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Marco Biraghi


Why Tafuri and Koolhaas? What do Manfredo Tafuri, the Italian architectural historian
who passed away in 1994, and Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect whose fame has
achieved planetary scale, have to do with each other? Not much, at first glance. In one
of his most famous books of the 1980s, The Sphere and the Labyrinth, Tafuri mentions
the name Koolhaas a couple of times, almost in passing, and not in what would appear
to be particularly flattering terms (he talks about the «cynical game of Koolhaas», and
describes his drawings as «jokes»). On the other side, Koolhaas speaks of Tafuri in an
interview with Hans van Dijk in 1978: «I have a strong impression that Tafuri and his
co-thinkers hate architecture. They declare architecture dead. For him architecture is a
set of corpses in the morgue. But once dead they do not leave the corpses in peace: they
are vain enough to want to be the experts of the morgue. They do name-dropping in the
morgue. […] In the articles of Tafuri about skyscrapers I have never seen a map. For
him it is a kind of Totem of the bad side of capitalism and of course he is terrified to
discover that there is something else going on».
In spite of the severity and precision of the judgements expressed here, which “nail
down” Tafuri to a merciless and ideological position regarding capitalism, there is
reason to believe that the latter played a central – even decisive – role in the focusing of
the positions of Koolhaas, and not only on the subject of the skyscrapers of New York.
But in order to get a better idea of the relationship that can be traced between the two
(clarifying, from the outset, that this is not a personal relationship, one of familiarity or
encounters), we need to retrace, however briefly, the intellectual trajectory of Tafuri.
Young scholar at the historical-critical school of Bruno Zevi, the most important
architectural historian of postwar Italy, Tafuri broke away from the path traced by his
mentor rather early. After his early interest in Renaissance architecture and the Italian
architecture of the Fifties, in 1968 Tafuri wrote Teorie e storia dell’architettura, his
first non-monographic volume, focused on a “theme” that was to become a central
feature of his thought: that of “crisis”. For Tafuri, the crisis covered nearly all the
sectors of architecture: the architectural object, the subject-designer, the work of
design, criticism, language. Moreover, for the Tafuri of the following decade, the crisis
was the “product” of history itself. «The object of history is the analysis of the “clash”
among the many languages that compose the real». But pay attention: for Tafuri,
«exactly this tension is “productive”: the historical “project” is always the “project of a
crisis”»; history as he sees it must be capable of transforming and breaking up the
material of its own analyses, transforming and splitting itself and its language; it must
be «capable of continuous putting itself into crisis by prompting the crisis of the real».
It is precisely in this critique (Tafuri was deeply aware of the etymological link between
critique and crisis) that he squares the books with Zevi and with what the latter called
“operative criticism”: an attempt to use history as an instrument, projecting it toward
the future. With respect to this type of history, characterized by a «strong ideological
charge», Tafuri saw history, instead, as a critique of architectural ideology. Starting in
1969 Tafuri published a series of articles in the magazine Contropiano (the most
famous of which was entitled precisely Toward a critique of architectural ideology)
that insert architecture in a more general reconsideration of the historical conditions of
the birth and development of capitalism, the role of intellectual endeavor in it and in
relation to political praxis, to “class struggle”. More in general, Tafuri’s attempt in
those years was to make an analysis and exposure of the “wiles” of ideology (taken in
the sense applied by Marx and Engels in German Ideology: as a structure of false
intellectual conscience), and then to make a critique as a consequence. We should recall
that the main contributors and personalities of Contropiano were Alberto Asor Rosa,
Massimo Cacciari, Antonio Negri and Mario Tronti, therefore Marxist philosophers,
economists and literary scholars. The Marxist approach of Tafuri and the group of
Contropiano was, nevertheless, highly critical – and selfcritical – especially regarding a
certain “leftist” attitude that misinterpreted Marx’s thinking itself; and highly critical of
all the ideological “confusion” found in reinterpretations of Marx. The critique of
ideology, in this sense, for Tafuri and the others became the instrument with which to
expose the attempt of capitalism to disguise its own contradictions. The forms of this
concealment are, first of all, “dialectic” (or the form of thought through which
contradiction is seen as positive and functional for the “system”) and utopia. Thanks to
Tafuri, in particular, the theme of utopia emerged in all its importance, as it is precisely
utopia that “opens the way” for capital to reconcile the contradictions. The critique of
utopia formulated by Tafuri in those years (gathered in the volume Architecture and

