Architecture

The Upside-Down Fruit Bowl

Bonaventura Palazzo was built in 1927 by architect Giovanni Aiello[1889-1976]. It is located in one of the main streets of Giarre, a small comune on the slopes of Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano on the European continent. The building is a rare example of Sicilian Liberty; its mixture of Spanish eccentricity and Italian classicism makes it one of the most important town’s icons.

The dark red façade stands out among the placid buildings that surround the palazzo and creates a sort of theatrical background to the embroidery of balconies, mouldings, arches and columns that lay on a soft white Comiso stone. The symmetry of the façade is broken by a game of projections that pushes the rigid volume of the building forward, in tension, so as to interact with the urban environment and slowly become part of it. The floral ornament gives grace to the rigor of the mass and the two rose windows on the piano nobile, perfectly symmetrical with respect to the entry and main balcony, dampen the seriousness of the monochromatic structure. Similar to a pair of eyes striving for looking far away, the rosettes – made with local Caltagirone ceramics – are the only façade’s touch of colour. The distinctive crossing of blue and yellow petals that firmly bind to a thick cone-shaped centre, do not have the weakness of a simple décor, separate from the whole architectural composition, but rather help to shape the character of the artifact and its firm temperament.

Bonaventura palace has often been compared to Battlò House by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudì for the refinement of decorative motifs and complexity of shapes; the building’s geometric strictness maintains a Renaissance concinnity while using the compositional freedom of an early twentieth century Art Deco style. Rhythms are regularly repeated but the movement of volumes and light establishes an unexpected relationship between a rethought tradition and the modern spirit of the building. If walking along Kallipoli Street someone asks Giarre’s citizens about Bonaventura palazzo, after an initial hesitation they will probably respond by calling the building ‘the upside-down fruit bowl’, following the strong similarity of the two ceramic medallions on the top of the first floor with the shape of a traditional Sicilian fruit container. Whether the comparison is relevant or not does not matter, the detail is what everybody remember.

‘ Whatever the air spaces, areas and dimensions involved, it is the precise study and good execution of details which confirm architectural greatness.

The detail tells the tale.’ [1]

 [1]: Jean Labatut, ‘An Approach to Architectural Composition’, Modulus 9 (1964): 55-63

Palazzo Bonaventura2_Sicily

Palazzo Bonaventura3_Sicily

Bonaventura Palazzo, Giarre, Sicily | Details 

A ‘But’ between a Conflict

Giarre is a town in the Sicilian province of Catania. It is the Italian comune with the highest number of unfinished public works on its territory. The incompiuto (unfinished) has been recently defined as the most prevalent architectural style in Italy since Second World War. [1] An unfinished work is a building that has a beginning but no end; it is son of political interests, corruption, abusivismo (infringement of building regulations) and therefore condemned to be demolished or perhaps one day finished. While the debate swings between these two truths, Giarre remains a land of puppets in search of an Author/s. Fenced-in and locked, the incompiuto has been distanced from people, forgotten and thrown away as a dead object. A swimming pool, a centro polifunzionale, a polo stadium, a multi-storey car park, a hospice, a theatre, a congress palace, a flower market, a public park and a track for RC cars.

The wall/gate that separates these works from the rest of the city has obstructed any alternative reading of them by new Authors who, able to observe and touch, might imagine and write a whole new story. Emblematic is the case of the unfinished polo stadium, the only project that has not been closed to the public. Today, the polo stadium has been spontaneously transformed into a football stadium – sport definitely more suited to the interests of Italians – in which young players train and play friendly matches. If the idea that ​​a polo stadium may only be a polo stadium and that its failure of becoming a polo stadium means an interests waste that can only be corrected by killing its ambition of changing into something that is other, it is like having a single view of a story and therefore keeping the work tied to the strings of its Author’s hand.

Giarre, Unfinished Polo Stadium

Giarre, Unfinished Polo Stadium   ©Rossella Scalia

Giarre, Unfinished Polo Stadium 2

Giarre, Unfinished Polo Stadium   ©Rossella Scalia

Giarre, Unfinished Centro Polifunzionale

Giarre, Unfinished Centro Polifunzionale   ©Rossella Scalia

Unfinished Giarre

Giarre, Unfinished Centro Polifunzionale   ©Rossella Scalia

If the incompiuto were opened to the public, many readers would play with the strings of those concrete books that still have life behind their appearance of ruins; they just wait to be read.

