The chickens have come home to roost

In September’editorial Nicola Di Battista underlines the Italian’s state incapability, and the architects one, of taking care of the territory, faced with the not new but  more frequent natural disasters.

Nicola Di Battista, Arena dell’arte, model's detail, 2001
This “hot” summer now over leaves us with an overriding sense of malaise: that of living in Italy, our extremely fragile and defenceless country now incapable of meeting with dignity even the most elementary needs of an advanced society such as that of the West in which we live.
We shall come back to this later. Firmly convinced that the time was, at last, right for the discipline of architecture once again to explain itself in a manner that is understood not only by those working in the sector, we have devoted several editorials to outlining the foundations of a possible and accomplished theory of design; one that supports the work of architects who for years had set it aside, convinced they could do without one.
As we well know, whilst all this at first gave many the feeling that they would be freer to get on with their work, the absence of clear and shared theoretic thinking underpinning that work gradually became an obstacle to it, such that it is hard now even to acknowledge its need. Having reached this stage and on the strength of work done within the discipline, we cannot ignore what is also happening beyond its boundaries, in the real world, where we must look for what helps or hinders the discipline. It is worth remembering that recent years have passed quickly for everybody and been lived dangerously, our senses overexcited by the stunning flood of technological innovations thrust upon us, only to find ourselves naked and bewildered before the complexity of our global world.
Nicola Di Battista, model for Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Roma, 2001
Nicola Di Battista, model of the Arena del progetto for Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Roma, 2001
Bewildered and, sadly, no longer fully able to grasp what is going on around us, only now have we come to realise how devastating was our decision not to shape the reality around us, believing it to be simply a fact of life. Faced with all the disasters we are forced to witness today, be they humanitarian, religious, financial or other, we are filled with a distressing sense of impotence that forces us to live our lives with resignation. We shall not succumb to it. We want to be responsible for our future, shaping it and not enduring it. Faced with today’s difficulties, the consolidated malpractices and the unbearable simplification of reality, we can no longer remain inert and insensitive or, worse still, pretend not to know the origin of the problems.
The ever-smaller cultural dimension of our time is the measure of what we have become

The ever-smaller cultural dimension of our time is the measure of what we have become and this is precisely where we must start, asking ourselves whether there is still room today for a world where it is once again the mind that subtends and supports human endeavour We now know that it was this very limitation that prevented a real modernisation of our country-system – or rather that stopped the completion of what had been started but was never finished, forcing us to struggle with our current times. This applies to nearly all the fields of civilised living, obliged to witness defencelessly the brutal abuse of our land, the uninformed and ill-considered use of our resources, natural and artificial, and, above all, the heinous deterioration of our institutions. This situation, long apparent to all, is now so deep-rooted as to be regarded by most as permanent, unchangeable and consequently accepted with resignation and taken as inescapable.

In these conditions, what is most saddening and worrying is having to see our entire nation impotent and immobile, incapable of finding ways out that will lead to new paths of progress and civilisation. It is indeed sad and frustrating to find ourselves in such a state, where everyone knows what is wrong and does not work but no one seems able to find a remedy. There are few explanations for this embarrassing situation and the most plausible might be that the majority of Italian citizens today are mainly concerned with and interested in preserving and defending their status quo, safeguarding their standard of living, each with what they have, much or little as it may be.

This summer’s emergencies, caused on the one hand by countless fires and on the other by a lack of water, suddenly thrust us into a nightmare
The state of our country has long been familiar to all; everybody knows and talks about it but instead of triggering a reaction to counter the disaster with thoughts and concrete actions that will bring about real change, this has only fuelled a mighty, interminable and endless river of words and images. We shall try to take this reflection further but, for the moment, let us return to what we were saying at the beginning of this piece. Looming over this whole discussion has been this summer’s onslaught, responsible for revealing to the whole world Italy’s incapacity to live in our times. It has done so in masterly, almost theatrical, fashion with a universal surrender to water and fire, and hence life. The possibility of catastrophic, extreme and, at times, cruel events linked to the very substance of our land is a well-known fact. It is, however, intolerable to think that, in the face of such events, a modern and serious nation has nothing more to say than that they are, alas, the product of exceptional climate issues. This is a naïve and unacceptable excuse. Of course, it is not possible to know what will happen tomorrow but we are well aware of what we have or have not done today in our roles as ordinary citizens or decision-makers in charge of our institutions. We know, too, that the effects of these events will be more or less pernicious depending on what was done prior to their arrival.

Fire and water have always been essential elements of human life on this earth but they are also the protagonists of many, dramatic tragedies that are certainly not new to us. This is why populations have learnt to gain a hold over and manage them, controlling them and, above all, mitigating their destructive effects by means of constant, careful and persevering prevention, studied case by case. This is even more so in a country such as ours, more advanced than many other parts of the world. Yet, this summer’s emergencies, caused on the one hand by countless fires and on the other by a lack of water, suddenly thrust us into a nightmare featuring a sorry image of our land left to its own devices and to what we have become.

