On the Interpretation of Architecture
Theory of Interpretation

Vol. 12, No. 2, December 2008


___Rixt Hoekstra
  Lost in translation?
Tafuri in Germany, Tafuri on Germany: a history of reception



No other intellectual in the twentieth century has made us more aware of the fact that architectural interpretation has a proper history than the Italian historian Manfredo Tafuri (Rome, 1935 – Venice, 1994). For sure, during the entire twentieth century critics and historians have thought intensively about the proper key to understanding the architectural innovations of their own time. They created a variety of narratives that explain the ‘birth’ and further development of modern architecture. For some, modern architecture started with the work of William Morris, others pointed towards neo-classical architecture or to the avant-gardes in the first decades of the twentieth century. While Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) identified the rational architecture of the Neue Sachlichkeit as the only justified form of modern architecture, Siegfried Giedion (1888-1968) had quite a different vision, juxtaposing Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza with the Tatlin-Tower and John Woods’ design for Bath with the Algerian project developed by Le Corbusier.

As diverse as all these attempts may have been, they also had something in common. What was at stake for these intellectuals was more than an academic search after a correct way of understanding architecture. Most of all, they worked from a moral conviction which was based on the reflection about the place of architecture in a modern world and which was fuelled from a belief in progress. There is a central leitmotiv behind all their writing: the historian writing about modern architecture also identifies with the modern architect. If the architect builds for a better world, then the historian should reflect that ambition in history, through the choice of buildings that are discussed, for example. It is this that makes the historiography of modern architecture one of the true and proper Grand Narratives[1].

In this perspective there is one historian who particularly confronted the architectural community with the burden of its own intellectual traditions.  When Tafuri started to publish his capolavori at the end of the 1960s, he single-handedly created a rupture with what was by then a well established historiographic tradition. In publications such as Teorie e Storia dell’architettura (1968) and Progetto e Utopia, Architettura e sviluppo capitalistico (1973), Tafuri openly criticized historiographical giants such as Wittkower, Zevi, and Giedion, whose work remained well into the 1960s a common point of reference for architectural theory and history. From that moment onwards, Tafuri was responsible for a major change in the reflection about modern architecture. Where classical texts about modern architecture were optimistic in nature, speaking about artistic revolution and about the modern architect as a hero, Tafuri introduced a discourse that was far more complicated and also more negative. As part of this more complex narrative, Tafuri introduced new references whose relevance for architectural discourse was at that time unknown. For example in Teorie e Storia, he pointed to the work of Roland Barthes, thereby proposing to view architecture as a system of signs which, just like literature, photography or cinema, was essentially an attempt to give meaning to the world around us; an operation which was always to a certain degree failed.[2].Tafuri invented new, puzzling tropes with which to reflect on modern architecture; new figures of style, such as “operative criticism”, “the ideology of architecture” or the “regressive utopia”.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Tafuri was one of the few scholars who elaborated a completely new, authoritative interpretation of architecture. In fact, it may be stated that the architectural discipline experienced the so-called End of Grand Narratives through the work of this one historian alone. At the same time, while Tafuri often spoke of the Benjaminian shock, his own work may also be understood in these terms. Tafuri was an architect-turned-historian who declared a concentration on the past as the sole way of being truly critical: for a discipline so fixated on the future, this was in fact a provocative stance. However, Tafuri’s message was not easy for historians either. Tafuri struggled to make architectural history an independent subject within the Humanities. Instead of a supportive use of history—history as a means to validate the choices of the architect—the history of architecture and urban planning should become a means of reflection on society. However, instead of consolidating the newly achieved self-consciousness of the historian by providing a clean-cut historical methodology, Tafuri did the opposite.  Tafuri’s work is characterized by a scientific and existential restlessness; it is a constant query after the nature of architectural history as a discourse that generates its own historical impact. At no point did this query result in a “solution” or a formula to be used by other historians. As such, Tafuri did not offer a hold for architectural historians, no models to be copied. His conception of architectural history may be described as a discipline without a form: a discipline that can only define itself through historical practice, through the work of the historian.

Although the work of Tafuri remains until this day debated in Italy, America and the Netherlands, he is less known in Germany. As in other countries, Tafuri’s work was translated into German in the 1970s to demonstrate the relevance of Marxist analysis for architecture. However, in Germany, this has not led to a debate about Tafuri or to further forms of “Nachleben”­–meaning following, this influence. This absence of discussion may be due to the deviating character of Tafuri’s writing or also to the difficulty of positioning Tafuri within the then-known political landscape with its clear division in right- and leftwing. However, at the same time Tafuri’s work remains highly relevant for a German public.  In fact, at the end of the 1960s Tafuri and his circle of Venetian assistants started a profound and systematic study of German architectural and intellectual culture during the 1920s and 1930s, using original archival sources such as Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst or Das Neue Frankfurt—whose value was at the time not so present for a German architectural intelligentsia. In fact, it may be stated that Tafuri developed his most fundamental positions through the confrontation with the German architectural culture of the 1920s and 1930.[3] At the same time, the history of Tafuri’s German reception reflects Germany’s tumultuous post-war history.

For this issue of Wolkenkuckucksheim – Cloud-Cuckoo-Land – Vozdushnyi zamok, I will newly present Tafuri’s work for a German public. I will do so in two different ways:  the first part of this essay is dedicated to Tafuri´s reception in Germany, through an interview with Nikolaus Kuhnert, editor-in-chief of Archplus and the translator of Tafuri´s Progetto e Utopia into German.  The second part of this essay contains a broad introduction to Tafuri´s study of German architecture. This paper provides insight into the German reception of Tafuri. It shows that this reception was both a reflection of the intellectual climate of the 1970s and a continuation of a typical German concern with the power of built form to express ideas about society. At the same time, this paper shows how Tafuri and Cacciari explored large parts of German intellectual and architectural culture in search of new ways to understand architecture’s pretension to give shape to society, now framed as ‘ideology’. In the final part of this essay the question is raised after the value which Tafuri’s theory and interpretation of architecture may have today.