A conflict has made these works unfinished; two opposed ways of thinking in relation to a central pivot, the concept of life. If the incompiuto is considered a dead body as devoid of its spirit, then the solution leads to demolish and bury the building exactly where it was born. If it is instead thought as an alive entity because, despite the apparent decomposition of its body, its spirit persists, then we might consider that finishing it would be like to give him again his lost face. However, there might be a third voice in this debate, one that has been forgotten because the other two were too loud and focused on their own sounds. A third element that is both  said and unsaid, finished and unfinished. The incompiuto might simply become other, breaking down the idea that a work is what appears, thus ‘that which appears, IS NOT’. This might lead to a transformation driven by the hands of new interpreters capable of playing with the strings of a new project. The life of these works has not run away, it has only turned into a new life. Time has not killed them, it has rather started their personalisation process.

‘ Here I shall focus on a rather private, nonconflictual and personalized area of self-experience, namely lying fallow. The noun fallow is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as : ground that is well-ploughed and harrowed, but left uncropped for a whole year or more. 

Through the metaphor of an active verb, I wish to indicate that the mood I am trying to discuss is not one of inertia, listless vacancy or idle quietism of the soul; nor is it a flight from harassed purposiveness and pragmatic action. Lying fallow is a transitional state of experience, a mode of being that is alerted quietude and receptive wakeful lambent consciousness. […]

[…] My argument is that the capacity for lying fallow is a function of the process of personalization in the individual.’  [2]

( M. Masud R. Khan )

The metaphor used by M. Masud R. Khan refers to the agricultural technique of crop rotation, in which a portion of land is left at rest (unplanted) for a year before being cultivated again. Imagine to have a land divided into three parts and to grow wheat in the first and legumes in the third. The midst appears to be empty, but in reality it is lying fallow, which means that is waiting to be transformed into other. This land will be cultivated in the following years, first with wheat and then with legumes.

From this perspective the fallow might be thought as a ‘ space occupier and space definer ‘ [3]; it is both wheat and legumes, oscillating between the two crops it defines the differences. The fallow land is not dead, it is not a form that has lost its life but rather a waiting land. Modern man in the rush to find a universal meaning to everything, has lost the ability to prepare his Ego to a transformation, to a life that enters into a new form. So busy in filling the gaps and seeking distractions and relief in a full world, he has eliminated the state of lying fallow from his process of personalisation, so that a continuous and immediate choice between wheat or legumes, Author or Reader, life or form, finished or unfinished, had to be made. The passiveness of such behaviour has caused a loss of spontaneous thoughts and reflections, an unawareness of the importance of a time that slows down in order to give man the possibility to judge and find a personal meaning to life.

A ‘BUT’  that simply allows to see the differences.

NOTES :

[1] : Felici, Benoit, Unfinished Italy, documentary;

[2] : R. Khan, M.Masud, Hidden Selves. (Karnac Books, 1989);

[3] : Rowe, Colin and Koetter Fred, Collage City (The MIT Press, 1978)

MOT and the Skyline

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Photo © http://www.rinomandarino.it/category/scarabocchi/

MOT has never worn glasses with clear lenses; his glasses are made of concrete.

From birth he has always looked down; his pupils were so focused to observe the floor that at times almost disappeared to chase the nose.

MOT’s parents, frightened by their son’s anomaly, decided to turn to Dr Buill, the best eye doctor in the city.

‘ Doctor, our son ‘s eyes are lazy; they just look at the bottom and do never get up to admire the sky ‘ .

Dr Buill, nodding like those who have heard that story many times, pulled out a drawer of his elegant desk and showed proudly a small golden box. MOT was not able to see it, but he could tell, by the tone of his mother’s voice, that something special was happening.

‘ From now on your son will see a world he has never seen before’ , concluded optimistic Dr Buill, and comforted by those words MOT and his family went back home with empty pockets but a heart full of joy.

