«Un imprevisto
è la sola speranza»
(E. M.)

Tuesday, February 8th in Milan there will be the second episode of the Critical Futures debate, which took place last month in London. I’ve been talking about it here. Here are abstracts and participants:

Critical Futures #2

A debate on the future of architecture criticism. Tuesday, February 8, at the Design Library

Over the past decade, epochal transformations have profoundly reshaped the context within which architecture is conceived and debated. The Internet has made images and information free and instantly ubiquitous; magazines, once the undisputed platforms for the criticism of architecture and design, have been challenged to redefine their purpose and economic model in the light of dwindling readerships; blogs have given a global audience, potentially of millions, to anyone with an Internet connection. In all of this, architecture criticism in the traditional sense appears to have all but vanished – not only from the Internet but from magazines themselves. As Peter Kelly, editor of Blueprint, wrote in a recent editorial, “As traditional publishing media and institutions become less influential, one wonders where architects can go to find informed, intelligent criticism of their work”.

How will the practice of architecture in Italy, a country whose architectural history is inextricably linked to that of its great magazines, evolve in response to the proliferation of open, autonomous and free networks of online debate? Are architects today really in search of “informed, intelligent criticism” of their work, or is the architecture critic to be considered instead an anachronism? Is, as Kelly writes, a more realistic and rigorous approach to architectural criticism online urgently needed? In the second of a three-part series of debates on the future of architecture criticism organized by Domus in London, Milan and New York to celebrate the launch of its new website, this discussion will bring together writers, editors, bloggers and theorists active in the field today to address these and other questions.

The event will be followed by complimentary drinks and music organised by domus.

Streaming live at www.domusweb.it

Participants:
Salvatore d’Agostino – author of the blog Wilfing Architettura
Rossella Ferorelli – blogger and founder of Network italiano blog d’architettura [yes, that’s it!]
Fabrizio Gallanti – abitare.it
Marco de Michelis – criticist and historician
Elisa Poli – researcher
Luca Molinari, critic and curator
Luca Diffuse, architect and blogger
Moderated by Joseph Grima – Domus

Tuesday, february 8 2011, 7 p.m.
Design Library
Via Savona,11
Milano
Free entrance

I invite everyone to follow the live streaming. I hope this time they’ll make it possible to intervene via email or chat: it would definitely be the right choice.

Yuppeee!

Yesterday I had the pleasant experience of attending a live conference in London via streaming.
This was the Critical Futures debate, organized by Domus and broadcast on Domusweb, website/blog amazing for its freshness as well as for the quality of its content, even being the online version of the second Italian architecture magazine by definition, which this year happens to have nothing less than its 83th birthday.
Here you can read all the details of the event. These were the speakers:

Shumi Bose – writer [so said on Domusweb, with a masculine translation in the Italian page; but, instead of a “male writer”, there actually seemed to be an asian girl which is doing a thesis on the themes of mutation of architecture press in the era of blogs. I also find on the site of the AA School: Shumi Bose is Teaching Assistant in History & Theory Studies]
Charles Holland – author of Fantastic Journal
Peter Kelly – Director of Blueprint
Kieran Long – architecture critic of The Evening Standard
Geoff Manaugh – author of BLDGBLOG
Beatrice Galilee – author and curator, Domusweb, The Gopher Hole

Moderator: Joseph Grima, Domus.

The conversation was very pleasant and informal, with fine participation by the audience. It will not be possible to provide a detailed account of everything that was said, partly because the difficulties of listening to a streaming conference are many (for example, understanding the words of Geoff Manaugh, who was connected from Los Angeles, has been very difficult because, in addition to a particularly fast talking – so much that it even hit the London public – a series of problems with audio feedback and volume swings compromised its understandability – for me, at least). I will then brutally copy my notes about it, I hope to remember well.

Peter Kelly: he thinks to the debates exchanged in the past between editorial magazines, such as those between Mendini, who wrote on Domus, and Maldonado, who responded from Casabella. Today there is no sense for this to happen, if not online. What will this change?

Kieran Long: [somewhat nicely histrionic, Ed.] one can not speak of true journalistic-critical tradition in architecture [I think in England, Ed.], because there was no intention by the past generation to create one. The average age of the editors of the magazines is very high and it is no one’s interest to lower it.
In the blog there is generally more freedom of expression, which instead is bound in the official press because of problems associated with the ownership of newspapers and general issues of economic interest.

Joseph Grima: however, in the universe of blogs «stroncatura» [which is the Italian for “harsh criticism”. Grima says it in Italian, adding he is unable to find the suitable  English translation, despite speaking it almost as a first language, Ed.] does not exist.