Utopia published in 1973) concludes by excluding any possibility of utopia for the
architecture of the era of capitalist development. This is what Tafuri sees as «the
“drama” of architecture, today: i.e. the problem of being obliged to go back to being
pure architecture, a question of form without utopia, sublime uselessness, in the best of
cases». Because it is precisely capitalist development that deprives architecture of the
dimension of utopia (to the precise extent that the architecture presents itself as
“ideological prefiguration”), only through a concise critique of utopia – liberating
architecture of its ideological “encrustations” – is it possible to observe the reality of
architecture and, therefore, to understand the reality of its tasks.
Here we come to what we might call a “second phase” in the historical reflections of
Tafuri (not actually subsequent to the first, but closely intertwined and simultaneous).
After having pointed out the ideological character of architectural utopia and the
difficult, discontinuous path of liberation from it taken by architecture over the last two
centuries (from the “negative” utopia of Piranesi to the challenge to utopia on the part
of Le Corbusier at Algiers; from the city as “enormous social machine” of Hilberseimer
and the conclusive absorption of the ideology of the plan in capitalist strategies, to the
playful forms to which utopia was reduced by the neo-avantgardes – Archigram,
Superstudio – and by industrial design), Tafuri concentrated on analysis of architecture
that comes to positive terms with reality. And this is the point where Tafuri’s thinking
encounters that of Koolhaas. Reality, with all its contradictions, multiplicity,
stratification, simultaneously represents the goal of the historical reflections of Tafuri
and the starting point for the conception of architecture of Koolhaas. As we could say:
Koolhaas “starts” where Tafuri “stops”. But while reality is the aspect shared by these
two names, the focus of their critical attentions, the perspective of Tafuri and Koolhaas
on this same reality differs.
To grasp this fundamental difference we need to analyze the meaning Tafuri and
Koolhaas assign to the term “reality”. Of all the texts in the vast bibliography of Tafuri
there is one, above all, that can enlighten us on this topic: Architettura e realismo,
dated 1985. Here Tafuri examines different episodes in the history of Twentieth-century
architecture that share, in his opinion, a “realistic” approach. The examples chosen by
Tafuri are the relations (anything but marginal ones) between Russian architecture and
the folk tradition, even after the Soviet revolution, and also thanks to those usually
considered its most “committed” exponents (Mel’nikov, Vesnin, Golosov); the brief but

extraordinarily intense period of the Höfe courtyards of “red” Vienna; the experience of
the Regional Planning Association of America and the Tennessee Valley Authority in
the United States during the Twenties and Thirties; and, finally, the activity of the low
cost housing institutes in Italy from the Twenties to the Fifties, and of certain like
Mario Ridolfi, Mario Fiorentino and above all Ludovico Quaroni.
While on the one hand it is evident that Tafuri’s take on the term “realism” is at least
partially influenced by the “epic” version of Gyorgy Lukács, the Marxist philosopher
and critic, on the other the term is charged with much richer overtones, as demonstrated
by the emblematic case of Quaroni, who in many situations is described as a “realist”,
almost in polemical opposition to his insertion in the current of architectural
Tafuri’s first book was on Quaroni (1964), and he returned to this figure later in the
framework of different historiographic analyses of Italian architecture. For Tafuri
Quaroni represents the architect who demonstrates all his «will of commitment in the
real». But reality, for Quaroni, is intrinsically problematic, contradictory. Tafuri writes:

