Place and Such Things

À la recherche du lieu perdu

In “Place, Production and Scenography: international theory and practice since 1962,” the conclu ding chapter of Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History, published in London in 1980,1 the author gives an account of recent architectural developments and trends in progress at the time of the writing. Having underlined the ineffectiveness of operative planning in the development of the physical form of settlements, toward which he seemed to show a certain indifference, he examined the potential promise of urban design, noting: «There is, as Hans Sedlmayr has pointed out, a moment when place and production are fused together to yield that quality of character from which we receive our identity.»2 This fundamental issue raised in the brief introduction points to the division between architectural culture and architectural practice, between a line of action oriented toward interpreting the dominant methods of production and a second, more defensive one, which aims to re-establish the sense of relations, while running the risk of slipping into the introversion of the enclave. The con- sequence is a loss of the very sense of “urbanness” and, ultimately, quality of life. Nor does it seem possible for an incentive to come from the population itself, which seeks a remedy for its discomfort mostly by turning to the reassuring visage of tradition, if not to its post-modern parody, failing to go «beyond the surface issue of style to demand that architectural practice should re-address itself to the issue of place creation, to a critical yet creative redefinition of the concrete qualities of the built domain.»3

Thirty years on, we may well ask whether the hope for design efficacy evoked by this historian has managed, beyond the legacy of theoretical reflection, to bring architectural “good practices” in its wake, in the exercise of the practical and academic profession. This is a question that needs to be criti- cally addressed on a number of levels, in an era marked by globalized production which seems in most cases to nurture indifference to the context, operating with an import-export mentality in a context where “bespoke” projects are suffocated by prêt-à-porter architecture.

Despite this, indications of a renewed sensitivity to the identifying characteristics of place as the ma- trix and source of inspiration of architectural design can be found in the words and works of authorita- tive figures inside and beyond European architectural culture, and they often surface as the premises of widespread teaching methods.

On the other hand, we might also ask ourselves if the sometimes emphatic attention directed towards the impact of the morphology and genesis of a given place does not constitute a kind of refuge in the face of the acknowledged impossibility, for architecture, to “make city” or, as an alternative, to seek a shared stylistic physiognomy.

Le lieu retrouvé (en théorie)

Signs of impatience with the internationalization of language and the standardization of settlement mo- dels, rightly or wrongly blamed on the postwar production of the Modern Movement – implying a criti- que of its theoretical principles4 – were soon manifested in the cultural debate of the 1950s and 1960s.

The controversy between Ernesto N. Rogers/Casabella and Reyner Banham/Architectural Review is too well known to require more than a mention here. What is important to underline is that the focus on “pre-existing environmental factors” as well as the reference to continuity of traditions contained the implicit urging to pay greater attention to the value of places, in both historical and geographical terms. This direction had already been taken by personalities of the caliber of Albini, Gardella and Ri- dolfi, in Italy, and Sostres or Coderch, in Spain, all of whom were experimenting with new variations on the modern in their constructions, which were more thoroughly grafted onto the environmental features of the urban context. In a very different context, there is the contribution of Alvar Aalto on the theme of the relationship with the natural landscape, transposed into a poetic interpretation of space (he is not alone, but he is mentioned here due to his influence on the Spanish architecture of the following decades.)

During the 1960s we can observe a striking output of theoretical studies whose aim was to place the architectural project within a broader frame of reference, embracing urban and territorial systems: from Vittorio Gregotti’s book, which starting with an anthropological and geographical vision moves towards the prioritizing of the settlement principle, to the works of Kevin Lynch, regarding aspects of our perception of urbanized landscapes.5

In The Architecture of the City Aldo Rossi formulates two approaches through which architectural design can take part in the construction of the physical environment: on the one hand, with reference to the general structure of urban episodes and their transformation over time, and on the other in the light of the unique, unrepeatable character emanating from places that speak to us about themselves. Two working methods emerge: the first, under the aegis of urban analysis and architectural design, aims to construct a scientific system in which the study of architectural episodes and that of the city are recombined into a single framework, and treated as phenomena with a shared nature; the second is applied to urban or landscape contexts dense with morphological and historical overtones.