Charles Holland: his work on the blog addresses topics that are only tangentially related to his profession as an architect, so there is not always directly link to the professional world.

Shumi Bose (?): but we can not compare all of the old blogosphere or online journalism and traditional publishing. Reflection on cultural background. The main effect of online activities is the “de-specialization”, or the loss of specialism both in input (writing) and output (reading). Cause and effect of this is that for the most part, those who write online are doinf it for free. Towards them, there is distrust, one wonders who are these people who have never published, if not online.

Joseph Grima: there is an ethics of online architecture writing?

Beatrice Galilee: maybe not, but we can observe that the continuous stream of glossy images on the architecture blogs is pornographic. Many blogs reach massive flows of traffic for this very reason. What is the effect of this phenomenon on the contemporary architectural culture? May this damage it?

Shumi Bose (?): but this is a highly political act. Think of how important social effects can many architecture blogs of Spanish language have, which are particularly centered on the use of images, on the cultural environment of Latin America.

Beatrice Galilee: this can really become an area of competition for magazines. Why should I buy one, if I can find the pictures that I’m looking for online?

Kieran Long: the problem is that there are not enough intellectuals and theoreticians of architecture!

Joseph Grima: in Italy the problem is the opposite! [hints sarcastically, audience laughs, Ed.]

Geoff Manaugh: he wonders how many of his posts that he considers thematically and geographically marginal are shared online by a large number of people.

Comment from the public: there is much more passion in the blogs, you can more easily stand up and take clear positions. For this reason it is likely that in the near future will be  blogs and online content to shift the debate, rather than the magazines, which are almost always on neutral positions, induced as slaves of the search for objectivity and professionalism.

[I cannot remember who]: the social importance typically attributed to architecture in the ’60s and ’70s has been lost with the emergence of the starsystem. It is that spirit that today inspires bloggers.

The directions of history

January 13, 2011

Or: using blogs as a pretext to investigate the vanguard

I invite you to read this post on De Architectura after which a little discussion has generated to which I have participated.
Essentially, the post comments on a Christmas operation for which the windows of the Duomo in Milan have been lit from within. In this way, an unusual effect for the city has been created, since the rule says that the light passes through those glasses from outside to inside, and that only those who are inside can perceive the effect. Here you can see photos of the intervention.
In the named blog, particularly through the comments, various opinions come – it is to say – to the light, but the total judjement is negative for three orders of reasons, which can be summarized thus:
Economic and trade: the intervention is funded / sponsored by the local light enterprise (AEM), so there is a reason of interest;
Lay-consumerism: the curia indulges in marketing strategies, which have little to do with spiritual affairs, «Does artificial light, shining in the night inside the Milanese cathedral, making it seem as a great Christmas light visible only by those staying out in the secular space, allow the spiritual experience of elevation of the mind to God?» (commentary by Paul Gobbini);
Philological: the windows are made to be viewed from within and from below, while the outside is a mirror image; it generates «the forcing of the will to “read” a work of art in different conditions than those for which was conceived and created» (commentary by Enrico Delfini).

Accepting as a plausible reason to dissent only the first of three lines of argument, I intend to refute the other two and propose a different interpretation of the operation.
For brevity, I’m reporting the central part of my commentary to the question:

Personally, in fact, I believe that the reinterpretation (if not invasive, and this certainly is not) of objects of even ancient architecture by contemporaries is not only a right of theirs, but even a duty. If architecture is, in fact, civil – and thus social – art par excellence, it was designed to be used and to evolve along with the same uses that are not fixed in time.
Then, a “delicate” (in terms of reversibility) operation like this, should not be condemned just because philologically incorrect, because philology, on closer inspection, has little to do with art.
And to be honest, I like the intervention. I have a less philological spirituality too, probably, but if I was more convincedly Catholic, I’d say that looking at the lighted windows of the square, it would come to my mind, first, that there is no need to enter a church to be in a church.

Which is the maximum goal of a work of architecture, isn’t it?

Now, we expand the subject a little and try to understand why it may be interesting for us.

So, studying Zevi or Benevolo acquiring their method means, first, giving the history of architecture (and especially that of modern architecture) an oriented reading, which is a kind of teleology, or rather more properly of hermeneutic phenomenology. It means, in other words, to interpret it as an attempt by man to emancipate himself in one direction. For the two giants of history, is to be freed from the yokes of historicism and what comes next is history – one could say with a pun on words.
In my view, this approach can still be used, if we consider that the continuous changes of our understanding of space should reflect changes in the way we design, occupy and manipulate it.
As I had occasion to rule on several occasions even within this blog, is my opinion that the role of theoretical reason for architecture is inseparable from that of the designer and the objective of this Janus-faced figure is precisely to indicate how and why we must plan. So now the direction that history is following is towards the clearance of a number of spatial concepts which are characterized by logic and geometric hierarchies that have been overcome long ago.