Tafuri in Germany

Nikolaus Kuhnert (1939, Potsdam) is a German architect and editor-in-chief of the architecture journal Archplus. In the 1970s, he introduced Tafuri in the German speaking world and was one of his major exponents. In 1972, together with Thomas Bandholtz and Juan Rodriguez-Lores, he translated Tafuri’s Progetto e Utopia into German, under the title Kapitalismus und Architektur, von Corbusiers ‘Utopia’ zur Trabantenstadt. In this part of the essay I will present a part of the outcomes of an interview that I had with Nikolaus Kuhnert in Berlin, on April the ninth 2008.[4]

Rixt Hoekstra:

In the year 1977 Tafuri´s bestseller “Progetto e Utopia, architettura e sviluppo capitalistico” was translated into German as “Kapitalismus und Architektur, von Corbusiers ‘Utopia’ zur Trabantenstadt.” What was the precise occasion for the translation of Tafuri in German?

Nikolaus Kuhnert:

In the 1970s, we translated Tafuri´s Progetto e Utopia and two articles. We adopted “L´Architettura dans le Boudoir – The language of criticism and the criticism of language” from the American journal Oppositions, where it was published in the year 1974. Tafuri also wrote an article specifically for Archplus, called “Das Konzept der typologischen Kritik”, which was published in the year 1978. The context of these initiatives was formed by the debates about typology, which were held in Germany in the 1970s. We were particularly interested in Italy, in the thinking about typology over there, and that is how we ended up with Tafuri; we noticed he had written interesting articles about the matter. I visited him in Venice and asked him to write us an article about typology.[5]

Rixt Hoekstra:

What was the role of the architect Aldo Rossi in this process? Did the reception of Tafuri start with the appreciation of this architect?


Nikolaus Kuhnert:

In the year 1975 there was an exhibition in London organized by Leon Krier called “Rational Architecture“. It was a prolongation of the exhibition organized by Aldo Rossi in Milan called “L´architettura Razionale“. We visited the exhibition in London and so we became acquainted with the movement that at a later stage, and with many different branches, was called postmodernism. We started to collect Rossi´s writings and those of his intellectual milieu, with specific attention for Rossi´s Swiss texts, where he lived for a while, and for his Venetian work. In this context we first stumbled upon the name of Manfredo Tafuri. The relationship between the two architect-intellectuals appeared to us to be peculiar; as a theoretician, Tafuri was seen as an antipode to Rossi, while at a more general level they were regarded as part of the same “family”. I attempted to visit Rossi in Milan and Tafuri in Venice at this point, when we had already made the Archplus issue 33.


Rixt Hoekstra:

What was your experience in meeting with Tafuri?


Nikolaus Kuhnert:

That was quite a peculiar experience. Tafuri had a professorial chair in Venice, and it was located in a large room. He was sitting behind a large table like a proper traditional Italian professor. At this left and right side, standing, there were his assistants. Francesco Dal Co was one of them I remember. I turned around in this room and I saw many books: interestingly enough, they were all translations and compilations. That is, they studied the entire German architectural discourse of the 1920s; somehow, they had obtained all the central texts of that era and subsequently had translated them into Italian.


Rixt Hoekstra:

What was the result of your meeting with Tafuri?


Nikolaus Kuhnert:

I gathered all their books and then we made the decision to start with the translation of “Progetto e Utopia”. We formed a group of three persons: besides me, there was Juan Rodriguez-Lores, who came from Spain and spoke Italian; he was at the time a university-assistant. He had quite an important role since he had studied in Venice. Then there was also the student Thomas Bandholtz as part of the team. You know, it was quite a complicated enterprise for us, it is hard to explain. It was all in the year 1975-76 and for me it was a true and proper fascinosum that an architect from Italy would occupy himself so intensely with German architecture. A Marxist, who published the first outline of “Progetto e Utopia” in the journal “Contropiano”, as a summary. For me, it was quite an ambivalent experience: there you had this Italian Marxist who re-elaborated all of the political and theoretical debates of the 1920s in Germany. That is, he studied the discussions about planning in Berlin, including the role of Martin Wagner and that of Hilbesheimer. He also re-discovered those obscure magazines about themes such as “Wohnungswirtschaft” or “Kommunale Wohnungsbau”. And then you find yourself in Italy, coming from the country where this has all happened, but where it has for long seized to be discussed. That is, in Germany the attention for that other side of Modernism, that was connected to Socialist and Communist political tradition, only first became a theme in the wake of the student movement. However, within the student movement we had taught ourselves that to work in a political manner meant to create abstractions, and we first had to break with that intellectual tradition so that the “survivors” of the movement could start to reflect on the history of the profession. In this way, Michael Müller studied the journal “Das Neue Frankfurt”, while others studied “Das Neue Berlin”: the two central journals of the time, all intertwined with the role of Martin Wagner.


Rixt Hoekstra:

When exactly did this happen?


Nikolaus Kuhnert:

This all starts in the middle of the 1970s, and it lasts about ten to fifteen years. At the end of those fifteen years, we had all made up for a certain arrears in our knowledge of that period. At a larger scale, this process of becoming newly acquainted with German intellectual culture of the beginning of the twentieth century started in the 1950s, but in the 1970s it expanded from the architectural-professional realm to that of theory.


Rixt Hoekstra:

Was it difficult to read Tafuri?


