Pier Vittorio Aureli – Design Without Qualities: Architecture and the Rise of Abstraction – Part 1

Lecture date: 2013-10-16

A Brief History of Abstraction in Architecture: Design and the Administration of Life

‘Let us hope that from time to time the individual will give a little humanity to the masses, who one day will repay him with compound interest.’

Walter Benjamin, ‘Experience and Poverty’, 1933

Abstraction addresses the process of removal in order to reach the essential datum of things. In a design world increasingly dominated by organic and redundant forms, abstraction is likely to be one of the most unpopular concepts in the field of architectural theory. While it is a mistake to think abstraction opposes the complexities and contradictions of our world, we deny that it is the very outcome of larger historical and cultural forces.

Pier Vittorio Aureli will investigate the issue of abstraction and its relation to architectural form to propose a different interpretation of this historical phenomenon. Paraphrasing Marx, abstraction – in the form of categories such as geometry, measure, modularity and scale – was born out of ‘fire and blood’, and the historical evolution of abstract forms in architecture, such as the rise of modular design, the importance of the plan in architectural design, and the simplification of architectural form, has taken place amid political conflicts and economic turmoil. The seminar will attempt to read issues such as form and design in relation to the history of political economy, revisiting the work of numerous architects along the way, in order to uncover abstraction not as stylistic movement, but as the very essence of the modern project of architecture.


PIER VITTORIO AURELI: This six lunchtime lectures are an attempt to theorize the concept of abstraction within architecture. There is one big warning about the seminar, that it is not my intention to present an idea of an abstract architecture, which I find a clumsy definition. It is not the intention to present abstraction as a style, even if it is an important clue to understand the problem of abstraction. My intention is to define abstraction as a condition, as a historical condition that can be understood as a fundamental phenomena of modernity, with impact in many spheres, including architecture. The problem is that while in other fields, especially in the arts, there have been quite profound and sometimes controversial definitions of what is abstraction (in poetry, literature, dance), in architecture is very unclear how abstraction has emerged. There is very little literature that has attempted to define the problem of abstraction and even this literature usually addresses abstraction as a style. In a time where we are submerged by complexity and redundancy of forms it is very likely to be an unpopular topic. Again, I really stress that this lectures should not be understood as a promotion of a return to abstraction. In that sense, the first session of today is an attempt to introduce this process of historicizing abstraction. Abstraction is a reflection of a fundamental problem of modernity, which is the unprecedented problem of administrating life. Perhaps because of the lack of literature mentioned it is useful to rehearse briefly the idea of abstraction within the history of painting, especially in the twentieth century. In painting, the problem of abstraction has been felt very radically, because it is precisely within the realm of painting that the polemic of abstraction became very manifest as the opposite of representation. The reason why Western art was so attached, until the twentieth century, to the problem of representation is because it has been one of the fundamental assets of Christian ideology. Christianity is actually a religion that has attempted to establish itself historically, not only in religious terms (we measure our time since the birth of Christ), and therefore representation within Christian art has always played a fundamental role. It is possible to say that the removal of representation from painting was a radical act of secularizing painting. It is a process that started not within representation or painting itself, but through the debates around aesthetic problems. Aesthetics, a science of perception, started this process of removal of the experience of pure forms, colours, supports—the material properties of art—from any content. In fact, what it is actually considered pioneering works within abstract painting, Kazimir Malevich’s famous black square, which is dated 1915, even if Malevich dated it 1913, can be considered not just a pioneering act of abstraction, but on the…


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