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Sustainability, form and power: interview with Giovanni Galli

Giovanni Galli is an architect that works as a professor at the Department of Architecture and Design (DAD) of the University of Genoa, where he teaches architectonical and urban composition. He has been a Visiting professor at the Penn University School of Design of Philadelphia in 2009, and since 2010 he’s a member of the faculty board of the University of Genoa’s Doctoral school in Architecture and Design. Among his main publications: “A Regulated Suasion. The Regulating Lines of Francesco di Giorgio and Philibert de l’Orme” (in: Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes, 2002), “Le Maschere della Forma” (The Mask of Form) (Rome, 2008), “The Primitive Hut as Original Sin” (in: SAN ROCCO n. 8, 2013), “Sostenibilità e potere” (Sustainability and power) (Genoa, 2015), and his most recent book, “Breve storia della forma architettonica (credo Laico Dell’architettura Occidentale)” (A brief story of the architectonical form (the secular belief of western architecture)) (Genoa, 2019).

1 – What do you think about Architecture’s actual condition?

I think that there cannot be crises in the artistic field. For this reason, I simply believe that architecture is what it has always been and what always will be, no more no less. The fact that nowadays they speak so frequently about art’s crisis, or architecture’s crisis, for example in the academic world, depends on the perception of a change, of which they don’t feel like they’re a part of it. Everything that changes, compared to our own education, is perceived as something strange and this kind of phenomenon makes people feel rejection towards this change, which then begins to be perceived as a crisis. Once, for example, I’ve heard that Gehry’s works couldn’t be considered architecture. I’ve heard that when Gehry had already constructed Bilbao’s Guggenheim, one of the few works of architecture that managed to become a popular icon, known by many people. This happened just a few times in the most recent history. If you speak with people that are not of this field, they will know at most Piano and Roger’s Pompidou, Gehry’s Guggenheim, Pey’s Pyramid, and few other things. And this means that few modern architectures reached the prestige of Notre-dame, or of the Colosseum. Claiming that what we don’t like can’t be architecture is an abused and well-known technique, very effective. You may say that you don’t like an architecture because it looks ugly, admitting in an implicit way the relativity of your judgment. But saying that it’s not architecture it’s a totally different path, it’s not aesthetical, it’s ontological. A much more efficient path, even from a rhetorical point of view. Personally speaking, I try to keep my distance from this kind of mentality. According to my opinion Mannerism is no less than the first Renaissance, nor Neoclassicism it worse than Baroque and so on. Every historical age expresses itself in its own architectural terms for what it is, and it’s not better or worse than other architectures.

2 – This means that maybe we could say that talking about a crisis in architecture is incorrect?

Everyone can say whatever they like, by any means. But from my point of view talking about a crisis doesn’t make much sense. I could quote for you Riegl and the concept of Kunstwollen (Literally “Will of art”). Every historical age has its own Kunstwollen, which is not superior or inferior to the one of any other age. Riegl introduces it to re-evaluate late-roman art, which until before was considered inferior and decadent, and he fights against this prejudice by stating that the late-roman Kunstwollen was simply different from the previous one.

We could say that in architecture, considered as a linguistic system, exist a childhood, adulthood, and old age. By seeing architecture as a linguistic system, a decorative one, stylistic, or whatever you want to call it, we can notice quite clearly that, since the first experimentations, more defined physiognomies were achieved, to the point that we ran out of combining possibilities. Normally in these cases, one should proceed by making a clean break and start again. But I wonder if such a process may be possible nowadays. The last clean break, and the most evident one, was that which was made by the ’20s avant-garde, even if that same will can be perceived also in the Portoghesi and Jenck’s first Post-modern architecture. It seems to me that the last time something like this occurred was the reaction of Bernard Tschumi, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid to the Post-modern. After that, I don’t recall any other radical statements. Returning to our first topic, we could talk about a crisis of specified forms and will, but an architecture crisis, according to my own opinion, doesn’t mean anything. Even if we’d stop building there wouldn’t be a crisis in architecture. Not even during the ’70s, when they were barely building and the most interesting architectures were only on drawings. But, from my point of view, they were still architectures. Who talks about crises actually sees a crisis in the system in which he believed: this person identifies Architecture with this specific system, and for this reason, he speaks of a general crisis of architecture.

