Debunking Reinier de Graaf’s “Four Walls and a Roof”
Review by Patrik Schumacher
Published in: Architecture Today, #283, November/December 2017
This Book is a frightfully funny, addictive read, probably not only for architects. For us architects it is a profoundly annoying account of our profession, debunking its pretensions and revelling in its ironies and paradoxes. The book has depth in its questioning but is thin on answers. You might think Reinier de Graaf is artfully avoiding to expose himself with answers. I think he is more genuine than this, genuinely riddled, and confident enough to publically share his puzzlements. The book is seductively well written, and I predict it will become a best seller. This anticipation motivates my review, because I believe that despite its playful inconclusiveness the book transports undercurrent messages that are highly problematic, as will become evident below. The book is written with a deceptively cool, blasé air that serves to deliver its hidden commitments in a seemingly non-committal way, and disseminates its biases with such irony and self-deprecating charm that they are hard to pin down, criticize and rebut. But it must be done.
The book presents 44 essays. The essays are often anecdotal, occasioned by events, projects, and encounters, and yet they always lead us into subversive reflections about the meaning of architecture, its effects and failings. The preface promises the “debunking of the myths” of our field and the essays are ordered around seven such myths, namely authority, inspiration, good causes, control, independence, mastery, and progress.
In the preface Reinier admits that his book is marked by a “profound incoherence” but then claims that this incoherence is a reflection of the world it describes. I see this differently: the world is complex, and might indeed contain contradictory tendencies, however, it is the theorist’s task to construct a coherent description and perhaps explanation of the world’s complexity. Not so for Reinier who is happy to admit, right at the start, that he is a “lousy theorist”. His approach is indeed deconstructive rather than explanatory. In the same spirit in which he ridicules the architects’ “god complex”, he does not hesitate to ridicule the theorists’ explanatory pretensions, pretensions of theorists like myself that is. I for my part will continue to systematize and explain everything architectural, including Reinier’s work and writings which I would classify as ‘critique of ideology’ operating via a purely ‘negative dialectic’, i.e. without positing any ideological foundations of its own, at least not explicitly. This is indeed a fitting stance for the avant-garde segment of our discipline within which OMA is operating. Creative destruction is the first step towards radical innovation. In my public chat with Reinier at his London book launch I had therefore posited the question: Do you have any ideology, Utopia or positive programme for architecture? His answer was a blunt and unapologetic no. But he admitted that there might be an implicit ideology at work which he invites his readers to tease out. That’s what I would like to start right here.
The first three essays are out to debunk “authority” and “charisma”. The first addresses the schism between our highflying, philosophical, “near-megalomaniacal” ambitions about architecture as taught by Reinier’s “heroic” and “charismatic” professor Hermann Herzberger on the one side and the utterly mundane triviality of commercial work as he experienced it in his first job in London on the other side.
The second essay ridicules the way authoritative figures like the “Urban Man” Richard Rogers are “rolled out” as “superheroes” and “saviours” to make meaning where there is none. In the third architectural academia is debunked: “The Western architectural ivory tower has become a theatre of the absurd, self-obsessed, blind to its own decline, and largely oblivious to real forces that determine the general state of the built environment.” This verdict was occasioned by a debate Reinier had participated in together with me, Peter Eisenman, Jeff Kipnis and Theo Spyropoulos during the 1st Chicago Architecture Biennale and in which according to Reinier the “grandiose tone contrasted with the marginal importance of what was debated”. Reinier’s scepticism towards architectural theory continues in the essay that lent the book its title “Four Walls and a Roof”. Here Reinier debunks “a century of mission statements, earnest treatises and urgent manifestos” as futile, self-absorbed vanities. “Let’s face it: architects speak to themselves, and as far as the rest of the world is concerned, they can remain forever silent. They should simply get on with their job of designing buildings, which if they are any good, should speak for themselves.” We have heard this before, but I think it’s a fallacy to demand and expect that architects should speak to the public at large rather than amongst themselves. To society – the public - it is indeed only the buildings themselves that matter. But in order to deliver the best possible built environment to society architects need to evolve a probing expert discourse as necessary vehicle of continuous innovation.