After several decades, we can only admit the failure of the first approach to orient urban transformation, which is why Pierluigi Nicolin was able to state, in one of the last issues of Lotus:

«After the failure of the last attempt to establish an accord between architecture and the city with the proposals of urban morphology put forward by Rossi, Aymonino, Quaroni, Huet, etc., the conviction emerged, at least from the 1980s onward, that it was necessary to accept once and for all the incapacity of architecture to create city, to form a significant urban morphology (...).»6

Also: «Since the time when it was commonly agreed that the architecture of the city could only be realized through a succession of independent objects, abandoning for good the illusion of being able to determine the ‘ground’ through an urban morphology,» the action of design to restore some semblance of urbanness seems to have shifted into the hands of the new landscape design, or other settlement strategies.

On the other hand, the focus on the specificity of individual places, particularly if endowed with a special – either natural or artificial – aura, seems to have fared better, nurtured by writings like Ge- nius Loci, which at the end of the 1970s rallied a widespread sensibility regarding this theme around the slogan: «Architecture means to visualize the genius loci, and the task of the architect is to create meaningful places, whereby he helps man to dwell.»7

Among the many declarations made in that period I will extract, purely as an example, a passage from the manifesto written by Leon Krier to present his projects on the city: «The debate which both Robert Krier and myself want to raise with our projects is that of the urban morphology as against the zoning of the planners.»8 Hence the rise of projects whose initial impetus was the historical stratification and configuration of the site, to the point of proposing a kind of mimetic growth of the pre-existing struc- ture, as is apparent in the manifesto project presented for the Echternach High School, or in the purely demonstrative design made in collaboration with James Stirling for the Derby City Hall in 1970. In this case, the break with urban continuity engenders a structure which, rather than imposing its own functional or typological order, seeks the reasoning of its form in the desire to repair an existing brea- ch (forcing functions into the morphological framework,) while at the same time giving rise to a novel space: the new square framed by the gallery.

Nor should we overlook, on a completely different figurative front, the practices of extraction of Gior- gio Grassi, using the structure of the site to find the reasons and meaning of the project. On a me- thodological level this attitude emerges, for example, in the project presented for the restoration of the town of Teora after an earthquake. The approach is then developed in a series of projects submitted for competitions, among which the one for Siena emerges as an experimental demonstration of a device of interpolation between place and construction – and between the old and the new – in which the typological imprint seems to dissolve.

Other declarations express the terms of a poetic that becomes discourse, from Aldo Rossi – «I have always claimed that places are stronger than people, the fixed scene stronger than the transitory suc- cession of events» and «I always think of a place in a particular way. Certainly in any given place many things come together; a place presents itself as a result...»9 – to Rafael Moneo, who in his On place, time and specificity in architecture sums up the main tenets of his thinking in this area.

From these and other writings we can glean certain basic postulates, the obviousness of which may be taken as the objective evidence of a factual state of affairs:

- Even if metaphorical or fictitious, the place constitutes a primum for an architectural project, its raw material: «It is therefore the place, with all its circumstantial implications, which constitutes the first material manifestation of any construction» and «The place, then, contributes to determine the charac- ter and meaning of the architectural structure which is or will be built on the site.»10

- Architecture, in turn, transforms the place, specifying it, discerning «which of the existing condi- tions (...) should be ignored, eliminated, or enhanced,»11 and where it was but barren ground, it beco- mes place.

- The place is a necessary pre-condition of the design, but is not sufficient: the principle of belonging is sterile if not substantiated by the formal qualities of architecture that stem from the sense of the “thing” itself and the properties of the structure itself, be it an institution or a house.

It is difficult for me to trace an up-to-date picture of recent theoretical developments, as these seem to have taken the route of more sophisticated investigations with implications that are not without a phi- losophical and extradisciplinary nature: the contributions included in this issue can certainly provide more precise and insightful coordinates for orientation on the theme of place. I will limit my personal contribution to a few reflections of a general nature that come to mind on this subject.

