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Which Way Avant-Garde?

Author(s): Michael Speaks

Source: Assemblage, No. 41 (Apr., 2000), p. 78
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: .
Accessed: 12/02/2015 00:57
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Which Way Avant-garde?

I have always found charming Colin Rowe's story about modern architecture's
trip across the Atlantic Ocean; how its physique flesh and its morale word, or its
form and ideology, became separated; how ideology either remained in Europe
or dropped off somewhere in the cold waters of the Atlantic; how form arrived on
American shores to become the style of corporate America; and how, as a result
of American postwar military and cultural supremacy, this formalist architecture
became the "international" style sold to the rest of the world as truly modern.
Rowe's little story is equally applicable to "theory," that set of mostly French, Ger
man, and Italian philosophical tracts that arrived in the United States in the late
1970s through departments of comparative literature and were disseminated to the
rest of American academe as a wonderful new mode of contemporary thought.
Theory, like modern architecture, was detached from its Continental origins and
replanted in the States, where it took on a lighter, more occasional existence.
Theory carried all the punch of philosophy without the windy German preambles
and recondite French qualifications, without, that is, years of study, political
affiliation, or deep knowledge. Theory was a weapon of the young, the post-'68
generation wearied by the morality and slowness of their elders who seemed so
untheoretical, whether they embraced or rejected theory. Theory was fast philoso
phy and it made its way through various sectors of the American academy in the
1970s and I 980s, arriving to architecture late, as Mark Wigley has so famously and
so frequently pointed out. And when it did, it was inevitable that theory and the
formalist modern architecture described by Rowe would cross paths.
Driven by an attempt to reconnect form and ideology, Rowe's story gives us a
way to understand more clearly the contemporary avant-garde's ambitions to re
establish the social mission of modern architecture, and to do so in a formal vo
cabulary that is recognizably modern. Nowhere has this been more evident than
in journals such as Assemblage and ANY, both of which are drawing their last
breath this year. In these magazines, theory was attached to experimental form in
an attempt to create a critical, resistant, avant-garde architecture with Left-lean
ing sympathies. But sometime in the mid- to late 1990s the avant-garde desire to
reconnect form and ideology diminished as form began to melt into blobs and
fields of data while ideology loosened up and became reconfigured as identity
branding and lifestyle. As pop science, new computer technologies, and cluster
ing became more pressing issues in architecture, the "critical" position ostensibly
enabled by theory began to loose its hold on the avant-garde. Resolutely critical
and resistant to an emergent commercial reality driven by the forces of globaliza
tion, weighed down by its historical attachment to philosophy, and unable to rec. ognize itself as a new mode of commodified thought, theory has not been free or
quick enough to deal with the blur of e-commerce and open systems. Ultimately,
theory, and the avant-garde project it enabled, has proven inadequate to the vi
cissitudes of the contemporary world. And so today we stand at the end of a his
torical period of experimentation dominated by Rowe's little story.
What is next? It is not clear, but if reports from the frontier of the new economy
offer any indication, there is emerging an experimental disposition evidenced by
a new generation of thinkers who are more favorable to Peter Drucker and Kevin
Kelly than to Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, or Gilles Deleuze. Indeed,
around the world today, and especially in North America and Europe, there is a
fascination with business culture that has altogether superseded the old distinc
tions between avant-garde and corporate practices so important to Rowe's story.
What has emerged in its place is a distinction between innovative and corporate
practices, between, for example, OMA and SOM. In the United States, much of
this attention has been focused on a new breed of managers and entrepreneurs
who are now showcased in business lifestyle magazines such as Fast Company,
Red Herring , and Business 2.0. Elsewhere , in the United Kingdom and on the
Continent, the focus has been on a fresh generation of researchers working out


of think tanks such as Demos in London or the Advanced Management Program

in Stockholm. Charles Leadbeater, an associate of the former and author of Liv
ing on Thin Air (Viking, 1999), and Jonas Ridderstr:ile and Kjelle Nordstrom,
professors at the latter and authors of Funky Business (Pearson, 2000), have be
come major intellectual forces in this movement. Whether in the U.S., the U.K.,
or on the Continent, these new managers and consultants have emerged as he
roes in the struggle to tame and make sense of the complex world that has been
thrown up by the forces of globalization.
Though witnessed primarily in the fast-paced world of global business
consultancies, these managerial avant-gardists (and surely this is not the proper
name for a class of doers who have altogether outstripped the ambitions of any his
torical avant-garde) are showing up with greater frequency in the world of high de
sign, architecture, and urban planning, especially in schools of architecture. One
of the most aggressive is the AA's new Design Research Laboratory, whose mission
can be gleaned from this statement by DRL co-head Patrick Schumacher: "The
business of architecture is not excepted from the challenge of competitive innova
tion. The accelerating economic restructuring is affecting the organization of ar
chitectural production as much as every other sphere of production .... In a time
of momentous restructuring, questions concerning design product and process
can only be addressed within an academic framework that understands architec
ture as a research based business rather than a medium of artistic expression"
(Daidalos 69-70 [1998-99]). The assertion is very bald, very clear. Architecture
should no longer recoil from the degraded world of business and managerial
thinking. On the contrary, it should aggressively seek to transform itself into a re
search-based business. This sober assessment of the relationship between research
and design is now an important feature of the current work being done at the
Berlage Institute in Rotterdam and has also become one of the organizing features
of Metropolitan Research and Design, a new postgraduate program started this
past year at SCI-Arc. It is my contention that this managerial approach provides
the intellectual infrastructure necessary for the development of a fleet-footed gen
eration of architects and urbanists ready to meet globalization's challenge:
namely, the challenge presented by quantity and commercialization to develop
softer design strategies flexible enough to deal with the demands of the market.
Though the managerial disposition described above has made a strong break with
the avant-garde practices enabled in Rowe's little story, it has returned us all to the
problematic relationship between thinking and doing raised by American pragma
tism, an issue that strongly influenced the last of the great theory figures, philoso
pher Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze wanted to shift our attention away from thought
that tethered us to fundamental truths and toward thought that enabled us to act.
But Deleuze was perhaps still too much a philosopher to acknowledge the inepti
tude of fast philosophy, or theory, when compared to the concept production of
the young executives and consultants whom he scorns in the introduction to the
brilliant book What Is Philosophy? (Columbia University Press, 1994). Just as
theory confronts philosophy with its with slowness and morality, so does manage
rial pragmatist thought confront theory with its complicated relationship to the
dreams and utopian aspirations of philosophy. Despite the best efforts of his
"French theory" adherents, and indeed despite his own prejudices against man
agement thinking, the most important form of American pragmatism, the work of
Deleuze will be brought to fruition not by "communists like us," as Antonio Negri
and Felix Guattari dreamed in their pamphlet of the same name, but by intellec
tual entrepreneurs and managers of change in the fierce world of globalization.
There is indeed important work to be done in the realm of architectural thinking
after the end of theory, ANY, Assemblage, and the like. But if it is to survive and
flourish, this work must focus on time, interactivity, and innovation, and give up
its obsession with space, originality, and the utopian search for the new.

Michael Speaks

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