MONUMENTALITY, RESISTANCE, CONTRADICTION: ON GÜNTHER DOMENIG // Hans Ulrich Reck
The articulation and thought process of Günther Domenig are based on an eclectic or, at times, even syncretic method or practice, as is the case with so many architects’ theories — although there are, of course, prominent exceptions, primarily Le Corbusier, earlier architects such as Laugier, Boullée, Serlio, and Palladio, and postmodernists such as Aldo Rossi, Venturi and Co., Christopher Alexander, and Peter Eisenman. This is neither criticism nor objection but serves to identify his work. Domenig’s designs and methods of working are characterized more by a process of collecting than by research or analysis. Individual evaluations and attributions differ; divergences are possible without, in this case, being forced to develop a coherent theory or to restrict or generalize the range of appropriations to reach a consistent conclusion (see Boeckl 2005). It is about connecting numerous technical convictions with several aesthetic opinions, which can be permanent or temporary. Validity and aspirations change. Syncretic means that individual elements, readings, and fragments of thoughts can be freely connected in a tentative and mutable fashion, but nevertheless always in a way that is perceived as stringent, i.e., causal rather than merely arbitrary or even ephemeral. One is strictly connected to the other until the bond is broken and different connections are formed. The formulation is situationist, not just situational.
Domenig’s thoughts are not abstract but refer to frequently repeated examples in his own visualized work, as is common in the field, particularly among those following a calling to teach at university. These thoughts are distilled into a discourse that emerges as a subjective architecture theory — and Domenig does not claim it to be anything else. This can also be seen in a lecture by Günther Domenig, from whose transcript I quote a pithy passage reflecting on the relationship of parts to the whole. It is representative of Domenig’s theory in general:
“The parts and the whole. The parts become independent, making their relationship visible. Meanings and orders for the whole and for oneself can give answers to many questions. The separation of the individual body, of the architectural element, of the material from the seemingly homogeneous (harmonious, ordered) system or from chaos shows the tension of order and the tension of disorder just as the parts, detached, again represent new systems and structures, and so on.” (trans. by Susannah Leopold)
It is, therefore, about a balance of divergent values, which are no longer able to organically structure and express as a whole a canon or style. In this respect, the architectural rule emerges from the specific individual building process and is not the basis of it. This rule only becomes visible and possible in it and through it.
Deconstructivism, structuring and dissecting
Now, Günther Domenig is also described as a “deconstructivist architect” in common or popular art guides, particularly when referring to his Steinhaus. The term emerged in the 1980s and referred to a group of individual architects working in different ways. Russian constructivism was, of course, inspiring for an entire epoch and, therefore, the main reference point, including its formative influences, in particular, the history of engineering and technology. All three constructivist movements of the 1920s — de Stijl, Bauhaus, and Russian constructivism — were aesthetic utopias with different social agendas that did not aim for one unified style or a respective system but rather expressed codes and signs that could be used to develop a modern way of building, also modern in terms of construction.
However, the term deconstructivism soon came to refer simply to a particular style, as often happens in the history of art and architecture. This disregards the fact that the move away from an architecture categorized into styles was not only a battle call but a method, at times even an epistemology. In this case, the move was not away from classical Roman architecture as was the case with the reform movements of the late 19th century but away from classical and late classical modernism. Indeed, “deconstructive” describes a procedure that leaves previous orders, the fabric of constructions, not only to shift the placing of the signs but to open up the canon-forming repertoire of construction in a way that is able to break with the established orders — with the aim of making the sign systems used tangible and visible. It is about reconstructing dominance hierarchies, not about a sign repertoire of a specific style. This usually takes place in the context of theoretical treatises and, in many cases — as with Domenig — directly influences the material of architectonic construction, order, and procedures chosen. The deconstructive method is precisely that — it means taking something apart in order to make constructive processes visible, which used to serve a firmly established order of things, but now appear as disparate elements (see, for example, Alexander et al. 1977).
