Acceleration and Rationalization.

Published in Volume Magazine, #47 The System (pp. 68-77, 2016). More info here

A city is not a uniform entity but rather the assemblage of self-standing parts dialectical juxtaposed, each resulting from the stratification of diverging uses and activities, political intentions and economic processes, geographical conditions and typological configurations. From here, we reach an ambivalent understanding of logistics: either as the apparatus framing and exploiting the unmeasurable value produced by such a hybrid ensemble of clashing differences, or, to the contrary, as the system for exchanging goods and information indispensable to produce and reproduce the city and its inhabitants.

Whereas the former considers logistics in a reactionary perspective as a pure administrative technology to let everything flow, the latter opens up a progressive hypothesis. As Alberto Toscano claimed, once liberated from the abstract compulsions of value and exchange and configured within forms of collective control, logistics became, and could become again, a crucial instrument for collective production as well as for an equal access and redistribution of resources.[1]

Despite not excluding each other, these two approaches have led to diverging strategies of opposition. Moving from the assumption that the vulnerability of capitalism lies in the system of distribution, the ´logistics as exploitative frame’ approach endorses breakage, sabotage and interruption as possibilities for antagonism. The other deliberately accepts the necessity of logistics and seeks to hijack its network power towards common benefits, either by way of acceleration or by collectivization.

An obvious example of architectural acceleration is Archizoom’s No-Stop City, which indefinitely intensified the technical apparatus of capitalist production by endlessly repeating the typical plan of the factory across the entire planet to make “the brain of the system mad.”[2] The exponential increase of exchange and communications would have turned logistics into a self-destructing machine, internally dismantling the apparatus of exploitation by means of its own spatial principles.

A coeval yet contrary design application of such an accelerationist perspective can be found in Oswald Mathias Ungers’ architectural experiments from 1963 to 1968 at TU Berlin. Indeed, post-war Berlin offered fertile ground for radical explorations: the construction of relatively vast quantities of dwellings was urgently needed; infrastructures had to be repaired and extended; production sites had to be implemented, and new civic facilities had to be built.

Delving into what he defined the constituent urban ‘structures’ of Berlin as a divided-city where the wall had just recently been erected – highways, shopping streets, parks, waterways, metro lines railways –Ungers firmly accepted the logistical nature of the contemporary metropolis. With this Ungers tested an innovative design methodology with his students and personally published their work, which went on to inspire contemporary architecture by way of their black-and-white booklets.

Each studio was dedicated to either one or a series of these ‘logistical structures’ Ungers identified in the then-contemporary Berlin, including: Expressways and Buildings in 1966; Squares and Streets and Houses and Parks in 1967; Traffic Line Spree, Wuppertal Suspended Railway, Housing Buildings and High-Speed Railway and Buildings from 1968; Berlin 1995 and Block Renovation and Parking in 1969. Students investigated the spatial and social effects of infrastructure in and on Berlin’s urban fabric, each time proposing a constellation of site-specific architectural interventions capable of enhancing communication and the possibilities of encounter; channeling and redistributing the city’s common wealth.

Preceded by a Team X meeting hosted by Ungers himself at TU Berlin, the studio series was kicked off by Peter Smithson with a presentation of Without Rhetoric and whose attention to spatial connectivity and the ‘knitting and fitting’ of existing conditions presented numerous affinities with Ungers’ work. The Smithsons remarked the crucial importance of the systems of access for regulating the evolution of any urban structure – from roads and private parkings to the overall traffic network. Accessibility governs the intensity and types of use; it accelerates and arrests growth and congestion; it can stimulate interchange or sever connections by the same measure. This indeed constituted a perfect introduction for a possible integration between logistics and architectural form, which would in fact resonate throughout all of the studios.

