Architecture, the Avant-Garde, and the Future

In “Art & Architecture: The Utopian Fallacy,” a chapter in her book Art & Today, Eleanor Heartney offers a survey of contemporary art (from the 70s to the mid-aughts) that is directly engaging with architecture and design. Heartney opens the chapter by discussing the hopes of social transformation that were embedded in early modernist architecture. She then goes on to lament not just the failure of specific utopian architectural ideas but also the supposed loss of the utopian impulse altogether. Contemporary architecture, she argues, is either bland and inoffensive or fantastical and flashy (read too artistic). Heartney believes that hope is not lost, however. Contemporary artists have taken up the revolutionary spirit that once belonged to modernist architecture albeit in a heavily modified form.

While this is certainly true that there is relationship between these artists and architecture—and more broadly, design—it is much more complicated than Heartney would lead us to believe. It is not as if artists in the 60s (this is if we are to accept Gordon Matta-Clark as the forerunner to this type of work as Heartney does) had suddenly decided to pick up the fallen torch of social change that architects had abandoned. On the contrary, much of the work that Heartney discusses has roots in the historic avant-garde, which existed simultaneously with visionary architects like Loos and Le Corbusier.

Before going any further, I would just like to address Heartney’s cynicism about architecture. The effects of capitalism may have pushed work that advocates for social change into the shadow of projects like Guggenheim Bilbao but that by no means points to its extinction. It is not at all hard to find an example of such work; Vincent Callebaut’s series of environmentally efficient buildings for the city of Paris is just one of many [1].

Vincent Callebaut's Photosynthesis Towers

Vincent Callebaut Architectures, Photosynthesis Towers

Heartney traces the downfall of modernist architecture from its visionary beginnings to eventual co-optation by corporate culture. She chooses the illustrate her point, both rhetorically and visually, with Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and Philip Johnson’s Glass House, both icons of modernist architecture. While a person should never be equated with their work, it is also important not to decontextualize the work from its maker. Johnson’s personal politics were conservative [2]and Mies van der Rohe seems to have been uninterested in politics [3]. Heartney does not seem to be trying very hard to make a case for architecture. Furthermore, she makes broad generalizations about the discipline simply to prove her point.

Heartney is much fairer to art but she still places it within an incomplete historical narrative. The historic avant-garde—I am specifically thinking of Italian Futurism, Dada, and Russian Constructivism here—strove to return art to the praxis of life [4]. All three of these movements sought to “destroy” art [5] or at least the bourgeois idea of art that was present at the time. Of course it can also be argued that for art to become totally integrated with life it would necessarily lose its autonomy and the name “art” that designates it as a separate phenomenon would become superfluous.

Today, such a perfect fusion of the two seems utopian. In the 1920s, however, the Constructivists took some very practical steps towards this end. Constructivism advocated the creation of artist-engineers [6] who design mass-produced objects such as clothing, furniture, stoves, and cookware. Although it seems oxymoronic for a group of artists committed to the revolution to add to material culture in this way they actually sought to transform our relationship to objects. This would be achieved through the creation of active, “comradely” objects that facilitate social interaction and understanding—“socialist objects.” “Transparency,” an aesthetic that crops up in modernist architecture, most notably in the International Style glass box—a fact Heartney points out—manifests itself in socialist objects as well. Here, the transparency is more metaphorical: an object that is forthcoming about its materials and construction. Such an object is, in Constructivist thought, more socialist than an object that hides or downplays its own construction because it brings the user closer to the maker [7].

Gustav Klucis, Maquette for Radio-Announcer, 1922, Museum of Modern Art

Gustav Klucis, Maquette for Radio-Announcer, 1922, Museum of Modern Art

Interior of a worker's club presented at the International Exhibition of Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris 1925. The space, including the furniture was designed by Alexander Rodchenko.

Interior of a worker’s club presented at the International Exhibition of Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris 1925. The space, including the furniture was designed by Alexander Rodchenko.

The notion of artists taking a more active role in society through design was not unique to Constructivism. The Bauhaus similarly blurred the lines between art and design and dealt in manufactured products [8]. Both Constructivism and the Bauhaus (and Futurism for that matter) were crushed by totalitarian regimes in the early 30s. The Constructivist and Bauhaus projects were cut short. The Constructivists, whose ideas often exceeded Russia’s industrial capabilities at the time [9], left a lot of work undone.

Although the art-into-life ambitions of the avant-garde were never realized and may no longer seem possible, the avant-garde did change the category “art” and its relationship to the real (I use the term “real” to designate the “life” half of the dichotomy between art and life) [10]. Art after the avant-garde does not isolate itself from real life and can therefore have a much more direct engagement with it than previously.

