On imagination

Nicola Di Battista develops the idea of imagination as the second part of the architectural process that he divided in four parts, each one discussed in as many editorials.

Tullio Pericoli, Immaginazione, 2017. Oil on canvas 13 x 13 cm
This article was originally published on Domus 1011, March 2017.
The idea of dividing the making of architectural design into successive and sequential phases makes it easier to approach the subject. By treating these different phases singly rather than together, we can describe them individually and autonomously rather than within their framework as a whole. In so doing, we are clearly forcing the issue but let us say at once that we know this is necessary as it enables us to speak more clearly about our work and thus try and describe its objectives, practices and expectations. In our last editorial, we looked at the first of these phases, defined as awareness. We turn now to the second, which we have called imagination. We said, a priori, that we consider awareness to be the most important and complex of these phases, fundamental to the making of a project. With regard to imagination, we want to say, again a priori, that it is the most extraordinary and the richest part of our work, which we shall now try to talk about.
At the beginning of every new project, our main duty is, first of all, to gain the fullest possible awareness of what we are expected to achieve, which allows us to do it to the best of our abilities. As the first phase draws to a close, we reach a point where everything becomes evident and clear and seems to be within reach. For a brief moment, everything seems to have been done but, in reality, on closer inspection we find that everything still remains to be done. Having worked on the first phase in depth and with integrity, without presuming to reach any immediate conclusion but with the utmost consideration and awareness, enables us to resolve the many issues raised by any project and try to dispel the numerous doubts that fill the architect’s mind in the early stages. All of which applies until a decision is taken and a path chosen to the exclusion of all others. So, our work terrain is gradually reduced until a particular idea seems the only feasible one, the only pursuable one, becoming mandatory. It is at this point that the whole of the first part of the job is synthesized and finds its reason. That is when a decision matures, when we decide what to do. It is when we see with total certainty the path to follow: the one that seems best suited to the task at hand but also the richest in expectations and promise, the one most likely to bring the right answers to the questions we have asked ourselves. At this point, our readiness to listen, so important in the first phase, fades and disappears, replaced by the anxiety of deciding what to do. That is precisely when we move on from one work phase to the next.
Creativity is not a quality necessary to be a good architect
For a while, when thinking about this moment and its appropriate definition, we believed the right word might be “creativity”. Then, gradually and now with absolute conviction, we came to feel that the word had taken on connotations in today’s world that no longer fitted the architect’s profession. The word creativity has even come to be associated with a profession in its own right, that of the “creative” which has nothing to do with architecture. It is now common belief that creativity alone is sufficient to do our job well but we do not agree. Instead, we are firmly convinced that this is not a quality necessary to be a good architect. This time-honoured profession does not need strokes of genius, inexplicable and unexplained acts conjured up out of thin air, something that comes to mind and is simply conveyed. For all these reasons, we are hostile to this idea and think that this approach has nothing whatever to do with architecture. To manifest itself, architecture cannot pin its hopes on futile inventions; that would simply be avoiding the issue instead of responding to the huge challenges posed by the architectural project.
Going back to our work, we think the most apt way to describe what we have defined as the second phase of the process is imagination. By this we mean a human capacity, based on knowledge and not on nothing, to prefigure, see and imagine something that does not yet exist clearly and definitely; something not yet known but which via this capacity can be manifested in new and perhaps never-seen forms to express contents established by others, precisely in response to these contents. Hence, imagination as a condition, a frame of mind that prepares someone to do something. This condition is fully achieved by the architect’s awareness that the problem to be solved is profound. No flash of inspiration – totally unsuited to the architect who does not respond to him/herself alone – but a strong capacity for synthesis applied to knowledge. The more we know, the more we can imagine, to the point of determining connection between the two practices, whereby the knowledge sparks the imagination and it is the knowledge that selects the arbitrary elements from those necessary to the project and delivers them, so to speak, for the imagination’s free interpretation. In this case, what might at first sight seem a constraint on the task and its free expression, is in reality simply its reason for existence. Without this constraint architecture cannot exist, it is unable to perform. What seems a constriction is actually, as we well know, also its mainstay. Going back now to our work and its phases, the first, which we have defined as awareness, appears long, slow, tiring and undefined, full of doubts and curiosities. The second, that of imagination, appears, by contrast, faster, sudden, abrupt and more restless; all because, in reality, it is nothing but the conclusion of the first phase, its synthesis, its ultimate reason; that outstanding and incredible moment when anything can happen until it is actually done.
To understand better what we have been saying, if we re-examine the particular work done by the architect during that first stage of awareness, we realise that it is in no way innocent, that it pursues nothing cognitive or speculative for its own sake. On the contrary, it strives to gain knowledge aimed exclusively at the design process, which remains its principal goal. So, we are talking about a particular type of knowledge, used as a means and not an end to do a good job. If the human imagination remains an imponderable action and, in a sense, hard to control, we can, as we have seen, attempt to “tame” and steer it. It is our duty to do so because as architects we know well, to quote José Ortega y Gasset, that architecture “unlike the other arts, […] does not express personal sentiments and preferences, but collective states of mind and intentions.” [1] It is precisely these characteristics that identify and differentiate it from the other arts, at the same time forcing it to spread its wings, to release its strength and express its innovations only within collective and shared contents. For this very reason, architecture can be fully attained only as the conscious result of a process. At this point, is easier to understand that, even though imagination is manifested suddenly and quickly, it is in actual fact formed and shaped gradually as its awareness progresses, making one solution better than another. We should now look a little more deeply into the matter.
If the human imagination remains an imponderable action and, in a sense, hard to control, we can attempt to “tame” and steer it

