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Till Wittwer

The Starchitecture Industrial Complex: A Forensic Role Play

“In today’s wars, people die when bits of their homes come flying at them in high speed.”

A few words regarding perspective before you throw yourself into this essay: We’ll watch this whole text unfold through the protective spectacles of a forensic scientist—you know, those people who wear white bodysuits, surgical masks and sterile blue rubber gloves, and squat over crime scenes, brushing for fingerprints and bagging evidence. As it is likely that during investigation this particular kind of eye wear might get stained with leaky grease-smear, rubble from dust, blood, or other matter that might impede clear sight, be aware that this essay could be full of bad research, phony arguments and gross generalizations.

The Sight

A lavish modernist house with large glass windows and a broad terrace in the hills, snuggled up against a steep slope.

The Czech city of Brno, seated in the hills of the Moravia region, was put on the map of architectural history for one specific building: the iconic Villa Tugendhat, regarded to be one of modernisms more important buildings, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe an early international superstar of architecture. Built between 1928 and 1930 as a private residence for the Tugendhat family who were Jewish-German industrialists and traders, it served as the wealthy family’s home for only a few years before the National Socialists annexed the region in 1938 and the family was forced to emigrate. The house’s architectural layout faced a lot of critique at the time and in later years alike, the main focus of the criticism being Villa Tugendhat’s supposed uninhabitability, and alas, its downright hostility to human life. In 1931, it led architectural critic Justus Bier to ask the question “Kann man im Haus Tugendhat wohnen?” (“can one live in the Tugendhat house?”)1, and in response to Mies’ credo of “less is more,” which, of course, he also mapped onto the Villa Tugendhat, postmodern architect and critic Robert Venturi famously cried out, “less is a bore.”

And, indeed, in the course of its history the imposing house was repurposed multiple times but never again served as a home. Instead, Mies’ bourgeois residency was for most of its existence used as a construction office for Nazi war-machinery, a children’s hospital, a ballet school, a wedding parlor, a stable for Red Army horses, or was simply left to decay without serving any purpose at all.

The recent renovation of the Villa Tugendhat, completed in 2012 at a cost of approximately 5.8 million Euro, turned it into one of those sterile walk-in-but-do-not-touch-type museum spaces; the visitor’s forensic-like experience enhanced by self-sealing plastic slippers which shoes have to be covered by before entering the house. The reconstruction of the villa attempted to painstakingly reinstate the house back to original condition. During the endeavor, the house’s history of renovations—inscribed into its modular walls, chrome-plated steel girders and retractable panoramic windows2—was systematically and thoroughly wiped out in order to return Villa Tugendhat into somewhat of a life-sized model of itself.

Three Dimensions of Time

Enter the forensic scientists—that is us—in full gear, obviously including the self-sealing plastic slippers.

Forensic scientists collect evidence in an attempt to reconstruct what is not there anymore; they hunt ghosts, they are time travelers of a sort, dimensional drifters, visiting a place of the now and projecting onto it a place and an action from the past. They can move and switch between different times and realities: typically operating in-between relations of non-spaces, they connect times, realities and places by quite literally (re-)constructing the plot3.

A model, on the contrary, projects a possible future—it is an attempt to sketch out what is not there yet. There is no difference between a model built at a scale of 1:100 and one at a scale of 1:1. The life-sized model as a ‘proxy building’ however seems to be somewhat more in touch with geographic space.

A museum, as the third entity to be considered here, presents a preserved past, proposing a third condition which suspends time entirely and in turn articulates a humorless, frozen presence, an “End of History” of sorts. To its visitor a museum simply presents what can be seen now. The museum is also a vault, a bourgeois fortress, readily employing mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. It contains (decontextualized) objects, (alienated) artifacts, artworks (that feel just fine in this environment), attitudes (not to be contested), and behaviors, and it greedily regulates access. It is a tank filled with ideology. It is a bunker and a prison at the same time, protecting and excluding, setting the conditions for any penetration, it is the othering mother, treating visitors like intruders.

As forensic time travelers transgressing the model-museum, we can now start to bag our first observations (our protective suit still looks okay; there are only a few blurry stains here and there since, so far, we feel backed up by a quantity of historical research and academic writing that could be referred to at any given time). The model-museum seems —on the one hand—to be a fortress which suspends of the passing of time instead freezing specific moments and reducing them to a timeless ‘now’ and—on the other hand—a model of a building which projects a quasi-structure into space.4 Both are fundamentally opposed to life within them: Where there is no concept of passing time, life is unable to unfold and the model cannot not create a solid environment, nor a fruitful ground that can be filled with life; only the finished building itself can ever be inhabited.

Demarcating the Lines and Claiming the Right Plot

From our expert forensic tool box we take out a magnifying glass to gain a clearer view on the puzzle of information scattered here so carelessly, in an attempt to reconstruct the operation, to (re-)write a storyline and to reconstitute a relation to the present.

With its recent renovation, the Villa Tugendhat has ultimately been turned into the artificial and authoritarian museum space it might have been conceived as in the first place (to the pitiful family, though, it was sold as a home): The house has become like most (modernist) museum buildings and their artworks. The only thing disturbing the perfect setting within the immaculate white cube is you, the visitor. It is your living, physical presence, your corporeality that is an annoyance to the space which has been designed for a pure, disembodied, downright inorganic gaze.5 This type of architecture creates a buffer zone, a cordon sanitaire, devoid of life, which can admittedly be trespassed with the aid of plastic bags on the feet, and maybe even—given the right type of ergonomic office furniture prostheses6 or other protective gear such as surgical masks, blue rubber gloves and protective specs—worked in, but which is absolutely unsuitable for permanent inhabitation by any form of life.