The next day MOT took a stroll in the city with his new concrete glasses. Two thin walls half covered his eyes and made a right-angle with his cheekbones, as if a balcony on one side and a big L on the other were always leaning against his nose.

He could no more look down, thus ordered his eyes to look up slightly; his view was still blocked by the glasses. Unnerved decided to walk, but as soon as he took a few steps, stumbled over his own feet, bumped into every passer-by, lost his balance and someone shouted at him from a car: ‘ Be careful where you look, fool ! ‘ .

It was then that MOT, with all the strength he found, turned ​​ his pupils like a three wheel slot machine and stopped them right above the two concrete walls that his face was laboriously carrying .

Suddenly he saw something that left him breathless; he did not move and just admired the perfection of that vision, then bewildered asked a man: ‘ Excuse me, would you be so kind to tell me who has scattered those fluffy white pillows on that wonderful blue bedspread? ‘ .

The man looked puzzled, then replied annoyed: ‘ Are you talking about the clouds, fool ? ‘ , and luckily MOT did not see his snicker.

He began to chase after every cloud, every time he saw one with a better shape immediately turned direction , and the most he watched them the more he realized the magic of his glasses. He counted all the chimneys of the city, all the roof shingles, all the recently born skyscrapers, all the fumes that factories mingled with the sky .

Sometimes he could only see the edge of things, thus was forced to move back in order to perceive their form; to move away from them to understand them better; he detected the world only from a distance.

He got home glad and impatient to tell his visions; almost without breathing talked for hours of a city almost unknown to his parents. He described minutely every tree frond that his eyes had met, every swallow that had crossed his eyes, every lamp post, every pole of the electric current and the top of every building.

It was then, while he was talking, that a doubt slowed down his words; he realized that he could not see the tears of joy on his mother’s eyes.

 

REFERENCE

 Calvino, Italo : Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City, 1963

A Void is a Thing

This blank page on which I write is a container.

A container of words, thoughts and stories that takes form in the very act of writing and in the ink that this pen pours and offers to be kept by the void of the sheet.

A white paper is not a story yet, it might be a million stories or none of them; it is torn between what it is and what will be.

By writing I shape a void, but my words are not filling something that did not exist before, rather they combine and join what already was.

I might decide to tell now of The Nonexistent Knight, a story invented by Italo Calvino and originally written on blank pages. At a later time my reader’s eye has stopped and pleasantly offered attention to it. Having learned of this story and held its content inside me, I feel now the need to give the story to this white paper, thus to give the story a new essence.

The story says of a valorous knight wearing a white armour; everyone is convinced that Agilulf, the knight, does not exist; his helmet does not contain a face but simply a hollow; his suit of armour is therefore empty. But the knight truly fights and his battles really take place; his chivalry, piety, faithfulness and value are fully recognised . Agilulf exists, but does not have a body; he is a void that takes shape through an armour . It is as if the materiality and immateriality of the knight might only define together his existence.

The story of the nonexistent knight has stepped into this paper with my telling of a void or of a blank sheet which so far seems to have gathered a respectable amount of words.

What I really want this sheet to tell, is the story of a container, thus of what the armour is essentially for the nonexistent knight.

Imagine now to cut this paper, right here and right now, to forget for a moment the knight and his story and pour the words into another story written on a new white paper that lies just underneath, empty as this before I began to write.

Here is the story of Whitechapel, a district in the east of London, not particularly known for its urban nor architectural quality, but rather for its patience in waiting . Its true essence is emptiness.

A random combination of buildings moulds what we might imagine as a container, with a base and sides; a sort of bracket ]   that instead of keeping words horizontally covers its function of containing vertically | _ | .

I pause to think about the content of these voids, and I start to catalogue them through recognisable features.

I defined some of them ‘ pure voids ‘ as containers of sky and clouds. Pure voids are figment of our imagination, they have neither a past nor a future, but only a present , or all three at the same time. These voids are three-dimensional frames in which light and space become one, indivisible and unique element.

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Pure Void _ Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel, London   ©Rossella Scalia

Then there are ‘voids in ruin’ , whose past is present and whose future is still too far to talk about it. These voids are struggling to accept their incompleteness, or maybe they are instead so proud of it that a change would be for them simply unthinkable. They live in the stillness of time and let themselves be approached only by light and by a vegetation that covers and protects them with kindness.