Among these, it seems clear that it is also the contradiction in / out. Concavity and convexity concepts are now quite ambiguous due to the emergence of topology and types of “zero volume” planning that transcend the traditional architectural dimension.
Then, an intervention such as the Milan one, which – perhaps unwillingly – allows the reflection on the potential by the out to possess some of the characteristics of the inside, can only generate great interest, prompting even the passer with a critical question: what actually separates the aisles of the Duomo from the churchyard, the square?
Just shallow, instead, are the old criticisms about the consistency with some initial conditions that are generally only roughly suppositories.
And all this apart, of course, an idea of church community that is more frankly indefensible as it perches on geometrical considerations, choosing his allies among the rear guard of each sector. But that is another matter.

Latest activities

October 19, 2010

Here’s a recap of the previous episodes. It was quite an eventful summer.
First, the text Le parole e le cose (words and houses), which can be found in the post below, participated at the third edition of Young Critics Competition, organized by presS/Tfactory_Associazione Italiana di Architettura e Critica [Italian Association of Architecture and Criticism], and on August 27th won the second prize in Venice (some details here) in a side event of the XII Architecture Biennale.

At the award ceremony, under request by the jury, it was also brought a short video that, for the considerable efforts it caused me (voice, text and drawings) and the most patient Massimo Lastrucci (photography) and Daniel Mantellato (videoediting and concept support), I decided to publish here as a witness.
Please forgive in advance the indefensible unpleasentness of my tone of voice, but I did not have anything better then! For the rest, of course it is nothing more than an attempt to lighten a theoretically heavy text – starting with a title made out of a foucaultian pun, which Professor Prestinenza Puglisi liked very much – which otherwise would have been difficult to summarize in a video that is just two minutes long.
Sorry, but I haven’t any English version of it.

Then, we must mention two more episodes of collaboration with Salvatore D’Agostino (Wilfing Architecture).
In the first, I had occasion to put a question to Luca Molinari, curator of the Italian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Here are the question and answer:

Rossella Ferorelli: During a visit to the Polytechnic University of Bari by Boris Podrecca some time ago, I remembered I an interview the architect gave to Repubblica in May 2006 whose epilogue had frozen me: “Compared to young Italians who are in my atelier, Dutch or Swiss peers have more verve, humor and imagination. Among you there are many little professors, with a few projects but a lot of talk and attendance at exhibitions; they live architecture through magazines, and are not familiar with its issues.” This was the Austrian architect’s opinion, who identified the source of the problem “in the fact of having lost two generations after ’68. You have written books, and you know all about Palladio or Giulio Romano, but not how to put a window.”
I would therefore propose a theoretical reflection on the scope of architecture in general, and particularly in Italy. How is it possible, in fact, that the problem of the general depression of the sector is the one developed by Podrecca, if nor in the field of theoretical research (clearly distinguishing it from the historical one) anything memorable has actually been produced in our country for years?
Personally, I therefore propose you to discuss an interpretation of the problem that sees a resoluting glow in a real hang-up between theory (the theory of “hardware” foundations of philosophy, science and policy that are behind the social function of the architect), and design, and I would like to ask you about which function may still an institution like the Venice Biennale have in the push to solve the architectural of Italy. In particular, as a student, I ask you also to overreach in an academic reflection and to think to the actual and possible relations between universities and the Biennale with the aim of a more continuous and constant striving for future research, not only chasing the lustrous showcases of the various festivals that are in a worrisome trend of multiplication.

Luca Molinari: The problem of the theoretical work in contemporary architecture is serious but perhaps we should change our perspective. Perhaps it is no longer a time of great theoretical narratives, decisive volumes moving thematic centers of gravity, perhaps the karst and fragmented system of contemporary bloggers are changing the way we produce and exchange theory in architecture. Together I believe that the architectural culture should make a different effort and seek, in a world that is radically and dramatically changing words, the incentives and resources for redefining disciplinary boundaries and evidence for theoretical reworking. As for the university I have no problem to say that most of the Italian university system is inadequate to address the current situation and especially to bring within it those vital, viral and critic elements that there is much need for, to a fight cultural stiffening and the syndrome of encirclement that the university must leave behind to survive.

To read all the questions addressed to Molinari on Salvatore’s Blog, click here.

