Increasingly virtuous means of graphic representations and projects led to the extreme of technical and formal possibilities have currently contaminated the visual perception of our built environment. Therefore, where and how can we recognize the identity of the designer and the fil rouge that holds together his works? In this sense, the contribution of young studios such as False Mirror Office, which invests much of its work in the design practice as well as in the theoretical research, is crucial to shape the contemporary architectural debate. As pointed out by its manifesto, where the prefix “re” associates several words (re-discover, re-signify, re-evaluate), FMO attempts to mend the threads of a profound and critical reflection about the architectural discipline, recently lost in the archi-stars system. Through a dialogue with the collective, which explains the processes behind their way of designing and offering ideas, we tried to bring out a concept of the identity of the designer and his work as a combination of different identities: an assemblage of objects, and of ideas as well.
From the point of view of an architecture student close to graduation, the topic of this eighth issue of AGORÀ magazine inevitably led me to question the future of the contemporary designer, especially in relation to his/her modus operandi. Seeking an answer, I referred my questions to a young studio as False Mirror Office and eventually developed a mutual exchange of opinions and ideas, leading them to question themselves about new and personal topics, just as it would happen in a Socratic maieutic dialogue. The following interview unfolds the results of this collaboration into specific steps, through which the collective tried to clarify my doubts.
1 – Artistic and architectural currents have always communicated their intentions and their identity through the means of the manifesto, starting from futurists and dada artists up to contemporary studios and collectives such as Metahaven and WAI Think Tank. You published one, as well, on your website. What is your approach towards this medium and what does the manifesto mean to you today?
In the contemporary debate, the architectural manifesto is a complex and fascinating topic that critics as Peter Eisenman, Anthony Vidler and, until recent years, Charles Jenks still keep on questioning. The architectural manifesto, as it spread among the avant-gard movements of the twentieth century, is most probably a concluded reality. It would be wrong to consider it completely gone, though. Perhaps it is just changing in order to adapt to weaker times of tweets and Facebook posts, where throwing flyers form the tower of San Marco is not anymore a way of creating a statement, nor it is printing a pop and psychedelic magazine fast as Architectural Telegram. This said, we are prone to abandon the traditional manifesto in order to seek for a different path to have a strong stance in the contemporary debate. The text appearing in the section About of our website can be considered just and attempt to create a common ground among a group of individuals, an agreement brought to its more essential level. If one had to sum this text up in an even more concise way than those six sentences – already too long to be tweeted in once – it would simply be: “false mirror office mis-re-presents architecture” (fig.1). This tweet would be enough to give a hint about the idea of architecture as a language, of the architectural project as a process of recombination, of the representation as an eloquent text, of the equivalence of styles, of the importance of the ornament and of the misrepresentation, and, lastly, of a collective imagination where architectural models and prosaic references agglutinate without excluding one another.
Fig.1 – False Mirror Office, Magic Mirror, 2020.
As a group of individuals where each one has their own interests and obsessions, and that wants to make out of them one of the distinctive elements of our architecture, if there is a False Mirror Office “manifesto” beyond those tweets it could be anything but one of our combinatorial games. Carla Rizzo states on “Gizmo” to have found a prototype of it in our project “Crime and Ornament”, where we tried to redeem the ornament in architecture by rewriting and sabotaging a famous Loos’ text. The False Mirror Office “manifest” could refer to that project just in its creative process but it should be something more radical: a creative text obtained by the combination of sentences that we invented, by misinterpreted fragments from other manifestos, and by prosaic shreds from our collective imagination. It could never be a fixed “manifesto”, but it should be constantly available to be rewrote, even daily, in a way that would express these variations to the reader, as if it was a Microsoft Word revision, in order to unveil honestly our way of practicing architecture.
2 – For those who do not know you, one of the peculiar aspects of the collective is that you worked remotely since the beginning of your practice. Regardless of the current sanitary emergency, that is forcing the whole world to telework, how do you think this way of working influenced you? More importantly, how do you make sure that each individual contribution shapes projects that represent the entire collective?
Despite the fact that the university training with Professor Giovanni Galli at the architecture fac of school of Genova gave us a common vision, since our first projects, besides False Mirror Office, we have all cultivated different life and working experiences, which have brought us to live in different cities and different countries. Therefore, we had to organise a remote collaboration since the beginning. Though this condition can be seen at first as a limit, instead it turned out as an incentive to discover alternative ways of collaborating and practicing architecture.
