One of the most important student’s challenges, and in general of any individual who finds himself facing professional experience with greater or lesser ambition, is the one concerned developing competent thinking and critical judgment. No small feat, indeed. The architectural matter, partly ambiguous, makes the task much more difficult. Given an architectural building, normally evaluated through the consideration of formal, technical or symbolic attributes, is often a complex stance not universally shared. However, recently a new factor joined the range of qualities of the so-called “good architecture”: the ecological thinking.
“The emerging of ecology is an unprecedented event in the historical relationship between man and nature” declares Gilles Clément. “What is changing is linked with a feeling of fulfilment: life does not go beyond the biosphere’s constraints. Quite dreadful: the earth as a space meant for life is an enclosed space. Once stated, this observation refers to every human being, passenger of the earth, to his or her own responsibilities”¹.
The awareness of this, the inescapable vulnerability of our world, brings us to ponder on it and it drives us to search for a new harmony that might reconnect man with his truly unique home. However, if concerning the collective dimension, a long-term perspective unfortunately clashes with the paradoxical mass individualism, which tends to a considerable lack of responsibility. A foolish egoism has imbued and still affects this issue more pressing than ever, leading to an unpleasant carelessness along with mistaken information and, worse, hypocrisy and profit.
The development of an ethical and widespread conscience about this reality results as something more complex than the designing of ecological “tools”. Clément’s point of view leads to necessarily “change the common myth” as well as to “not only including the ecological paradigm but also living in its sacred dimension”¹.
The job of the architect could be relevant in this process. The man-nature-architecture triade is an essential link and it will always be, even though a considerable period of our history attempted to deny it.
Since ancient times, natural order has been recognized as properly intrinsic in mankind and in everything that it involves. Considered as the Platonic theory milestone, the term kósmos (from the Greek κόσμος, literally “order”) implies the existence of an astral harmony that manifests itself uniformly in all its parts, therefore representing the identity matrix of the whole reality². The classical-architectural order accordingly arises from that.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, the so-called “historicist” architecture refers to nature both in a literal imitative sense and as Quincy specifies in the Encyclopédie Méthodique³ through an “analytical process” aimed to investigate natural laws, meant to be declined within the architecture formula.
So, what was the breaking point of this millennial tradition? Certainly, natural science development, linked with Darwinian theories, and the gradual subjectivity of judging criteria, as well as of the idea itself of aesthetics (the ground-breaking Hume declares in his essay, Of the Standard of Taste, that “beauty is no quality in things themselves”²) represented a fundamental point of this process.
The natural belief was replaced by the mechanical one, explicitly celebrated for the first time by the Italian futurists. Those became the ancestors of a long descendant, which from the avant-garde to the end of the Modern Movement claimed the autonomy of human genius and all its production from the dominion of nature. Otto Wagner, Theo Van Doesburg and the struggle of neoplastics against gravity; Louis Khan, promoter of an imposingly architecture linked with models that “nature” by itself “cannot create”³. They are just some of the most famous supporters of this thought. Even those who decide, somehow, to not completely forsake the need for a closeness to the natural dimension, such as Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, actually limit themselves to an action mostly contemplative, first case, or consequential, second case.
But then, if what is necessary is to draw up a new legend, to find a piece of our DNA for a long time denied, it could be interesting to follow Cosimo’s example: to shelter among the elk branches, observing at a distance, albeit short, what happens on our feet⁴.
Perhaps, the main question, by virtue of the difficulties that we will have to face, no longer concerns only man and his living, but comes back to its steps and knocks on the door of a more uncomfortable and remote feeling that, this time, involves man and whoever generated him.
Considerations on this might be risky. Although, the search for comfort and ease legitimately absorbs our efforts, a part of us belonging to the technology era remains irresistibly attracted to some scenarios totally deviating from the progress sphere and the virtual sciences frantic race.
The charm of the accidental, of the unfinished, of what is “genuinely” spontaneous and natural never leaves men and, therefore, architect’s heart and imagination, those who cannot fail to admire some examples of essentiality not given by a rigid and fashionable industrial aesthetic, but it is given by something totally different.
It could be possible to highlight an example case that might underline this idea, represented by the Arzachena house of Zanuso. The aesthetic it refers to is extremely evocative and familiar. It is suitable in being refuge and landscape at once, as well as being the perfect fusion between foreseen and unexpected, work and frame. The architectural envelope is shattered, resulting linked to the surrounding space both vertically and transversely. Materiality distinguishes it and matches its context almost camouflaging it.
It is important to underline that this case is not meant to be a model to be aimed, as it is clearly anachronistic. Nonetheless, it invites to search for a deeper connection between work and nature. This effort probably will not directly contribute to the development of sustainable technologies, but it could be a pedagogical tool and bearer of values and bonds lost for centuries. If I’m not mistaken, this is one of the best goals to which our profession originally aspires, although there is a certain ambiguity around it nowadays.
My invitation tries to foster a thoughtful and sentimental approach towards the territory, to let the ecological “new paradigm” identify itself as such, without relying on mere coatings or dummy technicalities. Thus, seeking to harmoniously recompose tradition and innovation. In other words, “it is necessary to develop an architecture that could come back as the art of inhabiting the earth under the banner of a new alliance, where thought is not meant as something that divides man and cosmos, but as a connecting structure”⁵.
Translated into English by Francesco Merra.
¹ G. Clément, Manifeste du Tiers paysage, Editions Sujet/Objet, Montreuil, 2003.
² S. Chiodo, La bellezza: un’introduzione al suo passato e una proposta per il suo futuro, Mondadori, Milano, 2015.
³ A. Forty, Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004.
⁴ I.Calvino, The Baron In The Trees, Mariner Books, Boston, 1977.
⁵ P. Portoghesi, Nature and Architecture, Skira, Milano, 2000.
– S. Freud, Psicologia delle masse e analisi dell’Io, Bollati Boringhieri, 1975.