The culture of our time: interview with Vittorio Gregotti

The culture of our time: interview with Vittorio Gregotti

If compared to the previous Century, nowadays the profession of the architect and the act of practicing architecture seem to be drastically different. Dynamics, values, commissions, the way of living of society have undeniably transformed. In order to better comply with the culture of our time, in history it has been often necessary to rethink of how to deal with the architectural practice. To understand what happened during the last Century, one of the masters of the Italian Novecento, Vittorio Gregotti, has been interviewed.

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?

I am convinced that the problem lies in the understanding of which need is substantial for future and for quality. Nowadays, the idea of accepting any point of view is one of the main questions characterizing the architectural culture. To me, it seems that there are several precise characters dominating the current situation. The first one concerns architectural commitments of a certain scales and of a wide importance, such as entire parts of cities. In general, these are the result of political and sociological reflections. Indeed, these are hypotheses based on problems of both local and global economic advantages. Once these elements are defined, a project is made and then, only at the end, an architect is required to produce the image of the project. The common belief is that architecture has become the external aspect of a system, a mechanism that however has its own rules and problems. Architecture is no longer an overall organization. Architecture has become an entity based on certain needs, especially commercial ones, that are given an image that can be temporary or completely arbitrary with respect to the actual and functional content of the element. Of course, this divergence is a very serious problem. This distance between the architectural and the functional aspect is a typical feature of the major interventions of this period. In addition, generally, the architecture magazines tally with almost nothing, unfortunately, also because they are very neutral facing these problems. Architecture spreads, like all other organizational elements, through tools such as television which has in fact become a means of diffusion and characterization. It is also evident in the field of visual arts. These too, they have undergone a negative form of unanswered question, thinking that the interrogative is enough, but it is not. The visual arts in the XX° Century, especially up to the 80s and 90s, had an important value in collective inquiry. On the other hand, nowadays, it seems to me that they play a purely aesthetic role. These are the great difficulties.

Another obstacle arises from the fact that theoretical thinking is steady. In the last ten years, there have not been major productions. There are people who occasionally write interesting books, but certainly not comparable in importance to those produced in the second half of the XX° Century. In that period, important transformations took place. To these changes, some have given answers that are also of great interest, while others have relied on this ability to divide architecture into communicative forms and substance and, by doing so, they have changed its structure. It may be that this arrangement is inevitable. It may be that the world, unless it faces serious or important clashes to undermine current affairs, may also consider architecture as an uninteresting art, eluding the ability of this discipline to propose truths that can push in one direction rather than another.

2 – Do you think that there has been a specific historical phenomenon that has decreed the change in the act of designing in architecture?

Considering my seniority, with my testimony I get to speak until the 1950s. I was a witness in 1951 of the CIAM done in Hoddesdon which was very definitive from the point of view of the questions posed around the fate of architecture. This both because some important architects were present and because my generation interrogated itself about the rather important topic. This comparison was quite significant for the subsequent CIAM that took place in Aix-en-Provence, already the third one was a meeting in which the end of Modern Architecture was discussed. In my opinion, in the latter, there was a great comparison between the architects of the Gropius generation, who strongly questioned themselves on what would have been the next destiny. There was a great demand for popular culture, although it was not very clear what it meant. The best ideas came from the Nordic Countries such as Sweden, Norway, etc… Countries whose exponents had highly carried out this type of research. On the contrary, Southern countries like France, Spain and Italy had other thoughts that focused on the relationship between history and context. For these issues, architecture had a responsibility for transforming this context and modifying the relationship with history. This was a very important and distorting topic in some ways; at the same time, it was the real discussion of my generation. A query that had very different answers. Some personalities were even returning to the previous style, some others were evermore of a stylistic character, others instead were more real and structural having the purpose of carrying out this sort of fundamental motivation for transformation, which represented an element, with historical responsibility for the future.

3 – Today, we feel very disoriented within the architectural panorama. Was it the same feeling for you and for the architects of your generation?

No, there was no disorientation. There was a gradual stance, the interpretation of these approaches and their comparison. We had a series of independent meetings from CIAM, specifically with the exponents of my generation. We confronted our educators in order to obtain a real perspective to refer to, evaluating what was done as a shift of what we had learned from functionalism. Functionalism was much discussed in those years, during the 60s, often with many versions different from each other. In the end, the two great elements that dominated the discussion of my generation were context and history. A discussion that produced answers that were also very distinct from each other, but that in any case had in common a problem before our eyes.

4 – Making a comparison with the last Century, do you believe that it is still possible to talk about styles or trends? Do you think that there is still a position taken today?

We do not talk about styles because it is a forbidden word for my generation. Let’s say that a disaster is happening, today there is absolutely no stance. I consider my generation negative, but it is a generation that has felt important things. It experienced the differences and the discussions within the culture of the XX° Century. In my opinion, the XXI° Century represents the unraveling of the authentic discussion previously built on solid foundations and based on perspectives that today are no longer there, except for some provisional ones. There is a great sense of temporariness. The major propensity is the thinking that shapes are an instrument of communication for the propaganda of an author, of a group or of a color. But there is a strong focus on the possibility of a short-term provisional innovation. Well, the concept that dominates is the one of a short-term novelty. Advertising have also spilled over into architecture.

