Emil Kaufmann: Inaugurator of a Disciplinary Discourse

  Perhaps more than for architecture itself, the 20th century proved to be quite an age of innovation for the field of architectural historiography; while the dawning of modernity had shown its undisputable signs during the fin de siècle, it was forty or fifty years later that the attempt to identify these signs would solidify modernity’s presence. What was a matter of temporal procession became a matter of disciplinary questions – and sooner or later, as Vidler remarked, the history of ideas and artistic styles were “subsumed under larger questions: the dissemination of knowledge, the distribution of power, and the representation of status”[1]. A certain generation of historians could be credited with playing a major role in such a shift, but two of its members in particular: Sigfried Giedion and Emil Kaufmann. The former famously tried to explain the ambiguity and the relativity in the way architecture is perceived, through the introduction of his “time-space” conception. The latter attempted to restructure the categorization of architectural styles, by taking the focus away from the stylized form. He did this by devising an architectural system, a system of examining the building as sum of parts, instead of merely an object of art. His contribution though to modern architectural historiography should continue to a greater extent, as he single-handedly ignited a disciplinary discourse – on the question of autonomy. To this day, Kaufmann’s name remains behind both the coining of the term Autonomous Architecture and its link to the dominant at the time Modernist movement. The response of his contemporaries to his theories has been varied, and so has been the assessment of his legacy by the historians who followed. Through the years, though, Kaufmann’s need to define architectural autonomy has spurred a wave of architectural work (both built and written) that can only prove the continuous relevance of this question.

Kaufmann first analyzed his theory of autonomous architecture in his 1933 book, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier. Having meticulously studied Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s work during and after the revolutionary period in France, he used his architectural system in order to conclude that it constituted a departure point from the classical tradition of the 18th century. This tradition, which he described as the Baroque system, would have buildings designed as a whole, with each part subordinated to the sum and indispensable to its totality. Kaufmann noted that Ledoux broke with this principle, designing clearly separated volumes that would be placed together in a way of mutual dependency. His buildings would be “broken down” in parts according to function and geometry alike; at the same time, he evenly rejected most of the traditional decorative features of design.[2] It was in this contrast that Kaufmann placed the roots of the “autonomous solution”. The transition from the baroque unity to the pavilion system, from the formal totality to the functionally defined units, from the “dynamic” to the “static” composition, all signified the emergence of a so-called “architecture of isolation”[3]. As each part of the building, from the different volumes to the materials, was treated individually, a certain “individual consciousness” was attributed to the architectural work. This was undoubtedly a philosophical notion; another sign of the influence the Age of Enlightenment held over the Arts. And it was almost directly indebted to the philosophical theories of Kant, whom Kaufmann considered Ledoux’s prominent theoretical reference. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason had originated the idea of free will and the autonomy of man’s philosophical enquiries. Thus it would seem evident to Kaufmann that Ledoux had used it to imbue his architecture with the individuality that rendered it free from other aspects of artistic endeavor. The link with Kantian ethics was ultimately his argument for placing the birth of modernity at the end of 18th century; for what Kant had been to modern philosophy, Ledoux would be to modern architecture.[4]On that link, Kaufmann based his bold statement that the 20th century avant-garde owed its system of thinking to one French revolutionary architect alone, who disclosed to architecture the independency from style. Many a time this statement would suffice to bring Kaufmann’s work under disproportionate scrutiny – it nevertheless managed to fully encompass his intentions.

The most important aspect of such a claim, then, has to be the motivation behind it – as that would explain both the subsequent controversy and the constant need to revive the question of autonomy. Kaufmann devised his architectural autonomy after Kant’s autonomy of the will, but in the early 20th century, the Kantian moral philosophy had already been applied to describe the new-formed bourgeois society. The bourgeois autonomy symbolized the republican, libertarian principles of a society who thought of itself “as composed of isolated, equally free individuals”[5] – much like the point Kaufmann was making about modern architecture. By following this simple line of thought, he linked modernism with the bourgeoisie, as he placed their origins in the same philosophical foundation; thus modern architecture would become the “guardian” of the traits of autonomy. According to his reasoning, modernism would rise to defend the ideal of a liberal, social democratic state. Moreover, the timing couldn’t be more relevant; at the time, this exact social state (its reason and liberties) came under threat by the advance of fascism. As German neoclassicism became a weapon in the hands of the Nazi regime, the vanguards of modern architecture had to be attributed with the virtues of the revolutionary system. So we may assert that the twin ideas of autonomy and modernism reflect a sociopolitical aspect of architecture that would most probably reemerge in the years that followed WWII, up to the present day.

