picture extracted from the cover of the book concerned in this article. The project is the Hotel Sphinx in Times Square by Elia Zenghelis (1975).
Pier Vittorio Aureli just released a new book entitled The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture published at the MIT Press. Although the title seems to only states a “possibility”, this essay is a powerful manifesto for this notion of Absolute Architecture that necessities to be defined here:
In his very interesting introduction P.V. Aureli precises that he mean to use the notion of absolute here for architectural projects that conserve the full power of its essence even when separated from the urban system it has been inscribed in. He calls this urban model, archipelago and this way, attempt to advocate for an architecture that would propose such a scheme for the city.
Starting from the counter example of his thesis, he quotes Cerda’s plan for Barcelona, Hilberseimer’s Hochhaustadt and Archizoom’s No Stop City as visions of the city that use architecture as unifier and despise the very notion of monument. Monument here is not be understood as the new trend for cities to ask a starchitect to build another Bilbao effect museum but rather as an architecture that proposes its own ideology within its limits.
In order to make his point, P.V. Aureli describes in depth the architecture of Andrea Palladio, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Etienne-Louis Boullée & Oswald Mathias Ungers (associated to Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis) as many paradigms of such an absolute architecture.
Each of those chapters are actually very interesting interpretation of those authors’ architecture and there would be a lot to write about; nevertheless, I would like to insist here on the very notion of archipelago.
In this regard the last paragraph of introductory chapter 1 (Defining the Political and the Formal in Architecture) is brilliant in its summerization of the book’s thesis:
“The confrontation of parts can be achieved only based on common and existing aspects of the city, not ex nihilo creation of the new. Through the exemplary and exceptional clarity of the compositional gesture, a true part of the city recognizes and represents its typical aspects. The part is absolute; it stands in solitude, yet it takes a position with regard to the whole from which it has been separated. The architecture of the archipelago must be an absolute architecture, an architecture that is defined by and makes clear the presence of limits which define the city. An absolute architecture is one that recognizes whether theses limits are a product (and a camouflage) of economic exploitation (such as the enclaves determined by uneven economic redistribution) or whether they are the pattern of an ideological will to separation within the common space of the city. Instead of dreaming of a perfectly integrated society that can only be achieved as the supreme realization of urbanization and its avatar, capitalism, an absolute architecture must recognize the political separateness that can potentially, with the sea of urbanization, be manifest through the borders that define the possibility of the city.” (P45)
The whole book lays in this short excerpt and I read in it much more than a simple architectural treatise. In my reading of it, it is an incredibly powerful invitation to rethink the political sphere. Politics can only implement itself when it disposes of a territory. Nowadays those territories are national and international and in a more or less assumed will of unification, does not allow so easily for one person present on a territory to be able to choose the politics by deterritorializing – as Deleuze and Guattari would say- him(her)self. Capitalism is a good example as it prevails on a majority of territories in the world and except a few exceptions (I think of Christinia in Copenhagen for example), it is hard to find enclaves in which a different ideology would be applied. Pier Vittorio Aureli proposes a city as an archipelago, but really one could think of a whole nation as such in which several territorial islands would be able to proposes (and invent) various ideologies that would give the choice to somebody to deterritorialize and re-territorialize him(her)self in order to be part of this construction.
This idea of the archipelago seems therefore to embody a good balance between the global civil war in which we are currently engaged with the dangerous dream of a universal consensus (whether the latter is called “peace”, “save the planet” etc.). Starting with architecture, as P.V. Aureli advocates for, and what I would call a counter-urbanism (as a non unifying vision of the city) is an interesting hypothesis as each of those ideological territories necessities an architecture of its own.
Aureli, Pier Vittorio. The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011.