Mark: "Punishment and Praise" (Dec 2006/Jan 2007)
Interview (Bernard Colenbrander)
Professor of architecture history Bernard Colenbrander wouldnít mind giving certain architects a good thrashing Ė academically, that is.
Text David Keuning
Photos Bart van Overbeeke
Even before the first issue of Mark had appeared, Bernard Colenbrander (1956) had subscribed to the magazine. After receiving three issues, he became the first of our readers to cancel his subscription. The reason? He found the magazine to be too much of an exponent of the visual culture: a culture he canít stand. Colenbrander, who is a professor of architecture history at the University of Technology-Eindhoven, has done quite a bit of writing for Archis (which changed its name to Volume in 2005) and is currently a contributor to the academic architecture journal Oase. As head curator for the Netherlands Architecture Institute, he has been involved in the realization of many books. Among his other writings are a dissertation on the theory of urban design, De verstrooide stad (The Dispersed City), and a biography of Frans van Gool, formerly the national architect of the Netherlands. Mark talked to Colenbrander about visual culture, books and magazines. And about Manfredo Tafuri, a man who made a practice of flogging architects. The nicest architects got the biggest thrashings. A historian that Colenbrander likes to think of as a role model.
In the emails we exchanged prior to this interview, you indicated that youíd love to talk about some of your favourite architecture books, as well as about the evolution and downfall of the architecture magazine, as illustrated by what has happened to Archis. Are todayís architecture magazines really in such a deplorable state?
The market for architecture magazines is subject to serious erosion, and Archis is a good example. The publication has a history that goes back over 70 years. It was the first magazine that I subscribed to as a student, and during the time that I was involved in setting up the Netherlands Architecture Institute Ė Archis became part of that enterprise Ė I developed an enormous affection for the magazine. But what happened in 2005? The magazine relinquished its very title. That was a result of the commercial catastrophe that hit the magazine, of course, after which the editors had to look for new collaborators Ė Rem Koolhaasís firm, Columbia University and God only knows what organs joined the effort to keep the thing going. As a consequence, however, Archis was forced to sacrifice its identity, which consisted of the insightful publication of a series of magazines that were interrelated in many ways. Not only was that link broken Ė individual issues covering all sorts of subjects were even sold in a slipcase.
At that point, you know how things stand.
Yes. Any magazine that comes out in a slipcase is about to hear the death knell, isnít it? Somewhere around the year 2000, the formula of this magazine in particular and of architecture magazines in general became obsolete. The 1980s had seen the appearance of an increasing number of magazines devoted to architecture as a cultural expression. Previously, it had been about architecture as a social event. At a certain time, that approach had reached the saturation point. Evidently, when that happens itís necessary to determine new boundaries and to think about what might still be a tenable formula.
In your opinion, has any other magazine taken the place of Archis?
Not even an international publication?
Maybe the Archis formula no longer relates to our time.
That might be true. Magazines have become piecemeal. Archis was presumptuous enough to combine everything relevant in one magazine, in which scholarly things happened, in which books were reviewed, and in which buildings were published along with the enrichment provided by illustrations. But all those components have been fragmented into various formulas, each of which sheds light on a single aspect. Currently, youíve got a magazine that puts the scholar in the limelight, like Oase, and uses peer reviews to forge a direct link to the academic discourse. Then, too, there are magazines such as Archplus that focus on what used to be called a Ďspecial issueí. Itís quite noticeable in what they do. At Mark, you concentrate on visual culture and allow images to take precedence over analysis.
If you can find what youíre looking for in various magazines, how bad can it be that the classic, generic magazine no longer exists?
Itís bad only for sentimental reasons. Because I just happen to belong to a generation that grew up during a time that such magazines existed, and I liked them. Thatís purely subjective, of course, because in truth the market is very well served by these new-style magazines. And we adapt to the situation. But I do think itís a pity. A similar development can be seen in the book-publishing world, for that matter.
I had asked for a list of your favourite architecture books. Whatís particularly striking is that theyíre all 25 to 30 years old, or thereabouts. These books have a certain value in your eyes. How do they compare with todayís publications?
I donít believe that books published 30 years ago were better. But perhaps I am a bit conservative. Take a book like Modern Architecture by Tafuri and Dal Co; thatís a keeper, even after 30 years. I also use it as a teaching tool. However, because it came out in 1976, a lot can still be said about what happened in the years that followed. And itís important to make clear that Tafuri and Dal Coís ideological approach is ripe for revision, because the authors see everything through the eyes of Marxist paranoia. Itís that particular perspective that makes the book so good, though. By taking that position, theyíre able to describe the tension between architecture and its context. No one had ever done that before. It leads to extremely exciting analyses and biographies. They name the good guys and the bad guys. You donít have to agree with them, but nowhere is the field of tension between what the architect does and what society demands described in sharper terms than theirs. I can think of no reference book published after Tafuri that more pregnantly describes the total tableau. Tafuri seems to have put an end to the phenomenon of the reference book. We no longer dare to take the plunge.
Why not? Does it have to do with philoscientific considerations?
