Dumb Abstraction: Semper, Kracauer, and the Superficial Materialism of Architecture
Douglas Spencer

In his The Four Elements of Architecture of 1851 Gottfried Semper defined architecture as an art of dressing. [1] Drawing upon anthropological claims around the origins of architecture in the crafts of weaving and textiles, his bekleidungstheorie (theory of cladding or dressing) proposed that its essence lay in the masking of its supporting and structural elements. But if architecture is essentially a practice of masking, this is not, for Semper, because it is an art of deceit. The treatment of the surface is the principal concern of architecture because this is where it communicates, through its patterns and forms, higher ideals whose values transcend its material basis.


Semper’s idealism was pitched against contemporary theories of structural rationalism in architecture, as espoused, most notably, by Viollet-le-Duc. In the ‘Prolegomenon’ to his Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts Semper writes that:


“These [materialist] theories are consistent with the general practical trend of our time, and are supported and sustained by the great building undertakings, especially those occassioned by the railway system. The materialists can be criticized in general for having fettered the idea too much to the material, for falsely believing that the store of architectural forms is determined solely by the structural and material conditions.” [2]


Today the material conditions of architectural production have effectively confined its attentions to the surface of things. Its structures are engineered by Arup and Buro Happold, its urban context—overdetermined by the imperatives of security and productivity—programmed by Cisco and Siemens, the use of its interiors optimised and orchestrated by space planners. As Benjamin H. Bratton observes, architecture now resides on an ‘impoverished perch’ from which it “concentrates expertise on the delineation of bones, surfaces, and skins at the unit level of individual architectural envelopes, hoping to capture the lightening of global forces into the bottle of programmable metallic flora.” [3]

Architecture’s current focus on the surface, rather than motivated by a recognition of this being the true essence of its practice, is resorted to now as a last refuge for any continued relevance it might still want to claim for its practice. Rather than seeking to communicate transcendent ideals, its dressings now seem intent, as a consequence, not on masking but on legitimating the material conditions that underpin it. At the same time, and through the same means, this speaks, implicitly at least, of architecture’s desire to appear still relevant, cognisant of and at ease with these conditions. If we consider, for instance, the appearance of recently designed mass transit infrastructures, we might note the preponderance of materials such as steel, glass and concrete, raw and unadorned, save for their sometimes polished or silvered surfaces. Restricted material palettes are patterned into grids, grilles and meshes; panelled across facades, inscribing every interior surface with the regularity of their austere geometries. It appears as if the calculative logics determining the order of urban space were somehow embedded in matter itself, made plain, concrete and amenable, as such, to immediate apprehension.


Does the dressing of the contemporary architectural surface under these changed conditions still assume the function of the mask? If so, what might be being dressed up in architecture’s post postmodern return to abstraction and to what ends? The significance of such questions, and the means to approach them, might be further illuminated via a detour through the thinking of Siegfried Kracauer on the metropolitan ornament of the masses.


In the opening passages of his 1927 essay The Mass Ornament, Siegfried Kracauer underlines the significance of the superficial to the practice of critique. “The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process,” he writes, “can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its surface level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself.” [4] Kracauer, the cultural critic who wrote this essay for the Frankfurter Zeitung, was a close associate of the Frankfurt School and was then engaged, like them, in the critical theorisation of the mass culture of Weimar Germany. The visual and ‘surface-level’ expressions of this culture, he proposed, constituted contemporary forms of ornament enjoyed by the ‘masses’ of the new metropolis. The specifically modern forms of cultural production classed by Kracaueur as ornamental—film, photography, newspapers, the architecture of the cinema—are interpreted as the expressions of particular historical conditions. The ‘mass and not the people [Volk]’, as constructed by and for industrial capitalism, are the producers and consumers of the mass ornament, simultaneously its subject and its object. [5] Through the interpretation of the seemingly superficial expressions of mass culture as ornament, argued Kracauer, some more fundamental knowledge about the world from which they emanated, however unconsciously, might be grasped.


The ‘Tiller Girls’ are for Kracauer exemplary of the mass ornament. He describes this female dance troupe, performing at revues and touring America and Europe in the 1920s, as “no longer individual girls, but indissoluble girl clusters whose movements are demonstrations of mathematics.” [6] On stage and screen the troupe’s strictly synchronised and tightly choreographed performance constitutes a collective ornament “composed of thousands of bodies, sexless bodies in bathing suits”. [7] The geometric patterns formed from this mass are echoed in the disposition of its audience, “themselves arranged by the stands in tier upon ordered tier”. [8] In the geometry of the mass ornament “people become fractions of a figure”. [9] Sensuality and individuality are absent from the mass ornament, argues Kracauer, because it is the unconscious product, at the surface level, of the Taylorised system of ‘scientific management’ to which discipline the industrial factory worker was then being subjected: “The hands in the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls. Going beyond manual capacities, psychotechnical aptitude tests attempt to calculate dispositions of the soul as well. The mass ornament is the aesthetic reflex of the rationality to which the prevailing economic system aspires.” [10]