This also involves theoretical treatises. I suspect only those of us who are invested in both theory and practise can see that a elaborate theory is not always a pretentious intellectual pastime but part of a discourse that is necessary to guide practice as is facing increasingly the twin challenges of complexity and novelty in the projects we are asked to conceive. Reinier’s headline question her is: “Why did you study so intensively for so long? Isn’t architecture basically just four walls and a roof?” My answer: No, architecture’s contribution to humanity is not shelter, but the ordering of social relations and this merits the investment into all the studying and theoretical discourse alluded to above. Reinier still seems to be puzzled by this question 25 years after he was first stunned by the question as a young graduate. Many will share his suspicion that a lot of what is being offered under the heading of contemporary architectural theory is “hype”, seems arcane and functions as “convenient decoys that allow us to shed any notion of collective responsibility”. But the question how to articulate this responsibility and how to identify the specific resources our discipline can bring to bear to meet this responsibility remains unanswered here. Any attempt at an answer leads us back to the centuries of earnest treatises that have contributed to the build-up of our discipline. That’s at least where my attempt lead me and what I discovered there was a discursive literature that deserves to be read rather than ridiculed and that evolved categories – distribution, composition, expression etc. – that only seem detached within an ivory tower while indeed providing relevant resources that address the ordering tasks posed, admittedly never positing these task with sufficient explicitness. So Reinier’s debunking of architectural theory must be met by debunking his all-too-familiar anti-theoretical stance. Of course, as the role of the non-committal agent provocateur allows him, in our conversation he was quick to admit to the need for theory. At that point he said his whole book was but heartfelt crying out for such a theory endeavor.
In our “absurd ivory tower debate” in Chicago Reinier tried to add more straightforward importance by discussing Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’. I applaud this without applauding his conclusions. His take on Piketty’s pessimistic analysis/prognosis and how this relates to architecture can also be found in one of the essays in his book, in an essay entitled ‘The Century that never Happened’. This essay is part of the last cluster of essays debunking “progress”. If you flick across the pages of this segment on “progress”, the final, concluding segment of the book, you’ll be confronted with nothing but images of destruction, images documenting the relentless demolition of 20th century social housing estates, i.e. of the very kind of places where Reinier grew up in 1970s Holland. It becomes clear that for Reinier the “progress” of the last few decades has been largely destructive/regressive. In our London conversation Reinier owned up to his nostalgia for this bygone era of monotonous-egalitarian suburban housing estates which I detected in his book, a nostalgia I myself can – without giving in to it - sympathize with, as I am as much as Reinier a child of 1970s suburbia. Indeed, the longest, most meticulously researched and least cynical article in the book is his account of the socialist building construction programme of the German Democratic Republic operating according to Krushchev’s slogan “Build better, cheaper, faster”. Despite the seeming irony of the essay’s title - “Architektur ohne Eigenschaften”, i.e. Architecture without Characteristics – here we perhaps do find after all something like Reinier’s hidden positive manifesto for architecture.
It’s the unspoken manifesto of architecture as anti-design. The book cover image of an anonymous, generic and non-descript East German house might be taken as confirming evidence for my interpretation. The same hidden manifesto for an ultra-puritanical, ultra-pragmatic, ultra-egalitarian, ultra-generic renunciation of all design comes through in the essay “The Inevitable Box” which is written very much in the anti-art spirit of the most austere 1920s functionalism, as promoted by the ABC group. Reinier’s slogan of “calculation, not composition” testifies to this, very much reminiscent of Hannes Meyer’s slogan that “all things in this world are a product of the formula: function x economy”. While the ABC group’s heuristic principle of radical functionalism is also my premise, I am not ending up with the same old solution of the box, because I insist that we have to recognize, first, that we are technologically no longer locked into the constraints of the fordist era of mechanical mass reproduction and, second, that we must realize that architecture’s socialfunctionality involves the built environments communicative capacity and thus involves composition and articulation over and above organisation in a societal context that is increasingly complex and increasingly relying on the navigation of self-sorting participants in urban environments who’s familiarity we can no longer take for granted, in a society where continuous cooperative re-association has replaced endless, unchanging nine-to-five routines. That’s why the post-modernist challenge to an ABC-style modernism, namely that architecture must speak, was not a fall from grace, but a necessary call to arms of the discipline to gear up to the challenges and opportunities of the new era, a call to arms which was further followed through via deconstructivism and parametricism.