Nikolaus Kuhnert:

Actually, it was not so difficult, especially if you take German history into consideration. In the year 1933 Fascism comes to power, then there was the war, followed by the partition of Germany in two parts and the rise of Socialism in the East. What made this situation complicated was that certain Socialist tendencies were equally repressed in the East, while in the West they were more or less forgotten.[6] This then led to a situation in which the younger ‘68 generation started to occupy themselves with the matter. This was an undertaking that so to speak went against many kinds of prejudices: the prejudice of the liberal West that this was all Communist stuff, but in the East it was equally a taboo. We then engaged in a kind of dual operation, to re-discover that which had differentiated the Leftist tradition in the 1920s.


Rixt Hoekstra:

What exactly do you mean when you speak of a differentiated leftist tradition?


Nikolaus Kuhnert:

In the 1920s there was not merely the KPD [Deutsche Kommunistische Partei, author] but there were various movements: the Reform-Socialists, the “Rätekommunismus” and so on.[7] For Tafuri that was no problem at all; it was part of the agenda of Contropiano, the journal for which he was working, to focus on the so-called German Revisionists who further elaborated the tradition of the Frankfurter Schule. What Tafuri did was to apply the consequences of this political-theoretical debate onto the realm of architecture and urbanism. But here in Germany we first had to collect and gather everything anew; a process that has taken us years.


Rixt Hoekstra:

So this was the perspective from which you decided to translate the book?


Nikolaus Kuhnert:

Yes, precisely. I remember a book that was published in that period, called “Kapitalistischer Städtebau” edited by Hans G. Helms and Jörn Janssen.[8] The analysis offered there was of such a primitive nature, so clean-cut and unambiguous. On the one side you had the Communists and on the other the Fascists, and so on. Also in a political sense, the discourse was generalized and simplified to such a degree, that it made you want to walk away from it. Tafuri was for us the intellectual who first made it possible to, also within the domain of architecture and city planning, engage in a political debate that was on a level with its time and that had a matter-of-fact quality.


Rixt Hoekstra:

How would you explain the absence of discussion about Tafuri in those times? Were his texts too difficult, or too unusual?


Nikolaus Kuhnert:

In Germany that was indeed the case. I personally do not know of anyone who reacted to these texts and I have never received an article in which Tafuri was referred to. However, I do not think this is because his texts were too difficult. I think that what marked Tafuri´s expertise was also the reason why the German public did not connect to him. That is, in the 1970s, to be on the political left side meant to debate with the hammer. On the right side people tended to be more nuanced, but there they did not have a relationship with Marxism. Tafuri landed so to speak in a vacuum between the characteristics of the two political sides. Also within the editorial board of Archplus we never discussed Tafuri´s work.


Rixt Hoekstra:

Could you tell us something about the program of Archplus at the time? Why did Tafuri and Rossi fit into that program? Was that only on the basis of the typology discussion?


Nikolaus Kuhnert:

No, that was not the case. In those times, the editorial board was divided. There was a strong DKP wing that was affiliated with Communism. Klaus Brake, who was an editor of Archplus, was a part of this wing, and he was also the editor of the series “Analysen zum Planen und Bauen” of which Tafuri´s “Kapitalismus und Architektur” was a part.[9] The other group referred to – well, Tafuri is hard to say, since he was so ambiguous, but the journal Contropiano had a clear position. This journal was really an attempt, on a theoretical level, to newly ground Marxist theory. This then happened in a time; the 1960s, when the influence of the KPD and the orientation towards Russia began to wane. In Europe, this process starts in Italy with Gramsci; his was really an attempt to re-actualize Marxist dogmatic. In Italy you had Massimo Cacciari, who later became mayor of Venice, then Alberto Asor Rosa and Antonio Negri.[10] That platform was so to speak the refuge for the history of the Critical Theory. People like Adorno and Horkheimer played a crucial role in salvaging and transposing the level of debate of the 1920s into postwar time, that is, into the 1950s and 1960s. That was mainly a disclosure of Marxist debate. That is, in the 1920s and 1930s there was a truly diversified discussion with many positions, of which in the end mainly the Critical Theory survived. For instance, one of the ideas of the students´ movement was to publish the hitherto unpublished texts by Adorno and Horkheimer.

On interpretation: Nikolaus Kuhnert and Tafuri

The journal Archplus was created in the 1960s in a period of intense debate about the architectural profession and the education of the architect. During this period Western society and its economic, social and cultural structures were undergoing tremendous changes which deeply affected architecture and its institutions. In many respects West Germany was not an exception to developments going on elsewhere in the Western World. At the same time, Germany did have a singular position: as the architectural historian Thilo Hilpert writes, in the 1950s an entire architectural culture had lost memory of modernism in architecture.[11] The traumatic events of the past and the absence of an older generation of architects who had gone into exile and after the war failed to return, had caused a sort of amnesia. Hilpert mentions how in the first post-war decade the journal BAU was one of the rare magazines to dissipate Le Corbusiers’ work.[12] At the same time modern architecture and city planning were reduced to a kind of urban management executed by professionals who saw themselves as “apolitical technocrats”.[13] As Hilpert states, with the start of the Cold War a younger generation of architects was too cautious and lacked confidence to rediscover the often leftist architectural culture of the 1920s and 30s.[14]

