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The Work of Beauty & the Beauty of Work
Patrik Schumacher 2001
Published In: 3D to 2D - The Designer's Republic adventures in and out of architecture with Sadar Vuga Arhitekti and Spela Mlakar, Laurance King Publishing
As a friend and "peer", to critique and comment on an achievement that is very close to one's own
ambitions - I'd wish I had done this building - is a rather soul-searching exercise.
Beyond the immediate identification with this obvious, tangible success and beyond the feeling of gratitude
for the hard work that gave us what "we all" seem to be striving for, lurks the question : What exactly makes
this building a success? What exactly are "we" striving for here?
Sadar and Vuga¹s new building for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia is in all imaginable
respects a fantastic achievement. A success on all fronts: It satisfies the functional and aesthetic
ambitions of its client and user as personified in the ambitious president of the chamber of commerce; it
promises to fulfill its purpose as an effective space of business communication and representation; this was
achieved within the constrains of the original tight budget; the project is a major vehicle to evolve and
establish Sadar in Vuga Arhitekti as a confident professional firm able to take on and fulfill further
serious engagements; the building is a success as a local popular symbol; and last but not least it is a
beautiful building that makes a sophisticated and innovative contribution to the culture of (international
The following reflections will address the status of this "last but not least" achievement - an achievement
that, however elusive, some (if not most) architects would rank as the "final" (most important) achievement
of architectural work.
But what is the status of this cultural achievement? A superfluous decoration? Or rather the very essence of
the art of architecture (the rest being just its mundane and accidental vehicle)?
What is "beauty" and what is this "culture of architecture" that is posed after all the good reasons for
why the project is worthwhile have been enumerated. In which sense does this project point towards
transcendental values, i.e. values that point beyond the immediate advantages of the building?
Before engaging with this transcendental dimension of architecture it has to be stated that this project is
(will be) firmly lodged in the mundane realities of contemporary life. (And it is no mean thing to
effectively contribute to the reproduction (as well as advancement) of the material social production
process that delivers the comfort, safety and material freedom we all are taking for granted!)
But the project under scrutiny here has evidently - also "other-worldly" qualities. Empirically and
viscerally "we" (architects) seem to know what I am talking about - we know "it" when we see it. The new
French National Library is one of the few recent buildings that has got it. And this new Chamber of Commerce
has got it too! It is a real and nearly inescapable force for us architects. But how is it more than a vain
fetish? What is the secret rationality of our infatuation with what we might call original beauty?
The riddle of the transcendental can only be demystified when we realize that what touches us here is not a
simple presence. The touch of beauty and the genius of originality are effects who¹s real substance or
ontological status is not being revealed by an immediate experience. Rather the effect depends on social
practices and effects that are distributed in time and space. The perception of beauty (aesthetic judgement)
is an act of the condensed appreciation and anticipation of drawn out social life patterns that have come to
be associated with certain architectural morphologies. Aesthetic appeal embodies an (emotionally charged)
social/material expectation. Otherwise the aesthetic dimension would be a mysterious distraction from (rather
than a part of) the vital mechanisms of (social) life.
Within a consistently materialist outlook, based on theories of historical and biological evolution, aesthetic
regimes have to be analyzed as sublimations of an underlying performativity. At the root of any style or
typology (which goes beyond the drawing board and effectively shapes the built environment) lies an economic
The aesthetic judgement of cities and buildings is rational in as much as it operates as an immediate
intuitive appreciation of performativity, short-circuiting first hand comparative experience or extended
analysis. Aesthetic judgement thus represents an economical substitute for experience. It depends on a
tradition that disseminates accumulated experience via extrinsic and dogmatic rules. This dogmatism is the
virtue as well as the limit of aesthetically condensed experience.
For instance the aesthetic rules concerning e.g. (Vitruvian) city-layout or the (Palladian) rules for
the suburban villa enshrine and reproduce specific social organizations which in turn are easily read by
the trained eye identifying the right environment aesthetically.