Any building that thus pronouncedly sets itself so much in the present, articulating an actuality, thus refers not only to a current interpretation of tasks, methods, and modes of expression of buildings but also immanently or explicitly to the previous context of a methodologically, epistemologically, and conceptually articulated architecture. It appears useful to recall the still-relevant problems and experiences from the history of understanding through theoretical models and utilizations of architecture.
Architecture theory with and since Vitruvius, canon, shifting — the apotheosis and end of an aesthetic of beauty.
Initial hypothesis:The entire debate in the history of architectural theory since Vitruvius, the focus on the classical period, the conflicts around orders and sign repertoires of definitive “great architecture,” its canonicity, its stylistic aspirations, its dogmatics still usually implicitly or subcutaneously accompany the architecture of the present. Architects usually react eclectically and syncretistically, not commenting or following a theoretical-systematic approach, pursuing an idiosyncratic practice and a no less idiosyncratic development of personal architectural theorems. These resemble the artists’ theories in the process of subjectification of the art system, that is, since the mid-nineteenth century, and are an unwieldy but equal source of theories of art history and art studies. The shifts and lacerations to the canon with and since Vitruvius belong to the present, marking the apotheosis and the end of an aesthetic of beauty. Briefly sketching several points and frameworks found in this discourse is, therefore, also a direct contribution to the understanding of the profiled contemporary architecture.
Every type of architecture is based on theories and theorems, be it a canon, a definitive style or even an ad-hoc procedure, a bricolage (see Lévi-Strauss 1973, p. 29 ff); or, since modernity, i.e., in the epochs after the disintegration of stylistic categories and the canon, just a body of thought developed on a case-by-case basis through an independent construction or reflection. But this is by no means arbitrary. Categories, claims, and convictions last. Although the canon of Vitruvius has long ceased to be binding, traces of it can still be found in the work of architects today. As a normative order of the Roman architecture ideal, this had a powerful impact on classical antiquity, the renaissance, classicism, and historicism.
My fragmented and episodic sketch of the tradition of classic architectural theory is not here to serve a self-absorbed academicism. Instead, it is marked by a resistance to megalomania, in other words, a focus on the titanism of the heroic creator of worlds or the seduction through exalted and even presumptuous works and claims. Here the spell of the ruinous is connected under, for example, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, with the spirit of Romanticism that opens up and deconstructs the structure of claims to presumptuousness, deciphering them as the dream of an apodictic architecture beyond the laws of our world, as counterfactual titanism, as a dream of the captivating absolute, a force that simply crushes everything human. The end of the classical architecture canon took place in two stages: first, following the scientification after the end of Vitruvian and Palladian architecture and, second, after the failure of a scientifically founded building culture in the conflicts of the 20th century (see the following as my key witnesses: Miller 1978 and Hassler 2015).
Vitruvius succinctly states that the architect must pay attention to strength, practicality, and beauty (see Miller 1978, p. 212 ff). The construction of stable foundations and the use of the best, unrestricted building materials played a role, as did the arrangement of the parts according to their purpose and convenience for the criterion of usefulness. Beauty would flow into an elegant, pleasing appearance of the work, which would materialize when the parts were arranged in symmetry. Thus it is already evident that — with and since a historical cesura, shaped by revolutions in building technology and engineering achievements in the age of positivism, which both effected an opening of practices to an empirical, post-canonical aesthetic and transcended the stylistic approach of Greco-Roman canonicity in terms of beauty and symmetry — since these changes, no architect can be induced to follow such criteria if he aims for his buildings to be seen as contemporary and for his work to be situated as such. As Günther Domenig demonstrates, it is precisely the harmonization of the parts that can be transformed into a force of dissonance, an aesthetic of the incongruous, or even a method of implementing friction which no longer has anything to do with interpreting the content of the criteria and categories.