Italy in flames and out of water for its population has shown, loudly and clearly, that we have reached a point of no return. We can no longer say that sooner or later the chickens will come home to roost, for our chickens have already come home to roost and – alas – conclusively and irreversibly. We had best go back now to our design disciplines and try to understand how they have, in recent years, pandered to or countered what we have just said. We shall do so by taking two of the cornerstones of our work: training and the profession.

It is truly sickening to see that a country such as ours, which boasts excellent universities, has failed to reform itself from within
Starting with training, it is no exaggeration to say that one of the most important contributions made by Italy to the Modern Movement lay in its teaching of architecture, with the idea and the need to transmit and learn that subject in the schools. After the extraordinary experience of the German Bauhaus at the beginning of the last century, we must look to the great work done by the Italian architecture faculties for anything comparable. We refer to the creation and rise of the schools of Venice, Milan and Rome, to mention but a few, internationally recognised schools that trained large numbers of good architects and made a key contribution to the reconstruction of a country destroyed by war. After this uplifting period, unmatched anywhere else in the world, we might have expected a sure and prosperous future for this discipline but that was not to be.
With the decentralisation of our universities – not in itself a bad thing – other public schools sprang up across the country. Away from the major cities, other universities began to offer degree courses in architecture, although not always virtuously and with few chairs in such fundamental subjects as “architectural design” but many others that created numerous minor academic potentates. Without a broader outlook on the future, everyone in these schools focused on their own sector while trying to muddle through, defending what little they had. The result was disastrous, embarrassing and onerous. So where were the architects, teachers and students in those years? Why did they allow themselves to become accomplices to that state of affairs? Why did they feel no need to rebel? These rhetorical questions will not be answered but the reply is there for all to see in the educational system we have inherited.
It is truly sickening to see that a country such as ours, which boasts excellent universities, has failed to reform itself from within. It would not take much and would be possible, if only there were a will to do so. The other issue we want to address is that of the architectural profession. The architect’s craft has been practised for thousands of years and, until the 1980s, it had always focused on the city of man, the common good. For a very long time, the architect’s professionalism, based mainly on intellectual and material abilities organised in the traditional “architectural office”, served the construction of places for everyone’s lives. Instead, in recent years, the great technological innovations that have erupted into our world and an increasingly secondary cultural system have completely changed this work approach. They have rendered the old practices obsolete and so, moving from drawing board to computer, more attention has been paid to the tools than the work contents. Algorithms have replaced thinking and this ancient craft and its rules have been squeezed within strict standards.
All this has led to the almost total destruction of the old way of working but without creating a new one in step with the times and capable of pursuing the same time-honoured aims. Instead, there are more and more complex professional firms claiming the right to design our landscapes, our public buildings and our houses whilst unconsciously treating architectural output as any old commercial product that responds only to the rules of the market. What does all this have to do with architecture other than woefully banishing it from architectural production? How mean to try and turn architecture into mere technique! Where, in those years, were the architects, professionals and professional bodies? Why did they look away? Why did they become accomplices to this state of affairs? As for the issue of training, these questions will have no answers either but in this case, too, the most striking response is found on our land and what has been built there.
Where, in those years, were the architects, professionals and professional bodies?
A country such as Italy with tens and tens of thousands of qualified architects cannot be subjected to this humiliating and inescapable reality. There must be a way out, it only has to be sought, found and pursued. It can be done. At this point, we must surely mention Pier Paolo Pasolini’s clear and peremptory analysis of the state of our country in the early 1970s. Speaking of that period, he said: “It has been a sort of nightmare, in which we have seen Italy all around us busy destroying itself and disappearing. Now, as we wake perhaps from this nightmare and look around, we realise there is nothing we can do about it.” (Domus 974, November 2013). Many years have passed since then and, rereading his words today, we realise that our current issues date way back and that, already then, things were clear for people like Pasolini who could see them. However, we cannot agree with one thing: his dramatic conclusion, his whispered cry echoing across the dunes of Sabaudia: “there is nothing we can do about it.”
On the contrary, much can be done today, a great deal, it just needs to be done. Italy wants and implores reconstruction. It is dying for someone to do this, for someone to take it in hand, save it from the mad neglect it has suffered and arouse it, at last, from the insane torpor that has enveloped and stifled it for too long. We cannot squander the unexpected opportunity offered by the present state of affairs; the umpteenth opportunity after so many not seized upon. Again, it is Pasolini who shows the way when, in masterly fashion, he describes in a few words what really sums up our country, speaking of “…all the manifold ways of being human that Italy possessed and which Italy has produced in such a historically differentiated way.” This is precisely where we need to start again, from what belongs to us. It is our duty and honour to return the focus of our times to what has been skilfully hidden and neglected; to reshape and renegotiate the way we belong to Italy and it belongs to us. We must transform that dramatic “there is nothing we can do about it.” into a potent: there is much to be done – and we intend to do it! 
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