The second collaboration was established by a brief introductory of the [BEYOND THE SENSE OF PLACE] investigation I attended in August 2009. You can find the text here.

There’s no doubt the Venice Biennale is the trendiest of architectural events in Italy. And there’s no doubt therefore, that anyone belonging to that world, not to feel out of it, must indubitably write something about, taking position.
But the fact of being all, necessarily, forced to give an opinion about the Biennale, constitutes one of the most catastrophic media effects in the architectural field. As a consequence, what can be seen once a biennium, in Italy, is nothing more than a sort of judgments competition, made of opinions given as quickly and shallowly as possible. Feature of this disturbing phenomenon, is its independence from the importance of the author of the criticism. To name one for all: Philippe Daverio. A most interesting personage, with an intrinsic humor and an irresistible taste for the eclectic an provocateur pun, but sometimes prey of a lower tendency to the slogan form and of a general reluctance in accepting some issues of contemporary, mainly in architecture. This is properly the case of last Sunday’s episode of PassepARTout*, that I suggest to see as a counterpoint (better if later) of what you’re about to read, if you’re likely to do it.

Once made this brief recrimination about the communicative urge by the which everybody seem taken when dealing about the Biennale, I admit I’m going to let it take me too, then I’ll face the subject; but my precise intention is to seek inside it traces of the thread I’m following with this blog.

Let’s start, then.

As everybody knows, this year’s exhibition has been organized by Aaron Betsky, already curator of other expositions and architectural criticist, with the title of Out there: architecture beyond building.
Attracted by the theme of the exposition, last spring I had went to Rome, to the Faculty of Architecture of Valle Giulia, to listen to an introductive speech that Betsky himself was making about the Biennale (and, as a matter of fact, also about the student world challenge associated to it as always, in the vain hope to participate it). I can’t state that the lecture (that’s  what it was) was free from a certain rhetoric of advertising and slogans; nevertheless, the impression upon me was globally convincing. A sensed series of considerations had been made about the blurriness  of contemporary city, the regulatory function of the sign beyond the volume, to the asymptotic tension of the architectonic artifact to the natural object, to architecture considered as «a gathering together of what already exists», to the didactic function of art for what concerns new approaches to space, to photography as the real discoverer of architecture and to architecture as an «uncovering, figuring out, revealing» factor of the world, and so on. Shortly, a (well dimensioned) poetical sum of the main question of the contemporary scene.

But how much of these good intentions Betsky has been able to bring to the exposition is what I’m about to discuss, and I guess a good way to do it is to examine the manifestos presented to the Arsenale by a series of international studies of architecture.

In general, this method of communication can be interpreted in many ways. It could be said that its function is to please the nostalgic of the avant-gardes of the first and second part of the XX century but that it is an anachronistic choice for the lack of any real contemporary Movement with a precise direction; but it could also be said that it is for this same reason that the choice is interesting and provocative and that the presentation of a long series of “personal manifestos” of the single groups instead of a collective one is to witness this exact meaning. Anyway, a starting manifesto, more than a collective one, is Betsky’s.
A manifesto that deludes me in many parts, if compared to what I had heard from the mouth of the same author some months before.
Acceptable although trivial is a hint to the fact that, since «the buildings are not, mostly, designed by architects», everything goes wrong in our cities. «Yet the architecture is beautiful». Indispensible information. «Building is building. It is a verb.»
And here I’ll allow myself into a period of absolute linguistic formalism (forgive me, these are fetishes I can’t do without). Exploiting an apparently purely glottological clarification accomplished by Betsky, I lead my short crusade against the deviated use commonly made of the word. In the name of God, please stop using it as a synonym for “work of architecture”! Just like the Divine Comedy is not a poetry by Dante Alighieri and Moby Dick is not a literature of Herman Melville, the Pompidou Center is not an architecture by Rogers and Piano, but one of their works, generally a building, properly a museum, physically a project, actually the realization, and so on.
But do not judge my statement too harsh, because I’m sure that if Betsky himself had spoken the same way, he would have received far less criticism; instead, the use of a distinction between architecture and construction declared in terms that would have been making even Leon Battista Alberti yawn, mixed to a few truly contemporary opinions, inexorably preludes to a disastrous conclusion: «Buildings or architecture. The buildings can be avoided.»

