Here is something to consider: September 25, 1940. Portbou, Spain. Walter Benjamin, aged 48, is found dead in his hotel room. He had been fleeing the Gestapo, intending to make his way to the United States. He carried with him a manuscript he deemed more important than his own life. To this day, it has never been recovered.
The end of Benjamin the man would ultimately be the beginning of “Benjamin” the international philosopher. Had he made it to the United States one suspects he would have attained the unique fame philosophers can enjoy—alive and relevant rather than dead and relevant. Due to the influence of colleagues, Benjamin’s position in the pantheon of the philosophy of modernity would be secured.
The discipline of architecture, seeking new ideas, would ultimately turn to his oeuvre through Manfredo Tafuri’s influential Teorie e storia dell’architettura, translated in 1968. This marks Benjamin’s official entrée into architectural discourse. The attention subsequently led to an explosion of Benjamin citations in the field.
More after the break.
As demonstrated in this collection of essays, architectural historians and practitioners would find in Benjamin not something merely fashionable (as can be the risk with “theory”), but a gestalt that resonates with their deepest concerns and transcends eras. How can architecture script identity in the midst of historical fabrications? What is the relationship between architecture and technology? What are the political implications of the digital? What is the role of photography in architectural perception? How can architecture help us find our place in the world? A more direct impact on practice is demonstrated in Terry Smith’s essay, “Daniel among the philosophers”, in which Benjamin’s writings offered a way out for Daniel Libeskind while struggling with his paradigm-breaking Jewish Museum.
Benjamin’s continued relevance is due to the fact that numerous positions, such as these, leap forth from his intimate and sometimes mystical recounting of the human implications of space. His ideas continue to matter because they resonate with a grounded, disciplined humanism. In this era of digital design where space can become dehumanized and flattened this is all the more important. Do not seek concrete solutions here. This he has left to the architects.
Benjamin was memorialized in Portbou. The memorial, designed by the artist, Dani Karavan, leads you through a weather-worn cor-ten steel portal, down a deep staircase to the sea. It could be read as a darkly humorous homage to the Paris arcades Benmanin wrote about in his Arcades Project.
You walk down, brushing your fingers along cold, velvety steel. You then come to a glass wall, blocking you from the sea. It is defaced, smeared, and cracked. Etched on its surface is the following quote from Benjamin’s On the Concept of History:
“It is more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.”