IMG_7187

Void in Ruin _ Commercial Road, Aldgate East, London    ©Rossella Scalia

The ‘ painted voids ‘ are two-dimensional frames of events. They are the most aesthetic of the voids as they draw perspective disguising their sense of emptiness. They are very much related to present times and own a strong attitude to contain. They mask themselves as full and shudder at the idea of owning a form in the nearest future.

IMG_7214

 Painted Void _ Whitechapel High Street, Aldgate East, London    ©Rossella Scalia

The ‘ speaking voids ‘ are the less pure of voids. They talk by using other people’s words, in unknown languages thus they are not defined by a sharp character but by an imposed one. There is no self-support nor independence in these voids because the very existence of emptiness as a thing has been here unquestionably denied. These voids are objects that have not yet learned how to be things.

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Speaking Void _ Whitechapel High Street, Aldgate East, London   ©Rossella Scalia

I lift the words and pass again through the cut made earlier on the sheet. Back to the story of the nonexistent knight. The story ends with the image of an inanimate white armour abandoned in the shade of a tree. Everyone thinks that the knight has died, but he has instead simply found a new armour, a different container that gives shape to his Being.

I place the two sheets on which I have written until now over one another, the words are now mixed and so the stories; the cut did not result in a void between the two papers, rather it has made them a discourse .

They have just found their armour.

REFERENCES

 Calvino, Italo : The Nonexistent Knight, 1959

Heidegger, Martin : Poetry, Language, Thought, 1971

As it is, infinite!

This is the story of a car that does not ride. A car that exists only in his appearance of being a car.This is the story of a Model-car.

Model-car began his professional career at 237 Metallurgique. His, has always been an image work, not too strenuous for those who have by nature the instinct of the peacock. Model-car spent his days watching people strolling, smiling, chatting, getting angry, crying and staring at the window of a shop.

IMG_6556

He was the only Model-car to have the fortune to be able to watch the street; the Other-cars were deprived instead of this great opportunity, so they spent time daydreaming about the outside world behind their back wheels; a world they could not see but only imagine.

Now and then they asked Model-car to describe what he saw and Model-car, proud of being capable to see more than the others, invented stories of people who, struck by his beauty, passed out in a moment and how good it was to feel unique. Model-car went on to tell how many were attracted by his presence, how they sighed in seeing him and how folks eventually decided to cross the threshold of the showroom, driven by the desire of him.

The Other-cars listened to his stories and thought to be only a fall back for those who entered the mysterious world of the automobile; the real interest was instead only directed to Model-car; his beauty raised admiration and his charm was captivating.

The inner world of the Other-cars was relaxed and collective. No one there felt more than what he was; the Other-cars looked each other face to face and waited wheel to wheel for someone that could finally bring them to know the road. Was always a joy when some of them abandoned the Metallurgique. Despite the loss, the Other-cars were aware of the importance of experiencing the outside world. Model-car was the only one who never left his position, he said he did not need to know the world, because he already knew it through the window of the showroom.

The days passed and the Other-cars left the shop faster, there was not even time to get to know each other nor laughing together like in old times.

One day Model-car lost his job and was replaced by a new Model-car, younger than him. It was a terrible day for all the Other-cars; everyone felt the fear of having to spend the rest of his life as a model and not be able to ever see the road because too old to do it. Model-car cried so much that day, he realized that he had spent his existence imagining what he will never fell directly with his own wheels, the outside world.

Soon the Metallurgique widened and the entire building became a huge showroom.  Many New-cars came along and  all wanted to take the place of Model-car . Nobody talked anymore, everyone was too busy looking beautiful, putting in order the dashboard, and straightening the rear-view mirror. No more telling stories about the outside world, everyone had become a Model-car and therefore the view of the outside was the same for everyone.

