Heavy Rotation - The Recurring in Architecture

In loose succession, we publish here contributions from the discourse section of the current yearbook of the department. In it, members of the department address the significance of cyclical processes in architecture.

Cycles, continuums and spirals - Does architecture still have a future?

by Bernita Le Gerrette

"The future no longer delivers what it once promised, the present has become confusing, and the past gives no rest and returns in manifold guises."↘ 1

The question of recurrence in architecture is not exclusively a question about the buildings, methods, materials and concepts that recur, but opens up broader questions: Against what background are concepts of recurrence currently gaining such currency? What makes cycles and cycles so attractive in the current discourse? The phenomenon can be demonstrated in many different ways, and in architecture it is particularly evident in the juxtaposition with the modernism of the early 20th century.

The fact that the new was to be preferred to the old was one of the characteristics of modernism, especially in the early 20th century. This manifested itself in the New Building as well as in the New City, the New Dwelling, the New Age, or even the New Man. In 1924, for example, Bruno Taut called on women to get rid of "the endless clutter and junk, [... the] atavisms, remnants of memories of grandfather times, and the fetishism of objects" in favor of overcoming the tyranny of the inanimate ↘ 2. Today, we look with longing at the power and effectiveness of this epoch. The current Bauhaus hype on the occasion of its anniversary is accompanied by a peculiar nostalgia for the future, for a time when one could still rely on progress in society as a whole.

The belief in a better, new future planned by architects, on the other hand, has long been lost. The current conjuncture of the recurrent can be found in the most diverse areas: In rejection of the old new, a retro-future is emerging in the inner cities in the form of old town reconstructions and Schinkelisms; the principle of the eternal and recurring promises security and validity. However, the phenomenon also appears in the increasing interest in artisanal, local building methods as well as concepts and experiments in material recycling. As another astonishing example, the intensification of social issues has carried the call for land reform and expropriation, which seemed finally buried at the latest with the fall of the Soviet Union, from left-wing civic forums to the feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. ↘ 3 Old ideas, images and methods are topical again and raise the question of why faith in the progressive has faded.

In the last third of the 20th century, a paradigm shift took place, which today, from a retrospective perspective, is clearly discernible. While the 1960s, with the moon landing and the student revolts, were still full of visions and hopes, there subsequently developed an ever-increasing scepticism towards the so-called progress imperative of modernity. This apparent change of mind in society, which is also expressed through the aforementioned examples in architecture, is addressed in depth in the humanities ↘ 4. While the present does not yet reveal itself so clearly and distinctly, the actors in the discourse agree that the time regime of modernity is no longer valid. Against this background, Aleida Assmann asks whether time is out of joint. She thus describes nothing less than the rise and also fall of a temporal order that increasingly emerged from the 17th century onwards and ultimately lost its validity at the end of the 20th century as a result of diverse developments:

"The future as a secure orientation and a shining promise, even a promise that pointed one's plans and goals in a clear direction - that was once. That future has long since become a thing of the past." ↘ 5

She attributes this decline in the share price of the future to factors such as the advanced expansion of technical civilization, the unchecked consumption of resources, environmental pollution, the scarcity of drinking water, climate change, and demographic problems such as overpopulation and aging. The future has thus moved from being an object of expectation and hope to one of concern. So it is not surprising that the gaze turns to the past and what has gone before.

When Assmann asks whether time is out of joint, she is suggesting that the former order has been upset. Against this background, it is not surprising that pre-modern orders of time are also re-emerging. The current interest in cycles harks back in its essence to medieval horizons of experience. Lucian Hölscher describes life at that time, and thus also the possible conceptions of the future, as assuming an eternal repetition of the same. "Sowing and harvesting, the succession of church festivals with their fixed seasonal customs, the succession of ages and the coexistence of generations [...] took place in cycles" ↘ 6. The nonetheless high demand for knowledge about the future was satisfied primarily by horoscopes and divinations. How much the entire horizon of experience differed from ours is illustrated by Hölscher with an example from Augustine's Confessions ↘ 7. In order to get closer to the relationship between past, present and future, Augustine asked from which hiding place the future would emerge when it became present and into which hiding place it would disappear again afterwards. According to Hölscher, Augustine did not yet have a concept of time. Only developments such as the discovery of central perspective and thus of a spatial continuum made it possible for us to understand time as a continuum as well.