One of the most important teachings of Quaroni is precisely the recognition of the reality of
contradiction, of the meaning and value of every contradictory situation. Assuming the burden of
contradiction, which is of the world and society, the characteristic and drama of the historical moment,
means in substance to force oneself to have an ever-alert awareness of the present, avoiding any
idealization in action or thought, never entrusting one’s hopes or the struggles carried out in the name of
society to a more or less idealistic notion of a non-specified, cathartic future.
Neither does facing up to contradiction necessarily mean remaining entangled in it; there is a way of
reaching a compromise with history that is profoundly moral, and consists in using the contradictory
situation that cannot be denied without running into the pitfalls of sterile idealism, discovering, revealing
the positive traits, the valid aspects that are concealed, by definition, in every contradiction, and
simultaneously finding the tools that make it possible to exploit them and to transform what reality has
set forth as negative into something positive.
But I can have no a priori guarantee of the success of such an operation; I will always have to test it a
posteriori, and therefore recognize the multiple errors made or the obstacles not overcome. I may also
end up “getting my hands dirty”, and perhaps this is what will happen in most cases; and so the story of
my personal action may be the story of a series of failures.

The shift from the third person to the first in the quotation above is not just a rhetorical
expedient; it also reflects Tafuri’s identification with Quaroni. For Tafuri Quaroni is “a
master of doubt and selfcriticism”, but of an “active doubt” and a “critical realism”. The

“tormented research” of Quaroni is seen by Tafuri as the clear demonstration of an anti-
ideological attitude.
A similar “realist” line of reasoning, in the sense outlined above, unites Quaroni with
architects and urbanists of the first half of the 1900s like Raymond Unwin, Barry
Parker, Clarence Stein, Henry Wright, Martin Wagner, as well as the current found, in
particular, in Italy during the reconstruction years after World War II, extending from
Quaroni to Ridolfi to Vittorio Gregotti. “Architecture of reality”, “school of reality” are
the terms used by Tafuri for this tendency to make architecture «a “new technique”,
immersed in the organizations that determine the capitalist control of edification and the
territory». A “technique”, rather than a language. «From the form to the reform»: this
formula contains much more than a simple declaration of support for a reassuring
“reformist” stance; it pursues identification of a “program”, a «comprehensive project»
that promises to liberate architecture in a more lasting way from the closed space of its
linguistic games, accentuating its value as a technique of intervention. Therefore for
Tafuri realism becomes a capacity for control and continuous testing of reality. A
capacity to grasp and interpret the tasks dictated by reality, not passively accepting
them, but governing them.
Detachment, introspection, self-assessment are the tools of this architecture of reality,
dominated by disenchantment with respect to the «utopian bent of the inventors of
facile megastructures», to the «arbitrary wanderings» of form, to the «carnivals of the
intellect». In Tafuri’s idea of the architecture of reality, the real coincides with the
But if reality seen in this way is contradictory, then it can also turn out to be anything
but “realistic”. If contradiction is truly a part of reality, then for Tafuri the realism of
reality is not its sole connotation, its only “style”. Realism can also be unreal, or
utopian. The problem, in other words, is not the opposition of reality and utopia, but
that of not making reality into an ideology, into an end in itself, as well as with utopia.
But how can we be “realists” without making reality into an ideology? How can we
remain self-aware, restless, questioning, doubtful, but also capable of offering plausible
hypotheses of interpretation of reality rather than facile solutions, without being
crushed by cynical opportunism or amoral pragmatism? How can we investigate reality
without betraying it? Without “putting what is broken back together”, but also without
identifying with the “winners”?

The “historical project” Tafuri developed over nearly three decades of work (from the
middle of the 1960s to 1994) consists in expressing a dialectic that doesn’t take any
outcome for granted. Fully aimed at a profound, careful work of analysis, but in which
the “verdicts” should be left as “open”, as “suspended” as possible. «In this way,
nothing is dismissed as past». Precisely as the «time of history is, by constitution,
hybrid», so too is the “space of reality”: a space “composed” of fractures, cracks,
contradictions, literally critical space, expression of crises that can no longer be put
together in a “system of contradictions”, a complexio oppositorum, as in the
Renaissance. In the contemporary world the crisis, just as appears to be a “product” of
history, turns out to also be the form of reality.

