Megastructures are Shopping Malls of the Avant-Garde
The avant -garde is a paradoxical state. In order to exist, it relies on its incongruous condition of being both fundamentally contemporary and ahead of its time. The avant-garde is all about contextualizing perfect timing; a vulnerable balance of past references, present problems, and possible future solutions. But what happens when the avant-garde loses its synchronization; when its solutions are overlooked for being too early or ridiculed for being too late?
In the past century the avant-garde was victim of two untimely appearances. In the first one its proposals were too premature; the world was taken aback by the boldness of its ambition. In the second one, the avant-garde was delayed. Here its stratagems were on a futile mission of reinventing what already existed.
Do these two consecutive setbacks prevent us from recognizing the potential of the avant-garde as a tool to design for today while dreaming about tomorrow? Or could we be able to learn from those two episodes in order to rescue whatever the avant-garde has to offer us? Can we rescue their potential? Can making a genealogy of Foucaultian dimensions help us to find the answers?
Le Corbusier 1922
In 1922 Le Corbusier presented the first of his “ideal” cities. La ville contemporaine pour trois millions d’habitants was an urban layout of cruciform skyscrapers, housing slabs and parks intersected by two juxtaposed grids of car infrastructure. In his urban plan Le Corbusier was not only manifesting his ambition for a greener, denser, centralized, bureaucratic, car oriented city, but he was also making clear that Modern Architecture was better suited for these planning conditions.
The Ville Contemporaine was siteless; a power source without an outlet. When the modernist plans started to take shape on real cities, first in Paris with the Plan Voisin, then in the rest of the world with la Ville Radieuse, the image of Le Corbusier oscillated between a visionary and a madman. His preoccupations were clearly fundamental problems of his time, but the formalization of his ideas were not always welcomed. Even if the cities of his time could have needed more hygienic and organized schemes, buildings that were more suitable to live in, collective housing that distanced itself from the Haussmanian family flat and an overall vision that complied better with the new technological advancements, the people were not ready for Le Corbusier.
His cities were not the only ones to find an intense opposition as his ideological postures found fierce resistance as well. The core urban values of travailler, habiter, circuler et cultiver le corps et l'esprit, adopted by the CIAM and integrated in the Athens Charter (1933), turned out to be the focus of attacks after the Second World War broke out in Europe and left the urban and social situation in a much worst and urgent condition than the one that Le Corbusier had rebelled against in the 1920’s.
After evidencing the destructive side of modernization (of warfare), the social and economic conditions at the end of the war put under harsh scrutiny the urban plans which wished to bulldoze the old city centers away. The love for the old city was politically reinforced by the collective memory. With this situation in the background, a young generation of architects willing to continue to explore the possibilities of the modern plan (Team X being one of them) wished therefore to distance themselves from the highly criticized urban visions of Le Corbusier. The war with its obliterating outcome not only represented the destruction of the old-European world, but marked the meltdown of the urban visions of Le Corbusier. After the war a halt was put to the avant-garde and its city, at least on European soil.
The year 1956 saw three distant but simultaneous events that marked the fate of the avant-garde for the remaining of the 20th century. Unfairly overlooked, these events characterize a key moment in the development of the avant-garde that could be used as a tool to analyze the present, create a critique on the past, and dream about the future.
More than thirty years on from the creation of the Ville Contemporaine, the now officially defunct (who can forget Team 10's practical joke on the CIAM?) “old” avant garde was being given its first full-scale urban experiment in Brazil. At that very same moment, in Europe a “new” avant-garde movement was preparing its (ultimate?) attack on the modernist city unaware of a phenomenon that was taking place in America and that was to signify not only the antithesis of their architectural agenda , but a devastating blow to their aspirations for a new city with a new society.
In 1956 Brasilia started construction. The then Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek orchestrated the creation of the new capital with the construction of the first government building by Oscar Niemeyer, and with the “Plano Piloto de Brasília” competition which was won by Lucio Costa a year later.
Anchored on a virgin site, Brasilia was the apotheosis of the modernist city; the ultimate opportunity to develop strategies of urbanization without needing to bulldoze old cities away; the new start that planners always dreamt about. Was Kubitschek the client Le Corbusier always wanted?
At first sight Brasilia was to make its aesthetics recognizable under the modernist inspection lens. When talking about the Brazilian capital the spotlight tended to shift to the features of Niemeyer’s concrete monoliths and radically thin slabs. But a closer inspection of Brasilia reveals an even deeper connection with the Le Corbusian city: the layout with its centralized government, its concrete housing slabs, its grid of streets and avenues, and with the years, the park within city –all the vegetation and trees— not only appear so strikingly similar but reinforce the belief in the city of the four values. Finally, Modern Architecture in a Modern City.
Was Lucio Costa Le Corbusier’s Brazilian translator? Or was Le Corbusier’s avant-garde dream unintentionally designed for Brazil? Was his image of the city of today meant to find consecration someplace other than Europe? Was he imagining his cities somewhere where the collective memory wasn’t as infatuated with the past? Was his architecture giving him away all this time—the pilotis, the garden roof, the horizontal window, all so suspiciously
New Babylon 1956
In 1956 Constant Nieuwenhuys was working on the antithesis of Brasilia: the New Babylon. While the first urban avant-garde was dispatched from the Post-War Europe, and re-launched as poured concrete, and asphalt in Brazil it was in Europe again where a “new” avant-garde was to set its second attack on the contemporary city; on this occasion with a different outcome.
