Read Hans Hollein’s 1968 polemic ‘Everything is Architecture’ today and suddenly everything from Uber to Amazon is spatial practice
In April 1968 the Austrian architect Hans Hollein published his seminal polemic text ‘Everything is Architecture’ in the avant-garde magazine Bau. Predominantly through captioned images, the article attempted to redefine architecture beyond the conventional discipline. In reaction to the suffocating po-faced pragmatism of postwar planning and policy, Hollein pushed the boat all the way out: illustrated with such diverse objects as lipstick, pill capsules, space suits and photographs of Che Guevera, Hollein labelled everything as architecture.
While progressive, this was not the first time Bau had associated diverse and commonplace objects (particularly technological objects) with architecture. In 1965 a cover featured the rocket launch pads at Cape Canaveral, the caption simply: ‘cathedrals of a new worldview’.
In the same year, doubtless having an influence on Hollein, the British critic Reyner Banham had penned ‘The Great Gizmo’, an article that reframed architecture in terms of mobile infrastructure. The gizmo, he suggested, was any mass-produced (often anonymously designed) gadget; examples ranged from the walkie-talkie to the two-stroke boating motor, the cordless shaver and the Bell helicopter or transistor radio.
‘If architecture is spatial practice, then anything with a consequence for our physical environment could be architecture’
At their core, gizmos were defined by their spatial consequences, their ability to produce and reproduce completely new forms of life in the landscape and city (the air-conditioned desert home, the high-speed guerrilla warfare of Vietnam, the bodiless community of amateur radio). In Banham’s view, since architecture was the spatial discipline par excellence, the gizmo - that is, popular technology - was the true meaning to contemporary architecture.
A month after Hollein’s 1968 article appeared, although totally unrelated to it, a diverse group of French social dissidents rose up against their patriarchal government, declared a revolution and occupied both institutions and urban territory (most notably in Paris). But by June, the barricades had been smashed and the Mai 68 movement crushed. At that point a small delegation of French architects retreated to Aspen, Colorado, to attend the International Design Conference.
Among them was visionary designer François Dallegret, perhaps best known for his collaboration with Banham on Anatomy of a Dwelling (‘A Home is Not a House’). Dallegret’s relevance to this tale does not concern his own work, but rather his role in introducing to each other several extraordinary agents. It was Dallegret who first put Banham, Hollein, Archigram and the Japanese Metabolists in one room.
In a sense, this meeting was the parabolic apotheosis - high point and beginning of the end - for the techno-utopian avant-garde. By the early ’70s Archigram had abandoned megastructures altogether, the Metabolists were dissolved, and Bau had closed. The grand architectural assumption of the ’60s, one inherited from the postwar optimism of reconstruction and the atomic era, was that technological progress and social development were interdependent. In other words, technology would inevitably lead to a more prosperous, liberal, enlightened global humanity. In retrospect, this was a catastrophically wrong, and even naïve, position to have assumed.
The legacy of the techno-avant-garde in the mainstream was not, of course, the joyous inclusivity of Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, but the cultural elitism of Rogers and Piano’s Pompidou Centre. High-Tech architecture would become the bauble of the new neoliberal elite, while the remnants of Metabolism (strangely echoing pre-war Japanese imperialism) would find an affinity with the authoritarian regimes of Singapore and Saudi Arabia.
As is often the case, the thing that made the avant-garde of the ’60s so interesting at the time is also what has made it so problematic today: an unwavering belief and optimism in the mythical power of technology to improve our lives. This might be a question of timeliness versus timelessness; by reacting impulsively to the needs of their own moment, there remain only a few lessons from the 1960s avant-garde relevant today, and these are principally political, not formal or theoretical.
This is also tied to the surprising homogeneity of vision during this period, in comparison with say the avant-garde of the early Modernists. The groups I’ve mentioned so far are all ideologically and aesthetically convergent, which could not be said of the proto-fascist Italian Futurists, the anarchist Dadaists, the industrialists who wrote for German magazines like G or Esprit Nouveau’s Functionalists. To this end, the fundamentally divergent movements of the ’20s remain poignant.
Nonetheless, what can we understand about the present from Hollein’s statement that everything is architecture? If architecture is indeed spatial practice, not simply built structures, then anything with a consequence for our physical environment (and not only objects) could be architecture. Airbnb is architecture, Amazon is architecture. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (as well as the Prism programme of surveillance by the NSA) are all architecture too.
Digital commerce platforms as a whole, including all those above, depend on sophisticated algorithmic programs to operate. The simple display of available nearby drivers within Uber, and their distance from your location, rests on complex real-time calculations in a constant feedback loop. The implications of Uber are spatial (changing transport flows in a city), social (each worker is their own entrepreneurial boss) and economic (the worker is paid little, but the customer has access to cheap transport).
There have always been claims that parametricism can also respond to social and political parameters. I am not convinced
These implications are not formal - there is no ‘style’ to contemporary algorithmic design. The assumption made by many architects in the late ’80s was that computational design would bring with it a solution to the perennial aesthetic crises of postmodernity. Architects of the avant-garde, among them Zaha Hadid and Foreign Office Architects, employed ‘parametric’ design mainly to produce formal extravagance and variation, although there have always been claims that parametricism can also respond to social and political parameters. I am not convinced.
The mistake this generation of avant-garde made was in thinking algorithms were useful for making form and style. As the examples of successful internet companies show, parametric design is most powerful when it pursues non-formal, informational architecture - not buildings. In this respect, their obsession and belief in technology was no different from the hubris of the techno-utopians. The results have been predictably similar: dedication to the realisation of an impossible goal irrespective of the moral compromises required.
By contrast, the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century had, from their beginning, profound political ambitions. You could argue, although perhaps not seriously, that technological and formal issues were subservient to Modernist social aims: as Corbusier said, ‘architecture or revolution’. For the Modernists, the architect had either to reinvent society through new ways of living, or face its dissolution and decline. The parallels to our own age are obvious.
The avant-garde is intrinsically what is beyond the limits of current social norms. Where previously this concerned formal and conceptual propositions, you could argue that since what architects want to do most is build buildings, all aesthetic and technological experimentation is firmly within the possibilities of conventional society today. If an avant-garde were still possible, it would have to look outside the stuff of architecture to its invisible processes: political, economic and governmental.
Everything is Architecture: Bau Magazine from the 60s and 70s
ICA Fox Reading Room, 29 July – 27 September 2015