We believe that this condition, where every member of the group (we have always had a little problem to use the word “collective”) offers their own experiences, references and personal relationships, adds value to the collective knowledge of the whole group, settling a constellation of skills different from that sediment and immutable knowledge which is the savoir-faire of the traditional architect. Our way of working is far from the conventional, locally rooted studies, in which members’ opinions are blurred into a single identity, as well as from international studies, more various but often organized in a hierarchical, sectarianized system. Compared to these models, False Mirror Office’s approach could be defined as anti-professional; instead of specializing on different research areas, we continuously dialogue with each other to enrich the shared knowledge on various topics. Therefore, the constant overlap of tasks and expertise appears inherently anarchic: something on a halfway between a battle and an orgy (Fig. 2).
Fig.2 – False Mirror Office, Heated debates in an ashtray, 2020.
In order to master this bulimia of impulses and not to be suffocated by it, we have elaborated various tricks. At first, the preliminary researches are divided into five parts, then analysed by a different component of the group, and eventually collected in digital catalogues called Quadernetti. This working technique that we adopted since the beginning, turned out to become a true creative process. Sometimes even the project itself is divided into 5 five parts, as the cubist assemblage or the surrealistcadavre exquis, and each one of us develops independently one part, eventually combine with the others to create a unified project. In “Zuppa Romana” everyone contributed by giving a series of references and figures (fig.3), while in “Crime and Ornament” severed parts from the body were procured from other architectures (fig.5). At the bottom of these methods, we believe that ideas, references, principals, objects and true parts of buildings, as heterogeneous as our individual experiences and obsessions, can coexist: at times as variations of a concluded unity, at times as eloquent elements of a discourse that remains deliberately incomplete and open. This combination of things, as well as of ideas, is perhaps the best reflection of our collective identity: multiple and heterogeneous.
Fig.3 – False Mirror Office, Zuppa Romana, 2016.
3 – The current readiness of sharing digital content – through websites and social media – has certainly affected our perception of the architectural project, as well as its visual communication. What is your opinion about this mean of conveying the project and how do you deal with it?
We belong to of the so-called “digital natives” group, as we experienced the evolution of the role of internet as an architectural mean, starting from the first blogs until social networks. The time spent looking at endless lists of anonymous pictures about architecture influences unconsciously our minds; it is easy to get to know about a new studio through an image found on social networks: it does not matter if it is a competition’s image or professional pictures of completed architectures. The number of interactions – a success rating in the contemporary digital world – is free from the presence of a text explaining the background of the image, weather it comes from articles featured on sectoral magazines or, instead, it was extrapolated from the author’s website. The absence of this context reduces them, together with the images of present and past architectures, to that pure-visibilist Fiedlerian fuel that governs the digital world.
Fig.4 – False Mirror Office, Rebus: 5, 2021.
Our presence on social networks and our website, continuously updated, proof the appreciation we have towards digital communication means. However, we are extremely cautious in leaving our communication entirely up to social networks; we see them both as a big opportunity and a huge risk. The opportunity consists into being able to set up an accessible and apparently free showcase that could offer a visibility that, as a small emerging studio, in the past was possible only after reaching a decent success. The risk, however, is to be forced to lean our heads, our message and, in some cases, our projects to the general consent, which is at the base of the dynamics of success mentioned above. Fomented by the multitude of increasingly specific awards, the architect of the social networks era finds him in an everyday frantic run to be relevant, even just for an ephemeral “IG story”, as the new “young emergent talent”, becoming more a columnist and an influencer rather than an author of an architecture. Some of the recent parodies created by the account “Alvar Altissimo” offer interesting hints about this topic.
Fig.5 – False Mirror Office, Crime and Ornament, 2018.
Another important topic is the subversion of the traditional mechanism of “endorsement” by critics through articles in specialized magazines, apparently replaced in a short time by dynamics of self-promotion that bring the author closer to an ever larger audience. At first, this seriously undermined the system of architectural magazines as a source of information and judgment about contemporaneity, making them apparently obsolete. However, in just under 10 years the role of the architectural critic, as well as that of the curator and the historian, have become more relevant than ever: in a world saturated with easily accessible content, the critic takes on the role of interpreter, transforming his thought into instant and irrefutable intellectual expression, valid only until the next “post”.
Lastly, it is interesting (and in some way alarming) to observe how more and more architectural firms, through their digital communication channels, seem to adopt stereotypes that seemed to have been overcome in the recent years. The celebration of the individual imposed by social networks forces, in fact, collective realities to bring out the single figure, the name; in other words: the star-architect.
Fig.6 – False Mirror Office, Strandveikaia Postcard, 2016.
4 – Assuming that, currently, the most varied graphic representation tools are available, which do best reflect you working patterns? How do you try to share the contents of your projects, both completed and research ones?