Minima localia: reflections on place, in no particular order

Architecture and the city, or design and place

«How does a genuine, thorough relation with the city in which we are building come to exist? It exists only insofar as it carries over the general features of the city into motifs of its own planning.»12 Aldo Rossi writes in an essay in 1972. In effect, the desire to establish a connection between the architectu- ral character of the work and the general tone we perceive as being characteristic of a particular city is very present in the author’s work and is explicitly expressed in the statements that accompany his projects for Turin and Berlin.

It should be clear that we are talking about two corresponding objectives: while on the one hand the search for harmony with l’ âme de la cité intends to echo or condense inside the architectural object the overall structure of the city or the main characteristics of its historical sedimentation, it is also true that every new insertion contributes to fix or to vary the symphonic timbre of the urban concert. In some cases new dominant tones are added as is demonstrated by the influence of the work of Mansart on the urban look of Paris, or the legacy of the Rastrelli-Quarenghi-Rossi trio in St. Petersburg. This aspiration involves the architect as both an artist-intellectual able to perceive the cultural core of a spe- cific city, and as a builder, since the form can only be manifested in the concrete language of material.

In the present, the ambition of bringing together architecture and the city seems to have been put aside, in favor of the forced introduction of stateless architectural organisms – as in Milan, Beijing or Shanghai – though there are attempts to keep the connection alive: the work of Hans Kollhoff or Theo Brenner in Berlin, for example, might be seen in this light.

Zoom out - zoom in: if on a worldwide scale interactions between global color and local color seem to prevail,13 in contrast to the experiences at the level of regional schools, it can be said that in general the area of cultured design favors the concept of a relationship with the site, including the peculiari- ties linked to its physical configuration, historical stratification, and neighboring constructions. The project becomes first of all a response to the specific place: the place itself becomes the theme, both in a poetic sense and in order to give rise to a new pattern of spatial and social relations among the elements that constitute the scene. Such interpretations will be briefly discussed below, taking as examples some experiences from the Iberian cultural scene.

It should in any case be pointed out that there are recent examples of architecture which have been able to hold to the character of the site and at the same time reflect the character of the city. One con- vincing example of this “double range” construction is Ignazio Gardella’s Department of Architecture in Genoa, which interprets the morphology of the site from which it seems to emerge naturally, as a quintessentially Genoese construction.

Paradise lost

In the work by Aldo Rossi quoted above, there is another passage which merits attention. Having appreciated Le Corbusier’s skillful use of the terrain in the building of the Convent of La Tourette, he asserts that the insertion of a building on a site remains an essentially technical matter, adding: «To imagine a more complex relationship with the countryside than that of the incorporation into it of a piece of architecture may be a fascinating question, but undoubtedly a dangerous one. This type of relationship, where nature or earlier buildings are fused together with new additions without any clear limits, ends with Greek and Etruscan architecture; to hope to update it is a delusion.»14

Here, we can sense traces of an anti-organicist position, or simply a form of distrust toward those “environmentalist” attitudes which aim to camouflage architecture in the natural or built landscape. It is true that subsequent theoretical developments, from Norberg-Schulz to Espuelas, have supplied more sophisticated interpretations for an understanding of the intimate nature of place, and our phi- losophical outfitting in this regard seems to be more comprehensive today. On the other hand, an as- piration has emerged, previously advanced in the theoretical formulations of the Modern Movement, to reconcile dwelling and nature, revised in the form of redeeming environmentalism. However one wishes to see it, the statement quoted leads us to reflect on the artificial and earthly sense of man’s construction. The disavowal of this artificial character, insisting on establishing a primordial fusion with natural things, seems illusory once the pact has been broken between men, places and things intrinsically linked by a shared animistic sentiment. The separation from the widespread divinity that inhabited the landscape – a migration that apparently concluded with the end of the Neolithic period, when divinities and the sacred abandoned the forests, waters and hills to gather on Mount Olympus, or somewhere even higher up – is hugely significant in the history of man and the built environment.

This irreparable severance is the backdrop of the mythological reflections of Cesare Pavese’s Dialo- gues with Leucò, in which one of the dominant themes is the transition from the chaos of an as yet indistinct natural state to the new order imposed by the deities on Olympus, marking the beginning of
the new human adventure characterized by awareness of limits:

- The water, the wind, the rock and the cloud are no longer your things, you can no longer press them close to you, engendering and living. Other hands henceforth hold the world. (...) you can no longer mingle with us others, the nymphs of the springs and of the mounts (...) Destiny has changed.

