In 1971 Superstudio published in Architectural Design “Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas”, twelve short stories illustrated with their own drawings, which put forward in a narrative form a critique of the role of architecture in the making of the city. The twelve stories illustrate what Superstudio defines as ‘premonitions of the mystical rebirth of urbanism,’ that is to say, a condition in which architecture takes command and becomes, in a very explicit way, a tool for the construction of subjects. As such the ‘Cautionary Tales’ are not projections of a desirable future but rather an exaggerated portrait of the present condition. The science fiction character of the narrative, juxtaposed to the technical precision and evocative dimension of the drawings, constructs a detachment from actual reality that is the key to a ruthless and powerful critique. The chosen format itself becomes the device through which the authors can target precisely the relationship between space and government, form and modern politics, without either seeking refuge in academic theories or falling into naïve utopias for a future that might never come.
Indeed the “Tales”, at their root, address the relationship between the project of governance, the project of the city, and the project of our domestic space. This relationship is not a new thing. For example, ancient Chinese cities, founded on the logic described in the Rites of Zhou, already present a sophisticated translation of ethical hierarchies in built form, as did the Roman colonial expansion grid. However, in these cases, the symbolic and military ambitions at stake are always laid out in a way that includes a clear form of self-representation. In other words, these traditional cities were always readable as projects. Moreover, the idea of power and authority in pre-modern times predated conceptually the making of the city, which then became the fit receptacle and embodiment of that power. However, from the 1700s onwards, the system shifted: it is the urban space itself which constructs the very possibility of government, it is the ordering of the city which builds the consensus that any power needs to exist. Abraham Bosse’s famous frontispiece for Hobbes’ Leviathan already figures forth this need to root power in the calculated composition of a mass of bodies into an orderly people. In this shift, the built form ceases to be a representation and becomes, as Le Corbusier would say a machine. As architects, this condition forces us to ask ourselves: have we yielded all our power of imagination and disruption by accepting this role, or on the contrary have we become all the more powerful, yet questionable, by becoming not only the accomplices but the very enablers of government? This conundrum is well expressed in the clinical, relentless descriptions of the original Superstudio “Tales” as well as in the illustrations which portray an architecture which is at the same time absolutely generic and rarefied, but becomes monumental in virtue of its sheer scale.
The considerations on Superstudio’s approach and the reflections on the role of architects and architecture in critically address the project of the city have been the starting point of the ‘The Supreme Achievement’, an exhibition, a workshop and a publication born out of the collaboration of CAMPO and Black Square – respectively, a space for architecture in Rome and a Milan-based publishing and educational platform.
In the Summer of 2015, inspired by the rereading of Superstudio’s ‘Cautionary Tales’, we invited twelve architects and collective practices to give their own interpretation of this project in relationship to the contemporary condition, respecting the original format of one text and one image. Hereafter, to further elaborate and open up a discussion on these contributions, we organised a one-week workshop at CAMPO during which a group of students, speculated on the space of the self within the framework proposed by the twelve city visions. The work of the students opposed to the visionary character of the urban images the material presence of plaster models as the tool of investigation. The results of this process have been exhibited at CAMPO in September and will be collected and edited in a book to be published by Black Square Press at the beginning of 2016. The entire process has involved about 50 people between architects, students, and guest critics who have been engaged in an ongoing debate on the question first put forward by Superstudio: is architecture condemned to become a machine of government?
In order to test the potential of this experimental approach, we assembled a fairly heterogeneous group of contributors. We invited architects and collectives with different backgrounds, experiences and positions, coming from three different continents and belonging to different generations. In spite of the differences, a common thread can be identified among the participants; on the one hand, a shared interest in the relationship between city and power, and, on the other hand, the particular relevance is given to architectural representation. They all use drawing as a heuristic device – that is to say, as a form of knowledge in its own right – rather than as a mere way to explain a project: for them, the drawing itself is the project.
