Buildings, Texts, and Contexts III: The Tower and the Sphere: Architecture and Modernity

Modernism has fundamentally to do with the emergence of new kinds of objects and events and, at the same time, new conceptualizations of their appearance, of changing event structures and temporalities, and of the relationships between objects, their producers and maintainers, and their audiences and consumers. A history and theory of modernism, then, must involve the category of the producing, using, viewing subject as well as the object, which itself includes buildings and projects, texts and discourses, and the contexts of their production and reception.

One of the most significant, sustained attempts to thematize the changed conceptualization of subjects and objects in modernity in a systematic aesthetic and critical theory is found in the body of work generated by Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno, which is also related to the earlier writings of Georg Simmel and the later work of Manfredo Tafuri and Fredric Jameson. Theirs is a vivid diagnosis of the everyday life of the subject and object under industrial capitalism, as well as the specialized work of art and its necessary contradictions. At the same time, Martin Heidegger’s understanding of technology and his concern with the nature of working and production provided the basis for further work by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and a later generation of theorists of the modern and the postmodern. This course will use these texts to generate theories of modern architecture. Our question is not “How does modern architecture reflect the conditions of modernity,” but rather, positioned in modernity, “What can architecture (as subject, as object, as technique) do?’

We will propose a persistent dialectic for the study of the activity of modern architecture as a response to the contexts of modernity—the Tower and the Sphere—which can incorporate the conceits and paradoxes of the needle and the globe from Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, the pyramid and the labyrinth from Tschumi’s “The Architectural Paradox,” and the sphere and the labyrinth from Tafuri. Roughly, we will propose that the one domain, the Tower, tends toward connectivity and overdetermination by external forces, mainly technology and reification (the threat of the Thing), represented, for example, by the architecturally inert grid-elevation machine of the American skyscraper. The other domain, the Sphere, tends to be internalized and substantive, heterotopic, focusing on the relative autonomy of the discipline and the discourse, and producing self-reflexive thought. These persistent terms are, however, themselves dialectical—the tower internalizing the repetition of the typical plan as an architectural device, the spherical volume viewed from the exterior becoming a solid, geometric form. These negations and affirmation are refracted and reflected, fragmented and remontaged, in modernity through an increasingly thin but all the more present architectural surface—an intensifying facade assembly, the tenuous membrane between the architectural object and the metropolis, and a fading critical disciplinary boundary. It is at this sheer surface—at the junction of the interior and the exterior, subject and object, the Tower and Sphere—that we will inquire into the spacing work of architecture.