Architecture's needy condition

In Lucretius’ De rerum natura, book II, there is an image of extraordinary strength; a spectator on the shore, therefore safe, watching a drowning man struggling with tumultuous waves. Lucretius says “How sweet it is, when whirlwinds roil great ocean, To watch, from land, the danger of another, Not that to see some other person suffer brings great enjoyment, but the sweetness lies In watching evils you yourself are free from.” Two thousand years hence Hans Blumenberg, in Shipwreck with Spectator, completely reverses the perspective, referencing Goethe’s Urfaust: “I am now embarked on the world’s waves, absolutely determined: to discover, conquer, fight, sink, or blow up with the whole load.” According to Blumenberg, modern civilization is an eternal shipwreck, hanging onto a wreck floating between abyss and glory. But in his case, the most favourable condition lies not with the safe spectator, but rather with the shipwrecked, who may imagine and hope to found a new world through risk and uncertainty, whereas the man ashore is condemned to inhabit the world he is in. I have recently come across the shipwreck metaphor while reading a heretic booklet by Yona Friedman who, as a great utopian visionary, pronounces an extreme indictment of western architecture, seen as the only architecture unconcerned with necessity and survival, except possibly the architects’. The term “western” is of course meant functionally more than geographically, as the so-called developed countries architecture, but we concern ourselves with two examples proposed by Friedman, as the castaway theme returns: on one hand Robinson Crusoe, and on the other hand WWII Japanese soldiers, forgotten for years on some deserted Pacific islands. Whereas Defoe’s character shapes the island where he is stranded, in order to make it “in England’s image and after its likeness”, changing it and consuming it with a colonial spirit, the Japanese soldiers try to survive without violating the environment. They have fed upon the jungle, they have inhabited it, and they have transformed themselves in order to live there. Crusoe represents efficiency, the soldiers are actors of efficacy. Efficiency is how modern architecture has interpreted and cannibalized the world and the environment. Efficacy, with an attentive eye towards contingency, is how with every necessity we should think about future architecture. The titanical shipwreck we are presently in, facing a complete social and economic failure, is probably harbinger to the end on an unrepeatable era. What lies before us is a stormy ocean in which, as castaways, we cannot count on old securities. We are forced to abandon every pointless intention and focus on what is necessary. A Matter of necessity – the urgency of building tomorrow, is a very appropriate claim for an architecture exhibition: it perfectly matches our scenarios, so urgent and so different from anything experienced only a few years ago. For over three decades society and architecture have lived in limbo, an intelligent and masochistic dream called “infinite progress society”, a dream of fake overabundance and true overdosing. An epic overloaded with activity, the production of goods, projects, refuse and failures. A long season in which needlessness and superfetation were considered indispensable forms of existence. Existence itself was expressed as a sterile whirlwind, a hyperactive restlessness whose only purpose seemed to leave no instant unoccupied, no box unticked. This law of entropy, of maximum energy dispersion, has inevitably led to resource depletion. The second law of thermodynamics teaches us that transformation or energy exchange is never reversible, and depleted resources are not reusable. As is customary, the problem is not addressed until we are presented with the check; meanwhile, it’s ok to think that the enjoyment can go on forever. Architecture has contributed to this hedonistic dissipation process by crafting elegant and representative shells, by diffusing brilliant and convincing concepts, but most of all by enacting colonial methods of occupation and exploitation of space. In this sense we architects have been the greatest drivers in this late empire’s capitalistic mad race, as is only fair and just, because it is architecture’s destiny to score deep signs in every Zeitgeist: every era has its space and every space has its shape. Concepts such as Sprawl City and Junkspace perfectly embody postindustrial society’s liberal-liberistic formula. Thus this concluding epoch’s architecture, of which Rem Koolhas has been one of the most lucid theorists and exceptional concept forger, has introduced a diffused “cynical reasoning” in its projects, which still somehow permeates every aspect of public and private life. While systematically searching for universal format, architecture has become ever so abstract and disincarnate a “module” who doesn’t give a damn about context as it designs highly artificial spaces, acephalous and commercially oriented. Still, I find it hard to condemn this creative period. I give it credit for revolutionizing architectural lexicon with ideas able to cross cultural boundaries, for freshening up stylistic preconceptions, for overthrowing city geographies and living sociology, and for redefining the ideas of public and private space. However, this idea of design “beyond good and evil”, this neutral, diaphanous architecture not so much inconsequential, but rather indifferent to consequences, can hardly be justified today. It has been superseded by radical paradigm shifts. It has appeared as unfit, dissonant and out of place ever since the ground beneath its feet gave way. Its validity was based on two indispensable theorems: on the one hand, evidence of tabula rasa, i.e. the absence of ethical and aesthetical constraints as to how, where, when and sometimes also as to why; and on the other hand, unlimited trust in ever-increasing availability of economic and technological resources, “air conditioning supports our cathedrals”. What happens when air conditioning stops working? How can these cathedrals stand in the face of the world shipwreck? The costs of entropic logic are turning out to be unsustainable for society as a whole. It is no different for architecture. There has been a warning sign in the summer of 2010, with the previously