The architecture of differences
Copyright (c) 2021 Emilio Faroldi
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Following in the footsteps of the protagonists of the Italian architectural debate is a mark of culture and proactivity. The synthesis deriving from the artistic-humanistic factors, combined with the technical-scientific component, comprises the very root of the process that moulds the architect as an intellectual figure capable of governing material processes in conjunction with their ability to know how to skilfully select schedules, phases and actors: these are elements that – when paired with that magical and essential compositional sensitivity – have fuelled this profession since its origins.
The act of X-raying the role of architecture through the filter of its “autonomy” or “heteronomy”, at a time when the hybridisation of different areas of knowledge and disciplinary interpenetration is rife, facilitates an understanding of current trends, allowing us to bring the fragments of a debate carved into our culture and tradition up to date.
As such, heteronomy – as a condition in which an acting subject receives the norm of its action from outside itself: the matrix of its meaning, coming from ancient Greek, the result of the fusion of the two terms ἕτερος éteros “different, other” and νόμος nómos “law, ordinance” – suggests the existence of a dual sentiment now pervasive in architecture: the sin of self-reference and the strength of depending on other fields of knowledge.
Difference, interpreted as a value, and the ability to establish relationships between different points of observation become moments of a practice that values the process and method of affirming architecture as a discipline.
The term “heteronomy”, used in opposition to “autonomy”, has – from the time of Kant onwards – taken on a positive value connected to the mutual respect between reason and creativity, exact science and empirical approach, contamination and isolation, introducing the social value of its existence every time that it returns to the forefront.
At the 1949 conference in Lima, Ernesto Nathan Rogers spoke on combining the principle of “Architecture is an Art” with the demands of a social dimension of architecture: «Alberti, in the extreme precision of his thought, admonishes us that the idea must be translated into works and that these must have a practical and moral purpose in order to adapt harmoniously ‘to the use of men’, and I would like to point out the use of the plural of ‘men’, society. The architect is neither a passive product nor a creator completely independent of his era: society is the raw material that he transforms, giving it an appearance, an expression, and the consciousness of those ideals that, without him, would remain implicit. Our prophecy, like that of the farmer, already contains the seeds for future growth, as our work also exists between heaven and earth. Poetry, painting, sculpture, dance and music, even when expressing the contemporary, are not necessarily limited within practical terms. But we architects, who have the task of synthesising the useful with the beautiful, must feel the fundamental drama of existence at every moment of our creative process, because life continually puts practical needs and spiritual aspirations at odds with one another. We cannot reject either of these necessities, because a merely practical or moralistic position denies the full value of architecture to the same extent that a purely aesthetic position would: we must mediate one position with the other» (Rogers, 1948).
Rogers discusses at length the relationship between instinctive forces and knowledge acquired through culture, along with his thoughts on the role played by study in an artist’s training.
It is in certain debates that have arisen within the “International Congresses of Modern Architecture” that the topic of architecture as a discipline caught between self-sufficiency and dependence acquires a certain centrality within the architectural context: in particular, in this scenario, the theme of the “autonomy” and “heteronomy” of pre-existing features of the environment plays a role of strategic importance. Arguments regarding the meaning of form in architecture and the need for liberation from heteronomous influences did not succeed in undermining the idea of an architecture capable of influencing the governing of society as a whole, thanks to an attitude very much in line with Rogers’ own writings.
The idea of a project as the result of the fusion of an artistic idea and pre-existing features of an environment formed the translation of the push to coagulate the antithetical forces striving for a reading of the architectural work that was at once autonomous and heteronomous, as well as linked to geographical, cultural, sociological and psychological principles.
The CIAM meeting in Otterlo was attended by Ignazio Gardella, Ernesto Nathan Rogers, Vico Magistretti and Giancarlo De Carlo as members of the Italian contingent: the architects brought one project each to share with the conference and comment on as a manifesto. Ernesto Nathan Rogers, who presented the Velasca Tower, and Giancarlo De Carlo, who presented a house in Matera in the Spine Bianche neighbourhood, were openly criticised as none of the principles established by the CIAM were recognisable in their work any longer, and De Carlo’s project represented a marked divergence from a consolidated method of designing and building in Matera.
In this cultural condition, Giancarlo De Carlo – in justifying the choices he had made – even went so far as to say: «my position was not at all a flight from architecture, for example in sociology. I cannot stand those who, paraphrasing what I have said, dress up as politicians or sociologists because they are incapable of creating architecture. Architecture is – and cannot be anything other than – the organisation and form of physical space. It is not autonomous, it is heteronomous» (De Carlo, 2001).
Even more so than in the past, it is not possible today to imagine an architecture encapsulated entirely within its own enclosure, autoimmune, averse to any contamination or relationships with other disciplinary worlds: architecture is the world and the world is the sum total of our knowledge.