Vitruvius himself was an unsuccessful architect who had the ambition to work out a design system which he could put together and use all the knowledge about architecture available to him. It was for this purpose that he studied all of the sources available in classical antiquity in the 1st century BC. The structure, scope, and ambition of Vitruvius’ work have long been known. It is interesting to note that the construction of machines, guns, and clocks is also part of the architectural treatise, which also incorporated a detailed definition of the field of knowledge right at the beginning.
The petering out of Vitruvius’ influence goes hand in hand with the end (of the function) of the textbook in general and with the triumph of engineering in the age of the machine and mechanical engineering. This involves a few exponents from the universities of technology in Karlsruhe and Zurich, Munich and Vienna, with Franz Reuleaux and Ferdinand Redtenbacher, fierce advocates of scientific mechanical engineering (see Hassler 2015, p. 136 ff; König 1999). Since the beginning of the 19th century, a significant role was played by the textbook Traité théorique et pratique de l’art de bâtir published between 1802 and 1817 by Jean-Baptiste Rondelet, who described himself as an architectural technician. The exact construction, as Schinkel also called architecture at that time, i.e., not the construct of the organization of a functioning machine, but its purely theoretical invention, the construction of new machines now becomes the ideal of building. The order of the cladding, style, columns, portico, and decorum as applications of rhetoric now give way to the decorum of the internal construction logic of the machine.
But this is a late consequence, which not only has to do with applied science, technologization, and scientification, but in addition also with the radicalization of Romanticism as self-awareness of a fundamental crisis of what has until now been the subject par excellence. For it was no coincidence that in Romanticism, the cold machine became the epitome of the new age, of the dehumanization and relativization of the subject. The external order of the rhetorical decorum with the classical orders of stylistic architecture was perceived as a misguided, even titanic lie, as the arrogance of an obsolete, ultimately harmless creation that could easily be exposed as a lie by dismantling these orders into ruins. This was accomplished by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose visions were real buildings and who knew how to enrich architecture with the reality of the imaginary in a new way.
Utopia, built habitation, out and about…
In his most famous philosophical work Prinzip Hoffnung, Ernst Bloch devotes a good fifty pages to the history, typology, structure, and meaning of architectural designs, to the built signposts towards the future, towards the openness as a contribution to work carried out on an unfinished world, which was still in need of experimentation. In doing so, his starting point was not dogmatic criteria, and he does not follow systemic constraints of pre-set premises of his collection of utopian energies and ferments, drives and substances. He uses terms that tend towards the unusual such as “crystal,” “ornament,” “connection,” and “open seams”; he situates problems and viewpoints and develops considerations for very different historical constellations, which are roughly set out along a genealogical chronology. It is possible that Bloch’s actual points of reference are the outstanding buildings of expressionist architecture by Mendelsohn, Poelzig, Behrens, Taut, or even Finsterlin.
In chapter 38, he discusses what has been built to date and the human-historical concerns of architecture. I will include two quotations to demonstrate the direction of his thoughts and argumentation. The first passage refers to rules and formative influences; the second represents a conclusion or even a coda of reflections on the inadequacy of modern architecture.