Mercedes-Benz_Showroom

The interior of the showroom was projected out and everything was not only visible from the street, but from any part of the city. Those who entered the Metallurgique did not pause in it as before, they just came and already knew what to find inside. There was no more curiosity, there was no more surprise or mystery. The hidden uniqueness of Model-car soon became a total collective transparency and his infinite imagination flattened in an ever visible appearance. The showroom turned into a dazzling spectacle without end, without spectators, and chock-full of actors.

Model-car  never saw the Metallurgique again.

He died in the garage of a wealthy old cars collector, who did not drive ever in his life.

The Birthday Cake

‘ With no effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalise, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.’ (1) 

My friend Funes is able to remember everything, there is nothing that eludes him, not a number, not a date, not an event. As a child he was called Funes the Memorious, for his boundless memory. This ability, despite the years, has never disappeared.
Funes is now an architectural journalist, although he never studied architecture, his prodigious memory was soon noticed by  the editor of an international journal of architecture and since then he continuously writes. The first time I asked Funes to explain to me his role at the journal, he proudly took one of his headaches magazines, Funes is a fan of puzzles, ‘Beyond Sudoku, the widest range of original and innovative puzzles ‘  (2) and showed me a numbers puzzle titled ‘Birthday Cake’.
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I was not able to understand the link, nor to see a Birthday Cake in that tangle of numbers, I then asked him to elaborate. He explained to me, in great detail, that to unravel the enigma I should first read the instructions:
Reveal a hidden picture by shading certain squares. Apart from the 1s (which can be filled in immediately), each number is half of a pair. Join pairs of numbers so that the number of cells in a linking path (including the cells containing the numbers) is exactly the same as the numbers being paired. Paths may not cross one another. Once all paths have been completed, cells with paths can be shaded to reveal a picture ‘.
I was able to guess the rule now, but the metaphor was still obscure to me. Funes blackened the numbers of the puzzle with mastery and showed me the Result gloating.
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He told me that writing about architecture and interpreting it is like solving the riddle of the Birthday Cake.  Questioning the  Author to understand the rule to follow leads to a perfect analysis of the final Result , the cake .
The search for the author’s original intention , intentio auctoris as Umberto Eco defined it (3), allows the interpretation of a work/text. A text is nothing more than a picnic with the Reader/Interpreter, where the Author brings  words and meaning, and the Reader reflects dozing on both.
The words of Funes did not convince me at all. To interpret a text/ work means explaining why words can do various things ( and not others ) due to the way they are interpreted. Words , instead of saying , hide what is not said .
The reader’s intention, intentio lectoris , does not necessarily correspond to that of the Author . The latter cannot provide the elements for an interpretation , as this may even be irrelevant or deceptive to the meanings  of the text/work . Only what lies beneath the surface may remain unknown for a long time , it is a Reader Model’s duty to look underneath the surface.
I took the Sudoku Beyond that Funes was still holding in his hand and I went on.
Thinking about the Birthday Cake , I may decide not to consider the rule imposed by its Author – its instructions for use – but rather read the puzzle of numbers trying to find different interpretations of it, so analyzing the text/puzzle and seeking its intention, intentio operis .
Funes looked at me with a frown.
I might decide, for instance, to blacken only the numbered boxes and leave the others white . It would come out the master plan of an urban quarter whose numbers indicate the different building typologies applicable to that given area.
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Or I could think of giving a different colour to each number, so that I might define paths within a hypothetical sculpture exhibition map in which the works of an author are arranged according to temporal/ spatial/typological connections  between works bearing the same number. 4
Or I might decide to give a colour to even numbers and one to odd numbers. It would make the plan of a garden , whose plant species , divided between trees and brushes,  have been classified according to the families they belong.
 5
The critical investigation of a work should be based on the analysis of a text/puzzle without worrying too much about the mechanisms by which this makes sense . The attempt to find an ultimate meaning induces inevitably to a shift of meaning.
To establish the meaning of a text/work is the legitimate purpose of a critical analysis , pointed out at this point Funes .
I paused for a moment to reflect on those words, then I continued.
If there is a connection between the Puzzle, the Rule and the Result , the role of Funes in the journal is to just look at Rules and Results , to an intentio auctoris and, as a consequence, to its intentio lectoris. Why not instead focus attention on the intentio operis which Rules and Results derive from and to which are essential ?
Alessandro Mendini in a conversation on ‘ The Role of Radical Magazines ’ said :
‘ Communicating so much visual information in a non critical way, as magazines do, makes architecture and design an almost pornographic attraction : the publishing of fantastic pictures that might only be fantastic in their visual aspect ‘. (4)
The reinterpreting of the Puzzle rather than the ready and served Birthday Cake, is necessary to avoid reading the same story everywhere and recognising in the Result only what we already think and know .
Communicate architecture does not mean visually informing about architecture, but rather starting and continuing a discussion about architecture . The text/work should be a machine designed to elicit interpretations .
‘ There are no facts, only interpretations ‘ , Funes said, remembering Nietzsche’s words, and smiled.
Then he looked again at the Puzzle , trying to figure out why it could not simply be a Birthday Cake.
 
