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From the Idea of migration to the Migration of ideas: interview with Luca Mazzari

Luca Mazzari was born in Genoa in 1961 where he graduated and founded, with Liliana Leone, the Archifax Architetti Associati studio. He designs buildings and home furnishings with Italian design companies. He teaches “Theory of Perception” applied to the project at the European Institute of Design in Florence.

The contemporary artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, on 23 December 2016 and for the following four months, transformes Palazzo Strozzi in Florence into a work of art within a work of art. The Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi organizes an exhibition on the most powerful living Chinese artist with the aim of retracing all his dissident art. Among the various works and installations there is the one that Weiwei has specially designed for the exhibition: twenty-two orange rafts are hung on the facade of Palazzo Strozzi which becomes part of the artwork.

What Weiwei does is not simply to hang an already evocative object, especially in this period, on the facade of a very important palace of Italian history and architecture. In fact, he does not bring to the attention of the public a very urgent theme such as immigration only by placing the work on the main facade, then visible to anyone, even if not interested in the exhibition itself. The artist does not choose to distribute the twenty-two inflatable boats on the elevation of Palazzo Strozzi to create disarray or indignation for the act itself.

Ai Weiwei does much more: he puts the Italian identity into his work. Those who can see beyond the appearance of things, especially in the history of art, combining the actions of the artists with each other without prejudice, get the purest idea achievable. A composition studied in detail, which with the addition of inflatable boats pays tribute to the composure of the facade. Twenty-two warnings to remind us that nothing is immutable, including our national identity, and that no idea always and only produces positive effects. The architecture of Palazzo Strozzi becomes a sort of proud, haughty and granitic character, son of the Italian Renaissance and designed as the highest ideal of Signoria. On the other hand, the inflatable boats become intruders, not messing up anything, invaders that do not destroy anything, elements of breakage that do not break anything.

Ai Weiwei knows the power of transforming elements into identity and vice versa, not only because he is an artist but also because he is an architect. Touching a “sacred” wall like that of Palazzo Strozzi is a very precise action and has a huge effect. It is political activism and not just art to violate an element potentially appreciable by anyone, regardless of political faction or religious orientation. Above all, to do so with an inflatable boat that in the current context brings us back to an issue that is not appreciated by most people, namely immigration. The artist changed Palazzo Strozzi by “decorating” it with a current, but certainly not new, theme. He decontextualized the facade by telling us “attention, we are no longer who we think we are”. It has brought to the attention of ordinary people the fragility of a system that hates differences when it should love diversity. And he did so with an idea as simple as it is controversial: the idea of migration.

We talked about this with the architect Luca Mazzari.

From the idea of migration to the migration of ideas. We think that when data should be used to understand the problem, ideas should be used to solve it. The current political context tends to create real conflicts by discussing the “zero point” or half percentage point.

Clinging to numbers without personality may also serve to field one’s cards to play, organize oneself, at most gain credibility, but only accepting one’s responsibilities can solve things.

The initial question we asked ourselves was whether architecture could actually answer the question of people’s migration in some concrete way. Whether they leave or enter a state, the phenomenon should be positive, safe and enriching, socially and economically.

1 – Architect Mazzari, in your opinion, how does the concept of migration interact with that of architecture?

“We live in a constantly evolving society. We must be able to keep up with the countless changes and we must do it faster and faster as the processes increase from time to time, day by day and above all in their effectiveness. What used to take some time yesterday, now takes much less time. All this puts us in the position of having to doubt everything; as Leon Battista Alberti did. He felt the need to travel to Florence from Rome to witness a revolutionary interpretation of reality: perspective. Brunelleschi demonstrated the distortion produced by the perspective cone through its mechanism and showed the Florentines that what they looked at did not correspond to the real form. Therefore, the architect puts them at a crossroads, that is, whether to believe in reality or in what they actually saw. When he designed the Spedale degli Innocenti he demonstrated the convergence of lines in perspective. In fact, the first building with a portico allowed people to see exactly which optical mechanism distorted the figures. Before then this was not possible because the typical shapes that you could see in a burgh or in a village did not have a confluence in a single vanishing point. Everything has always been built without a single project, a specific distribution, a homogeneous and congruent spatial organization. Just as Brunelleschi had the intuition to look beyond appearance and propose a new way to interpret reality, so we must understand that a complex phenomenon such as migration is changeable, not static. It’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Bohr claimed that electrons move around the nucleus on orbits, assuming to know simultaneously the position and the speed of electrons at every moment of their motion. The German physicist, on the other hand, demonstrated, by studying his atomic model, that this was not possible. In order to determine with precision the position and the speed of the atoms, they are irradiated with photons that interact with the electron, however causing a deviation in the trajectory and an alteration of the speed. As soon as time is spent to observe this phenomenon, it may have changed its characteristics, its essence.”

2 – How does a state relate to the phenomenon of migration?