Nevertheless, the most crucial passage of Without Rhetoric was the reconsideration of Mies’ architecture and the sober use of typical plans and technology to both ennoble and enable the life of its inhabitants. In this sense, as remarked by Kenneth Frampton, the Smithson’s Economist Building marked a clear shift in their operative methodology, focusing on the specificity of each building “as a unique fragment, but a fragment which contains within itself formal and organizational seeds which could lead freely to a group-form”.[3]

The idea of considering the city as an archipelago of meaningful fragments, each built upon its distinguished internal logic yet resonating within a coherent whole was indeed familiar to Ungers’ research, for which he often adopted Nicolas of Cusa’s notion of the coincidentia oppositorum, namely the possibility to accommodate variety and opposition in unity: “[T]he coincidence of antitheses and not their overcoming, lies at the bottom of the theoretical conception that defines the theme of fragmentation. These contradictions do not shut themselves up in their antithetical nature, but are integrated into an inclusive image. This does not only apply to the contradictions between individual works of architecture, and hence between architectural forms and styles, or to the contradictions present in the urban environment relating to spaces, places and settings, but also to those between designed and natural environment, and therefore between culture and nature.”[4]

The strenuous effort to obtain variation within unity was what for Ungers metaphorically characterized as a truly democratic society. Key to this was an agonistic confrontation among parties.[5] Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli, or Friedrich Schinkel’s Havelanshaft reflexively epitomized Ungers’ idea of the city as a complex dialectical whole. First conceived as the antithesis to Hippodamus’ all-embracing organisation of the grid, Hadrian’s villa is a collection of architectural elements retracing the accomplishments of the Emperor, ranging from the temples and channels of Egypt to the Caryatids of Greece. Objects functioned like places and places like memories, with their own idiosyncratic character, competing but also mutually enriching each other.[6] As a strategic disposition of interrelated architectural interventions, Schinkel’s Havellandschaft in the Glieniecke Schlosspark conversely framed a whole territorial extension by repeating single architectural elements, such as a bridge or a column, in series of self-interpretive morphological transformations.

The lessons learned from Schinkel would provide Ungers the planning criteria he would constantly rework from his Cologne Grünzug Süd project in 1962 to the more famous 12 theses of Berlin Green Archipelago in 1977.[7] Within this, Ungers’ studios at TU Berlin were vital to his design methodology’s development and refinement. The architectural project for Ungers was ultimately an exploration and further re-articulation of formal themes found in the city as raw material itself. Thus, the task of the architect was to unfold the potential of the different fragments of a city, proposing new strategies of arrangement that intensify their collective assemblage without limiting their specific singularities. In this way, the architectural project could be defined a ‘rationalization of the existing’, whose internal logic did not itself derive from any ideology but rather stemmed from the conscious selection of constitutive elements of the existing reality.

Grünzug Süd was a paradigm. The typological repertoire found, surveyed and photographed at the fringes of the city center was progressively rationalized and projectively implemented through morphological transformations. The suburban sequence of row housing constituted for Ungers a recognizable Grossform: a structural element of the urban fabric that, in its total extension, could be considered a distinct theme of the city. The project thus consisted of a formal elaboration of what Ungers deemed an inhabitable ‘wall’. Morphological transformations such as halving, doubling, hollowing, mirroring, folding or stepping, not only preserved a typological continuity with the past but actually enhanced or even exacerbating a future progression of its internal and external configurations.

It was no coincidence that just after Peter Smithson’s seminar and the Schnellstrasse und Gebäude (Expressways and Buildings, 1966) studio, Ungers gave a lecture in Moscow about the idea of architectural form, or what he called grossform:“Why the grossform? The answer: the big form creates the framework, the order and the planned space for the unpredictable, unforeseen, living process, for a parasitic architecture. Without this component, each planning remains rigid and lifeless.” In short terms grossform allowed the architecture of the city to be conceived in figural terms: as an assemblage of more or less relevant forms.[8] The issue at stake was neither their scale nor size but rather their spatial legibility and formal clarity in relation to the city: a figure-ground problem.