And hence the widespread discontent, which can be summed up in a blind lapidating of the curator for what is not there inside the Arsenale.  Blind and shallow, because it doesn’t consider a basic fact, namely that the architecture is nothing but what is not there (or we would be dealing about sculpture, confusion in which Gehry clumsily falls in his manifesto) and as a consequence it can, must go beyond building when meant in a classical dimension, because this constitutes only a small subset if it (although, obviously, not all the act building belongs to the categories of architecture). I wonder what kind of exposure to the Arsenale would had met the various censors taste: perhaps a succession of models, as in the 2004 show? Nor, for even the practice of exposing what is not strictly made is deprived of its legitimacy. Then, maybe, a more convincing sequence of photographs, perhaps including views of the yard. It is quite weird, if one looks, that the same voices (alas greatly able to influence the public opinion, particularly those of the sector outsiders) exhaustingly accuse architecture of being perennial disrespectful (of what, it seems irrelevant ) with this taken as an incontrovertible law of the universe, and as much as a constitutionally unchallenged dominion of what is made

But going back to the manifestos. Let’s have a quick look to the others to build a first idea. We could say that they can be roughly divided into four categories: the past, the spicy, the fool, the trivial.

Among the authors of the past, some will redeem themselves in their corresponding installation, as Barkow Leibinger Architects, which links a manifesto for a concrete architecture to the realization of an interesting material garden, made of metal pipes, but shapely variable following the viewer’s will and not lacking of aesthetic quality; some instead, like Gehry, is stuck on descriptions of the profession that could easily belong to the past century and are unable to obtain even better results with their installation which seems awkward, redundant and old and is easily overcome in terms of poetry from the carpenters banquet hidden just behind.

Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher belong to the same species, with a manifesto that, not realizing its anachronism, proposes a new “ism” entirely lacking of content, which nobody (never the authors themselves) will remember tomorrow, with a dejà-vu sculpture in a perfect zahahadid-style, completely empty of any meaning.

Among the some way spicy manifestos I feel like including Francesco Delogu’s, culminating with a captivating promise: «One day we will be able to build structures supported by the space they contain. This way, architecture will communicate with the environment, and will not distinguish from it. At the same time it will be closer to humans, being their highest expression». Worthy of note is undoubtedly Droog & Kesselskramer’s writing, associated with one of the most successful performances of the exhibition: “Single Town”. The stand, also attractive for the general public, does not surrender to banality: the manifesto argues the very important concept that the more a city is populated by singles, the more multiple and complex interconnections it requires and the more the architect must «go beyond the building». Really an effective and appropriate interpretation of the theme of this year Biennale.

In the category of spicy, Guallart Architects can also be named, with their precise description of the contemporary situation and their proposal “Hyperabitat. Reprogramming the world”, which sums in the domestic scale the need for a closer information network linking everything in order to schedule, as far as to the limits of programming, changes and improvement;

Coop Himmelb(l)au, which exhume a forty years old work, but a work then so revolutionary that it is only understandable today, Philippe Rahm, with its “Meteorological Architecture”, which is concerned in creating, rather than spaces, temperatures and atmospheres, in an interesting link between the infinitely large, the infinitely small, the infinitely complex and the infinitely impalpable (the installation, however, is disappointingly late-rationalist), and finally M-A-D, which includes, in addition to Chris Salter, even that Erik Aadigard who had written Architecture Must Burn with Betsky in 2000, book that contains many of the theories that are behind the choice of content of the Biennale (Biennale that, it should be noted, therefore suffers the presence of ideas born already 8 years old at least).

Then the award of fool, that is devoid of any meaning, is won by the documents by Massimiliano Fuksas (a plenty of syntactically disconnected nouns perhaps in an attempt to imitate somewhat a grammar after Joyce), Nigel Coates (deliria about the need to introduce eroticism in architectural design), Totan Kuzembaev (a total of six sentences, the most senseful of those sais: «Winter thoughts are far more valuable than summer ones»), An Te Liu (a total of eight verses the most useful of those sais: «I find architecture boring when it is too practical / and not practical when it is too visionary»), but somehow are saved by the installation, and David Rockwell with Jones Kroloff (structured in gaps to be filled by anyone considering this fun for some reason).

As for the trivial, this statement is, in a higher or lesser extent, to all the other maifestos who presented to the Arsenale, that, being them incomplete, self referenced, inconclusive or simply passed, are of little or no interest as for the man in the street as for the theorist. While some installations may be considered some way worthy of attention (such as “Furnivehicles” by Atelier Bow Wow), the other are essentially superfluous, if not harmful (embarrassing the “Hypnerotosfera” by Nigel Coates).

* PassepARTout is a very successful Italian tv transmission, now at its 8° edition, written and conduced by Philippe Daverio, a very capable Italo-French art criticist, also director of  Art e Dossier, an art magazine. PassepARTout is probably the best art tv show we have in Italy. On air every Sunday at 01.30 pm.

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