Lights in the fog

December 16, 2010

I heard that someone, knowing in advance the topic I had chosen, has shown some concern like, for my part, this was a choice, they say, curious. Instead, it seems clear to me that no topic today closely concerns, like this one, every writer. Unless you want to confuse writers with literary people: for which, as we know, the only important issue is, and always has been, the literature, but then I must warn you now that in my regular vocabulary, the writer (which means first of all, among others, poet), is the opposite of the literary man. Indeed, one of the possible right definitions of the writer, for me, would even be the following: a man whose heart is in everything that happens, but the literature.
[…]
But at the same time, as a luck’s credit, I am proud to belong to the species of the writers. Since, we can say, I began to speak, I desperately keen to this art, or better, in general, art and hope not to be too presumptuous if I think I have learned through my long experience and my long employment, at least one thing: an obvious, basic definition of art (or poetry, which to me are intended as synonyms).

Here it is: the art is the opposite of disintegration. And why? But simply because the proper reason of art, its justification, the only reason for its presence and survival, or, if you prefer, its function is precisely this: to prevent the disintegration of human consciousness, in his everyday, exhausting and alienating use with the world; to relentlessly give it back, in the unreal, fragmented and used confusion of the external relations, the integrity of the real, or in a word, the reality (but beware of scams, which show, under this brand of reality, artificial and perishable falsifications). The reality is perpetually living, on, present-day. You can not spoil or destroy it, it does not decay. In fact, death is but another movement of life. As a whole, the reality is the integrity itself: in its varied, changing end inexhaustible movement – that can never finished in exploration – the reality is one, always one.
So, if art is a portrait of reality, calling with the name of art some species or product of disintegration (disintegrating or disintegrated), would be at least a contradiction in terms. Of course, that name is not patented by the law, not even sacred and inviolable. Everyone is free of putting the title of art where they like, but I’ll be free too, when it seems to me to call this one at least a madcap. Just like I would be free to call a madcap – let’s say, by way of a hypothetical example – a man who was insisting in offering me, in the name of a chair, a hook hanging from the ceiling.
But then, you will need to ask a question: since art has no other reason than for the integrity, which use could be taken within the disintegration system? None. And if the world, in the enormity of its mass, was running forward disintegration as its highest good, what would remain to be done for an artist (but from now on, if you will, as a particular reference which applies to every artist in general, we will consider the writer) – who, if he really is what he is, tends to integrity (to reality) as the sole liberating, joyful condition of his conscience? He could only choose. He can convince himself to be in error, and wrong, and that absolute figure of reality, the unique and secret integrity of things (art), was only a phantom produced by his own nature – a trick of Eros, we could say, to let the cheat last. In this case, he will feel hopelessly its function ending, which indeed he will see to be worse than useless, disgusting, as the ravings of an addict. And accordingly, he will cease from writing.
Or, the writer is convinced that the error is not on his side. Not himself, but his contemporaries, in their enormous mass, are in the equivocation. That indeed is not, let’s say, Eros, but Thanatos, instead, the magician, who makes his monstrous visions to terrify the consciences and deceptions, distorting them from their own happiness and diverting them from their real explanation. So, reduced to the elemental fear of life, in the escape from themselves, and then from the reality, they, like those who resort to drugs, become addicted to unreality, which is the most squalid degradation, so that throughout their history men have never known the same. Alienated, then, in the sense of final denial; because the path of unreality does not reach the Nirvana of the wise, but just the opposite, Chaos, which is the lowest and most distressing regression.
[…]
The system of disintegration, logically, has got its officials, secretaries, parasites, courtiers, etc.. And all of them, in their (misunderstanding) interest, been they cheated (so to speak) in good faith, by their own error, try to weaken the writer’s resistance by other means. For example, they will try to win or to assimilate him into the system through corruption, tabloid popularity, vulgar success, promoting him to a star or a playboy. Or, conversely, will endeavor to make him see his difference from the system as a betrayal, or a crime, or immorality, or moralism, or a failure. Will be saying, for example, that he is not modern. Of course! Indeed in their concept, to be modern means to be disintegrated, or disintegrating. Will be saying maybe that he does not deal with serious matters, or of reality, and of course! as the main symptom of the disintegration, of which they are slaves or ill, is to assume as fact the very opposite.
As mentioned above, within the system no writers can exist, in the true sense of the term, but there are plenty of people who write and print books, and you can distinguish generically called writing people. Some of them are mere tools of the system instruments, however, of very secondary importance in comparison to others, such as scientists of the bomb. The rooms, the offices of these writers can be considered the minimum branches of nuclear facilities themselves.
[…]
And I was trying to explain what reality is, but unfortunately I doubt I have succeeded, since this is something that is understood only when you feel it, and when you feel it, you do not need much explanation. Once a novice asked an Oriental old wise: «What is Bodhidharma?» (Which means roughly the Absolute, or the like). And the wise man, ready, said: «The bush in the bottom of the garden». «And the one who understands this truth,» the boy asked, doubtfully, «what is he?». «It would be,» replied the old man giving him a blow on the head «a lion with golden fur.»