But with the development of society what once was an accumulated wisdom becomes an irrational prejudice
that has to be battled also on the ideological plane of aesthetic value. Such a battle was waged and won
by the heroes of the 'modern functionalism'. The technological and social revolutions called forth an
aesthetic revolution, establishing and aestheticizing non-classical proportions, a new tectonic and new
compositional, i.e. organizational patterns. An earlier but equally significant aesthetic revolution
concerning the image of the good city is analyzed by Tafuri(1): The shift from the strictly formalized and
centrally controlled Baroque (absolutist) city-planning to the call for a picturesque city-scape celebrating
"chaos, uproar, and tumult" (Laugier) as the fitting impression of a vital city. The picturesque was
dismantling the former aesthetic regime that had become a fetter upon the development of early capitalist
accumulation and privately driven urban growth. The new sensibility was able to identify with the emergent
vital production- and life-processes rather than being locked into a reactionary gesture of repulsion and
Like the aesthetic of the picturesque, the advent of modernism represents the post-factum validation and
stylistic recuperation of a new and vital morphology: the industrial architecture of the new industrial era
(railway sheds, bridges, factories, silos etc.) that evolved outside and despite of the recognized
The results of a decade of iconoclastic and innovative work were then codified in the notion of an International Style: After the new social and technological conditions and potentials have been allowed to formally crystallize, style lubricates their dissemination and a new aesthetic dogma was solidified. Such ossification of performance rules into aesthetic dogma has its own economy: it economizes on design effort, research, education, polemic dispute etc. In the 25 year post war boom this codification and the resulting economy of easy aesthetic appropriation was indeed a productive factor in the fast, world wide dissemination of the achievements of modern architecture. But any extended reliance on aesthetic judgement creates the idealist illusion that the well-designed can be identified and ascertained aesthetically beyond the limits of a specific historical period - an illusion the profession is still infested with. New aesthetic revolutions were bound to follow in the wake of the new socio-economic dynamics of the latter half of the 20th Century.
The argument of the previous paragraph relies on an interpretation of aesthetic values as an inherently conservative social mechanism perpetuating normative conventions. The underlying psychological mechanism might be posed as a simple mechanism of conditioning. In this interpretation the act of aesthetic revolution would be an exceptional act - an inherently anti-aesthetic act of iconoclasm - possible only in a moment of socio-economic crisis. The crisis that has sparked the most recent series of aesthetic innovations in architecture (since deconstructivism) might be described as the crisis of fordism.(2) But rather than a mere moment of crisis, post-fordism tendentially approaches the condition of permanent crisis and permanent revolution.
As technological and managerial innovation as well as the complimentary margin of experimentation with new and unknown work and life-patterns becomes an ever more pervasive economic necessity, a different social and aesthetic sensibility emerges that is less bound by conventionality and that seeks the new and unconventional rather than being repulsed by it. This aesthetic sensibility is bound to be amplified in the so called creative professions. "Making strange" has become one of the most powerful aesthetic strategies. The aesthetic sensation of the new embodies anticipations of a different social life. Today such anticipations have become energizing rather than threatening.
We are no longer talking about taste (as a substantial category). We have to talk about (a taste for) formal innovation. (The strange and unknown first acquired its aesthetic status in the early phases of the capitalist revolution: the aesthetic category of the sublime understood as the sublimation of the horror of the unknown - a tool of discovery.)
Innovation is the key here. What is at stake is the ongoing development of the discipline of architecture itself, its spatial concepts and formal registers. But these formal innovations do not just produce arbitrary difference for the sake of newness. It is possible to frame the general thrust of innovation: towards new levels of formal complexity. I shall argue that this general thrust has an underlying rationality; it represents the potential to engage with the complexities of the emerging post-fordist social arrangements.
Jeffrey Kipnis is prominent among those contemporary architects who not only made a major contribution to the repertoire of the discipline but takes the position that the essence of the discipline lies precisely here, in the development of its formal/conceptual repertoire, considered to be absolutely beyond considerations of program and functionality.
I will have to take issue with this position. My point of contention is that formal innovation can be opposed to programmatic functionality only on the level of an individual project or career, but never on account of the discipline as a whole. For me, formal innovation deserves respect in as much as it has the status of a deferred potential for higher functionality. A particular project or oeuvre might be formally innovative without itself delivering any respective programmatic innovation. But the value of this formal innovation lies precisely in the promise of functional innovation, in the promise that a formally enriched discipline will be more versatile and resourceful in the further spatial organisation and articulation of the evolving life process.
Kipnis the great formal (and conceptual) innovator is himself not concerned with the instrumentalisation of the formal innovations he is pursuing. He rather feels - and rightly so - that such concerns rather get in the way of formal creativity. Indeed the initial proliferation of spatial concepts and formal techniques flourishes best in the absence of functional and programmatic constraints. This is the raison d¹être of the oeuvres of Jeffrey Kipnis and Peter Eisenman. But the rationality of such practice can not be posed as absolute. Rather it depends on its partiality, i.e. its embeddedness within an effective division of labour that separates formal experimentation from its functional exploitation. The functional implementation of the newly elaborated formalisms is often regarded as trivialisation. But without its "trivialisation" - which indeed is its only redemption - this formalism would be nothing but an irresponsible fetishism. Any new formal concept reveals its power and productivity (and I would argue even fulfills its full aesthetic affect) only as a lived space.