A small house like the Villa Malaparte in Capri could easily be grossform just as much as the Lake Shore Drive towers in Chicago. The crucial features of the large form were neither functional nor programmatic but rather the rationality of their logic of internal agglomeration and outer coherency. According to Ungers, grossform was defined by a set of rules such as: the presence of an over-accentuated element, the connection among elements, the distinct presence of themes and figures, and the application of regulatory principles. Grossform turns sheer functionalism into a problem of formal organization and logistics into an architectural project. Stressing either their integration or isolation within a context, grossform can be generated by radical diversity of formal assemblages such as roads and walls or towers and plateaux. Grossform is eminently a social fact: it emerges out of a human congregation and is ultimately the condition that makes cohabitation possible.

It is interesting, in this sense, that the last image of Ungers’ publication Grossformen im Wohnungsbau was Albrecht Dürer’s ‘fortress city’, namely a city in the form of a perfectly logistical war-machine: “the expression fulfilling a technically perfect purpose and of an organizational necessity.” Historically speaking, logistics is a military discipline: the way of disposing troops across the battlefield, of ensuring supplies and communication, of exploiting natural resources and enemies’ weakness or, to use Carl von Clausewitz’s words, to minimize friction and obstructions in the actualization of a strategy. Thus, in Ungers’ terms, similar to armies and outposts, the circulatory lymph of a metropolis had to be regulated by punctual urban forms capable of regulating its flux, storing it in batteries of basins and dikes, or suddenly releasing it through a seamless flow of cars, goods, people and information.

The architecture of logistics could have been translated analogously as a hydraulic system filtering and redistributing the potential produced by the whole city. In Expressways and Buildings (Schnellstrasse und Gebäude, 1966) for example, a series of social condensers – namely a university, a train museum, a police praesidium, a trading-center, an industrial site, a Luna-park, housing blocks, and commercial and warehouse buildings [9]– were dispersed along the highway-ring surrounding Berlin and on the major arteries crossing through the city center. Vehicular and pedestrian traffic was taken as the formal generator of each single intervention. This strategy was replicated throughout, in the internal articulation of circulation and connections, the functional organization of the program, and the structural ordering of the technical facilities.

After preliminary studies on mass-housing, standardization and collective dwelling, the High-Speed Railway and Buildings (Schnellbahn und Gebäude, 1968) studio recapitulated all of Ungers’ previous stances on Berlin’s infrastructure and emphasized the role of public transportation as the future democratic platform for a collective use of the metropolis. The U-bahn and S-bahn network reduced distances and time of movement and was seen as creating a sequence of equally accessible points in different parts of the city, literally short-circuiting their programmatic and geographic separation. Public transport was thus considered a continuous integrated logistical architecture that bridged a series of social condensers of private and public facilities positioned at calculated distances from each other and pedestrianly reachable.

These smaller-scale projects ranged from housing and university campus extensions to leisure and distribution centers. Their specific functional configurations were literally structured based upon logistical principles. The proposal for an Administrative Center in Fehrbelliner Platz, for example, transformed the traditional office building into a complex three-dimensional machine, concentrating all horizontal and vertical circulation into ducts, pipes, cylindrical slopes, paternosters, and elevators, while leaving the working space as large unobstructed rooms for cognitive production. A library for the Freie Universität was superimposed above the U-bahn in Dahlem Dorf and served by a travelator for pedestrians and an inventive dispatching device for the distribution of books. A Central Institute for Pedagogy was located above the S-Bahn station at Olympia-Stadion that replicated its serial order of railway platforms with the horizontal plateaux of endlessly repeatable workspaces, laboratories, and classrooms. In Jungfernheide, a food-market with a container terminal juxtaposed the historical multi-story warehouses with the modern one-floor distribution- center into an integrated wholesale machine. A trade-center with exhibition spaces, exchange and retail was proposed for the reuse of the West Harbors by diagonally intersecting the on-site railway lines with five prefab-concrete slabs, each with external technical cores. Finally, a colossal linear project for a hotel, congress-center, parking and administration offices connected Berlin’s Central Station to the Ministries building and transformed both the theme of a bridge and the complexity of multimodal infrastructural intersection into a singular and massive architectural form.

