Mannerism and the Work of EM2N

Text by Pier Vittorio Aureli
in EM2N Both and, 2009


A remarkable aspect of the work of EM2N is the way in which this architectural practice positions itself towards the city. Eschewing the ‘aloofness’

and pastoral iconicity of the most celebrated Swiss architecture, EM2N’s buildings seem to affirm themselves as radically ‘urban’. This urban character is achieved by

obstinately working on the wider variety of buildings themes and programs possible such as schools, community centres, houses or apartments. Yet the urban character

of EM2N’s architecture also emerges from a radical and deliberate process of reification through which they absorb and re-elaborate ideas and concepts that have

characterised the production of architecture of the last fifteen years. Instead of passively absorbing this complex as a trendy fetish, they have learned to

consciously use it with sceptical and lucid precision for what it is: a possible repertoire of solutions for the problems of the contemporary city.

This attitude that accepts and elaborates upon the complexity of contemporary city with sceptical optimism and inclusive control can be described as a Mannerist

attitude. In the past, contemporary architects such as Robert Venturi recuperated Mannerism as a paradigm for contemporary practice. According to Venturi, Mannerism is a

sensibility that accepts complexities and contradictions not as conditions to be solved, but as reality to be instrumentalised without drama. A complex and contradictory

architecture does not necessarily have to be the expression of a tormented state of things. On the contrary, according to Venturi the coupling with

a complex world has to be performed with lucid and punctual pragmatism. Complexity and contradiction are thus understood not as an extraordinary condition, but

as a familiar and ordinary status quo. In this sense, Mannerism is the art of maintaining a precarious equilibrium between the pessimism of intelligence

and the optimism of will, between the acknowledgment of the impossibility of an universal architectural canon and the will to confront such impossibility with

a positive attitude. In the notes that follow I propose a reconsideration of the idea of Mannerism in light of the work of EM2N.

Unlike Venturi, I would like to propose the idea of Mannerism not as style, but more as what Erwin Panofsky would call a ‘mental

habit’ (Denkgewohnheit) through which it is possible not only to describe the work of EM2N, but also a possible attitude toward a contemporary production

of architecture.


In art history, ‘Mannerism’ addresses a period that developed from 1520 to the end of the 16th century. The term itself was coined in

the 17th century with a negative connotation. For a long time, it was used in order to indicate an artistic attitude marked by excessive

affectation and tormented formalism. This understanding and use of the term Mannerism was countered by a group of art historians such as Max Dvorak,

Walter Friedlaender and Arnold Hauser. For these historians, who recuperated the Mannerist art of the 16th century at the time of the artistic avant-gardes

at the beginning of the 20th century such as Expressionism, Surrealism and Dada, Mannerism was not only one of the highest peaks of western

art, but also the most ‘contemporary’ attitude in times of crisis, much more than the humanist Renaissance and the flamboyant Baroque. In this sense,

for these historians, far from being a sign of impasse within the history of art, Mannerism was an aesthetic value that helped to make

sense of the most dominant mental habit of their time, namely that of a permanent crisis where exception was becoming the norm. (1)


Erwin Panofsky, in his famous book Idea. A Concept in Art Theory, outlines how the artistic idea that underlies Mannerism makes the exaggerated desire

for expressive permissiveness coincide with the ideal canons of classicist Renaissance. (2) This attempt to reconcile radically opposed attitudes results in an inexorable and

interminable systematisation of the artistic creation. (3) The classicist ideal of the Renaissance, from Alberti to Raffaello, had imposed itself as the ‘representation of

a beauty greater than nature’ (in the sense of the concept later fixed as ‘Ideal’), where the perfect correspondence was celebrated between ‘object’ and

‘subject’. The ‘manner’ however, imposes itself more as the ‘representation of an image independent from nature’, as ‘concept’ and ‘thought’, as ‘query about the

possibility’ of representation as such. The aesthetic dizziness resulting from the expressive freedom of Mannerism causes not only the definitive crisis of the relation

between subject and object, but makes manifest the threat of an inevitable subjectivity by resorting, on the part of the theoreticians of Mannerism, to

an endless number of sophisticated rules and precepts.