Architecture triggers reactions and phenomena: it is not solely and exclusively the active and passive product of a material work created by man. «We believed in the heteronomy of architecture, in its necessary dependence on the circumstances that produce it, in its intrinsic need to exist in harmony with history, with the happenings and expectations of individuals and social groups, with the arcane rhythms of nature. We denied that the purpose of architecture was to produce objects, and we argued that its fundamental role was to trigger processes of transformation of the physical environment that are capable of contributing to the improvement of the human condition» (De Carlo, 2001).
Productive and cultural reinterpretations place the discipline of architecture firmly at the centre of the critical reconsideration of places for living and working. Consequently, new interpretative models continue to emerge which often highlight the instability of built architecture with the lack of a robust theoretical apparatus, demanding the sort of “technical rationality” capable of restoring the centrality of the act of construction, through the contribution of actions whose origins lie precisely in other subject areas.
Indeed, the transformation of the practice of construction has resulted in direct changes to the structure of the nature of the knowledge of it, to the role of competencies, to the definition of new professional skills based on the demands emerging not just from the production system, but also from the socio-cultural system. The architect cannot disregard the fact that the making of architecture does not burn out by means of some implosive dynamic; rather, it is called upon to engage with the multiple facets and variations that the cognitive act of design itself implies, bringing into play a theory of disciplines which – to varying degrees and according to different logics – offer their significant contribution to the formation of the design and, ultimately, the work.
As Álvaro Siza claims, «The architect is not a specialist. The sheer breadth and variety of knowledge that practicing design encompasses today – its rapid evolution and progressive complexity – in no way allow for sufficient knowledge and mastery. Establishing connections – pro-jecting [from Latin proicere, ‘to stretch out’] – is their domain, a place of compromise that is not tantamount to conformism, of navigation of the web of contradictions, the weight of the past and the weight of the doubts and alternatives of the future, aspects that explain the lack of a contemporary treatise on architecture. The architect works with specialists. The ability to chain things together, to cross bridges between fields of knowledge, to create beyond their respective borders, beyond the precarity of inventions, requires a specific education and stimulating conditions. [...] As such, architecture is risk, and risk requires impersonal desire and anonymity, starting with the merging of subjectivity and objectivity. In short, a gradual distancing from the ego. Architecture means compromise transformed into radical expression, in other words, a capacity to absorb the opposite and overcome contradiction. Learning this requires an education in search of the other within each of us» (Siza, 2008).
We are seeing the coexistence of contrasting, often extreme, design trends aimed at recementing the historical and traditional mould of construction by means of the constant reproposal of the characteristics of “persistence” that long-established architecture, by its very nature, promotes, and at decrypting the evolutionary traits of architecture – markedly immaterial nowadays – that society promotes as phenomena of everyday living.
Speed, temporariness, resilience, flexibility: these are just a few fragments.
In other words, we indicate a direction which immediately composes and anticipates innovation as a characterising element, describing its stylistic features, materials, languages and technologies, and only later on do we tend to outline the space that these produce: what emerges is a largely anomalous path that goes from “technique” to “function” – by way of “form” – denying the circularity of the three factors at play.
The threat of a short-circuit deriving from discourse that exceeds action – in conjunction with a push for standardisation aimed at asserting the dominance of construction over architecture, once again echoing the ideas posited by Rogers – may yet be able to finding a lifeline cast through the attempt to merge figurative research with technology in a balanced way, in the wake of the still-relevant example of the Bauhaus or by emulating the thinking of certain masters of modern Italian architecture who worked during that post-war period so synonymous with physical – and, at the same time, moral – reconstruction.
These architectural giants’ aptitude for technical and formal transformation and adaptation can be held up as paradigmatic examples of methodological choice consistent with their high level of mastery over the design process and the rhythm of its phases. In all this exaltation of the outcome, the power of the process is often left behind in a haze: in the uncritical celebration of the architectural work, the method seems to dissolve entirely into the finished product.
Technical innovation and disciplinary self-referentiality would seem to deny the concepts of continuity and transversality by means of a constant action of isolation and an insufficient relationship with itself: conversely, the act of designing, as an operation which involves selecting elements from a vast heritage of knowledge, cannot exempt itself from dealing in the variables of a functional, formal, material and linguistic nature – all of such closely intertwined intents – that have over time represented the energy of theoretical formulation and of the works created.
For years, the debate in architecture has concentrated on the synergistic or contrasting dualism between cultural approaches linked to venustas and firmitas. Kenneth Frampton, with regard to the interpretative pair of “tectonics” and “form”, notes the existence of a dual trend that is both identifiable and contrasting: namely the predisposition to favour the formal sphere as the predominant one, rejecting all implications on the construction, on the one hand; and the tendency to celebrate the constructive matrix as the generator of the morphological signature – emphasised by the ostentation of architectural detail, including that of a technological matrix – on the other.
The design of contemporary architecture is enriched with sprawling values that are often fundamental, yet at times even damaging to the successful completion of the work: it should identify the moment of coagulation within which the architect goes in pursuit of balance between all the interpretative categories that make it up, espousing the Vitruvian meaning, according to which practice is «the continuous reflection on utility» and theory «consists of being able to demonstrate and explain the things made with technical ability in terms of the principle of proportion» (Vitruvius Pollio, 15 BC).
