On freedom

With May editorial Nicola Di Battista ends the reasoning on the architectural project. Awareness, imagination, profession, freedom: these are the four words chosen to represent four moments in the design process, and each one was the subject of an editorial.

Tullio Pericoli, Libertà, 2017. Olio su tavola
This article has been originally published in Domus 1014, June 2017

 

After our interval for the May issue, let us now get back to our monthly appointment to conclude what we were saying about the construction of a design theory. This time we shall be talking about the last of the phases into which we have divided this work: freedom. At this point, after having pondered in succession first the question of awareness, then imagination and finally that of our craft – which concretely brings the project into being – we felt we had somehow exhausted the subject as a whole, that there was nothing else to be added. Evidently, we were wrong. With the realisation of a project and its physical evidence, our work has certainly been brought to conclusion. The project for us is finished in as much as it no longer belongs to us; it detaches from us and is handed over to others. It is ready, for example, to be used as material for the final construction of the work. That’s the beginning of another story, however, which for now we won’t be discussing. The fact that at this point our job is finished would certainly seem true. But, when we come to think about it, it is not entirely so.

Let us try to explain why. Let us start by asking ourselves what the conclusion of a project is, or better what it represents for us who worked hard and perseveringly to bring it about, and who, in order to do so, decided to follow well-thought out theoretic principles. Working in this way, the realisation of a project does indeed bring it to a close, but at the same time a whole new world opens that the project we applied ourselves to has revealed and made known. What is actually closed with its conclusion? To answer this question we felt the need to add a phase to the others we have already covered, an ulterior phase that we call “freedom”. Let it not seem paradoxical to want to carry on talking about the project even when it is over. As a matter of fact, it is not strictly the project that we want to talk about, rather the architect and the way of working we have proposed. Let us proceed in order. The premise of these last editorials was the necessity to define for architects today a new way of working based on a logical procedure set out before starting the job. Said way of working would need to be as close as possible to our times, conformed to them in depth. We pointed to all this as a truly urgent issue to oppose the carelessness and addiction to technicalities typical of architectural design on what we now may safely describe as a global level.
Let it not seem paradoxical to want to carry on talking about the project even when it is over
The project is no longer seen as an eminently collective fact, but more and more as a private fact. Architects are not asked to account for their actions, and they now seem free to do whatever they like. The paradox of this apparent liberty that the practising architect seems to enjoy suggests that whatever he does, it will be plausible and valid. In reality, as we well know, if everything and its opposite is valid, then nothing has any value. Under these conditions, we believe it is indispensable to talk in theoretic terms about the act of designing, starting from a clear and transmissible system that can be shared as much as possible by others. For this reason, we went back to the time we have at our disposal for the making of a project. This usually entails a limited and certain amount of time, unlike the uncertainty that governs the construction of the designed building, which is ruled by different dynamics, other actors and issues. And only to a minimal degree do these pertain to the world of the architect, whose role as a designer is ever more marginal and sometimes entirely non-existent.
The project time is instead the only time that fully belongs to us, which is why we shall start again from here. Beginning from the time available to us to carry out a project allows us to ponder an objective and incontrovertible fact. And precisely that fact shows how important it is for us to consider the best way of using this available time. In surveying how to do a project, we dealt firstly with how to identify the elements that characterise it and hence its obligatory passages: what to do first and what to do afterwards, the hierarchy of the elements. Finally, we surveyed the risks of our work, and without trying to skirt these issues, we simply faced them. One of these risks, perhaps the greatest one among the most evident and most frequently encountered by architects, we contemplated the one that binds the entire making of a project to the architect’s craft and only to that. Well, today we know that this does not correspond to reality. We know that architectural design is a very complicated fact, and that it can occur fully only in the unity of its parts and not just in some of them. Its complexity cannot be reduced to autonomous and self-sufficient parts. That would reduce the craft to the level of a mere work tool. In the case that the project were to become just a work tool, one among the many that we have, it would stray permanently from its main reason for existence. It would then no longer be able to fulfil the expectations that people have always had for the architectural discipline in questions of living.
Human communities need to recognise themselves, represent and manifest themselves in a clear and shared architectural project
To reduce the architect’s work to the simple practicing of a profession means to prevent it from fully responding to the questions of living posed not only by individuals, but above all by communities. For example, it would mean no longer being able to respond to the renewed will of communities to inhabit places – their places. It would mean that architects would no longer be able to translate that wish into architectural forms capable of properly representing these communities and with them their collective characteristics. From this point of view it is easy to understand that in order to express their particular way of living, human communities need to recognise themselves, represent and manifest themselves in a clear and shared architectural project that can transfigure their lives both public and private in their entirety into architectural forms. Nothing less. Even if the single person represents the community to which he belongs, as an individual he has the obligation to ask himself what architecture is, what it can be, and what purpose it serves. Otherwise, without these answers, that person can never, in the strict sense, be a citizen, a good citizen. For this reason, the architectural project has never been and never will be solely and exclusively a technical and practical matter.
