On awareness

In February editorial Nicola Di Battista analyses the moment of awareness, the first of the four to take in consideration in the architectural process.

Tullio Pericoli, Consapevolezza, 2017
This article has been originally published on Domus 1010, February 2017

Of the four stages into which we have divided the process of architectural design – awareness, imagination, profession, freedom – the most important and complex is certainly the one dedicated to awareness. And as we shall be seeing, this is for a number of reasons. To talk about that awareness we shall start from the subject of our thinking, the architectural project, in an attempt to reconstruct its development and to describe its making.

What is an architectural project? What is it for? How is it done? We have sought answers to the first two questions on various occasions, mainly while pausing to consider our contemporaneity and the themes expressed by our time; by looking at the architectural project as the outcome of a human endeavour which is just as indispensable nowadays as it was to the past: an endeavour necessary for the individual lives of all of us, hence eminently collective. At present however we need to realise that around us the built environment is becoming so vast and far-flung that we are compelled to re-examine the term collective. And that applies both to newly built areas, and to the terms natural and artificial in regard to our landscape. In fact, construction has by now assumed a second nature, which has largely supplanted the first, consequently becomingitself the true nature of our contemporaneity: a new artificial nature. It is considered, however, as being not ‘with’ or ‘for’ the collectivity, but on the contrary, to its detriment. Only a tiny part of it is actually architecture, and almost all of that belongs to the past, not the present.

The question today arises in a dramatical manner, because we know all too well that compared to the whole, only these small parts can fully express the collectivity. Only they can represent the identity of the communities that desired and created them, constructing their belonging to precise and unique places, of such importance to us that we are even prepared to fight in order to protect and preserve them. These forms clearly and evidently represent the highest expression of the concept of collectivity itself, and of the people that have truly and fully inhabited these places. Instead however, most people today live in inhospitable places unsuitable for that concept. They are places built cynically only for profit and advantage, no longer in response to the real needs of more civilised living. Under these conditions, we are faced with a daunting task, by now so evident that it can no longer be avoided.

It has become imperative to regain the thinking and the principles needed to underpin a different way of being architects. This entails a capacity to reconfigure and to remodel a landscape that has been so reviled in recent decades. To satisfy our need for decent habitation more effectively, we must look within our communities for ways and means of doing so. To answer the third question: that of how to do it, of how to conduct this activity, we had best start from its true character, as described above. The main reason for its existence is its need to govern the building of an environment better suited to the lives of human beings today, and the necessity to continue to do so for aesthetic purposes, as has always been the case. Or rather, only from a certain point onwards in its long existence and up till today has it done so, in its rise from huts to cathedrals, with admirable results. Therefore the architectural project involves an activity that cannot and must not be interrupted, because it is necessary and indispensable to our lives. But precisely for those same reasons, it is an activity that cannot be completely free; it can never represent an exclusively personal craft or art. On the contrary, an architectural project can continue to exist only as an eminently collective fact and is compelled to do so. Otherwise it is liable to decadence and extinction.

An architectural project or design must prefigure a collective work par excellence: the permanent setting for our lives. It must therefore first of all be describable

Now an architectural project or design must prefigure a collective work par excellence: the permanent setting for our lives – with the construction of an artificial environment to make that fully possible. It must therefore first of all be describable. The describability of an activity of such importance to people’s lives, to the lives of all humanity and not just a part of it, is essential to its making. In this way, its progress can be easily understood, if not scientifically, since it is not a science, at least logically. So, in that sense the first question we would like to approach is a strictly practical one: how to employ the time available to us to implement a project.

This may sound irreverent, or unsuited to the challenging theme concerned. But we have good reasons for wishing to start precisely from here, from the time allotted to us to implement a project and from how we employ that time. The time allotted changes of course from one project to another, from one situation to another, and from client to client. However, the fact remains that every project has a beginning, a development and an end. It is therefore these phases, this objective and irrefutable fact, that we want to think about. For as a matter regarded hitherto as unimportant, it has received scant attention. We, instead, think it is essential to pause to reflect on how to make good use of this time, a time that must not absolutely be left to chance, to what may or may not happen, nor to free will, nor still less to the whims of individuals. However short or long the time granted to us to implement a design may be, in the majority of cases it is not we who decide. Thus there is no point in talking about this. Instead, we need to think about how we use that time: about what measures to adopt or crafts to be pursued; about how to distinguish clearly between the various activities necessary to a project, but without separating them; how to decide which activities deserve the most attention, and eventually to answer the question – a very important one for us – of what to do first, what to do after, in what sequence and how much time to spend on it.

Even from these initial considerations alone we can easy see how relevant the decisions to be taken at this stage of a project are in order to ensure a satisfactory end-result. Let us therefore retrace the stages of a project, from its beginning. Whenever we find ourselves embarking on a new design we are pervaded by at least two divergent feelings: one of uneasiness about something still unfamiliar, unknown to us because we haven’t even started, and the outcome of which we can only know at the end, when the work is finished and not before; and the other, of euphoria, upon beginning something in the knowledge that everything is still possible, nothing inhibited, where anything can happen; and even that, as a result of our efforts, new and magnificent forms may be revealed and new standards set to let us live better. Faced with these two contrasting states of mind, we are expected to choose at once, for example between setting out an idea and working on it, or relying on the profession and its knowledge; or again, by putting our trust in some particular method to be closely adopted, and so on. Now if architects were obliged to account for their work only to themselves, these paths and others would still all be feasible, depending on their attitudes and intentions. But not, as we believe, if the architect must account for his or her efforts in a manner responding as closely as possible to a collective and not exclusively personal interest.

