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The problem of Style in our time: interview with Vincenzo Ariu

Style is not dead. It is simply an outdated concept. Nowadays, if many people worry about its loss, the reason is that the attempt to introduce the concept of method as a substitution of style has not produced positive results.

After all, despite the creative process wants to avoid this phenomenon, the disappearance of codified styles is not equivalent to a freeing of the designer from an obligation to which he must comply in its essence any corporate logic.

The issue is also the following one: the corporate logic occurs because there is no longer a method. Today, if people are witnessing pathetically self-referential projects, that are seen and revised or strongly exaggerated without any reason, it is because a method has died and not because a style is not present. Therefore, the issue is subtle and deliberately concealed from the construction machine that tends to scratch rather than to evoke. Without a method, making architecture becomes a solitary instead of a personal gesture. The difference between the two actions lies in the latest reason that leads to an examination of the shape of an artefact and, above all, of its function, which is increasingly wide and uneconomic but less and less collective.

The construction machine runs on the straight path of consensus by using the fuel of money: this is what makes boring the actual situation.

Regarding this issue, the architect Vincenzo Ariu has been asked for an explanation. Firstly, the speech regards the reasons why the actual status is the one of desolate wasteland of glass, metal and concrete that shines without nuances. Secondly, he has been asked some advices for future.

Vincenzo Arìu is an architect and researcher in the field of architectural design. He has written and published essays on architectural design, regarding both theory and criticism. In 2008, some essays on the work of Mies van der Rohe were reported to the “Bruno Zevi” international prize and in 2011 to the Città di Castello literary prize, nonfiction sector. He has taught at many architecture schools in Italy. He is currently a contract professor at the D.A.D. of the Polytechnic School of Genoa

In 2003, he founded the ariu+vallino architetti associati studio, to which he is engaged in an intense design activity. The studio has won over twenty awards in national and international design competitions and many achievements have been published in well-known magazines of the sector.

1 – In AGORÀ, the issue of style has been often discussed. In general, the idea of a link between the building process and the urban image to social identity, to traditions, to achievements, to challenges and to values, is failing.
Then, are these issues related? Is there any style today?

To this question, many answers are valid, so the contextualization is necessary. There is a lot of literature concerning this topic. As known, the Modern Movement sought to overcome style by replacing it with the concept of method. In fact, this operation was an illusion. On one hand, style is the representation of a specific society at a certain historical moment; on the other hand, it is an individual feature representing the stylistic code of the interpreter who promotes it. Especially nowadays, this double value, personal and epochal, complicates the topic. For thirty years, the crisis has been concerning the idea of style as a representation of time and society and, due to the attempt of the Modern Movement to overcome it, this is no longer happening. In recent years, the “fault” is also of some of the protagonists of architecture who, bearers of a purely personal style, have transfigured the collective meaning of style. I would add that the difficulties are further accentuated by the growing complexity of the contemporary uneven society.

When analyzed in its collective meanings, the problem of style as a representation of identity is hidden because it constitutes an issue that could put the whole system in crisis. The only stylistic figure of the Archistar on duty falters at the time in which he faces a more complex idea of society. The problem of style must be analyzed at the bottom: it is not possible to evaluate it on an international scale. As a matter of fact, this was precisely the paradox of the Modern and its degeneration into the International Style. However, it is positive to catch a fresh interest in the theme of style in the new generations, according to which it is conceived as a representation of collective identity, and to note that the matter is placed as an overcoming of both the Modern and the Postmodern shortcut. In practice, once again the focus is on the collective value of architecture and not only on a legitimate need to express the individuality.

2 – Therefore, do you believe that the contemporary generations might have reached a situation of change?

It is much complex to answer to this question. In truth, the problem of style is a historical dispute. From the Modern onwards, this word is censored and the talk concerns method; the attempt is to move from the idea of architecture as art to a vision of the practice as a peculiar science that may be transmissible. With the drift of the International Style, there has been a crisis that allowed an understanding of the Modern itself as in turn a style. Later, there has been contemporaneity, in which this problem is shelved, allowing a personal vision of architecture. This was how archistars were born. What about their death? It has already happened. During the crisis of 2008, the trinomial of capital-landmark-archistar broke. With this crisis, the economic potential waned and the archistars begun to feel the urge of reinventing themselves by marrying environmentalism, even if sometimes out of tunes are perceived. Thinking about it, from a cultural point of view, the critique did not like Renzo Piano when he proposed an intervention for the reconstruction of the Morandi bridge in Genoa because operations implied a clean sweep of a noble past. For Notre Dame, the same thing happens with scholastic proposals from different protagonists of the architectural panorama; new landmarks are no longer acceptable, even if branded. What I personally notice is a pathetic attempt to impose a brand. Speaking of architects who are already in the historical books, these operations do not seem aimed at obtaining a professional commission; I think that they are more a sort of loss of control of a certain cultural sensitivity.

3 – In short, what were the real reasons of the rising of the International Style and what were the causes for its fall?

From an historical point of view, the International Style was officially born in 1932 with an exhibition organized by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russel Hitchcock. In this exhibit they analyze modern architecture according to purely linguistic elements. This event represents the first transformation of the Modern into a style. Obviously, this was seen very negatively as well, especially by the great masters of the Modern, such as Walter Gropius, who instead worked hard to get the concept of style out of date.

Shortly after the war, especially during the reconstruction period, the International Style entered a crisis because it could not be a helpful tool; instead, it applied the most peculiar stylistic elements of the Modern, just simplifying its language. Of course, this phenomenon led to a qualitative decrease of the city and to building speculation by humiliating architecture. At the end of the 1960s, its fail was officially witnessed. The fall was anticipated by the Italian diversity; in particular, thanks to figures such as Ernesto Nathan Rogers who spoke of continuity with tradition and with an expanded modernity. However, on the worldwide panorama, the International Style entered a crisis with Louis Khan and then with the more noble Post Moderno, let’s say, the Venturi’s one, which brings out the ideology of the Modern. During Post modernity, intended in its more philosophical aspect rather than within the architectural movement, the very concept of Modern decays. In architecture, the concept of a certain scientific nature diminishes because the same scientific concept decreases.