So where I see progress, Reiner sees “progress” to be debunked. Rather than speaking about post-fordism he speaks about the “conservative revolution”. He emphasizes, with Piketty, that with the full re-instatement of capitalism’s inescapable logic income inequalities are on the rise again. The relatively short-lived mid-20th century egalitarian-progressive interlude, owed to the political pressure brought to bear by the communist alternative, seems to remain Reinier’s model, including the architecture and urbanism it spawned. The “conservative” return of capitalism, now unchecked since the demise of the communist alternative, implies for Reinier that buildings turned from publicly provided use values to private assets held with the prospect of appreciating resale values. Accordingly architecture became, so his polemic, mere marketing and architectural discourse supposedly came to a standstill. While there is undoubtedly a kernel of truth in this account, an account that will resonate with many in our still largely left-oriented field, this story of 40 years of regression is all too bleak and one sided and indeed so oblivious of the huge, general (if not fully generalized), empowering prosperity gains of our era that it reveals an emotionally charged, nostalgic, ahistorical, ideological bias rather than a pragmatic perspective. Our era, which owes its power and dynamism to the convergence of the technologies of computation and telecommunication, is the era of post-fordist network society, which implies a new level of diversity, complexity and dynamism in all life patterns and social relations, and a new wave of urban concentration with new challenges and opportunities for architecture. Accordingly the last 40 years were also an era of fertile architectural debate and radical architectural innovations which cannot be dismissed as marketing efforts. However, I am afraid that Reinier might be inclined to dismiss Postmodernism, Deconstructivism and Parametricism as just that. OMA had been more a part of all this than they seem to be willing to now. I wonder how much of OMA’s return to the generic is due to Reinier’s. My project, in contrast, remains committed to invigorating OMA heuristics like ‘suspending moral judgement’, ‘surfing the wave’ unleashed by market dynamics, and pushing the new ‘regimes of complexity’ into architecture.
Finally, I found something else that even the relentless myth-buster and iconoclast Reinier de Graaf treats like a holy cow: Public Space. To be sure, the article “Public Space” contains as much sarcastic critique of ideology as all the other articles, but this sarcasm is not directed against the idea of public space as such, but against the architects’ as well as the bureaucrats’ counterproductive “glut of good intentions” that according to Reinier only serve to kill the essence of public space.
Reinier unequivocally upholds the idea and value of public space defined as “space accessible to all”. For me, in contrast, this idea of public space belongs to a bygone era and defunct ideology and is thus a myth to be debunked in the name of today’s vital techno-entrepreneurial opportunities. I think all-inclusiveness is an unattainable chimera in our irretrievably pluralist, multi-cultural societies. A vital, substantive conception of a shared urban space must always be premised on a shared culture, shared interests, a thick common denominator. But we live in societies with multiple, very diverse publics that can no longer be meaningfully and inclusively catered for by the all-too familiar and all-too bland one-fits-all spaces.
The public spaces we are currently left with – all provided by the public authorities - must rely on a very thin common denominator, or can only cater for a perceived average or majority, or worse will be provided to the slice of voters that can tip the balance from the centre left to the centre right or vice versa. All the public offerings tend to crafted to appeal to this group. Everybody else is left excluded, not literally – of course they can sit on the same benches, next to the same shrubs, and enjoy the same generic level of law and order policing – but their more specific needs and desires remain uncatered for. Reinier seems equally frustrated with the real existing public space and is suspicious of the good intentions e.g. of a UN-Habitat resolution on public space calling for community cohesion, heath, safety and happiness etc.
Neither does he trust municipal bureaucrats and he ridicules the mushrooming legislation of public space in Holland: “Dutch law on public space contains 4,317 articles and 367,829 subparagraphs.” When I raised the spectre of private provision and management of public spaces as a means to let a thousand flowers bloom, he was not immediately appalled as so many of our colleagues have been whenever I have raised this spectre. Simply put, public space remains like national TV of the 1950s: One public channel catering for the typical household, with a myriad of implicit exclusions of all that could be offensive to this all-encompassing public. One or two TV channels then were better than none, and our societies were then far more homogenous anyway. The privatization of Television delivered a world of 1000 channels, now further augmented by 1 million you-tube channels. (The prevention of these explains the 1million prohibitions of Dutch public space law.) I expect the same vibrant diversity and distributed inclusiveness from an unleashed private market in public spaces, catering all the way into the thick tails of niche markets that exist to be discovered according to our contemporary flattened bell curve. Because this solution is too far off target from Reinier’s instinctually left wing radar, it did not occur to him as a possibility. Instead he tried to cater for this openness to an unpredictable diversity of uses within the confines of the all-inclusive (state-provided) public space. He therefore is forced into the paradoxical corner of calling for a space that must be freed from all and any obligation to fulfil any specifiable purpose whatsoever.
“The obligation to fulfil specific purposes throws public space into an existential crisis.”
Reinier has both the right intuitions about public spaces’ potentials and the right emotive revulsions about its current realities but his anti-capitalist blind spot leads him to call for an utterly abstract blank sheet neutrality that would not only have to exclude architects from any involvement – which is consistent with his appraisal that all architects’ contributions to public space have always been thoroughly misguided – but would - if it were at all possible to concretize such an abstraction - effectively imply that nobody would be catered for in this attempt to cater for all idiosyncrasies all at once.