Delirious Realism: The Intermedial Architectural Criticism of Siegfried Kracauer
Jade University, Oldenburg
In 1920, the trained architect Siegfried Kracauer abandons his original profession and embarks on a career as a critic for the Frankfurter Zeitung. With the almost two thousand articles Kracauer writes before being exiled from Germany in 1933 on theater, art, film, photography, sociology, politics and cultural phenomena of the Weimar Republic’s nascent mass culture, the subject of architecture occupies a peculiar position. As an architectural critic he remains strangely distant, reluctant to take a stance – a “waiting” attitude which, as I want to argue, is a key to understanding his interests in mass media such as photography and cinema and their relation to historiography.
In order to gain access to what one might call the architectural in Kracauer’s thinking, I propose to turn his epistemological method against himself. By searching amidst the “inconspicuous surface-level expressions” that “by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things1,” one might bring to light what Kracauer himself took great pains to conceal. To simply say that architecture was a means for practicing his phenomenological sensibilities for the “primacy of the optical” – which, as Adorno claims, would persist in his writing in a “sublimated” form – ignores the prominent yet necessarily inconspicuous position it holds. Architecture becomes a redemptive figure that bears the promise of resolving the irreconcilable contradictions of modernity. For Kracauer, architecture persists as the delirious image that in itself bears the potential for rescuing the alienated subject out of his transcendental homelessness. Yet to fulfill this function, it must at the same time remain disguised at the unspeakable center of his writing.
While a Bilderverbot (ban on images) lies at the heart of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, an Architekturverbot (ban on architecture) governs Kracauer’s criticism. He circumvents the self-protective ban on architecture by retrieving it as image, as “spatial images (Raumbilder) that are the dreams of a society.” Kracauer’s criticism hence arranges images and dreams in constellations akin to architecture. His interest photography and film share with architecture the fundamental quality of eluding “the grasp of systematic thought2.” Rather representing the objective world they bring out what Kracauer would call an “intermediary area” that should help the reader of criticism to “think through things, not above them.”
I will attempt to resuscitate the architectural critic Kracauer by, on the one hand, giving a diachronic overview of his unknown or overseen writings on architecture, on the other, putting those writings into the context of his canonical texts on mass and visual culture.
1 Siegfried Kracauer, Das Ornament der Masse (Frankfurt a.M.: 1963); The Mass Ornament, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Mass.: 1995), 75.
2 Siegfried Kracauer, History: The Last Things before the Last (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 191.
Lutz Robbers holds a Ph.D. in the History and Theory of Architecture from Princeton University. He taught architectural theory at the RWTH Aachen, at the Bauhaus-University, Columbia University and Princeton. Prior to that he was a research fellow at the Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM), Bauhaus-
Universität Weimar, where he was part of the research group “Tools of Design”. He held research positions at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine in Paris, the London Schoolof Economics’ “Cities Programme” and the German Forum of Art History in Paris. Currently heteaches architectural theory at the Jade University in Oldenburg and serves as editor of the journal Candide – Journal for Architectural Knowledge.
Recent publications include: “In the City’s Soft Image: Mies van der Rohe and Cinematic Time,” in: Design and Cinema: Form Follows Film, ed. Belkis Uluoglu, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2006; “Die Metropole als Attraktion,” in: Metropolen 1850-1950: Mythen – Bilder – Entwürfe/ mythes – images – projets, ed. Jean-Louis Cohen, Hartmut Frank, Berlin 2010; “Espaces pour jeux de lumière: Mies van der Rohe, le cinéma, l’innervation,” in: Spielraum: Walter Benjamin et l’architecture, ed. Libero Andreotti, Paris 2011; “Film als Dispositiv in G: Material zur elementaren Gestaltung,” in: Kritische Berichte, no. 4, 2012; “Filmkämpfer Mies,” in: Mies van der Rohe im Diskurs: Innovationen – Haltungen – Werke, ed. Kerstin Plüm, Bielefeld 2013; “1912 – Hellerau as Spielraum,” in: Participation in Art and Architecture: Spaces of Participation and Occupation, Hg. Mechtild Widrich und Martino Stierli. London 2015.