By way of conclusion

In July-August editorial, Nicola Di Battista gets back on the theory of the architectural project that he prefers to define a way of working.

Tullio Pericoli, Consapevolezza, immaginazione, mestiere, libertà, 2017
This article has been originally published in Domus 1015, July-August 2017.


Unlike all the other arts, the making of architecture expresses only and “collective states of mind and intentions”. Therefore, taking as our departure point the character that most belongs to it and is inherent in it – the fact that it is an eminently collective deed – we have considered it necessary that this particular type of human making must be carried out above all as the final expression of an accomplished design theory. We have therefore exposed the matter of the construction of a theoretical system that is as much as possible suited and conformed to our times, the times we live in, and indissolubly linked to it to fully support the craft of the architect today. Precisely these two elements – a design theory and our times – construct the materials necessary and indispensable to the architect in order to accomplish his work. For this reason, we have devoted our latest editorials to the construction of this theory. We have done it now and not earlier, because we believe that only currently have the right conditions finally been recreated to enable this construction. Indeed, a renewed and growing capacity to listen is an increasingly salient feature of current times and the people living in them. With trust and dedication, we wish to address mainly them, in the hope that our notes might help them to envisage a new world more just and balanced than today’s.

We find intolerable the idea that architecture renounce the full realisation of the built environment for the life of contemporary humanity – either by remaining obstinately anchored to a past that no longer exists, or by accepting to reduce its aims regarding the present concerning good habitation today. In outlining the main tenets of a new architectural design theory, we realised that perhaps the word “theory” might not be quite right today to fully express the foundations of this work. Or better, it might express them, but in a way that is too peremptory and deterministic to be fully comprehended at a time when civilised society as a whole no longer feels the need to endorse a collective architectural view. We must acknowledge that the relation between theory and practice has been interrupted and spent for some time now, despite the fact that it has always – since the Renaissance, at the very least – characterised and structured the discipline of architecture, and has done so in an accomplished and explicit way every time.
We must acknowledge that the relation between theory and practice has been interrupted and spent
Today it is simpler to pursue an idea of architecture as a regulated and codified technique that produces certified and reassuring buildings, rather than venturing into cultural ambits that elude certainty and instead cultivate more doubt. That is why, for at least two decades, in architecture the word “theory” has been ousted by “technique” or conversely “creativity”, the latter of which really pursues the same objective mentioned above: to reduce this discipline to just one part of itself, in the hope to not have to fully respond to the major issues inherent in it. However, only they uphold the discipline. It has been mistakenly thought that it would be enough to update the time-honoured technical and constructional wisdom of the architectural discipline to do this job well, to the point of deeming it possible to avoid architectural thought and its making.
Relying on technique alone, for instance, while abandoning architectural thought, has created the sensation that the architect’s so-called personal creativity could go back to expressing itself without impediment, restraint or limitation, giving the impression of having finally regained a supposedly lost freedom. We know now that this purported freedom has merely unleashed an immense and interminable quantity of architecture in which everything conceivable has been built and everyone’s purpose has been confined to themselves, thinking they could get away with anything. The result is an indecent and intolerable landscape characterised by whim, where the arrogance of personal style has become the chief architectural feature. Content to express personal moods and sentiments, the work thus built fails to represent communities and architecturally convey communities’ aspirations to inhabit their places.
Architects’ work has stopped concerning itself with understanding what is happening around it in human communities: what their problems are, what their desires are, what their hopes are today. It has not even attempted to understand how the collective sense of being together was changing. Thus the architect’s answers to the contemporary issues of habitation have become personal and consequently lesser, to the point where every work has become an expedient contrived for its own sake, valid only for one person at that moment and no more. Taken singly, these are surely more reassuring answers, but they definitely do not express collective contents. This jeopardises the possibility of representing any type of associative life, any desire for civilised cohabitation. By now, such work is incapable of building the fixed stage of the great human comedy of life. The self-enclosed architectural forms produced by this situation have no longer been able, or lucky enough, to express the sentiments and states of mind of our collectivities, but only the demands of a few individuals, and of their private interests.
It should be remembered that architecture is not a completely free art
It should be remembered at this point that architecture is not a completely free art. And for architects it has been fatal to think they could solve their problems by deserting the discipline or curtailing their aims. The freedom thus gained and paraded has created only the sensation of an advance, but nothing more. Today we know, at our expense, that this fact of being the collective art par excellence, hence not an exclusively personal one, is what constrains but also holds it together. So we believe the question of architecture today is first of all a strictly cultural one. To understand this one need only observe the way too many architects today frenetically and incessantly strive to overturn reality, making what is complex and profound look simple and superficial. Instead, architecture ought to bring out what is profound and complex and transform it into clear and evident concepts that can be shared by many. This sharing would allow it to reveal those matters of habitation closest to the humanity of our time, as the basis of the architect’s actions and thus becoming the material required to achieve a veritable architectural transfiguration worthy of people’s expectations.

