Things said and things unsaid, one evening, in Milan

Today it is possible to see the video on domusweb, but I would like to draw a kind of incomplete summary (incomplete for the narrowness of the notes I took and for my impartiality, being one of the participants) of the evening, and then draw some consideration to compare the event with the episode of London and some notes. I think it could be useful to those who were not there and haven’t got an hour to spend seeing the video, as well as in this English version, for those who do not speak Italian. If you don’t mind the guide and want to go directly to the comments, click here.
Let’s start.

[Bizarre place, the Design Library. It starts as (1) a lounge bar, goes on as (2) a library, melts in (3) a study hall and ends as (4) a dark room for conferences, but also works as (2) (3) (4) (3) (1).]

Joseph Grima:
We want to talk about the new “flattened” playing field of the architectural critic at the era of the blog. About how this affects the autonomy of the authors, how the critical turns in the profession through the proliferation of voices, especially in Italy, the home par excellence of the prestigious architectural magazines. Professor de Michelis?

Marco de Michelis: The critic is a figure dramatically relevant and in crisis today, that by now doesn’t know how to respond to the questions of our times, but with hagiography or digressing. By citing Benjamin in The author as producer, we could say that the critic examines the how of the objects to reach their why.
Today the images [as stated in London  citing ArchDaily and the question of “pornography”, Ed.] are everywhere. Consequently, it is no more the duty of the critic to find the news, because the network gives us them.
But the non-specialized press, when dealing with architecture, only public triumphs [he makes the instance of the unconditional adoration for Piano, Ed.]. This is why the world needs critics! It is narrative and autonomy.

J. G.: Rossella, in what the network can then be news in the function of criticism?

Rossella Ferorelli: [not having notes of what I said, I’m going from memory, Ed.] I think it’s right in the overturning of the mechanism mentioned by Professor de Michelis by Benjamin. If the critic can no longer be the seeker of novelty, and while it is true that most of the blogs of architecture are in the hands of the same architects who design, then the use of the network moves the intellectual tasks of architecture from criticism more specifically to theory. That is, from an ex post activitiy, starting after the object being produced, switching to an activity that is ex ante, referring to the project / product. In other words, the work of a blogger is especially valuable if it is the explanation of the processes that led him to conceive the project, answering first the question about why, and only after asking about how. Designing proposing everyone’s theoretical and critical paths to a continuous feedback relationship with those who follow the blog is what will truly innovate the cultural process of architecture in the coming years.

J. G.: A cloud [crowd? Ed.] sourcing way to the project?

R. F: Exactly. It is precisely to facilitate this feedback process that NIBA was born, or to exceed the limit of integrability that afflicts the “locked” blog platforms. The blog is still similar to the paper pages [less than subscribe to RSS feeds, Ed.] in that they are basically to be “searched” on the web. With NIBA we could better find one another, and of course amplify the comparison level.

J. G.: Salvatore, in London we have raised the issue of radical difference in the emoluments of those who write online than those who write for well known magazines. What has changed in this way?

Salvatore D’Agostino: [he rather shows his target for a narration of the real Italian “b-side” condition. Unfortunately, here I have a few notes, Ed.] The spirit of criticism online could be summed up, citing the book of Federico Zanfi Città Latenti [Latent Cities, Ed.], as with that of the presence of “latent critics”.

J. G.: Fabrizio, Abitare has chosen a blog for commercial use. Professor de Michelis said that it is impossible for the critic to make news. How does this problem affect a magazine like yours?

Fabrizio Gallanti: we have actually chosen only a few things from the concept of blogs. Surely we have not embraced the idea of blogs as a public expression of a single voice that  chooses to bypass the thousands of obstacles of traditional publishingto going directly to the public. We instead are interested in exploring the possibility of survival of forms of  criticism regarding a changing audience. We then asked ourselves which audience we wanted to address, and we chose those who are not satisfied with the average architecture writings in newspapers (increasingly losing credibility). We have also retained the ability to comment on every postwith absolutely minimal censorship.
Today, what is lacking are the single-focus blogs, with the author most expert in a subject up to be a “nerd” [I personally do not believe this is true, and the first thing that came to my mind at that moment was to spontaneously think to the hassle of that Emmanuele Pilia,  who’s always been dealing specifically with transarchitecture on his blog!!, Ed.].

J. G.: Luca Molinari, Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi in its latest newsletter talks about the economic unsustainability of the critic role today. What do you think?

Luca Molinari: it is necessary to redefine the politic instruments of criticism. Among the highest values of online critical there is not having deadlines. It is a very important value of responsibility, that makes a blog something different from a magazine, on which there are obligations, but also from the diary, on which we just write occasionally. On the contrary, it is a real public service.

J. G: It can be argued that for the marginalization of the criticism there’s also to blame the critics? We might even venture that it derives from the excess of theorizing of postmodernism and deconstructionism years?

L. M: Maybe, but it is also a matter of cultural space granted. The architecture has become a mass phenomenon, which includes interest. It is fashionable. So why in the major newspapers there is never a critic of reference? In Italy in recent years there has been great professional effort in the offices, to achieve international standards. But the road to the theory is totally lost!