3 – What do you think of the so-called sustainable architectures?

That’s a bit generic question because I don’t think that sustainability could help us operate useful distinctions in architecture. Michael Grave’s Portland Building is for example considered a sustainable building. Not because it was conceived and built to be one, but for the simple fact that thanks to some measures that were adopted later, this building managed to obtain the LEED Platinum certification (Maximum excellence). If the Portland Building, a Po-mo architecture, is “green”, and if Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) is also “green”, it means then that the “green” is a category which, according to my own opinion, doesn’t exist. It could exist as an energetic category, but as an architectural category, it doesn’t make any sense. It keeps together things that can’t be together.

4 – Putting vegetation on the facade of a building has been quite a popular choice in these last years. A clear example of this in Italy is Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale. According to your opinion, how does this tendency interact with the “Spirit of the Time” and “The Spirit of the Place”?

Then, the “Spirit of the Time” is a Hegelian concept. What do we want to use for the “Spirit of the Place”? Genius loci?

The Zeitgeist for me can be a very useful concept if used in a proper way, or a very defective one if adopted in an incorrect way. The one who originally conceived it believed that, with the Zeitgeist, he held in his hands the keys to history. Both Marx and Hegel interpreted it in this way and they thought they could foresee the future. Personally speaking, I think that the Zeitgeist may be a very useful category if used retrospectively, or to be more specific when one possesses enough critical distance to understand which kind of ideas made a critical mass in a specific period. Maybe enough time has already passed to state that the strong and spread interest, and concern, for the environmental issue will be an aspect that history books will use to describe the Spirit of these Times.

As for what concerns the concept of Genius loci, on the contrary, i don’t really appreciate it. The Genius loci should be about the culture of those who live in a specific place; this is because, otherwise, putting aside the trivialities that concern climate, orographic and geographic conditions, it would be difficult for me to understand about what we’re actually talking. It doesn’t seem to be a profitable concept or an actual one. Today the media exposition of other cultures, especially the Anglo-American one, is massive and constant. It’s hard for me to understand, for example, what the “Italian Spirit” would be like today. When i was a child Halloween didn’t exist, we didn’t even know what it was. Today instead is a festivity deeply felt by young generations, even more than Christmas. So where did the Genius loci end up to? In general, I don’t feel very attracted by the “Spirit of the Place”. Besides, i think that it’s a very limiting concept in architecture.

I’ll make an example: as a Venetian, I’ve always loved to go on the rafts watching the Molino Stucky on the Giudecca canal. It looks like a piece of Hanseatic architecture, but which was transported in the Venice’s lagoon. It’s something completely unrelated to the settlement culture of the place. Its presence always seemed to me as something fascinating and surreal. Therefore a positive aspect, not a negative one. Someone could argue that something like that is possible thanks to the fact that Venice’s urban fabric is so well-characterized, and only for this reason we can talk about an unrelated element. Probably that’s true. But then let’s say that we should operate a distinction between construction and architecture. Venice’s urban fabric wasn’t created by architects but stratified itself with time. I don’t see any reason why those who build in Venice nowadays should mimic what is already there.

As for what concerns the use of vegetation as an architectural element, that’s not something completely new in architecture. The innovation is that it is applied to the facade. Vegetation, the ars topiaria, the art of the garden, etc. Has always been considered as a sister of architecture, the green has always been a part of it. The synthesis between the building and the green is instead something recent if we exclude Babilonia’s garden and a few more cases. In the XXth century, Le Corbusier theorized the garden roof, more recently Stefano Boeri theorized the presence of trees on the facade. What do I think about this? I think that’s a legitimate operation, the architectural form has many ways of being. What seems less interesting to me is how the Bosco Verticale is advertised: as something really good. We are told that is a responsible way to make architecture, in order to grant a future to the generations to come. I don’t think that’s true and, above all, I think that these arguments don’t concern architecture. To me, architecture is a symbolic activity, and Boeri’s Bosco Verticale has already proved himself to be one of the few contemporary buildings which are known even outside architecture’s entourage. That makes it a well-succeded architecture.

