Abstract Barbarians

Jesús Vassallo
2G Magazine, No. 69, 'PRODUCTORA', 2014


In an article written in 2005 Luis Moreno Mansilla described his fascination with Chinese shadow theatre, which he had come to regard as a metaphor for current developments in architecture [1]. In his text Moreno Mansilla described a small theatre, the size of a living room, where a scene from nature was reproduced with different animal-figures pressing against a painted cloth, resulting in a captivating illusion of lifelike movement. Seeing this spectacle for the first time, the architect could not help but run behind the screen to find out how it was being generated. He was shocked upon realizing that the theatre was operated by just three men with scarcely a few thin rods and cables linked to a series of paper cut-outs. The men seemed absent as they became one with the characters, in a total collapse of life and its representation. Moreno Mansilla used the metaphor of the shadow theatre to acknowledge a trend in architecture that privileges surface and effect above all other considerations, thus leaving architecture devoid of its capacity to become a full intellectual construct. One might argue that this condition is related to a denial of the role of representation in the architectural project, whereby all the energy is directed towards the atmosphere of the built object, in a move that seeks to liken architecture with nature. This characterization is useful for us today in that it acknowledged a certain illusionism and primitivism in our contemporary fascination with materiality, while simultaneously exposing the scaffoldings and mechanisms necessary to present the viewer with such mesmerizing experience.

Now, almost ten years after Moreno Mansilla’s essay, we witness an emerging trend in global architecture that insists on urgently addressing the viewer through its physical presence, while still retaining the capacity to operate at an intellectual and critical level. This, I propose, is achieved by reclaiming the autonomy and relative weight of representation in the architectural project, while willfully ignoring its traditional relationship to the built work. It is only fitting to address such issues in these pages, as in the past few years 2G has been responsible for sanctioning and allowing this emerging trend to coalesce. Examples can be found in the recent monographs on the work of architecten de vylder vinck taillieu, OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, or Pezo von Ellrichshausen [2], all of whom seem actively involved in precipitating a collapse of the project of abstraction with a contemporary strain of realism [3]. Within this group, PRODUCTORA occupies simultaneously a central and peripheral position, as they seem to embrace this possibility most clearly and unapologetically, while at the same time remaining the least ideological and premeditated in their attempts. Still, even in the case of PRODUCTORA, the strategy remains subversive; it relies on a cultivated audience, and their assumptions about the different roles of representation and construction, in order to exert its destabilizing effects. That assumption is that representation and construction operate at different levels or, at least, that architects use each of them to advance different aspects of their agendas. Indeed, we could say that architects have responded to this split in two particularly acute ways. On the one hand, there is the type of architect for whom all that matters is the advancement of the discipline, the challenging of previous paradigms. For this type of architect, representation is a powerful tool, one that allows him or her to rapidly generate and disseminate ideas, thus impacting the thinking of other architects and ultimately the discourse of architecture. For this type of architect, construction can only be a disappointment, an operation in which there is nothing to win and a lot to lose. There is a second type of architect, on the other hand, for whom the discipline of architecture is immutable: it merely absorbs innovation at a very slow pace through its perimeter. For this type of architect, each built project is an opportunity to reconsider and reformulate a core set of values that remain constant. For this second type of architect, the physical encounter with the built work is the only true way to experience architecture, and representation is just a necessary intermediate step that can practically be discarded once it has fulfilled its role of enabling the construction of the building.

If we can accept that these two types of architects exist, and that they in fact represent two distinct architectural projects today, the question then becomes: What happens when a young group of architects in Mexico City decides that they are going to ignore the difference between these two projects —that they can, let’s say, make drawings  like Peter Eisenman and build them like Peter Zumthor? Admittedly, this may be a naive or oversimplified characterization: a deeper and more nuanced discussion would conversely consider how the body of work featured in this publication pitches the abstract against the literal—to use Michael Fried’s terms; or how it reverses distinctions between high and low through a series of inclusions and exclusions that become symptomatic of a change of cycle in architectural discourse. However, such contextualized and extended inquiry is beyond the scope of this short essay. Indeed, in the projects of PRODUCTORA we find a level of geometric rigour, relentlessness, and self-referentiality that connotes a self-absorbed architecture: one that is meant to be examined in our heads; an architecture that only talks with and about architecture. To illustrate this, we could allude to PRODUCTORA’s continued dialogue with architects like John Hejduk or Giuseppe Terragni, among other references that continually resurface in their work. Yet we also find in their work—and this is what makes it truly remarkable—a facility and fearless innocence, with which PRODUCTORA materializes their introverted schemes into light-hearted buildings: the apparent lack of respect with which they employ their removed references in the construction of a house, a bar, or even just a bathroom, all of them fully functional and constructed from common materials. It is precisely by embracing the inherent dichotomy between the abstract and the ordinary, between the sophisticated and the brutally immediate, that these architects make a deep and transformative contribution to the field. With their rare combination of disciplinary rigour and disregard for authority, PRODUCTORA offer us a collection of refreshing and provocative projects that challenge us to engage them simultaneously at an intellectual and a sensual level, through their many facets, moods and meanings.



[1] Moreno Mansilla, Luis, “Sobre lo inmediato”, Circo, no. 132, Madrid, 2005, pp. 1-6.

[2] 2G, no. 66, 2013: architecten de vylder vinck taillieu; 2G, no. 63, 2012: OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen; 2G, no. 61, 2012: Pezo von Ellrichshausen.

[3] As you may have guessed already, the title of this article is a reference to Pier Vittorio Aurelli’s “Architecture for Barbarians”, AA Files, no. 63, London, 2011, pp. 3-18. Aurelli reminds us that Walter Benjamin called architects and artists like Adolf Loos and Paul Klee “barbarians” because they were capable of working with new aspects of the generic and the industrial in their work: “Benjamin called this new type of cultural producers ‘barbarians,’ indicating their facility with the rude, bare, uprooted language of an era that was incapable of relating its vicissitudes in the nuanced and epic terms of the old narratives.” In this context, the word takes on extra meaning, since it also hints at PRODUCTORA’s ability to subvert the legacy of the original “barbarians.”



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