The Situationist International was the artistic and political avant-garde that we most associate with the events of May 1968. Its social critique had an urbanistic dimension which was expressed in utopian projects like New Babylon, a nomadic city that continued to spark interest way into the 1990s. But in times of globalization and climate change, the situationist utopias have given way to a renewed attention to the ecological architectures driven by the oil crises of 1973 and 1979.
Cinders and Ashes
Daniel Cohn-Bendit suggests we forget 68, and it is a reasonable suggestion. Our world bears little resemblance to that one, and analyses made then can hardly be applied to a context marked by globalization and ecological crisis. The society of the spectacle, to be sure, has developed during the past decades to link up the planet with its web, but both climate change and the high cost of energy and food paint a panorama where the most pertinent references are the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. So Forget 68 – albeit recognizing Guy Debord’s premonitory lucidity – and, above all, remember 73: a diagnosis that in the often trivial territory of architecture means forgetting Situationism and the New Babylon that we associate with the May events, and remembering the neo-vernacular, geodesic or bioclimatic constructions, born around the rejection of industrial society that saw its fears confirmed in the energy crisis. Maybe this is the moment to forget the architectures of desire and to remember the architectures of necessity.
Allow me a short biographical reminiscence. In May 1968 I was not in Paris, but at St Donat’s Castle, on the banks of the Bristol Channel, preparing for my A-Level exams with 190 other students from 50 countries. Three of us wanted to echo the Paris events through a manifesto, but a gentle call to order on the part of the school director, admiral Sir Desmond Hoare, sufficed to nip the rebellion in the bud. A few months later I began university studies at the Madrid School of Architecture, and here, too, the May storm had raised waves in the academic ponds, so much that Javier Carvajal – head at the time of a school he had modernized, besides a prominent figure in the profession – preventively gathered the newcomers in an assembly where he demanded discipline if we at all aspired to have, like him, “a white suit and a red sports car”, a bribe or threat that served to maintain order throughout that school year. Madrid was not Paris, and neither was it Prague or Mexico City. I am writing this only to illustrate the extent to which authority prevailed at a time when engineering students went to class in jacket and tie, we still used logarithm tables or the slide ruler, computers were as big as rooms and our programming language was Fortran.
The world of that time seems as socially and technically remote as the Victorian Age, and it is quite impossible to perceive it as one’s own. The commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Parisian May gave rise to several monographic exhibitions on Situationism, and that of the thirtieth gave birth to essential texts like The Situationist City, by Simon Sadler, or Constant’s New Babylon, by Mark Wigley, besides an issue of October with texts by Guy Debord that would appear in book form four years later, coinciding with a biography of Debord himself by Andrew Hussey. Today, however, the experience seems to be intellectually and aesthetically worn out; even in a work as stimulating as that published in 2007 by Larry Busbea – Topologies: The Urban Utopia in France, 1960-1970 –, the New Babylon hardly merits a few mentions, tangled up with the urban Utopias of the Japanese Metabolists, the British Archigram or the Italian Superstudio, in a narrative of spatial urbanism and mobile architecture that has Yona Friedman as undisputed hero. The nomadic city envisioned by the leaders of what Raymond Aron defined as the great psychodrama of the 20th century seems to have given way to what another French writer, Françoise Choay, had baptized as ‘technotopias’ back in 1965.
These technological Utopias, often read as extreme versions of the modern, are curiously akin to the return to the primitive and to origins that arises in reaction to the corporate appropriation of bureaucratic modernity. While young Europeans imagined new cities, young Americans abandoned them, and in the mid-sixties, students at Princeton or Yale organized agrarian communes in Vermont while Arcosanti rose in Arizona, Taos in New Mexico and Drop City in Colorado, in a flowering of alternative constructions which would soon choose as an icon the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller, linking the neo-vernacular to the tecnophile: 1964 was the year of Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but also of the Time cover showing Fuller with a geodesic head. We like to think that these were also the years that architecture initiated postmodernity with two books published in 1966, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, by Robert Venturi, and L’architettura della città, by Aldo Rossi, but their popular influence would still take some time, and it was not until 1979 that Philip Johnson appeared on the Time cover holding the model of his Chippendale skyscraper for AT&T.
Both the liberal populism of the United States and the Marxist Tendenza of Europe questioned socialdemocratic modernity, and they would end up being swallowed by the conservative revolution of the eighties. Venturi and Rossi were published in Spain in the early seventies, but the oil crises of that decade shifted attention to alternative technologies, climate design and biological organicism; only with the economic recovery following the stabilization of oil markets in the mid-eighties would the emphasis return to aesthetic debates, from which it would not stray during the subsequent period of prosperity. The crises of the 21st century have brought a renewed interest in the controversies of the seventies, and from the rediscovery of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog – the first edition of which was published precisely in 1968 – as a paper precursor of Google to the ecological constructions documented in the exhibition of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal (Sorry, Out of Gas: Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis), the architectures of necessity make their way before the architectures of desire: the same ones that in the Paris of May ’68 had wanted to find the beach under the cobblestones, and the Homo ludens under the predictable clothes of the Homo faber.