What emerges out of the theoretical ‘density’ of such rules and precepts is not energy toward a new beginning, a new synthesis, but rather

a retreat into a retrospective view in which the constant displacement of the historic references constitutes the core of innovation and change. The post-classical

innovation of the work of Mannerist painters such as Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo does not consist in the formulation of an original method, but

rather in an estranged resumption of a dense network of contrasting references, from the vivid colours of Masaccio and Fra Angelico to the precise

strokes of Albrecht Dürer, to the elegant sketches of Andrea del Sarto and the compositional syntax of Michelangelo.

Fig. 1: Rosso Fiorentino, Deposizione dalla Croce, 1521


The result of this position is a formal and conceptual world in which invention is constantly and implacably measured by the awareness of what

the invention itself is supposed to absorb, displace, transgress and consume, that is to say of its own historic legacy. This theme is at

the core of the book that for the first time addressed the problem of stylistic pluralism and historical legacy, and that for this reason

can be seen as the very first theory of Mannerism: Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. (4) In this book Vasari very often uses

the term ‘manner’ in the way we today would use the term ‘style’. Yet Vasari’s uses of the term ‘manner’ are ambivalent. With manner,

he indicates the individual style of an artist, but, at the same time, the context in which each style takes form and develops. For

this reason the term ‘manner’ can be understood as the awareness of the fundamental tension between individual expression and the consciousness that this individual

expression – in order to be appreciated – has to be reified within the plurality of styles and artistic languages. In this sense we

can affirm that a Mannerist attitude always poses the problem of individual expression from the point of view of its (possible) contextual reception.


In the 1960s, with the post-war crisis of Modernism, artists and architects
re-discovered Mannerism. The most prominent case of Neo- Mannerism was the one projected

by the theories and architectures of Robert Venturi. As Venturi himself has recalled, he discovered Mannerism towards the end of his stay in Rome

in the mid-1950s as a fellow at the American Academy. (5) During his wanderings in the Eternal City, Venturi was neither attracted by the

vestiges of ancient Roman architecture (as it was his master, Louis Kahn), nor by the spectacular Baroque architecture that constitute the main image of

the city of Rome. Instead he became attracted by a series of relatively ‘minor’ moments of Roman architecture, such as those of Mannerist architecture

like Pirro Ligorio’s Casino di Pio IV, Michelangelo’s Porta Pia, and within this tradition, a contemporary version of Mannerist architecture, the Casa del Girasole

by Luigi Moretti. To Venturi, these architectures seemed to exemplify not only what Mannerist architecture was, but also which aspect of Mannerist architecture resonated

with his time.

Fig. 2: Pirro Ligorio, Casino di Pio IV, Rome, 1562


Fig. 3: Michelangelo, Porta Pia, Rome, 1562


Fig. 4: Luigi Moretti, Casa del Girasole, Rome, 1947


Let’s consider Ligorio’s Casino di Pio IV. In terms of tectonic form it is a simple, almost banal architecture, very far from the sophisticated

architectural classicism of Bramante, Raphael and Peruzzi. The facade is made out of a schematic composition of frames and a sober Doric portico. Within

the composition of frames and in contrast with their linear form, Ligorio inserted an excessively rich decoration in stucco. The result is an unresolved

tension between the extreme simplicity and austerity of the frames’ composition and the horror vacui of the decoration. In this way the Casino di

