How Soon Is Now? Ten Problems and Paradoxes in the Work of Dogma

13Oct16

by Christophe Van Gerrewey Anyone Corporation

The widespread conviction that architecture has no social role worth speaking of is illustrated in a curious document from the heyday of late 20th-century Dutch architecture culture – a culture that has been crucial in the formation of Aureli and Tattara, who were students and educators at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam before it was closed in 2012 due to government budget cuts.

In 1991, at the Venice Architecture Biennale curated by Francesco Dal Co, the Dutch Pavilion presented a new generation. These young architects – including Ben van Berkel, Wiel Arets, and Willem Jan Neutelings – were not only working in the tradition of Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture; in some cases they had worked for OMA during the ’80s, and all of them profited from public investments in architecture and the growing Salonfähigkeit of Dutch architecture. The curator of this exhibition was architecture critic Hans Ibelings. In the introduction to the catalogue he writes, “There is a renewed interest among younger architects in the intellectual tradition of modernism, an interest legible in their attempts to uphold certain principles. No one, however, harbors the illusion that it is possible or even desirable to revitalize the societal program to which these principles were originally linked.” He concludes with a statement that would prove prophetic in the decades to come: “[These architects] articulate the sentiment that modernism is a valuable source from which inspiration can be freely drawn, with no concern for the idealism attached to it by the first generation of modernists. The result of this liberal and unencumbered involvement with architecture of the recent past is a modernism without dogma, inventive and with a tremendous richness of form.”

Modernism without Dogma served as the exhibition title. There lies an important irony in this formula. As Ibelings unwittingly but succinctly described, in contemporary architecture one major ideological dogma became all the more huge precisely because it was never expressed as such: that architects have no use for ideals, nor for explicit or societal programs that contradict or confront the way of the world.

The name Dogma, chosen by Aureli and Tattara, can be interpreted in this sense: their projects polemically address an architecture culture that is dominated by one dogma, with a working and production method that is no less dogmatic – but it is a dogma that, on the one hand, is put in a theoretical and self-willed pole position and, on the other, uncovers and reverses many of the fetishes and doxas of 21st-century architecture. The work of Dogma is – to borrow from Ibelings’s catalogue once more – not “inventive,” and it does not boast “a tremendous richness of form.” Invention and formal richness are, on the contrary, considered as the true, self-consuming problem of architecture and, as such, are annihilated, not least by the use of one formal dogma: the square. This is the conceptual basis of their approach, and it has often led to bewildered reactions, comic and sad at the same time: How can they be serious? Is that all there is? Squares, lines, and ladders? Shouldn’t architects be at least a bit creative? Dogma shows that in order to be surprising, architects today can only sabotage the very notion of surprising architectural invention.

One of the unresolved tensions in the work of Dogma owes to the singularity of the architectural object. In 11 Projects, Brett Steele begins his introduction to Dogma’s work by stressing the dominance of singularity in contemporary architecture: namely, “the intensified attention directed in theory as well as in practice not only toward the architectural object but also, and more significantly, toward a highly individuated, decidedly episodic accounting of architectural proposals and interventions, conceived no less than received as singular architectural undertakings, whether they are buildings, structures, installations or even larger urban spaces.” According to Steele, Dogma tries to overcome this dominance by returning architecture to more fundamental tasks, not at the scale of the building but at the scale of the city.


The concept of singularity is essential for modernity in general and for modern cultural production in particular. The idea, or the expectation, that one work or one event is new, different, and singular, and that it has a valuable transforming and critical effect, is rooted in an old tradition with religious, anthropologic, and ritualistic aspects. Contemporary architecture thrives on this expectation, and no matter how absurd it has become – one need only think of the more than 1,500 entries to the Guggenheim Helsinki design competition in 2014 to understand the implications of being exceptional and different – it is not easy to imagine how it can be overthrown. In a conversation with Jean Nouvel published in The Singular Objects of Architecture, Jean Baudrillard considers whether there is an alternative to critical singularity: “I think that each of us can resist,” he said. “But it would be difficult for such resistance to become political. I don’t get the impression there could be any organized political resistance as such. It would always be an exception, and whatever you do will always be ‘exceptional’ in that sense. . . . We are definitively immersed in the order of culture, that is, until the apocalypse arrives.”

This word apocalypse is strange, and in a sense it is not correct. The immersion in culture, the world system, can easily be swept away by an apocalypse. But there is a more positive idea of an apocalypse as a complete and total change not caused by nature but organized and willed by a large group of people. The “singular objects” of architecture can be replaced not only by an apocalypse but also by a revolution. The work of Dogma asks us to reconsider our options. What would it mean if architects produced not beautiful singular objects and exceptional new places but rather urban environments in which singularity is no longer the norm? What can replace singularity? What is the opposite of singularity? The opposite of a singular object is a replacement of the totality: instead of piercing the bubble to let light and air in, you take the bubble away; instead of confronting the city with “acupuncture with a big needle,” as Elia Zenghelis described it, you cut open the body of the city and replace its vital organs. This is a much more collective and indeed revolutionary change: as an individual, you can take isolated critical actions, but if you want to change the totality of the conditions we live in, you will not succeed on your own. In texts both by and about Dogma, three words consistently pop up: politicscapitalism, and the city. There is a danger of indistinctness and tautology in this insistence, but what it boils down to is that the architects of Dogma go looking for a client that is neither simply an individual commissioner nor a society in which exchangeable individuality and commercial singularity remain the norm. The result is a hypothetical practice vulnerable to the reproach that they ignore the reality in which architects have to perform their pragmatic duties.

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