- These places now are what they were before there were men. (...). You’ll admit that we no longer have encounters with gods on mountain paths.

- In those days beast and swamp brought gods and men together. We were mountain and horse, plant and cloud and running water, we were everything then, everything on earth.15

But the separation from nature and the unfathomable distance of the new deities, though it has produ- ced the wound we still bear individually and as a society, is also the seed from which human civiliza- tion originates:

- Men are poor worms, but with them everything is unforeseen, everything is a discovery... Only if you live with them and for them can you enjoy the savor of the world. (...) True. Everything they touch becomes time. Becomes action. Waiting and hope. (...). Like these vineyards that they’ve taught them- selves to grow on these hillsides... I never dreamed they would make such a delicious place of these wild, rocky slopes. And the same is true of their crops and their gardens. Wherever they lavish their sweat and their speech, a rhythm, a sense, a repose is born16.

The yearning to return permeates the theories of the Modern Movement, finding an authoritative standard-bearer in Le Corbusier. Addressing this, Giancarlo Consonni notes: «La natura è vista come un fatto primigenio, da creazione del mondo. LC ritiene possibile un presunto stato originario, di cui si cura di preservare, attraverso la tecnica, il carattere virginale. Non conta che la tecnica sia nata dalla necessità di rendere abitabile la terra e sia evoluta in un processo in cui artificio e natura si sono fusi dando luogo a realtà inscindibili.»17

This is why we wonder if the attempts at “re-animation” (literally) of our primordial relationship with nature, through rituals of “green worship,” are not destined to be deceptive, since the consciousness of time has marked the autonomy of thinking et le commencement de l’ histoire. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be the utmost respect for nature and the earth, or that one cannot enjoy the woods and streams, or love trees,18 but we should recognize that this is all culture. The task is to tend to cities, the places of life, the vineyards.

No place. Nowhere. (Kein Ort. Nirgends)

Official architectural culture seems to be obsessed with asserting the importance of place as the main gate of entry of the project. Particularly because the notion of type has found itself on shaky ground, accused being unable to interpret the dynamics of territorial changes19 despite a passionate defense by Carlos Martí aimed at demonstrating the intrinsic vitality of typological categories.20 It would seem that by the end of the 1900s the Vitruvian triad had shifted into a quad, whose fourth element might be called relatio.

Many of the cited authors make haste to state that any architectural project presumes a place as the primary condition for the existence of architecture; and even when projects, with enlightened deta- chment, remain abstract, more focused on an idea, a figure, or on representation of an institution or a principle of construction, the place – be it virtual or metaphorical – seems in any case to be active, though only as an implied presence, or behind the scenes.21 Whether it is in the bourgeois city, in the case of the buildings of Durand, or in the futuristic scenarios of the metropolis, like the experimental forays of MVRDV or Rem Koolhaas.

The emphasis put on the need for place as the gateway of the project may be motivated, on the one hand, by the urgent need to erect a cultural barrier against the tendency to catapult self-referential objects into different parts of the globe. But on the other hand, it should not make us overlook the fact that the attribution of meaning based on the representation of a civil function, as well as of the act of construction, is to a great extent independent from the connotations of place, often opposing resistance to it. Nevertheless, if we attempt to replace the reality of the site with the indeterminacy of a metaphorical landscape, the danger arises of fraudulent operations in which the scenario is used to legitimize fantastic sculptures that have little to do with the nature of settlements. The fact remains that all constructed architecture, by necessity – y por suerte – must refer to a concrete site, its terrain. Even when the site lacks any particular characteristics that might inform the design, or when the archi- tecture is the fruit of abstract work as the materialization of an ideal model, the act of building some- thing deeply alters the site, determining a new place character through architecture.22 In other cases we find ourselves confronted with a relationship “of contrast” as often happens with villas in classical style contrasting with naturalistic or romantic landscape gardening, where the sensation of the place is created by the tension between two formal principles. One example of this kind of disorientation that becomes arcane eloquence is the church of San Biagio designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder at the foot of Montepulciano: a treatise-powered spaceship that has touched down in a context of cultivated fields and woods.23