Constructivist and Dadaist Congress in Weimar (location of the Bauhaus at this time), 1922

Constructivist and Dadaist Congress in Weimar (location of the Bauhaus at this time), 1922

The work that Heartney discusses falls roughly into two groups: one in which the work directly engages reality and one that does not. Marjetica Potrč has a foot in each camp and is useful for illustrating my point. Her sculptural installations that collage together various architectural elements of the “informal city” belong to the former category. They exist in gallery spaces and are seen by art audiences. They mean to point out problems in our society but cannot do much else from their position. Optimistically, works such as these spur audiences to take direct action. How often does this really happen though? Like science fiction that presents futuristic worlds of both the utopian and dystopian variety and is all too often taken for simple entertainment, works like Potrč’s provide intellectual fodder for an insular contemporary art audience but not much else.

The other half of Potrč’s practice falls into the category of engagement. Her designs for practical structures like dry toilets for rural communities without running water engage with real life and, I would argue, surpass engagement and move onto having a direct effect. It can be argued, of course, that this project is purely humanitarian design, that by entering into complete utilitarianism it ceases to be art. Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio is similar.

Many of the works that Heartney discusses fall more solidly into what I am calling the “engagement camp.” They are heavily engaged with reality while also managing to hold onto their status as “art.” Andrea Zittel’s body of work does just this. Everything within her oeuvre, from clothing to furniture to compact living “units,” all function in everyday life. You can wear the clothing and use the furniture as if it were the same mass-produced objects you would normally use. Undoubtedly, some of the collectors of her work do. At the same time, however, there are probably an equal amount or more that do not. It is not worth risking everyday wear and tear. A related issue comes up with the living units. I am willing to bet that a collector who can afford an AZ living unit probably prefers not to live quite so minimally. Absalon’s “cellules” encounter similar issues. Designed for his own personal use, it is much more likely that he would actually live in the cellules but since Absalon died before the project was realized we cannot know for sure. Both Zittel’s and Absalon’s work float on the edge of the real; the pieces have real life functions but something is keeping them from being actual practical objects.

A Spectrum: Art to Shelf

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Atelier van Lieshout’s social experiments, such as AVL-Ville engage with reality in a much different way. By nature of being a set up experiment, the work is automatically a fiction, a kind of played-out “what if?” Even though they are all fully aware of the fiction, the experiment’s participants are all still living, sleeping, and aging. The fictionality of the work does not change the fact that one year of their lives was spent within it. In this way these experiments can be both real and not real at the same time.

The engagement camp can be further expanded to include artists that Heartney has looked over. One such artist is Krzysztof Wodiczko. Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle Project provided homeless people in New York with a “vehicle” the artist designed. The vehicle can be used to store possessions during the day and expanded to create a makeshift sleeping shelter at night. A similar project by Wodiczko’s student, Michael Rakowitz, is a shelter that is inflated by attaching it to air exhaust vents on the outsides of buildings. Like the residents of AVL-Ville, the homeless people who receive a vehicle or inflatable shelter experience a change in their everyday reality. Looking at the project through a wider lens, it becomes apparent that the vehicles and shelters are rather impractical. It is unlikely that Wodiczko or even the city of New York could furnish every homeless person with one of these devices but that is not the point. Wodiczko and Rakowitz are not after a quick fix that will palliate the problem of homelessness but rather wish to draw attention to the larger societal forces that cause it in the first place [11].

Lucy Orta’s work operates in a similar way. Orta’s Refuge Wear and Body Architecture “collections” consist of garments and bags that can convert into tent-like shelters. Orta created the series in response to aid appeals for refugees during the Gulf War [12]. Orta’s work is, like Zittel’s, technically functional yet not practical on a large scale. Like Wodizcko’s work, it is meant to point out a group of people that is often ignored. Nato Thompson calls Orta’s work “a fashion of resistance and survival.” 11 Not all of the above works are meant for survival—they each have their different functions—but they are all objects of resistance: resistance to architectural, economic, and social conventions.

These resisting works are aided by their vague position between art and design. Their “realness” or straightforward potential for realness empower these works to make physical proposals of new futures. Their status as art acts as a buffer (albeit a thin one) to capitalist pressures. Furthermore, art can often bypass safety and zoning laws that would normally impede design. Projects like Wodiczko’s or Orta’s that are not as practical as they possibly could be (on purpose of course) would probably not ever be realized if presented as serious design. The level of removal offered by art allows such projects to proceed. It seems the “failure” of the avant-garde is coming in handy. The power to be found in the hybridization of art and design suggests the need for cooperation between the two. Perhaps it is time to pick up where Constructivism and the Bauhaus were prematurely cut off.

