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Architecture and Time: interview with Marco Biraghi

Marco Biraghi is Professor; he teaches “History of Contemporary Architecture” at the School of Architecture and Society of the Polytechnic of Milan and “History of Contemporary Architecture and Design” at the Faculty of Arts, Tourism and Markets of the IULM University.
He has published several essays on the most important Italian and foreign architecture magazines and on numerous volumes regarding architectural history. His books include: “Progetto di crisi. Manfredo Tafuri e l’architettura contemporanea” (Cristiano Marinotti Edizioni, Milan 2005) and “Peter Eisenman. Tutte le opere” (Electa, Milan 2007, with P. V. Aureli and F. Purini). He edited the Italian edition of “Delirious New York” by Rem Koolhaas (Electa, Milan 2001) and collections of writings by Henri Focillon, Ezio Bonfanti and Reyner Banham. Recently, he has written “L’architetto come intellettuale” (Einaudi, Turin 2019).

1 – In your opinion, what are the existent differences between nowadays and the last Century concerning the act of designing and thus of doing architecture? Is there today any style that characterizes the contemporary architectural culture?

To me, it seems a mistake to start from the question of style. In my opinion, it looks like a false problem. There are differences that could be declined in a thousand ways: of language, technology, commissioning and many more… But to me, as I conceive it, it seems that the last of the matters is to describe what were the styles of 1900s and what are the styles of today. Maybe, at some point, it would be possible to come across something that looks like it, but only after having done a series of reasonings. To fact that in the 1900s there were clear and defined styles, while today reference styles are missing, seems to me a badly set thing. To my mind, it looks like a direction that starts from an assumption that, I believe, has no foundation. Merely, it had not a basis neither yesterday nor now, and it does not seem to me that the architectural styles have ever had an autonomous seal with respect to the conditions of production of the project.

Today, there are conditions which in many aspects are very similar to those of a part of the 1900s, just with the reinforcement of some issues. Speaking in a very general sense, it is possible to state that, referring to points of western civilization such as Europe, central Europe or Italy, when compared to 30 years ago, the conditions have further exacerbated, starting from some common characters. The capitalist society in which we live has refined and imposed more and more specific mechanisms of production of the architectural object. It is easy to notice it, for example, in the last major operations made in Milan. Actions are carried out on the city with huge capital investments and with investors who often and willingly come from outside and who therefore know nothing of the local territory on which they operate. For reasons of opportunity, these actors parcel the work on different studies. There is not a single practice that does everything; instead, many different subjects do many different things.

For the new operations in Milan, such as the one of Porta Nuova, two competitions had already been held that had produced project proposals by Gregotti, Rossi and Canella. All these proposals, all these competitions, ended in nothing. However, when these interventions were implemented, the old projects were not fished out, but an alternative logic was used. A thinking that partly corresponds to the hardening of which I have spoken, and which is expressed in action with a greater precision. It is not possible to mistake such an operation from a financial point of view. It is not a matter of style, not even a matter of architecture. Architecture is one of the voices within the project, but one does not do a thing for architecture. One thing is done for another. Today, more than ever, the architect is at the service of an economic power and therefore he must deal with financial dynamics. Hence, I believe that the architect has become a subject and not the subject of the entire operation. He is no longer the protagonist. He has a position that sometimes can take on some importance, but he is much more in line than it might seem.

2 – Beyond the word style, yet to be defined, a difference between the architecture produced today and the one generated in the 1900s is continuously marked. In your opinion, is it just an economic change? In the 1900s there was a lot of experimentation, there was avant-garde, there was a desire to do new things. People really wanted to make architecture. However, today, in the new large operations, it seems to always be the usual glass facade. It is something much different.

The avant-gardes, those mentioned, essentially are a phenomenon that took place around the 1920s. On the other hand, the so-called neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s were neo-avant-gardes that produced nothing, but not by chance. These were almost unproductive by statute, because it was no longer possible to establish a productive relationship. There are moments, fragments.

All the politics of social democracy in Vienna can be considered because it is an interesting period. Le Corbusier, the experimenter par excellence, brings out the Maison Dom-Ino certainly not from a social request or a social consensus. He is an architect who invents a scheme. This might seem a condition of freedom; in fact, it is simply a condition of non-dependence, of non-insertion into a productive mechanism.

– Perhaps today the research is not carried out!

