Critical Grounds

Month: July, 2010

Parallel Lines: formal expression as publicity in the architecture of Hadid’s Central Building for BMW Leipzig.

Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co identify, in their Modern Architecture, a ‘crisis of form’ in late-nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture’s encounter with the impersonal forces of capital and technology shaping the contemporary metropolis. Exemplified in the poverty of eclecticism, the formal ‘exasperation’ of Art Nouveau and Expressionism, and the ‘frigidity’ of functionalism, architecture was, for them, caught in an ‘obstinate struggle’ between ‘an architecture thought of as “autobiography of the soul”’ and an ‘avant garde technological aesthetic.’ At stake in this crisis were questions not only of the possibility of personal expression through form within an increasingly impersonal environment, but also of the very existence of form itself within the dynamic conditions of a metropolis constantly threatening its dissolution within its ‘rush and flow’.

This crisis is only convincingly resolved, for Tafuri and Dal Co, where form substitutes for the subjective ‘autobiography of the soul’, as the object of its expression, the abstract and dynamic forces of metropolitan transformation. Under these new conditions of formal expression architecture’s task is no longer to mediate between ‘soul’ and community, but to communicate to the masses the new dynamics of urban transformation and to assume forms reflective of this movement. Architecture, in other words, only moves beyond its crisis point where it acquiesces to its own subsumption by the economic and technological forces shaping the contemporary metropolis, and where its forms become a means of positive publicity, as ‘mass communication’, for this capitalist dynamic. Hence , for Tafuri and Dal Co, the architecture of Erich Mendelsohn’s department stores of the 1920s offer one such instance of the resolution of architecture’s formal crisis since these take their place, ‘in that chaos of stimuli which is the commercial center and which…could lose that anguished aspect attributed to it by Expressionism and propose itself anew as a dynamic force to the public of Weimar Germany’.

Tafuri and Dal Co’s analysis of the relations between capitalism, formal expression, perception and the conditions of the metropolis is, of course, not without precedent in either its method or its concerns. Siegfried Kracauer, writing from a perspective similarly critical of the capitalist  basis of metropolitan transformation and likewise opposed to any return to a pre-metropolitan Gemeinschaft, observes in his seminal essay, ‘The Mass Ornament’ of 1927: ‘The mass ornament is the aesthetic reflex of the rationality to which the prevailing economic system aspires’.

In this essay, as is well known, Kracauer takes the 1920s Tiller Girls dance troupe to be emblematic of the ‘murky’ rationality of capitalism and its capacity to remake nature according to its own principles of use and calculability. In their performances the individual bodies of the dancers, and those of their audience seated in the tiered rows of the theatre, are assembled according to a geometrical principle of the ‘mass’ whose organisational source lies outside of and invisible to its participants. Here the massed synchronisation of the bodies of the dancers is figured as a formal expression of the abstract principles of Taylorist efficiency on the production line so that, according to Kracaueur, the ‘hands in the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls’ and the ‘formal principle according to which they [the masses] are molded determines them in reality as well.’

Correspondences between metropolitan modes of production and forms of mass ‘distraction’are also remarked upon in Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, where he described the training of the ‘human sensorium’ and its perceptual capacities in relation to film viewing and the rhythms of the Fordist production line. ‘In a film’, he wrote, ‘perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle. That which determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the basis of the rhythm of reception in a film.’

Georg Simmel’s ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ of 1903 is, of course, a common point of origin for Benjamin, Kracauer, Tafuri and Dal Co and others in its attention, if not directly to formal principles in architecture or mass entertainment, to the abstract force of the money economy upon metropolitan life and the effects of its ‘chaos of stimuli’ upon perception and the production of subjectivity. However, whilst constituting an established method of critique, in which urban form is analysed as a mediator between the abstract forces shaping the metropolis and the nervous life of its citizens, this approach and its methods were effectively sidelined by the linguistic and semiotic orientations pursued within architecture and theory –  such as postmodernism and deconstruction – which came to occupy the discipline for much of the 70s and 80s.

Yet architecture has, since the mid-90s, returned to form in pursuit of its operative and performative capacities whilst eschewing the semantic and rhetorical agendas of postmodernism and deconstruction. Driven in part by the potentials of digital design softwares, but also by a concurrent turn in theory from the linguistic paradigms of Barthes or Derrida to a vitalist model of becoming read from Deleuze and Guattari, and informed too by complexity theory, this turn is exemplified in the work of practices such as Greg Lynn, Reiser + Umemoto, FOA and Zaha Hadid Architects. Through morphological procedures such as folding and smoothing, allegedly derived from the thought of Deleuze and Guattari, and modelling techniques concerned with processes of emergence, the architectures of these practices respond effectively, it is claimed, to contemporary social and technological conditions of complexity, mobility and fluidity.

