Review> Momento Mertins
Joan Ockman on the essays of Detlef Mertins collected in Modernity Unbound.
The 1968 opening of the inaugural exhibition on Mondrian at the New National Gallery in Berlin designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Modernity Unbound
Detlef Mertins
Architectural Association London, £12.00

The fox knows many things, according to the parable, the hedgehog a few bigger ones. Temperamentally, Detlef Mertins belonged to the hedgehog side of the ledger. Modernity Unbound, published shortly after his premature death in January 2011, contains nine essays written over a decade and a half. Most appeared previously in journals like AA Files, Assemblage, and Grey Room or as catalog essays. Together they offer a compelling portrait of the architectural thinker as one incessantly reflecting, reading, circling back to earlier preoccupations, and digging into his position while excavating wider ground.

Mertins’ returns to his privileged subjects—glass architecture, the concept of transparency, the theoretical writings of Walter Benjamin, the universal space of Mies, and increasingly what he comes to call “bioconstructivism”—are more than just verifications, however. They also exemplify what Nietzsche called the use of history for life. As Mertins makes clear in the introduction to this short but dense collection of writings, his “underlying project” was to discover in early modernism “the antecedents of today’s ecological and biologistic architectures.” Such a project inevitably risks being an “operative” one, and Mertins’ rereadings, which draw especially on German aesthetics and architectural history, are not entirely immune from this charge. At the same time, in his interrelated roles as critic, historian, and educator, his intent was to mine fresh insights from the past that could inform and vivify contemporary architectural practice and teaching.

Two of the nine essays in the book contain a strong critique of “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal,” the seminal two-part article coauthored by Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky in the mid-1950s (belatedly published in Yale’s journal Perspecta in 1963 and 1971, respectively). Rowe and Slutzky had attacked one of the central tenets of Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture, arguing that Giedion had failed to distinguish sufficiently between what they call “phenomenal” transparency—the virtual layering manifested in Cubist painting and in Le Corbusier’s Cubist-derived early architecture—and the “literal,” or see-through, transparency exemplified by Gropius’ Bauhaus building at Dessau. Mertins characterizes Rowe and Slutzky’s reading as “reductive and restrictive.” In an effort to rehabilitate Giedion’s conception, he argues that the material transparency admired by Giedion in the Bauhaus and other glass buildings of early modern architecture was “anything but literal”; it was rather the expression of a “new optics”—“a turn from the determinate representation of a self-positing consciousness” toward “indeterminate biotechnic constructions hovering contingently without ground.”

It is worth pointing out (if only for the sake of continuing a debate that appears not to have been exhausted yet) that Mertins’ interpretation—in spite of its presentist references to groundlessness and biotechnics—paradoxically confirms Rowe and Slutzky’s reading of Giedion’s concept of the “fourth dimension,” or “space-time,” as being closer to the free-floating, utopian atemporality of, say, Malevich’s Suprematist compositions than to Le Corbusier’s architecture, forged under the “muddy banner of Cubism.” As such, it also implicitly contradicts Mertins’ larger concerns with historicity, contingency, and difference. Perhaps more important in adjudicating between these two canonical texts from the vantage point of half a century, however, is to put them back into their respective contexts. Rowe and Slutzky’s argument, just like Giedion’s and like Mertins’ own, belongs to a particular moment of history. The reason “Transparency” had the reception it did when it appeared is that it represented a polemical assault on a mainstream postwar American architecture that was, at this date, both visually and intellectually vapid. “Giedion’s bible” had long since become the classic account of the emergence of the modern movement, and Rowe and Slutzky’s formalist critique, like that of Robert Venturi in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture a little later, was a revisionist effort to inject meaning and richness into an architectural language that, in the hands of the leading corporate practitioners—including stars like Gropius—had become instrumental and boring.

The essays in Modernity Unbound that best render the philosophical depth of Mertins’ reflections on modern architectural space are, in my view, those in which he takes up the problematic of emptiness in the work of Mies van der Rohe. In “Same Difference,” Mertins compares Crown Hall to Alvar Aalto’s Cultural Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, persuasively arguing that while Aalto’s heteroclite forms are ostensibly “open” and “inclusive,” the architectural experience they afford is, in fact, “scripted in advance.” (The same may be said of the spaces of Frank Lloyd Wright or Hugo Häring, despite the claims of both to “organic form.”) In contrast, Mies’ simplified but intensely studied forms destabilize any narrow conception of function, remaining more receptive to unforeseen events. “Mies’ universal space,” Mertins writes, “staged the uprootedness so central to the experience of modernity, as both a crisis and an opportunity for self-fashioning.” In this sense, Miesian space is not neutral. It is, indeed, “almost nothing,” but with the accent—as Mertins puts it in “Mies’ Event Space,” an essay focused on the New National Gallery in Berlin—on “almost.” It is precisely this “almost” that differentiates Mies’ minimalism from the modernist aesthetics of his contemporaries, and through the heightened sense of theatricality his spaces induce, dramatizes the dialectic between freedom and constraint inherent in the experience of modernity.

The book’s two concluding essays, “Bioconstructivisms” and “Pervasive Plasticity,” extend Mertins’ previous thinking to contemporary architectural research and experimentation, in particular the work of Lars Spuybroek and parametric design. His ongoing concern with the values of “alterity” and “formlessness” (or self-generating form) reflect his readings in both poststructuralist theory and the recent literature of evolutionary biology and mathematics. He discovers an ultimate source for these values in the natural world. The microscopic sea creatures called radiolarians illustrated by the biologist Ernst Haeckel at the turn of the twentieth century in his book Kunstformen der Natur, and later upheld by radical engineers like Frei Otto and Robert Le Ricolais, as well as by Spuybroek, as “analogical models for self-directed form-finding processes,” suggest to Mertins a way of moving beyond modernism’s binary opposition of machine and organism, or scientific rigor and expression, to a new “biotechnic or bionic” paradigm.

Mertins’ erudite, closely argued, disputatious and at times poetic volume is the seventh of an admirable series of small, well-designed books entitled Architecture Words published by the Architectural Association in the UK. It belongs to a genre of architectural literature that is today threatened with extinction in the maelstrom of digital publication and “postcritical” thinking. Detlef Mertins’ thoughtful essays are living proof that this would be a grievous loss indeed to the intellectual culture of architecture.

Joan Ockman

Joan Ockman teaches Architectural History at the University of Pennsylvania.