Starting from these premises Amid/Cero9 (Spain), Aristide Antonas (Athens), Behemoth (The Netherlands), Dogma (Belgium), Didier Faustino (France), FORA + Beth Hughes (Portugal / UK), MAPOffice (Hong Kong), Alex Maymind (USA), Microcities (France), Miniatura (Brazil), Philippe Morel (France) and Raumlabor (Germany) responded to the invite with a diverse and fascinating range of responses. The results have been quite extraordinary and surprising in many respects.
The restraints and the consequent clarity of the “Cautionary Tale” format revealed not only its enduring validity but, if possible, an even increased power vis-à-vis the contemporary reality and the variety of invited contributors. The material as a whole stands in its stunning visual and conceptual clarity, but at the same time, once we enter in the depth of the narrative and the details of the design, it is able to produce countless possibilities of cross references. The images and the texts offer themselves to the viewer as a living matter, where each contribution can be read against the others in an endless play of elective affinities and conflicts. Thus, the framework of the Tales engenders a tension among the projects where the differences are neither recomposed nor irreconcilable, producing an understanding of the whole that is greater than the single parts. Each contribution insists on distinct attitudes that span from acceleration to opposition, from the poetic to the technological, from the ironically disenchanted to the resolutely pragmatic, giving form to a mosaic of visions and tools. Nevertheless, we can clearly read a common concern with the (im)possibility to investigate and represent the current transformations of the city, its dissolution in a system of norms defining behaviors, where architecture seems to be progressively absorbed into a productive machine. The physical and mental acceleration that is produced and at the same time produces the endless condition of urbanization, portrayed from different angles, emerges with striking and unquestionable clarity.
Within this common ground, an interesting edge seems to materialize when it comes to defining a possible role of architecture within the condition of urbanization. For example, Philippe Morel with Last Earth brings to the extreme consequences the possibilities offered by mathematics and computational tools, uncovering the irresolvable internal contradictions brought about by the progressive naturalization of capital as an endless process of accumulation. In a city of planetary scale, the last one, where everything is immediately and intrinsically available thanks to the computational management of a ‘state of statistical chaos’, architecture, the city and man itself are reduced to irrelevant numbers subordinate to ‘an ideal gas law’. On a similar path, but possibly locate few centuries earlier, Raumlabor speculates on the technical and cultural possibilities offered by 3d printing technology applied to the urban scale. The mechanical precision of the drawings and the tech-journalist like the style of the text of Stadtfresser City have an evocative quality that instrumentalizes the technical issue to open a more profound question of globalization, erasure of cultural differences and ultimately on the dissolution of architecture as language and knowledge. Precisely the relationship between knowledge production and life is at the center of the vision constructed by Behemoth, the Italo-Iranian Holland-based trio. Produced by their sharply critical and ironic gaze, Penelope or the endless loom materializes in an absurdly low-tech but highly sophisticated machine, an allegory of the actual condition of labour within university campuses. Similarly to Morel’s proposal, the relationship between architecture and the city or between matter and man, are completely dissolved and substituted by the management of feedback loops, an ‘endless loom‘ of economic, intellectual and affective relationships efficiently serving the machine.