In this climate it was the ambition of Kuhnert and other editors of Archplus to once again introduce a progressive debate on architecture and architectural culture in Germany. As Hilpert confirms, it was especially important to reclaim the conceptual and communicative abilities of the architect, thereby raising architecture onto the level of a reflective, intellectual activity.[15] One of the statements of the first 1968 issue was:  “Arch+ is not a professional magazine but a magazine of problems”, stressing the discursive ambition of the journal.[16] As was the case with other journals in the Western World, Archplus wanted to discover new ideas about architecture which hitherto had had no place in architectural culture.[17] In the case of Archplus this happened by following two lines of thought.[18] First, in a much more outspoken way than had hitherto happened, architecture should be connected to the theme of knowledge. Against a background of post-war optimism and faith in technology, the hope was that the architectural act could be objectified and controlled trough science, and that in this way the proper architectural intervention could be guaranteed. New topics were now introduced into the architectural discourse such as “cybernetics”, or system and information theory. Second, towards the end of the 1960s the attention shifted to the societal role of the architect and to the political load of architecture. This shift should be seen against the background of a particular German fascination with the power of built form to incorporate and express political ideals: in a positive or negative way, the disciplines of architecture and planning have the possibility to give shape to society.[19]  The term “architecture” was now viewed as an expression of “Herrschaftsansprüche” – of issues of power and domination, and as a form of ideology. As Helga Fassbinder, one of the former editors, stated: “for us the theme was to critically examine the ideology of architects.”[20] Already in 1967 during a conference organised by Oswald Matthias Ungers the architect Jörn Janssen caused a sensation among students when he proposed to change the conference title from “Problems of Architectural Theory and Architectural Criticism” to “Secrets of Ideology and Taste in Architecture.”[21] The social sciences were now introduced into the circles of Archplus; this together with a growing interest in more pragmatic planning issues and a need to report about the actions undertaken by students and ‘civilians’ to ‘save’ Kreuzberg, which until the late 1970s remained one of the poorest areas of West Berlin. However, in reaction to the emergence of new social problems and a waning optimism, in the course of the 1970s the editorial team gradually lost its consensus as its members became divided between two wings. Whereas a group of editors wished to view architecture and planning according to Marxist doctrine, others made a plea for a leftist orientation which was open to more directions. This conflict reached a climax in 1977 with the parting of the Marxist editors Klaus Brake, Helga Fassbinder and Renate Petzinger from the board of Archplus.[22]

Kuhnert’s introduction of Tafuri into German architectural culture should be seen as a reaction to the politicised and polemical climate of those days. As a consequence of all too many fractions and opinions a certain narrowness of debate had come into existence which inevitably led to the simplification of complex cultural constellations. In Kuhnerts’ introduction of Tafuri we can see the two lines of Archplus policy come together. One the one side, translating Tafuri meant once more posing architecture as a substantial field of knowledge, while on the other hand it meant taking the ideological and political value of architecture serious. In an atmosphere of discord and polemics, Tafuri’s studies thus imbued a progressive architectural discourse with a dignity that had hitherto lacked. At the same time, Tafuri seemed to offer a model for a different political engagement; one that went beyond political schematisms and the cul-de-sacs in which a theoretical culture had manoeuvred itself. In a totally new way, Tafuri integrated his membership of the Communist Party and related left-wing parties in Italy into the development of the academy and his oeuvre. At the same time, he was engaged in political practice and distanced from it, gaining the independence and self-criticality that is needed for unbiased theoretical study.

However, for a German intelligentsia dealing with Tafuri inevitably meant a confrontation with history. This was a delicate point: in post-war Germany speaking about the past was always a political deed.[23] The architectural theoretician Angelika Schnell has suggested the hypothesis that it was Adorno’s dictum on poetry after Auschwitz which made Tafuri’s work difficult to accept for German architects. In his essay “Cultural criticism and Society” (1951) Adorno writes: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”[24] As a form of self-punishment, a group of German architects now translated this dictum into the impossibility to produce aesthetically attractive architecture. In their view, Tafuri seemed to further severe this punishment by speaking of the end of architecture and by stating that the new task of the architect was a full dedication to history, instead of the making of architecture. In contrast, the reception of other Italian architects such as Rossi or Aymonino was easier because their work was seen as a liberation from Adorno’s words, making it once more possible to combine theory with the making of beautiful buildings.[25] To fully understand why Tafuri nonetheless gained a modest position in Germany’s post-war debate, we must focus on the contents of Tafuri’s German contribution.

Tafuri on Germany

As first-year students at the I.U.A.V., we experienced a great shock. We attended the courses in architectural history given by Manfredo Tafuri: in his lessons, the attention shifted from proper architecture to something called ‘the ideology of architecture’. For us, that was an incredible step to take, like the change from studying animals to studying the psyche of humanity.[26]

These words recall Alessandro Fonti’s personal Chockerlebnis after being exposed to Tafuri’s teaching for the first time. It must have been an alienating experience for Tafuri’s students to witness what seemed like a voluntary exchange of the security of a material stronghold for the insecurity of the vague and transient world of ideas. It was an absurd capriccio, perhaps, to go beyond the materiality of a phenomenon which, in the case of architecture, is so clearly marked by its concrete manifestation.

For the readers of Tafuri’s books this experience must have been quite similar. In fact, as part of the different kind of discourse developed by Tafuri, he also used language in a different way. The contrast becomes clear if we compare a propagandistic-affirmative text by Nikolaus Pevsner with the first lines of the first chapter of Progetto e Utopia.
Pevsner wrote:

Architecture disposed of a new style. It was created by a group of determined and courageous architects, man of extraordinary imagination and resourcefulness. Since five hundred years…there had not been a revolution of similar impact. [27]

Tafuri wrote:

To ward off anguish by understanding and absorbing its causes would seem to be one of the principal ethical exigencies of bourgeois art. It matters little if the conflicts, contradictions, and lacerations that generate this anguish are temporarily reconciled by means of a complex mechanism, or if, through contemplative sublimation, catharsis is achieved.[28]

Writing half a century earlier, Pevsner’s confident, firm style fully contrasts with the complex words of Tafuri. Pevsner’s assuredness is also present in his Pioneers of Modern Design: from William Morris to Walter Gropius (1936), where he walks his readers through the history of modern architecture with rapid, confident steps: “So our circle is complete. The history of artistic theory between 1890 and the First World War proves the assertion on which the present work is based, namely, that the phase between Morris and Gropius is an historical unit.” Where Pevsner’s transparent style suggest a direct, unproblematic contact with the object of study the Modern Movement the reader in the case of Tafuri has the impression of wrestling with a thick layer of text obstructing the way to the object under discussion. The architectural text seems to be more present through its complex character, yet it does not provide the reader with any explanations of architects or buildings. Tafuri simply states his message, thereby leaving his readers with the risk of becoming entangled in his text, swallowed by the swamp of his words.