Poetics of space: Iberian paradigms

In 1981 Pierluigi Nicolin, commenting in the magazine Lotus on three works by Álvaro Siza for Ber- lin Kreuzberg within the IBA program, emphasized the specific value attributed to the theme of the block, approached not as one segment of a series within a general urban structure, but as «a complete field of action, a circumscribed portion on which to operate,» adding:

«If we were to describe the effects of this particular sensibility towards topography we should have to focus on Siza’s attention to the primary, pre-linguistic elements of urban construction, such as the division of property (with boundary walls and blind walls,) heterogeneity of use, co-presence of di- fferent types of object, layering of a history of occupation. Materials are used in a refined strategy, a subtle means to arrange the insertion of new buildings.»24

Nicolin continues with a list of seven points, summarizing into a sort of table the microstrategies used by Siza to give form to his buildings, beginning with a generative plot based on non-conventional interpretation of the place. In effect, if we study the plan for the small project (never built) on Kottbus- serstrasse, which was to partly cover a gap in the street frontage, we discover that the plan is in exact accordance with the accidental course of the internal boundary of the lot, resolving the angle towards the street in just this way, while an “urban rationalist” would probably have focused on a more struc- tural morphological feature, namely the street frontage, adjusting the irregularities of the back of the lot. In this instance the priority is given to the morphological peculiarities of the place – the specific area of the project, the hic et nunc – rather than the general rule of urban design.

That practice of listening, capturing the voice of the place, is even more explicit in the works of Siza that come to terms with a natural habitat or, more precisely, with a circumstantial landscape whose secret traces seem more evanescent than those of an urban setting. In these works, the sequence of sketches documents and testifies to the absorbing course of reconnoitering which becomes the incep- tion and basis of the project.

It should in any case be said that the works of Siza, though clearly demonstrating a willingness to embrace the suggestions of the site, nevertheless maintain an aura of stylistic continuity that is perpe- tuated beyond the single project. The same might be said of those of Giorgio Grassi, though in a rather different expressive key. Remaining on Iberian ground, the research of Rafael Moneo often seems to reflect a more daring and unconventional approach. If we compare the Town Hall of Murcia to the Kursaal of San Sebastian, two projects described with all due analytical argumentation as responses to the pre-existing conditions of the place, we cannot fail to notice that the theme/place encounter has led to architectural results so different from each other that it is hard to imagine they were made by the same architect. We should not overlook the fact that in both cases it is the construction that stands out, responding to the specific circumstances of the place and becoming its distinctive characteristic.

Moneo writes: “to learn to listen to the murmur of the site is one of the most necessary experiences in an architectural education.”25 I would personally tend to say that Siza listens to places, whereas Moneo interrogates them.

Which place do you belong to?

I propose a little experiment: let’s look at the map of Merida in which the plan of the Museum of Ro- man Art designed by Rafael Moneo has been inserted, imagining that we don’t know the constructed work. We would probably conclude that the installation seems tailor made, and that the idea has ini- tiated with the urban topography: the wall positioned so as to continue along the course of the cadas- tral sequence of partitions of the surrounding area; the adaptation of the southern side, following the bend of the road; the change of frontage that registers, almost like a fault line, the border of transition between the compact composition of the blocks and the gap of the archeological area. Let us now ima- gine the plan of the building transplanted to a deserted area on the shores of the Mediterranean: now we might very well think we can recognize the structure of an ancient Roman building, one of those service structures like the horrea where the construction system of the walls is simplified, without ar- chitectural embellishment. Our impression would be fully confirmed by knowledge of the constructed building, whose internal elevations and constructive narrative constitute an almost literal reference to ancient Roman architecture.