With a different perspective but with the same planetary gaze seen in Morel’s proposal, FOR-A and Beth Hughes collaborated to materialize The Assembly, a post-apocalyptic and very actual scenario at once, where, in a process of ‘metropolitan autopoiesis’, the territory is continuously reorganized by infrastructural systems that leave behind a landscape of obsolete technology. A glimpse of hope seems to reside in the possibility to ‘re-appropriate and co-opt’ these ‘wrecks of physical surplus’, in ‘extraterritorial exemptions’ where a new relation with space might emerge; a very tight space of maneuver for architecture. In a similar manner, architecture plays the role of a found opportunity within a larger system, in The warehouse city, the poetic vision of Aristides Antonas. The collage, to certain extent, could be read together with The Assembly – and here is not a chance the use of the collage being common to both projects – as a representation of the ‘inhabitation of the invisible flaws’, of the time, space and relationships that the connective infrastructure can produce between and through humans. The city is the endless interior of an ‘abstract warehouse’ where everything is represented and where the potential resides, more than in the architecture, in the possibility to instrumentalize the ‘infrastructure protocols’ to construct new forms of co-existence. The recapture of the interior through a collective organization becomes the central theme of The city within, the tale imagined by MICROCITIES (in collaboration with Giacomo Nanni, Cristina Crippa, Raffaele Alberto Ventura e Francesca Guidoni), where a ‘slow and secret invasion’ from within is able to regain control of a city now turned into desert by private interests and technocratic control. The project exposes the blurring of private and public space, domestic and working condition, political and the economic sphere, that is at the core of the contemporary condition. The detailed precision of the account, the choice of the section as a tool for representation and the happy ending betray an optimistic vein to which architecture seems to be inevitably condemned. As a sort of counterpart, the project Master and Slave by Didier Fiuza Faustino relies on a much more ambiguous and dystopian atmosphere. The city, or possibly the entire civilization, is condensed in an inhabited Moloch that is eroded from the inside, a conflict of devotion and domination, dependence, and fulfillment that masters and slaves are obliged to play in an uncanny and open-ended perversion.
An estrangement of a different nature is provoked by the cyclic conception of time of the City without a Monument by the Brazilian duo MINIATURA, where the city is a cycle that transforms the relationships between man, architecture and the city in an endless time-space loop. A process, more than an architectural form, that, containing ‘the repertoire of everything that was and has to be done’ brakes with the idea of Modernity based on progress and memory. The theme of memory finds its most poetic moment in the visionary tale narrated by MAP Office. The French duo, based in Hong Kong, speculates on the relationship between the nature of man and its technological extension, between the volatile character of information and the permanence of matter, the inevitability of death and the construction of memory. The record of each life, one chip after the other, gives form to The Island of Memory, a cemetery, and archive at once of the entire collective knowledge. The tale can be read both as a subtle critique of the technological faith and as a light-hearted journey into the abyss of human nature, where the role of architecture is nevertheless dissolved in a direct projection of ourselves in the infrastructure of the landscape.
A step before death, Nocturnalia by Cero9/Amid put forward the possibility of collective sleeping as the last and paradoxical frontier of wakefulness, as a form of ‘resistance to a life exposed to a machinic process of exploitation’. Civilization without homes surrounded by the endless productive field of work where architecture celebrates and gives form to the ultimate public space; an enormous dome with a golden ceiling beneath which the whole population sleeps together in the attempt to escape the nightmare of uniformity. Endlessly monotonous walls, an ‘absolute homogeneity, and sameness’ that continues unabated, is the theme of Alex Maymind’s The City of Walls, a direct reinterpretation of the Superstudio’s First City. The walls construct a background condition, ‘ a quality with no quality that has a quality of its own’, against which the unbridled nature of the city can materialize. Thus, the city is paradoxically conceived as subtraction that constructs, as the gesture that carves out of the infinite straight stubbornness of the walls a political space. Finally, Dogma proposes The Block, a straightforward reinterpretation of what was once the basic unit of the city, now condensed in a single monumental gesture. Architecture takes command over the city as an archetype that, through the precise articulation of its form can organize the relationship between ‘the two extremes of the human condition: solitude and togetherness’. The sheer scale of the artifact imposes a presence that nevertheless can be either rejected or eroded through inhabitation, opening up the possibility of a political dimension of co-existence by means of architecture.
These twelve cities are not mutually exclusive; they are all happening, after all, right here, right now, with their conflicts and their ambitions. Ultimately what emerges out of this complex mosaic of ideas is, against all odds, faith in architecture, in the possibility for architecture to exist perhaps beyond architects and against all the constraints of politics. A golden dome, a basement that becomes a city, the white noise of machines whose intricate construction doesn’t cease to fascinate us: the real Supreme Achievement resides in the capability to recognize the power of space, and to turn it from an instrument of power into a weapon that might as well return to us some sense of awareness, agency, and perhaps beauty.