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Against Gross

When asked about the relationship between architecture and design in 1991, Oswald Mathias Ungers wrote: “I see myself as an architect as opposed to a designer. Design is about fashion and styling, whereas architecture is about construction, concepts, and space. Design has an excessive influence on architecture today. Packaging and consumption are replacing the real and the conceptual. What we are left with is ersatz-architecture." And, in 2004, a similar lament would repeat when Ungers commented on architecture's social engagement at an interview: “Social problems cannot be resolved by architecture. Indeed you can only solve architectural problems."

Were these expressions indicative of a firm conservatism against architecture's lucrative relationship with other disciplines or a nostalgic pessimism for architecture's impotence in the world? The answer would be none of the above. What lied behind these statements was a life-long research and speculation on architecture's collective capacity to engage with the world (city, urbanism, environment) as well as with its own core (history, autonomy) without resorting into naïve postulations at either extreme. This led Ungers to be dissatisfied with contained architectural dogmas of his time, all of which, in his view, were lost either within facts (world) or within the hermetic nature of the architectural discipline (core). He was ambitiously looking for a project of both-and-neither.

Perhaps nothing can represent this dilemma better than Ungers's tenure in the United States while he was teaching at the Cornell University during 1970s as the chair of the Department of Architecture (1969-1975).1 During this time, not resorting to any particular discourse of its time would actually come with its consequences for Ungers. In an open letter published in 1979, Team X's Aldo van Ecyk would criticize Ungers ruthlessly and blame him and others—such as Aldo Rossi, Leon Krier, Robert Venturi, Stanley Tigerman and Peter Eisenman—for “tying history into knot,…bending over backwards…[and]…twist architecture into something which it simply is not," and in the end, “cheating" with architecture's autonomy and history altogether. 2 These words were written, of course, at the midst of and against to a rising postmodernist style in architecture and Ungers's new direction with neorationalist and typological tendencies were quite controversial and disconcerting for the core of Team X thinking. Yet, Ungers's alliance with postmodernism was equally uneasy—if not baffling—as his earlier association with the Team X group. For instance, at the infamous Charlottesville Tapes Conference in Virginia of 1982, Ungers would get strong criticisms from Philip Johnson, Leon Krier, Peter Eisenman and others for his recent Messe Torhau project in Frankfurt, of being extremely tedious, out of scale and compromising. During the discussion right after Ungers's presentation of this project at the Charlottesville meeting, Krier would describe Unger's situation as being in a “total despair doing big business." 3

Despite these anxious misalignments remained constant throughout was Ungers's strong speculative project for architecture's role in the contemporary city. While various interpretations of his built work got stuck in the postmodernist readings of the representation of the fragment or the unfinished object, the very idea that haunted Ungers's entire career was left out: his little known articulation of Grossform. The framework of his investigation was informed by, yet was fundamentally different from, his two direct encounters, against which Ungers would develop his architectural urbanism. First was his former encounter with Team X in Europe during 1950s and 1960s and the group's emphasis on context (especially Smithsons' “reality-as-found"), user (“human association") and flexibility as well as their interest in structuralist and quasi-biological metaphors of growth and morphology. It was through encounters with the Team X group members along with the postwar building explosion in Europe that would initiate Ungers's interest in the contemporary city. Second encounter was with Colin Rowe and his nostalgic contextualism at the Cornell University in the United States. Rowe's focus on juxtaposition and symbiosis in relation to urban form enabled Ungers to develop a counter-project for the role of architectural form in urbanism….While Ungers's Grossform would transform into Bigness by his former Cornell student Rem Koolhaas during 1990s, the first part of the phrase "Gross-" (read: big) would be strongly preferred over "-form" by Koolhaas and strategically replaced by content: big scale and the multiplicity of program. Here, via Koolhaas, Ungers's project was taken to another level by developing a language for content.

Ungers's dissatisfaction with his contemporaries has a paradoxical resonance for our generation. Rather than an overemphasis on architectural core (history, autonomy) or the world (environment, engagement), what we see in Ungers is a constant search for an architectural project that offers a third way between the two. For him, this third way had to be open to accommodate the heteronomy of life fully, but only through a rigorous and speculative project for architecture.

[1] Before moving to United States, Ungers taught at the Technical University of Berlin (1963-1969) where he also acted as the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture between 1965 and 1967. For a brief documentation of Ungers's teaching and pedagogy in Berlin, see the two issues of the ARCH+ magazine dedicated to Ungers: ARCH+ 179: Oswald Mathias Ungers. Berliner Vorlesungen 1964/65 (2006)and ARCH+ 181/182: Lernen von O. M. Ungers (2006). Also, for a close analysis and interpretation of some of Ungers'ss early projects in Berlin, see Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011): 177-227.

[2] Aldo van Ecyk “A Message to Ungers from a Different World," Spazio Societa 8 (1979): 63-64. Ungers was invited to the Team X-Berlin meeting in 1965, and following that, he was an active participant in the meetings and discussions. As the chair of the Cornell Architecture Department, he organized a Team X studio at Cornell in 1971-72 and invited most of the group's participants to lecture and supervise studio work. Max Risselada and Dirk van den Heuvel (eds.), Team 10 1953-1981: In Search of a Utopia of the Present (Rotterdam, 2005), 180.

[3] Ungers's response to L. Krier in the same discussion would be equally harsh: “Why should we not get involved in doing a building that has 45-square-meter rooms to show products? Should I say, 'No, I am artist, I don't want to get my fingers dirty?' I spent ten years theorizing, and many people profited from that work. You know it perfectly well. You came as a little boy to my office and you profited too. You admitted it. But you know what? I decided to go back to practice, get my fingers dirty, and work with those big developers. And I wish you would do the same. Then we can talk again. But on this level we can't." The Charlottesville Tapes: Transcript of the Conference at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, November 12-13, 1982 (Rizzoli Publications, 1985), p.73