The complexity of life should be neither simplified nor reduced, but studied and understood; in the awareness that it is unique, singular and unrepeatable for every one of us, and that for that very reason can accept no generalisation. Life is irreducible and the sole way of tckling it for the architect is to work, case by case and place by place, to seek it and to recognise it with patience and perseverance, firstly within the communities that express it and are its custodians. It is the architect’s duty to look for all this, to establish the contents that will be the basis of their actions, the contents that cannot be relinquished because there are necessary to the best practice of their profession, fully, reliably and jointly.

This may be their first necessity: that of having strong and shared contents to be transfigured into contemporary architectural forms. However, the architect’s main task remain in any case that of how to implement that transfiguration; and it is a how that cannot escape the fact that the contents are collective and belong to everybody, and for that very reason it is the architect’s duty to make their work evident and transparent, to describe its passages and its objectives, to make their endeavours as manifest as possible. The architect cannot therefore hide behind a presumed and arrogant, inexplicable and unexplained creativity, so unsuited to their craft and to its role. Instead, they should undertake a fully comprehensible action previously discussed and shared. We are not saying that it is possible to entirely describe the architect’s work. For it will be manifest and visible only at the end, once the project has been realised and concluded.

The architect’ job is a cognitive one and not just an applied technique
This result will belong first and entirely to those who brought it about, and subsequently to the people that will be using it. Since the architect’ job is a cognitive one and not just an applied technique, it is absolutely impossible to know its outcome in advance. In fact we do not want to talk about this, but rather, about what we do to achieve that result. This is what can and must be discussed. On the strength of everything said so far, we believe it is very important today to be able to describe the work we do; and to do so we think it should be done only within a clearly explained and shared theory of design, capable of supporting it. However, the one we have outlined is a theory of design that does not guarantee the end-result, but creates the necessary and essential conditions under which the architect’s craft can be implemented. It enables the architects themselves to fully adopt their proper role within a civilised society. It is important here to recall, once again, the extraordinary thinking of the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, as precise and sharp as a surgeon’s knife, when he says that “every artist as such is an organ of collective life, but that in the case of the architect it is raised to the highest power”; and again, “While others have to be this organ, the architect is forced to be it. For this reason there are certain needs to which the architect submit”. Ortega goes still farther, and deeper, by saying “the authentic architect is an entire people”.
What a superb role the philosopher attributes to the architect within the community of men and their professions, that of being, like others, an organ of collective life, but also a very particular organ, to the point of identifying with an entire population. What a responsibility, what ethics and moral values, are embodied in this being an entire population! If the philosopher goes so far, in ascribing to the architect and to architecture a task of this magnitude, how can we architects desire and aspire to anything less? At the same time however, Ortega wisely reminds us that in practising this craft the architect is not free, but must submit to certain demands if they are to fully interpret “collective states of mind and intentions”. So it is understandable that the work we do as architects needs to be founded on a clear and explicit theory, so that it can be understood and become a common basis, shared by the largest possible number of people. It is all this that needs to be discussed and shared, and not the result of the work, which must instead be subjected to other judgments and withstand other tests; all of which lie within the discipline itself and cannot easily be discussed elsewhere.
If we want architecture once again to aspire, as it did for so long, to the highest goals assigned to it by Ortega, and by us with him, then there are no alternatives or short cuts to what we propose. Of course we are not saying that our proposal is the only feasible one. On the contrary, it is to be hoped that it may compare with others. What we can be sure of, however, is that if architecture continues to be an exclusively personal matter, tied to those who produce it and make it, as happens today in the vast majority of cases, then we will stoop ever further to the barbarity of individual whims, that can at the most represent only themselves and their creators but nothing more. Instead, we do not want to cut the thread that indissolubly links our discipline to civilised society and to people’s lives. We are not prepared to relinquish our prerogatives in regard to good habitation. And finally, we would never want our epoch to go down into history as the one that renounced architecture as a discipline that can shape the places of men’s lives on this earth.  
It is indispensable today for the architect’s work to be supported by a complete theory of design
For all the above reasons, we think it is indispensable and vitally important today for the architect’s work to be supported by a complete theory of design. Of this we are absolutely convinced, whereas what we do have some doubts about – as mentioned at the beginning of these notes – is the use, under present conditions, of the word “theory”. And so, to make things clearer, instead of talking about theory, or rather, to explain what we mean by theory in architectural design, we like to speak of a way of working: a way of working that has nothing deterministic and absolute about it. It does not refer to regulations and to science, but simply expresses the desire to tell how we do our projects. Now the way of working that we have described does not aspire or presume to fully recount a project - which is in itself impossible, and we make no attempt to do so. It only seeks to describe our approach and what thinking underpins it, what contents support it; nothing more, but nothing less either, in the awareness that every work is a story in itself. And for each of these the case by case rule will always apply.  

Top: Tullio Pericoli, Consapevolezza, immaginazione, mestiere, libertà, 2017
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