The avant-garde as vision behind the visual

Text and photos Stefania Kenley

At the beginning of the 20th century an Avant-Garde Movement had a clearly defined profile: a group of innovating artists with one or several spokesmen and with a provocative manifesto. Although highly controversial at the time, today the subject is part of a closed chapter of the modern art history, already analyzed, classified, and mostly agreed upon. In 1955, Reyner Banham distinguished two kinds of group profiles when writing “The New Brutalism” article in the Architectural Review : “One, like Cubism, is a label, a recognition tag, applied by critics and historians to a body of work which appears to have certain consistent principles running through it, whatever the relationship of the artists; the other, like Futurism, is a banner, a slogan, a policy consciously adopted by a group of artists, whatever the apparent similarity or dissimilarity of their products.”

In 2009, I responded to the invitation of the French architect Odile Decq for giving a new reading of the “Manifeste du Futurisme”  by F.T. Marinetti published in the Parisian journal Le Figaro, a century earlier. Having in mind this Manifesto as a series of rather problematic declarations, I answered in a provocative tune, advancing the idea that the avant-garde is dead! I did not defend my statement via a serious historical analysis but through the light form of a pamphlet that I called “Futurisme à Paris” , reinterpreting one by one the initial points spelled out in 1909:
–    the “love of danger”, compromised by the rapid growth of insurance companies “taking care” of all aspects of the daily life,
–    the “beauty of speed” once prized by futurists, turned into a marketing system with resonant names for the latest car models,
–    the “man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth”, become subject of tourism strategies,
–    the “crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot”, transformed with fervour in “Second Life” computer simulations,
–    the “courage, audacity and rebellion” of poetry, absorbed by the advertising industry, while the poet who “spends himself with ardour, splendour, and generosity”, has turned to dust, etc.

That was to suggest that if today there is a controversy in the field of contemporary art or architecture, it is unlikely that it will come up again under the name or the form of an avant-garde movement. In a recent book based on conversations with influential architects, Yael Reisner recalled a remarkable period of the Architectural Association School in London – “a critical and highly successful period in the school history where many of the alumni and tutors later emerged as architects of international acclaim” . The author of this book, herself an architect trained at the AA during that time, interviewed Zaha Hadid, who was also part of this exciting creative context.

From this recollection emerges the reference to Russian Constructivism and Suprematism for building up a radical form of expression, starting with Zaha Hadid’s diploma project, Malevich’s Tektonik Bridge over the Thames (1976-77). “What interested me most about the Suprematists was that they painted things that were implied as architecture, but which were never injected into architecture, except perhaps in the work of Leonidov. He was really inventive programmatically and the most innovative of all the Russians. His work was very simple but he pushed the limits of all the things that the Constructivists and Suprematists had invented – how you actually correlate between the formed image, the presence on a particular site, its programmatic content, its assembly and so on. That was the principal lesson I learned from the avant-garde of Russia.”  And indeed, even today the competition projects of Ivan Leodinov look stunning, with their white graphic outline on black background, featuring light volumes of perfect geometries and surprising appearances, like a Zeppelin airship over the plan sketch of Magnitogorsk.

In 1983 all this energy is embodied in the competition entry for the Peak, a leisure club on top of the mountain in Hong Kong, an unbuilt project awarded the first prize. During the next ten years the Suprematist language had been translated into concrete. In 1993, this process arrived to an accomplished form in the Fire Station, one of Hadid’s first commissions, coming via the architecture patron and Vitra furniture chairman, Rolf Fehlbaum. I remember the feeling of fear and wonder during a first visit, shortly after the opening. In this relatively small building the solid materialization of constructivist avant-garde spirit, contains a breathtaking passage through smooth concrete surfaces and on light stairs, standing up like a frozen movement in a dream of the Sleeping Beauty. The fluid spaces and organization patterns were later described in the architects’ presentations: “a continuous landscape in which the distinction between skin and structure, public and private are eroded.”

This approach was followed up in a large scale buildings like the MAXXI – Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI secolo, in Rome, as it appears in the statement by Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher: “Conventional object-focused paths are replaced by fields of multiple associations, so that the centre becomes a porous organism…”  (i1, i2) This porosity could have been the ideal response to the manifold diversity of the contemporary artworks, yet, when visiting the exhibition spaces, I noticed that this porosity is constantly fought back by the current museographical conditions. Strict security rules and insurance demands concerning people, artwork display in the building, are inflicted by the personnel, creating a human barrier in the fluid space: tickets please ! no passage ! no photographs please ! (i3) In the retrospective exhibition Michelangelo Pistoletto, Da Uno a Molti 1956-1974, a non-dated wood sculpture representing perhaps a Madonna with child is half placed in an orange plexiglass box and signed by the artist. In this situation, the interdiction of photography appears preposterous, because this display presented here as a symbol of Arte Povera’s recycling method, would be in a different cultural context condemned as vandalism and spoliation of a valuable art object.

The distance between the peoples’ experience in a building and the architects’ intentions has increasingly raised the question of the program as such. This year, Zaha Hadid Architects won the Stirling Prize for the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, with the jury’s appreciation that “the project is distinguished by its planning not its form of expression”. Insuring a good environment for learning in a poor area of London is the practice’s main achievement of the architects who satisfy thus the essential functional conditions of the programme, yet, this statement is quite a long way from the avant-garde subject. This example, like many others at present, is neither based on a particular innovation nor on a manifesto (a banner or a slogan as Banham put it). And if this is the case for a work of excellence, it might well be for many others, giving some weight to the statement advanced in the previous article, saying that the avant-garde is dead!

Today we are no longer talking about a leading group of innovators, but of well established practices, with a perfectly organised structure, led by a respectable managing director and where almost nobody is wasting time writing manifestos. One rare exception is Pascal Schöning’s “Manifesto for a cinematic architecture” published in 2006. In the preface of this thin square book, Brett Steele, the current head of the Architectural Association School, stated that : “Imagination […] is a dimension sorely missing from the world of contemporary architecture and urbanism” . And, if today’s architectural production is no longer led by imagination, we wonder what other driving force is pulling creative thinking forward.

The deliverance from the inevitable grip of constraints and prejudice could come from a better understanding of the existing situation and from working with the Reality as such. In this sense, the notion of As Found , which emerged in Reyner Banham’s article “The New Brutalism” and circulated in the second half of the 20th century, suggests an engaged attitude in the world as it is. Working with, or in, the space as found could become a conservative position, but it can also represent the hope to reach the original state of a particular place, an inaccessible piece of Paradise. And to obtain this fine balance, if one eye looks outwards, one has to turn the other eye inwards, for the concealed reality, for what could be or should be, for the vision behind the visual.

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