Tafuri became a professor in architectural history in 1968. At the I.U.A.V. in Venice he faced the most important challenge of his career. His ambitious plan of rewriting the subject matter of architectural history already becomes clear from his extensive, yet unusual didactical program. Where courses in architectural history would usually deal with, say, Le Corbusier as a master of modern architecture, or with the Gothic building style, there Tafuri together with his students analyzed “The Dissolution of the Classic as ‘Universal Order’” and “Piranesi: Architecture as ‘Negative Utopia’”. Tafuri spoke of Le Corbusier, but also of Nietzsche, and of Nietzsche in combination with Simmel, as well as speaking of the Marquis de Sade and the “repudiated eros”.[29] Already then, Tafuri’s lessons were far removed from the idea of architects triumphantly marching at the forefront of modernity, nor did he consider that the historian was part of a cultural vanguard
the historian did not show people the way. Together with his friend, the philosopher and political activist Massimo Cacciari, Tafuri was in these years occupied by one principal question: what is modernity and what is the role played by architecture in modernity? How can the constant tension and implicit conflict between architects and their own time be explained? Their conviction was that the modern world was dominated by a capitalist system steered by a Weber-based definition of rationality. The laws of the ratio are necessary to let the capitalist system work, however, the question was and it is here that architecture enters as a subject how the irrational phenomenon of ideology still has a place within the ratio-dominated capitalist system. It was exactly this question the role of ideology within a capitalist system that motivated Tafuri’s and Cacciari’s investigation of German urban sociology at the start of the twentieth century.[30]

In 1973 Cacciari published the book Metropolis – Saggi sulla grande città di Sombart, Endell, Scheffler e Simmel.[31] It was, so claimed Cacciari, German sociology that first perceived the exact consequences of modernity. Modernity is Metropolis: the rational-capitalist system only has one place, so states Cacciari in this book, and that is the Metropolis. The metropolitan world consists of abstractions, Cacciari claims, in which the process of rationalization and intellectualization is totally dominant, from economics to politics to everyday life. In Die Grossstädte und das Geistesleben, Simmel points to the consequences of this reality. It is a ruthless process that is described by Simmel: he claims that the monetary market economy of the modern Metropolis is not only decisive for the exchange of goods, but also defines the norms of human interaction. This is the ultimate consequence of total rationalization. Just as in the monetary system, where the value of products is decided by their monetary exchange value and not by their intrinsic quality, so also in the interaction between people, the unique character of each psychological experience is disregarded in favor of a notion that measures each human being according to its place in the system. However, what was of fundamental importance—and it is here that the ideology question enters the picture
was that the process of Vergeistigung, or the interiorization of money circulation, was counteracted by an opposing movement. Der Mensch ist ein Trostsuchendes Wesen suggested that, in order to function in the modern, anonymous, non-individual life of the big city, it was necessary to let one’s Gemüt, or heart, come forward every now and then. In the Metropolis we find a constant oscillation between the anonymous life of the collective and the archaic wish to experience uniquely personal events.

Cacciari claimed that in a modern world architecture had become a matter of Trost: an archaic, nostalgic experience and a form of ideology but as such fully part of the system and fully functional to it. In search for the role played by das Gemüt in the harsh world of the metropolis, Cacciari and Tafuri studied the work of the sociologists Werner Sombart and August Endell, of Walter Benjamin and Scheffler, all writing between 1898 and 1913. Ideology, in other words
whether in the form of ‘das Gemüt’ or of archaic individual impulses has a place in the rational-capitalist system because it is comprehensive and all-embracing: its ‘chiarezza geometrica’ of total intellectualization brings about a transparency in which every element, also that which is most irrational or apparently non-functional, is consciously organized and has a function within the system.[32] At the start of his book, Cacciari mentions how its contents had been discussed at length in Tafuri’s course on the ‘urban and architectural history of Germany and German sociology of the city’ held during the academic year 1970-71. While Tafuri focused upon the key moments of German architecture and urban planning in the early twentieth century, Cacciari, in a series of parallel seminars, explained the contribution of the sociologists and politicians living in that period.[33] These experiences formed the basis for Tafuri’s book Progetto e Utopia, architettura e sviluppo capitalistico, which was also published in the year 1973. There was again a particular question occupying Tafuri in this book, a question which should be seen as a further concentration of the ideology question upon the contents of architectural history. Tafuri wanted to investigate the reason for what he called ‘the failure of the architectural avant-gardes at the beginning of the twentieth century’. This question should be understood against the background of Italy at that time.

In the 1950s, the Italian Communist Party reached a membership of two million people, which made it the largest communist party in Western Europe. However, while almost every intellectual sympathized with left-wing ideas in those days, there was a strong tendency to resist the orthodoxies of the political left and right wing. In this climate, a group of intellectuals in Venice gathered around the journal Contropiano to work on the re-actualization of the critique of ideology, so as to bring this concept in tune with the latest developments of society.[34] An important insight they gained was that in the modern, twentieth century society, the ideological ‘superstructure’ is not always automatically connected to the productive ‘substructure’, as was claimed in classical Marxist theory. Their vision on the role played by ideology was of a more tragic nature: they pictured an ideological superstructure disparately trying to insert itself into the substructure, to make itself ‘useful’ and thereby securing its own survival. For Tafuri, ideology at the end of the nineteenth century found itself in a particularly difficult position, as the latest developments in industrial capitalism
e.g. the division of labor had rendered it increasingly useless. There was only one way in which ideology could now secure its own survival: by relentlessly criticizing the members of its own group. The ideologists of society started to criticize their colleagues for the ‘irrationality’ of their actions: only in this way could the intelligentsia secure its own survival in the maelstrom of rationalization. In Progetto e Utopia, Tafuri proceeds to trace the history of such intellectuals as Weber and Mannheim, of Gropius and Sklovskij, suggesting that:

at the beginning of the twentieth century the unmasking of idols that obstructed the way to a global rationalization of the productive universe and its social dominion, became the new historical task of the intellectual. [35]

