Between 1982 and 1983, the French State led by François Mitterrand launched competitions for new public monuments in Paris: the Grands projets or Grandes opérations d’architecture et d’urbanisme The aim was to make culture accessible to a wider public. The model behind the initiative was the success of the multifunctional complex at the Plateau Beaubourg, initiated in’1969 and opened in1977 as the Centre Pompidou. Designed by Piano, Rogers and Franchini, it was conceived as an incubator with — initially — a museum, a library and a music centre. The Centre Pompidou can be understood as the ideological response to the political and cultural break of May’68. The dirigisme of a conservative state had boosted industrial development, but had been unable to keep pace with the social revolution it had unleashed. The post-war generation became increasingly dissatisfied with the authoritarian paternalism of the state. When asked why students started the revolt, Henri Lefebvre invited his interviewer to have a look at the campus from the window of his office at the newly built university of Nanterre. Lefebvre pointed to the harsh industrial environment to convey the students’-growing consciousness that they were as alienated as factory workers.
It is in this context that we have to understand the ideology behind the Grands projets. They were part of a cultural operation allowing the state to symbolically reclaim public space, and to co-opt values such as creativity, imagination and experimentation. With its refreshing aesthetic, the Centre Pompidou promised a way to experience culture no longer as an elitist privilege but as a popular phenomenon. It was such a political vision that Mitterrand pursued with his Grands projets. In spite of their bombastic monumentality, they can be considered as ambitious attempts to address a subjectivity that in the early 1980s was emerging from the changing modes of production, namely the passage from industrial post-industrial society. This passage, later defined as the advent of post-Fordism, saw the rise of service economy and cultural industry as productive sectors. The laboring subject was no longer the alienated blue-collar worker, but the volatile metropolitan dweller. Cultural and social exchange were now as productive as traditional labour. The French Socialist Party aimed for massive economic support for culture and education, not just as mass-entertainment but as productive assets. […]
Parks have always played an ideological role within the development of the metropolis. Since the invention of the picturesque park in England, their role has been to both tame the social pressure that came with industrialisation and to instigate land speculation. The intent of La Villette was different. The government wanted to use the park to showcase an urban ethos in which the domains of culture, production, education, social exchange and leisure would coalesce. OMA was the only participating team that challenged the idea of the park as a place for relaxation, as a release from hectic city rhythms. Instead it put forward a park as an accelerator of metropolitan life. […]
The result would be a phantasmagorical clash of activities obtained with the simplest architectural scheme. The most obvious reference for this strategy is Koolhaas’s study of Manhattan’s culture of congestion’ in which the brutal simplicity of the Manhattan gridiron and the typical plan’ of the skyscraper was interpreted as the best way to both contain and radicalise differences. A specific precedent for La Villette
and Expo’89 is one of the most radical concepts of collective space: the social condensers.
This concept was introduced by Russian Constructivists in the 192Qs to re-organize the masses according to the direction outlined by the Bolshevik State. […] As places of political education, the social condensers were supposed not to represent socialism, but to enact a socialist form of life by providing the masses with an overabundance of collective activities. […]
In Leonidov’s terms, the club would function as an accelerator of experiences, without distinction between work, leisure and education. […] The similarity between Leonidov’s and OMA’s approach to programme is obvious: what matters is not architecture, but the life that takes place in it. The similarity between Leonidov’s workers
club and OMA’s Parc de La Villette and Expo’89 is literal in both the conception of a park-like composition of facilities distributed within a field, and in the diagrammatic rendering of the park as a scientific blackboard graph. Yet there is a subtle but decisive difference between both approaches. In Leonidov’s club the visibility of people engaging in collective activities is not the representation but the enactment of socialist life. He had a clear pedagogical intention: collectivity is not a spectacle (as in theatrical gatherings, typical of Fascist movements, or in the contemporary fetish for vibrant public space). Collectivity can teach inhabitants how to dwell and thus how to live together. In the club theatre, Leonidov excluded activities implying passive spectatorship or entertainment. The club was not simply a space for fun— it was a space for political formation where leisure, relaxation and pleasure could become political activities. From a Marxist perspective, the political makes sense only in relation to the way production is organized. Leonidov interpreted the social condenser as a possibility to enable individuals to acquire a political consciousness as producers, even in their free time. In this sense, OMA’s interpretation of the social condenser addresses collectivity as a social spectacle deprived of political consciousness. The social condenser becomes a container where any programme can happen as long it creates an acceleration of metropolitan life. What is striking in OMA’s appropriation of Leonidov’s ideas is
how the politicization of the masses was twisted into a celebration of modernisation per se. […]
Nevertheless, the counterrevolution was not simply ideological: it originated within changing modes of production. Culture, creativity, social exchange — the entire life of the metropolis — were no longer phenomena beside work, but the core potential for production. Unlike Leonidov’s attempt to emancipate workers by showing them how even culture or leisure were productive activities, the post-Fordist revolution put the life of workers at work by rendering their permanent toil as mere social life, as the spectacle of metropolis. Mitterrand’s Grancls projets can be understood as a first attempt to put to work the urban spectacle in order to define a new metropolitan subjectivity. As Guy Debord remarked: the society of the spectacle is not only defined by the proliferation of images that mediate social life. The spectacle is above all the total economization of social life. Everything that concerns life is potentially a commodity.In the hands of OMA, Leonidov’s attempt to enhance and accelerate human experience through an architecture loaded with programmes became the perfect emblem of the 1980s capital counterrevolution. Unlike Leonidov’s politicized vision of modernity, OMA’s’enthusiasm’ for the metropolis was devoid of a political goal. An architecture that would politicize became for OMA an architecture that would simply contain the scriptless masses, who float like atoms, through the rarefied super-alienation of the Metropolis. Ironically, what OMA celebrated as a scriptless mass indulging in the culture of congestion 30 years ago, has today become the precarious and indebted mass, struggling to make a living in an increasingly hostile metropolis. […] 1
Following philosopher Paolo Virno a counterrevolution is an impetuous process of social and political innovation and not the simple restoration of the ancien régime. At the beginning of its development, post-Fordism can be considered a revolution: it appropriated many aspects of the revolts of the 1960s and ‘l970s, such as the refusal of state paternalism, social mobility, sexual emancipation and cultural and technological innovation. Today we may see the reactionary and violent side of post-Fordism, but when it appeared in the early 1980s it put forward a future-oriented ethos of mass-entrepreneurialism against the social passivity of the welfare state. In Leonidov’s example, passivity in forbidden in a space where one has to be constantly engaging in a political journey, but OMA’s project for La Villette expresses the switch towards the higher level of capitalism when culture and leisure become a form of consumption. Public project like these — supposedly kindly offered to the citizens for their appropriation — are now only possible if the investment of the state cashes back in the land speculation surrounding these projects, the most famous example of this being Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum for Bilbao.
The question now is: How can we occupy land without it being an hidden economical investment, extracting consumption and production out of leisure? How can mass representation express collectivity unitarian work rather than the economical congestion ? How can free time, leisure, laziness, at the absence of act be in a post-capitalist state that doesn’t asl for constant work and activism?What is the void for the mass ?
.1 Aureli, Pier Vittorio. „OMA and the Politics of the Grands Projets.“ In OMA. The First Decade – OASE 94 (2015): 44-53.