"We are living in the rococo of modernism today"
The good people at WORK Gallery in Kings Cross often host exhibitions presenting exciting contemporary artists involved in political and radical practices - but their latest exhibition, no less exciting for all interested in Utopias and counter-culture, is dedicated to the work of Austrian architectural collective Haus-Rucker-Co. Composed of Laurids and Manfred Ortner, Gunter Zamp Kelp and Klaus Pinter, they gained international attention between the late sixties and the early eighties, proposing daring interpretations of the urban landscape in a number of temporary installations ("Provisional Structures") in various cities and gallery space. They also produced a large amount of paper architecture - a field, you might have gathered, of particular interest to this blog.
The exhibition runs until the first of September and sample a variety of projects spanning over their entire production, from furniture to full size buildings - all richly documented through a variety of pictures, sketches, collages and models:
Organic shapes, synthetic materials, sensual futures, pea coats and mustaches: what Haus-Rucker-Co, has been known for on the blogosphere is well represented but are also treated to a unique insight in the theory and the concepts that sustained their projects.
Haus-Rucker-Co. - Environement Transformers - 1968
The Space Age was not all Sputnik and The Jetsons: it also brought more theoritical investigation of space. Not, this time, as a liminal world where the grown man's impatient imagination could roam free, but the ambiguous environement where physicality meets cultures and practices - the space of Fontana's actions, of Foucault's geography and of Lefebvre's justice.
"The great obcession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history (...) The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space."
Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces, 1967
The epoch of the Space Age future was to be an epoch of space; Freed from the contingency of history, freed from the guilt and the responsabilities, the architect was at last allowed to experiment for experimentation's sake: "Its design is free from local politics and utilitarian pressure because provisional architecture is not burdened with the mortgage of having to sustain the next hundred years" says Laurids Ortner, one of the founding members of the collective.
And indeed, the idea of provisional structures, constructions that are designed and produce to last a limited period, addresses directly this primacy of space over time: whereas architecture until then, more openly than any other field of design, seemed to be concerned with history or it's rejection, here it may have found in ephemerality it's full avant-garde realization.
On the contrary, interrogations about space become central, and of public space in particular. Spaces of interaction, of exchange, where social life potentially enters the realm of the experimental:
"Within urban areas 'naturally grown' provisional structures have already shaped the general appearance to a large degree: the 'every day' architecture of traffic lights, add-paintings, traffic signs, masts and wiring has long since overcome classical architecture."
Indeed a lot of the Austrians work is concerned with urban, common space, it's use and it's appropriation - certainly the most obviously political element in their practice. Many of their works, treading the thin line between public and private spheres, would address in Jurgen Habermas words, our relationship to the other, but also to the sphere of public authority.
The experiments of the group in soft structures, modular architecture and transparent surfaces are indicative enough of their expectations, whereas later works like Insel Hamburg, Schrage Ebene or Wellenweise hint at their oblique strategies, and interrogations concerning the inclusiveness and the delimination role of architecture.
"The construction of voluminous changing shapes from a moving malleable substance."
Manifesto Blanco, 1946
Haus-Rucker-Co. - Gelbes Herz - 1968
Space Age has pretty much disappeared, relegated to the backlands of quirky furniture and retro hype - every once in a while we see it resurfacing in a film or collection, recently in it's soviet flavour in particular (Kosmograd, Post-gravity Art, CCCP, etc.)
Conceptions of the future have evolved a lot throughout history and often provide quite peculiar evocations of the zeitgeist: Futurism, we will see, was an obvious forerunner, and if it's fanatical devotion to mass media brings it closer to the Space Age populist strategy, it's brutal avant-gardism still leaves it miles away from Twiggy and Mary Quant's child-like optimism:
The 1960s Space Age was rooted not, as for the Italian Futurists, in that metaphysical experience of the mechanized war machine, but in an other type of machine: one pointed to the stars, in a collective effort to propulsing the human body beyond the sky, into this abstract and minimalism empyrean kingdom were life was so alien that functionalism itself could look exotic, reconciling in the process pop culture's demand for spectacular with high-modernism.
The conquest of space certainly brought about the near mystique optimism in the potency of human thought, but in parallel the western world's economy was settling into a new paradigm, seeing the parallel rise of youth culture and leisure society: the complex interactions between these two concepts will determine large chunks of both the mainstream to come, and the vociferous Marxist counter-culture:
"Should a man wander through the city and see through the busy but aimless throngs,
consuming themselves, he would be amazed"
Robert Chasse, Hall of Mirrors, Council for the Liberation of Daily Life, 1967
A number of pieces of Haus-Rucker-Co. presented in the exhibition address questions of environmentalism (like "Grune Lunge" or "Natur Inszenierung") and the space occupied by nature in the city: the entire "Berg in der Stadt" proposal (1973-74) suggest the construction of large facades of fake mountainous surfaces, mounted on a metallic skeleton, simulating from one side a slice of raw, natural landscape, and displaying on the other the full artificiality of it's construction.