Architecture will increasingly be forced to demonstrate how it represents an applied and intellectual activity of a targeted synthesis, of a complex system within which it is not only desirable, but indeed critical, for the cultural, social, environmental, climatic, energy-related, geographical and many other components involved in it to interact proactively, together with the more spatial, functional and material components that are made explicit in the final construction itself through factors borrowed from neighbouring field that are not endogenous to the discipline of architecture alone.
Within a unitary vision that exists parallel to the transcalarity that said vision presupposes, the technology of architecture – as a discipline often called upon to play the role of a collagen of skills, binding them together – acts as an instrument of domination within which science and technology interpret the tools for the translation of man’s intellectual needs, expressing the most up-to-date principles of contemporary culture.
Within the concept of tradition – as inferred from its evolutionary character – form, technique and production, in their historical “continuity” and not placed in opposition to one other, make up the fields of application by which, in parallel, research proceeds with a view to ensuring a conforming overall design. The “technology of architecture” and “technological design” give the work of architecture its personal hallmark: a sort of DNA to be handed down to future generations, in part as a discipline dedicated to amalgamating the skills and expertise derived from other dimensions of knowledge.
In the exercise of design, the categories of urban planning, composition, technology, structure and systems engineering converge, the result increasingly accentuated by multidisciplinary nuances in search of a sense of balance between the parts: a setup founded upon simultaneity and heteronomous logic in the study of variables, by means of translations, approaches and skills as expressions of multifaceted identities. «Architects can influence society with their theories and works, but they are not capable of completing any such transformation on their own, and end up being the interpreters of an overbearing historical reality under which, if the strongest and most honest do not succumb, that therefore means that they alone represent the value of a component that is algebraically added to the others, all acting in the common field» (Rogers, 1951).
Construction, in this context, identifies the main element of the transmission of continuity in architecture, placing the “how” at the point of transition between past and future, rather than making it independent of any historical evolution. Architecture determines its path within a heteronomous practice of construction through an effective distinction between the strength of the principles and codes inherent to the discipline – long consolidated thanks to sedimented innovations – and the energy of experimentation in its own right.
Architecture will have to seek out and affirm its own identity, its validity as a discipline that is at once scientific and poetic, its representation in the harmonies, codes and measures that history has handed down to us, along with the pressing duty of updating them in a way that is long overdue. The complexity of the architectural field occasionally expresses restricted forms of treatment bound to narrow disciplinary areas or, conversely, others that are excessively frayed, tending towards an eclecticism so vast that it prevents the tracing of any discernible cultural perimeter.
In spite of the complex phenomenon that characterises the transformations that involve the status of the project and the figure of the architect themselves, it is a matter of urgency to attempt to renew the interpretation of the activity of design and architecture as a coherent system rather than a patchwork of components. «Contemporary architecture tends to produce objects, even though its most concrete purpose is to generate processes. This is a falsehood that is full of consequences because it confines architecture to a very limited band of its entire spectrum; in doing so, it isolates it, exposing it to the risks of subordination and delusions of grandeur, pushing it towards social and political irresponsibility. The transformation of the physical environment passes through a series of events: the decision to create a new organised space, detection, obtaining the necessary resources, defining the organisational system, defining the formal system, technological choices, use, management, technical obsolescence, reuse and – finally – physical obsolescence. This concatenation is the entire spectrum of architecture, and each link in the chain is affected by what happens in all the others.
It is also the case that the cadence, scope and intensity of the various bands can differ according to the circumstances and in relation to the balances or imbalances within the contexts to which the spectrum corresponds. Moreover, each spectrum does not conclude at the end of the chain of events, because the signs of its existence – ruins and memory – are projected onto subsequent events. Architecture is involved with the entirety of this complex development: the design that it expresses is merely the starting point for a far-reaching process with significant consequences» (De Carlo, 1978).
The contemporary era proposes the dialectic between specialisation, the coordination of ideas and actions, the relationship between actors, phases and disciplines: the practice of the organisational culture of design circumscribes its own code in the coexistence and reciprocal exploitation of specialised fields of knowledge and the discipline of synthesis that is architecture.
With the revival of the global economy on the horizon, the dematerialisation of the working practice has entailed significant changes in the productive actions and social relationships that coordinate the process. Despite a growing need to implement skills and means of coordination between professional actors, disciplinary fields and sectors of activity, architectural design has become the emblem of the action of synthesis. This is a representation of society which, having developed over the last three centuries, from the division of social sciences that once defined it as a “machine”, an “organism” and a “system”, is now defined by the concept of the “network” or, more accurately, by that of the “system of networks”, in which a person’s desire to establish relationships places them within a multitude of social spheres.
The “heteronomy” of architecture, between “hybridisation” and “contamination of knowledge”, is to be seen not only an objective fact, but also, crucially, as a concept aimed at providing the discipline with new and broader horizons, capable of putting it in a position of serenity, energy and courage allowing it to tackle the challenges that the cultural, social and economic landscape is increasingly throwing at the heart of our contemporary world.