To pose as a critic implies a vantage point, a project, a pursuit, a career.
For me the design and construction of the new Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia is a prime example of the creative and substantial application of recent spatial repertoires. As such it is very close to my own ambitions to "redeem" the fantastic formal innovations of the last decade by identifying and engaging key aspects of the contemporary social life process. My main focus of research (at the AA Design Research Lab) concerns the very dynamic realm of recent corporate restructuring. There is indeed a massive paradigm shift under way in management philosophy and the practice of corporate work organisation. And the organisational terms of the new paradigm - decentralisation, loosely coupled networks, interpenetration of competencies etc. - are to a large extend compatible with the new formal repertoires of spatial organisation.
Institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce will have to respond and adapt. The spatial organisation (and its architectural articulation) of the new building for the chamber of commerce provides a convincing armature for the emerging types of business communication processes. The new building effectively offers many of the formal and spatial resources the avant-garde of the discipline of architecture has been able to elaborate in the last 10-15 years. (In this respect the building rivals the achievement of MVRDV¹s recent administration and production centre for VPRO Television in Hilversum.)
The primary organisational distinction that the building articulates is between the regular administration functions on the backside appropriately articulated as a hermetic, modernist slab constituted from the repetitive series of standard office cells - and the semi-public communication functions of the street side - articulated as a lively play of semi-transparent volumes.
The most striking spatial quality within the interior of the building is its varied levels of (visual) porosity. We encounter quite a range of means of visual connections and semi-exposure, from the vertically pervasive central void to the more nuanced cuts and slivers that are distributed throughout the building. By means of (often oblique) visual penetration the various meeting and exhibition spaces are revealed to the visitor, thus offering a sense of overview and indirect participation in the communications of the institution. For this purpose Sadar and Vuga exploit the subtle disjunction of levels between the front and backside of the structure. These level shifts proliferate the visual exposure, while at the same time avoiding direct full and frontal exposure of any activity.
The central void is neither central nor a single spatial figure. It is a deep and formless space, reminiscent of Piranesi¹s haunting Carceri series. Today such spaces are thrilling rather than threatening. They are spaces of discovery or "spaces of becoming".(3) The Chamber of Commerce offers itself as such a space of becoming, i.e. a latent multiplicity of figures to be revealed by the moving subject. It might better be described as a bundle of virtual trajectories rather than a space. Within this multiplicity several points offer considerable visual depth in all directions. There are no clear boundaries to frame those (visual) trajectories. Layer by layer the visitor will be peeling away the sophisticated screening surfaces which wrap "the void". From the exterior a subtle definition of the interior void is given via a corresponding exterior "void" and the vertical louvers which give a specific texture and light.
These spatial qualities give me a visceral sense of an open, communicative working atmosphere. I can imagine to participate in the life of this institution and be productive here. This sensation resonates with a new concept of work that has nothing to do with routine "drudge".(4) This work is no longer about the isolated and diligent concentration upon a given task but about navigating a dense web of lateral communications. The building is supporting this type of net-working. The aesthetic experience of the building is bound up with such anticipations of the beauty of productive work. Its aesthetic energy is drawn from its social charge. The respective architectural qualities are generalisable and will inspire further architectural research and work.
In today¹s media age, more than ever, good architecture is more than the fulfillment of its immediate social (institutional) purpose. It is a manifestation of an ongoing research; an architectural manifesto; a tool for social imagination and a promise of further social progress. This promise is the transcendental dimension of inspired architecture (which we perceive as its beauty).
1. Manfredo Tafuri, "Architecture and Utopia",
M.I.T. Press, 1976, See also: Patrik Schumacher, The Architecture of Movement, ARCH+134/135, December 1996
2. Patrik Schumacher, Produktive Ordnungen (engl.: Productive Patterns)
in: ARCH+ 136, April 1997, Berlin, pp.28-33, pp.87-90
see also: a) Patrik Schumacher, Productive Patterns - Restructuring Architecture. Part 1
in: architect's bulletin, Operativity, Volume 135 - 136, June 1997, Slovenia
b) Part 2, in: architect's bulletin, Volume 137 - 138, November 1997, Slovenia
3. see: Peter Eisenman, Processes of the Interstitial, in: El Croquis 83, Madrid 1997
4. Patrik Schumacher, Arbeit, Spiel und Anarchie, in: Work & Culture - Büro.Inszenierung von Arbeit,
Herausgeber: Herbert Lachmayer und Eleonora Luis, Ritterverlag, Klagenfurt
And: Patrik Schumacher, Business, Research, Architecture, In: Daidalos 69/70, December 1998/January 1999.
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