Crisis as the overall form of contemporary reality. This brings us to the position of
Koolhaas: a position that can be summed up by the words used by Tafuri to define the
more general attitude of contemporary architects to reality: «disenchanted acceptance of
the real, to the point of cynicism». «The only institution is the real», and «it is that
which speaks», Tafuri writes in 1980. Today, truly, «the only institution is the real»,
and «it is that which speaks». But which “real”? Is it legitimate to see the real as
having that complexity, that contradictory nature, that critical essence that constitute –
as we have seen – the attributes of the real as conceived by Tafuri, or that which makes
it possible to bring reality back to a sphere of effective problematics, and not just
practical “exploitability”? Looking at the research conducted by Koolhaas from the
mid-1970s to the present (from the initial Delirious New York to the more recent Great
Leap Forward and Guide to Shopping), we find that these works are endowed with
sophisticated, diversified, pertinent “equipment”: his analytical tools only apparently
belong to the sphere of the designer rather than that of the historian. Actually, even in
the research that at first glance seems most cynically “realistic” (or simply commercial)
such as the work on the “culture” of shopping (just think of the work for Prada), the
strategy employed by Koolhaas is very precise and absolutely focused on his own
“historical project”. After all, as Tafuri wrote in Architecture and Utopia: «the ideology
of consumption, far from representing an isolated or subsequent moment to productive
organization, should appear to the public as an ideology of the correct use of the city».
In Tafuri’s statement we find the entire “program” of Koolhaas, if not its development.

Taking this research completely seriously can, therefore, lead to understanding not only
of the “historical project” of Koolhaas, focused on the contemporary world, but also –
and above all – to comprehension of the contemporary reality. And it certainly should
come as a surprise that the aspects of reality investigated by Koolhaas are often
“marginal” with respect to those traditionally utilized for its representation. Koolhaas
has gradually concentrated on the United States rather than Europe; on skyscrapers as
an extreme form of speculation and “congestion”, rather than the buildings of public
institutions; on African megacities rather than those in America, the Orient or Europe;
on commerce rather than political economics; on Chinese capitalism rather than that of
the West. All this would seem to indicate anything but a superficial, facile “escape”
from reality; it reflects a careful, almost excessively rigorous assumption of its most
important “peaks” (though not necessarily the most striking), utilized as probes to
survey the structure. And it is precisely this “method” that sheds light on the most
critical aspects of reality, the crises impacting reality.
Nevertheless, this is exactly the point that requires the greatest attention: the “method”
of Koolhaas consists in comprehending the “negative”, in inverting the sign of the usual
assessment of the elements of reality, literally overturning the results: but not for the
purposes of pure provocation. The aim, instead, is to achieve the maximum possible
“results”, to get the most mileage of “interpretation” possible. In doing this Koolhaas
doesn’t “subvert” reality: if anything he follows it, re-reading it as realistically as he
possibly can. This does not mean underestimating, or even denying, the critical
condition of the real as such. Instead, it means exploiting crisis, to the same extent that
it is exploited by the protagonists of the realities he analyzes, be they the builders of
skyscrapers of the champions of the “culture” of shopping.
The fact that the choice of this critical “position” undoubtedly puts Koolhaas – through
his research – “on the side of the winners” does not negate, and even fortifies, his
opposition to “putting what is broken back together”: there is no “consolation” offered
by contemplation of the world “as it is” in his analyses, no banal “apologia for the
present”. Of course he interprets, in an operative way, those contradictions that exist in
reality and that his research – and his architecture – attempt to reveal («Coherence
imposed on an architect’s work is either cosmetic or the result of self-censorship. [...]
Contradictions are not avoided», as he writes in S, M, L, XL). Nevertheless, whenever
possible he takes active sides against the reduction, or even the demolition, of the