The representation of the architectural project occupies an important place in our practice, as it has been decisive since the redevelopment project of the port district of Strandveikaia in Trondheim, winner of the competition Europan 14. The need to represent a district through a synthetic and complex figure that was able to hold together conventional figures of the project such as plan, elevation and section, pushed us to question the perspective, distorting its traditional construction, in order to arrive at a multifocal vision that holds everything together, from the facades of the buildings, to the streets and canals of the neighborhood, up to the vital flow that runs through them.
“Zuppa Romana” (fig. 3) belongs to another investigation that has to do with the representation of the project and that has captured, with few exceptions, most of the architects of our generation: the collage. The interest in this technique has to do with its nature as a combinatory process of fragments, and with the complex and ambivalent system of meanings it produces on the image and on the project. In this sense, the collage bears double and ambivalent meanings, the one that each of its fragments possessed when it was part of a synthetic image composed by the hands of another author, and the new and original ones that it acquires in the combinatorial game to which he is subjected in the collage. It is precisely on this ambivalence made up of rewritings and misrepresentations that these fragments become the lemmas to create new narratives, to give life to real architectural dramas. In “Zuppa Romana”, the project of a villa for the Roman countryside has become an opportunity to revive a collective imagination where architectural models, as fragments of high culture, and legacies of the prosaic universe that accompanies the outskirts of Rome, combine in the manner of that German song made up of distorted stereotypes titled “Zuppa Romana”. All this generates a collage where the Roman villa loses substance, and it is confused in an overabundant system of signs that is the one of the collective imagination of the outskirts of Rome.
Looking at it a few years later, “Zuppa Romana” seems to us to have become, more than a goal, a starting point from which to question the collage again, to bring this technique to new horizons. To requestion the collage it was necessary to go back to its origins, to the experiments that George Braques and Pablo Picasso used to call papiers collés. We understood that this technique was initially more complex because alongside the figures, it also possessed fragments that differ in nature and language, from scraps of fabric to newspaper clippings. This convinced us to create different collages, where we combine not only heterogeneous images but also different languages, to generate new semantic short-circuits, new creative languages. In recent months, we have arrived at a genre of representation that fits into the wake of a relatively unexplored tradition in the field of art and architecture, between Man Ray’s “Rebus” and that irreverent metalinguistic experiment that is “Rebus viventi all’Isolotto fra le baracche di Don Mazzi” by the UFO group. These combinatorial games have now taken the form of blockbuster letters for a domestic environment, of appliqués newspaper fragments in the frame of an image (fig. 10), or even of real architectural puzzles to describe the revitalization of a neighborhood in Taranto (fig. 4).
Fig.7 – False Mirror Office, The Architect’s Dream, Capriccio on the outskirts of the European city, Belgium Pavilion Composit and Presence, 17 Mostra Internazionale di Archiettura La Biennale di Venezia, 2021.
5 – “Zuppa Romana”, as well as “Towers of Bovisa”, while investigating the collage technique, they also deal with the identity of the context. The analysis of the cultural and architectural history of the Roman countryside, in the first case, and of the Bovisa’s district, in the latter, contribute to the sense of your solutions. I believe that we agree that the identity of the architectural project relies on the project site, and vice versa. Which are your reflections on this topic?
Thinking about it, we talk more often about identification than about identity. In fact identity, although both affirmed and denied, can be defined as an attribution made and imposed from the outside on a community with which it has to deal but on which it cannot actually express itself. On the contrary, identification is an active and stimulating process – for the architect as well – since it allows the community to which it is addressed to take part in a personalizing phenomenon, in which it can choose whether or not to relate to the place or its history, but also to have the luxury of recognizing itself in a completely different and hybrid dimension. Identification authorizes embezzlement, transformation and falsification: all those processes that, due to that idea of misunderstanding mentined in our “manifesto”, are perceived as positive and creative.
Fig.8 – False Mirror Office, The Towers of Bovisa, 2017.
This idea has covered our projects on an urban and territorial scale, taking on different forms. “Zuppa Romana” was perhaps the most striking celebration of a light thought – indeed very light – on the identity of a place: not being able to pronounce ourselves seriously due to the evident lack of a deep knowledge of that context, we chose to make a virtue out of vice and to resort to clich, to mockery (fig. 3). We have shown the possibility for a different form of architecture in which the project takes into account not only the traditionally accepted cultural heritage, but also all that cauldron of national popular elements and figures that season its essence and rewrite its connotations. n active and stimulating process – for the architect as well – since it allows the community to which it is addressed to take part in a personalizing phenomenon, in which it can choose whether or not to relate to the place or its history, but also to have the luxury of recognizing itself in a completely different and hybrid dimension. Identification authorizes embezzlement, transformation and falsification: all those processes that, due to that idea of misunderstanding mentioned in our “manifesto”, are perceived as positive and creative.