The reactions to Kaufmann’s history have been quite diverse, whether one thinks of his contemporary architects and critics, or the generations that came after him. Negative reviews, as expected, would mainly concern the seemingly unfounded claim of neoclassicism and modernism being the two faces of the same coin. As he made direct references to early modernists such as Loos and Gropius, his theory was bound to provoke those who did not perceive well the revolutionary connotation. Kaufmann even considered that the pure geometrical forms of Le Corbusier’s work echoed those of Ledoux, transferring the autonomous aspect into the 20th century. But his contemporary historians were prepared to dissect this notion of autonomy. It is interesting to note that as his theses acquired a political hue, Kaufmann was attacked by representatives of both ends of the ideological spectrum. Most notably, Meyer Schapiro criticized him for loosely drawing upon the relation of society and architecture, in order to make a formalist assumption – disregarding cultural or historical context, he simply compared architectural form with social form.[6]Schapiro’s criticism though may have come from his own radical Marxist background, whereas Kaufmann’s intention was to simply highlight the formal similarities in order to make his point. Ultimately this would be for the sake of architectural autonomy as well, for explicitly attributing an ideological identity to contemporary architecture would have resulted in disproving his argument. Hans Sedlmayr on the other hand, the historian and founding member of the New Vienna School of Art History, rejected Kaufmann’s method on the grounds of exemplifying the renewal and revolution that modern architecture implied. Sedlmayr’s right-wing ideology made him a proponent against modernism and social democratic ideals, but his biased castigation of architectural autonomy formed a basis for Kaufmann’s critics in the years that followed. His arguments though, ironically echoed those of Schapiro – as architectural form lost grip with its “earthly” context and shifted to pure geometry, there was the danger of it degenerating to what he called “paper architecture”.[7] This claim would most certainly resurface concerning the proponents of architectural autonomy in the decades of ‘70s and ‘80s, like Aldo Rossi and Peter Eisenman.

The main adversary of autonomous architecture would nevertheless come within the ranks of modernity itself. As functionalism rose to contradict the various formalist concepts that permeated pre-modern architecture, Kaufmann’s system was met with expected disbelief. Nikolaus Pevsner would use the occasion of Ledoux and Le Corbusier brought together, to reject them both as “absurd” formalists. According to him, this autonomy led to “Architecture for Art’s sake, architecture as pure abstract art”.[8] Using the same buildings that Kaufmann presented to demonstrate his point, Pevsner noted that a block’s separation from the whole, from its context and environment, would ultimately result in its separation from use. Sure enough, architecture consisting of “volumetric projects” might have gained a new found individuality, an artistic freedom, but had severed itself from its disciplinary service – functionality.  Pevsner was in fact battling eclecticism in the guise of historicism, and all the stylistic choices Kaufmann’s retrospective theories implied; but this argument would soon crumble to the ground as Philip Johnson cited Kaufmann’s work on Ledoux as an inspiration for the cubic (and very much Miesian) design for his 1940 Glass House. Indeed, the vanguard of the International Style managed to employ this historicist turn to produce an icon for what Vidler called “classicist modernism” – a “Ledoux” box that did a greater service to Kaufmann’s autonomy than any other.[9]

It is ironic though that disenchantment with Modernism would bring about the harshest critic of architectural autonomists. Perhaps appropriately, it took one of Pevsner’s students, Reyner Banham, to come up with an alternate view on historiographical focal points. This view was apparent even from the title of his 1960 published treatise: “Theory and Design in the First Machine Age”. The concept of this machine age denoted the Zeitgeist of a specific period, which roughly covered the first thirty years of the 20th century. This was the age when machines were reduced to human scale, aided by the broad distribution of electrical power, which substituted the power of fire and steam. The utter symbol of this first Machine Age, the motorcar, would pass through aesthetic standards in a way until then hinted only in the work of the Futurists (the likes of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Umberto Boccioni) and, in some extent, Le Corbusier. Banham truly believed that widespread technological advancements constituted a driving force behind social and cultural changes, ultimately reflected on each age’s architectural attempts. In his mind, Modernism was an undisputed product of the first Machine Age, when “…that barrier of incomprehension that had stood between thinking men and their mechanized environment all through the nineteenth century, in the mind of Marx as much as in the mind of Morris, had begun to crumble.”[10]That way, architects had to effectively transcribe the mechanized essence of the era into their work, in order to be in accordance with it – and Banham would eagerly disapprove of those who didn’t. Where Kaufmann saw the abstraction of the modernist avant-garde as a revealing sign of the individuated system, Banham admitted that very few of them managed to capture the machine aesthetics as a point of departure from tradition. Futurism remained the true herald of that spirit; its champions made use of the “mechanical equipment” as a means to brace architecture with its social and technological environment. Thus architectural autonomy was promptly replaced by the Zeitgeist – which after all, is (by definition) automatically and anonymously created.

