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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.

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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.

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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