S. D’A. Do not forget, however, that the story of Italian online criticism is not so young. Marco Brizzi was the first “hacker”, creating Arch’it. It is twenty years of history that nobody is considering, and this is mainly the purpose of Wilfing Architettura.

J. G.: Elisa, then what is the specifically of Italy, now that more and more Italians speak English and are open to international cultures?

Elisa Poli: [sensible and interesting intervention, unfortunately I also have a few notes here. I’ll probably look for the registration to add some more, Ed.] What’s changed is basically the absence of the overhead perspective and authorship of the magazine, in which another level of authorship, that of critic, in turn, faded. Even for images it is so, we’ve run out of the time in which the magazines were to dictate the rules of expresson of the projects and the photographs.

J. G.: Let’s close with Luca Diffuse: what you think is the difference between the relevance of a harsh critisism made online and one made on a magazine?

Luca Diffuse: the web is a more “intimate” place. Ironically, if I get a fierce criticism on the web, I feel touched deeper, closer to me [He adds some issues about how boring the ground of architecture is, unless it is open to the contemporary cultural scene as a whole: music, cinema , visual arts, etc.., Ed.]. It would be an act of great ethical significance if the magazines would accepts the request of aperiodicity of the blog, or for example do not always come out in a similar number of pages, because this means that the quality of the articles can not be homogeneous: the journals are not sincere!

M. d. M: Basically, now the critic has to reinvent his own business.

____________________________________________________________

So much for the historical memory of the event.
Now, some observations.

In NIBA, some pretty important questions about the nature of this debate have already emerged. In essence, the experiment was judged interesting and necessary in the Italian context. Just a few years ago this would have been inconceivable. However, the q&a technique of moderating has clearly limited the debate and opened a bit too much to the personal and autobiographical issues here and there, so there have also been some attempts to avoid the theme of the critics (especially by Salvatore D ‘Agostino and Luca Diffuse).  However, I must personally point out that the character of the argument in London was not very different. Or rather, as we said with Elisa Poli later in the evening, the discussion in London was perhaps more than in Milan, the tendency to orient on “aficionados” anecdotes. This is of course a clear sign of the different maturity of the Anglo-Saxon blogosphere, that is almost a new cultural establishment, a literature which has already been widely shared, which makes a solid history in itself. In Italy, the delay of the debate, paradoxically, produces a more interesting situation, because “young” users of an already “mature” tool may perhaps produce more original content, or at least little less obvious questions, with some unfinished aspects on which it is still interesting to speculate.
For example, I’d notice that we have never explicitly talked about university. Certainly the audience was not neutral, but the fact that we have identified the world of criticism with the world of magazines is not something to pass on superficially. A university reform is long overdue, we all know. So in effect I would have expected some proposal.
A fortiori, this is an issue that can be placed inside the NIBA circuit and generally to anyone who feels a web reader of architecture: have the Italian bloggers of architecture got any suggestions to make, about the state university? Why not create a network of networks with the most authoritative voices in the Italian blogosphere from all sectors, to create a big debate about this topic?

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Contemporary architecture told through negations

Today, I’m starting this new series of posts that will be built with the intent to openly denounce the bad habit, alas widespread in Italy, for which the mass information made on some architectural themes of broad interest is generally entrusted to low competent characters, which, moreover, become spokesmen for absolute rearguard positions, almost always unworthy even from a purely historical point of view.

The problem is particularly virulent, however, because of a contemporary profound crisis of the publishing industry that fails, for some years now, to be a counterpart of sufficient authority and communicativeness to overcome the excessive media power that influence the public opinion through television.
Many have spoken, in recent times, about the cloud that seems to cover, for instance, two historic magazines as Casabella and Domus, in the last editions respectively headed by Francesco from Co and Flavio Albanese. If the former, in fact, has long been rarely able to produce issues consisting in something better than a series of projects of more or less known international studies, the second in general tends to stylish positions closer to applied art; but both suffer from the same inability to implement articles of historical depth, of really current view, of great importance: in a word, actually memorable.

And it is precisely this substantial inability to deeply understand the great changes taking place in society and therefore in urbanism and architecture to give into the hands of persons of dubious aptitude the role of educators of people on the same subjects. Thus, while it is true that we have to be filled with indignation, we cannot be surprised to find Sgarbi or Grillo involved with what, knowingly or not, is a systematic strategy of sabotage of the progress of architectural historical evolution. They have no opponents. [Ahi serva Italia (I can spontaneously occur), how much this situation reminds the democratic disease plaguing my country! The populist Right party is fully comparable with the still ongoing proposition of old models that easily get consensus among the unqualified, while as for the publishing, which party does it take? The one of Left, who loses its place in parliament as a consequence of having been too long far from the real? Or perhaps that of an opposition unqualified itself, scared, silent, vaguely conniving?]

Someone could say that television is not meant to be and actually has never been a source of high-level investigation in any area or topic, and that wishing this happening in architecture just when the crisis is deeper because coming from inside, is foolish if not unlawful. True. But it’s also true that no real information is given if the information, although superficial, isn’t fair at least. For this reason, from the little I can, I will propose these new post as an opposing voice. A reason to think that what was just said in teevee could not be true.

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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