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Architecture, abstraction, and capitalism


Le Corbusier, Maison Dom-Ino, 1914. Unrealized project.

In the April issue of e-flux journal, architect Pier Vittorio Aureli questions the traditional distinction between “the abstract” and “the concrete,” especially as it pertains to architecture:

The most obvious manifestation of the architecture of the city is solid things, but their coming into being and their functioning is largely dependent on a multitude of abstractions such as design methods, representational conventions (plans and sections, for example), proportions, functions, building codes, measurements, and financial parameters. In confronting this reality, it makes almost no sense to try to discern and separate the “concrete” from the “abstract,” since within capitalism the two are so profoundly intertwined that we can speak of a unique condition in which abstraction is concrete and the concrete—even the most physically tangible object—is always an instance of the abstract…

In what follows I would like to define the relationship between abstraction and architecture, avoiding the trap of identifying abstraction as a style. In order to do so, I’ll first define abstraction as a concept and condition that is at the core of capitalist society. Then I will show how fundamental paradigms of architectural culture—such as the rise of design as a practice distinct from building, the invention of perspective, and the discourse on urbanization—can be seen as the embodiment of the impact of abstraction on the world. Only by understanding the historical premises of the rise of abstraction as the prevalent form of experience in capitalist civilization and its impact on architectural and urban form will it be possible to construct an idea of architecture that is both adequate to and critical of abstraction as the historical condition in which we dwell.

Read Pier Vittorio Aureli’s piece at the e-flux journal website.