hope this mail will find you well, as well as your relatives.
My name is Claudia Habib, I was one of your ex-students during design workshop classes, and I’m about to finish my degree developing a final work in Tokyo. […] It would be an honour and a pleasure for me to interview you for this month, especially with respect to the theme of identity. I was thinking about your studies connected with the identity of housing, a field of studies that may explain the needs and the comforts of those who give significance to it by living it. I was thinking about your classes and the functional program requests for the course project: “One of the aims of the research is to rethink criteria and typological schemes for the residence that may consider new housing needs. Going beyond the strict formal invariant schemes and carrying out a redefinition of traditional accommodation that allows to test types of housing open to new users: new forms of family, new forms of relationship”.
C.H. You edits the “wabi-sabi” column for Abitare la Terra, a research activity for a new paradigm aimed to resizing the needs and the idea of contemporary comfort. Let’s talk about wabi-sabi (from the Japanese: “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete beauty”), thus referring to a pure concept of sensibility that may give attention to the little things, enhancing the predispositions of man towards nature and viceversa. Before being compositional and artistic, this paradigm is above all philosophical and ethical, so the question is: how has your approach evolved to this?
Claudia Habib, Coexistence #1, Tokyo, 2019.
L.S. The two pages of my “wabi-sabi” column have been published since 2005 in the architecture magazine, Abitare la Terra, founded and directed by Paolo Portoghesi, and I have been writing as an editor since the year of his birth (2001). I proposed this column to a magazine, which subtitle reads “For an architecture of responsibility”, to give space to a reality that I use to call ‘intermediate space’, less defined but richer and warmer, which may escape the dualistic approach. Wabi-sabi is the union of two Japanese terms that refer to an aesthetic universe I’ve always been attracted. Wabi-sabi is the beauty of imperfect, temporary, unfinished, humble, modest and unusual things. It is deep, multifaceted, elusive. The first sources of inspiration for the metaphysical, spiritual and ethical principles of wabi-sabi are simplicity, naturalness and acceptance of reality, typical of Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Wabi-sabi is a lifestyle capable of restoring wisdom and balance to the art of living. It’s one of those terms that is difficult to explain, because it contains within it the force of contradiction. The Japanese rarely use to talk about it: they claim to understand the sensations of wabi-sabi, but they find it difficult to explain it clearly. This is because most Japanese have never learned the concept of wabi-sabi under an intellectual point of view, since there are no books or teachers to learn it from. We could try to summarize it, although roughly, as the opposite of the smooth, lucid and precise terms proposed by Modernism. Conversely, wabi-sabi accepts the unexpected, the irregularity; the natural, imperfect and wrinkled surfaces, evoking in the absence of suspension from abstraction the possibility of getting lost in the imprecision that characterizes and founds our living and our feeling. It feels uneven, convulsive, rickety, joyful, happy, sad. Based on these considerations, I include in the “wabi-sabi” column the experiences that the readers or me find related not only to architecture but also to art, theater, furniture, fashion and cinema. As you know, for me motion picture represents a source of inspiration and expression, having been involved since I was a student in editing and directing architectural videos at the La Sapienza CDCC (Kinetic Documentation Centre of the City).
Claudia Habib, Coexistence #2, Tokyo, 2019.
C.H. Contemporary society is facing a rapid transformation, pushing it to fight for the normalization of realities that still appear to be secondary or difficult. What can wabi-sabi be useful for Western culture?
L.S. I would like to say something over the use of certain words, especially if we think about what we mean when we talk about the Western and the Eastern world. Let me say that I’d like to refer to the West and the East as a multiplicity of realities that describe geographical and cultural areas reluctant to uniformity. There’s a Chinese, Indian, Japanese East as well as an Italian, Spanish, Northern European West, each one proud of its own tradition and culture. The reasons that brought me to travel to Japan several times were linked with the desire of going beyond my limits, living an adventure to discover what is different and new to me. However, travel as an easy mean of getting to know ‘other’ things sometimes runs the risk of slipping into the myth of permanent revolution, inevitably leading to a sort of escape. So, here the journey back becomes important: after having moved away from your own reference system and confronted with the wider world, here’s the way back. Without escaping or abjuring it, the way home is characterized by its capability of reuniting with its original values, this time updating, integrating and enriching them (if necessary, even modifying them, but not denying them), trying to place them in a mutual necessity based precisely on the opposition of their different identities.
The journey has a round trip. If we pay attention to the way back towards the Orient and towards the wabi-sabi culture, there’s a chance for contamination; and imperfection may have the right of citizenship in our design activity.
We can introduce something that must be completed by the inhabitant even in the organization of the domestic space, giving importance to the theme of freedom more than flexibility (something that almost scares me) as much as the expression “multifunctional space”. What is it? What does it mean? It would be better to think about spaces for open functions.
Going over now the topics covered in the “wabi-sabi” column, I remember a documentary film that inspired me after seeing it at the Venice Film Festival: Below sea level, directed by Gianfranco Rosi.