Pio IV appears as both an architecture that is rational and at the same time elegantly permissive in its role as communicative object. For

this reason, it is possible to claim that Venturi’s plea for complexity and contradiction was not so much in contrast with the idea of

a functional architecture. What Venturi was questioning, and his admiration for Ligorio could be an example of this, was more the pretended cause-and-effect relationship

between the functioning of the building – its structure and programme – and its formal appearance, its form. In this way Ligorio’s architecture can

be seen as an anticipation for what Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown would later call the ‘decorated shed’: a functional architecture juxtaposed to its

image as a communicative sign. (6) It is important to understand the theory of the decorated shed not as literally as it was drawn

in the famous sketch where a modest building becomes a landmark thanks to its out-of-scale billboard spelling the words ‘I’m a Monument’. (7)

‘Decorated shed’ was the project for a strategic divorce between form and function in order not only to reinforce the performance of both, but

also to provoke the ‘meaning’ of architecture once it was released from its duty to literally ‘represent’ its functioning in spatial terms. In this

way, rather than having function dictating the rules for form (or the other way around), spatial form in its prosaic simplicity would ‘accommodate’ function.

Decorated shed can be understood as the paradoxical marriage between the strictures of American pragmatism and the liberal atmosphere of commercial roadside popular culture.

In this sense, the architecture of the decorated shed is a contemporary version of Mannerism whose exceptions as Venturi wrote ‘prove the rule –

not abolish the rules’. (8) For Venturi, Mannerism was not at all the subversion of rules, but the multiplication of rules according to the

diversity of architectural examples offered by history and by the existing reality ‘as found’. As such Mannerism was the search not for subversion, but

rather a search for an order of things that would perform, by means of its continuous crises, its adaptability and self-reformulation. It was for

this reason that Venturi, as his early projects such as the Guild House, the Mother’s House and the Lieb House demonstrate, was interested in

extremely common, unspectacular elements such as windows, commercial signs and even the boxy architecture of American suburbs, but re-interpreted and recomposed through unfamiliar juxtapositions

that would not alter the normality of these found elements. This approach was summarised towards the end of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, with

Venturi’s nonstraightforward appraisal of the American Main Street: ‘Main Street is almost all right.’ (9) In this statement the crucial word is ‘almost’, so

pregnant of constructive scepticism and self-irony towards the Modernist pretension to define perfect models. What instead is celebrated of Main Street, even more than

its pop image, is its capacity to be the materialisation of an imperfect order that maintains its logic, but is, at the same time,

inclusive and thus irreducible to a part-whole relationship. Indeed the landscape of the Main Street is the allegory of Venturi’s approach to historical examples

as show in the inclusive list architectures included in his book. Not unitary narrations, but an eclectic atlas of observations linked by the continuity

of what is the core of the Mannerist ideology of Venturi, namely the ‘difficult whole’, the will to unity of meaning by the acknowledgment

of diversity. Mannerism is thus re-invented not as a recognisable style, but as an attitude that combines together pragmatic disenchantment and optimistic action towards

the possibility of a meaningful and yet diverse urban form.

Fig. 5: Robert Venturi, Lieb House, New Jersey, 1967–1969


Fig. 6: Main Street, Las Vegas, 1966


As I wrote at the beginning of this essay, what is remarkable about the work of EM2N is their radical, and thus exemplary, acceptance

of the conditions imposed by the city. These conditions materialise in the projects briefs, client’s demands and bureaucratic procedures that more and more form

the core of architectural production and towards which EM2N does not oppose an ideological position. Yet it is wrong to assume that their ‘availability’

is value-free. EM2N’s stubborn commitment to the complexities and contradictions of the city is balanced by their will to define a logic response to

the conditions of city production. This logical response avoids the ideological polarity between complexity and simplicity that often seems to characterise the debates

about contemporary architecture and looks for a non-straightforward order of things. One of these non-straightforward order of things coincide with what Andrea Branzi has

defined as the Third Industrial Revolution City, a city whose form is no longer produced through discernible long-term and large-scale models, but through the

continuous reflexive process of reform, correction and adaptation of its existing productive structures. (10) This understanding of the city is very far from images

of urban chaos and picturesque disorder that have been popular in the last years. According to Branzi the self-reformed city (note: not self-organised) is

