BY Jan Verwoert in Frieze | 04 MAR 02
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Issue 65

Under Construction

Florian Pumhosl

BY Jan Verwoert in Frieze | 04 MAR 02

Throughout the history of the avant-garde it was a widely held belief that the architect's job, given their alleged ability to think in universal terms, was to find practical solutions to the world's problems during a time of crisis.

This, at least, is the Modernist ethos explored by Florian Pumhösl. Pumhösl traces the origins, contexts and consequences of the peculiar blend of idealism and pragmatism behind the image of the Modern architect as a Renaissance man in a society of technocrats - a generalist who can create designs that not only solve specific problems, but that work for everybody everywhere, and improve every aspect of life.

In his exhibition 'On or Off Earth - Design für die echten Bedürfnisse und die Rhetorik der Alternativbewegung' (Design for the Real Needs and the Rhetoric of the Alternative Movement) at the Grazer Kunstverein in 1996, Pumhösl examined the ways in which this type of Modernist thinking resurfaced in the aesthetics and politics of early 1970s utopian design. He rebuilt pieces of Functionalist furniture from the book Nomadic Furniture 1, by Viktor Papanek and James Hennessey, published in 1974: a dwelling consisting of a cubic frame of wooden slats, between which sheets of cloth are stretched out as makeshift walls; square wooden boards with notches that allow them to be assembled as chairs, tables etc.; and an ensemble of crystalline forms derived from the shape of fat cells. This organic construction provided the basis for the design of a variety of objects ranging from oil tanks and space stations to children's toys. The exhibits were complemented by documentation of other ideas that were particularly influential on the alternative design of the time. These ranged from economic theories to ideas borrowed from the Green movement (then in its infancy) to ideas relating to military technology and space travel.

At the beginning of the 1970s the oil crisis, the Cold War and the space race brought about a general awareness that the world's resources were limited, and that the future of mankind itself was in doubt. In the face of such dire prognostications a variety of innovative schemes were devised that flew in the face of the global capitalist economy, and these formed the focus of Pumhösl's 1996 exhibition. Many of the design ideas were based on the concept of the individual as a form of nomad, a traveller and survivor using his resources wisely to lead a free and flexible life with the help of multifunctional modular equipment. However, this philosophy also implied an uncritical belief in expansionism: Pumhösl made it clear that the testing-ground for each of the 'alternative' designs was to be somewhere beyond the Western world: outer space, the deep sea or the Third World. In other words, they embraced the same cruel logic of military and colonialist conquest.

Pumhösl explored the disturbing link between the aesthetics of Modernism and the politics of colonialism in more detail in his exhibition 'Humanist and Ecological Republic', held at the Vienna Secession building in 2000. In the main hall he presented an installation entitled When He Returned to Power in 1998, the Former Marxist President of Madagascar, Didier Ratsiraka - Having Meanwhile Been Converted to the Market Economy - Announced that He Would Turn Madagascar into the First 'Humanist and Ecological Republic in the World. In the broad, airy exhibition space a selection of prefabricated architectural elements were displayed like autonomous Modernist sculptures. These included various concrete structures or glass membranes, four concrete pipes cut lengthwise for use as roof components and - on a white board supported by a black steel frame - a small model for a building made of cement. The design of the house was based on a type of urban dwelling found in Madagascar, designed to provide shelter against cyclones and itself based on a French design. Among these exhibits stood a bronze of a crouching female figure by Henry Moore, on loan from the sculpture garden of Vienna's Museum Moderner Kunst.

The exhibition space was intended to reveal a global architectural grammar, based on a modular assembly system. Yet Pumhösl was not only offering an analysis of the Modernist style of the 1950s; he was also confronting the viewer with the physical experience of wandering through this colony of cold concrete structures designed to impose a new order onto the world. You could sense the intimate relationship that exists between the beauty of perfect rationalism and a totalitarian, regimented view of life.

The links between modern industrial architecture and colonial history were explored further in the video installation Lac Mantasoa (2000), shown in the graphic art section of the Secession building. The video, also filmed in Madagascar, charts Pumhösl's exploration of the ruins of a factory complex built in the 19th century by the French industrialist Jean-Baptiste Laborde near the capital, Antananarivo. The factory was the first part of what was planned to be an industrial town modelled on European cities. After Laborde was expelled from the country, the forced labourers who had built the complex tore some of it down. Other parts were flooded when the French created a huge reservoir in 1936-7. A folder accompanying the exhibition documents the story, while the video presents only silent images, showing what is left of the building interspersed with views of the interior and some of its vast empty rooms. Some of the submerged parts of the building, filmed with an underwater camera, appear as a ghostly presence among tree stumps in the murky green water. The history of the factory complex reads like a palimpsest, a story constantly overwritten by the (self-)destructive forces of Modernity: industrialization, colonization and social unrest.

In his recent exhibition at Galerie Krobath Wimmer in Vienna, Pumhösl subjected the formal language of Modernism to a more poetic critique. Many Modernist designers have sought to derive universal forms with scientific accuracy directly from nature - Papanek and Hennessey's use of fat cells is just one example. Pumhösl drew on this aspiration to objectivity in his use of the technique of photogrammetry. By simply laying objects such as perforated boards or pages of a book directly onto photosensitive paper he reproduced their outlines. The resulting untitled images are perfectly objective renderings of beautifully empty structures. The exhibition also included several lumps of artificial rock, and the video You Have Several Times Been Paralleling or Anticipating Some (As Yet Not Fully Appreciated) Recent Developments in Exact Science - of Which You May Not Be Fully Aware (Few Are) (2001). The video shows black and white images of stick insects, almost indistinguishable from the twigs on which they scurry around; the bugs constitute a living critique of modern universalism's attempts to find the ultimate law of form in nature and suggest - like Pumhösl's photograms - that the highest form of objectivity may be pure contingency. These projects undermine the Modernist ambition to create the best of all possible worlds: the most rational solution for the planet, they seem to argue, is not to order nature but to leave it to its own devices.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.