The Historical Project of “Modernism”: Manfredo Tafuri’s Metahistory of the Avant-Garde

Tyrus Miller


This essay focuses on the writings of the architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, who was at the center of a group of historians and theorists at the University of Venice’s School of Architecture. It considers how his works dealing with the avant-garde, especially Architecture and Utopia and The Sphere and the Labyrinth, develop a historical-critical method to identify and explicate the gap between the evolution of ideologies of the avant-garde and their translation into a repertoire of techniques that have divergent histories and social meanings than those posited by avant-garde ideologies. In doing so, Tafuri is not just offering an “ideology-critique” of modernism, revealing the way that the avant-garde failed to fulfill its postulated social and aesthetic goals; he is also arguing metahistorically, that via a dialectic of the avant-garde, twentieth-century capitalist modernity weaves an ideological fabric of modernism and interleaves it into the effective structure of reality, for instance through the practices of architecture and urbanism. Thus, “modernism” becomes a relevant term of periodization, not because of the historical veracity of any orthodox art historical narrative of the succession or progressive evolution of modernist forms, but insofar as “modernism” designates the symptomatic tension between the progressive history of avant-garde forms and the heterogeneous technical history that represents how the avant-garde’s formal programs were actualized.

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