Let us start with the historical perspective: “Likewise, Egypt and Gothic remain the only radical architectural symbols, and at the same time, those of the radical difference in the content of their intended architectural perfection. Therefore the ‘rules’ of the Gothic and long before that of the Egyptian stonemasons’ guilds there and then certainly already contain an element of that utopia of completion, which prospectively fulfils the symbolic intentions on both sides. Equally, however, both symbols are by no means freefloating or objectless, but they denote, like all genuine symbols, real possibilities in the world, answering counterparts from its aesthetic latency. The Egyptian architectural symbol is, as will now be seen in more detail, that of the crystal of death, the Gothic that of the tree of life or, expressed in terms of medieval ideology: of Corpus Christi. This is the breadth of variation of sculpturalarchitectural utopias, especially of those whose particular sap also rises and falls in the religious superstructures of their society. In the architectural will of Memphis stood there and then the utopia of an aspiration to become and a being like stone, of a transformation into crystal. In the architectural will of Amiens and Reims, of Strasbourg, Cologne, and Regensburg sprouted there and then the utopia of an aspiration to become and a being like resurrection, of a transformation into the tree of the higher life. Greek antiquity is the beautiful generalhuman stroke of luck and the happiness of a nowhere outsized balance between levelheaded life and levelheaded geometry.” (Bloch 1959; trans. by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight 1986 p.720 – 721)
And, with verve and clarity, breaking through the dogmatics of styles and aesthetic orders, discussing a much more important subject matter that must always be qualified anew: “The encompassing element furnishes a homeland or touches on it: all great buildings were sui generis built into the utopia, the anticipation of a space adequate to man. And the thus erected Humanum, transposed to strictly significant spatial form, is as a task both migration from the organic and humane into crystal, and above all permeation of the crystalline with the buoyancy developed within it, Humanum and profusion. When the conditions for the order of freedom are no longer partial, the path finally becomes open again towards the unity of physical construction and organic ornamentation, towards the gift of ornamentation. It becomes open in reality for the first time, without Egypt on the one hand, Gothic on the other, i.e., that which is thus described as crystal or tree of life, having to be alternated over and over again, mixed or envied in isolation. The crystal is the framework, indeed the horizon of repose, but the ornamentation of the human tree of life is the only real content of this encompassing repose and clarity. The better world, which the grand architectural style expresses and depicts in an anticipatory fashion, thus consists very non-mythically, as the real task vivis ex lapidibus, of the stones of life.” (Bloch 1959; trans. by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight 1986 p. 745).
What Bloch would have said to the architecture, later termed deconstructivist, can only be speculated upon. Of course: there was the historical constructivism of the aesthetic avant-garde in the Soviet Union. But at the time when Bloch was writing Prinzip Hoffnung, particularly while he was working on the first edition in East Germany, he was dogmatically in favor of Stalin and against Trotsky and thus also against the artistic avant-garde that remained uninvolved in politics. This could explain why this historical epoch is not mentioned. But the real reference to constructivism and its aesthetic utopia with modernism’s “principle of construction” was not seen until the 1980s (see Klotz 1986). This reference was enabled by the new focuses of postmodernism, on the margins of which deconstructivism played a special role. In any case, Bloch did not demand any consistent standards, neither when it came to the art of habitation nor the ever-present threat of the experience of being without habitation. However, in the course of his historical reflections, it becomes clear that he distrusts all closed styles and sign orders. In this respect, one can well imagine that he could have had or felt a certain sympathy for the early buildings of Frank Gehry or even Günther Domenig’s Steinhaus.
Functionalism and autonomous architecture, together with a categorization of building tasks in the context of a concise typology of 20th-century architectural conceptions.
In his survey of architecture from 1940 to 1980 in the framework of Kunst der Gegenwart (the art of the present) (Vogt 1983), Adolf Max Vogt begins by referring to the importance of Ernst Bloch, who has just been discussed in detail: Vogt writes that there are few philosophers who have dealt with an explicit philosophy of building. He further states that Bloch’s distance from the avant-gardes since Russian Constructivism is astonishing since he does not only consider beauty and proportions, i.e., decorum and measure, to be important in the good Vitruvian tradition, which was still valid among the avant-gardists, but also ornament, which has had a bad press among this same group since Adolf Loos. However, it is important to point out that the manifestation of the ornamentation, materialized and regarded as decorative, is true and thus artistically justified when it is impressed directly in the material, i.e., in the matter, and is thus expressed in its appearance. Loos was a harsh critic of anything superfluous and thus of actual embellishment. Taking stuccowork as an example, man violates materials to express a misguided need for beauty. It is precisely this that is the epitome of the illegitimate and of waste and thus the aesthetic expression of a moral disqualification, the expression of wickedness or of a criminal, delinquent character. Lovers of ornaments are — to both paraphrase and expose the rhetorical emphasis by and in the work of Adolf Loos — criminal human beings. This can be compared to the subject of kitsch with Hermann Broch — lovers of kitsch are bad people; kitsch is the depravation in the arts’ system of expression. But there is such a thing as a true ornament and, reading Loos’ fundamental ideas, Bloch recognized this concept, as it corresponds to his understanding of the apriori of matter as a dynamic natural force containing all forms as according to Aristotle: dynámei ón, nature as creator. This “true” ornament has no need for human touch but expresses itself as a formative force of nature, for example, in materials, fabrics, in the inner markings of stone.