(1) Jorge Luis Borges, Funes The Memorious, 1944 ;
(2) Beyond Sudoku, Issue n.51 ;
(3) Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, 1992;
(4) EP/Volume 1, The Italian Avant-Garde, 1968-1976, 2013.  

Noli me Tangere

London 5.30pm, Monday to Friday

610px-Personal_Space.svg copy  

Diagram of Edward T. Hall’s personal reaction bubbles (1966 )

Everyday the Commuter starts  his journey to the Hades of the Underground. Grabbed a shouted Evening Standard, worn voluminous headphones and kept an eye on the time,  the struggle for existence becomes his main rule.

The Commuter doesn’t need to look at Harry Beck’s iconic diagram, the tube map is stamped in his mind; every escalator, every framed advertisement, every corridor, every mind the gap is a sequence in a whirling circuit, continuous and without ending.

The Commuter doesn’t think but run; touched its Oyster on the yellow card reader, his mind’s response to stimuli  suddenly changes. Reflective materials applied to different surfaces  work as a source of natural light in his mind, an overview of the level below provides a feeling of safety ( to be able to see and to be seen ), spacious platforms reduce the sense of being in an enclosed area, bright colours introduce variety in atmospheres and create a more dynamic space. Descending into the underground apparently doesn’t  affect the Commuter psychologically. No fear of entrapment, no disorientation, no loss of connection with the natural world, no lack of natural light and poor ventilation, no sense of oppression. Everything is perfectly controlled and monitored.

The Commuter is always in a rush. It is practically unthinkable  waiting for more than 2 minutes on the platform edge. The working schedule in the morning and the desire to go back home in the evening  might be the immediate reasons of such a hurry.

The Commuter is truly ready for anything, if the stake is a train to reach a destination in the least amount of time. As Emperor penguins, the Commuters stand together wrapped inside the coach; not because they want to conserve heat through contact with their fellows, but rather because ‘ filling all the available space’ is commanded by the Tfl platform staff. Using an interior design scheme dated 1923, the CentralNorthernPiccadilly andJubilee lines allow the Commuter to violate what the anthropologist Edward T. Hall defined ‘personal space’. In his work on proxemics, Hall separated his theory into two overarching categories : personal space and territory. Body spacing, according to Hall, generates unintentional reactions to  human sensory world and territory refers to the area which a person may ‘lay claim to’  and defend against others. The rest of the lines, BakerlooCircleDistrictVictoria and Metropolitan, following a 1938 design, contributes to a less flexible idea of free space and capacity on a train.

The Commuter has finally got to his final stop; few escalators  and stairs more and his sight will be unchained, his olfactory sense relieved, his touch moved, his hearing distracted.

The Commuter can now reduce speed, a fast glimpse to the headline of the newspaper :

 ‘ The high street is going underground : shopping on the tube. There is  need for more compact cities. Growing cities will require more efficient use of space in the future, a multilayered land use, particularly in city centres where demand is highest. Locating some function ( such as traffic, shopping, catering facilities, cinemas, museums and theatres ) underground, will create more space above ground for recreation and social activities in the vicinity of residential areas, and will also create possibilities for the development of new residential areas’.

The Commuter, who has just spent 30 minutes and 26 seconds in the underground , fighting for his territory and  for a faster track to escape the breathless tube, thinks on Harry Beck’s  worlds and his brilliant idea conceived for the tube map: ‘ If you are going underground, why do you need bother about geography ? … Connections are the think ‘.