4 – Is there perhaps a battle to be fought for the architecture of today?

There is no ideal shared by the most to fight for. Above all, there are circumscribed concepts: nowadays, good architecture seems to be a problem only for architects. Thus, the risk is of relating architecture to marginality. To overcome this danger, architects should insist on some general values shared by society, starting from the environment. However, an important obstacle must be faced. When architecture tries to ride these ideals, it often risks losing its specificity, turning into a banal technique, something I would call non-architecture, a body to which technologies are “stuck”. It is enough to think of those architects who define their architecture as sustainable. They can be distinct into two categories: those who’s intention is to transform architecture into cold technology and those who play ideologically with nature. Education to the architecture of the “non-experts” is required to return to a shared battle. For many years, the C.N.A. he has been dealing with this problem, trying to spread the civil values of architecture. However, this world strictly linked to finance is hostile to the idea of conceiving architecture as a collective art form; in addition, cultural expression is an attitude viewed negatively, as compared to something subordinate and accessory to other needs. In this sense, the world of architecture should oppose this reduction by returning to be the decisive art and technique in shaping our world.

5 – Let’s look at the future for a moment. On one hand, there is no full-bodied dialogue on design, on the other there is a growing use of advanced technologies. In your opinion, could a possible effect be the fact that architecture will be treated in such a way as to be obscured by technology rather than being integrated by it? How is it possible to ensure that architecture does not become a simple physical-spatial support of the technological device?

While architecture has almost secular implementation and transformation processes, technology instead can overcome itself in a very short time. Therefore, it is not enough to transform technologies that seem to solve cogent problems into architectural language. All in all, I think that, at least in this case, it is a positive period. In general, technology is becoming less invasive and hi-tech has been outdated somehow. Just think of Renzo Piano’s Beaubourg: making a “new Beaubourg” today would be unthinkable. Piano and Rogers had accomplished an incredible operation: they could transform technology into a language. Nowadays, it is becoming ethereal and it can go further. Architecture and technology can combine in a kind of relative independence. In truth, I am already trying to do it: the buildings that I frame now are very different from those that I built only six years ago, especially from the point of view of plant engineering. Until about ten years ago, I thought home automation was the future of the house. I remember that in 2008 I made the first automation houses, accompanied by very important investments by the client. So, to create an automation home, it was necessary to pass many sheaths into the walls, ceilings and floors, making the building looking like a human body. On the contrary, today the houses that I build try to be low-tech. A lot of technology allows the reduction of the physical impact; this consequence greatly enhances the architecture. Nowadays, technology scares me much. I think there is always essential to look at it with the eye of architecture and never as a technical accessory; in future, it will only allow us to make innovative interventions everywhere, even in historic centers. This statement was already supported by Giancarlo De Carlo. Ahead of the times, he asserted it in the recovery of the historic village of Colletta di Castelbianco by attesting the possibility of living in a highly technological context on a human scale.

6 – How did you choose architecture as the way of your life?

At the beginning, the choice was almost random. More precisely, as a child I always loved science and especially astronomy. In the 70s people lived following the myth of science fiction and the moon landing. However, growing up, I developed a curiosity towards aspects more related to philosophy and art. Of the two options, I preferred the third, namely architecture, which seemed to me to be the right balance between science and art. The most beautiful thing is that, thanks to architecture, I was able to cultivate the other two passions as well. At a first moment, I had not clear the concept of architecture; then, I saw in an old number of Casabella a bank designed by Alvaro Siza, that hit me deeply and that helped me understand what I wanted to do. Finally, during the studies, some teachers were important, such as professor Guido Campodonico, pupil of Ernesto Nathan Rogers, professor Grossi Bianchi, a pupil of Daneri, and the meeting with Livio Vacchini, a personality that helped me in the understanding of great Masters of the Modern.

7 – What is architecture for you?

I try to make my students ask this question. It is essential to wonder about architecture to practice it. However, as with all those absolute questions, the answer would be an understatement. I am convinced that architecture is certainly a form of expression and knowledge of man. Expression and knowledge mean that a horizon can be envisaged but defining it would be a too strong reduction.

8 – What advice would you give to young architects and architecture enthusiasts? In addition, would you suggest any book related to the topic addressed?

My suggestion is, more than an advice, an exhortation: trust. In my opinion, the world of architecture is changing significantly. History teaches us that every epoch in crisis leads to a radical change. For a generational issue, I feel like one of those people looking at something under transformation without understanding it. Young generations could be the first generations able to see this evolution, therefore they are able to open to this mutational world.

As far as reading is concerned, I recommend two valuable books: the first is “Designing a Building” by Ludovico Quaroni, a book that is historically contextualized and that represents a serious attempt to give a method. The second one was very important to me and is titled “The Solitude of Buildings” by Rafael Moneo; the author is the most lucid architect of his generation, genuine and with a deep and open theoretical ability.

Translated into English by Elisa Goi.

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Luca Fabbri Editor
Born in Genoa on June 12, 1995, he completed art studies in high school and graduated in Architecture Sciences in the Department of Architecture and Design of the Polytechnic School of Genoa. He continued his studies at the Polytechnic of Milan where he attended the international Master. To date, he has completed three traineeships in three architectural studios, one of which is still ongoing, and an experience alongside an archaeologist expert in museum art communication. Parallel passions are art, freehand drawing and gin.
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