As further elaboration of the notion of grossform, Ungers progressively moved the task of the studio from simple punctual interventions to the design of entire urban compounds, questioning the very idea of ‘building’ as singular element, demanding instead an architectural project to be truly conceived as a city: a logistic sub-system working within the larger framework of the metropolis; a city within a city.

The studio Houses and Parks (Blocksanierung und Parken, 1967) aimed at the design of self-standing city parts and proposed alternative concepts for housing developments in the districts of Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Schöneberg. The specificity of each proposal was determined by the rational organization of access systems: vehicular and pedestrian traffic and parking lots. Particular attention was dedicated to the configuration of domestic space, taking into consideration the social needs and the general dissolution of the conventional nuclear family. Apartments offered possibilities for cohabitation, collective spaces and enough flexibility to allow inhabitants to freely rearrange them according to their needs.

The proposals offered a wide range of comparable solutions for single sites. This strategy of investigation was what Ungers later defined as ‘Zwicky-box’: sorting out all the main solutions for a given problem.[10] Providing higher densities of inhabitants per square meter, the projects had to be drawn at different scales: from the urban analyses of the districts to minute technical plans for housing and public facilities and comprehensively axonometric views. The complexity of the projects required the identification of a primary structure, characterized by a very simple frame – allowing maximum flexibility and hosting technical supplies and circulation – and an independent secondary structure to treat the local needs of the users.

It was Berlin 1995, A Planning-mode for a five-million city in transition from the 1970s (1969) that marked the culmination of Ungers’ experiments on logistical acceleration. The studio opened with a catastrophic statement: without an efficient supply system, whatever metropolis could easily lose control. Ungers recalled an example from New York when, in February 1969, a blizzard paralyzed the city for days. Disasters, strikes, technical failures, climatic alterations, unexpected social reactions, could have driven technology similarly out of control: what would happen if the AT&T communication network or Con Edison’s energy grid was suddenly overloaded?

After an impressive series of modern experiments – from 1910’s Gürtelpan and Radialplan, to Martin Mächler’s Grossraum Berlin in 1919, Ludwig Hilberseimer’s decentralized visions from 1933, Albert Speer’s Achsenplan from 1938, Max Taut’s Sternstadt and Planungskollektiv’s Bandstadt in 1946, and Fritz Hallers’ Totale Stadt in 1968 – in the 1970s Berlin was halved by contrasting political ideologies and, burdened by the paradoxical condition of a duplicated city, was left with no substantial innovation in planning. In this sense, West Berlin was a perfect study case for Ungers – a walled city that: could not grow beyond its juridical delimitation; depended on foreign subsidies and almost entirely devoid of internal industrial activities; and a frontier between Eastern and Western Europe.

A series of hypothetical scenarios for West Berlin were thus considered. The first was to leave it as it was: a ‘Ghost Town’ that would have slowly collapsed once left without the economical support of western countries. Another solution was, conversely, to exploit its enclave condition by transforming it into a sort of Las Vegas, boosting tourism and consumption. A third possibility consisted in evacuating the city and building a New Berlin in the Western territories. But Ungers proposed a radically different vision, presuming with great foresight that Berlin would slowly become one of the largest developed cities on the continent: a flourishing trading place and an international epicentre that hosted global representative institutions and was surrounded by a vibrant industrial conurbation. Such economical progress would substantially increase the population, projected up to five million in the 1990s, and require the rapid construction of new infrastructure and dwellings with a drastic densification and superimposition of functions within the city center.

