Mass Individualism: The Form of the Multitude

What do three contemporary tropes ubiquitous in recent architecture have in common: 1) complex and varied aggregations, 2) the migration of informal domestic atmospheres into public and institutional spaces, and 3) topographical forms?
The thesis of this seminar will be that each of these formal trends is rooted in conditions anatomized in recent political theory. Such signal texts as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Multitude and Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude articulate a new view of social and political relationships within which atomized individuals can no longer recognize themselves in collective social forms. This social and political transformation is lent a name by Peter Sloterdijk in his essays—Foam City—in which he describes the space of multidinous individuals as figureless, multi-chambered foam.
The conditions described in these texts pose a difficult paradox for architecture. Because, for subjects of this “multitude” “. . . anything labeled as public has become irredeemably tainted, everything that smacks of the institution arouses distaste and repels in a subliminal, well-nigh Pavlovian fashion. . . “ (Frederic Jameson) and yet all that architects build are such institutions of collective life.
Terms like the more recent “mass-customization”, or older “weak-architecture,” and “field condition” have all proposed strategies with which to overcome an antinomy that is not to be vanquished: the simultaneous rise of ever increasing scales of organization with ever increasing demands of individual autonomy. It will be the goal of this seminar to explore through texts and examples the ways in which this antinomy has spawned architecture’s contemporary forms.
The formal tropes which will be the focus of the seminar are divided, into three categories (as mentioned above).
Thus, informal aggregations, found in such projects as NL Architects’ Taipei Performing Arts Centre, Herzog + DeMeuron’s 56 Leonard St. condo tower, and MVRDV’s Lego City will be considered in relationship to the vernacular inspired experiments of Aldo van Ecyk, Herman Hertzberger, and Moshe Safdie. Bernard Rudofsky’s exhibition and book, Architecture without Architects, will be an important point of reference. Contemporary texts and historical considerations will reveal the subtle, but finally fundamental shifts in attitude undergirding formally similar strategies of aggregative expression. Both past and contemporary bodies of work will be considered against the backdrop of the socially and politically distinct commitments of Fordist repetition of pre-WWII Modernism.
The open-field and topographical forms of the present in such works as FOA’s International Ferry Terminal, UN Studio’s Genoa Port project, and OMA’s Jussieu Library will be considered in relationship to the vicissitudes of the picturesque in Modernist architectural work and the codification of the picturesque in its original theoretical articulations.
The migration of informal, domestic, and private atmospheres into public spaces, such as found in Office dA’s Fleet Library at RISD, and in the sofa-like seating in the principle concert hall of OMA’s Casa da Musica will be considered as part of an longer trajectory that has sought to dismantle the distinction between private and public norms in which the former trumps the latter.
The historical treatment of these themes will reveal similarities of form that sometimes hide profound differences in the meanings attached to them, even while uncovering antecedents to the present. Each formal history will be accompanied by readings both texts in both political theory and architectural history.