Whilst much has been written of the design processes employed within these architectures, and too of their capacity to address contemporary programmatic issues, almost nothing has been said—excepting the somewhat superficial criticisms of ‘iconic’ architecture—of their expressive powers, of the ways in which their forms mediate abstract organisational and economic forces and shape social and subjective perceptions of these. Only recently have the architects and theorists of this contemporary current in architecture begun to produce their own discourse on the expressive dimension of their work, where it has been framed as a ‘new elegance’, in order to account positively for the ways in which the complexities of contemporary organisational dynamics, with which it is frequently engaged, are both accommodated and expressed in their designs. This discourse is of course self-serving and promotional and, like the architecture which it glosses, demanding of critical attention.

Suggested by certain parallels between the subsumption of architecture’s formally expressive powers to the demands of the early 20th century capitalist metropolis and those of its practice today, though in different circumstances, addressed here, then, is an architecture presenting itself as post-critical through a critique of expression whose methods were originally developed by figures such as Benjamin, Kracauer and Tafuri.

Specifically, I focus here upon the architecture of Zaha Hadid’s Central Building for BMW at Leipzig, where the architect’s broader concerns with ‘articulating complexity’ are recruited to the specific problematics of contemporary industrial manufacture.

If it can be said that there is an ‘aesthetic reflex of the rationality to which the prevailing economic system aspires’ today, then this reflex responds to the system’s current organisational diagram. In this ‘diagram’, to employ the term used by Foucault and Deleuze to describe historically specific modalities of power relations, the affective and communicational capacities of the subject are valorised by capital as forms of ‘immaterial labour’ both in their own right, as exchange value, and where they are productively integrated with older modes of ‘material labour’. In this organisational diagram the mobilisation, management and coordination of various flows – of bodies, of matter, of information –  within complex networks is key. If there is a formal principle to this organisational dynamic it is one of a smooth and continuous variation through which the complex movements within the network are controlled. Where the formal principles identified by Kracauer and Benjamin were derived from the shocks, juxtapositions and repetitions of labour in Fordist modernity, those of post-Fordist immaterial labour are defined by the continuities and smooth connections through which the complexity of contemporary networks are articulated; a transition described by Deleuze as the historical movement of the diagram from Foucault’s disciplinary society to contemporary ‘societies of control’. The ‘aesthetic reflex’ corresponding with this diagram of control might best be described as one of ‘vectorisation’; an ornament, in Kracauer’s sense, both reflective and simultaneously productive of the desired quality of movement within societies of control.

Positioned between BMW Leipzig’s three main production areas, the Central Building was envisioned by the company’s management as the plant’s ‘central nervous system’; a space in which the movements and relations of the various sectors of the workforce were to be so organised as to produce a sense of collective endeavour in which all workers would collaborate, communicate and thus contribute toward the continual improvement of production in the factory. The circulatory pattern designed by Hadid to accommodate this organisational model was developed through a series of vector diagrams. Through these diagrams the Central Building was designed so that all of the plant’s employees enter the building through a common area – described as a ‘market place’ – in whose cafeteria they can discuss work-related concerns, and regularly pass an ‘audit area’ where they are invited to inspect faults in production and offer contributions towards their collective resolution.

As well as the circulatory means through which the immaterial labour of collective communication is organised in the building, also employed are certain strategies of affect. The plant’s production line, for instance, is routed through the Central Building serving not only as the signifier of a more or less explicit message envisioned by the management―that ‘quality is the achievement of all employees’ ―but in its elevated movement, underscored and dramatised by lighting effects, suggesting forms of collective sensory experience associated with the metropolis. Further, the vectorised qualities of the plant’s organisational circuits are also rendered as visual and tactile elementsof the architecture so as to suggest the smooth and controlled fashion in which complexity is articulated. As Patrik Schumacher, a partner in Hadid’s practice, elaborates in this context:

We employed only homogenous, continuous materials such as concrete and welded steel; we strove to eliminate as many columns as possible; and we minimized the number of corners…The eye is drawn along continuous concrete walls; seamless, welded steel handrails; even the conveyor belts overhead. These lines flow in parallel, they bifurcate, they travel up and down through the section…

As Schumacher also underlines, the design of the Central Building is directed, in the first instance, by an experiential agenda which, at times, is allowed to override strictly functional considerations :

All of the structure was oriented to trace the lines of movement through the building, to emphasize these linear trajectories. […] You will notice many instances where the steel roof beams are curved to follow the flows. These are not the most efficient ways to span these distances, but as the structure is such a major component of the visual field, we felt it necessary that it work beyond its role as support to become an orienting device within the space.[2]

The aesthetics of controlled convergence, bifurcation and continuous mobility referred to here are particularly evident too in the exterior cladding of the Central Building. Here the vector diagrams used to plan the building’s circulation patterns, with their parallel trajectories and radial curves, appear to re-emerge, translated into an abstract form of ornament, through which organisational paradigms are made available to the senses as aesthetic qualities. Together with the shaping of structural elements to follow circulatory paths, and the continuities emphasised by the building materials, these vectorised forms work to reinforce, affectively, the diagram by which the workforce is physically mobilised and distributed. To recall the terms used by Benjamin, these forms target the human sensorium with an aesthetic whose principles correspond to the rhythms of contemporary labour.



