THE NATURE OF THE METROPOLIS
(1) The Cloud, Alexander Cozens, c.1770 / (2) Cabaña Primitiva, Engraving by Charles Eisen for Essai sur l’architecture (1753-1755) del Abate Marc Antoine Laugier.
History, Nature, Production, Metropolis, Field. Today’s column discusses concepts from Manfredo Tafuri. History is not natural. It is a human artifice and seems implicitly to convey what the twentieth century theorist of architecture tried to convey when he declared that “nature has no history.” Today, how do we define nature in a world almost completely transformed? Is there any alternative but to declare that even human thought is natural?
“The relation of the Jugendstill interior to its predecessors comes down to the fact that the bourgeois conceals his alibi in history with a still more remote alibi in natural history (specifically in the realm of plants).” (1)
(1) Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin, “The interior, The Trace” in The Arcades Project (Cambridge, London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2008): 226
“…myth is responsible for establishing, like nature, what is historic intention; like eternity, what is contingency. This mechanism is, precisely, the specific form of action of bourgeois ideology.” (2)
(2) Roland Barthes, “El mito hoy” (The Myth today) in Mitologías (México D.F., Madrid: Siglo XXI Editores, 1999): 129
Tafuri, reproducing the Marxist distinction between nature and history, identifies in the ambition of the Renaissance tradition of designing cities as picturesque design parks an attempt to ‘naturalize’ the recently acquired productive condition of the city: its new plan like a value-added machine of production (3). The word ‘nature’ activates the alarms of the young Tafuri and leads him to a double philosophical slip. First, the composition of the landscape painting by Alexander Cozens and the design of the English park admit their artificiality from the beginning – their reproduction of nature is admittedly a construction, i.e. produced. On the other hand, Tafuri builds a wall between nature and history that with the purpose of sanitizing the latter of any hint of ideology mystifies the first as synonymous with “eternity.” History is not natural. It is a human artifice, and Tarfuri implicitly tries to convey that when he declares, “nature has no history.” But if a quarter of the efforts that Tafuri devoted to the construction of the historicity (that is, to the unnaturalness) of the modern had been dedicated to producing the historicity of nature, Tafuri would have been faced with admitting that the city, classically and in its late-capitalist state, is part of the history of nature.
(3) Manfredo Tafuri, “Reason’s Adventures: Naturalism and the City of the Enlightenment” in Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development (Cambridge, London: MIT Press, 1976), p. 1-40
Marxist alarms. To naturalize, in critical code, is synonymous precisely with removing the possibility of criticism. At least since Hegel opposed ‘nature’ to ‘idea’ in an antithesis only possible to synthesize in the transcendence of the idealistic ‘spirit’, nature has been synonymous with ‘the given’, as the immutable and frigid appearance of the constant movement of the ‘Geist’. But the historicity of nature − which we (or almost all of us) recognize today with particular clarity in climate change − is the principle that allows us to understand the historicity of man; something that Tafuri in his eruditely unfolded anti-humanist bibliography never had problems understanding. Darwinian alarms. The historicity of man is not limited to the ‘natural’ evolution of the species, but to the historicity of the nature that includes it. Never more clear than when Freud spoke of the human being as “prosthetic god” or with Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra predicted that übermensch would look at the human with the same compassion with which in the 19th century he looked at the monkey.
A history of nature in which complete species are extinguished with the change of a single degree in the ocean’s temperature produced by an unsuspected twist of Mars or a solar storm, or in which the migration of a family of predators subjects small herbivores to mutate or to die, or in which two out of five families of gazelles learns to jump guaranteeing their survival and burying their relatives is the same story in which a philosopher from Könisberg declares the autonomy of the individual at the end of the eighteenth century. Of a man whose conscience would be the starting point of a world that does not cognitively exist for him except for “reason”, which is his highest faculty. Undoubtedly, the historicity of nature was outside the conditions of Kant’s possibility, but not of young Tafuri. A staunch critic of the millenarian philosophies that saw the emergence of the Großstadt as an unmistakable sign of decline and called for a return to the pastoral ingenuity of the organic community, Tafuri insisted on the definition of Metropolis that Georg Simmel advanced in 1900: Metropolis as a change in the mental structure, in the Geistesleben, in which the intellectualization of the world would be the reaction to the multiplication of stimuli of the modern city − the moment in which the translation of the exchange value into value of use would mediate a transformation of the perceptual apparatus with a world now intelligible in its entirety, in quantities. Metropolis is not a delimited physical entity, much less an urban scale; it is a state of consciousness whose globalizing effect has not stopped or stabilized since the Renaissance. This definition erases the nostalgic story of the rural as antithesis of the city, whose unbalanced opposition would be unavoidable evidence of the decline of civilization. Tafuri demonstrates that the rural, even in its proximity to nature, is not safe from the urban. This should also dispel the notion that ‘nature’ and ‘city’ are in an irresolutely antithetical relationship and that modernity designates the field of this opposition. A couple of decades would have sufficed so that Tafuri could have witnessed the melting of the poles and the thinning of the ozone layer with his own eyes, that nature is now modern.
“Nature is over” read an article in Time Magazine in March 2012. “Little is left untouched by humans,” it continues (4). But understanding that nature does not exist today as such, and that nothing is ‘natural’, is not so much a statement about the omnipotence of the human, as it is synonymous with understanding that everything is nature. In the long history of nature, this recent change is not even close to being the most radical, nor the most definitive. This does not intend to give rise to a determinism that liberates the fate of the species and the planet to the ‘forces of the inevitable’, but on the contrary, it aims to illuminate the extent to which nature was always a product of us, as much as we were always a product of nature. It is not just a matter of how much of our relationship with the environment is a projection of our subjectivity, but of the extent to which that subjectivity is inevitably constructed by the influence of the medium. What is nature then? Dissolving the Platonic division between consciousness and the world perhaps implies the definitive emptying of the signifier ‘nature’ insofar as now, nature is everything, including consciousness. Which is synonymous with recognizing, which means nothing. Or at least that it no longer designates the mythological territory of all that is still not invaded by the human intellect, whose thought we can now recognize, without alarms, as ‘natural’.
(4) Bryan Walsh, “Nature is Over” in Time Magazine (March 12, 2012)
Pedro Correa Fernández. Architect, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile; M.Sc Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices, Columbia University. He is currently Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture of the Pontifical Catholic University where he teaches architectural theory, history and criticism.
OTHER COLUMNS IN THIS SECTION