The underground is a place of connections, should we  spend more time down there?

The Commuter questions.

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Photo © Rossella Scalia

A rich man came to ask me to bring art under his roof… I immediately threw out his furniture

[AJ WRITING PRIZE 2012] Shortlisted: Rossella Scalia
Image
 
Photo © Geoffrey Farmer
The wealthy businessman, Mr Conformity, and his friends have an ongoing competition. Every Wednesday, each one of them invites the dumbest jackass he can find to a dinner, and each one of the guests is invited to discuss a chosen topic. After the guests have left, the group of friends make fun out of them and vote for the stupidist and most idiotic guest. That evening Mr Conformity began with a question: ‘Do architects have a duty beyond satisfying the demands of the client?’
Mr Success, a world-renowned architect gloating over his good luck, passed judgement: ‘Architecture is the most imposing form of cultural expression. It literally defines our way of looking at the world and interacting with each other. It allows the client to believe in his absolute power and the architect, in turn, to control people. Our responsibility is to produce artworks, the Gesamtkunstwerk.’
He drank all the wine in his glass and continued: ‘I want to tell you about a rich man who one day came to ask me to bring art under his roof. Money doesn’t matter. I went to the man’s house and immediately threw out his furniture. The rich man was overjoyed. He went through the new rooms. Art everywhere he looked. Art in everything and anything. I had forgotten nothing, absolutely nothing. ‘I returned because of his right to check on the placement of the objects, and to answer complicated questions. I didn’t recognise the happiness of the prosperous man, but discovered something else. “Why would you be wearing those slippers?” I blurted out.
‘The master of the house looked at his embroidered shoes, and sighed in relief. The shoes were made from my original design. He answered thoughtfully: “But Mr Architect, you designed these slippers yourself.” ‘Certainly,’ I thundered. ‘But for the bedroom! With these impossible pieces of colour you are destroying the entire atmosphere.’ The prosperous man took the slippers off immediately, and was pleased as punch that I didn’t find his socks offensive. (1)
Miss Integrity, an architecture student invited by Mr Success, was visibly irritated by his words. She whispered: ‘The architect, the artist who designs a building, shouldn’t seek formal, aesthetic, stylistic values nor impose his own taste: all that is ephemeral. He should aim for perpetuity. Architecture is perpetuity. (2)
“Time” is the core element of an effective project. Engineers just build spaces, architects build beyond time. ‘Have you ever thought of reproducing the Parthenon or even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater? Impossible, they are mono-types, they have a shape and a size, and they can fully work even as a ruin. They are artworks, and art is not affected by the changes of time and progress. A technical piece of work, for instance a Fiat car, can’t be timeless because it presupposes self-transformation and self-improvement. ‘Architecture is a thing of art, a phenomenon of the emotions, lying outside questions of construction and beyond them. The purpose of construction is to make things hold together, of architecture to move us.’ (3)
Mr Authenticity, a young filmmaker, the guest of Ms Compromise, looked at Miss Integrity, delighted. But his ecstasy was interrupted by laughter from his neighbour, Sir Greed, a German-born politician and the chairman of the Greed Corporation. ‘Art…Emotion…Time…Perpetuity … Have you folks heard what she has just said? You still have a lot to learn, my dear. Architecture is simply a political tool. What for? For glorifying countries, intimidating enemies and generally for inflating the egos of kings, dictators, politicians and businessmen. ‘History speaks for itself: Napoleon III, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, the American presidents, John Simon Guggenheim, Irvine Sellar. All of them stout patrons of architecture. Think about the Twin Towers and have a guess as to why they have been destroyed. (4)
Perhaps because they were another piece of bad architecture?’ he said, sneering.
‘Architects are just tailors paid to fulfil the needs of powerful people, the clients. Don’t forget, in the past, an architect was as much a uomo di corte as a poet, a painter or a musician. He just discharged his duties without following his own ideas and inspirations. The king was the decision-maker because the king was the client. ‘Money is the motive behind architecture. Your role models? Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Albert Speer, Marcello Piacentini, Boris Iofan, Zhang Kaiji, Philip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind and many more. They truly are masters in the art of construction.