This new model for urbanization was comprised of an ever-extending, ever-mutating series of sectors that were to hover above the old European cities. New Babylon was an urbanistic black hole; an ever expanding mass able to suck everything into designed disorder.
Using automation as the tour de force of the new city, New Babylon was to abolish the four points into which the Le Corbusian city was supported. If Brasilia was centralized, bureaucratic and pre-programmed, New Babylon didn’t have a center, possessed no cars, and its people needed no recreation since there was no need to work. New Babylon was the apotheosis of the laissez-faire lifestyle, an Eden for drifters.
In the New Babylon even environmental conditions like daylight were to be abolished, giving the new inhabitants of the new city total freedom to drift à la dérive. The first proposal of a naively energetic avant-garde, the New Babylon was putting all its energy on creating a structure (and a society) into which somebody could wander about without having anything to do. New Babylon was perhaps the first of the Megastructures; colossal complexes that could mix programs and be developed ad infinitum, architectural plankton accumulating in the urban ocean.
Like the New Babylon, several other Megastructures were about to dominate the architectural scenario with their conceptual strength reinforced by their representation strategies. The use of Xeroxing, photomontages, comic strips and short films were part of the visual repertoire of a group that looked to break away from the modernist dogma not just in conceptual terms but graphically as well. Hybrids of science fiction and cyber punk aesthetics, these new structures defied building physics, and sociological preconceptions. No wonder that these mastodons could float, walk and be suspended above the old cities of Europe.
The “new” avant-garde gambled on the narrative power of their new tools, as they went to create stories about their hovering superstructures and their ability to expand and mutate forever, their capacity to challenge the lifestyle of the modernist dogma and control the environment. But while the representation strategies of the “new” avant-garde raised eyebrows because of their innovative nature and because of their ability to integrate pop culture into it, their prophecies of a new architectural program and urbanistic ideal were to suffer a devastating blow coming partly from that same pop culture that they took their graphics from.
Southdale Center 1956
In 1956 Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center, the first air conditioned enclosed shopping mall, opened to the public in a Minneapolis suburb. The building was the first of a series of structures that—like the Megastructures—were to create an artificial environment that would free the users from the complications of the city. Free from bad weather, crime, dirt, problems, the shopping mall represented the ultimate achievement of commercial architecture; the apotheosis of consumer culture; a new type of facsimile reality enclosed in a cluster of walls and juxtaposed corridors. Soon these programs would mutate –like the Megastructures promised to do—and include all kind of uses, from theme parks, to museums, to housing, working, and recreation in a kind of forced marriage between Le Corbusian functionalism and New Babylonian dreaminess.
Was Victor Gruen the architect New Babylon needed? Or was New Babylon the Shopping Mall of the avant-garde? How can the ultimate capitalist enterprise coincide with the ultimate Marxist project? Was the “new” avant-garde dreaming about what the most commercial of enterprises was already achieving? Or, was the “new” avant-garde trying to use their flashy pop-graphics and cartoonesque diagrams as stealth —under the graphics, the mall?
If the proposals of the “new” avant-garde were not as radical as they suggested, would we still be able to learn something from them? Are their graphic representation tools the key to this enigma? If the architectural program isn’t what made them avant-garde, is it their graphics that set them apart from the pack? Were they really answering problems of their time and opening a new future? Or were they just leaving us the key for us to figure it out?
In this double clash of avant-gardes (the “old” versus the European city, and the “new” against its American antithesis) we come to identify at least two possible outcomes that could throw light over how to develop strategies for the unknown future. These episodes with their unique characteristics show both sides of very precise moments in the development of the strategies of the avant-garde and their potential outcome (some recognized, others ignored).
In the first conflict, a battle with the contemporary city that was won long after the fight was apparently over, gave validity to the avant-garde strategies of Le Corbusier even if its cities were never built. Le Corbusier’s designs for today provided the answers for the city of tomorrow.
However, in the second, the situation turned out to be more critical for the strategies of the new avant-garde after their architectural program turned out to be hoax. Because of the outcome of their ambitious architectural enterprise, the value of their strategies has been overlooked, even undermined.
Howeve, could we make an exception with the proposals of the “new” avant-garde and, in contrast to Le Corbusier, judge them not by the content but by the medium? Are we prepared to acknowledge that the potential behind the hangars, and sectors of the Megastructures was hidden in the graphics that displayed them?
Could we then, instead of condemning the “new” avant-garde to the sterility of museum walls and architecture publications, discard their programmatic naivety, and recognize their potential as powerful tools of representation?
Are we prepared to take the risk and assume the role of the avant-garde, and create proposals even if they are not going to be accepted from the beginning, and develop tools that may end up portraying recycled models of urbanization? Because at the end of the day, as these stories prove, the avant-garde was not always right, but it was, and it will remain just a beginning.