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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.

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!

In Casabella 754, Souto de Moura elaborates an interesting analysis of the completion of the Madrid Banco de España isle, by Rafael Moneo.
The analysis is interesting non merely for the theme of restoration/renewal, which, as the same Souto de Moura states, has never gone much farer than what Ruskin and Viollet-Le Duc had been debating about; it is rather the hint – so faintly dared to seem possibly unconscious – to the conceptual size of the workas an inquity about the postmodern question.
What Moneo does, shortly, is someway the overtaking and the synthesis of the sterility of both the extreme positions: neither a fake-antique remake of the artisanal splendour of plasters and molded stone of the late 800’s, nor the violence of a renounce, publicly defended in the name of futures, no matter they being next, or far.
I confess that giving a judgment to this work costed me hours of mental elaboration. Much of the trouble was caused by the comparison that Souto de Moura made between the new facade decoration of the building and Duchamp’s Nude going downstairs: if in those sculpture he (maybe) found the same dignity of the avant-gardist signs of the cubist allusion, I saw (almost) only a step backwards from detailed to rough, probably inspired more by money saving than by declarative intentions, or at least some sort of banal rasterizing, an out-of-scale low resolution rendering of antiquity; in other words something to easily get out of the muddle. Somewhat I still believe it, but I admit that the work is not lacking on the conceptual side; Souto de Moura itself, indeed, can’t bypass Aldo Rossi’s contribute (particularly, Schützenstrasse isle), that, maybe reasonably but mostly for an acquired consuetude, seems to be biuniquely linked with all that Italy produced postmodern in architecture.
But, at this point, the difference: «a completely different position from the one took in Berlin by Rossi, for whom the meaning came from the simulation of historicized architectonic elements, out of scale, reproduced in plastics – but, actually, we were at the top of post-modern…», says Souto de Moura about Moneo, someway unequivocally declaring that the postmodern era has ended and that another one has started, the postcontemporary one, as somebody calls it. Then, how about the theory of the end of theories? The postmodern should have been the last of all the ages, we could say, and last infinitely; it is clear that something happened and destroyed the exactness of this auto-postulation that, even if apparently plausible (and, after all, reassuring in its lapidary will of destabilization), reveals itself as inesorably false, just as in Anselmo d’Aosta’s demonstration. So, Moneo can get through that bit of so 90’s bad taste that – let’s admit it – Rossi and someone of his contemporaries suffered after, and synthesize antiquity and this future-longing present with a certain grace and no more reverential fear.
Did the multimedia panacea rebuild the meta-language that the wall fall had destroyed? Or did it maybe accelerate its ruin, giving man such an immense power that it changed reality and art into ineffability? Can the post-modernity overcoming (considering that era as ended) ever be a step towards, existentialistically speaking?

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