Embers of Babylon
They proposed to defect from the 20th century, but the century has inscribed them in its secret history; they warned that their names would be recorded only on water, but an active academic industry surrounds their legend; they theorized on and scorned the society of spectacle, but the contemporary spectacle has canonized their provocations in museums: the Situationists, constituting the most radical avant-garde movement of the sixties, have in the nineties made it to the equivocal pantheon of the cultural establishment. Their leader, the writer and film director Guy Debord, who committed suicide in November 1994, entitled his last movie with a Latin palindrome: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (We go around in circles at night and are consumed by fire). True enough, these burning moths still shine; and the new Babylon they dreamed of survives in the warm gleam of the embers remaining of the fire.
Emerging in 1957 from the fusion of several avant-garde groups in the wake of expressionism, surrealism and Dadaism, the International Situationist propounded the dissolution of the borders between life and art, choosing architecture and urban planning as prioritary fields of action. Some of its members, including Guy Debord, Michèle Bernstein and Gil Wolman, had been part of the International Letrist, a Parisian group of cultural activists whose newsletter Potlatch poured out wrathful critiques about “a particularly repugnant man”, enemy of the street, builder of inhabited machines and vertical ghettos, ‘Le Corbusier-Sing-Sing’. Other members, artists like the Dutch Constant Nieuwenhuys or the Italian Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, had initially joined the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, which was founded by the Danish painter Asger Jorn after the disintegration of the CoBrA group and aspired to be an expressionist alternative to the minimalist functionalism of the Ulm School, where the sculptor and architect Max Bill tried in the fifties to resume the experience of the mythical Bauhaus.
Bohemian intellectuals and avant-garde artists alike advocated a passional architecture and a daring urbanism, built as deliberate and ephemeral ‘situations’ and understood as subversive gestures through which the repressed world of desires comes in conflict with the totalitarian and police-like order of the modern city designed by the heirs of Le Corbusier or the disciples of the Bauhaus. Thus Debord and his colleagues explored the ‘psycho-geography’ of Paris through interminable and errant treks, in the Baudelairian and surrealist tradition of the flâneur; and Constant the painter-turned-urban planner gave shape to the most ambitious Utopia of the Situationists, the project for New Babylon, a labyrinthian and nomadic city whose neoconstructivist models are a rare chain's link between the sculptures of Tatlin or Gabo and the futuristic megastructures of Archigram.
As is typical of avant-garde movements, the Situationists had their share of heresies, schisms and purges before disintegrating in 1972. The major crisis came about in 1961 with the defection of the ‘artistic’ sector that included Constant, and the radicalization of the group, which Debord led to the orbit of the heterodox Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who as a critic of everyday life and a theoretician of antibureacratical urban planning sintonized well with the counter-cultural sensibility of the International Situationist. The movement would end up playing a significant role in the events of May 1968, for which it supplied pamphlets and provocatively laconic images and slogans, applying its brilliant verbal terrorism to the demolition of the ‘society of spectacle’ that Guy Debord had described in his book of the previous year.
After the group's dissolution, Debord chose to situate himself in what he called ‘antispectacular notoriety’, and from this public penumbra he produced a film and several books. The last of these Comments on the Society of Spectacle, is a lucid and megalomaniac text whose publication in 1988 rekindled interest in the Situationist experience, leading to monographical exhibitions the following year in Paris, London and Boston, as well as a bestselling book by a rock critic, Greil Marcus, a researcher on the ‘lipstick traces’ that link the Cabaret Voltaire to the punk of the Sex Pistols through Debord's Situationism. In this case the link was Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Pistols and a former Situationist who like so many others – from the architect Ettore Sottsass to the historian Timothy Clark – impregnated his different activities with the seed of Debord: a seed that still germinates in the writings of critics like Frederic Jameson or Kenneth Frampton, in the works of artists like Hans Haacke or Barbara Kruger, and in the projects of architects like Nigel Coates or Bernard Tschumi.
Situationist fervor reached Spain that same 1996 with an exhibition in Barcelona, organized by Libero Andreotti and Xavier Costa and designed by the architects Enric Miralles and Elías Torres. The show highlighted the artistic aspects and urban proposals of the Situationists, whose disoriented cartographies gathered the notions of play, chance, drift and labyrinth. Debord’s psycho-geographies were displayed alongside Constant’s Utopian cities, and Asger Jorn’s torn décollages right by Pinot-Gallizio’s industrial and endless painting: spaces of desire and gestures of denial of artistic culture which found their political and festive culmination in the passional subversion of May 1968.
But from the viewpoint of contemporary nostalgia, the conspiratorial Messianism of the Situationists (nourished by sprinklings of the young Marx, Lukács, Mauss, Bataille and Huizinga) is probably of less interest than the desolate poetry of their suburban alcoholic ramblings. Inspired as much by Rimbaud and Breton as by the films of the recently deceased Marcel Carné, the hazardous exploration of the urban edges – which Debord discovered to the young Juan Goytisolo – condenses the lucid wandering of the Situationist adventure with a violent lyricism: the history of a handful of lost children who dreamed of being children of Paradise.