The studio was indeed a speculation, an experiment possible only within the safe domain of an academic environment and deliberately devoid of a political connotation. Formulating a planning hypothesis from the existing conditions, pushing a thesis to a level of absurdity and finally implementing it within reality to gain new insights: only through these kind of conjectures – claims Ungers – was it possible to converge architecture theory with design into a meaningful practice of planning.[11] The studio rejected CIAM’s division of the city into distinct functional sectors and radically postulated logistics and collective transportation as a structural system for equal access to facilities and distribution of resources. To ensure maximum flexibility and freedom for its inhabitants, a colossal plateau, gravitating 24 meters above the existing urban fabric and 60 above the sea, was created to mark the ground level for the new city.

Literally flipping Ludwig Hilberseimer’s 1929 Vertical City upside down, Berlin 1995 imagined a massive ‘productive platform’ with ribbons of vehicular and pedestrian circulation superimposed above the existing city. The plateau, consisting of a dense stratification of public programs, working and residential facilities, was based upon a unique Grundeinheiten: a three-dimensional structural square module for the continuous horizontal and vertical transportation and communication ducts. The module measured 720 by 720 meters, with sub-modules and buffer zones of 30 meters, centrally equipped with a technical core for installation and vertical connections. As a colossal typical plan, each module had to: respect a service grid system of 60 centimeters for appliances; provide staircases every 60 meters and escape ways every 35, and leave internal roads 30 meters wide for ad-hoc circulation vehicles. Because of its extreme flexibility and openness, the module allowed not only for expansion in all directions, but also to easily integrate whatever exception might present itself within the existing urban fabric into the articulation of the massive plateau.

The raised continuous mega-structure provided a unifying backbone for the development of different projects, for which two different configurations were adopted: the ribbon-city (Model B Bandstadt) and the extended-city (Model F FIächenstadt). The former, recovering the city’s postwar Berliner Stadtentwicklung’s Kollektivplan from 1946, homogeneously stretched from Spandau to Rüdersdorf and followed the parallel railway lines, leaving some fragments of the city-center as exceptions. The latter exalted natural and historical circumstances by framing parts of the city center through a series of interwoven surfaces extending in all directions. Both the models radically departed from the traditional radial and ring system of the Berlin modern planning tradition and attempted to overcome the East-West division while proposing a wider integration with the surrounding region.

The advantages and differences of each model were tested through the singular articulation of student projects, conceived of as programmatic specifications of the megastructure; delimiting a zone of intervention within the macroscale grid and individuating the parts of the historical city. The particular figure-ground relationship obtained by filtering the historical fabric of the city – with its numerous contradictions, different alignments and morphological exceptions – through the mechanical and linear plateau, was translated into a series of layered plans and sectioned axonometrics explaining in an almost-archaeological fashion the relations between existing and new settlements. The new city was to be the accelerated doppelgänger of the old, flying over its ruins and monumental objects as an overhanging mechanical prosthesis.

Considering Archizoom’s indiscriminate extension of logistics, Ungers and his students adopted a reverse strategy, anatomically dissecting the metropolis in its parts and developing its constituent constructive principles to formulate an architecture on a purely logistic base. Nevertheless, even when pushed to its most extreme consequences – as in Berlin 1995 –the complexity of the megastructure did not lose any of its architectural legibility and coherence, measured and controlled by the fine detailed drawings. To Archizoom’s outward endless repetition of the capitalist system of production, Ungers’s experiments suggested an inward excavation of the rational logic of architectural form. Not dissimilar from what Rossi defined as ‘exalted rationalism’ in Étienne-Louis Boullée, Ungers’ grossform introjected and replicated the dialectical complexity of the city within the singularity of a formal assemblage and its logical principles of construction. In this sense, acceleration in Ungers was predominantly an internal phenomena: a metabolization of the metropolitan fragmentation restituted in exaggerated formal agglomerations, “able to shed light on a system while remaining outside of it.”[12]

