If one puts forward the view that art’s independence from society exists only in the artist’s imagination and that it tells us nothing about the status of works, the correct insight that autonomy is a historically conditioned phenomenon turns into its denial; what remains is mere illusion.
—Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde
Art is with us in order that we may not perish through truth.
Autonomy implies definition and thus exclusion, while urbanism represents the opposite. This project studies this paradox: autonomy of urbanism.
Autonomy of Architecture
The known autonomy within design encloses the self-governing ambition of architecture. The autonomy of architecture defined, in the second half of the 20th century, the quality of its formal parameters against its commodification, behavioral discourses or quantitative methods that intended to explain it otherwise. It synthesized the classical and modern traditions in architecture—borrowing their formal logic but rejecting their progress-oriented utopia—through the contrasting projects of Aldo Rossi and Peter Eisenman. An autonomous architecture advocates a return to the discipline through the idea of an origin, a ground zero, located in the external or the internal history of architectural form, respectively. Both the Rossian acceptance of a culturally conditioned idea of type and the Eisenmanian focus on the internal processes of architecture transcend any individual aspiration or stylistic militancy. Architecture surpasses the architect.
More recently, Pier Vittorio Aureli reconsidered the theoretical foundations of the Italian Autonomia and its challenge against capitalism as a project that permeated the architectural consciousness through Aldo Rossi, Superstudio or Archizoom, among others. Far from aspiring to redefine the boundaries of the discipline, his political autonomy questions the conditions of its production as a collective endeavor.
In contrast, this research explores the term autonomy beyond the architectural horizon by arguing for, not the demise of disciplinary knowledge, but the imperative engagement with its cultural substance without renouncing its critical commitment.
Autonomy in Philosophy
The reductionism of autonomy, as disciplinary interpretation, lags behind the complex understanding of the term within aesthetics as philosophical category. The autonomy of art originated, by the end of the 18th century from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement, operates within society but disinterested in any private claim. It suggests that the “liking or disliking” of something has universal values when no private interest influences this judgment. Kant studied not the creation of artwork but its reception. This subjective-based autonomous aesthetic experience thus mediates between understanding (basis for all theoretical cognition) and reason (basis for all practical precepts). Art therefore rejects the immediate legislation of what is theoretically “true” and morally “right”.
In Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger builds on this aesthetic autonomy to explain that the idea of a work of art completely independent of society is erroneous because it overlooks that the detachment of art is a historically conditioned process. At the same time that Bürger condemns how autonomy hides its historical substance, he suggests that we need to ask whether “the distance between art and the praxis of life is not requisite for that free space within which alternatives to what exists become conceivable.”
Unlike the 19th century movement of l’art pour l’art where art detached from life ex nihilo or Gustave Flaubert’s desire to write a “book about nothing,” this theoretical effort proposes the exploration of the cultural substance of aesthetics and its relationship with design.
Autonomy of Urbanism
This project proposes that the cultural awareness and the theoretical provocations of Ludwig Hilberseimer (1885-1967) laid the foundations for an autonomous urbanism that has permeated, until today, the project of autonomy of the Italian urban tradition through Aldo Rossi and Pier Vittorio Aureli. The main claim is that Hilberseimer’s urban project does not conform neither: (first) to any a priori disciplinary ambition, nor (second) to the common practices of bourgeois morality, but to the ethos of the new urban condition of the 20th century.
Through the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche and Alois Riegl, Hilberseimer developed a generic (formal) language as a collective urban project sensitive to the objective reality of the metropolis—its socioeconomic and political circumstances—which, in his view, absorbed the creativity of expressionism—and the individual genius.
By confronting individual with collective ambitions, urbanism conforms to Hegelian dialectics. However, paradoxically, it arguably represents everything—thus it represents nothing—which cancels the rhetorical question: what is urbanism?
This effort is conceived as a reevaluation of our concrete urban experience rather than a sterile definition of urbanism. If the Rossian architectural autonomy relied on the specificity of architectural form, the autonomy of urbanism aspires to hypostatize—represent something abstract as a concrete reality—the social, economic, and political processes of the urban phenomena. Therefore, the main claim of this project is that: the abstract cultural processes that constitute the urban apparatus are as concrete as its physical presence. This understanding of autonomy displaces the “essence” of design from the confines of a discipline to the tension between design and society—its cultural substance.