Pure Program and almost no form.
Notes on Typical Plan and Ivan Leonidov.
Published in San Rocco Magazine, no.7, Summer 2013
Despite its naive geniality and sharp analysis, Rem Koolhaas’ Typical Plan did not receive the same widespread reception of other renown pieces contained in S,M,L,XL. Written in 1995, the short text described the repetitive homogeneity of twentieth-century Manhattan office buildings plans, which had progressively rarefied through the evolution of financial capitalism and business: a program so aleatory to not require any form or space in particular.
‘Typical’ was in fact the ‘nth’ plan of high-rise building, the standard floor plan derived from the vertical extrusion of a given urban block: an algorithm for architectural management, a plan stripped of all its qualities and reduced to a calculated relation of discreet elements – an envelope, a technical core and a bearing frame. Its unobstructed laxity and controlled vagueness enabled any program and accepted any contradiction exceeding any form of representation: you could only be inside a typical plan and simply perform yourself. Indispensable ‘trick’ for all the other features of Manhattanism - bigness, schism, lobotomy, auto-monument etc - OMA’s golden years projects would have been impossible without fully acknowledging the fundamental role of such an architectural device. Yet, Koolhaas' obsession for typical plans did not entirely derive from Manhattan but from the laconic projects of Ivan Ilyich Leonidov he discovered at the end of the Sixties, whose hand-drawings forced him to numerous journeys to Moscow and eventually to leave his career as journalist and filmwriter for architecture.
Beside a magnificent flight of staircases in Kislovodsk, Leonidov did not build anything in his life. Nevertheless, the thin white lines on black backgrounds, the vivid colours and the controlled dynamism within the absolute silent rigour of his plans were totally unknown to the exuberant constructivist explorations of his OSA colleagues and against a certain idealist Soviet avant-garde: his hazardous juxtaposition of pure volumes - mindful of Malevich suprematist compositions - were in fact never utopian or simply conjectured but minutely calculated in each detail and almost ready to be constructed. Each Leonidov’s project constituted a ‘step towards socialism’, in which he managed to converge the purest idea of plan with Lenin’s critique of the capitalist state-form, promoting innovative strategies of organisation, collective dwelling, education and production to integrate the entire Russian territory within a new ways of living (byt): “an architecture of pure program and almost no form” - Koolhaas would later claim - “which could indifferently coexist with whatever other type of architecture opposing the intelligence of Leonidov to the intimidations of Tafuri.”
In this sense, after his outstanding graduation project for a Lenin’s Institute (1926), his internationally acclaimed entries for the Centrosoyuz (1928) and the Palace of Culture (1929), Leonidov’s rectangular typical plan for the House of Industry (1929) epitomised the whole Soviet project for the city between the NEP and the first Five-Years plan, juxtaposing cognitive labour, physical exercise, leisure activities and daily-life rituals across the same horizontal plane, eliminating any distinction between production and reproduction, labour and life: an indifference that would rapidly become a generalised global condition and would unavoidably subvert the typical plan into a managerial apparatus of exploitation.