Robert Somol

Easier done than said

Summary Lecture Robert Somol at the Berlage Institute 8 November 2005 in Rotterdam.

The title of the lecture ‘Easier done than said’ refers to difficulty of architectural theory on the moment.

Robert Somol started his lecture by acknowledging that the lecture-series started with Eisenman, will end with Koolhaas, and that he is strategically posted somewhere in between. “Eisenman still echoes in this room”, says Somol, while pointing to the middle of the room. “I rather study a doorknob for half an hour, than that I listen to that Hollywood-story of Eisenman. If he told the same story he told when… “ (Somol makes a face)

Somol makes a sport of making silly jokes, which reminded us a bit of the way Eisenman jokes around. Eisenman also saw the list of lectures this semester and complained about the fact that he had to start and did not have the last word this year. He wanted to come back to give the last lecture.

The next moment Somol is announcing the new book of Alejandro Zaero-Polo, Alejandro hadn’t even seen it himself, it is… ‘The Iconic Building’ by Charles Jencks. ‘Charles’ goes in his book at least beyond iconography. Alejandro on the other hand made iconography famous.

Because the lecture series has the title ‘Rethinking Representation, Somol asks himself;
“Why representation, why now? I thought we killed it off 15 minutes ago, I thought we killed the ‘critical’ 15 minutes ago.”

The crisis of representation = a crisis of expertise, states Somol. 
Somol once saw a bumper sticker in LA saying: “I’m not an expert, I’m an architect”. Architects want to save the specificity of their discipline. The r&d of architecture is done by the group of traveling and experimenting architects.

Somol shows a picture of Malevitj, one of the Russian constructivists. Somol argues that the constructivists were very process-driven, technique-driven, and very abstract. The constructivists made their techniques collective. The problem was that nobody got it; there was no collective that understood their work.

Eisenman’s work on the other hand is directed towards the reading individual, he doesn’t address a collective.

In his lecture Eisenman argued that he builds to develop the discipline of architecture and that he would be satisfied if 400 students in architecture would come and see his project in Spain, which costs 400 million euro. That’s a different kind of collective.

The diagram

In the 20th century architecture shifts from the drawing to the diagram. The drawing is associated with the critical; the diagram is associated with performance and projection. Somol notes that the critical and ironic often co-exist, have been married.

After World War II Colin Rowe distinguishes two directions:
1. Form where one puts the program in. (Somol shows diagram of 4 building-blocks with a square in the middle).
2. Program with just a (emergent?) form. (Somol shows diagram of … a sort of blob-form)
Somol argues that Rowe concludes that the diagram is a dead-end and that it can only repeat itself. Rowe goes therefore back to the drawing.

Somol states that the diagrams were just being misused in the 60-ies. People like Christopher Alexander used diagrams in a ‘scientific’ way, a reductive way of using the diagram, which was a dead-end. This comes back in the 90-ies. “For years I didn’t believe that those architects did believe in their own press-releases! But now I know the do believe it!”

Somol argues that architecture and urbanism should not be considered very scientific. No, architecture is far more cultural. Architecture is architecture because of its history.

Somol diverts architecture in two models:
a. Geometric-model (hot)
b. Power-model (AA, cool)
Those two models co-existed in the 20th century and will co-exist in the future.

The Power-model is been born in the 70-ies at the AA. Foucault’s work on the Panopticum was read at that time. Think of students like Tschumi, Koolhaas, Zenghelis, etc. It is the birth of the ‘operational school’. According to Somol this school stands at the basis of the crisis of representation.

Somol notes that the optical-geometrical analysis by Rowe of Palladio and Le Corbusier are that diagrammatic that you can move back and forth and that is doesn’t matter which way you go. That changes in the Tschumi’s advertisement with a picture of the Villa Savoie as a ruin.

Somol jokes that Critical architects have a secret enemy; the group of expressionists like Frank Gehry with their fairy-tale – magic dust! -  architecture in Lala-land.

In Eisenman the notation-techniques and the grid become ornament. Eisenman tried to make an animate movement with his series of drawings. He struggled with the technique of drawing. Now that the (computer)techniques can animate architecture, his method sort of dissolved.

Somol also notes that changes in the diagram, like the transformation of matrix-organization to the corridor-organization are not a consequence of architecture but of lifestyle.

a. Hot – high-definition media > hot geometric project > Eisenman
b. Cool – low-definition media > cool life-style project > Koolhaas
Somol jokes that Rem Koolhaas reminds him of Clint Eastwood; you don’t know whether he is cool or boring. This is a contemporary problem that is a result of the industrialization (and thus repetition) of building.

The Logo

Somol distinguishes:
I. Logo – graphic – shape
II. Icon - geometric – form

The logo has an abstract directness. Somol illustrates the power of the Logo by showing the picture of the project of OMA with Mau in Toronto; a text with a big green dot (logo for a park)
Without Mies’ liberating the surface one cannot imagine a Venturi. (Picture: ‘I am a monument’)

According to Somol the logo is something that addresses a public that already exists, while the logo is more ambivalent and addresses also possible other publics.

Somol says he sees himself as ‘neo-shed-ian’, while there are probably far more ‘neo-duck-ians’ around. Venturi is classical graphic.

Las Vegas

A note to researchers: only visit a city when you already know what you are going to find.

Las Vegas now is everything Venturi hated. Las Vegas now is mostly about landscaping and figural building. Las Vegas now is not about the vertical plane of the advertisements, but is a horizontal surface: the horizontal surface of the interiors; the horizontal surface of the landscape. Events are also held outside. Cars have been displaces by walkways.
The positive thing about Las Vegas according to Somol is that materially and ecologically everything is possible; a jungle in the desert, a frozen area with penguins, etc. (set aside the enormous waste it produces)
The negative thing about Las Vegas is that the abstraction has disappeared. Venturi’s project failed. The 60-ies casino’s had a chique. As a visitor one played a role. The casino’s now are thematised, Disney, that only confirms what you are - a tourist.

Somol notes that Eisenman and Krier look alike. Eisenman is a sort of Piranesi-Nolli, while Krier is a sort of Nolli-Piranesi.

As a last thing Somol shows a map that he and his students found on their research of Rome. It is a very long, horizontal map that originally came as a roll and was used at sea. It shows the Mediterranean Sea as a long small horizontal band. ‘Eureka’! It moves away from the geometrical-optical maps, like the Nolli-map, towards an operational projection. From representation tot performance.


Alejandro argues that icons (instead of logo’s) are projective and performative. Icons relate to the physical, have a higher material content. The icon is a diagrammatic sign, a diagrammatic essence. Somol responds by saying that the icon indeed sells better. The icon re-confirms the audience; it re-confirms the power. A logo projects alternatives for new audiences, for a new collective.

Someone of the lecture-room says we are all children of Rem Koolhaas, we are already projective. What’s the fuss about? Somol jokes that we are his baby-bears. Somol also states that Rem does not 100% discards representation. (Somol refers to an El Croquis interview with Rem by Alejandro.)

The difference between ‘cool’ and ‘hot’ has to be understood as the difference between ‘background-architecture’ and ‘foreground-architecture’. Somol loves the background architecture because it almost disappears in the city. If it isn’t beautiful it doesn’t matter that much because it will be just boring.
A foreground, hot architecture on the other hand stands up. When it isn’t beautiful, it will be very ugly and everyone will be constantly reminded by its ugliness. Somol notes that Gregg Lynn likes much more as he does – Gregg tolerates more – and therefore accepts hot architecture.


One of my friends asked me later whether or not the abstraction of the ‘logo’ has to be understood as a mild distancing of capitalism. That’s an interesting point.

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