The project “The False Mirror”, on the other hand, had the claim to filter the most vulgar and generic urban planning operations through the assumed – or presumed – identity of a place, at the cost of taking even very misunderstanding directions (Fig. 6).
Fig.9 – False Mirror Office, New Domestic Habitat, 2020.
In “The Towers of Bovisa” the identity of the place had to be rewritten to accommodate the sponsors of the event and, if it is true that “flowers are born from manure”, what was promised to be the driest of the lands turned out to be the most fertile (Fig. 8). Five urban voids are cyclically transformed into squares whose identity is rewritten through participation in a collective ritual event: the simultaneous consumption of five monuments kept alive by different energy sources. Their energetic charge is symbolically given to the community in moments of extraordinary aggregation that take the form of new tribal rites. The consumption of the towers through the dissipation of their “tribal energy” transforms the five squares that, in the consumer society, take their name from their own consumption.
Out of necessity, but also a fascination with the group, rather than with the identity of the place, we have often dealt with the processes of identifying non-lieux and peripheral areas, and it is in this key that they should be read, “Piotrkowskissima and the things left unsaid”, “Tales from the Archipelago”, the masterplan of Porta Napoli (Fig. 4), and the “Capriccio” for the Belgian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale (Fig. 7): a reflection on the margins of the European city which, precisely by virtue of its intrinsic lack of identity, is the most fertile ground for the birth of contemporary monuments that interpret the soul of its hidden activities.
Fig.10 – False Mirror Office, Homage to UFO, 2019.
6 – It seems like the self-referential world of archi-stars has recently flattened out and compressed the architectural debate. As mentioned before, what I consider a peculiar aspect of your work is that it puts the theoretical dimension of the research alongside the practical one of designing. How does the research activity respond to your needs as designers? Do you think that it can contribute to revive the architectural debate?
Reading old yellowed magazines, leafing through dusty archives and exploring port areas in transformation are not only activities that we are passionate about but also the basis of our way of doing architecture. Immersing yourself in theory and history to re-interrogate the projects of the past and unearth their deeper meanings is a way to find answers to contemporary questions and needs. Writing and research are crucial tools for the development of reflections that go beyond the circumstantial needs of the individual project to weave reflections across different works and generate an architectural discourse. Thus, a hybrid and bidirectional relationship is established between research and project in which project elements generate more in-depth reflections and research on transversal themes influence new works, in a reciprocal and circular exchange.
Often the project provides the pretext that generates and nourishes the research. Readings and studies find in the clinical analysis of the site and of the program some fertile and unexpected matches. The competition requests underlying some projects – The Drill Maid, in Amsterdam, and La Vi (ll) e en rose, in Sesto San Giovanni – have generated a research on different forms of domesticity which, in turn, has nourished reflections on the scenic and theatrical dimension of architecture and on collective and community rituals begun in teaching contexts – the OSSA workshops in Lòdz and Eterotopia alla Maddalena. This research, which found its complete expression in the essay “Abitare oltre la pandemia: verso un nuovo habitat domestico” (Fig. 9), was also fueled by observations of different scales on the nature of certain urban events – the court of the cultural center Frigo in Cuneo and the shape of the blocks of Porta Napoli in Taranto (fig. 4) – and therefore of the value of the wall as an incubator for new activities and forms of life.
There is no shortage of cases in which reflections arise from occasions of pure scientific research such as that on the creative assembly procedure, born in response to a call on the theme of collage from the Bolognese art magazine “Piano B”. On this occasion, we re-discovered the work of the UFO group, in which it is possible to trace different forms of both textual and figurative assemblage, which inevitably ended up contaminating several of our projects.
For us, writing and research are not only at the service of the project but real alternative ways of doing architecture, intended to generate projects standing on their own. For example, this research on the UFO group, thanks to the collaboration with Beatrice Lampariello – a historian expert in radical architecture – and the support of the Italian Council of the Ministry of Culture – will become an international publication in 2022. We hope that this book, which connects issues faced by UFOs and the neo-avant-gardes of the 60s and 70s with the current practice of young designers, helping to reveal a specific theoretical and conceptual dimension, is a way, if not to reawake the architectural debate, at least to shake it up.
Translated into English by Nadja Strikovic.
Cover: False Mirror Office (Andrea Anselmo, Gloria Castellini, Filippo Fanciotti, Giovanni Glorialanza and Boris Hamzeian), FMO’s traveling workspace, 2017.