From Elsa Morante, Pro o contro la bomba atomica, in Pro o contro la bomba atomica e altri scritti, Adelphi, Milano, 1987.
Original italic, bold and translation are mine. May the great writer forgive me.

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In 1986 Manfredo Tafuri released an interview to Richard Ingersoll, published in the spring of the same year by Design Book Review, which is a very interesting document in order to understand the period it refers to. In response to very plain questions about the role of criticism in architecture development, the Italian historian gave a caustic and decisive distinction between the figure of the architecture criticist and the historian, giving only the second valid hermeneutical skills while considering the first as slave to an obsessive mechanism of search for the new after a subsequent, necessary and continue sacrifice of something to be determined “old” from time to time.
Dismissing then Jencks and Portoghesi’s postmodern historicism with a severe judgment, Tafuri laconically accused his contemporaries of a nostalgic use of memory rather than an enlightening one: it is thus in this precise direction that the interview with Ingersoll should be interpreted. However, a passage should probably be read more carefully and deserves further consideration. It says:

The study of history has indirect ways of influencing action. If an architect needs to read to understand where he is, he is without a doubt a bad architect! I frankly don’t see the importance of pushing theory into practice; instead, to me, it is the conflict of things that is important, that is productive. […] This is why I insist on the later work of Le Corbusier, which had no longer any message to impose on humanity. And as I have been trying to make clear in talking about historical context: no one can determine the future.[1]

Apart from the slightly hyperbolic tone that pervades the passage, it seems at least appropriate to ask whether this statement is still agreeable today, nearly twenty-five years after the first publication of the interview. Where did the critical debate about architecture get at the moment?
Let’s try to build up an analytic profile of the question.

The context

It is not a secret that grandmasters are not writing anymore. We can easily say that after Delirious New York, which is now not less than thirty-two years old, no capital treatise or manifesto has seen the light on the international scene. The proof, if not the triumphant celebration, is in the curious theoretical mess by Aaron Betsky Biennale 2008, which much has been said about, but maybe not all.
Starting from probably correct intentions and from an at least interesting approach (though more than eight years old, because traced entirely on what the same director said in his Architecture Must Burn, 2000), Betsky managed to generate an almost complete failure, and especially to make that result evident with the uneven attempt to force each of the studies hosted in the exhibition to produce a manifesto on commission. Clearly, such a fruitful production of intent declarations, which was visibly prompted a character of high experimentalism, could only result in a verbal jumble of mediocre quality, with peaks of considerable pretension in some cases, but in any case with almost no useful outcome.
Among the various observations that is possible to do about the affair, the most direct leads to the conclusion that many large architectural firms have lost the habit of planning on the basis of interpreting visions of the reality of their time. The substantial inability in producing theoretical material of any utility denotes, in fact, a clear lack of definitory activity about the specific features required to contemporary architecture just for its being contemporary. What’s the reason this deficiency?
A necessary digression, and then the necessary apologies for its the didacticism: among historians, there are two methods of study. Basically, one considers history as a succession of specific events that make it progress by leaps, while the other considers the unfolding of events continuous and fluid and tends to see fuzzier causal links between them. If the latter is certainly more complex and often more intelligent and more multifaceted, the schematization of the first sometimes allows the construction of more interesting exegetical scenarios. One of these interpretation methods is due the opposition between avant-garde and mannerism, which is undoubtedly brutal, but that we’ll adopt for a while. We can then ask whether we are in a stage or in the other, but the answer is exceptionally difficult in the early ’10s, which are still hanged over by the very vivid shade of deconstructionism, which in turn is the other side of the complex postmodern coin. Although, in fact, some doubts about the philosophical jumble mounted around the definition of postmodernism itself is legitimate, it is otherwise indubitable that a specter has actually been haunting America and Europe between 1967 and 1988 (the years between the two well known MoMA exhibitions, respectively entitled Five Architects and Architecture Deconstructivist) and that it has brought no cutting-edge issues. In this sense, it is possible to imagine Tafuri’s hassle in observing those breed of architects’ habit to justify the historicist pastiche with the theoretical commitment, and its subsequent advise directed them to give up with their study. In the article mentioned above, there is also an illuminating observation by the historian, who states that architects of his time, heirs of the modern liberation effort, would have preferred that this effort had not yet been made, to have their chance to do it.
Essentially, therefore, an Oedipal relationship with the modernity that had not been solved. But, did the deconstructionism work it out indeed? Some way probably yes, that way which we could not imagine Derrida sitting at the same table with Wright, as instead it happened with Eisenman and Tschumi; the same way, as said, Koolhaas could write his capital text and Madelon Vriesendorp could illustrate it in Flagrant Délit (or Dream of Liberty).
But, as we said, these experiences are at least a quarter century away, an their traces are lost – and in this case too, there is no fear of denials – in the showcase practices leading with increasing frequency to formalism, that not only cannot be called avant-garde, but that may not even be considered manneirist because of the lack of any declarative inspiration, even the most uncertain.
Here is the vicious circle: in a formalist scene, there is little interest in theoretical research; a scene that is lacking in speculative depth does not produce avant-gardes and falls into formalism.