a city whose order is founded on a permanent state of exception in which the idea of crisis has lost its aura of drama,

and it results, instead, in a condition of structural fluctuating stasis that penetrates all aspects of everyday life. For philosopher Paolo Virno, this permanent

state of exception of today’s everyday urban life is not the side effect of some pre-existing order, but the true order through which the

economic structures of the contemporary metropolis reproduce themselves. (11) Contemporary production is no longer based on values such as efficiency, exactitude and consolidated space

and time patterns (such as the old division of working time and leisure time), but on permanent instability that triggers human subjectivity by requiring

constant adaption to change. According to Virno such a metropolitan condition puts forward collective emotive forms such as cynicism, nihilism, distraction and opportunism not

as negative attributes but as a logical common response to the precariousness of human relationships in such a context of permanent ubiquitous crisis. Within

this context the Mannerist attitude as it is evident in the work of EM2N consists in confronting the permanent state of crisis without recourse

to irony or drama, but by cold and precise analysis in which, as Venturi would say, instability is not expressed but accommodated. It is

for this reason that their production oscillates between an architecture that does not moralistically renounce a certain iconicity and formal exuberance and an architecture

that articulates itself pragmatically into the urban condition by emphasizing its usevalue as ‘social’ object.


A fundamental example of this approach is the Hardau School in Zurich. The project consists of an extension to the Modernist Vocational School building

designed in 1963/64 by Otto Glaus, a disciple of Le Corbusier, and an extension to the Primary School also designed by Glaus’ office. This

complex is situated within an urban context characterised by discontinuity and fragmentation. Instead of designing a recomposition of such context within a unitary form,

EM2N has proposed to turn the discontinuity into the quality of the place. Yet this discontinuity is not accommodated by an ad-hoc collage of

architectural elements, but by a subtle urban layout that endows heterogeneity with distributional clarity. While the spatial experience of the schools is complex, the

architecture that frames this experience is simple, almost anonymous. The addition to the Vocational School is a long bar of classrooms linked by a

corridor larger than usual. It is precisely the subtle out-of-proportion section of the corridor compared to the classrooms that suddenly makes the space unfamiliar

without altering its conventionality. What is questioned with this simple gesture is the relationship between education and knowledge in a context where knowledge is

no longer confined within the institution of the classroom, but requires a more flexible and unstable physical and social spatiality. The spatial result is

a sense of ambiguity of space that is nevertheless framed by a conventional form. This formal conventionality is further challenged by an incongruous element

– a free-standing column – positioned in the ground floor, as a sculptural alter-ego of the concrete ‘modulor’ with which Glaus decorated the entrance

of the school. If the modulor-inspired sculptural motive chosen by Glaus celebrated the geometry of the building right at its entrance, the polyedric column

designed by EM2N literally replicates a silo tower for a furnace that was supposed to be fed with wood leftovers from the work done

in the workshops in the school. EM2N transforms this functional, anonymous and erratic element into a sculptural decoration that confuses us about whether it

is a structural column or a purely decorative element. By being so incongruous and irrational within the form of the building this sculptural element

not only does not at all affect the architecture of the building, but, like in Ligorio’s Casino di Pio IV, forces us to reconsider

in a new way the austere form of the school itself.

Fig. 7: Glaus & Lienhard, Vocational School Hardau, Zurich, 1963/64, silo tower


Fig. 8: EM2N, Extension Vocational School Hardau, Zurich, sculptural element


Another example in which conventionality of form is estranged without being altered is the Public Record Office Basel-Landschaft in Liestal, a public archive situated

in an anonymous suburban location beside a railway. This condition is a typical case of the way important public institutions are no longer situated

within the most consolidated parts of the historical city. Confronted with such a condition of institutional ‘Unheimlich’, EM2N has not proposed a compensatory form

that attempts to restore the aura of public space. Public space is instead redefined by a subtle estrangement of ist primary form. Instead of

