modern Art and theircorporate sponsors.
The problem, instead, is to dene the problem. Not accidentally, in the Futurist 0-10
exhibition in Petrograd (1915-1916), Malevich hung his black square (it’s not quite asquare) in the place traditionally reserved for the religious icon in Russian peasant
culture. Today, it is not difcult to see that this was not only an act of transgression; it
was a premonition. For it is no secret that under neoliberal capital, abstraction itself has become iconic, in a strictly religious sense. So my answer to Platypus’s doublequestion, “Are we still—were we ever—postmodern?” is yes, but only now, because
architecture has nally become truly abstract.
This is important not because it gives fresh impetus to the never-ending style wars,
but because it redenes our categories. Again, I am not saying anything original in
associating postmodernism with abstraction. Among others, Fredric Jameson hasdone so eloquently and at length. But you must understand that what one meanshere by abstraction is not fully captured by the usual distinction between abstract
and gural art, or by the endless, undecidable debates as to which approach is more
or less revolutionary, whether in the political or artistic sense. What I mean is some-thing like a “concrete abstraction,” but with a slight difference from the common
Marxian sense. If, for example, circulatory nancial instruments like derivatives and
the values they produce are abstract, the Bank of America, as an institution, a set of buildings, and a group of people, is concrete. The tables turn, however, when werecognize that that institution, those buildings, and those people are also in somesense constitutively abstract, in the sense of being interpellated as objects and sub- jects, in utterly tangible, material ways, into the language, practices, imaginaries, andinfrastructures of capital, a priori.In this light, it may seem—and perhaps rightly so—that the only truly revolutionarycultural activity is to be found in the real-world, hands-on, agit-prop art actions in andaround Occupy Wall Street, the Alter-globalization movement, the Arab Spring, andother insurgent formations worldwide. Architecture in its traditional or “disciplinary”forms is nowhere to be found in this mix, being so thoroughly hardwired to powerprecisely through its ability to deliver—on-demand—an aestheticized abstraction (theicon in all its iterations) that complements and even reproduces the rush of religious
fervor generated by—and generating—worldwide nancialization. In the midst of 
     M   a   r    t     i   n
   I  n    t   h  e   B  a  n   k
 
thresholds 41
108
all of this, there are plenty of revolutionary or at least dissenting architects, many
of whom are students, and many of whom nd the courage to speak out against
injustice and dispossession on a daily basis and act accordingly. But there is no rev-olutionary architecture. Unless, that is, we are speaking of the sort of revolution thatbegins from the right.From the other direction, architecture, even in its most insurgent, grassroots varia-tions, is at best today to be found on the side of reform. Of course, Le Corbusier’snow-clichéd question, “Architecture or Revolution?” suggests mutually exclusivecategories; but that question’s rhetorical nature also symptomatically represses themuch more poignant and much more famous question posed by Rosa Luxemburg in1900: “Reform or Revolution.”
2
In western Europe by 1923, when Le Corbusier wrote,the enlightened reform of housing, of the city, and of the republican institutions of liberal capitalism was well under way, as represented, for example, in all of the proj-ects—functionalist, formalist, and historicist—designed a few years later for the ill-fatedLeague of Nations, including his own.Luxemburg, for whom Mies van der Rohe also designed and built a memorial in1926, had fought all her life against such compromises, which she regarded asopportunistic capitulations. But even in her polemical struggles in Germany with thereformist Social Democrats—whose leftward politics and policies, we all know, make
today’s American Democrats look like aming neocons—her question, “Reform or
Revolution,” names a double bind, a tangle tighter than a mere contradiction that canonly be cut with the sharpest of knives, like a Dadaist collage. Here architecture canbe something much more than an “art of the possible.” For rather than merely offer-ing modest ways to make the brutal world system a little bit more humane, architec-ture harbors the capacity—precisely because of its complicity, and not despite it—toconjure, like Lissitzky’s little drawing with its ghostly little letters, the spirit of Rosa Lux-emburg. For every small reform, however earnest, however limited, potentially bearsher revolutionary question within itself, and it is well within architecture’s resources
to ask, loudly and deantly: “Is that all you have to say?”
3
Or, to put it another way: Isthat the best you can do?This also means recognizing today how the tables have turned, and how the mostinsidious propaganda for things as they are rather than things as they should be isto be found in the most abstract, most ethereal, most otherworldly—and yes, mostoutwardly sophisticated—architecture. As in past revolutions, actual or virtual, archi-
tecture-as-religious-icon is therefore the rst thing to be demolished if the glimmers
of other futures are to remain visible. For the so-called triumph of neomodernist
abstraction over historicist guration is what makes architecture nally—and belat
-edly—postmodern. At last, when the real estate developer demands world-classarchitecture above all else, architects have entered the bank vault, the headquarters
of the new world order, only to nd nothing there—except, that is, Malevich’s black
Spring 2013, 104-109

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