Do itself as ‘A Gentle Manifesto[2]’. It can

Do you think that
architectural manifestos are useful tools for architects?

Why or why not? Be specific.

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When questioning the
usefulness of manifestos as a tool for architects, we must first define one. A manifesto
can be defined as a written statement of the beliefs, aims, and policies of an
organization, especially a political party1.

An architectural manifesto, on the other hand, can be much harder to categorise
and place. As Charles Jencks argues in the introduction to his ‘Theories and
Manifestos of Contemporary Architecture’, the Ten Commandments were the
original architectural manifesto, or at the least they set an outline based on their
tone and form. Taking the teleological argument, God is the architect of each
and every thing, with architects playing God when making both subjective
decisions, and when adopting one theory over another. More recent manifestos of
the 20th century have ranged heavily on both form and tone.

‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’ by Robert Venturi works as a form
of anti-manifesto manifesto and even subtitles itself as ‘A Gentle Manifesto2’.

It can be placed against Antonio Sant’Elia’s ‘Manifesto of Futurist
Architecture’ that is far more forceful in its views and tries to be far more
persuasive, using much wilder rhetoric. These vary in tone, whilst both vary
heavily in form to Bernard Tschumi’s ‘Advertisements for Architecturei’ –
often not accepted as a manifesto – that take the form of graphic posters
showing quotes and famous buildings. It is this varying form that makes it
difficult to measure manifestos as tools. You cannot quantify ‘usefulness’
unless perhaps in such a case where you could look at publication or sales
figures. Manifestos have differing values to each individual author and reader.

Success of the manifesto may be measured as a form of support or prerequisite
for an architectural movement, as a look into history to document the past and hint
at what is to come. They can be used as a way of profiling architects and their
work and as a way for the architect to gain self-justification for his/her work
and writing. Architects use them as a way of advertising, of reaching a wider
audience, and in some cases, of making money. They are a way of helping people
understand buildings and to communicate the theory behind them.

 

The manifesto which I will
focus on and one which I think successfully manages to be a useful tool within
each of these categories is Rem Koolhaas’ ‘Delirious New York’. In the form of
a three-hundred-plus page book, Koolhaas has written a retroactive manifesto on
Manhattan’s architectural endeavours and the complexities of its ‘Grid’ system.

He describes the city as the ’20th Century’s Rosetta Stone3′
and sets out the symbiotic relationship between the city’s alien urban philosophy
and the distinctive architecture that was built up around it, describing it as
having an ‘unconscious architectural production’. Koolhaas narrates it in such a
way to the extent that he describes the architecture itself having given rise
to the distinct culture and society it holds within. He structures the text as
a work of architecture, with chapters and subheadings laid out to mimic the
‘Grid’ system he talks about. The blocks of text themselves are analogous to
New York and the urbanism they describe; and each one is divided up in relation
to the other in order to coexist and in this way, he tells the story of New
York’s history: its infamous skyscrapers, Coney Island, and the formation of
the ‘Grid’ system. ‘Delirious New York’ provides both a look into changing
architectural styles at the time, the political, socio economic changes within
society, and into Koolhaas himself. Koolhaas describes himself as the city’s
‘ghostwriter4’,
with his first sentence of the introduction stating, ‘How to write a manifesto
– on a form of urbanism for what remains of the twentieth century – in an age
disgusted with them? The fatal weakness of manifestos is their inherent lack of
evidence.’ He is aware of the public perception of architects at the time and
how manifestos may be misinterpreted – how they may not be the best tool for an
architect to use to explain his work. In this way Koolhaas differences himself
from other avant-garde architects of the time; instead of using the theory in
his manifesto to provoke a reality in the built environment, he inverts the
process and takes the evidence provided to him on the streets of the City,
producing his ‘Grid’ theory from this. In Koolhaas’ opinion, New York’s
manifesto was never written as the city was built up in such a radical way that
its ambitions could never be openly stated.

 

Architectural manifestos work
as a useful tool as a way of showing support or creating a prerequisite for an
architectural movement. At the beginning of his collection, Jencks questions: ‘Why
do politicians and architects write manifestoes? When Karl Marx wrote The
Communist Manifesto, he was not trying to produce a piece of literature – nor
interpret the world, as he said, but change it.5’
In the 1960s, a small crusade in architecture reimagined its own counterculture
by using the medium of writing, instead of building. Through associating the
architecture they were describing with progressive ideas at the time within
art, literature and philosophy, the architects wished to elevate and highlight
the intellectual dimensions of the built environment and the architecture that
they were designing. This move towards the written form soon connected
architecture – and architects – with various questions on pop culture,
widespread media, advertising, marketing and new technology. Celebrity
architects were formed, more recently given the portmanteau title of
‘Starchitect’ – architects who have reached a degree of fame amongst the
general population and whose celebrity and critical acclaim have transformed
them into idols of the architecture world. These ‘Starchitects’ are generally
associated with the 20th century avant-garde.

 

By
looking at the formative period of the early 20th century
avant-garde, we can see that architectural literature, and more specifically the
manifesto, did not only come before, but also generated our idea of modern
architecture that we have today. This does indeed seem to be the case when
looking at the work of Le Corbusier and his manifesto ‘Towards a New
Architecture’, which has had a highly influential effect on the profession of
architecture and holds the mantle of the ultimate architecture. It is
unquestionably a critical piece of architectural theory, drawing both a cult
following from some and an abject hatred from others. The rise of Futurism and
architects including Adolf Loos, Mies Van Der Rohe, Robert Venturi and Rem
Koolhaas himself all cement this point. ‘Between 1890 and 1940 a new culture
(the Machine Age?) selected Manhattan as laboratory: a mythical island where
the invention and testing of a metropolitan lifestyle and its attendant
architecture could be pursued as a collective experiment.6’
‘Delirious New York’ was written whilst Koolhaas had taken up the position of a
visiting professor at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New
York. First published in 1978, it was written during a time of financial crisis
– the administration in New York had to be given a large federal loan in order
to avoid bankruptcy. Koolhaas advertises the Island at a time when confidence
in the city was at a low; he promotes it as the ideal modern metropolis. In Koolhaas’ admiration and examination of the city, New
York is described as a metaphor for the incredible diversity of human life visible.

At the beginning of the 20th century, population, information, and
technology advances formed a ‘culture of congestion7’
within Manhattan. The Island became a workshop for the invention and testing of
a metropolitan lifestyle. ‘The entire city became a factory of man-made experience, where the
real and the natural ceased to exist.8′

 

Koolhaas
has used his manifesto as a tool to successfully appraise the growth of New York
and the changing architectural climate of the time. In writing retrospectively,
he can justify his writing with evidence, reducing criticism that other
architects’ work often faced at the time. Koolhaas, however, cannot help
himself when writing a speculative conclusion to ‘Delirious New York’. He explains
that the appendix should be regarded as a ‘fictional conclusion9’
and that it is an ‘interpretation of the same materials, not through words, but
in a series of architectural projects’. Koolhaas has used his manifesto as a
tool to create a conscious doctrine on the pervasiveness of ‘Manhattanism’,
allowing him to conclude not in writing, but to oppose this movement via
architectural proposals for the city. In doing so, he successfully
differentiates himself from the other architects and manifesto writers of the
time, using the manifesto to create a new image for himself.

1 Cambridge English
Dictionary

2 Venturi, Complexity
and Contradiction in Architecture, Pg 40.

3 Koolhaas, Delirious
New York, Pg. 9

4 Koolhaas, Delirious
New York, Pg.­ 9

5 Jencks, Theories and Manifestos of Contemporary
Architecture, Pg. 6

6 Koolhaas, Delirious
New York, Pg. 9

7 Koolhaas, Delirious
New York, Pg.

8 Koolhaas, Delirious
New York, Pg.

9 Koolhaas, Delirious
New York, Pg. 293

i. Tschumi’s ‘Advertisements for Architecture’