being at basement level only, as is common practice, the archive occupies the ground and first floor. In this way the blind volume of

the archive functions as a plinth on top of which – on the second floor – EM2N has situated the visitors’ area. The strange

spatial effect of this space that one would expect right at the entrance is amplified by its ‘anditum’, which is EM2N’s Mannerist masterpiece: a

triple-height room made by austere concrete walls that frames a scroll-like stair which connects the street level to the elevated ‘ground floor’. This room,

like the sculptural column in the Hardau Vocational School, is the incongruous element that suddenly reveals the difficulty of the site for such institution

and releases the rest of the building from performing some iconic gesture in order to overcome such difficulty.

Fig. 9: EM2N, Public Record Office Basel-Landschaft, Liestal


Fig. 10: EM2N, Public Record Office
, Liestal, stairs in visitors’ area


Another ‘Mannerist’ work is the extension of the Gross House. In this project EM2N were confronted with the conversion of a onestorey single-family house

located in a suburban town near Zurich, into a patio house. By relying on the bureaucratic blindness of local building regulations that do not

consider the basement as utilisation of space, EM2N were able to propose a solution that would not bother the quiet suburban community of residents

living around the house. The project consists of two underground patios that transform the basement into the new ‘ground floor’ of the house. This

simple gesture radically alters the way in which visitors to the house perceive the ground. Yet the alteration is amplified not so much by

the architecture added, but by the absolute anonymity of the existing volume of the house left untouched by the conversion while floating on top

of the patios openings. Again, EM2N plays with the incongruity of parts. To the normality and anonymity of the existing house corresponds a complex

space underground. This space juxtaposes rooms opened by modernist large windows, an existing anti-atomic shelter, and a blind room for DVD projections. Unlike many

contemporary villas where the luxury of space becomes the main representational theme visible from the landscape, the Gross House reveals its spatial quality only

as an internal displacement of the anonymity of the suburban house. Displacement attacks anonymity but does not eliminate it. In this way it reveals

a fundamental theme of Mannerist architecture: the unresolved tension between a necessary anonymity and ist continuous displacement. The architecture of EM2N is a continuous

sequence of spatial events such as those briefly evoked that, beyond being solutions (and they really are!), do create subtle displacements by constantly frustrating

and at the same time triggering expectations. In today’s Mannerist mood the work of EM2N is not willing to restore the aura of a

humanistic space because such restoration would be even more harmful than the permanent state of crisis in which we live. At the same time

they are also willing not to take this instability for granted, instead confronting it with pragmatic precision, which give to their architecture a touch

of coldness and control in spite of its calibrated concessions to appeal and iconicity.

Fig. 11: EM2N, Gross House, Greifensee




(1) See the fundamental essay by Walter Friedlaender, Die Entstehung des antiklassischen Stils in der italienischen Malerei um 1520, in: Repertorium für Kunstgeschichte, vol.

46, Berlin 1925.


(2) Erwin Panofsky, Idea. A Concept in Art Theory, trans. by Joseph J. Peake, Columbia 1968.


(3) Ibid. p. 54.


(4) Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, trans. by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, London 1998.


(5) Robert Venturi in a conversation with Stuart Wrede, in: John Elderfield (ed.), American Art of the 1960s, Studies in Modern Art, vol. 1, New York 1991, pp. 53–70.


(6) Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown, Steve Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, Cambridge Massachusetts 1972, pp. 91–92.


(7) Ibid. p. 156.


(8) Robert Venturi, Viva Mannerism for an architecture for our age, in: Log 13 (2008), p. 53.


(9) Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, New York 1966.


(10) Andrea Branzi, Weak and Diffuse Modernity. The World and Projects at the Beginning of the 21st Century, Milan 2006.


(11) Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude. For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, New York 2004.


Copyrights for pictures and text are covered by the Publisher. All image credits can be looked up in EM2N Both and on page 235.