Regarding this issue, I have some doubts: I do not think it is unimplemented. Today there is much more architectural production than before. It is very present, just wading in education system. The schools of architecture represented a basin including a huge number of students, some of whom then become a kind of architects who can make the profession or whatever they like. But it is not like there is no possibility to experiment.

Let’s take Mies van der Rohe as a reference. At some point, just after the First World War, he began to make a whole series of projects, such as the skyscraper in Friedrichstrasse, the project for another skyscraper that is invented, the project for the concrete office building and the project for the country house in brick and concrete. These are all projects for which Mies had no commission, he just choose to do them. It is Mies who decided which theme he was interested in. Themes are those kinds of architectures made for the historical moment in which he lived, and he believed that his present needed those projects.

3 – What were the factors that characterized that era?

An economic crisis that made impossible to build anything, the non-work of Mies in that moment and a series of negative market conditions. One thing that should be positively re-evaluated is not really the crisis, but that moment of transition that exists precisely in each student’s life, between the end of the university and the entry into the world of work.
Why today are many architects working in unfavorable conditions? Because, to some extent, there is a sort of social mandate that requires young professionals to go to work immediately, right after finishing studies.
Working is the only measure of success, the only way to scream “I exist”. Instead, I believe that, if a person has the possibility, it would be better to take a sabbatical in order to reason freely about what is really needed today, what is missing and what needs can be implemented alternatively to what is present. Can this not be called experimentation? Why do you not do it? There is no impediment.
I believe that this idea, the one of finding ourselves inserted into a kind of mechanism according to which there is no possibility to choose but to be chosen, is a myth that transcends individuality but that, however difficult, is necessary to dispel. I am convinced this is an important issue, after which experimentation can be done individually or in groups as it has been happening in Italy in recent years. Today, there is the proliferation of groups of architects who have come together to produce drawings or entertainment of various kinds, without having real commission. Is this an experiment? I leave it up to you… without any doubt, those are forms of reaction, I believe.

4 – So, what is the best way to investigate the style of our time?

The style defines something that presents characters that fairly are recognizable and repeatable enough to set even tenuous rules. In short, something that can identify some distinguishing features. But again, is this the problem? Is a distinguishable style missing in our era? I do not think so.

Looking at the renderings produced by the “medium” studies, images are very similar to each other. I believe that it is the fruit of something that perhaps one day will be recognized as the style of our time, as well as of a kind of common feeling. As in the modern style it was evident the white volume, today there is this revised modernism apparently a little looser and more casual. Is this the style of our era? I do not know, but even if it were, what kind of contribution would this type of unification bring?
That type of architecture, that I personally believe not particularly relevant, without qualifying or disqualifying it, does not give us new ideas if I associate it with an “x” style. What should I earn from this? Is there an underlying ideology?

The modern was only apparently a style, primarily it represented a profound change in the way of approaching the question of architecture. This happened because it addressed less well-off classes rather than the usual subjects to which architecture had always turned to. Experimentation was carried out on low-cost economic houses in non-stylistic but substantial terms. Little space but rationally organized! Albeit to some extent, the modern was an attempt to apply quality standards to contexts where there was little funding.

5 – What are the contemporary needs, the new frontiers?

This is where the speech is no longer valid. Today, the type of residence, the one mentioned earlier, has a middle class to which it refers. This issue regards a large band of society, which is not the bearer of great ideals and whose only aspiration is that of an upgrade such as an improvement of one’s own home which must appear better than then perhaps not be placed within the society.

Then, as a corollary of this, there may be contemporary ideals: green, environmental and climatic concerns, etc… but they are more ideological characteristics than anything else.

6 – Yet, do you think that the way of living today is the same as that of the last Century? Considering the new needs imposed by our society, don’t you think there should be a new way of life and, therefore, a different way of designing?

It is evident that there are differences from a social point of view, in terms of work organization, free time and many other things. Some great actions and factors have remained unchanged, instead other things have changed, but, in my opinion, architecture still finds difficult to translate these changes into space. It can convert this into technological equipment to have the so-called automation home, but these transformations rarely actually affect the space.

7 – What is your critical opinion towards the Architecture produced today? In addition, what do you think of the relationship between form and content in contemporary Architecture? By now, the concept has become the image proposed by social networks. An image that no longer responds to critical and architectural reasonings, but which is purely aesthetic and visual. What is your opinion about it?