So we might say that the project positions itself on two places: one is real, the part of Merida to which the design docilely adapts, while the other is elective, the territory of ancient architecture to which the work declares its loyalty in terms of figure and construction. It matters little whether they are places of history or of the spirit – they are probably both. Nor is it necessary to turn to the Renaissance for some ideal background, or to the excavations in time conducted by Louis Kahn. It makes more sense to compare the tendency, generally expressed by exponents of the academic culture, of placing the design of architecture and place in a wider temporal context, with practices entirely based on present action, which claim to directly convey the vocations of places and the spirit of the time. In the first case the danger is of appearing “decadent,” i.e. of not managing to bring forth the forms of our own time, thus having to borrow representations elaborated in other place-time environs; in the second, the barbaric component implicit in action-design, though effective in terms of visual impact, runs the risk of exhausting itself in the immediate moment, failing to take root in the context and, ultimately, leaving no trace. To identify a third way26 is not easy, but perhaps this is the challenge; if asked to take sides between Brunelleschi and Alberti, I would unfailingly reply: Brunelleschi.

Atmospheric seductions

Among the present theoretical interpretations, there is room for a line of research that might be sum- med up under the heading of “atmospheric.” Its philosophical underpinnings are found in authors like Gernot Bhöme and Jürgen Hasse; within the architectural field a contribution comes from Peter Zumthor with his Atmospheres. Architectural Environments - Surrounding Objects.27 The attention paid to those “semi-things” known as atmospheres brings to the foreground the perceptive interac- tions between subject and object, and therefore the relations we establish with the space around us. This aspect has been deliberately ignored by vast areas of architectural culture in the second half of the 20th century, in favor of a rigoristic vision not without strong ideological overtones, aimed at comprehending the rational foundations of urban and architectural facts. This neglect was fomented by radical distrust regarding the manipulation of the presumed and ineffable qualities of space. In the best of cases, an unspoken rule applied: certain things are done but not mentioned. After some years I have no problem admitting that what happened at the time was a much too drastic intellectual amputation, and that in retrospect it was a mistake to exorcise the perceptive and sensorial nature of architecture (although I prefer to speak of its sensual side, an aspect which has been practiced far and
wide for centuries.)

That cities and, after them, places seem to possess their own atmospheric charge, in a positive or ne- gative sense, is too common a sensation among both their inhabitants and visitors not to be accepted as fact. More often than not it is the result of slow historical stratification, the sedimentation of forms, odors, sounds, colors and faces, rather than a process of preordained planning.28 Nevertheless, though it is possible to analyze and describe ex post the atmospheric qualities of a place (noting here that perhaps the best descriptions of the mood of a city come from writers,) it is quite a different thing to try to control ex ante the atmospheric effect of a design, if for no other reason than the fact that we cannot – nor should we – govern the perceptive reactions of the public.

In ordinary practice, the problem lies in deciding if and how to match the tone of a given place, its atmospheric wavelength. Given the knowledge that an architectural project, whether it is a single buil- ding or an urban ensemble, is inevitably one of place: as we have said, the presence of even a single object, in itself, alters things.

Does this mean that the planning of physical space must be oriented toward a sort of cautious neu- trality, and need not contain its own emotional potential? Accepting Griffero’s thesis which suggests that we «di attribuire non a tutti i sentimenti ma sicuramente a quelli atmosferici, spaziali in senso non metaforico, un’esistenza esterna e semi-oggettiva,»29 a promising field of action appears also for those, like this writer, who have always tended to look for intrinsic qualities and not subjective pro- jections in architecture.

The cautious attitude to which I subscribed referred to the fact that the builder should be concerned with the primary and intrinsic qualities of an architectural project, though taking into account the atmospheric inertia which an external or internal space seems to convey. Not an atmospheric design as such, then, but a kind of pre-condition (pre-sentiment), inscribed in the very body of architecture. Hasse’s statement «it is possible to plan the attribution of atmospheres but not of moods to an architec- tural space»30 already seems too assertive. I would speak of potential atmospheric attributes, of an at- mospheric frame which can be freely perceived, absorbed and reworked as a feeling of a spatial nature.

If it is possible to conceive of a space as a potential source of emotional states, it follows that a sensitive treatment of nuances, and not just the tectonic hardware, becomes important. The problem might be to make reference to perceptively stable, if not constant, emotional dominants, and above all ones that have an intersubjective range, that make reference, that is, to forms of perception that are passably (or statistically) shared. Without this, there is the risk of reducing architecture to an event or to a form of imposed spectacle. And we should recall that architecture, though possessing a theatrical side, should not be confused with an art installation.