In his critique of the mass ornament, however, Kracauer does not reject this rationality outright. Instead he seeks to unravel its appearance within the mass ornament dialectically. The Euclidean geometry of ‘lines and circles’ into which the bodies of the masses are ornamentally configured must itself be ‘understood rationally’. [11] Kracauer does not call for a return to the ideal of Gemeinschaft (community) as against the metropolitan order of the Gesellschaft (society). Nor does he express any nostalgia for the natural or the organic now absent from the metropolitan ornament. He adheres, instead, to an Enlightenment perspective in which reason is considered the essential motor of a historical and progressive process of ‘demythologisation’. From this perspective capitalism is but a ‘stage’ in that process, but one that now acts as a brake on the further unfolding of an essentially liberatory project of reason so as to retain its own dominance. [12] In fact, capitalism has succeeded only in constituting a ‘murky’ form of reason based solely upon economic calculation; a limited form of reason identified by Kracauer as ‘Ratio’. [13] The problem with capitalism, then, is that “it rationalizes not too much, but rather too little.” [14]


The mass ornament, the ‘aesthetic reflex’ of capitalism’s murky and closed form of rationality, bars access to reason. Its muted patterns conceal, in their abstractions, the true potential of a rationality that the masses might otherwise appropriate as an instrument of emancipation. [15] In an argument that prefigures that developed by Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, Kracauer argues that reason, because of the limited form in which it is employed by capitalism, reverts to the mythic. “Viewed from the perspective of reason,” he writes, “the mass ornament reveals itself as a mythological cult that is masquerading in the garb of abstraction.” [16] The abstractions of the mass ornament are a mask in which the rational appears to the masses as a means of distraction from and consolation for their labour under capitalism: “Physical training expropriates people’s energy, while the production and mindless consumption of the ornamental patterns divert them from the imperative to change the reigning order.” [17]


Returning to the question of the abstractions of the contemporary architectural surface, equipped now with Kracauer’s analyses, this might appear already answered. We are, perhaps, again in the presence of a masquerade that distracts from the real potential of the rational by dazzling us with its merely formal and geometric abstractions. But Kracauer’s epoch is not ours, exactly. Certainly whatever rationality might still be ascribed to capitalism remains murky, at best. The reach of the calculative logic of Ratio, however, now extends far beyond the limits by which it was circumscribed in the early twentieth century. Little now escapes the integrative metrics of big data, the interpretive scrutiny of a machinic intelligence, or the performative optimisation of everything imaginable for which these are the instruments. This, after all, is the condition to which architectural Parametricism pledges its allegiance in hope of securing the ongoing relevance of the discipline. It might also be noted that Kracauer’s critique of distraction and concealment, as identified with the work of the mass ornament, is premised on the seemingly imminent possibility of the revolutionary self transformation of the consciousness of the masses in the 1920s. However, in the post political era of globalised neoliberalism this possibility seems especially remote. It is far from clear, that is, from what real alternatives to things as they are anyone need now be distracted. Rather than concealing, the contemporary counterpart to the mass ornament tends to reinforce that what simply is.


Where Semper assigned a transcendent role to the dressing of architecture, concealing its material support so as to present the ideal through its patterned forms, the architectural surface now appears to insist on its materiality. In the presence of such surfaces it is often unclear as to whether one is looking at some representative approximation of the material order that underlies the dressing, or whether what we see simply is the material structure itself. In any case the effect is to immerse the subject within an environment that refuses to speak of anything other than its own immediately material substance. This is an architecture of dumb abstraction, not of spectacle or distraction. Writing in another essay of the 1920s, Cult of Distraction, Kracaueur describes the new cinemas of Berlin as ‘optical fairylands’. [18] The ‘surface splendour’ of the picture palaces joins with the spotlights, the orchestra and the programme of films to form a Gesamtkunstwerk that “assaults all the senses”. [19] This experience of distraction serves to compensate the masses for enduring the nervous tensions of a metropolis sustaining a population of 4 million. Rather than repelled by the assault on their senses the masses revel in the charms of the ornament. The surface effects, he writes, “rivet the viewers’ attention to the peripheral, so that they will not sink into the abyss.” [20] Today’s surface level expressions are more likely to numb the subject to the experience of the metropolis at source, largely obviating the need for any compensatory conditions of experience. The architecture of mass transit does not absorb or reward sustained attention. Instead it forms a continuous and continuously reassuring backdrop, an environmental consistency through which the subject passes undisturbed and unmoved.


The precise geometries and blank surfaces of the contemporary mass ornament suggest matter reconciled with calculation. This is all that exists now for an architecture reconciled to the affirmation of this truth. But, displaced from the centre of things, left only to the treatment of the surface, it cannot help but merely represent a truth that it cannot itself actually embody. This is the contemporary mask of architecture. Its materialism is an ideal, the limited scope of which also invites the subject, through the experience of environmental immersion, to resign itself.


July 2016, Aylesbury



[1] Gottfried Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, trans. Harry Francis Mallgrave & Wolfgang Herrmann, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[2] Ibid. p. 190.

[3] Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, Cambridge, MA, and London, England: MIT Press, 2015, p. 161.

[4] Siegrfried Kracauer, ‘The Mass Ornament’, in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. Thomas Y. Levin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 75.

[5] Ibid. p. 76.

[6] Ibid. pp. 75–76.

[7] Ibid. p. 76.

[8] Ibid. p. 76.

[9] Ibid. p. 76.

[10] Ibid. p. 79.

[11] Ibid. p. 77.

[12] Ibid. p. 80.

[13] Ibid. p. 81.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. p. 84.

[16] Ibid. p. 83.

[17] Ibid. p. 85.

[18] Siegrfried Kracauer, ‘Cult of Distraction’, in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. Thomas Y. Levin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 323.

[19] Ibid. pp. 323, 324.

[20] ibid. p. 326.