In the sense that architectural form is employed in the Central Building to give qualitative expression to organisational paradigms currently valorised within capitalism, it appears to parallel in its function that of the reklamearchitektur of Erich Mendelsohn described by Tafuri. This dimension of architecture as publicity is underscored too by the fact that the plant is open to public tours, and that the Central Building has featured in advertisements for BMW. It is also the case, however, that such publicity represents the conditions of experience within contemporary capitalism only in an ideal form. From the perspective of labour, in contrast, conditions at BMW Leipzig are likely to be experienced as precarious, particularly for its large numbers of temporarily contracted workers. Through the contractual arrangements imposed upon the workforce by BMW’s management, the hours of work, and therefore wage levels, are rendered immediately contingent upon the fluctuations of both the sales market and global economic conditions, (as is evident from the extensive lay offs resulting from the global recession beginning in 2008).[3]

The vectorisation of form, then, also suggests a further parallel to that of the mass ornament which formed the object of Kracauer’s critique. For Kracaueur, the mass ornament appeared rational, but was, in fact, a means to suspend and circumscribe the fully liberating potentials of rationalism within the narrow interests of capital that he described as its ratio. ‘Viewed from the perspective of reason,’ he wrote, ‘the mass ornament reveals itself as a mythological cult that is masquerading in the garb of abstraction.’

Similarly, the vectorisation of form and the abstract means through which complexity is articulated in the Central Building, and in Hadid’s architecture more widely, suggests a certain mythologisation of contemporary organisational models in ways which obscure both the real tensions and the full potentials of networked conditions within contemporary social reality. These tensions and potentials are dissimulated in ‘mythological’ guise not only through the formal principles of continuous variation through which they are smoothed over, but too through the discourse of ‘elegance’ recently produced by Schumacher. In this discourse ‘elegance’ is the means through which architecture articulates complexity so that its work appears as ‘an effortless display of sophistication’. Complexity, according to Schumacher, is not a condition to be opened up and explored but a problem to be mastered. The ‘elegant solution’, he claims, ‘is marked by an economy of means by which it conquers complexity and resolves complications’. This triumph over complexity is further mystified by an appeal to the ‘laws of nature’ with which it is said to correspond: ‘It is the sense of law-governed complexity that assimilates this work to the forms and spaces we perceive in natural systems, where all forms are the result of lawfully interacting forces.’

Contemporary architecture’s discourse about its own practice, then, joins that of its spatial production to work as a ‘smooth operator’; a means of publicity through which are advertised and offered to experience the easy management of connectivity and mobility in order that its precarities, frictions, and tensions are obscured.

[1] n.a. ‘BMW Annual Report 2004’, op. cit.

[2] Ibid., 92

[3] In November 2008 500 temporary workers were dismissed from employment at the Leipzig plant. Source: Ludwig Niethammer, ‘Germany: Temporary workers are first victims of recession’, World Socialist Web Site,12 January 2009,> [accessed 28 August 2009]


Emerging Landscapes

Rahul Paul and I co-presented a paper at the recently held Emerging Landscapes conference at the University of Westminster, 25-27 June 2010.


Approaching the processual landscape: relational agri-urbanism in the Pearl River Delta

The processes which constitute the landscape cannot be captured and fixed as a representation constituting an ‘identity’ for landscape. Rather than a terra firma whose identity is amenable to capture and representation, landscape is a terra fluxus. Hence the Landscape Urbanism programme of the Architectural Association has eschewed the position that landscape is possessed of a fixed genius loci from which it might resist globalisation, technocracy and planning. Rather it operates tactically, amidst rather than against the processes of globalisation so as to locate the means through which these might be locally and inventively inflected toward outcomes which are socially equitable and environmentally viable. Key to this approach, the map, the index and the diagram are employed as tools with which to engage tactically with the processual operations of the landscape within, but not for the larger flows and forces within which it is implicated. Exemplifying the use of these methods and the tactical approach of the programme here will be Rahul Paul’s recent project, ‘Relational Agri-Urban Culture’, which, located within the China’s Pearl River Delta region, uses these as the basis from which to generate a new condition for a performative working terrain driven by the cycles of the regional food system.