The fabric of the home, which — at the same time the noblest task of architecture: utopian creation of home — is allowed to become visible as a structure, moves this consideration close to the deconstructivist attempts, all of which are furthest from the stylistic efforts of the classical architectural orders (see Tzonis/Lefaivre 1987).
Vogt used these motifs to examine the work of architects in the 20th century. In addition to the two dictatorial style doctrines, Stalin classicism and Nazi classicism, he named the CIAM movement — the classical modernism around Le Corbusier and Siegfried Giedion — as a third independent force. After the disaster of World War II and the devastation that resulted, Vogt identifies five schools of thought in the architecture of the 1970s:
- A functionalism that is no longer based only on the forms of machines but also integrates biological forms and processes (see Vogt 1983, p. 106 – 119).
- The “city representation” with the emergence of new contemporary buildings, such as banks and administrative buildings constructed out of steel and glass. Following the achievements of the CIAM architecture of the 1920s and 1930s (see also Conrads 1981; Sert et al. 1961; Hilpert 1984) — the new cubic single-family house, the factory, the school, the sanatorium, and also the automobile and the ocean liner a few years earlier with Le Corbusier.
- The contribution of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the skyscraper of steel and glass, does not become a defining motif until after World War II.
- A privileging of geometry, for example, in the architectures of Richard Meier based on the historical positions of de Stijl and Rietveld. Andrea Palladio is coupled with Le Corbusier and elevated to an almost indomitable level of ideality. Cubes and geometrization become doctrines that shape the construction of settlements, especially in the suburbs, where they often took on apodictic tendencies.
- Levels of denial. This refers to positions or, better said, processes that — due to the necessarily utopian character of all architecture — bring the designs of architects into political conflicts and dissent with socially dominant formations of power. The names mentioned by Vogt (1983 p. 112 ff) cannot be further commented upon. What remains important is that, as regards content, deconstructivist analyses, processes of de-hierarchizations, and re-hierarchizations proceeding according to other value hierarchies — as is characteristic of various deconstructivisms — find their place here. This also applies to the Situationist buildings (Constant, actually: Constant A. Nieuwenhuis, keyword “New Babylon”; see Ohrt 1990), which Vogt does not discuss at all in his canonical historical survey and which are not so much buildings as elaborate procedures. New designs break with the mono-doctrinal will to design and thus with the position of the architect as the sovereign, individual, coherent master builder of the world who shapes himself and that which belongs to him. What is needed are mixtures, deviations, strangeness. Buildings are to be created according to contrary, unconnected, different, divergent points of view. The result is a “collage” of the heterogeneous and heterotopic (see Rowe/Koetter 1984; also Reck 1994, 1999; Reck/Kamper 2000). These principles of architecture are of primary importance today. For iconologically as well as typologically, morphologically as well as methodologically, they belong to a world that can no longer succeed or even just function, that can also no longer make claims to unity. Yes, a world as a totum not only for the habitation of people but the perennial experience of imposed homelessness for more and more people. It would be a lie to once again revoke here the architectural utopias that are committed to a coherent, even organic order. As Domenig, but also Coop Himmelb(l)au, already attempted and demanded decades ago, only an architecture that is tattered, destroyed, painful, and torn within itself can still assert a symbolic or iconological truth — with Erwin Panofsky as a form of expression of what is possible in a time, “intrinsic meaning.”