Here there is a clear departure from the polished and industrialized aesthetics of the Space Age: in exposing the underlying structure, architecture is changed from a commodity to a process. William Kent, who is credited for inventing the English garden, created vast enclaves of tightly controlled nature, paradoxically mimicking the natural landscape as it can be found outside of gardens. Yet throughout his pastures one can find ruins, fake obviously, but as carefully aged and deconstructed as his garden were skillfully overgrown. The ruins, he said, were a pivotal element, as they were to be the sole indicator of the presence of man, stressing how much work and thought went in the design of those modern arcadias. Maybe it is under this light that one should see the structures proposed by Haus-Rucker-Co. : as many displays of artifical nature, be it an oasis or a mountain, to remind the city-dweller of the skills and perfection of nature that went into the creation of our cities.
Haus-Rucker-Co. - Palmtree Island, Downtown Megastructure & Environement Transformers - 1971
"provisional architecture is agressive. It breaks up burnt-in habits of seeing."
Many of their projects address classical tropes of the modernist to post-modernist turning point: the hidden is made apparent, the structure become external and the artifice, the technicality becomes part of the overall aesthetics.
There is little doubt that their work has had a decisive influence on further architecture, not on only their fellow paper architects (AntFarm, Archigram...) but also on the deconstructivist "movement" for example: the own "Uberbauung" project of hanging gardens on the roofs of Vienna partly prefigured Coop Himmelb(l)au's iconic Falkestrasse rooftop structure.
"As if we who are accumulators and generators of movement, with all our added mechanical limbs, with all the noise and speed of our life, could live in the streets built for the needs of men four, five or six centuries ago."
Antonio Sant'Ellia, The Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, 1917
Antonio Sant'Ellia, The Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, 1917
Just like googie, borax and streamline moderne, or the Italian Futurists before any of them, it seems that the eference to the future, an essentially imagined space, place them at the edge of modernity: planning and optimism, central to modernist urbanism and superstructures, retain it's pragmatic credentials as long as projection in the future is presented as idealism - when the artist is perceived to take a step into fiction or speculation, he suddenly becomes guilty of arbitrary indulgence.
"Technological achievements of our time are way ahead of our physical and intellectual development. We are human beings of the eighteenth century and have to live in an environment of the twentieth and twenty-first century."
Haus-Rucker-Co. - Mind Expanders - 1967
Not withstanding their shared fascination for the machine, one key difference between the Space Age aesthetics and Italian Futurism is their respective relationship to the body: the fifty years that separate the two movements left their mark on the new conception of the future. Whereas Marinetti was vehemently calling for the renunciation of the physical, for a transformation of the body into a machine, the 60' and Haus-Rucker-Co. in particular, on the other hand, work towards a transformation of the machine into a body.
Of course organic shapes (Gaudi, Hundertwasser, their contemporary Werner Panton) and concepts (Kisho Kurokawa) had been in use long before: at the beginning of the XXth century, the rise of concrete had meant as much the liberation from straight lines and right angles as it had heralded the modernist rationalization. Similarly the speedy development of plastic and it's easy shaping, by way of injection or void pump, allowed further transgression of the angular and asexual models of yesteryear.
"The right angle as a principle of all rigid structures oculd be overcome without formal arbitrariness, simply through the characteristics of new materials. What possibilities! Changing a society by the fact it now finds itself in a softly flowing environement: gliding into a different way of thinking on gentle wings."
Gelbes Herz, an blow-up structure designed for two, inflate and deflate rhythmically, imitating maybe the respiration of a living body, coming, we are told, to press it's soft synthetic interior onto the visitors at each pulsation.
The evocative experience tell probably as much about our longings as to those of it's inventors - Whether the throbbing alcove seems like a squeaky sexual playground, like a maternal safe-space or like an isolation tank for oceanic consciousness, it is the tension between those options, placing the work miles away from the hyper-virile and brutal sexuality invoked by the Futurists and Marinetti in particular, that situate it in an ambiguous and therefore perverse sexuality.
"Perverse as well as impersonal"
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture
Many of the group's structures (Balloon for Two, Oase no7, Gelbes Herz...) are designed to offer a sense of intimacy inside the public space: the plastic membrane isolate the visitor from the world around them, participating one can imagine, in re-appropriating the public sphere - but paradoxically, all those modules, all the spaces seemingly designed to restore human interactions in their perfected, edenic sense, are formed of mostly transparent membranes.
This might hold one of the paradoxes of Haus-Rucker-Co. and one that spreads over the sixties and their uneasy relationship to political radicalism and utopia: their reforming ideals are unabashedly a form of spectacle. Militants are media-conscious, spirituality is communal, sexual liberation brings about commodification.
Of course Haus-Rucker-Co. is not Amon Duul II - but in crystallizing the typical tension of the age between radicalism and commodification (generally justified as a strategy of efficiency), they seem to exemplify what Eisenmann's catchy saying, "The Rococo of Modernism", always brings to my mind: a society, to use Situationist terminology, where détournement and récupération have become so deeply embedded into each other that deciding whether radicalism uses spectacle or spectacle uses radicalism is virtually impossible.