«fundamental complexity of things» (the words are those of Koolhaas) effected by
contemporary architectural and urban planning culture, staking out for himself «a more
positive position, saying that we should not smooth over contradiction, complexity, but
accentuate them».
Accentuating contradictions. So we are back to the starting point, to Tafuri’s project of
crisis. All the differences that clearly distinguish the two “projects” cannot, however,
overshadow what they have in common: the problematic, even critical consideration of
reality. The “realism” of Tafuri, his radical critique of utopia and his detailed attempts
to analyze contemporary architectural culture starting with as wide-ranging and
“disenchanted” a survey as possible of its inherent “data”, and the “realism” of
Koolhaas, bent on observing – without attempting to modify the processes in progress,
and therefore without any “nostalgia” – the emerging conditions, “phenomena of
instability”, the «mutations underway in urban conditions», seem to be extraordinarily
“consonant”. In fact, the “project” of Koolhaas can be seen as the logical consequence,
the extreme development, the fulfillment of the “project” of Tafuri. What is still in the
balance – after the definitive dismissal of the utopian illusion – is the critique of
ideology, but at this point it is directed toward observation of the processes of the
market economy, or of capitalism in its global phase, with the resulting physical and
relational forms. Processes Koolhaas has theorized and, at the same time, deconstructed
in their “mythological” aspects.
But let’s return once again to what Tafuri wrote, at this point twenty years ago, in The
Sphere and the Labyrinth:

It is useless to lament a given fact: the fact that ideology has transformed into reality, although the
romantic dream of intellectuals who wanted to guide the destiny of the productive universe has remained,
logically enough, in the superstructural sphere of utopia. As historians, our job is to lucidly reconstruct
the path traced by intellectual work, recognizing the contingent tasks that can be performed by a new
organization of labor.

Since «ideology has transformed into reality», what remains for intellectual work is
involvement in the field of reality as the present form of ideology, shifting the critique
of ideology to a critique of reality.

To better understand how similarities and differences are articulated in the respective
conceptions of reality of Tafuri and Koolhaas, at this point I would like to try to analyze
a concrete case: the interpretation provided by the two of American architecture, and
the architecture of New York in particular. Both, as we know, have focused on these
themes: Tafuri in the essay La montagna disincantata. Il grattacielo e la City (in La
città americana dalla guerra civile al “New Deal”, with Giorgio Ciucci, Francesco Dal
Co and Mario Manieri-Elia, 1973) and in a chapter in The Sphere and the Labyrinth
(The New Babylon, 1980); Koolhaas, obviously, in Delirious New York (1978).
Let’s begin with what has become a famous photograph. It’s a picture of the annual
Beaux-Arts costume party in 1931 at the Hotel Astoria in New York. That date, 23
January, was destined to become one of the most important in the history of
architecture of the entire Twentieth century. Seven very serious gentlemen are lined up
in front of a dark velvet curtain, dressed in the most improbable outfits. Only their hats
distinguish them from one another: each hat represents a building, or a part of thereof,
designed by the man who is wearing it.
This photograph was published, after many years in which it was never seen, in the
third issue of the magazine Oppositions. The year is 1974 and the author of the article is
Rem Koolhaas, in those years gravitating around the Institute for Architecture and
Urban Studies directed by Peter Eisenman (Tafuri, too, was closely connected in those
years to both Oppositions and the Institute).
The interpretation supplied by Koolhaas – which he was to repeat, with a few
variations, four years later in Delirious New York – focuses on the “operative”,
strategic character of the event: a congress of architects “masquerading” as a masked
ball of architects. «This ceremony is Manhattan’s counterpart of the CIAM Congress on
the other side of the Atlantic».
More generally, the evening of 23 January 1931 is utilized by Koolhaas to reconsider
the entire phenomenon of the skyscrapers of New York in “another light”:

