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  • Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture
  • John Maciuika
Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture. Massimo Cacciari. Translated by Steven Sartarelli. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Pp. 248, 45 illustrations. $35.00 (cloth); $17.00 (paper).

This work brings a wide-ranging and sophisticated collection of essays on modern architecture and culture to the attention of an English-speaking audience for the first time. Written for the most part between 1973 and 1981 and revised for this collection (only the final essay was composed for this book), the essays in Architecture and Nihilism reflect author Massimo Cacciari’s long connection to the Department of Critical and Historical Analysis within the School of Architecture at the University of Venice, his work with the journal Contropiano, and his involvement with the politics of the Italian left. As Patrizia Lombardo notes in her helpful introductory and biographical essay, Cacciari’s numerous books and essays have been translated into German, French, and Spanish; only one work, until now, has appeared in English, a [End Page 115] 1980 article entitled “Eupalinos or Architecture” published in Oppositions. Architecture and Nihilism, therefore, introduces a major Italian theorist of architecture and modernity whose first English collection is in explicit dialogue with thinkers like Simmel, Weber, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche in the early essays, and Benjamin, Loos, Heidegger, and Derrida in the later essays. The book’s copious, postage-stamp-sized images will disappoint those in search of architectural plans, while Steven Sartarelli’s skillful translation of an often dense text grants reasonable access to Cacciari’s multifaceted arguments.

The early essays develop Cacciari’s interest in modernity alongside the early twentieth-century German tradition of urban sociology, against whose works Cacciari tests his key concepts of “negative thought” and “Metropolis.” Bearing some relationship to Adorno’s negative dialectics and concern for an “administered world,” Cacciari’s concept of negative thought joins in critical theory’s critique of subjective individualism and of the historically positive, dialectical view of history, in which synthesis represents false resolution. Cacciari characterizes negative thought as the conscious, unflinching awareness of irreconcilable aporiae in advanced industrial capitalist society. This awareness demands the recognition, not the suppression, of the tragic elements of modern culture which are otherwise sublated in dialectical thinking. Unlike Adorno, Cacciari places the locus of negative thought in the “Metropolis.” An allegory of the modern city, the Metropolis displays a dynamic, conflictive character in which the layered abstractions of a monetary economy contribute to the contradictions produced by industrial capitalism.

Building on Simmel as well as Weber and Benjamin, Cacciari distinguishes Metropolis from the mere city: while both are sites for the rationalization of production, the Metropolis alone introduces levels of intellect and abstraction into the monetary economy that challenge subjectivity through the rationalization of social relations. Moreover, the Metropolis is characterized by constant innovation, conflict, and sensory stimulation; more than simply contradicting the “traditional-mythical character of rural life” (5), Metropolitan enervation leads to a consciousness that is suspended between “the intensification of the life of the nerves” (Simmel’s Nervenleben) and unprecedented reliance on the intellect (Verstand).

In his important essay, “On the German Sociology of the City at the Turn of the Century,” Cacciari extends his theory of the Metropolis and the negative into the tradition of German sociology. All forms of synthesis—whether in Tonnies’s recuperated notions of Gemeinschaft within a larger Gesellschaft, or in Simmel’s regard for self-fashioned individualism as a means to maintain relations of equality—sidestep the functional contradictions at the heart of the Metropolis. Such avoidance preserves in Cacciari’s eyes the very elements of ideology underpinning the forces of domination within the system of capitalist production. Thus, the Werkbund’s putative synthesis of artistic and industrial production falsely promoted the notion that a reorganized German production system and de-alienated, “ennobled” labor could unify under the banner of a new style and offer German society a new Arbeitskultur.

Various other efforts to preserve memory or seek past wholeness are derided as nostalgia, while stylistic expressions that reach for the eternal are deemed (or doomed) expressions of utopian hopes. The precise challenge posed by the...

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