Against the traditional rejection of logistics and circulation as the anathema of architecture Ungers proposed instead an architecture of logistics, one that made visible how logistics and architecture conjunctively produced and reproduced the city, allowing for its unforeseeable proliferation and cohabitation of differences. It was not a mere question of function but the coherency of formal organization that makes the city work collectively; the mutual relation and strategical disposition of its specificities and contradictions. Different from Ildefonso Cerda’s depoliticized and purely technical concepts of Urbanización and Vialidad, Ungers understood infrastructure as the system making cooperation and collective confrontation possible and thus indispensable to support every form of human conglomeration and communal production. Thus, the students’ projects transformed logistics into a constructive political weapon, to organize and take control of an annihilated and neutralized city by means of the unbalances and accelerations of architectural assemblages, constantly exceeding, diverting or reinventing the dichotomy between urbs and civitas into new combinations. [13]

If logistics is the art of organization – the way to struggle for surviving and collectively dwelling the world – then a strategy of subversion able to revert its negative effects and to repurpose its instruments could only rise from a critical reconsideration of the rational order and allegedly ‘inhuman’ character of its architecture.


1 Alberto Toscano, ‘Logistics and Opposition’, Mute, 9 August, 2011. At: (accessed 8 February 2016).

2 Archizoom Associati, ‘Città Catena di Montaggio del Sociale’, Casabella, Jul–Aug, 1970; Archizoom Associati, ‘No-Stop City. Residential Car Park. Universal Climatic System’, Domus, no. 496, March, 1971.

3 Kenneth Frampton, ‘The Economist and the Haupstadt’, Architectural Design, February 1965, pp. 61–62; Alison and Peter Smithson, Without Rhetoric. An Architectural Aesthetic, 1959–1972 (London: Latimer New Dimensions Limited 1973), pp. 44.

4 Oswald Mathias Ungers, ‘The theme of Assemblage’. In: Oswald Mathias Ungers, Architecture as Theme (Milan: Rizzoli, Electa 1982), pp. 31–35.

5 Aldo Rossi, ‘Un giovane architetto tedesco: Oswald Mathias Ungers’, Casabella, no. 244, 1960, pp. 22.

6 Oswald Mathias Unger, ‘The Architecture of Collective Memory’, The Urban Garden (Berlin: Studio Press for Architecture 1978).

7 Oswald Mathias Ungers, ‘Planning Criteria’, Lotus, no. 11, 1976; Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘The Rationalization of the Existing’, Log, 16, (New York: Anyone Corporation 2009), pp. 65; Oswald Mathias Ungers, ‘Five Lessons from Schinkel’s work’, Cornell Journal of Architecture, 1981, pp. 118–119.

8 Oswald Mathias Ungers, Grossformen I'm Wohnungsbau (Berlin: Lehrstuhl für Entwerfen und Gebäudelehre, 1966); Francesco Marullo, ‘Logistics Takes Command’, Log, 35, (New York: Anyone Corporation 2015).

9 Oswald Mathias Ungers, Schnellstrasse und Gebäude (Berlin: Lehrstuhl für Entwerfen und Gebäudelehre, 1966).

10 Ibid., Koolhaas and Obrist, 2009.

11 Oswald Mathias Ungers, Berlin 1995 Planungsmodelle für eine Fünfmillionenstadt im Übergang zu den siebziger Jahren (Berlin: Lehrstuhl für Entwerfen und Gebäudelehre, 1969).

12 Aldo Rossi, ‘Introduzione to a Boullée’. In Étienne-Louis Boullée, Saggio sull’Arte (Padua: Marsilio, 1967), pp. 7–24; Aldo Rossi, ‘Critique of Naive Functionalism’ in The Architecture of the City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 1982), pp. 46–48.

13 Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Possibility of Absolute Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2011), pp. 2–13; Ross Exo Adams, ‘To fill the earth: architecture in a spaceless universe’. In: Nadir Lahiji (ed.), Architecture against the post-political. Essays in reclaiming the critical project (London: Routledge 2014), pp. 180–196.