In retrospect, it is clear that the laws of a costume ball have shaped Manhattan’s architecture, and that
this is the secret of its continuing metropolitan suspense. Only in New York, architecture had become the
design of tectonic costumes, which did not even wish to reflect or reveal the true nature of its repetitive
interiors, but rather to produce instead, “ideal” dream images which slip smoothly into the collective
unconscious to perform their roles as symbols. The costume ball was a formal convention where the

desire for individuality and extreme originality was not in conflict with collective performance and
achievement; it was in fact a condition for it.
Together with the beauty contest, it is a rare situation where competition becomes the mirror image of
collaboration. At the same time it exposes, as non sequitur, the expressions of languages that are too
private: for a costume there is no impact without some “aha” of recognition. The “new” can only be
registered if grafted on to the base of the familiar, as a modification which incorporates the rudimentary
original. The architects of New York, making their skyscrapers compulsively comparable, turned the
entire population into a jury. In the “real”, moralistic, modern architecture, the buildings judged the

The costumes, in this way, do not reflect a recreational, carnival-like condition, an

extreme version or “subversion” of “normalcy”, but the real “face” of those skyscrapers
embodied by their architects. In short, the New York architects wear “costumes” of
reality – and reality is dissembling of vertical multiplication but in reality of the
repetitive, totally economic uniformity found behind the facade, inside the skyscrapers.
The highly individual features imposed on each (though limited to details: the top, the
“hat”) are just the deceptive, “utopian” remains the architects pursue in the hope of still
being able to play a role in the construction of Manhattan. Behind the “mask” of reality
lies the utopia of “good intentions” (situated at a conscious level), but even further
“behind” (at the unconscious level of the architects, and deep inside their skyscrapers)
we find concealed a fully realistic reality: the acceptance – and therefore the
construction – of the conditions of existence of capitalism.
In The Sphere and the Labyrinth Manfredo Tafuri goes back to the same episode: he
publishes the same photograph, but offers a different interpretation:

The “scenic function” of the skyscraper is taken to excess in the costume ball on 23 January 1931 at the
Hotel Astoria in New York, during which the city’s leading architects portrayed the New York skyline,
with costumes and hats representing their own works [...]. Architecture is rendered explicitly theater; and
its makers unconsciously close the circle opened by the Expressionist and Dada cabarets.

Where Koolhaas, therefore, sees the only apparently multiform features of a real
conflict, just barely attenuated by the social setting, Tafuri sees the profiles of players
performing the collective pièce of the absurd: the Manhattan skyline. It is no
coincidence that he places the above passage in the section of The Sphere and the
Labyrinth on “The adventures of the avantgarde: from the cabaret to the metropolis”,

and directly connects it to an analysis of New York-Babylon reinterpreted as a music-

Unable and unwilling to present themselves as a complete “synthesis”, the skyscrapers of the “new”
Manhattan pose as extras in a gigantic collective ballet: subjectivity, which the system of big business
expropriates from the molecules of the throng it dominates – individuals – is thus recovered in a sort of
compensation ritual by the “new urban subjects”, who cheerfully advance toward the footlights of the
metropolis transformed into a music-hall. The playful side settles in the metropolis by means of masks,
without depth.

It is equally significant that Tafuri returns to this line of thinking, a few pages further
on, showing exactly the other side of the coin: the musical as a “serious” hermeneutic
key to the metropolis:

In the film Gold Diggers of 1935, Busby Berkeley inserts a practically independent sequence, “a film
within a film”: Lullaby of Broadway. The camera begins with a shot of the singer Wini Shaw from a
distance, isolating her face in a black field. As Wini continues her song, the camera makes a 90°
movement, framing the protagonist from above. With a dissolve effect all that remains of Wini’s face is
the profile, inside which we see an aerial view of Manhattan. The metropolis of skyscrapers is entirely
contained in the individual unconscious, therefore: the whole and its parts cannot be separated, they are
tied by a relation in which nothing is left over. But this is a mortal relation. After an exceptional
representation of “the urban chorus” – a musical sequence featuring hundreds of dancers in a gigantic
nightclub – Wini falls from the top of a skyscraper, while the camera moves through Manhattan, which
goes on about its business, indifferent: once again, the metropolis is superimposed on Wini’s face, while
the last notes of the chorus conclude this exceptional film fragment.
Berkeley thus demonstrates that the despised-loved big city awaits concrete reforms to be able to
“authentically” experience the collective celebration of the musical, but also that all the pursuit of “roots”
we have identified, isolating certain examples from the 1920s, is utterly superfluous. The individual has
already absorbed the “values” of the urban machine: but they are fatal. The dream survives: the dancing
and choral singing of the musical.