Topological overloads

On the pages of magazines or on university desks, one often runs across architectural projects for buildings or public places in which the formal matrix is borrowed from elements of morphological analysis of the site. In particular, if you ask a student “why did you do this,” more often than not they will point to motives stemming from more or less justifiable interpretations of topography, historical stratifications and/or local needs, at times presenting choices of a purely linguistic nature as manipu- lations of the characteristics of the context. Deducing from the specific site more than it can possibly offer, as if the genesis of form depended exclusively on this relationship, putting the building itself, the construction characteristics, the representational effect, etc., into the background, leads to the risk of undermining the complexity of the design action itself. The suspicion also arises that the footprints, shortenings, porosity and genuflexions deduced from presumed auscultation of the place are actually expedients to legitimize personal projections or to supply a scholarly alibi for extravagant geometric displays. Whereas elsewhere, as in China, for example, they could not care less: new constructions are built from scratch, regardless of place and history: the power of barbarism!

To go back to thinking that architecture should provide a certain type of resistance to place might constitute a theoretical premise for rekindling debate on design, in the hoping of triggering the type of dialogue, however, that ensures that the abstraction of the scheme can accommodate the specificities and shadings of a given context – morphological variants, orientation, landscape, materials – in a pro- cess of adaptation that confers a character of adequacy on the architectural deed. Finally, it should also be said that if intervention in the square in Murcia, or another special place, implies a sophisticated interpretation of the sedimentation over time of the network of relations, in most cases designing for a particular site means giving shape to places that are absent, silent or inarticulate; pursuing flimsy, often entirely accidental territorial traces can be a symptom of a substantial lack of ideas.

We can glimpse an opportunity to re-establish an ethics of place, as opposed to those design visions that claim to exploit the nature of things for the purpose of providing a basis for personal morphemes. The apparently provocative invitation “let’s get back to being topographers!” might turn out to be a salutary practice. It means first and foremost paying close attention to the material conditions that ac- company the insertion of a building in a place: the control of measurements, the correct layout of the foundations, respect for the contours of the land, etc., without ever forgetting that it is equally salutary to “go back to being builders, hopefully with a knowledge of Latin,” in the awareness that it is possible to respond to the questions of a given place through the language of construction.

Attempts at urban reunification

House and city: faced with a convention of urban planning largely based on the theories of the Modern Movement, successfully taken towards the separation of constructed bodies on the basis of a rationa- list distinction between the various objects that make up inhabited space, the recent European repertoire31 is not lacking in attempts to work on the contiguity and the interrelation of the system of public spaces with the intent of sanctioning the affiliation of inhabited places within the urban aggregate.

It can almost be taken for granted that efforts to mend and rejoin physical separation find fertile ground where the framework of the city, or we might say of the plan, is still clear and vital, as in the case of Barcelona; in more amorphous contexts the implementation becomes more difficult. Never- theless, in a long-term perspective – presuming that transformations, at least in Europe, will mostly be oriented toward reconstruction rather than new expansion – these strategies should find a broad field of application.

What seems to hold together the wide range of solutions dictated by contexts and opportunities is the challenge to the opposition, forcefully represented by the 19th-century urban block, between street fron- tage/public space and more private inner zones, in search of spatial devices suited to mediation between the private and the public sectors of cities. The result is a kind of koinè that sets the stage for promising developments in the architecture of the home, making it osmotic in its interaction with urban life. Here the strategies of public/private and indoor/outdoor mediation seem to lead to planned spatial solutions in the public spaces between buildings or those pertaining to them, as well as the “in-between” zones: thresholds, halls, passages. That is to say, place (and urbanness) are brought into the home.

From particular to universal

Let’s imagine we are in the Venetian countryside, where we come across one of those patrician villas designed by Andrea Palladio, for example Villa Emo. We would be struck by the precise relationship the villa establishes with its surrounding agricultural property: the reiteration of the north-south orien- tation based on centuriation, the dominance of the central volume in the perspective, accentuated by the rise leading to the entrance, the extension of the lateral wings (barchesse) that seem to embrace the fields that are the reason for being of this country estate. If we connect what we see with what we know, namely the narrative of the life and social relations that existed in such estates, and the histori- cal analysis of the economic and productive reasons for their development, everything would lead us to conclude that these country manors, inhabited by a worldly, educated, and musical society,32 still transmit an image of rootedness and belonging to these territories, seeming to have been designed precisely for those environs.