Architecture has long posed the problem of marginalized existence in the suburbs, but unfortunately it has hardly faced the trauma of disorientation from anarchist individuals who, driven by their inner condition, become protagonists of a design challenge that attempts to rearrange their life and their poor situation: without water, nor light, nor government, nor laws, the protagonists of this true story colonize a depressed desert area that hosts only debris and torrid temperatures at 40 metres below sea level, hence the title. They choose to distance themselves from the world, without denying it. And while they redefine the concept of home, they read, talk, cook, love, compose songs, cultivate passions and dream of becoming visible again.
Claudia Habib, Handly food, Tokyo, 2019.
This community lives without documents in a condition of irregularity, uncertainty, all of an extraordinary poetry. Considered as debris of society, the protagonists immerse themselves in the physical and mental rubbish of the place: landscape, objects and people fade into a continuum that seems to reveal the art of “Living the Earth” which gives man the ability to survive himself. The hypertrophy of space is compressed and cancelled according to the survivors of that desert parenthesis: an apocalyptic landscape, of course, but also their home!
Years later, I went back to talking about cinema in the “wabi-sabi” column, regarding the acclaimed film Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho, which shows the living conditions in Seoul of two families and has surprisingly opened the way for a small housing reform in the country. With ironic and grotesque accents, Parasite is the raw tale of a social class struggle: a rich bourgeois family, owner of a house that vehicles the minimalist language through large windows and free horizontal floors, and a poor family, living in a claustrophobic basement where a torrential rain will drop and drown everything. The poor family elaborates a plan to work for the richer one and thus living in spaces never granted to them. The film has the virtue of removing the veil on the condition of the slums present in the large urban agglomeration that has formed around Seoul, which has prompted the government to propose a project to help those who live in basements such as those represented by the film.
The feature film leaves the audience with a question that was also the main theme chosen for the 17th Venice Biennale: How Will We Live Together? Even more relevant, considering the global pandemic. In other words: do contemporary societies have a plan for managing what goes on inside them? Honestly: I don’t know the answer. But it could be hidden, perhaps, in the exhortation to not exceed the limit.
Claudia Habib, Handly life, Tokyo, 2019.
C.H. It’s interesting that this topic has been mentioned now, because it was the same theme and the same title of the latest issue of Agorà.
L.S. And what answer did the magazine give? Was it satisfactory or did it leave some open questions?
C.H. I would say the second one. It fostered questions and different points of view: we asked authors and guests, each of whom tried to answer, but inevitably ending up opening other questions. Everything is still in progress, so we can imagine or hope for something, but then: how will it end up? Only time will tell. I also find interesting how we managed to talk about life linked with the home and its social context, how the set of small cores may involve a wider social sphere, so that communities could be able to mobilize the government by putting into effort projects to solve social issues. At this point, I would like to ask you what your opinion about the house in its inside is. We are therefore talking about the adaptability of the contemporary residence based on the lifestyle of those who live there, with regards to belonging to their own era and culture and considering the mixitè of residents and new needs, but also the request of needy families that manifests itself in the daily life of their lives.
(“One of the aims of the research is to rethink typological criteria and schemes for residence, which may consider new housing needs. Going beyond the rigid formal invariant schemes and redefining traditional housing that allows experimenting with open residential types to new users: all of this could be considered just like new forms of family and new forms of relationship”, Functional program of the Architectural Design Laboratory II) How different meanings of family manifested in the way of living the home environment?
SHIRO, Casa A10, Roma, 2018.
L.S. Recently, I discussed it with Paolo Portoghesi, and despite this talk has lasted for about 12 years, it still continues today even if the dialogue was published in 2017 for Edizioni Medusa. Our certainly cultural and personal differences have fostered the desire to consider on the most disparate themes and also on the condition of the domestic space, on the organization and internal distribution of the residence which has remained substantially unchanged from the 1960s to today. If we think of the elements that have represented the modernity of the housing and the modern way of living it, we can consider the kitchen in the niche, the living room and little else. What is really missing, and I always try to insert it as a theme for my students of the workshop, is the following consideration: how can we live our spaces in the contemporary world? You mentioned mixitè, a term borrowed from the discipline of urban planning, but we need to understand what it means to live together with such different realities. We must think that what is missing in the interiors we live in is not so much the response to desires as our ability, as designers, to influence them. And how can we influence the wishes and needs of life, detaching ourselves from the needs or pervasive suggestions of the market?
For many, living modernly means being surrounded by modern objects, but actually this is quite another thing! In this way, we architects are called to perform the function of technicians who compose in the environment a collection of objects chosen by their customers, without being able to really affect the quality of the space they have chosen and imagine for them a life within that space. There has been a great innovation in the furnishings and a functional improvement of the objects: sofas that move, mattresses with shape memory and many other accessories in which the contemporary is expressed. But in the end, the room always remains like that.
