martedì 13 gennaio 2015


Questo articolo è in relazione al Vol. 3 di Edge Condition, che ha come tema conduttore l'Arte e l'Architettura. L'articolo non è pubblicato sulla rivista.


Today architecture seems to be on everyone's mouth. The number of web sites specialized in this matter keeps growing as much as the interest of people in the discipline or in the related disciplines such as product and interior design.
At least when for 'architecture' we mean houses or, to say it better, our home. And at least when the word 'architecture' can be easily accompanied with such words as 'fancy', 'cool', 'luxury' and so on. Maybe most people have stopped asking themselves if architecture is still a kind of art.

It's been more than a century since Adolf Loos stated that architecture as an art is limited to the tomb and the monument, as "The house has to please everyone, contrary to the work of art which does not. The work is a private matter for the artist. The house is not."
Dandy, intellectual and really snob he's probably not been completely understood to date, due to his sometimes criptic and contradictory writings and behaviour. He's long been considered a proto-modernist or even a father of modernism. At the same time in his late years he rejected modernism (Corbu's one, just to be clear) as 'just another language among others' and he never really abandoned classical architecture, using with abundance cornices or basements and designing his Chicago Tribune building proposal as a giant doric column.
But what was he really saying regarding art and architecture? Is there a relationship between his new way of seeing architecture and the almost contemporary birth of psychology in Vienna, where he lived and worked? What was for him architecture then, if not an art?

Maybe the real innovation of Loos was his real attempt to avoid a language, that is to avoid to conceive architecture as a means to transmit a message. A message is precisely what all art is instead created for, so maybe it's actually since Loos that architecture can be something different. He said that "Architecture arouses sentiments in man. The architect's task, therefore, is to make those sentiments more precise". Making a sentiment more precise can also be giving it a home. An apt and different place for each sentiment.
He gave counsels, he helped his clients, but he let them choose the furniture and the pieces of art they liked, in clear opposition to his Viennese colleagues of the Secession, who instead preached the total work of art.
The Germans know it all. They have always the right word: gesamtkunstwerk. An architecture that is completely fused with sculpture, paintings and even furniture to give a single unified and complete impression. That is to transmit a message. As a real work of art.
This was the Secession but this had also been gothic cathedrals or Greek temples. Or palladian villas or..maybe all architecture before Adolf Loos? (Fig. 1 and 2)

Thus Loos' was a new way of conceiving architecture: beyond gesamkunswerk. So new that's been misunderstood by his contemporaries and even by modern masters, who instead sometimes were deeply attracted by the fusion of the arts. Think of Le Corbusier and some of his buildings filled with his paintings or murales.
Another reason for the misunderstanding was Loos' insistence with the use of classical details, for which he has never been considered really modern. We can now, after modernism, understand that that was due to his desire to avoid a new language, so classical devices were just his way to use something everyone was used to.

What kind of art can then architecture be? What does it mean "to make sentiments more precise"? To give an apt and proper place for each sentiment and activity of the human beings?

I see Adolf Loos thoughts and buildings as an anticipation of some of the theories of phenomenology. As Gaston Bachelard has sublimely evidenced in his 'The poetics of space', the relationship between our feelings and architecture are so vast and deep that architecture can be with no doubt be considered the most influential of the arts for our lives or, to say it with Ernest Dimnet, "Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul".

Peter Zumthor is considered among the greatest architects that today explicitly refer to phenomenology. I find a strong correspondence between his concept of architecture as an art and what Loos stated architecture had to be. Zumthor says, above all in his 'Thinking Architecture', that architecture is neither message nor sign, but a sensible recipient for the passing of life. A recipient that has to be differently sensible to the different activities of men. He also says that maybe art is the unexpected truth and the role of architecture should be that of revealing to us something that we never previously understood in that way.

Could we live or work constantly listening to Beethoven 5th simphony or to Let it be? We all like them but we surely couldn't. Architecture is not music or sculpture, and what it has to reveal to us is a possibility we have to fully live our lives, or to say it again with Loos, to make our sentiments more precise.