Haus-Rucker-Co. - Cover and Balloon for Two
"Toys for adults simulating contact, contact between two people, a man and a woman,
who experience their environement and themselves in a completely new way."
Haus-Rucker-Co. on Vanilla Future, 1969
The very impermanence of the structures not only question their role in the urban context but also grant them a specific status: as a construct that can be removed and transported, we tend to identify the provisional structure with a tool - but in the mean time, it's artistic ambition leave it largely deprived from a practical use. The useless tool is then left with only two option: too tactile and eager for an audience participation to be a work of art, the structure aims at delivering an experience rather than a message: it's a toy, a Froebel's gift for the epoch of space.
"Play is (...) imitation of the total human life, of the inner, secret, natural life in man and in all things. It produces, therefore, joy, freedom, satisfaction, repose within and without, peace with the world. The springs of all good rest within it and go out from it."
Friedrich Froebel, Inventing Kindergarten
The "goals" of the Haus-Rucker-Co. structure, seems in good part to have relied on the characteristic terminology of the times: development of "psychological capacity", "exploration of the inner world" and "concentrated experience" are ludicrous psychobabble. They share this ludicrous psychobabble with an other contemporary culture of keen experimentators, psychedelics.
The goals and the medium of the "environement transformers" and, considering it was also producing sound and light effects from the inside of it's dome, the "mind expander", are as reminiscent of Pucci's 65 fligh attendants as of the mind machines of the seventies and their low-fi hallucinogenic virtual reality. but unlike those, the construction of a space isolated from the quotidian, such as Nicolas Schoffer's Cybernetic City, or the some of Warhol's more ambitious Happenings aimed at the immersion of the audience as a group.
What the sixties brought to this age-old dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk is a radical shift of focus from the demiurgic artist to the audience: the relationships within it, and their relationship with both the world inside and outside of the artwork. Quite characteristically the "Mind Expanders" are designed for two seaters, just like the Happenings or the Cybernetic City were intended as spaces of exchange - not only between the artist and the audience but within the audience itself, becoming what Habermas coined Offentlichkeit.
When the designer aim at creating or re-organizing the social interactions of it's audience he becomes irremediably political. The space of the piece becomes a temporary autonomous zone, and the artwork becomes a utopia.
"In strongly opposing the world of play to that of reality, and in stressing that play is essentially a side activity, the interference is drawn that any contamination by ordinary life runs the risk of corrupting and destroying its very nature."
Roger Caillois, Men, Play and Games
If, as Caillois argues, reality is likely to corrupt the world of the game, then the game itself might be, in return, able to corrupt the game of life:
The experience of the game, and it's collective experience even more, constitutes the essence of the situationist alternative life experience. A self contained world, with it's own rules and it's own goals (if any) - both a prophetic vision of what the future could be, and an experiment on how to build it.
"Everything that was lived has moved away into representation."
Guy Debord, The Society of Spectacle
Not having had the chance to try out any of the mind expanding "machinery", I am allowed to remain skeptical as to the actual mind expansion this would provide: if one was particularly eager to link back Haus-Rucker-Co. to situationist ideas, one could see in the presentation of normal quotidian experiences, though the absent lense of the mind expanders and environement transformers, as a form of détournement, or even maybe as over-identification with the society of spectacle it adresses: within the particular frame provided by the helmets or the dome, that provide little if any effectual transformation to the sight of the eyes, the capitalist world is framed as what it is, a spectacle.
"Not houses finely roofed or the stones of walls well build, nay nor canals and dockyards make the city, but men able to use their opportunity."
Alcaeus, quoted by Donal Kagan
Many of the works of Haus-Rucker-Co. like a number of their contemporaries, attempt to re-asses our relationship to space and it's purpose: a space abstracted from history and positioned in what must have seemed at the time like a timeless future. The continuous emphasis on impermanence they saw as a key to experimentation, an unstable state where architecture is freed from it's constraints of firmness, commodity and delight. Freed from the contingencies of purpose and durability they were allowed, more than functionalist architecture and urbanism could ever dream, to re-write human relationships between themselves, but also of course, human relationship with their environment.
"Architecture is a theatre stage setting where the leading actors are the people, and to dramatically direct the dialogue between these people and space is the technique of designing."
It seems that the timely pop aesthetics that presided over many of Haus-Rucker-Co designs emphasizes, consciously or not, the playful and inconspicuous aspects of their work - "relaxation" and "changes in consciousness", for all their savoury meaninglessness, hint at a growing sentiment in the sixties: the prevalence of experience over ownership - happiness no longer a situation it is a state of mind.
Like all narratives that attempted, throughout the twentieth century to bridge the gap between style and politics, to rationalize the utopia into a historical or post-historical situation, the Space Age was bound to end up stripped off from it's militant substance and relegated to the quirky and the inconsequent. But in the case of Haus-Rucker-Co. it seems that the collective moved away from away from the kitsch early enough and stuck instead to it's Utopian ideals.
"The architecture of pleasure lies where concept and experience of space abruptly coincide."
Bernard Tschumi, The Pleasure of Architecture