Requiem for the City at the End of the Millennium

by Sanford Kwinter, Actar, 2010

Gean Moreno

Sanford Kwinter has a theory of innovation. Put crassly, it goes like this: the world is nothing but dynamic forces (physical, social, political, economic, etc.) and differentiated algorithmic patterns (gone is the idea of a passive, homogenous and isomorphic space of modern architectural thought); if we tune our intuition to these forces and patterns appropriately, if we grasp how to intervene at just the right moment (through compression, containment, increasing velocities or densities, translation), we can generate unprecedented morphologies, new realities. This alone makes him, in our autumnal age of endings and exhaustion, an essayist in Lukacs’ sense—“a pure instance of the precursor.” As Kwinter writes of concrete objects and occasions, he proposes new arrangements of the world.

Requiem for the City at the End of the Millennium (Actar, 2010) is couched between two buildings—one real, one phantasmic—and Kwinter strings between them the history of how contemporary urban reality grew increasingly complex in direct proportion to architecture’s loss of nerve facing the daunting task of engaging it. The first building, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, reveals what happens when the opportunity to innovate is fully exploited. The Pompidou “marked for the first time in a building, in so bold and declamatory a manner, the presence of processes that the fallout of World War II had impressed onto all other aspects of advanced capitalist culture, layers of moral, epistemological, and perceptual ambiguity that characterized only cultures on the brink of transformation.” It not only expressed its moment but stood at the inauguration of a new one.

The second building is one that, never having been built or even imagined, existing as a massive gap in the story of what could have been, reveals how elusive these opportunities for innovation on a substantial scale are and how much is at stake in them. If this tiny but ruthless book is a requiem, it’s because this building that never was finally confirmed that “ours is simply not an era for grand designs and revolutionary ambitions.” Not imagining this building, architecture missed its opportunity to claim “the right to lead the speculation about cities and what their place in the coming brave new world might be.”

The building that was never built or imagined, despite the media frenzy around the competition for it, was the one that should have come to stand where the World Trade Center once stood. Of course, it was less a building than an entire new conceptual edifice that the irruption of History back into our midst called for—a courageous stance by design disciplines that would return them to the very core of urban, big-picture, world-making thinking; a thinking that unfolds in relation to forces and flows and not just buildings and bungalows. The book, then, is a lament not for the city but for a discipline that, once poised to generate understanding about and translate the potentials of our increasingly globalized and networked world, has shriveled and returned to its safe disciplinary spaces. The book is a solemn chant for the lost courage of architects who once saw themselves as modernization’s chosen vehicles and were willing to think at any scale, including that of the city and even the globe

Gean Moreno is an artist and writer based in Miami.

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