A proposal

In general, but especially in Italy, it is to observe that what has been lost in recent decades is the memory of the architect as a full intellectual. The sector-based fragmentation is driven by the creation of degree programs increasingly (futilely) varied around a question that rather should be bunched to restore the conditions of constant suspicion which the planets of architecture, engineering and urban planning are looking at each other with. The same university tends to discourage critical analysis in the planning stages and to relegate it to the historic area. Error of gargantuan gravity.
And that is why, despite in the period that separates us from Delirious New York one of the most radical innovations in human history (Internet) has come to light, it happens that in magazines and sector channels, this gigantic cultural revolution still has small spaces and rare debates, anyway affected by a crucial misunderstanding. A misunderstanding that is based on the philosophical laziness of the architects, who must be convinced that their task is to distinguish intellectual suggestions from formal suggestion and to base its work on the first, and use, at most, the second as a complement.
Not only that: even by the formal side, a decidedly anti-analogical design is to be achieved, supported by a deep multidisciplinary background for the designer, without which the design is not only wrong (ethically), but also impossible (historically), because too many and too important questions have emerged in recent years.
Possession of a cultural apparatus sufficient to draw broad spectrum interpretations of contemporary age must become (or revert to be) the essential basis for the design, knowing that the production of objects requires preparatory skills which allow the production of concepts.
In conclusion, to avoid the theoretical discussion – particularly in Italy – from deteriorating around low profile texts, obsessively devoted to the attack of a star system that for the rest is no way fought by the designers class, we must hope that universities are pushing the goal of creating designers with great talents in compositional together with wide speculative and summarizing skills. From this, an instance could be to start with the recovery of an author who, no doubt at least for the second of the two aspects, is a perfect example of a synthesis between philosophy and craftsmanship: John Johansen.
We close with a quotation of his:

I believe that no architect can produce buildings which are valid unless he is sensitive to the prevailing conditions and experiences of his time, and all but a few today, regardless of their talent, are out of touch.[2]


[1] From There is no criticism, only history, in Design Book Review, spring 1986. Also in Casabella n. 619/620, January/February 1995.

[2] Da AA.VV., John Johansen – A Life in the Continuum of Modern Architecture, L’Arca Edizioni, Bergamo, 1995.

* The original Italian title, Le parole e le case, comes from a verbal pun on Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, that is Le parole e le cose in the Italian translation.