[1] Julia Friedman, “Envisioning Eco-Friendly Architecture in Paris,” Hyperallergic, February 20, 2015,

[2] Franz Schulze, Johnson: Life and Work (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994) p. 300 “In Weimar Germany at the turn of the 1930s, with his future linked to The Museum of Modern Art, Philip could afford to express his disdain for mixing economics and politics with the art of building. Now, as a practicing architect with commissions to seek, he found it harder and harder to maintain that stance professionally, although he continued to see urbanism as much as possible through his cherished esthetic glass.”

[3] Donna Goodman, A History of the Future (New York: Monacelli Press, 2008) p. 77

[4] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: Univerisity of Minnesota Press, 1984) p. 49

[5] Ibid. pp. 50-51

[6] Christina Kiar, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005) p. 18

[7] Ibid. pp. 26-34

[8] Donna Goodman, A History of the Future (New York: Monacelli Press, 2008) pp. 73-4

[9] Constructivism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005) pp. 46-47

[10]Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: Univerisity of Minnesota Press, 1984) p. 91-92

[11] Nato Thompson, “Trespassing Toward Relevance,” in The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life, ed. Thompson and Gregory Sholette (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004)

[12] Lucy Orta, “Refuge Wear East End London 1998,” Studio Orta, February 23, 2015,


2 thoughts on “Architecture, the Avant-Garde, and the Future

  1. Hey Winslow,

    You are right about Heartney’s misplaced cynicism about modern architecture. She places the blame completely on the movement rather than the environment that that movement was made within, which is capitalism.

    Your point that the person should never be equated with their work might need rephrasing. I agree with your statement but it can be made clearer. An artist’s work can’t simply be taken for face value because of the incalculable impact it has on the environment and its audience. It cannot simply be a 1 to 1 relationship. If their work inspired current generation of architects to revisit socialist architecture, did they fail?

    Your exploration of the concept of “transparency” is very thorough and it really shows even when your writing is consolidated. I really enjoyed the idea that transparency can be reflected on the construction of the object and its relationship with the user and audience.

    I would avoid making the same statements as Heartney. Please recheck statement “Although the art-into-life ambitions of the avant-garde were never realized and may no longer seem possible”. The realm of possibility is a tricky subject and constantly changes.

    If you were to end with the statement that the relationship between art and design has to be picked up, I would first define what the difference between art and design are. I have always had a hard time defining the two and are there really clear delineations between the two?

    Overall, your article is well written and you supported your arguments with great examples. It was not only a review of the given article but also gives us more information and more context for us to make up our own minds.


  2. I appreciate the ways in which this argument proceeds from a rich historical standpoint and then works through the limits of Heartney’s argument to conclude with a range of work that seems, in some sense, to proximate speculative design. I think that your key criticism, that Heartney reads the contemporary moment of architecture in a rather limited and flattened form is a nice observation. In some respects, it might be thought that she is capturing the low point of postmodern cynicism and corporate glitz that took over architecture in the 1990s and beyond. It’s certainly the case that this moment is still very prevalent. Take a look at this recent trenchant essay in the Architecture Review which makes a powerful case that much mainstream architecture has lost its social mission let alone utopian aspirations. Yet, there are many counter movements as you point out. Vincent Callebaut, Michael Sorkin, all the work done at the GSD on Ecological Urbanism all are attempting to open up different spaces. I think the interesting question that I struggle with in thinking about the relationship between the historical avant-garde and the radical art projects that you discuss, is whether there is still a striking modest or even delimiting of ambition in the kinds of questions that are asked of contemporary radical art. All the projects that you outline are provocative and seem to pose serious humanitarian questions. I wonder though whether a concern of this kind of late 20th century/early 20th century art intervention though is that it often poses questions that seem to illicit fairly bog standard liberal humanitarian “solutions” whilst leaving discussion of broader structures and pathologies still in place? You say at one point in the post that “the art-into-life ambitions of the avant-garde were never realized and may no longer seem possible”. I immediately thought though about the kinds of digital cultural interventions advocated by John Maeda and multiple digital cultural proponants more general. It is interesting here that much of this work seems to work off a rhetoric of turning art into life but life now is bio-life, hybrid life, techno-social life and the end point would seem to make high tech silicon valley capitalism function more effectively. I would be interested to hear your further thoughts about how the more ambitious elements of the digital avant garde might be reworked and rethought.


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