Without any doubt, this is the trend a bit. There has been a detachment regarding the aesthetic-formal issue, but then the buildings do not function less than before. There is no type of request and therefore there is not an offer regarding a new type of thinking concerning space. Yet remaining in the residential field, perhaps the cuts in the apartments are no longer even business for architects. The architect is asked to make a wrapper, then what happens inside is already established by standards and constraints that look at spatial and economic savings. This is the concept that informs contemporary architectural practices.

I do not think that today the outcome is a bad architecture or an architecture that does not work or is less interesting. I strongly believe that architecture is increasingly linked to those production processes from which it has difficulties in finding its autonomy. Once there were margins, also of reasoning about spaces, that the architect assumed. Margin within conditions. Today, for reasons that are also very explainable, there is a market that requires and many architects who offer themselves. There is little criticism from this point of view. The most interesting things are those that can still be done more than those that already exist. I am convinced that today, no less than yesterday, the problem concerns conscience and not real possibilities. Nowadays, architects are not prevented from doing anything, they are limited by themselves. There are no conditions, except for legislative ones, that the architect must follow. Margins concerning dialectic are still possible. What the client says should not be taken as a gospel.

I believe that it is necessary to get out of this sort of enchantment and negotiate those conditions that can still be questioned. But how can they be negotiated? First, having an idea. It is visible that a discussion cannot take place without a counter proposal. It is necessary to understand the processes, so what are the conditions of economic feasibility and then conduct the experimentation I was talking about.
There are universities in the world that fund research, it seems to me that here, in Italy, these initiatives happen less. This puts Italian architects in a sort of self-production, of self-learning; it looks like they must be the ones to produce conditions in which they can bring out experimentation, research and ideation. At that point, all they need to do is work to make it come into reality. Young people should aspire to this. Young generations should not try to reproduce the existing conditions simply by mirroring them, instead they should interpret them differently. Exactly doing what they complain as a lack. In the end, what is missing is what professionals want to do and what they must do.

8 – What can be the formula for doing what you say?

I am not negative towards today, much less towards tomorrow. I believe that the current generation is well equipped; however, it must demonstrate that it is capable of changing things. It takes ideas, commitment, self-sacrifice and concentration. If before architecture was an ideal, while now it is a job, whose fault is it? I do not know. It is not that there is no going back, it is enough to engage. It is trivial, but it seems to be dominated by a superior entity that limits practitioners to action. But it is not true, action is possible! If one does not, it is because he is too weak.

Aldo Rossi was a bad student, but he had something that animated him in a superlative way and this kind of people does not stand out by accident. I believe that, against the conditions of motion induced by things, it is necessary to make choices and take one’s own responsibilities. In doing so, architecture can become something that makes sense. Except for the peaks of crisis, in a usual condition, the construction sector is still an industry with its strategic importance. It does not seem to me that the world is going to deny construction. Nowadays, there are conditions for excellent architectures. There are all the facilities to be eager for, but this mechanism must be taken up again, otherwise the role of the architect becomes exclusively a job.

9 – To date, what is your definition of Architecture?

It is the way one solves life problems somewhat permanently.
Architecture is the world people build around themselves and, therefore, it has a task that goes far beyond disciplinary issues, it keeps everything on the inside. Students are a crucial task. My advice is to look less at the architects of the past and to look more at the current conditions and what architects can do now.

10 – When, how and why did you decide that Architecture would have been your way?

Belatedly, if compared to many other people. It was not a call for me, I never wanted to be an architect and in fact I do not. I could say that I took a decision when I understood that Architecture was a discipline in which I could apply something that interested me, that is a critical thought applied reality. To me, Architecture is more a field of application. Taking care of Architecture means taking care of the world. I am increasingly interested in trying to understand what general role Architecture can play in society.

11 – What advice would you give to future architects and professors?

Surely, there will be students who will become professors, even if it is becoming less and less easy. My advice for students is to study, to do it critically and to regain possession of that space that they no longer consider as theirs and that, on the contrary, it is. That space of action as well, of exercise to freedom, that space which is not given but which must be torn a little. Then, there is a chance to exercise it at all levels, in all the ways, even individually.

I am a little discouraged by a party politics that acts for mass movements or for collectives united by just a single ideal. However, there is still the possibility of having individual ideals that are not individualistic ones according to which the individual must prevail over others. It is necessary to try to act for a theoretically common good, even if one is left alone in doing this.

Translated into English by Elisa Goi.

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Duccio Prassoli Administrator
Graduated at the Department of Architecture in Genoa, he is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at the Polytechnic of Milan. He is interested in the architecture of the 20th century and the influence that this is having on society and contemporary architectural thought.
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