«The metropolis of skyscrapers is entirely contained in the individual unconscious»: but

it is precisely this unconscious dimension (individual and collective), accurately
psychoanalyzed by Koolhaas, that turns out to be productive, and anything but a
«mortal relation», as Tafuri thought. The choreographic “perspective” of Berkeley,
therefore, deforms – or at least reduces – with respect to the crudely “realistic”
perspective utilized by Koolhaas: in fact, they are diametrically opposed. To clarify:

from both viewpoints «the individual has already absorbed the “values” of the urban
machine»; but «they are fatal» only for those who do not take into account the “new
metropolitan race” identified by Koolhaas, for which the absence of any “ideology”
other than that of money and hedonism, and the resulting psychic fractures, are not a bit
«fatal», but really quite vital.
At this point, however, we need to widen the fame with respect to the “close-up” of the
architects’ ball, to take in a larger context. First of all, an emblematic fact: many themes
and illustrations are shared by Delirious New York and the essays by Tafuri on the
American metropolis. The reconstruction of the complex tale of Rockefeller Center, the
focus on figures previously overlooked such as Raymond Hood and Hugh Ferriss, the
theme of the Zoning Law of 1916, the analysis of the work of the Committee on
Regional Planning of New York, even the comparison between Manhattan and Venice,
represent just a part of the connections between the “American” research of Tafuri and
that of Koolhaas. Such a “coincidence” of interests, apparently easy to explain due to
the objective importance of the issues involved, becomes quite singular if we start to
look at the details: for example, 8 of the 23 images in The Sphere and the Labyrinth on
New York skyscrapers are also found in Delirious New York – and four of them have
no explicit references in the text by Tafuri. The presence of another image, Flagrant
délit by Madelon Vriesendorp, taken precisely from Delirious New York, bears witness
to the direct knowledge, on Tafuri’s part, of the text by Koolhaas. And while this might
make us lean toward the hypothesis of some sort of “inheritance” of The Sphere and the
Labyrinth (published in 1980) from Delirious New York (1978), it is also true that the
latter has an equal or even greater number of “relations” to La montagna disincantata
by Tafuri (published a number of years earlier).
The question is evidently not one of any simple, linear identification of effective or
presumed “influences” of one personality over the other; instead, the problem can be
seen in terms of a real co-incidence of the two authors in the same field of study (a co-
incidence that isn’t lacking, obviously, in completely random aspects, and in fully
conscious cases of mutual impact). Alongside the surprising similarities, the differences
appear to be no less emblematic, or the different juxtapositions and developments the
two authors apply to the same themes. Specifically, Koolhaas intertwines the episodes
of “Manhattanism” with the “lunges” made in it by Anton Gaudí, Le Corbusier,
Salvador Dalí, Diego Rivera; on the other hand, Tafuri intertwines the events of