In light of these thoughts it is worth now understanding what happens in the “meantime” between one project and the next, and why it is so important to name this time as a further stage (the fourth) of the project. It is an ulterior phase for something really already done, finished, over and delivered. True, this phase belongs to the project, but it is clearly applied not to what has been done, but to what is done afterward. The explanation is simple. If the project, as we firmly believe, transcends the fact that it is a technical instrument indispensable to the realisation of a building and more, then the reasoning becomes clearer. So once the project is finished, a new phase in our thinking opens that we call the phase of freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom precisely from the project itself, from its demands and its requests, its claims and rules, its necessities; freedom, once the job is done, to go back to being just ordinary people, individuals living their lives, as for that matter they were doing even before the project began, though we may say now a little differently to before. Now it is precisely this having become a little different to what we were before that we want to consider. The project that we have concluded and delivered has changed us. We are no longer the people we were before, primarily because we consider the project and its making an extremely cognitive act. In our way of thinking about the architectural project, we regard it first of all as an instrument of knowledge.
The architectural project is an instrument of knowledge
The architect gets to know the world around him through the project. This is clearly a particular type of knowledge, but it very well is knowledge. Here, it is used to transform places through an act of design, but as knowledge, it also remains inside the architect himself and inside his life. So in reality the end of a job, the conclusion of a project closes only the work that was underway, but not the world it has opened. Precisely that world is the extraordinary heritage left to us by every project. Precisely the knowledge acquired through the realisation of a work done conscientiously and responsibly enables us to progress and advance in our discipline and in our life. In this way, the architect’s work is no longer only a technical fact, but something more ambitious and important. It is something very closely concerned first of all with life, and then also with the buildings that he will imagine, design and accomplish in order to live that life better. The more we can live life to the full the better will we be able to implement good designs in our work.
To go back now to this last phase that we call freedom, we can add that the finished work allows us to feel free again, as persons among persons, not as an architect-person, but simply a person. A more aware person, however, and that is the great gift gained through our work. In this regard, it is important now to make a consideration of specialisations. Contemporary life has filled the world with specialists. The living conditions of our times are governed and spelt out by myriad specialisations, by the complexity of technological advances that has made ever more refined and differentiated specialities indispensable. The paradox, unfortunately, is that it supports our present standard of living on the one hand, but has become our biggest problem on the other. Specialisation forces us to look at the detail, to consider the fruit of our labour as a self-enclosed fact, to see it as an exclusively technical fact to be taken into consideration only as a useful means of achieving certain actions in our lives, but nothing more. In doing these jobs, the only thing that can happen to those who do them is to become steadily more a specialist. For those practising one of these jobs, the end or conclusion of the job closes that work, and that’s the end of it. In this case, the space between one job and the next becomes an empty space one is compelled to fill with hobbies, entertaining activities and miscellaneous amusements.
The pause between one project and another is the architect’s space for freedom
With the architectural project that we have outlined, this is not the case. The space between one project and the next is never empty. Instead, it is incredibly full of the work just concluded. It has the capacity to bring light to life itself, at times even illuminating it with new light. The pause between one project and another is therefore the architect’s space for freedom. It is an unconstricted space, something absolutely not permissible during the making of the work, due to its eminently collective nature. All this makes it important to name this moment as if it were actually a phase of the work on a par with awareness, imagination and craft. In the end, freedom is the phase that upholds them all. It is a moment of pause, freed from the work and its rules, that has the capacity to put work back into the right position of life as a whole and not only a part of it. This pause is not simply a wait for another job, but an actual moment of freedom, above all for the mind. Now that the work is finished it can reason freely on what has been done and what still remains to be done. This pause is especially healthy because it enables us to return, so to speak, to real life, with its perplexities, problems and truths outside the work that squeezes us into what is in a way a closed world. The pause brings us back into an open world.

With the architectural project that we have outlined, this is not the case. The space between one project and the next is never empty. Instead, it is incredibly full of the work just concluded. It has the capacity to bring light to life itself, at times even illuminating it with new light. The pause between one project and another is therefore the architect’s space for freedom. It is an unconstricted space, something absolutely not permissible during the making of the work, due to its eminently collective nature. All this makes it important to name this moment as if it were actually a phase of the work on a par with awareness, imagination and craft. In the end, freedom is the phase that upholds them all. It is a moment of pause, freed from the work and its rules, that has the capacity to put work back into the right position of life as a whole and not only a part of it. This pause is not simply a wait for another job, but an actual moment of freedom, above all for the mind. Now that the work is finished it can reason freely on what has been done and what still remains to be done. This pause is especially healthy because it enables us to return, so to speak, to real life, with its perplexities, problems and truths outside the work that squeezes us into what is in a way a closed world.


Top: Tullio Pericoli, Libertà, 2017. Oil on board

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