The word itself says so. The State does not allow movements, because it is static. And it’s isotropic, which means that each part is equal to the other. The State needs to be centralized in order to live. Anything can happen, as long as it happens within its borders. If we think about it, tourists are fine, but for a few days. To expect a State to support the movement is like to expect a pillar to move. It is in the etymology of the word “State” that its nature resides. Who moves is scary because you do not know what he does, where he comes from, where he is going, what he thinks and what he votes. This is the current situation following the border consolidation. At the dawn of civilization, before being frightened by the stranger, the territory frightened you, for this reason the concept of foreigner exists, that is, someone who has remained out of your act of entrenching yourself within a region of defined space. On the other hand, the terms “territory” and “terror” have the Latin root in common “terr-“. When we talk about the territory, as architects, we must also consider how man has appropriated it through the construction of cities. The city is one of the oldest concepts, but to get to the bottom of what we are talking about we could think of the Latin definition of it. The Romans invented the “urbe”, a reference model throughout the history of architecture. With the urbe we wanted to give an organized configuration of the space through homogeneous forms. Another word used to refer to the city is “civitas”, meaning the city as the whole of citizens rather than as a complex of buildings and walls.

Well, contemporary urbanism deals with urbe and not civitas. The studies of the regulatory plans, of the PUC, etc… are in fact carried out on two-dimensional maps not taking into account the “third dimension”, the cultural and social one. (note: by third dimension we mean the abstract transposition of the concept of z direction, height of all things, which makes us people who have an existence, i.e. a dimension and can therefore interact). For example, let’s think about the urban planner’s task, which is to crush on the two-dimensional plane a reality that by nature is three-dimensional: the world. Territorial planning in English is called “urban planning”, which translated literally corresponds to “crush on a plane”. So how is it possible to improve the flows of interactions and exchanges of people through two-dimensional instruments?”

3 – Trasversal question, to remain on the subject: for some years now, the faculties of Architecture around the world have increasingly included case studies and research on co-housing and co-working in their teaching. These spatial design solutions are not only theorized with regard to the theme of immigration, but it is also true that they should respond to the new needs of increasingly dynamic, cosmopolitan societies, diversified in their components. Can these two techniques be presented as the solution to the problem?

“In general, I think that more than in the concept of co-housing or co-working, the key lies in the theme of living. I can also agree that the first two concepts can be possible readings of the same thing. In any case, the house must return to the center of the debate. On the other hand, all the greatest architects have been confronted with the theme of living, which is one of the most extraordinary inventions of man. I don’t think it’s possible to invent a new type of house but only to re-invent a new way of living it. Technologically and concretely, I don’t think there is a single constructive response, just as I don’t think that at the same time there is a single form that can synthesize everyone’s needs. I don’t think about changing a physical form, but rather about changing the form of life. The French philosopher Cocteau said that the life of forms has nothing to do with the form of life. That is, the shape of things is not the problem, but how it is together, which changes constantly and constantly. I realize this because I lived in the historic center, seeing how the way of marketing between different ethnic groups changed. The problem is that today we remove the benches to prevent people from sitting down (note: we refer to the custom of inserting devices in street furniture that decide on a single possible behavior rather than allowing any variant of use. See spikes, bugs, turnstiles, bars, etc..). In my opinion, architecture must begin to take on an important political commitment to the city. It must abandon that role that deals only with the beautiful shape that is useless, except for the real estate market.”

Giancarlo De Carlo used to say: “In my opinion, contemporary architects should do everything possible to make architecture in the coming years less and less the representation of those who design it and more and more the representation of those who use it”.
(“L’architettura della partecipazione”, G. De Carlo, Quodlibet, ottobre 2017, pag. 38)

Starting from De Carlo’s point of view, we can say that the epochs have changed but that the question itself has remained open. Who is “who uses it”? On the one hand, the problem of bringing man back to the center has not been solved (except in a few examples), on the other hand it is also true that in these fifty years man has evolved in the way of life. It is faster but also more rushed, it is more eclectic but also more superficial, it is more educated but also more unconscious. Therefore, we should admit that the problem has not changed, but people have: it remains difficult to offer a resolute and univocal interpretation. So, once again, “who uses it”?

4 – When, how and why did you decide that Architecture would be your way?

“I absolutely don’t know. It seemed interesting to me because it had to do with drawing, with representation and with space. In high school I may have thought that I would be an architect, but it wasn’t a vocation that I have developed since I was a child. I always thought it was an interesting profession.”

5 – What is your definition of Architecture?

“I’m fascinated by the image of glass when it rains: a visually inconsistent element that immerses you in a particular atmosphere. An element that keeps you warm and dry. That’s what architecture is all about. It’s not just volume and matter, but it is above all the relationship between exterior and interior.”

6 – What do you recommend to future architects?

“I see that students do nothing to change things. They should be anarchic. They don’t rebel. We need to rethink and re-design. Always be original, never accept advice. If in a project you have behaved in one way and you have produced good results, when you are facing the second, change it. Never accept advice from yourself.”

Translated into English by Marco Grattarola.

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He was born in Genoa in 1996 where he attended the Liceo Classico. He graduated from the Department of Architecture and Design of the University of Genoa. Since 2018 he is a member of ISA (Ianua Student Association) with which he participates in national and international projects. In 2019 he started the Master at the Polytechnic of Milan.
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