However, so claims Tafuri, there is one crucial point in which the history of a Scheler or a Schumpeter is different from that of architects such as Gropius or Mies. This is what Tafuri calls the failure of the architectural avant-garde at the start of the twentieth century; a failure which determines the further development of architecture. At the start of the twentieth century, it no longer sufficed for ‘irrational’ architect-intellectuals to undertake the critique of ideology. As Tafuri analyzed, they now had to convert ‘negativity’ into ‘positivity’ and throw themselves entirely behind the ‘construction of the future’. What Tafuri meant by these words was that modern architects had left the realm of critique for a pro-positive “illusion of revolution”, of a liberation of society. In this way, Tafuri asks:

Why is it that all the ‘tragedy’ of the great nineteenth-century Kultur, and all the utopia of Weimar, could not survive except by seeking complete dominion over the future?[36]

What had always been regarded as the triumph of modern architecture, its objective and undisputable gain, is turned by Tafuri into an utter failure. In fact, so argues Tafuri, the utopia that resulted from these ‘positive’ operations was doomed to fail, because it could not fulfill its revolutionary promises. At the very most it could be adapted into a different, moderate form by a rational state system, an act which only underlined the impotence of any ‘positive’ attempt to change the system. Once more, the reality of the all-embracing rational-capitalist system that does not leave space for alternatives to it is revealed. It was the painter Munch, who in his painting Scream, expressed the total angst of the avant-garde intellectual confronting the cruel reality of the Metropolis, and conveying a feeling of shock.

Representative of Tafuri’s work during this period is an article which he published in the journal Contropiano in 1971.
In ‘Socialdemocrazia e città nella Repubblica di Weimar,’ Tafuri combined the reading of Karl Korsch, Schrifter zur Sozialisierung: Arbeitsrecht für Betriebsräte (1922) with Carlo Aymonino’s Origini e sviluppo della città moderna (1971) and Karl Junghans’ Die Beziehungen zwischen Deutschen und Sowjetischen Architekten in den Jahren 1917 bis 1933 (1967).[37] To be sure, Tafuri´s analysis also had its consequences for the way in which the history of architecture should be written.  Because of the failure of the twentieth-century avant-garde, Tafuri looked for a new framework from which to assess architectural history. Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Freud and Foucault became important sources of inspiration in the search for a history of architecture that could no longer be represented as an unambiguous and linear success story.  It was precisely in this assessment of the avant-garde that Tafuri broke most radically with the historiography of the Modern Movement. While Pevsner and Giedion, as well as Zevi and Benevolo, had welcomed the ‘cheerful alienation’ of the avant-garde as the forerunners of a new era, Tafuri was engaged in a completely different intellectual operation. While Benevolo had pointed to the “European elementarist tradition” and to the “flowery socialism” of William Morris as the precursors of modernism and as such as a desirable cultural policy, and while Zevi saw in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright the incarnation of an ethical doctrine, Tafuri depicted the tormented passages of ‘architectural ideology’ as it developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the technique of controlling the physical environment. Tafuri looked for instruments to analyze the multiplication and fragmentation of these techniques at the start of the twentieth century, an event that, according to him, had been conveniently overlooked by the historiographers of the Modern Movement. Der Mensch ist ein Trostsuchendes Wesen: the urgency and appealing character of the work of Siegfried Giedion was, according to Tafuri, due to the fact that Giedion salvaged an already shattered conceptual unity. In the same way, Nikolaus Pevsner was a ‘positive’ intellectual who offered a consoling notion of a unified Modern Movement to an architectural culture already brought into crisis by the Great Depression, the complex techniques of planning in New Deal America, the reality of Fascist Italy and the Russia of the Five Year Plans.

Tafuri today: (s)talking Tafuri

Today Tafuri’s interpretation of architecture remains compelling for two reasons. First, Tafuri demonstrated how twentieth century architecture is a part of the dynamics of metropolitan modernity and how the vicissitudes of its most eccentric artists, defined through the concept of the ‘avant-garde’, should be viewed by way of Marxian dialectical analysis as an integral part of its mechanisms. Tafuri thus unravelled a complex history which constantly moves between ideology and matter, between the competing yet connected logics of political utopianism and capitalist accumulation. Since the contribution of Tafuri, architectural history as an uncritical apology of the great masters of the past has lost its power of conviction. Second, Tafuri forced the architectural community to come face to face with its originary crisis, as a disciplinary trauma that remains unresolved. This crisis may be resumed in the following way: while architecture may interpret society it cannot form it. It is here that the ideological nature of architecture has its origin. As Marco de Michelis formulates, architecture is no longer the protagonist of the transformations that capitalistic development produces; it can no longer produce them, only interpret them a-posteriori. In modern society, architecture thus remains condemned to interpretation.[38] Even the most recent debate, for example on the theory of projective practice, seems to simply deny or repress the anxiety that generated out of Tafuri’s crisis.