- Autonomous architecture. Here A. M. Vogt discusses the memorial cult, the monument and memorial, that is, the reminder of death that supplements the homes of the living, residential culture in relation to the monument cult from tradition to the internal differences of techno-civilization. Here postmodern positions such as those of Aldo Rossi, but also Venturi and co. play a significant role together with the relevant Venice Biennales of Architecture in the 1970s and 1980s.
Only in exceptional cases does the claim to creatorship of the world, a self-referential, autopoietic architecture, which strives to assert itself monologically out of decisionistic features and decisions of the authorial role of the architectural artist, still make up the aspiration and situation of architecture. In the model of impurities, mixes and concoctions, this is one position among many. In the plural diversity of empiricism, but even more so for the aesthetic theory of building, there is a more or less emphatically highlighted, sometimes only suffered fact of the hetero-topological, heteronomous, and heterogeneous. Techno-civilization has arrived in the age of heterarchies, which can be delineated with the departure from a binary logic according to the model of Gotthard Günther’s elaborations on a polycontextural, “post-Aristotelian” logic — evident from mathematics to the programming languages in computer science, but also in aesthetics (see Günther 1963, 1979, 1980).
This is where Günther Domenig’s architecture is situated. In her idiosyncratic portrait of an idiosyncratic man, Anna Baar offers a dialectic of architectural-theoretical figures in and, above all, vis-à-vis Günther Domenig. The piece titled “An Attempt to Approach Someone Unapproachable” describes the architect’s experimental headstrongness; at times, he does not shy away from vexing his audience, as follows: “This stubbornness, however, seems to be only partly due to the rebellious nature that led some outsiders to put sticks and stones in his way. Creative enthusiasm remained his main incentive, his desire to experiment and for wholesome needling: acupuncture of the matter, to get new things going, always at the fringe of what’s possible — and sometimes, with the best intentions, including side effects, mostly at the users’ expense.” (Baar/Maurer 2022, p. 35)
A Final Word: Experiment as Work
Not even at an all too quick, carelessly straying first glance is there anything “megalomaniac” about Günther Domenig’s architecture and understanding of construction, the method, process and content, his self-conception, theory, and practice. Throughout, the clear references to Romanticism from Piranesi to Boullée and Novalis show that the buildings seem to be determined by an inwardness that appears almost “anti-monumental.” This was also the case with early Frank Gehry buildings but certainly not for his megalomaniac structures for the absurd new “Arles” that he built on the artistic whim of billionaire M. Hoffmann over the last few years — thoughtless in every respect. Against the background of a sceptically regarded but committedly appropriated and partially perpetuated Modernism (Brutalism, Corbusier, Mendelsohn, Behrens, Taut, Finsterlin, Kiesler), Domenig develops points of view, ways of looking at things, and examples of a resistance to monumentality, a constantly executed breaking with every doctrine of unity and megalomania, along with the seductive figures of the imperial gesture of the desperately repeated, long since outdated model of the architect as master builder of the world.
Not only Günther Domenig, but he, in particular, is one of those to whom the diagnosis of the architectural historian, building researcher, and conservationist Uta Hassler applies when she characterizes the textbook discourse on building in terms of the traditional aspirations of architecture as a historically disintegrated and also meanwhile collapsed ideal: “Architecture is seen as an old cultural technique, the ‘slowest of the sciences and arts’: since classical antiquity, architectural knowledge has been passed down in writing and via buildings; a codified collection of continually applicable ‘fundamentals of construction’ still does not exist today. Instructions on how to proceed and discussion of realized examples, collection, and communication of historical and contemporary ideal solutions determine professional discourse until well into the 20th century. The experiment is regularly synonymous with unique buildings. Basic knowledge comes from sub- and neighbouring disciplines, from mathematics, physics, material science and mechanics, historical building research.” (Hassler, 2015, trans. by Susannah Leopold; p.6.)
This is precisely what remains as both method and work: the experiment as a unique object; construction as experiment.
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