Having said that, I think that it’s a well-succeded architecture because fills a psychological and a symbolic need. It fills the need of the contemporary world to reconcile with the natural world. A comforting answer to the fact that we’re all feeling guilty. I think that, overall, the contemporary man is devoured by a sense of guiltiness he feels towards nature and future generations. The Bosco Verticale is a smart way to aesthetically meet, from a symbolic point of view, a moral need.

5 – You mentioned symbols and how architecture possesses the ability to create these symbols. We could also say that power, in its own way, produces symbols too. And so I wanted to ask: what is the relationship between sustainability and power?

When I talk about symbols i take Panofsky as a reference, when he says that a perspective is a symbolic form. Maybe the Bosco Verticale is considered a symbol, but I have no interest in that. What I meant is that the Bosco Verticale fulfills a symbolic activity. As for what concerns the relations between sustainability and power, I can’t tell how much does power feeds on symbols. For me nowadays power is trying to avoid using symbols because they can be easily attacked. They are dangerous. On the contrary, often a politician’s activity revolves around finding a symbol to attack, in order to catalyze public opinion.

About the relation between power and sustainability, I wrote a book with this same title. I’d say that I’ve already answered your question there, even if I wasn’t the one who chose the title. That book’s title had to be “To sustain the unsustainable“, while “Sustainability and Power” were suggested to me, with a stroke of genius, by the book’s series director, Valter Scelsi. Having said that, what I meant to say with this title was that sustainability is a political matter, not an architectural one. According to my opinion, there is not a strict relationship between architecture and power. Let’s just say that the kind of relationship that architecture could have in the 16th century with power doesn’t exist today. Still, regarding that architecture’s crisis, we could maybe say that for some centuries architecture has been in a representative crisis towards the world’s populations. Somehow it’s not considered anymore a central and primary activity.

6 – We have already talked about this at the beginning of our interview, but returning for a moment to that first topic I wanted to ask you: according to your own opinion, how does sustainability affect the architectural form?

If we go straight to the heart of the matter, architecture and sustainability don’t interact with each other. Grave’s Portland Building has a top-level energetic certification, despite having architectural orders on the facade. There’s no relation between the form and its declared sustainability. I’d say that if a relation between them existed, I would expect then to see more closed and compact architectures. But judging from what is normally presented as sustainable architecture that doesn’t happen. Mario Cucinella’s sustainable works are, for example, characterized by large glass surfaces.

If we want to talk instead about sustainability as a linguistic and formal phenomenon, we could say then that this relation is granted by all that somehow looks up to an idea of organic architecture, in a more literal way compared to what was Wright’s idea of it. Trying to remain neutral about this, and always from a formal point of view, I could say that sustainable architecture is the one which wisely mixes high-tech with a certain form of camouflage. The one which tries somehow to blend in with the natural environment, out of transparency or camouflage. In a sort of compensation of the ontological difference that exists between nature and culture. If architecture is one of the most mature expressions of culture, and if it’s not an expression of nature, we could consider sustainable architecture as an attempt to mitigate this dichotomy.

7 – When, how, and why did you choose that Architecture would have been you’re lifepath?

I’ve decided that a few months before enrolling at the University. I’ve never had thought to study architecture, I wanted to study engineering. And then, during my last high school year, I was suddenly charmed by humanities. Choosing architecture was my naive idea to do both scientific and humanistic studies.

8 – What’s your definition of Architecture?

Architecture can be all those manufactures that refer to something else, something different compared to the reasons behind their physical existence.

9 – What suggestion would you like to give to architecture students and future professors?

They are two different things. To future professors, I suggest to (since they want to become professors they will have to get a Ph.D.) choose a specific argument of which they particularly care, without letting someone impose it for them, and to use the three years of the Ph.D. to study. Mainly because is the last chance they’ll get in their life to study for real: after that, they won’t be able to do that anymore. At least not with the same intensity.

To the student that want to become architects, instead, I suggest exploiting their post-graduation life by making many work experiences in many different and stimulating places.

Translated into English by Matteo Annecchiarico.

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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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