If imagination, as we have said, relies on the condition that we have managed to adopt, on our frame of mind, our capacities and our ability to listen, then it will be able to wield all its potency in deciding what to do, carrying us towards fresh horizons and in new directions perhaps never previously undertaken. It may drive us to follow paths differently to the way others have already done or even simply to repeat, if the job so demands, something already done or already learnt. So, it is this extraordinary tool that is imagination that decides what is to be done. It will guide us to achieve the best form possible for the task in hand. This form, once attained, will be our reward and the chance to deliver it, lending form to the content, our privilege. It will also be the imagination, which we have described and cultivated, that shelters us from facile formalisms. It, and it alone, will enable us to create magnificent forms suited to the contents expressed by the people of our times so that, to reference Ortega again, “they appear to us with the sovereign objectivity of a grand mineral body” [2] and are not simply seen as the impertinent profile of a gentleman who happened to feel like doing it that way.

It is easier now to understand that, in the making of an architectural project, the most relevant moment occurs not at the outset but at a certain point in the development of the work; we would place that point in the passage from awareness to imagination. That is exactly when the decisions are taken and confirmed. Let us pause for a moment to consider this technical act that establishes what is to be done and how, via the imagination, what we have imagined must be done becomes firm; when we realise to our amazement that what we are endeavouring to describe does not, by any means, occur automatically. Nor, still less, does it happen at a set time nor even does it manifest itself in just one way. On the contrary, it can surprisingly do so in very different manners.

At times, it may express itself through a drawing or a rough sketch jotted down, of the kind produced more to gain an understanding than to pass on, of the kind serving to set down an idea rather than make it understood. At other times, it may take the form of a study model, of the sort made with whatever is to hand – cardboard, polystyrene, plywood or whatever. Sometimes they are borrowed forms, familiar, frequented and loved that seem right for that occasion, too; or distant references that may seem unsuitable might be picked and prove, as if by magic, to be just right. Finally, the result may even not appear in figurative form but through the use of words, in the shape of a short text outlining the intention or maybe a citation, or something else. Whatever form happens to decide it, having reached this point of the project means it is done or, rather, that the project has been decided because we have chosen a path to follow. From then on, all that remains is to pursue it consistently and persistently, without deviation, being guided by the rules of our craft and them only. Let us pause again to consider this passage which, as we have seen from our reasoning, does not occur at the beginning of the work but only at a certain point in its development.

It is interesting to note in this regard, if you will forgive the digression, that until this moment in the work the difference between a young architect and an older master is not all in favour of the master, not at all. Let us try now to explain this passage which, at first sight, might seem paradoxical but on closer inspection is not. We have often said that architects work for their times and, for this reason, must be thoroughly contemporary as is indispensable if they are to do a good job. For this very reason, it can easily be understood that whilst young architects are contemporary to their times, because they are their times and are compelled to be so, the older masters must instead, as each fresh occasion arises, regain contemporaneity because liable to confuse it and compare it to times already experienced; as they cannot simply be contemporary as younger architects can, they are forced to study the times, understand and judge them. In a word, they must first look closely at themselves if they want to be good architects.

The masters, at this point, might also think that their profound knowledge of their profession would be enough to accomplish good designs. They know how they are done, they have done so many but we know that, if they are not backed by contemporary contents, they will remain outside today’s world and be of no good to the people living in it. If we now wanted proof of what we have been saying, it would be simple to obtain by thinking, for example, of the idea of the house and the idea of living that every person possesses and with all the more reason belongs to the architect. We know that this idea is formed within each of us fairly early on, in our youth, and that it remains more or less unaltered for the rest of our lives, unless we decide to change it. If, however, we are architects, we are compelled frequently to redefine the concept of home and its contents. Otherwise we would end up building houses for people of other times, who are no longer here, who no longer exist; houses that may have been good in the past but not in the present. In this sense, the master knows how to design a house but this idea of house may not be in tune with the times any more, whereas the young represent their times because they are of them. But they still have to learn how to design houses.

This is not a job that suffers facile invention gladly
It is for this reason, too, that these first two phases of awareness and imagination are profoundly linked, sequential and indispensable in determining a good design. They cannot be sidestepped, not even by shrewd use of professional acumen. To go back now to the young architect and the older master, they are clearly, up to the phase we have called imagination, not really that far apart. Indeed, the young are perhaps at an advantage. Let us say, therefore, that for different and opposite reasons up to this point they are, in some ways, still equal, but will then, as we shall see, move much farther apart in the next stage of their profession. So, we believe that here lies the true meaning of the architectural project and how complicated and unhealthy it is to look for short cuts; there simply are none. There are no shortcuts to good design. Everyone, young and old, has to recognise the true need of this discipline and try to come up with straight answers. This is not a job that suffers facile invention gladly.  

José Ortega y Gasset, La felicità e la tecnica. Sullo stile in architettura, in Meditazioni sulla felicità, Sugarco, Gallarate (Varese), 1994, pp. 168–169. Originally published in the weekly magazine España, Tangier, 7 January 1952, under the title Sobre el estilo en arquitectura.
Ibidem, p. 168.

Top: Tullio Pericoli, Immaginazione, 2017. Oil on canvas 13 x 13 cm

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