Today we can historicise the reception made by an older generation who often promoted a narrow understanding of Tafuri’s work. However, besides historicisation, any analysis of Tafuri today has to address the question how to further elaborate the central concepts deployed in Tafuri’s work – ideology, criticism and operativity. How can a younger generation of intellectuals develop new tools that in some sense continue his project, beyond the narrow understanding of the first generation? It is my contention that, in order to understand architecture, it is once more necessary to look beyond its disciplinary boundaries. Among others, we should focus upon Tafuri’s reception outside of architecture culture.[39] This also has a programmatic value: Tafuri was, most of all, a transdisciplinary thinker who for his knowledge of architecture constantly drew upon the work of Foucault, Benjamin and others. The cornerstone of a new ‘critical project’ should be to open up the study of architecture to inter-and transdisciplinary discourse. If anything, this was an important lesson by Tafuri: the will to work with fragments and to see in those fragments, in a dialectical way, the reflection of social, political, cultural and economical totalities. Of course, such a study would remain awkward and perhaps also indigestible for our present consumer society. Therefore, the most fundamental question to ask is if a critical project remains the task of architectural theory today.





Hoekstra, Rixt, Building versus Bildung. Manfredo Tafuri and the construction of a historical discipline, Groningen 2005.
See: dissertations.ub.rug.nl/faculties/arts/2005/t.r.hoekstra
For a recent study of Tafuri see also: Leach, Andrew, Manfredo Tafuri. Choosing History, Ghent 2007.

Cacciari, Massimo, Metropolis. Saggi sulla grande città di Sombart, Endell, Scheffler e Simmel, Roma, 1973.
German translations are among others: Cacciari, Massimo, Grossstadt, Baukunst, Nihilismus: Essays, Klagenfurt, 1995.
Cacciari, Massimo, Wohnen. Denken: Die Frage nach dem Ort: Essays über Baukunst in Zeitalter der völligen Mobilmachung, Klagenfurt, 2002.

Dal Co, Franscesco, Abitare nel Moderno, Bari, 1982.

Dal Co, Francesco, Teorie del Moderno, architettura germanica 1880-1920, Bari 1982.

Dal Co, Francesco, ‘Note per la critica dell’ideologia della architettura moderna: da Weimar a Dessau’, Contropiano Materiali Marxisti, no. 1, 1968, p. 153-171.

Dal Co, Francesco, ed., Architettura o rivoluzione: Hannes Meyer, Scritti 1921-1942, Padova, 1969.

Dal Co, Francesco, “Riscoperta del marxismo e problematica di classe nel movimento studentesco europeo. Rudi Dutschke.”, Contropiano, Materiali Marxisti, no. 2, 1968, 423-443.

Tafuri, Manfredo, Progetto e Utopia. Architettura e sviluppo capitalistico. Bari, 1973.

Translations: Kapitalismus und Architektur, von Corbusiers “Utopia“ zur Trabantenstadt. Ed. and transl. by Th. Bandholtz, N. Kuhnert, J. Rodriguez-Lores, Hamburg (Analyse zum Planen und Bauen 9) 1977. English translation: B.L. La Penta, Architecture and Utopia, Design and Capitalist Development, Cambridge Mass., 1976.

Tafuri, Manfredo, Teorie e Storia dell’architettura, Bari, 4th ed., 1976 (1968). Translated by G. Verecchia, Theories and History of Architecture, London, 1980.

Benevolo, Leonardo, Storia dell’architettura moderna, Roma-Bari 1960.

Giedion, Siegfried, Space, Time and Architecture, The Growth of a new Tradition, Cambridge, Mass., 1941.

Hitchcock, Henry Russell, Modern Architecture. Romanticism and reintegration, New York, 1929.

Joedicke, Jürgen, Geschichte der Modernen Architektur, Stuttgart, 1958.

Pevsner, Nikolaus, Pioneers of the Modern Movement from Morris to Gropius, London 1936.

Richards, James Maude, An Introduction to Modern Architecture, London, 1940.

Zevi, Bruno, Storia dell´architettura moderna, Torino, 1950.

Tafuri, Manfredo, Die Kritik der Architektursprache und die Sprache der Architekturkritik (L´architecture dans le Boudoir),
in: Archplus, Nr. 37, April 1978, pp. 37-62.

Tafuri, Manfredo, Das Konzept der typologischen Kritik, in: Archplus, pp. 48-49.

Fester, Marc, Kuhnert, Nikolaus, Der ´Tod der Architektur´ und die Antworten der Architekten, in: Archplus, Nr. 37, April 1978, pp. 2-3.





[1] This article is based on my dissertation, Rixt Hoekstra, Building versus Bildung, Manfredo Tafuri and the construction of a historical discipline, Groningen 2005.

[2] See among others the introduction of Tafuri’s Teorie e Storia dell’architettura, 1968, pp. 9-18.

[3] See Tafuri, Kapitalismus und Architektur, (transl. Progetto e Utopia, 1973) 1976, chapter five, “‚Radikale’ Architektur und Stad’’, pp. 78-94.

[4] Rixt Hoekstra, interview with Nikolaus Kuhnert, Berlin, 9-04-08, (audiocassette.) I want to thank Angelika Schnell who suggested the possibility of this interview, and Nikolaus Kuhnert for offering me this possibility. Presented here is only a part of the interview I had with Kuhnert.

[5] M. Tafuri, ‘Die Kritik der Architektursprache und die Sprache der Architekturkritik (L’Architecture dans le Boudoir), Archplus 37, April 1978. First published as ‘L’Architecture dans le Boudoir, The language of criticism and the criticism of language’, Oppositions, 3, 1974.  M. Tafuri, Das Konzept der typologischen Kritik, Archplus, 37, April 1978.

[6] In the year 1958 the DDR stopped its policy of “ideological coexistence” with the West and declared Marxism-Leninism to be the sole ideological foundation of all Humanities and Social sciences. Political scientists and historians became part of the propaganda machine of the DDR. At the same time, in the BRD the advocates of the totalitarianism-theory ruled: a strong condemnation of all totalitarian states led to a fierce anti-Communist mentality in the 1950s, which was toned down in the 1960s. See: De Graaf, 2003, pp. 530-31.

[7] “Rätekommunismus” stands for Council Communism: a Marxist-Syndicalist movement whose idea of communism was based on self-government of workers´councils.

