Architecture has always been engaged in a dialogue with the city a relationship often dominated by tension. The architectural avant-garde in particular is commonly understood in its opposition to the existing metropolitan terrain (architectural form vs. urban formlessness). The Good Metropolis by Alexander Eisenschmidt, however, unearths strands of thought in the history of the 20th-century architecture that actively endorsed and productively engaged with the formless metropolis. Revisiting early experiments that question the city/architecture dichotomy, Eisenschmidt reveals how the formless metropolis has long been a prevalent force within architectural discourse. The works analyzed span almost an entire century: They range from August Endell s urban optics and Karl Scheffler s metropolitan architecture in Berlin, through Reyner Banham s motorized vision of Los Angeles and Situationist performances in Paris, to OMA s city architectures and Bernard Tschumi s cinematic urbanisms. Eisenschmidt constructs new narratives that reposition architecture vis-à-vis the city, by exposing hidden histories. He uncovers architecture s continuing interest in the formless city and elucidates our current fascination with and anxiety about ongoing urbanization, revealing the Good Metropolis was there all along.
Alexander Eisenschmidt is an architectural/urban theorist, designer, and associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture. He directs the Visionary Cities Project and leads the architecture and urban design practice Studio Offshore. He has published widely and exhibited internationally in venues such as the Venice Biennale.
In his latest book, Alexander Eisenschmidt argues that “the metropolis has been the predominant force and source of inspiration for modern architecture and the 20th-century avant-garde,” as he explained to Sean Lally in the excellent Night White Skies episode from September 2019. One result of his theoretical examination of a number of buildings, projects, and texts in The Good Metropolis is that “well known examples might become unrecognizable,” he continued, “while projects that are largely forgotten suddenly appear strangely familiar.” I’m listening to the episode now, more than two years since the book’s release, because I had read parts of Eisenschmidt’s book more than a year ago, lost the book in the coronavirus shuffle, and just recently rediscovered it at the bottom of a box of books that were moved from my old office to my “new” home office. Eisenschmidt’s take on architects confronting urban “formlessness” through research projects and architectural designs is a highly nuanced one that demands attention on the part of the reader. I’m finding that the podcast, though highly intellectual, aids in extracting and understanding some of those main ideas.
Of the ideas mentioned above, the inclusion of forgotten, but “strangely familiar” buildings is one of my favorite aspects of The Good Metropolis. The best example of this is the Wertheim department store in Berlin designed by Alfred Messel, a building — or more accurately, an assemblage of buildings built over the course of a decade (1897–1906) — that I knew nothing about going into this book. In part from its architecture, which displayed wares behind large windows facing the street, as well as from the store expanding into a full-block agglomeration with multiple courtyards, the store functioned like a mirror of the city outside. With multiple routes through the spaces and bridges spanning the courtyards, Wertheim was like a microcosm of unplanned, “formless” Berlin, even described by a contemporary guidebook as the best place to “get one’s first taste of the tremendous whirl of city life.”
Another commendable aspect of The Good Metropolis is Eisenschmidt’s embrace of books, photography, drawings, and other projects as much, if not more so, than actual buildings. In fact, the first of the book’s three thematic chapters — “Imagination,” which is followed by “Extrapolation,” where Wertheim and some OMA projects (spreads, below) are found, and then “Narrative” — is comprised of lengthy investigations of two classic books on architecture and the city: Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) and Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. His analysis of these familiar books focuses on their authors’ openness to cities, warts and all, especially as sources for creativity. This sentiment is echoed in a much different format by Bernard Tschumi’s The Manhattan Transcripts, discussed at the end of the “Narrative” chapter.
Two decades into the 21st century, it seems that the ideas of Banham, the Las Vegas team, Tschumi, and others who found inspiration in the “formless” city have taken root much more than those of Le Corbusier and any top-down, tabula-rasa approaches that saw architects trying to create order out of chaos last century. Today, climate change should be the most important determining factor in how architects confront the city. Therefore, an attitude of acceptance and reinvigoration of existing buildings and urban spaces — akin to the “never demolish, always transform” mantra of Lacaton & Vassal, who just won the Pritzker Prize — should be adopted by most, nay, all architects. Creative templates for such an approach can be found throughout The Good Metropolis.
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