unheard of shutting down of the new Seattle Public Library: service interruption was mandated by a huge deficit in the annual budget. It had never happened before, but the new premises were generating unsustainable running costs compared to available funds. The new library had been designed and built in the context of an expanding economy, and was unable to cope with new and different needs. The building had been programmed for an infinitely iterated enjoyment unavailable today. The design was not flawed per se: its rapid functional obsolescence has simply been brought upon its lack of necessity. The limit in Seattle’s Public Library, and similar projects, has been in ignoring the time variable, thus the ephemerality of objects and their function. The boundary between the “before” and “after” the global economic crisis mandates that architecture adopts new approaches and sensibilities. The first concept in this perspective is what I call “needy condition”. By this I mean the urgency to act consciously, but differently from what has been until now customary. It is now evident a return to the poetics of necessity, suggesting the acceptance of shipwreck not as destiny, but as opportunity. The meaning of contemporaneity is to “go with the times”: today’s difficult times are made of radical choices, of consciousness without shallowness, of responsibility. And what makes architecture one “with” the times? It is the ability to connect what happens today to what happened in the past and what will happen tomorrow, an architecture working as median space and in dialogue with everything: space, nature, other buildings, objects and subjects in the world. The principle of exceptionality, of bigness, until recently seen as a quality in itself, gives way to a more attentive principle of reducing the scope of intervention and phenomena related to architecture. We must renounce the absolute theorem of tabula rasa to preach a new form of balance, efficacy and communication between buildings and the rest of the world. We must abandon Robinson Crusoe to become Japanese castaways in the Pacific. There is a further defining aspect in necessity architecture, which I term “innocence”, i.e. the capability to build without causing damage. Innocence is not meant in the moral, but rather the clinical sense, i.e. the fundamental principle “primum: non nocere” coming from Hippocrates down to this very day, which should orient every architectural thought in these needy days. Innocence does not mean lack of action in the face of context, but rather mindfulness, critical research, discipline. Neither awe nor underestimation, but care. Not “fuck the context”, but “fuck WITH the context”. The idea of innocence in architecture comes from a text by Reiner Maria Rilke where, in the broadest sense, he speaks of “touching the ground as if for the first time”. Attention to context springs from the obviousness of perception: we never perceive an object isolated from its context. However aseptic or artificial, the background surrounds it, envelops it and conditions it. The same can be said for architecture. It is not possible to build in a vacuum of meaning, as has been instead thought for a long time. There must exist a relationship between the building and its surroundings, whatever they might be. Returning to the basics and the needs of innocence means letting go of many habits and practices from the season of excess: décor, superfetation, whim, plethoric and maximalist experimentation and a messianic trust in technology. All this has ushered in a more sober discourse, an exercise in reduction and thrift (of means, space, and energy), as we are mindful that resources are not infinite. But most of all, a more acute attention towards the fragility of world balance, and to the idea we can no longer ignore the laws of size. An architecture, then, researching subtraction, taking away from, recovery, substance; an architecture that is one with the world, in that is incorporates in it as an element in minor tone. Like “plus” as defined by French architects Lacaton & Vassal, i.e. the endeavor to offer decent, mindful living to the greatest number possible, with the minimum possible material investment. Within this topic it is impossible not to reconsider the role of politics, as the subject of polis, an essential ingredient in order to define architecture’s new shapes and expression. The politics of architecture are closely tied to the politics of economics, and they consist of a positive attitude able to bring both back to the human size of polis, of community. Something that is equally distant from the hypertrophic ego of archistar architecture, as it is from the morality-free nihilism of pure finance. The six keywords identified by A Matter of necessity (care, complexity, transience, meeting, heterotopia, and re-conversion) all touch the nerves of a world ever so doubtful of ancient certainties, as they try to map its vanishing lines. In its purpose and enunciates, the exhibition intercepts signals and traces of this new “needy condition”, as it tries to convey them to the public. The 16 selected works have all passed through the sieve of this diverse design sensibility: they are all architecturere defining works, with the obligation to a greater attentiveness to contextualizing needs. They are 16 proposals to conceivethe design lexicon to come. Nonetheless, in a general statement pertaining all projects received, irrespective of quality (which is mostly outstanding), it is sad to say that the distancing process from dominant architecture is far from metabolized. You may still detect a sort of strategic indecision, a conceptual indefiniteness, which is typical in the beginning of all change processes. We would have expected a greater attention and originality with reference to degrowth, non-superfetation and ephemerality. We have missed the leap forward, towards concrete creativity and yet-asunconceived- ness. Even the lyrical aspects of architectural drawings, the empathy of space with subjects and objects, stand out on a background reflecting the burdensome legacy of a strong, muscular, dry and anesthetized grammar. These notes must not be meant as faint praise: they simply underline the difficulties accompanying, as is always the case, the invention of a new language. What matters, however, is to start babbling it.