5 – At present, what are the values to pursue to practice Architecture?

We have not yet reached a moment of tragedy. Usually, there is a kind of relevant event that turns the system upside down and directs us towards new issues to deal with. I do not notice such an important element right now. There are no real scissions among the bigger Countries. Of course, there are threats, economic conflicts, the possibility of pressing economically on each other, but there is no radical distance.

At the end of this Century, given the deteriorations that occur gradually all over the world, it may be that a global concern will give rise to a unitary awareness.

6 – At the moment, we are in the globalization era. In your opinion, does the speed, an aspect that is supported by this phenomenon, constitute a negative factor in a reality where the quantity seems to be more important that the quality?

Well, today is a globalization, but purely financial and not of intents and interests. Whenever people claim to get together for global concerns, then these remain only on paper. At a certain point, it may be that reality, in its difficulties and current deficiencies, may lead to a situation of crisis whose only solution is the authentic consideration of the whole as an answer to a problem. Instead, until now the phenomenon of globalization persists only as an economic question in my opinion.

As for speed, I believe this is a concept related more to appearance. The general situation does not change. The present time is steady because there are unsolved contradictions.

Architecture is not just quantity; this is only a simplification. I am convinced that there is a sort of attempt to get out of this problem in all the faculties of architecture, in magazines and books, at the same time there is no sort of discussion for which the need is to make a proposal that might be a hypothesis of Truth regarding the future. There is not even any kind of discussion that highlights certain contradictions of this historical period. Some new architects defend their work by saying that it was done in such a way in order to make evident a contradiction. But this is not possible! Because it is the opposite of making architecture. It is impossible to just do that. Perhaps for the visual arts yes, but for the practice of architecture this operation is impossible to be carried on.

7 – You talked about truth. Yet, in a context so full of contradictions as you say, is there any truth?

The truth must be proposed. Truth is always a proposal. The architect makes proposals and each of them is a fragment of truth. It is a chance to have relationships with objects and with other people. A series of questions can be proposed through architecture, some issues that are important from this point of view.

8 – What is the point of contact between the project organization and the project itself?

Once, although the designer was also tied to the practical aspects, he was still responsible for the whole system and not only for the shape of it. However, the only thing that the architect does is to paint the shape. A shape which is then superimposed on a system. Sometimes this act is also done in an interesting way; yet, being a logic that detaches itself from the organism, all of this becomes a problem. Following this reasoning, I could take some of these architectures and I could change their face while maintaining the same structure. Here we mention a form detached from the content.

9 – How was it possible to get to an architecture of façades today?

Architecture arrived there because the structure of society has changed. International relations have changed. The technological issue has changed a lot. At this moment, all the new transfer systems certainly represent a very important tool, but they are no longer considered as a tool, instead they are judged as truth. At present, what everyone sees on television is perceived as truth and this phenomenon is incorrect. These new tools must be considered as such and not as truth.

10 – We believe that today one of the problems leading to the production of a qualitative mediocre architecture is the absence of criticism. Instead, your generation led real ideological battles, linking very strongly architecture to politics, and there was commitment to the discipline. Today we no longer find these characters. What do you think about it?

Today people no longer generate architecture, they tend to make construction. Certainly, the absence of criticism also helped in producing this phenomenon. Nowadays, there is no longer any commitment to the discipline precisely because the discipline itself has disappeared. Even politics has radically changed; today there is a policy that does not have an ideology behind it. The criticism is interesting because it proposes hypotheses that can be accepted, but in the end the relevant thing is who does things. Criticism is also important in the field of visual arts. Criticism is a way of thinking, it is an interpretation, but it must always be very tied to the doing. Especially in painting. Painting cannot be isolated from criticism.

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

I personally had a great passion for music. I played the piano and, just for a couple of years, I tried to study music seriously. Then, I moved on to literature which changed me a little, especially thanks to those books that were published immediately after the war.

Then, I thought that architecture could be interesting. My father asked me if I wanted to spend a period abroad; I decided to go to Paris because the city represented a great center of culture in the 1950s. I had been there for 6 months in 1947 and that was the place where I understood that architecture was what interested me. At the time, meeting people was very easy, everyone went to the same places and there were a lot of debates. There was a great liveliness.

When I came back in Milan, I was very disappointed. I immediately went to work for the BBPR. There, I met Rogers who at the time had a fairly important position within the CIAM; in addition, since he was born in Trieste, he knew the relationship that had been with Austria before the war. This was important because it greatly altered the judgments that could be made in that period. This changed my life a little.

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

I have started this interview explaining that Architecture is radically changing. Obviously, to me, Architecture is always represented by the Modern Movement and by its necessity of modification and transformation regarding those elements I have referred to: the historical and the contextual problems. These were not the important elements of Modern Architecture but taking them into account, it is a consequence to understand how the situation truly is and how it is possible to positively modify it.

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

Some of my alumni are excellent teachers. I believe that it is necessary to face the contemporary problem, the one I have talked about, and try to reason starting from the actual situation which is this one. The modification of the real condition is the goal that professionals must have.

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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