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Taken literally, the avant-garde refers to the front part of a marching army, the scouts that first head into unknown territory. As a metaphor, the word has been used from the 19th century onward to refer to progressive political and artistic movements that considered themselves to be ahead of their time. The avant-garde is struggling against the old, heading toward the new. It is radical and controversial, fighting against consensus and looking for disruption. The avant-garde radicalizes the basic principle of modernity: the urge toward continual change and development. According to Matei Calinescu (1987), its very radicality drives it to a conscious quest for crisis: Because the avantgarde attitude implies the bluntest rejection of such traditional ideas as those of order, intelligibility, or even success, its protagonists seek for an art that is to become an experience, deliberately conducted, of failure and crisis. The most characteristic feature of the avant-garde, therefore, might be the continuous cycling of short-lived movements that emerge and whither away in rapid succession.

As early as 1962, Renato Poggioli described the avant-garde as characterized by four moments: activism, antagonism, nihilism, and agonism. The activist moment meant adventure and dynamism, an urge to action that is not necessarily linked to any positive goal. The antagonistic character of the avant-garde refers to its combativeness; the avantgarde is always struggling against something—against tradition, against the public, or against the establishment. Activism and antagonism are often pursued in such a way that an avant-garde movement finally overtakes itself in a nihilistic quest, in an uninterrupted search for purity, ending up by dissolving into nothing. The avant garde is indeed inclined to sacrifice itself on the altar of progress—a characteristic that Poggioli labels agonistic.

During the last decades, the term avant-garde has acquired a more precise theoretical meaning because of the work of Peter Burger (1974). The avant-garde is clearly distinguished from modernism in that it is confined to a more limited range of ideas and movements. According to Burger, the avant-garde in the visual arts and literature was concerned to abolish the autonomy of art as an institution. Its aim was to put an end to the existence of art as something separate from everyday life—of art, that is, as an autonomous domain that has no real impact on the social system. The avant-garde, says Burger, aims for a new life praxis, a praxis that is based on art and that constitutes an alternative for the existing order. This alternative would no longer organize social life on the basis of economic rationality and bourgeois conventions. It would rather found itself on aesthetic sensibilities and on the creative potentialities of each individual.

Avant-gardism has been most prominent in literature and the arts, whereas its use in the context of architecture was less common. Nevertheless, there has been a tendency to identify the Modern movement as the avant-garde in architecture. The theoretical finetuning urged by Burger, however, necessitates a modification of this too-simple identification. Bürger's work also brought about a growing consensus to distinguish between the historical avant-garde, chronologically situated before World War II, and the neo-avant-garde, which is a more recent phenomenon. The issues and themes around which the Modern movement in architecture crystallized were surely related to the avant-garde logic of destruction of the old and construction of the new. The Modern movement was based on a rejection of the bourgeois culture of philistinism that used pretentious ornament and kitsch and that took the form of eclecticism (Gusevich, 1987). In its stead, the movement gave precedence to purity and authenticity. In the 1920s, these themes acquired a distinct political dimension: The new architecture became associated with the desire for a more socially balanced and egalitarian form of society in which the ideals of equal rights and emancipation would be realized. The architectural vanguard, nevertheless, did not become as uncompromising and as radical as its counterpart in art and literature. Most architects, for example, never renounced the principle of rationality, even if it stood for a bourgeois value. Therefore, it might be more productive not to speak of the Modern movement as the avant-garde but, rather, to distinguish certain avant-garde moments within its discourse, for the movement was hardly a unified whole; rather, it consisted of widely differing trends and tendencies.

Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co cite tendencies such as De Stijl in Holland, Productivism and Constructivism in Russia, and the late Expressionist currents of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst and the Novembergruppe in Germany among the architectural avant-garde. These movements, they argue, were inspired by an intensive exchange between visual arts and architecture and a new social reality that was based on a new, artistic outlook on the world. The early writings of Swiss historian and critic Sigfried Giedion testify to an aspiration to abolish architecture as a typology or segregated discipline. In Bauen in Frankreich, Eisen, Eisenbeton (1928; Building in France, Build ing in Iron, Building in Fer roconcrete), Giedion questions the very idea of an architecture with definitive boundaries, and his implicit suggestion is that architecture no longer has anything to do with objects. If it is to survive at all, it must become part of a broader domain in which spatial relations and concerns are of central importance. Herewith, Giedion formulates as a goal for architecture that it would break out of the limits imposed on it by tradition and by its functioning as an institution. Although Giedion did not develop these potentially subversive considerations in any radical way in his consecutive work, they were not completely idiosyncratic, either. The thought that architecture should no longer limit itself to the design of representative buildings but rather should develop into a more comprehensive discipline that is focusing on the whole of the environment and that merges with social reality and with life itself was shared by many prominent modern architects from the 1920s.

Avant-garde architects such as Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ernst May believed that their mission had to do with the design of all aspects of life, and they aimed at a reconceptualization of the whole process of building, including construction techniques, housing typologies, and urbanism. One of the most radical interpretations of such beliefs was to be found in the work of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin thought that the destructive gestures of the avantgarde, which aimed at purification, were necessary to free the way for a revolutionary future. The transparency and openness of the new architecture pointed for Benjamin to a revolutionary, classless society based on emancipation and flexibility. He interpreted this architecture as part of the avant-garde’s attack on bourgeois culture. The new architecture schooled inhabitants and users to adapt to new social conditions that prefigured the future transparent society. Benjamin saw architecture as a discipline that was capable of stimulating people to align their attitudes with those required by the new society to come (Heynen, 1999).

The alignment between modern architecture and politically progressive tendencies was thus clearly present in the 1920s and the early 1930s, in the self-reflection of its representatives as well as in the discourse of major critics. This avant-garde position claimed a new, more open and more socially relevant mission for architecture. It was Utopian and critical, believing that the new future could be reached only by starting from scratch. This position, however, did not dominate very long. When HenryRussell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson introduced modern architecture to the United States, they presented it as the latest and most topical style, leaving aside any social or political issues (The Inte rnational Style, 1932). Giedion himself gravitated toward a similar position with his later Space, Time and A rchitecture (1941). In presenting the space-time concept as a “secret synthesis” that was capable of building a unity across very different disciplines, Giedion no longer referred to social experiments or to the revolutionizing aims of the new architecture. Instead, he strove toward the formulation of a common denominator that could unite rather diverse trends under the banner of one “modern architecture,” thus formulating a certain orthodoxy that was at odds with the continuous longing for change characteristic of the avant-garde.

This tendency toward consensus and orthodoxy in modern architecture was only reinforced in the postwar years, when modern architecture was accepted by many administrations as the most appropriate answer to the building needs of the Reconstruction era. Modern architecture thus became institutionalized as part of the establishment, and consequently, it took its leave from the avant-garde aspirations of the 1920s. It was therefore no coincidence that after World War II a gap opened up between modern architecture and the avant-garde in the arts. They soon drifted quite apart. The most vehement criticism that was leveled against modern architecture in the early postwar years came from movements such as Lettrism and International Situationism rather than from right-wing conservatives. International Situationism was based on the program for a “unitary urbanism,” which consisted of a vigorous critique of current modernist urbanism. Unitary urbanism rejected the utilitarian logic of the consumer society, aiming instead for the realization of a dynamic city, a city in which freedom and play would have a central role. By operating collectively, the Situationists aimed to achieve a creative interpretation of their everyday surroundings, and they created situations that subverted the normal state of affairs. The Situationists belonged to the neoavant-garde movements that formed an “avant-garde beyond modernism.” This neoavantgarde considered itself to be ahead of the masses in its search for the future but took its distance from the more conciliatory, consensus-oriented mainstream modernism because it was much more radical and Utopian. Within the field of architecture, there were also groups, such as Archizoom, Archigram, and Superstudio that moved beyond modernist ideas and could be called neoavant-garde. It is less clear, however, what the meanings of the terms “avant-garde” and “neo-avant-garde” have become in the most recent decades. On the one hand, there is a clear rejection of the avant-garde logic of destruction of the old and Utopian construction of the new. It is stated that this logic is based on an ideology of progress, which has since been proven to be false; that it gave rise to an elitist hermeticism that rendered its ideals completely inaccessible to a general public; and that its supposedly radical innovations and inventions nevertheless lend themselves all too well to appropriation by the culture industry. This widely spread criticism would lead one to think that the avant-garde is dead—a claim that has been made repeatedly. On the other hand, in the 1980s and the ’90s, the notion of a contemporary neo-avantgarde has resurged in the work of Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and others. It seems clear, however, that this use of the term neo-avant-garde is based on a perception of their position within a discursive field and that its application has nothing to do with how they, contentwise, think about architecture. The avant-garde and its significance for 20th-century architecture rests, then, with the constant obliteration of boundaries between the arts and architecture, image and text, and the meanings of old and new.


Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F).  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2004.


The theoretization of what the avant-garde was all about took place mostly in fields outside architectural theory or history. Poggioli presented an early Theo ry of the Avant -Garde, focusing on the arts. Burger published his seminal work in 1974 (it was translated in 1984). He took his clues mainly from surrealism and Dadaism in literature and in the arts. Bürger’s book gave rise to an interesting debate in Germany, resulting in the publication of Lindner (1976) and of Müller (1984). Calinescu (1987) offers a very interesting and reliable source for clarifying terminological questions, but he does not focus on architecture. Tafuri is the most important architectural historian who theoretically distinguishes between avant-garde and modernism. Although there are no full-length books in English dealing with the theme of architecture and avant-garde, there are some important collections of essays (Ockman, 1988; Somol, 1997) as well as individual articles raising interesting questions (Gusevich, 1987; Heynen, 1999). McLeod offers a feminist criticism on the neo-avant-garde of the 1980s and the 1990s (1996).

Bürger, Peter, Theorie der Avant-Garde, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974; as Theory of the Avant-Garde, translated by Michael Shaw, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984

Calinescu, Matei, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism, Durham: Duke University Press, 1987; revised edition of Faces of Modernity: Avant -Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977

Colomina, Beatriz and Joan Ockman (editors), Architectureproduction, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1988

Giedion, Sigfried, Bauen in Frankreich, Eisen, Eisenbeton, Leipzig: Klinkhardt and Biermann, 1928; as Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete, translated by J.Duncan Berry, with an introduction by Sokratis Georgiadis, Santa Monica, California: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1995

Gusevich, Miriam, “Purity and Transgression: Reflection on the Architectural Avantgarde’s Rejection of Kitsch,” Discourse, 10, no. 1 (Fall-Winter 1987–88)

Heynen, Hilde, “‘What Belongs to Architecture?’ Avant-garde Ideas in the Modern Movement,” The Journal of Architecture, 4, no. 2 (1999)

Lüdke, Werner Martin, et al. (editors), Theorie der Avantgarde: Antworten auf Peter Bürgers Bestimmung von Kunst und bü rgerlicher Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976

McLeod, Mary, “Everyday and ‘Other’ Spaces,” in Architecture and Feminism: Yale Publications on Architecture, edited by Debra Coleman, Elizabeth Danze, and Carol Henderson, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996

Müller, Michael, Architektur und Avantgarde: ein vergessenes Projekt der Moderne? Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat, 1984

Poggioli, Renato, Teoria dell’arte d’avanguar dia, Bologna: Il Mulino, 1962; as The Theory of the Avant -Garde, translated by Gerald Fitzgerald, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981

Somol, R.E. (editor), Autonomy and Ideology: Positioning an Avant-Garde in America, New York: Monacceli Press, 1997

Tafuri, Manfredo, and Francesco Dal Co, Architettura contemporanea, Milano: Electa, 1976; as Modern Architecture, 2 vols., translated by Robert Erich Wolf, New York: Electa/Rizzoli, 1986

Tafuri, Manfredo, La sfera e il labirinto: avanguard ie e architettura da Piranesi agli anni ’70, Torino: Einaudi, 1980; as The Sphere and the Labyrinth. Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s, translated by Pellegrino d’Acierno and Robert Connolly, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1987











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