Bernard Huet, “Formalism-Realism,” 1977.
This essay from Bernard Huet appeared in a special edition of the journal L’Architecture d’Aujourd’ hui (April, 1977) that he also edited. According to Hays, the issue was dedicated to realism but only succeeded in enhancing its “antinomies.” The primary value of “Formalism-Realism” is historical, in my opinion. The majority of the text traces realism’s history from its Soviet socialist origins to its adaptation by the post-fascist Italians, especially the Tendenza (which is, of course, where we encountered realism at the hands of Martin Steinmann). Most curious and unexpected about this history is the evolving historical relationship between formalism, realism, and content—a semantic juggling Huet pulls off with alacrity.
In the way of “antinomies,” there are two significant fractures appearing in Huet’s essay that presumably define realism’s internal struggles. Hays points out the first in his introduction, the paradoxical and yet essential dichotomy between aesthetics and epistemology, between opacity and transparency. The second is what we may call realism’s ‘gullibility’ or false ingenuousness—an insistence on a socio-architectural model incapable of manipulation. This gullibility reveals realism’s dualism (and danger): either architecture reflects authentic populist values or architecture is exploited to project ideological values in an effort to make them seem authentic.
Huet’s history of realism is not particularly difficult to follow. Socialist realism began as an artistic and social issue initiated by Engels and Lenin. For the most part it was a principle of artistic populism meant to govern the relationship between art (especially public art) and people. For Lenin, art reflects the aesthetic mores of its culture, where by “aesthetic” we can read both visual and moral mores. By the 1930s, socialist realism entered architecture’s sphere and Stalin familiarized himself with its capacity for propaganda: art and architecture must reflect their people and their nation.
Then Huet moves the narrative to Italy, where fascist-weary architects were disillusioned with Modernism’s crusade for social revolution. Presumably (according to Huet), after being first fascinated by Mussolini then persecuted by him, the Italian avant-garde was too jaded to believe in Modernism. At this point they began practicing an architectural realism that was not quite socialist but was admittedly inspired by socialist realism. For these, architecture’s populism lay in its compatibility with Tradition, with the familiar, with naturally occurring urban and architectural phenomena.
Most curious is the semantic gymnastics Huet pulls off that at first seem counterintuitive but are actually quite compelling, in terms of his history. While the Russian avant-garde was initially courted by the socialist revolution (c1917), they became the enemy of the nationalist, neo-classical “style” adopted by the regime to present the image of morally and socially upright soviet peoples. Socialist realists accused the avant-garde of “formalism,” a synonym for “content” (or “content-ism”). Formalism’s content was abstract, was for the initiated, the few, while socialist realism claimed to be about the people and the popularization of aesthetic meaning. Consequently “the constructivists and their ‘progressive’ allies” were ousted from the Soviet architectural mainstream. (Huet specifically mentions the work of André Lurçat, Mart Stam, Hannes Meyer, Ernts May, and Hans Schmidt.)
This is presumably the same formalism-contentism that was rejected by the Italian realists when they ‘rejected’ the passé formalism of the International Style. Instead, the kind of realism embraced by the Tendenza grew out of a desire to reflect organically occurring aesthetic and urban structures, an architecture that occurred naturally. Hence we have the monumentalism and urban ideologies familiar to us from Rossi and Scolari. The reason I say this seems initially counterintuitive is that Rossi and Scolari represent the project for architectural autonomy, formally and disciplinarily. Consequently, Huet’s polarity between their ‘realism’ and European ‘formalism’ is initially jarring.
Thankfully, Huet graciously sums up the formalist-realist dichotomy for us (read: sarcasm): Formalism is political, bureaucratic, technocratic, abstract, irrational, and is beyond public understanding. On the other hand, realism calls upon common sense, makes architectural and cultural heritage useful and available, and is pluralistic—just like the culture it reflects. Most importantly, realism does not produce “meaning.” From these we understand that neither term is really about ‘form’ at all, but is about the origins of form and content, is about intellectual elitism versus populism, is about theoretical architecture or a formalism that is less rigorously self-interrogating—more tautological than ontological or epistemological. It is here we may read a divergence from the realism outlined by Steinmann.
Returning to the essay’s introduction, Hays points out the characteristic paradox of realism—according to both Steinmann and Huet. Hays:
“Realism imbricates two contradictory claims, one aesthetic and one epistemological. The aesthetic claim tends to mark off the work from everyday life, isolating it in a realm of heightened aesthetic intensity where concepts such as style, typology, and technique are understood self-consciously, synchronically, and reflexively—a realm almost unmediated by circumstances. The epistemological claim, on the other hand, operates to bind the work to the real itself, to situate it in a historically specific context and value the work for the knowledge it affords of a particular reality rather than for its autonomy and mobility.”
Hays notes, however, that realism cannot exist without both of this paradoxical pair. And while Huet implicates an architectural realism about people, realist architecture is inevitably about “architecture itself. The ‘real’ represented by architectural realism is a real that architecture itself has produced.”
Lastly, I find it important to briefly note what I’ve already called realism’s feigned “gullibility.” Steinmann’s and Huet’s realism(s) leave the following question: “Is architecture naturally realist, or should it be realist?” Huet would have us believe the former: “Architecture is not fascist or Stalinist in its ‘form.’ There is only architecture of the fascist or Stalinist periods.” But this reading is unconvincing. It ignores the capacity of realism to legitimize propaganda. Hays responds: the difference between Marshals Stalin and Potemkin or Empress Catherine II is that Stalin had theoreticians to legitimize his artificial architectural visions as representations of a culture that was more ideological and imagined than material.
Hays concludes his introduction with another fabulous paragraph regarding this last point that I have to print here for the sake of accessibility and remembrance: “Insofar as Huet wants to avoid the pure formalist role of realism, how can he also completely avoid the realm in which architecture acquires its worldly baggage?
“Surely Hiet is right to warn against the unwarranted confidence in deducing political and ideological positions from a protocol of merely formal architectural properties. But that does not provide escape from the question of the possible uses anticipated and controlled by architectural forms—not only of how spaces were meant to be inhabited, but of how they might be inhabited. As T. J. Clark once queried, ‘What are we supposed to say, for example, about a photo of Mussolini’s shock troops marching through the Arch of Constantine? Put the blame on the Arch somehow? Pretend that Mussolini got Roman architecture right? (To which the reply might reasonably be, in fact: Are you saying he got it wrong? What else, after all, was the Arch of Constantine for?)’”