Yet the architecture of Palladian villas has undoubtedly been one of the most successful Italian ex- ports across the centuries, on a par with brands like Armani and Ferrari. It is a recurring figure in the English landscape, the Russian steppes and the cotton fields of Louisiana, though at times what is transmitted is more the imitation of an architectural language than of the structure. How can we explain this? The general content imprinted in the physical form of the villas – dispositio and lan- guage – results in an architecture which is born in a specific place and context, but can be exported elsewhere with comparable evocative impact. A kind of enfranchisement made possible by the dual physiognomy of the Palladian villas. This is a fate that seems to extend to all great works of architec- ture: the appearance of being conceived to respond to hic et nunc conditions, and at the same time the capacity to become a citizen of the world. It is important here to make a distinction between stateless architecture and cosmopolitan architecture.

Places in time

«Perhaps only through a kind of inattention (...) is one faithful to a place, to what ultimately changes very slowly:»33 although the speed and virulence of the transformations imposed on the territory over the last century have made it difficult to sustain the idea of a relative permanence of the value of place, granted by centuries of continuity, we can still recognize the existence of an inertial component, if for no other reason than that the stage seems to be more stable than the shifting presence of the characters and events. Nevertheless, the stage also changes, more or less slowly. It is difficult to keep this in mind during the design phase, particularly at present, when the dominant logic seems to be that of the “ins- tant project” whose impact seems to be limited to a time span of hasty consumption. In the design of a garden or a park, one has to be able to “see” the effect of the vegetation that will grow over the decades, though of course unexpected transformations can change things. This kind of foresight is one of the tools of the trade, and the garden is by definition a work in progress. It is harder to imagine the changes over time in the places of architecture and the city, not only because of unforeseeable future variations, but also because of the artificial nature of the built environment which might be said to be more resis- tant to the future: as long as a building exists it participates in defining the character of a street or a square in an essentially stable way. Things around it may change, it may age and decay, but its identity remains. This dual condition – to be inevitably representative of the present and to take part in the “slow construction”34 of inhabited space – should suggest an attitude of far-sightedness, quite apart from the predicted lifespan of the construction. To respect the permanent conditions evoked by Auguste Perret, not just those of the moment, which in any case must be addressed, might be a salutary first step.

This argument may not hold for great architecture, one which is able to irradiate or dominate the site even in a situation of splendid isolation. But for more prosaic works, whose existence depends on engagement with everyday life, simply understanding where one is and putting aside prima donna posturing might be a good rule with which to settle back down into the discreet dynamics of places. At the start of the 1980s I had the opportunity to design a hotel in the center of a provincial Italian town: the result was modest, also because of various vicissitudes over and above my own lack of experience, but it was solidly built, and even in its uncertain mannerism it reflected the local common denominator of a city that has always replaced full-fledged stylistic expression with a contaminated or inhibited version, in some cases restrained, in others hybridized. So I said to myself: “True, it is not a great building, but maybe over time it will blend into the urban tone of the place and somehow be absorbed by it, just as an old piece of furniture that once belonged to your aunt can become a part of your own décor, as if it had always been there.” And this is actually what happened, whereas other buildings in which the architectural language was more forceful now appear foreign to the place.

What remains, in any case, is the daunting responsibility of architectural design with respect to the space that hosts it, as Joseph Brodsky points out about Venice. After drawing a parallel between the notion of time and the changing reflections on the water, whose anarchy scorns the very notion of form, he adds: «It is as though space, cognizant here more than anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only property time doesn’t possess: with beauty.»35 Of course Venice is unique, but the desire to oppose time is universal, and perhaps design that comes into being is nothing more than the battle we know we cannot win against time. From the fleeting time of everyday life to the looming time that crosses life spans; what else can we do but use the unfortunately temporary expedient of contrasting time on a plane outside its jurisdiction, searching for form in space and substance?

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