[8] Hans G. Helms e.a. ed., Kapitalistischer Städtebau, Analysen von Lucius Burckhardt, Hans G Helms, Jörn Janssen, Jörg C. Kirschenmann, Karla Krauß, Peter Neitzke und Joachim Schlandt, Luchterhand Berlin, (Soziologische Essays) 1970.

[9] Kuhnert refers to three editors who in those days were connected to the Verlag für das Studium der Arbeiterbewegung, the publisher of Tafuri’s Kapitalismus und Architektur. These people were Klaus Brake, Helga Fassbinder and Hartmut Frank; they were the editors of the series called “Analysen zum Planen und Bauen.”

[10] The philosopher Massimo Cacciari, the literary theoretician Alberto Asor Rosa and the political philosopher Antonio Negri were all editors of Contropiano.

[11] Thilo Hilpert, ‘Land ohne Avantgarde’, Archplus, 186/87, April 2008, p. 110-113.

[12] Ibid., p.111.

[13] See for a more detailed analysis of post-war architectural culture in West-Germany: Francesca Rogier, ‘The Monumentality of Rhetoric, The Will to Rebuild in Postwar Berlin’ in: S. Williams Goldhagen, R. Legault eds., Anxious Modernisms, Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture, Cambridge Mass., 2000, p.165-191.

[14] Hilpert, ibid., p.111.

[15] Ibid., p.111. Hilpert mentions a conversation with Kuhnert on this point.

[16]Jesko Fezer, ‘Polit-Kybernetik, Arch+, Die Studenten und die IG Bau Steine Erden zwischen 1967 und 1977’, Archplus, 186/187, April 2008, p. 96-103, p. 97: “Arch+ ist keine Fachzeitschrift, sondern eine Problemzeitschrift.

[17] See for a comparison with a Dutch architectural journal: J. Declerck e.a., eds., Oase 25 Years of Critical Reflection, nr. 25, April 2008.

[18] This section is based on the essay by Jesko Fezer, see note 16.

[19] Francesca Rogier, ‘The Monumentality of Rhetoric, The Will to Rebuild in Postwar Berlin’, p. 176.

[20] Jesko Fezer, ’Polit-Kybernetik, Arch+, Die Studenten und die IG Bau Steine Erden zwischen 1967 und 1977’, p.100: “Das Thema war für uns die kritische Durchleuchtung der Architektenideologie.

[21] Ibid., p. 98. In German, Janssens’ lecture was called: “Geheimnisse der Ideologie und des Geschmacks in der Architektur.”

[22] Ibid., p. 96.

[23] In his essay Jesko Fezer mentions that in 1975 the editorial board of Archplus invited for the first time two prominent architectural historians, Julius Posener and Heinrich Klotz, to publish their essays. See: Ibid., p. 103.

[24] Tom Huhn, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, Cambridge 2004. The essay ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ is now published in: Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, Cambridge Mass., 1981.

[25] This section is based on a conversation I had with Angelika Schnell, Innsbruck, October 2008.

[26] Interview Prof. Fonti, I.U.A.V. Venice, May 2002. Translation and transcription author.

[27]Die Architektur verfügte über einen neuen Stil. Eine Reihe entschlossener und wagemutiger Architekten hatte ihn geschaffen, Männer von ungewöhnlicher Phantasie und Erfindungsgabe. Seit fünfhundert Jahre zuvor die Schöpfer der Renaissance sich von der Gotik abwandten und etwas gänzlich anderes an ihre Stelle setzten, hat es in der Europäischen Architektur keine Revolution von ähnlicher Tragweite gegeben...” Pevsner, Europäischer Architektur von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, 1967, p. 457. First published as: Pevsner, An outline of European Architecture, London 1943.

[28] “Allontanare l’angoscia comprendendone e introiettandone le cause questo sembra essere uno dei principali imperative etici dell’arte borghese. Poca importa se i conflitti, le contradizioni, le lacerazioni che generano l’angoscia veranno assorbite in un meccanismo complessivo capace di comporre provvisoriamente quei dissidi, o se la catarsi verrà raggiunta attraverso la sublimazione contemplative.” Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia, Design and Capitalist Development, 1976, (English translation of Progetto e Utopia, 1973), p.1.

[29] Based on the list of courses as compiled by Luca Scappin, as part of his attempt to document Tafuri’s teaching. See: Archivio sonoro (audio-archive) di Manfredo Tafuri, Venice, 2001.

[30] Also Tafuri’s colleague Francesco Dal Co played a considerable role in the study of German architectural culture. See the bibliography for his contribution.

[31] Cacciari, Metropolis. Saggi sulla grande città di Sombart, Endell, Scheffler e Simmel, Roma, 1973.

[32] Idem, p.10: “La ‘chiarezza geometrica’ con cui finalmente si pone l’interesse di classe, manda a fondo ogni sintesi teleologica, sentimentale-etica, e può abitare soltanto la Metropoli.’’

[33] Ibid., p. 3.

[34] Contropiano, Materiali Marxisti, Firenze, 1969-1971.

[35] Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia, 1976, (English translation Progetto e Utopia, 1973), p.50.

[36] Idem, p.50.

[37] Tafuri, ‘Socialdemocrazia e città nella Repubblica di Weimar’, Contropiano, Materiali Marxisti, no. 4, 1971, p. 207-223.

[38] Based on my notes of the lecture De Michelis held on the conference The Critical Legacies of Manfredo Tafuri, Columbia University, New York, 20-21 April 2006.

[39] See, among others, the reception of Tafuri in the journal Radical Philosophy: Jon Goodbun, “The assassin”, Radical Philosophy 138, 2006, p. 62-64, and Gail Day, “Strategies in the metropolitan Merz, Manfredo Tafuri and Italian workerism”, Radical Philosophy, 133, 2005, p. 26-39.