The modernist experience has been (re)created perfectly and convincingly in the villa’s recent reconstruction. It is hostile to life, to the visitor—or rather trespasser—as ‘the Other’ is only able to enter this vacuum wearing a protective (space-)suit, and will remain as an intruder and witness to this proxy building for proxy humans. The house has become a time vault, attempting to conserve a specific moment in time. The rest of the palpable history of the Villa Tugendhat, once inscribed into the house’s physical structure, has been transformed into the virtuality of narratives, banished into documentary films and Wikipedia articles. And yet in all its artificiality, the building contains an iteration of the real which is absolutely discomforting as it seems to function as an agent of contemporary interests that employ “starchitecture” as a strategic tool. How so?

Mies’ modernist, onyx- and glass-walled ‘white’ cube, “is in fact the Real with a capital R: the blank horror and emptiness of the bourgeois interior,” as Hito Steyerl writes of those historic buildings which are transformed into museums.7 But it is not only that: The Villa Tugendhat has finally been turned into scenery, staffage, a prop—which in some ways it might have always been—and for us now this is not just a reformulation (and making accessible once more) of the elitist terror of modernist architecture and thought. Moreover, it has undergone a contemporary update, it has been renovated into yet another example of invasive, neo-colonial Disneyland-ish starchitecture—an architecture that formulates hostile-to-life Potemkin buildings of the sort8 which bear a horrendous void and vacuum but nonetheless take up real, geographic space. A space in which they demarcate the physical frontline of speculative capitalist expansion, readily providing an all-inclusive, luxury-commodity transit buffer zone of uninhabitability.

So, the above-mentioned “museum as a tank” here ultimately and inevitably comes to reveal its second meaning:9 it is a tool for violent, armored expansion and occupation—armored, that is, with an arsenal of artworks, Barcelona chairs and ‘culture’, ready to shoot at any living target, leveling the death strip of a bourgeois void. The hot-ironed cube in Brno is somewhat of a historic model house exhibit for Western expansion, an early example of how this type of starchitecture works, updated to become a contemporary walk-in for marveling at the clinically tidy architectural war machinery of an appealing colonialism whose fortresses and tanks announce, promote and testify to a steady conquest. In the Moravian hills you can physically enter the starchitecture expansion plot and watch it unfold, a narrative literally expanding by means of land grab. Hostile to human life, the architecture animates itself—all prosopopoeia—to allude to and give accounts of the front lines, bridging time and space as a cool (Tadao Ando), playful (Frank Gehry), sly (Norman Foster), glitzy (Jean Nouvel), literally and paradoxically out of this world (Zaha Hadid) demarcation of the brutal and uncompromising Real, staged by a high-brow sanitizing industry.

‘Ironically’, we can conclude, trying to catch our breath after this rollercoaster ride, lifting our by-now completely spattered specs, looking down on our besmirched, torn and contaminated protective gear,10 that, “this starchitecture as a weapon of neo-colonialism may look like a model or a toy or an awfully over-the-top comedy but as a matter of fact, it is as real as it gets and bridges not only time but also space and thus creates a direct link, a wormhole between Saadiyat Island and Brno.11 In the words of Charles Jencks—to rip yet another quote from the lucid guts of postmodern thought: “Here, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s architecture indeed has turned from farcical to highly dangerous.”

And now it is finally time to give away the source of the quote that opened this essay: Eyal Weizman wrote this sentence in his publication for dOCUMENTA (13) “100 Notes—100 Thoughts”, no. 062, Forensic Architecture: Notes From Fields and Forums.



Notes

1. Bier, J 1931, Die Form: Zeitschrift für gestaltende Arbeit 10 (October 15, 1931), pp. 392–393.
2. In case you didn’t know, they sink into the floor, see: Tugendhat Villa.MPG. 2009 (video file). [28 September 2015].
3. Already, we are facing time travel as the ambiguity of the term ‘plot’ alludes to a later moment in this text, namely to footnote 9. 4. A speculative space in case of the 1:100 scale model, an actual geographical space in case of the 1:1 model.
5. Justus Bier consequently speaks of “proxy living” (Paradewohnen) in this proxy building. This clash of living and exhibiting, of life and exhibition with all odds against life recalls Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle, a film which Tati could only conceive as a comedy because apparently he wasn’t a forensic time traveler. Otherwise, he would have been able to anticipate the tragedy which was about to unfold.
6. With his Barcelona chair and his Brno furniture set, Mies himself coherently provided an authoritative proposition of how to outfit representative offices (and art showrooms) of the capitalist world. Myriads of interior designers followed throughout the years until lately, the Barcelona chair could be found in skateboard shops—the new offices for a new capitalism, conclusively.[28 September 2015].
7. Steyerl, H 2009, "Is a Museum a Factory?", e-flux Journal, no 7, June. [28 September 2015].
8. More accurately, one should mention Pripyat and Namie here—the towns which the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima contaminated forever.
9. Through the muck on our spectacles which has gradually accumulated, we’re pretty sure we can spot Walter Benjamin somewhere alongside us in the space. The hazed blur might have caused us to misinterpret his features, though. Note to self: check Benjamin’s 1933 The Doctrine of the Similar (Lehre vom Ähnlichen).
10. It wasn’t grease-smear or dust from rubble or blood that contaminated us, we now recognize. It was oil paint, chromed and rusty steel plates, extravagant forms designed by computer algorithms, diamonds that have fallen off of human skulls, high-definition video art pixels, real emotion sold by performance artists, post-internet irony, and Your Emotional Future (2011).
11. See Google search for Saadiyat Island. [September 28 2015].
Compression Augmentation