Your perfect client? The richest. Your task? Obey. Your aim? Profit, profit, profit.’
Those last words rumbled in the dining room and everyone remained silent for a few seconds.
Mr Modesty, a little-known architect and designer, who met Sir Greed recently, yelled: ‘Shame on you. You think you can buy the world with your money, but remember, Sir Greed, you will never buy people’s dignity. Probably what I am going to say will sound mad to you, but I learnt to be magnanimous, obliging, fair, reliable and, most of all, not gluttonous. No project is ever successful without loyalty and moral rectitude. My great master, Vitruvius, said architects must be men of learning. (5)
‘All the people you mentioned as role models are not examples of architects with strong creative skills. They are just people who shaped their own ideas to the current fashion, to the likes of others; to impress.
‘Impressing through dimensions is a vulgar exhibitionism, which underlines a lack of identity. Who, even today, is unimpressed by Andrea Palladio, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Oscar Niemeyer, Richard Rogers. It is certainly not a question of the building’s size. All are architects of noticeable personal and creative identity and for that reason they are my role models.
‘Their perfect client? Architecture. Their task? Predict. Their aim? Enchantment, enchantment, enchantment.’
Mr Authenticity, nodding in agreement, added: ‘I’ve never compromised my ideas with producers on my films. If I had, I’d be rich. I’ve simply tried to make a film the way I saw it, very honestly. (6)
‘I’m not commercial and I believe in following my passion. We have to work for man, not against him. We have to give him culture, art, creativity, originality and avoid speculation, squandering, conformism, laziness and ignorance.’
His speech was interrupted by clapping.
‘Let’s have a big hand for the dreamer,’ Ms Compromise, a TV producer, uttered sarcastically.
‘I’ve been listening to this for too long, please stop moralising about architecture and the whole world. ‘Unfortunately we common people with lazy minds, we vain clients, we silly ignorants, we don’t give a monkey’s about your enchantment. ‘Architecture doesn’t belong to dreams. It’s not an illusion. Let’s discuss stairs, walls, roofs, floors, windows, rooms and also about concrete, wood, stone, steel, ceramic, glass, aluminium. Mix all this, make some decisions, arrange a couple of drawings and the project is done, ready for the client. Easy. I pay for that. And everyone is happy.’
A noisy murmur accompanied the dessert.
The guests kept talking until the master of the house, Mr Conformity, editor of an international architecture magazine, closed the debate and the meeting with a diplomatic standing speech. ‘The world we live in, whether we like it or not, is a simple game. If we accept the game’s rules, we play a fantastic match. Let’s leave the imaginary to people less practical than we, clumsy players. Dreams are just dreams. It has always been like this. It has been a pleasure to hear your opinions.’
Full of doubts, the visitors made for the door when a voice broke the silence.
Miss Creativity, a novice architectural journalist interviewed by Mr Conformity a few days before, who had remained silent all evening, turned back to the table and with a confidence she never knew she had, addressed the rest of the group: ‘Architecture is a crystal. Pure, magic, closed, exclusive, independent, unspoilt, uncorrupted, absolute, definitive. Exactly like a crystal. ‘These words are not for true architects, who already know all that, these words are for that people who want to know how architects tick. Love architecture. That’s the only way to truly understand it.’(7)
She went away smugly passing Mr Conformity.
He closed the door shocked and turned to his friends. They couldn’t help themselves from laughing.
A fake smile appeared on his face, he wiped away the sweat from his brow and pronounced:
‘She is definitely the winner.’

Everyone laughed.

CHARACTERS

Mr Conformity, Miss Creativity, Mr Success, Miss Integrity, Ms Compromise, Mr Authenticity, Sir Greed, Mr Modesty.

NOTES
1 Adolf Loos, The Poor Little Rich Man 1900 2 Andrea Palladio, The Four Books of Architecture 1570 3 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture 1923 4 Deyan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World 2006 5 Marco Vitruvio Pollione, De Architectura 29bc 6 Michelangelo Antonioni, interview 1964 7 Gio Ponti, In Praise of Architecture 1957

 

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