As was the case with Kaufmann, though, Banham’s historiographical attempts had one foot firmly set on his present. That would be the accordingly called second Machine Age, beginning at the late 1950s and bringing along a technological revolution with new sources of energy, domestic electronics and social changes from the household to the whole of society. Banham was sure to apply to the second the same principles that ruled the first machine age. The new symbolic object became the television, denoting a breakthrough in mass communications and everyday entertainment, while at the same time offering the products of this technological progress to all. In that way, architecture couldn’t (and shouldn’t) remain unaffected by the rapidly evolving Zeitgeist – and Banham wished that late Modernism would be much more consistent in following it than the masters of the beginnings of the century. Moreover, he tried to delineate the evolution of architectural forms as something directly linked with the varying social environment; he perceived architecture as “a stream, (into which one cannot step twice) of reflections of the transformations taking place in other fields.”[11] His history formed a sort of “guide for the future”, in a way that studying architectural interpolations in the past could help one come up with a modus operandi for the times to come. Architects had to predict the progressing Zeitgeist and move along, trying to translate this progress in terms of aesthetics. Actually Banham was quite resolute in the need of these aesthetics to be formed from the technical innovations and the general spirit of the era – more than the principles taught in architectural schools, which reflected an academicism that couldn’t operate any longer. Autonomy, in the sense of an independently applied architectural essence, was to be avoided. Even the discipline itself had to adapt in this kind of advancements, as Futurism had attempted to do fifty years earlier; Banham presented that argument in the form of an advice that concluded his book: “The architect who proposes to run with technology knows now that he will be in fast company, and that, in order to keep up, he may have to emulate the Futurists and discard his whole cultural load, including the professional garments by which he is recognized as an architect. If on the other hand, he decides not to do this, he may find that a technological culture has decided to go on without him.”[12]

As the second Machine Age drew to a close, in the late seventies, the case for Kaufmann’s architectural system appeared to be lost. After all, the modernist movement had received fatal blows by those who, like Banham, disapproved of its continuous alienation from social reclassifications. They deemed fit that if pure functionalism had failed to capture this required essence, probably nothing would. The aforementioned reorganization of historiography, though, would soon prompt the case open again, as Anthony Vidler attempted not only to theorize on the history of modern architecture, but to revisit Kaufmann’s work in particular, by going all the way back to the Enlightenment. By imitating Kaufmann’s retrospective ways of reading architecture, he effectively pointed out the Age of Reason as a moment of birth for the codification of architectural knowledge – and the return to the origins, in particular, was one of these codes that seemed to serve the notion of autonomy. In his 1987 book, “The Writing of the Walls: Architectural Theory in the Late Enlightenment”, Vidler sketched the outlines of institutional developments since the 18th century, while at the same time describing the way these developments were reflected in architectural historiography. That way he identified autonomous architecture as a form of this “origins quest”; by linking Laugier’s archetype of the primitive hut to Rousseau’s natural society theories, he vindicated Kaufmann’s thesis of doing the same through Kant. The concept of natural aesthetics ruling architectural design would constitute a major departure from the Baroque operations and demarcate the beginning of the new principles. In a sense, it was the notion of autonomy that carried the values of the Enlightenment through the centuries – leading to the commonplace of the “ahistorical Enlightenment”.[13] Vidler would later examine the extent to which Ledoux’s work formalized these principles; instigated by Kaufmann’s historicist approach, he even acknowledged his contribution to social reform in the Revolutionary era.