Yes. Itís the fear of burning your fingers on a subject thatís really too complicated. But the reference book does have to be made. Iím a modest guy, but I can imagine steeling myself for the task. Even if I fail. Itís a fine ambition, isnít it? How did Dutch writer Gerard Reve put it Ė the book that makes all other books superfluous except for the telephone book? At the moment, the desire to make this type of book seems to be out of reach. What we have instead are a whole lot of books that can be classified as Ďego documentsí.
A definition that fits Rossiís A Scientific Autobiography, a book thatís also on your list.
Rossi is an architect who was brash enough to write his personal story and tie it in with his built and unbuilt oeuvre. And because he tried writing it in a literary way, the reader is left with countless unverifiable remarks.
In preparing for this interview, I opened his book for the first time. I thought it was terrible. It did absolutely nothing for me. I reached the halfway point and gave up.
The Architecture of the City has comparable weaknesses. Thatís the most serious academic work that Rossi ventured into. Surprisingly, unlike A Scientific Autobiography, itís a book that can be summarized, although everyone goes about it in a different way. Apparently, heís very much into freedom of interpretation Ė no doubt because of his unconstrained Italian mentality, which often leads him to make the strangest allegations. When we think of the origin of new-style ego documents, two names that come up are Rossi, and Koolhaas, of course, the author of Delirious New York. If ever there was an ego document for the postmodern time Ė the mother of all ego documents Ė itís that book. Koolhaas totally distorts history, interpreting it to the point of insanity, and the story is illustrated in the most personal way imaginable: the whole city is conquered in drawings by Madelon Vriesendorp and immediately subjected to psychoanalysis Ė even on the cover we see two skyscrapers sharing a bed. That book marked the beginning of the ego documents. Iím not sure what to call the flood of fat books that followed. Theyíve been referred to as Ďdatascapesí. Nonetheless, because of the arbitrariness and subjectivity of the material presented in such books, Iím inclined to see them in the context of ego documents. Even in The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Mr Koolhaas fails to meet the academic standard and to display the objectivity pursued by scholars. Ego documents went on to reach a climax in an interminable ooze of monographs, which weíve had quite enough of by now. I do believe that ego documents have their place, but a good one should have the kind of thematic twist that allows others to get involved in the subject. Steven Holl is a good example. His curious obsession with American vernacular resulted in Rural and Urban House Types and The Alphabetical City, both of which are part of the Pamphlet Architecture series. I think itís great that he had the nerve to embark on that project. Architects shouldnít hesitate to join the discourse by moving beyond their specialized areas to talk about general categories.
Are you thinking of some category in particular?
Well, take Kollhoffís tectonics, for instance. If you read what heís got to say about that subject, you understand immediately why heís the one whoís brought tectonics back to the inner cities and their surroundings.
But tectonics is his specialty, isnít it?
Itís his personal theme, but he talks about it not only through his oeuvre. The theme catches his attention, and he makes a comprehensive presentation. He correctly traces the subject back to the 19th century Ė I believe he cites Semper Ė and goes on to elaborate on the subject. Germans are always good at that sort of thing. Ungers did the same in his decades-old Berliner Vorlesungen. Archplus recently devoted an issue to these lectures. Ungers begins with primitive typologies: a one-room dwelling without context, a multi-room dwelling with context Ė categories of that sort. His goal is objectivity, which helps him to avoid playing the clichťd role of an architect armed with slides of his own work.
Why donít architects take this approach more often? Itís got to be the most elegant way to talk about oneself.
Architecture is a profession for ego-trippers. Given the choice, clients fall for the architect who uses charm and an attractive portfolio to back his presentation rather than for someone whose story is underpinned with academic facts. Kollhoff is not going to land a commission with a dry lecture on tectonics. He enters the room flashing pictures of Potzdamer Platz and his Daimler Benz Building.
Apparently, though, academics and people involved with museums have a need for more general discussions.
Intellectually speaking, architects are lazy. Thereís really no other way to put it. Now that Iíve been fortunate enough to acquire a university position, I notice that architects rely on intuition in the classroom Ė they teach by responding to current events or to concrete situations taking place in lecture halls and workshops.
And thatís not a good development?
No, it isnít. An institution like the University of Technology-Eindhoven does not have enough professors and instructors capable of presenting themselves to the outside world, through books and magazine articles, in a way that shows their work as a communicative activity with a foundation that invites the comments and criticism of others. We donít write enough. Worse still, in an academic sense itís very hard for architecture theoreticians to hold their ground. In the case of engineers, you can always say that theyíre doing research. Frankly, this university doesnít have an impressive tradition of research thatís found its way into something like Ungersí Berliner Vorlesungen.
Ungers isnít the youngest kid on the block, is he?
Ungers is in his eighties. So you have every right to say that Iím relating to a bunch of old farts. Maybe I am. Even so, I can have a very good discussion about Ungers with architect Christian Rapp, for instance, whom I consider a kindred spirit.
Rapp is also German. You obviously have an affinity for your colleagues in Germany.
I do. The approach that I champion is a German speciality. I like working with literature that adds objectivity to our discourse. The Italians, like Tafuri Ė or Monestiroli, who wrote Nine Lectures in Architecture Ė manage to do that. As do the Germans. And I donít rule out the possibility of the same thing happening in Dutch-speaking areas.
After listening to you, Iíd have to say that things donít look very bright for architecture publications and for the education of architecture students in the Netherlands.
Oh, I donít know. Whatís Ďbrightí anyway?
You say that Dutch teachers rely on intuition in the classroom and that Dutch books are based on intuition. And that youíd like things to be different.
Thatís true. We live in a culture of plenty, we live in a culture of visual stimulation and we also live in a culture of constantly shifting perspectives caused by everybodyís infatuation with travel. I, on the other hand, have a profound need to sit still, to do one thing and to do that thing well. If you make such an attempt, before long you may find yourself writing respectable biographies Ė a genre Iíve had a go at on more than one occasion. Ultimately, that reference book will also be within my reach. Iíd like very much to be faced with that task one of these days.
Whatís stopping you, except your own doubts?
It has to do with time and the degree of complexity. The complexity of the task is truly enormous. Naturally, Iím all ears when I come across literature that addresses all thatís happened since the days of Tafuri or that might help me to establish a conceptual framework capable of eclipsing Tafuri. That brings us in the neighbourhood of literature written in recent years by philosophers like Peter Sloterdijk and Rene Boomkens, who have been deeply involved in the phenomenon of globalization. Boomkens has actually designated globalization as the successor of postmodernism. I find that manoeuvre difficult to grasp, but I am interested in what such philosophers have to say about major movements in society, which for the last 20 to 30 years have indeed revolved around the phenomenon of globalization. What Iím talking about specifically is a communication network with a reach that continues to expand to such a degree that, according to Sloterdijk, the world will ultimately be reduced to one point. Itís that point of Sloterdijkís that I find so fascinating, because that point means that you can stay home in peace, knowing that from that spot the world is within your reach.
And with that thought in mind, youíd like to write a book on architecture.
Yes. Itís a bit of an esoterically exaggerated ambition, but it wonít let me go. Itís crazy that we still donít have anything better than Tafuri. Here at the university we throw a bunch of stuff together for our masterís programme Ė to give our students a picture of the last 30 years Ė but the way of thinking is still based on Tafuri.
Isnít Framptonís Modern Architecture a suitable substitute?
Not in my opinion. Iíve never seen anything worthwhile about that book. It tastes of nothing. And itís that sense of paranoia that makes Tafuri and Dal Co so good. Even if you donít ascribe to their views, you have to admire the razor-sharp analysis. Their merciless treatment of Oud, for example. They call him soft, which I think is the word they also use for Perret. Clearly, these are people from the past who still get a buzz from classicism, even though itís been long dead and gone. Then there are those who actually relate to modern times, such as Peter Behrens, for whom they have great respect. And you have all sorts of softies, like Aalto Ė people they donít even give the time of day. They get a sound thrashing in that book. I think thatís terrific. All the cuddly toys get punished, and all the more or less cynical figures, like Daniel Burnham, are praised to the skies. The book contains a good number of mysterious deviations, of course. They canít figure out Mies van der Rohe, for instance, and thatís another thing I enjoy about the book. They canít bring him to his knees, even though his work is purely metaphysically orientated. They have a big problem with that. Not long ago at a conference in Slovenia, I had the opportunity of seeing Dal Co in action: a cynical, nicotine-destroyed man who hovered over the female students to the extent that I found myself wondering: is that really necessary? At first glance, definitely not a pleasant bloke. All the same, I still very much admire the book he co-authored. Not that I could ignore his personality and walk up to him and say: I really love your book. Thatís not something youíd say unless you liked the guy. In any case, the message conveyed by the book is that when youíre discussing a difficult subject, itís possible to make penetrating statements that have substance.
My only issue with the book is that itís such a great read that I always wonder whether what makes it so good is that itís a great read: nothing more, nothing less.
But what did you think of the beginning of the book? When I first picked it up, I didnít understand a word of it. As a student, I grew up with Giedion, after which I read Norberg-Schulz Ė such a well-mannered history. Then I saw Tafuri for the first time, and he begins with the American city. I thought: what in the world is this? He starts off with the vulgar, commercial basics. You can say: so what? But it was such an eye-opener back then, getting used to the idea that modernism was not only a project that generated joy and happiness but also, and particularly, a commercial enterprise that operated on the basis of enlightened self-interest and that had countless unpleasant side effects. The authors made this point only by carefully choosing the opening theme of their book. My education had injected me with the thought that Aalto was a sweetheart. A fine man. And so he was. That someone would give him, of all people, such a walloping was almost pathetic. But after a couple of readings, I thought: my God, he has a point. The book provides a coherent perspective on architecture as an entity. I certainly wouldnít mind giving a few good whacks to that whole Anglo-Saxon culture of postmodernism once launched by Charles Jencks and to the unsightly superficiality that occurs when we take imagery as the measure of everything. That is so irritating. Surely somebodyís got to do something about it? If a reference book is the solution, we may just have to give it a try.