When questioning the
usefulness of manifestos as a tool for architects, we must first define one. A manifesto
can be defined as a written statement of the beliefs, aims, and policies of an
organization, especially a political party1.
An architectural manifesto, on the other hand, can be much harder to categorise
and place. As Charles Jencks argues in the introduction to his ‘Theories and
Manifestos of Contemporary Architecture’, the Ten Commandments were the original
architectural manifesto, or at the least they set an outline based on their tone
and form. Taking the teleological argument, God is the architect of each and every
thing, with architects playing God when making both subjective decisions, and when
adopting one theory over another. More recent manifestos of the 20th
century have ranged heavily on both form and tone. ‘Complexity and
Contradiction in Architecture’ by Robert Venturi works as a form of anti-manifesto
manifesto and even subtitles itself as ‘A Gentle Manifesto2’.
It can be placed against Antonio Sant’Elia’s ‘Manifesto of Futurist
Architecture’ that is far more forceful in its views and tries to be far more
persuasive, using much wilder rhetoric. These vary in tone, whilst both vary
heavily in form to Bernard Tschumi’s ‘Advertisements for Architecturei’ –
often not accepted as a manifesto – that take the form of graphic posters
showing quotes and famous buildings. It is this varying form that makes it
difficult to measure manifestos as tools. You cannot quantify ‘usefulness’
unless perhaps in such a case where you could look at publication or sales
figures. Manifestos have differing values to each individual author and reader.
Success of the manifesto may be measured as a form of support or prerequisite
for an architectural movement, as a look into history to document the past and hint
at what is to come. They can be used as a way of profiling architects and their
work and as a way for the architect to gain self-justification for his/her work
and writing. Architects use them as a way of advertising, of reaching a wider
audience, and in some cases, of making money. They are a way of helping people
understand buildings and to communicate the theory behind them.
The manifesto which I will
focus on and which I think successfully manages to be a useful tool within each
of these categories is Rem Koolhaas’ ‘Delirious New York’. In the form of a
three-hundred-plus page book, Koolhaas has written a retroactive manifesto on
Manhattan’s architectural endeavours and the complexities of its ‘Grid’ system.
He describes the city as the ’20th Century’s Rosetta Stone3′
and sets out the symbiotic relationship between the city’s alien urban philosophy
and the distinctive architecture that was built up around it, describing it as
having an ‘unconscious architectural production’. Koolhaas narrates it in such a
way to the extent that he describes the architecture itself having given rise
to the distinct culture and society it holds within. He structures the text as
a work of architecture, with chapters and subheadings laid out to mimic the ‘Grid’
system he talks about. The blocks of text themselves are analogous to New York
and the urbanism they describe; and each one is divided up in relation to the
other in order to coexist and in this way, he tells the story of New York’s
history: its infamous skyscrapers, Coney Island, and the formation of the ‘Grid’
system. ‘Delirious New York’ provides both a look into changing architectural
styles at the time, the political, socio economic changes within society, and into
Koolhaas himself. Koolhaas describes himself as the city’s ‘ghostwriter4’ and
differences himself from other avant-garde architects of the time; instead of
using the theory in his manifesto to provoke a reality in the built environment,
he inverts the process and takes the evidence provided to him on the streets of
New York, producing his ‘Grid’ theory from this. In Koolhaas’ opinion, the New
York’s manifesto was never written as the city was built up in such a radical
way that its ambitions could never be openly stated.
1 Cambridge English Dictionary
2 Venturi, Complexity
and Contradiction in Archictecture, Pg 40.
3 Koolhaas, Delirious
New York, Pg.
4 Koolhaas, Delirious
New York, Pg.
i. Tschumi’s ‘Advertisements for Architecture’