Indeed, I like to talk about scopes and functional loops. Let’s start with the etymology of the term “scope”: we identify a space within certain limits, it’s not important if it’s circular or not, by which we move and perform some functions. In music, the scope is the distance that exists between the lowest and highest sound of a melody, and the extension of the various voices and instruments too. Just think how useful such a consideration could be in the project! This is why we cannot and we must not be satisfied with designing one room after another. Therefore, it is important for me to talk about functional loop or scope. These terms give an idea of adaptability that is necessary to interpret needs, that may change over time. However, I’m actually referring to adaptability, not flexibility.
SHIRO, Casa A10, Roma, 2018.
C.H. I think that it’s interesting how in the music field each note is linked with the other and is related to it to manifest the whole musical composition. We talk about breadth, and this could reflect the multiplicity of functions and actions that should then be carried out within each environment: actions that make up domestic life, the symphony indeed. They must be varied and connected.
L.S. Yes, I agree with you. Talking about functional loops and scopes, there’s another theme that emerges and for which perhaps little is said about. And this is how environments are designed, which are often devoid of characterization, and instead of stimulating the creative capacity of those who furnish the house, end up humiliating it. What is important is the possibility of leaving a field with open possibilities that can be achieved by the inhabitant. Of course, it is obvious that the house still has many problems to solve: the smell of the kitchen, something that hides something else, but in the end, you have to look for vitality! This is why, along with the design studio that I founded with Marco Sorrentino, vitalità! È per questo che con SHIRO (Studio House Interiors Rome), we also try to create what I call “circularity” in very small spaces, that is: the possibility for a room to have a non-coincident entrance and exit.
The problem is that space is stucked. We must try to find a methodology able to ensure that this space can be re-divided, reformulated, redesigned. We must also consider that the house, especially at this moment, needs to expand, because some activities that we used to do outside the house have now moved inside, and together with other people. This makes the house a space that seems to continually ask for more space. What should be designed are the conditions so that the home may grow according to real needs, and not making the house of the future.
SHIRO, Casa A11, Roma, 2018.
C.H. It is something that refers to self-defined spaces based on their function, not by a logic of boundary or delimitation. Where does this idea come from? What is the difference between “functional loop” and “scope”?
L.S. We can consider the functional loop as something that refers to the continuity of the domestic environment. If I had to clarify this concept with a project, I would mention Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, where fixed elements introduce, circumscribe and define certain functions without establishing them as an obligation.
Trying to explain them, I often find myself thinking about Adolf Loos’ Raumplan and his description of the construction principles based on the interlocking of volumes at different heights and floors. I’m also thinking of the Japanese element called noren, a sort of different sizes and heights curtains, which ideally separates one space from another indicating the need for two different actions while not delimiting the space. However, I don’t see a huge difference between “scope” and “functional loops”. I think they could be alternatives.
SHIRO, Casa A11, Roma, 2018.
C.H. The term stimulates my imagination, leading me to connect with the path of the river, that is the point where the river takes a bend and slows down to change direction, without interrupting the flow. It determines a transformation, even without having a clear interruption. Therefore, a sort of slowdown.
L.S. The river flow reference is interesting. Let’s think about it, applied to the environment and concerned as a space within certain limits. The loop could represent a limit for slowing the flow, but without interruption. I like thinking in these terms because they are bearers of an idea of freedom, without limits or edges. As if life blows in the scope, when instead life is often blocked in a room: which is why, as a designer, I like to think that the doors remain open while the air and smells of the different environments enter.
C.H. Having identified what needs are, what elements could be considered in order to satisfy them?
L.S. Definitely knowledge. Paying attention to what we need, to people, to needs. Paying attention to places. But as architects, we also need to refer to clear rules even in terms of clear programs. We are called to shape people’s expectations, desires and needs, but we rarely manage to get there before the political, economic and programmatic decisions have been made by someone else. Unfortunately, architects have never had political representation.
What should we do? Educating students on these issues is essential. Talking to the students and teaching them to listen to the needs and requirements, but also a critical awareness of the interests of our category. We need to know how to understand things, how to learn about them. It is necessary that an architecture student should confront himself with these problems, in order to learn how dealing with real problems and therefore to detach himself from the desire to create. “Creating” is a term on which I always spend a few words trying to mitigate the anxiety of creation of the student, while should be necessary a real effort in listening and in dealing with specific problems. We have to go down the street, engaging in the struggle, mixing with problems to understand and solve them. Another term that I really like is contamination, which is part of the encounter, knowledge and vitality.
C.H. Funny how I was thinking about this theme just a few days ago, re-reading an excerpt from “Il gioco dell’architettura. Dialogo con Paolo Portoghesi” where you were an important element in this long and intense series of exchanges. He says: “The school should mitigate this anxiety and shifting attention to issues that seek a new relationship between man and nature, trying to incorporate the great problems of survival into the project. Limiting ambitions, therefore, and replacing the word ‘create’ with “to transform, to modify, to maintain, to take care”.
L.S. To take care, yes.
Shiro (Studio House Interiors Rome), Website, www.shiroarchitetti.com
Translated into English by Francesco Merra.
Cover: Leone Spita portrait, courtesy of Leone Spita.