Recognizing the “validity” of autonomous architecture would nevertheless be a side outcome of Vidler’s history, while his writing never attained the polemical hue of Banham’s reprobation of late modernism. More likely, reinstating Kaufmann’s status as a “canonical” historian and theorist of the Modernist movement, would become a seeming accomplishment with his 2008 book, “Histories of the Immediate Present: The Invention of Architectural Modernism”. He rightly credited Kaufmann for shaping the “revolutionary” and “style-less” modern by making use of the “enlightened” Kantian theories; his (fittingly called) neoclassical modernism – whereas Banham was deemed the author of futurist modernism – was admitted to be a much needed “moral fable” that gave birth to the reevaluation of modern historiography.[14] Even his influence on architects like Philip Johnson was again stated to demonstrate autonomy’s steady grip on the mid-20th century architectural practice. Nevertheless, Kaufmann’s attempt to formulate a system, and not a mere codification of autonomous forms, could not be stressed enough – as his theories resurfaced in the end of the 20th century, when Modernism had already failed, this became more apparent. Detlef Mertins, the architectural historian and Vidler’s student, tried to highlight this issue by making a clear link: “Modern Architecture became a single unified historical phenomenon. Having begun by challenging pre-existing codes, it succumbed to its own codification.”[15] Kaufmann rejected this regression of autonomy into a mechanism, something that would accordingly limit its potential to transform technique into aesthetics.[16] Mertins acknowledged that this claim was to be taken seriously, if the question of autonomy was to lead to new negotiations of the form. Any unresolved or disputed elements in Kaufmann’s history would only be an impediment to a universal codification – such as the one Modernism undertook. Should we attempt to reread his theoretical system, over and over again, the applications of autonomy will be practically limitless.

We can now reflect on the true nature and purpose that architectural autonomy can acquire nowadays. Kaufmann’s ambivalent legacy can be quite hinting, in fact – most of the times, a question hard to answer denotes that a compromise has to be made. The challenges of the 20th century have resurfaced to confront all architectural endeavors in a starker manner. This time, natural and built environment have to redefine their relationship in a way that excludes both the obliteration of the former and the regression of the latter into mere “environmentalist architecture”. Technological advancements, in the form of the omnipotent Digital Age, have also the chance to influence architectural design more than any other machine-driven attainment did in the ‘20s and ‘60s. Therefore, we must ponder whether autonomy holds a sense of “safeguarding” the profession’s most fundamental principles – an attempt to keep the black box of architecture firmly closed. Today’s architects know that if they heed Banham’s advice of keeping up with the digital Zeitgeist, they’ll be in the fastest company ever – and many would argue that there isn’t much load left for discarding. In the same vein, succumbing to indeterminacy would perfectly capture the feel of contemporary cultural and social structures; but time and again it has been proven that uncertainty can seriously affect both the form-finding and problem-solving nature of architecture. This can also describe the role that the environmental debate can play in the field of architectural design. A critic of autonomy would call for a complete submission to the characteristics of natural forms and operations, all the way to mimicking organic relations and expanding biological research. On the other hand, an autonomist would opt for a strictly passive stance of the building amidst its natural surroundings – a case where infrastructure would simply get along with the environment, while “minding its own business”. Of course then the autonomist can always be accused of perpetuating the sustainability deficit – and rightly so. We are thus forced once again to consider the middle ground. Perhaps go for a conditional autonomy, with architecture incorporating interdisciplinary knowledge and processes, but still having the last word. Historicism and functionalism can serve the same purpose. Universal solutions and inoperable indeterminacy can be placed under the same amount of scrutiny. The most important question to keep in mind would be not what we do, but how and why we do it. As Mertins wrote, “Kaufmann’s case for autonomy started as individuated form and developed as a system of individuation”[17]. In fact, having a system can always prove useful – serving a general objective while still allowing for individual applications. Perhaps the man who first delineated the question holds a key to the answer.


[1] Anthony Vidler, The Writing of the Walls, Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p.1

[2] Emil Kaufmann, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Inaugurator of a New Architectural System, University of California Press, p.18

[3] Anthony Vidler, Histories of the Immediate Present, MIT Press, 2008, p.24

[4] Vidler, Histories of the Immediate Present, p.29

[5] Ibid., p.35

[6] Vidler, Histories of the Immediate Present, p.41

[7] Ibid., p.45

[8] Ibid., p.112

[9] Ibid., p.55

[10] Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, MIT Press, p.21

[11] Panayotis Tournikiotis, The Historiography of Modern Architecture, MIT Press, 2001, p.158

[12] Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, p.329

[13] Vidler, The Writing of the Walls, Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p.2

[14] Vidler, Histories of the Immediate Present, p.12

[15] Detlef Mertins, Modernity Unbound, AA Publications, 2011, p.6

[16] Detlef Mertins, System and Freedom – Sigfried Giedion, Emil Kaufmann and the Constitution of Architectural Modernity, in Autonomy and Ideology: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in America, 1923-1949,  New York, 1997, p.222

[17] Mertins, System and Freedom – Sigfried Giedion, Emil Kaufmann and the Constitution of Architectural Modernity, p.229

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *