Philipp OswaltArchitect

We believe in more certainties than actually exist. Through the stability of our social system, and I’m very thankful for this, we’re very strong, I think; but historically this is also a very uncommon situation! I’m a West German, I should add, born in 1964. That means: from 1945 onwards, peace and growing prosperity without any major crises – this is the world I grew up in. It’s an experience of continuity that has something seductive about it. To an extent, I already have the impression that this development won’t be endless and that we’re generally taking up a lot of certainties that will then undone in this generation, the next or the one after that. And there are some really clear points where this becomes apparent to me. Some everyday occurrences, for instance, obser­ved with a little bit of internal distance, prove to be much less continuous than one thinks.

Interesting, the Architecture Biennale is also having a look at this next year. It’s being curated by Rem Koolhaas. For the national pavilions he came up with the idea of engaging with the history of the last 100 years. For now everything is under the working title »Absorbing Modernity«. I asked myself: How would I address this subject? And I suggested looking at it through patents. Patents are the legal protection of inventions, especially technical inventions, and they are interesting to the extent that they actually provide a documentation of the constant modernization, the development of modernity, in which new things are always being developed. If you take architecture, for example – although architecture itself doesn’t get patented but rather, oh, I don’t know, a pane of glass for example. So then, the production of the pane of glass, the double glazing, the coating of the glass, the filling, etc., concrete things like this. This means that even just in architecture we have a good million patents and patent applications over the last 100 years. This is, so to speak, the centrifugal power of moderni­zation. I don’t mean this as a question of the history of style! From the beginning of modernity around 1800 we’ve become much more estranged from tradition through this constant innovation, and technical development is an essential factor here.

If, as an example, we look at the Bauhaus in this light, then this is a building that does pointedly does not propagate technical innovation qua progress in the sense of the contemporary inventions of the time. It was built in 1926 and was hardly on the trading edge of the technology of the time at that. (This is, by the way, something that the inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller criticized about Bauhaus.) Rather, one could say: Bauhaus is a spolia architecture of the industrialization of the 19th century. What we find here are elements that came out of the context of industrialization, and from the industrial building projects of the 19th century. Of course, one could turn one’s nose up in disgust and say: What did Mr. Gropius really accomplish, he wasn’t at all as progressive as he always claimed, he really just followed an historical trace in architecture. But this would be a misjudgment! For an architect it appears to be an essential accomplishment – and this was very pronounced in Bauhaus – to seek out totality again. When I speak of these inventions as the centrifugal force of modernization, I also see that we are dealing with a bunch of fragments. Which is to say that these are all inventions in indi-vidual fields. And that actually undermines what society and consis­tency have brought forth. Here, I see the fundamental role of Bauhaus, where the attempt is a reintegration into a new totality and alongside this also to endow it with a certain meaning. In this sense, Gropius’s well-known slogan – art and craft, a new unity – is not really an utopia but rather just the identification of a field of conflict. Namely, technology, through its constant innovation, had broken apart this unity and at the same time actually launches the search to redefine this unity. In modernity this promise of consistency can no longer be located in tradition – and this is the reason for the break with tradition. But this break is not something that is forced, so to speak, by Bauhaus or the avant-garde of modernity, but rather they are simply following the logical progression of something that has already been occurring for a while in civilization.

We don’t need utopias of innovation. Innovation occurs all by itself through this economic-technical system that distinguishes modernity. Utopias are really attempts at stabilization and reparation. Any random person on the street knows this: take climate change – the utopia of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius is an important model for conservation and of course also requires radical changes in many aspects of life. Or if we say that we’re living in the epoch of the Anthropocene, but without a world order, in which human activity has an influence on what is happening to the globe, in the accumulation of what are now these seven billion and in the future nine billion people – that’s something that defies comprehension. And how am I to feel a part of a whole, knowing that I am only one nine-billionth but also know: there is no overarching instance of a god, a world order, hol­ding it all together. Then this responsibility falls again to every individual. So how to act meaningfully? It’s hard to imagine. And to know that whatever I do will have an effect for centuries to come, that is hard to imagine. It’s really tough! Through the means that we’ve developed as a species, we’ve suddenly come to decisions that completely exceed our powers of imagination. Somehow I perceive this as a contradiction that I can’t overcome in my own life. My utopia in my own work, to put it that way, would be to see: can I somehow develop a meaningful model, an understanding? One that makes any sense at all. Or is this an impossible task?

In reality the question is how a culture learns to deal with insecurity and uncertainty. And I believe: this is something we still have to learn! I think East Germany, through the political changes of the last twenty years, learned it much better than the West, because of course it experienced really drastic transformations. This is an advantage that the East has over the West, a kind of practice, in a way, for dealing with changes, and also with uncertainties. I believe that for the East this is really a cultural advantage over the West!