Whenever we find ourselves in a condition to work on a new project that will in some way transform a place, our first duty is to enable ourselves to do it to the best of our abilities. At that point, our main issue is not the project to be built, but rather, how to understand whether we are up to the task of doing it in the best of ways. That is why the first thing to be done is to acquire the keenest possible awareness of what the task entails. In this respect, as we said at the outset, we consider this phase, defined by us as that of awareness, to be fundamental within the development of a project, because we are sure that its success or failure will depend upon what is done during this phase. On beginning a new project, we should therefore strive not to fix ideas a priori to be developed, and above all not to choose a path to follow straight away. We want the design to take shape gradually, and not from the start; we want it to show itself only after a while and not immediately. We consider this initial part of the work to be a sort of preparation for action rather than the action itself.

We want the design to take shape gradually, and not from the start; we want it to show itself only after a while and not immediately
This is because we know all too well that whatever we put down on paper without proper awareness could easily turn against us. It could become our worst enemy. It could for example preclude us from seeking other solutions that might be better suited and more useful for the task in hand. Furthermore, this unawareness would tell us nothing at all about what we are doing, and the whole thing would be used up in that single act of design; whereas our problem is not how to create a single design, however excellent it may be, but to create it to our liking, when and as many times as we may need. We are not interested in the design as a brilliant stroke of genius. Extraordinarily precise, unwavering and as sharp as a surgeon’s knife are the remarks made by Paul Valéry on these same subjects: “A few years ago I shocked a number of people by stating that I would have preferred to have written a mediocre work in a perfectly lucid state of mind than a masterpiece in a state of trance, or as the fruit of flashes of inspiration... The fact is that a flash of inspiration won’t take me one step forward to a knowledge of myself. It only offers me a means for self-admiration. Instead, I am much more interested in trying to produce at my ease the tiniest spark than waiting for the occasional thunderbolts of an uncertain inspiration”. [1]

For all these reasons we prefer a design created with a fully conscious awareness, and so we attach great importance to this first part of the job. Then there is a further reason for dwelling on the subject of awareness where the architectural project is concerned. Namely, the fact that this particular assignment cannot be determined only by its own discipline and knowledge. Instead, if it is to be done completely and true to its purposes, it must also relate to the time that we are living in, since it is the only time in which it can be evaluated, judged and endorsed. And from this point of view, it is also clearly important to inject into its determinant activities those concerned with such matters. To do their work well, the architects’ first necessity is to define its underpinning contents with the utmost precision, and hence to acquire the greatest possible awareness of them.

To do that, the architect must first of all cultivate, at this early stage, an aptitude to listen carefully. They must realise that at this point anything, even seemingly remote, may be useful to the project. The architect must be ready to absorb the largest possible amount of information, without exclusion. And the more important the project is the more this action, this preparation, should be extended and explored. In this phase what matters most is being prepared, ready to move ahead by working on the theme, on the project’s rational data. But also on what our time suggests. At this point in our thinking it is interesting to note that the instrument of so-called urban analysis – today deemed obsolete and unusable, but which only a few decades ago had been the discipline’s mainstay – may once again prove valuable and central to the architect’s task, without however purporting to exhaust it. For we know very well that it alone will never be enough to encompass the complexity of that task and to fully define its contents.

To augment their capacity to define the contents of their work, architects must therefore necessarily leave the discipline to enter into closer contact with what their time and the people living in it have produced, and ask themselves what those people lack and what answers the architect can provide. In this endeavour we realise then that concepts like those of urban analysis or later, of non-places, or others still, have today become merely slogans or ideologies that claimed to resolve complex phenomena such as those of urban design alone. Instead, they can still be useful and important to us if we can hold them together, keeping them distinct perhaps but not separate. They must relate to awareness, and architects need them. But they also need a whole lot of other factors to best define the contents of their work and what to do. So how is all this achieved?

First of all by listening, and trying to understand the place affected by the project, to grasp its context and its immediate but also remote surroundings, its features and morphology, the materials and forms that configure it, the construction techniques and typological solutions used in the buildings of which it is composed, right up to the finishings and details of its identifying elements. What makes it unique and different from all the others will thus be better understood. But in this task, in this implemented listening, we cannot fail to also treat as places, for example, nature and the artificial, the large and the small, the solid and the void, or again, light and shade, warmth and coldness, silence and noise, and a lot more.

Architects must leave the discipline to enter into closer contact with what their time and the people living in it have produced

It will be readily understood that in this phase everything can be useful in order to increase our knowledge and to acquire materials beneficial to the project, and that alongside the various actions described, many others have to be taken. These may simply concern our life, our feelings and fears, our hopes and dreams, but also those of the communities that we belong to. Thus it is above all on these actions, for a better knowledge of what we need in our lives, that our awareness should be concentrated, even outside the discipline itself. As we have seen, in this phase the architect’s main duty is to listen, but it is also the client’s. For in a sense, the client too, like the architect, cannot be allowed to expect whatever they happen to want. They, too, live and work in a context, a community, which they too, for better or worse, will be contributing to transform through their actions. In this phase the client and the architect should avoid making rash or ill-advised decisions that may hamper their respective tasks, instead of helping them to make the right choices.

After a while, all this described work, which we have defined as awareness, will dissipate, becoming less impelling and not so urgent as before. Which means that what has been done up till then has dispelled many of the earlier doubts about what to do, and that among the many possible roads to follow one has been chosen: the one which – only at this point, during the project’s development and not at the beginning – is now the most plausible, fitting and richest in expectations. It only remains to follow that path. But that is another point in the project, another phase. It will be the theme of our next editorial on imagination.

1 Paul Valéry, OEuvre I. Variété. Fragments des mémoires d’un poème, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, Éditions Gallimard, Paris 1957

Top: Tullio Pericoli, Consapevolezza, 2017. Oil on board, cm 13x13

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