“Americanism” with its contemporary European culture, from the artistic culture of
Wassily Kandinsky to architectural culture (Loos, Bruno Taut, Gropius, Hilberseimer,
Saarinen, Poelzig, Behrens, Berg, Scharoun, Mies, just to name a few) and the urban
planning of Raymond Unwin and Werner Hegemann. In both cases the focus of these
comparisons is what unites and separates the United States and Europe. An almost
“predictable” parameter for the Italian historian and the future Dutch architect. But
once again, what counts are the differences more than the similarities. And it is in terms
of these “retroactive” discrepancies, as Koolhaas would put it (or these different
“historical projects”, as Tafuri would have said) that the much wider issues of
interpretation of architecture and contemporary reality must be addressed; furthermore,
these discrepancies form the foundation for the construction – or its more or less
conscious attempt – of the direction, the orientation of the future, or more simply of a
greater or lesser acceptance of it.
It is certainly not a coincidence, for example, that Koolhaas counters Le Corbusier with
Raymond Hood, while Tafuri discusses the latter in terms of the ambiguous results of
European research on the skyscraper. There is a precise logic in both designs. While
Tafuri attempts to make the dialectic of the avantgarde “react” to the “value” as
«instrument of economic policy» of the «new “mountain giants”», to demonstrate the
ineffectiveness of the former in the face of the «paradox of the metropolitan era»,
Koolhaas, instead, “employs” the antinomies of the avantgarde to bring out, in all its
polemical “self-evidence”, the manifesto of Manhattanism, or the triumph of the
opportunities offered by the Skyscraper and the Grid. This shift in perspective
transforms, as if by magic, Tafuri’s «problem of concentration», observed through the
“ideology” (or what remains of it) of the regional plan for New York, into Koolhaas’s
«Culture of congestion» – and as a result the architecture of Manhattan becomes «a
paradigm for the utilization of congestion».
While for Tafuri, as for many other analysts of the Manhattan “phenomenon”, New
York fully represents the «Capital of the perpetual crisis» (and this is a crisis that
cannot be avoided, cannot be overcome in any way – a status quo “innate” to the city),
the approach of Koolhaas bears unprecedented “fruit”, precisely as the result of crisis.
Utopia, of course, is not of this world (and certainly not for the world of New York).
Nevertheless, this does not reduce Koolhaas to silence, and to the witnessing of the
crisis as the “final arrival point”, as happens in Tafuri. From here on Koolhaas sees

more places to go and to settle, (conceptual and physical) spaces to occupy, buildings to
build; just like – on equal terms and in advance –spaces occupied and buildings built, in
history, exactly in terms of a multifaceted, contradictory, cynical and nevertheless
possible reality.
Tafuri’s difficulty in “following” Koolhaas down this path – and this is worth
underlining forcefully – is not due to insufficient analysis or to a substantial divergence
of direction of its development: instead, it is due to a “premise”, to a great extent
inalienable, of his forma mentis: the ideology of which Tafuri is the offspring may be
able to identify its own moments of “crisis”, but it is not capable of getting beyond the
absence of ideologies, or the acceptance of the real as an extreme, dissembled ideology.
From this point of view Tafuri is truly, completely, a 20th-century man, or a man of the
The postmodern condition, on the other hand, is an integral part of the genetic code of
Koolhaas. This is not meant at all in a “stylistic” sense. The “postmodern” spirit of
Koolhaas takes form in tune with the formation of those phenomena that determine the
postmodern in the most general sense, and often he is ahead of the rest. The apologia
for the status quo of New York by Koolhaas is postmodern – even more so because it
assumes the “retroactive” features of a discourse with a historic basis. The attraction to
pragmatism, to the “disenchantment” demonstrated by those such as Hood, Lamb,
Harrison in their architecture, which Koolhaas appropriates for himself in its
contemporary version, is postmodern. Even the “surfer's” approach of Koolhaas is
postmodern, with the ability to feed on contradictions and turn “negatives” to
advantage. But the omnivorous congestion of New York is also postmodern ante
litteram. The symbol and physical headquarters of this omnivorous nature, for
Koolhaas, is precisely the skyscraper. Because it is a «reproduction of the world», a
«“glorious totality”», a «self-sufficient universe» – at least in its aspirations – the
skyscraper takes part in a utopian tension, but at the same time this tendency projects it
into the multiform dimension of reality, whose extreme instruments are the Great
Lobotomy, the clear separation of «exterior architecture from interior architecture» and
the Vertical Schism, the «systematic exploitation of the intentional disconnection
among the various levels».
Koolhaas becomes the perfect interpreter of this colossal edification of the move
beyond modern ideology, of which the skyscraper and Manhattan are the forms. He

sees the costume ball, the dance of reality, in keeping with this paradoxical postmodern
pace – not the theatrical, tragicomic cadences perceived by Tafuri.