What does it mean, however, when this continuum is once again at issue in our difficult present? As a way out, Bruno Latour already proposed in 1991 another, namely a spiral-shaped model of time. Thus, elements "that seem distant when we follow the line of the spiral [...] could [be] found very close to each other." ↘ 8 Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, on the other hand, speaks of a broad present in which, due to the loss of a future as an open horizon and the recent storage power of electronic media, we would be swamped by the past and condemned to a temporal milieu of simultaneity, statics, and stagnation. ↘ 9 While Aleida Assmann shares this diagnosis, she draws a less dystopian conclusion and sees the task of reordering the stages of time as one of the greatest challenges and an open-ended adventure. "Culture generates not only its past, but also its future, [...] The past has changed its quality, but the future is no longer what it was either. The crucial question is therefore no longer exclusively: what do we want from the past and the future, but now increasingly also: what does the future want, what does the past want from us?" ↘ 10

In architecture, too, both the tasks and the perspectives of the present and the future are immense: urban development, climate, migration, participation, mobility, ageing here and population growth there are just some of the issues to be dealt with on both a large and small scale. New technologies and possibilities are available to shape the many complex futures of architecture and cities. It is precisely this breadth of our present, in which so much has a place, that lends itself to the development of new forms of living and architecture. For some time now, initiatives have been emerging in a wide variety of places to renegotiate questions of community, the public sphere and participation, transforming cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam, Zurich or Vienna into laboratories of possible and alternative futures ↘ 11. Many cities are developing concepts for the restructuring of infrastructure and mobility in which aspects such as quality of life, urban climate and sustainability are given greater consideration ↘ 12. Here, too, there are pioneers such as Copenhagen or Strasbourg. However, the potential field of activity is much larger: How do we politically ensure the participation of all in urban space? For the foreseeable future, many spaces in city centres will become available as retail shifts to online platforms. What will we use these spaces for? How and in what spaces will we spend our lives as increasing automation makes our labour redundant? Networking offers the opportunity for experience sharing and negotiation here. The old times may be out of joint, but that doesn't mean we have to take refuge in a pre-modern way of thinking about time or in an outdated nostalgia for progress. The present is far too exciting for that!


↘ 1
cf. Assmann, Aleida (2013): Ist die Zeit aus den Fugen? Aufstieg und Fall des Zeitregimes der Moderne, Munich: Hanser Verlag, Klappentext o. S.
↘ 2
Taut, Bruno (1924): Die Frau als Schöpferin - Den Frauen gewidmet!, in: Die Neue Wohnung, Leipzig: Klinkhardt und Biermann, [online].
http://www.cloud-cuckoo.net/openarchive/Autoren/Taut/Taut1924a.hat [last accessed 30 Apr. 2019].
↘ 3
Maak, Niklas (2019): Interview on the housing shortage. Wie lösen wir die Immobilienkrise, Herr Vogel?, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (26.03.2019), [online] https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/wie-loesen-wir-dieimmobilienkrise-hans-jochen-vogel-16104805.html [last access 30.04.2019].
↘ 4
cf. inter alia Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich (2010): Unsere breite Gegenwart, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag; as well as Assmann, Aleida (2013): Ist die Zeit aus den Fugen?, Munich: Hanser Verlag; and Holscher, Lucian (2016): The Discovery of the Future, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag.
↘ 5
Assmann 2013, p. 10.
↘ 6
Holscher 2017, p. 31.
↘ 7
Holscher 2017, p. 38.
↘ 8
Latour, Bruno (2008): We have never been modern. Versuch einer symmetrischen Anthropologie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, p. 101.
↘ 9
Gumbrecht cited in Assmann 2013, pp. 250-256.
↘ 10
Assmann 2013, p. 323 f.
↘ 11
see, among others, Ferguson, Francesca (ed.) (2014): Make_shift city: Renegotiating the Urban Commons, Berlin: Jovis Verlag.
Fezer, Jesko et al. (eds.) (2017): Wohnungsfrage. Bibliothek 100 Jahre Gegenwart, Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin.
Aravena, Alejandro (ed.) (2016): Reporting from the Front, 15th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice: Marsilio Editori.
Vitra Design Museum (ed.) (2017): Together! The New Architecture of the Collective, Weil am Rhein/Berlin: Ruby Press.
ARCH+ 232 (2018): An Atlas of Commoning: Places of Commoning, Berlin: Jovis Verlag.
↘ 12
cf. inter alia Kollosche, Ingo/Schwedes, Oliver (2016): Mobilität im Wandel, Transformationen und Entwicklungen im Personenverkehr, Bonn.

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