Another parallel between Zumthor and Loos is the absence of language, that meant the use of classical details for the Austrian and the use of modernist and minimal details for the Swiss one century later.

The aim of the present article is to introduce an idea trying to see its evolution in history of architecture and trying to develop a discourse around it. The argument is so vast that of course a single and short article can't be exhaustive, but, trying to make it more complete, I add a final line of reasoning that regards buildings when they are conceived as recipients for other arts.
What can beyond gesamtkunstwerk be when we have to display sculpture or contemporary pieces of art? What can be a true and authentic relationship between architecture and other visual arts?
I think the recipe should be the same: a sensible recipient that creates the right atmosphere, the right mood for people to let them fully understand the works of art displayed.

I have recently visited 'La Congiunta', the tiny building in Giornico, Switzerland, designed by Peter Märkli to host the sculptures of Hans Josephsohn (Fig. 3 and 4). The way this building defines 'a world apart' to display art is so exemplar that it seems to me the most proper example as a case study for what I'm saying. The atmosphere is so powerful that the visitor can forget the entire world outside the entrance door but at the same time so unobstrusive that Josephsohn sculpures can be experienced as in a blank space.
And give you feelings you didn't know before.

3 commenti:

  1. Great thoughts! I think that Loos was against the subverting of 'building culture' for the sake of fanciful ideas, or as some would say 'creativity'. could not be against creativity per se, because every new project demands new solutions, but for Loos, those solutions must be submitted to 'building culture'. And he cannot be entirely against language, because language (in architecture) is the inevitable result of one's personal approach to doing anything. Language in this sense is like a finger-print as well as an echo of 'someones' 'work' with a pre-existing building culture. So very simplistically, Greek style derived from someone's work with timber building (hence details and even Greek word Architect). Roman is really about masonry building, Even Norman Foster's Hi-Tech is about 'his' relationship with industrialised building. What Loos was against I think was the absence of a pre-existing awareness of a pre-existing building culture.
    Zumthor is interesting because although he has always had clear reverence and respect for building culture, his earlier projects in particular tend to be more about the myth / idea of building culture than the reality. In my view, he is like a builder who works with space rather than an architect who submits himself to building culture as Loos tried to be. I think Rossi was more like Loos and Siza is more like Loos, perhaps even Foster. They are all architects related to a very specific building culture of their choosing, which Zumthor is (still) not. Then there is Michelangelo who lived and breathed the culture of stone for decades before he became an architect. Look at his Palazzo dei Conervatori portico, and the unprecedented load-bearding stone! Michelangelo knew that he had really understood true architecture in comparison to his contemporaries, which is why this usually humble man was so proud of his achievements.

  2. I have really only talked about technology, but the other important aspect of building culture is the notion of ' the way things are generally done' and to follow on from what I've said above, the notion of the architect engaging with ' the way things are generally done, i.e. not asking the builder to do something that is strange for him. This is about 'ordinariness' This brings architects like Sergison Bates, Caruso St John and other similar architects into the discussion too. Because builders are really contractors now, this means choosing the commercially correct solution rather than the architectural one. In other words, the problem with Loosian philosophy now is that the builder is no longer 'pure', he is compromised. So in my view, the main job of the architect now is to take over those things that the builder no longer does; to walk a tightrope between working with normal ways and pushing normal ways to the limit to achieve an echo of what in the past would have been simple good artisan practice, like a grumpy old man who wants you to do long division without using a calculator. Often thi means keeping things simple in terms of design, so that there is more chance of them being done 'properly', and this is why the architects I've mentioned, draw everything, even brick-patterns, so that they can be costed. Loos never had to draw brick layouts.

  3. You could argue that the technological aspect of building culture has become so degraded that CNC laser cutting of plywood and 3-D printing are looked upon as 'advancements', which they are, in every sense but the cultural one.