Poor old future

March 19, 2009

Let’s start then with the very first post of my Strategies against architecture, posts that, as written here, want to be devoted to a critical analysis of the deterioration of mass information that generalist media are making in terms of architecture, and a sort of first explanation of some stereotypes that distort the common opinion.

Although the topic is vast alas, we need to start from somewhere and we will commenting on a recent episode of The stories – Italian diary, beautiful cultural program conducted by Corrado Augias, broadcast Monday to Friday from 12:45 pm on Rai3.

Particularly, in the episode of March 6th, the homeowner met Vittorio Gregotti who, not yet satisfied for having been guest in Philippe Daverio’s Passepartout a few weeks earlier, had the opportunity to present his latest Against the end of architecture, indeed, even at Augias’. To understand what we’re going to discuss, I strongly recommend spending about twenty minutes in the vision of the transmission, which Mom Rai makes available here (forgive me for the reference, but unfortunately embedding is not possible from Rai.tv) .

First, I’d say – trying to quell spontaneous motions of irritation that are generated in me when hearing similar comments – starting a popular transmission with an almost indiscriminate attack to the (alleged) sins of an (alleged!) architecture is not exactly reason for pride by qualified people with vast experience in the study of the discipline history. This consideration be read as a something that I think would be appropriate to write before any kind of paternalistic speculation, that is any discussion held in the form of lessons and then directed to an audience of listeners considered mostly ignorant on the scope thereof. The use of such a technique makes it even too easy to play without a contradictory at par (not to say anything to the good Augias, highly educated person but not a scholar of architecture), mostly when the rapporteur is involved in the interest conflict of those who implicitly advertises its job with his mere presence; with the demolition of others’ intentions, the final obstacles to the affirmation of his (still alleged!) intellectual superiority are easily removed.

This is just to speculate on the method, but to get on rather, I consider embarrassing Gregotti’s speech made (by Augias’ mouth) to hit the easy target David Fischer on his famous rotating skyscraper. The arguments are, to say it politely, definitely wit-lacking: the skyscraper is «a nonsense» and «an insulting waste» (why, if it technologically makes sense to the point that it is energetically self-sufficient? why, if it interprets in a such formally simple way the not-new desire of architecture for movement?); the skyscraper is big – and so on with Koolhas’ Bigness, something wrote not less that fifteen years ago with very, very different aims – and big is evil, which is certainly a statement of undoubted freshness; the skyscraper is «bizarre», a word last used maybe in Victorian age, whose opportunity is called into question by the talks of the same Gregotti (concerning the existence of Villa Girasole in Marcellise since 1929) and Augias (which rightly reminds Brunelleschi).

And then, the apotheosis of the critical decay. The roles invert: Gregotti righteously defends the theory of architecture and notices, perhaps appropriately (but we could discuss this very long), the scarce use of the theoretical study as a background for so much contemporary design; at that, Augias takes refuge in the beastly syllogism: Le Corbusier made houses where I would not ever live / Le Corbusier was «one who theorized much»/ theory gives birth to monsters.

Once again, an attempt to the “cultured” debate is reduced to the designer of Palermo’s Zen’s self apology, to the accuses to politics, to the description of the architect as the one that makes beautiful but awkward houses, and essentially to the usual historical, artistic, aesthetic, philosophical, sociological and poetic nothing, that it is the only portrayal that all these Sunday scholars can make about the state of art, summarizing the issues of architecture from Brunelleschi the Milan Expo in fifteen minutes.
No wonder the audience, seeing these aberrations called planning the future, seek peace backwards in a sad eclectic anachronism.

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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