As the first official post, I think it would be due to present a review of the book that contributed, even partially, to the inspiration for the title of this blog.
L’architettura difficile – Filosofia del costruire is the last book by Nicola Emery, professor of philosophy and aesthetics at Mendrisio Academy of Architecture, Switzerland.
It is an essay whose mission is yet plain in the back cover, that we’re quoting here to criticize its intents and results:

«Today architecture gains a great success: the more it becomes spectacular, the more it gets spectacularized. But this success itself could be indicative of a crisis of sense. And a crisis of sense starts when a discipline loses the essential causes of its own existing, acting, projecting and building. Looking for a really not minor part of contemporary architecture, the one most frequently shown on every kind of magazine, the impression is that architecture ends in a series of shapes, more and more unusual and almost incomprehensible. But all these shapes, just as in fashion, soon get to a certain tire and, overworked, quickly lose their value. In this situation it seems just right to make a philosophical reflection upon the aims and essence of building. A reflection, like the one made in this book, that faces seriously and rigorously the meanings attributed to architecture by Plato as first and then by many other thinkers – Martin Heidegger, Georges Bataille and Jeremy Rifkin among them -, architects, Bruno Taut, and artists, Mondrian, the Situationists and Josef Beuys in particular. The result is a philosophical map, necessary to understand and criticize contemporary and also to find better answers in projecting, with a not-ephemeral sense and value. An older Plato, for those who lost the aim of preserving the wealth for the territory as a whole and just longed for a private interest, suggested control, censure and even “the beatings”… He probably exaggerated, but today we should start a rediscovery of the virtues of creative self-control, with the aim of a space decolonization.
The free aesthetical research should then proceed at the same rate with a care for a socially and economically sustainable resolution of the organization of space as a fundamental common good

There’s no doubt this is an ambitious project, but it’s even more fascinating since quite close to our inquiry field.
Nevertheless, reading this essay left me with a series of uncertainties.
In my modest opinion, the worst fault of the book is to be found in the highly fragmented structure of the argumentation. The book, indeed, is divided in four sections that are apparently and actually mutually disconnected.
In the first one, with the title of The law architecture: Plato, a path of urbanism and architecture is reconstructed inside the books of Laws by the Athenian philosopher; a very interesting path, not lacking about hints of modernity despite its historical location, that the reader expects to end in an organic analysis of some possible conclusions in line with the general plan of the book.
Just read these partial conclusions to the first part, one immediately plunges into the second, looking for new, stimulating shades of the same dissertation, maybe as seen in a different historical context. And then one has to face the Abstraction and Metropolis: Mondrian section, with its lapidary incipit: «Mondrian’s identity is in the itinerary.». Lapidary and quite enigmatic for the disoriented reader who has just left Plato on his back and doesn’t know that he (she)’ll have to do with a dissertation – even by itself thrilling – about the Dutch painter that will be long more than one third of the whole book. If the artist’s personality is absolutely magnetic and the study about his Calvinist obsession for the research of ways to express the “real” leaves no room for bore, there are really a few references to architecture (some hints to De Stijl and to Le Corbusier’s shortsighted opinion about it) and the reasons that led the author to insert this section in this book are definitely obscure.
Then it is the turn of the third part, entitled Space decolonization. Finally, Emery hits the mark, and the essay is actually useful. Wheting the first chapter, that criticizes Popper’s “piecemeal tinkering” when applied to urbanism. The need for overall urban visions clashes with the effectiveness of complex urban evolutions. Are we still allowed to think a townplan as a whole project, or is it a preindustrial anachronism? The rest of the section is full of remarkable points of view too. The questions of sustainable development as seen by Heidegger, Rifkin, Bataille, Beuys, Debord, just as the back cover announced and the hungry reader expected. It’s really a pity that just sixty pages have been dedicated to this issue, which could (should?) have well been the core of the entire work.
In the end, the last short section reprises some platonic positions, but much more shallow, and concludes the essay with a fascinating “gloss” with Bruno Taut adding something visionary, but nothing new to the central meaning.
In conclusion, as I said, the work is interesting even just for the ambitious aspire initially proposed; but as it often happens, it is probably a later collage of professor Emery’s personal studies, and he indubitably owns a rich and complete vision of the matters presented, but maybe this time lacks in the will of making clearer those relations (obvious for him) that link the interesting investigations made in so many distant fields of knowledge.
This slightly sour review be not an offense for the professor, whose effort, as said, truly inspired me in opening this blog and, more, who is obviously invited here to sincerely discuss on what has been written. It would be a greatly appreciated debate: I really hope this happening. No malice!

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