Nicola Di Battista

Now we can

A reflection on the last two decades. Starting from an idea of a constantly expanding and evolving progress, to wonder about the needs of our times and the meaning of a new cultural movement.

Today we need to recognise ourselves in a new community that will enable us to experience the present time in the best possible way: this is our urgency.
If this is – as we firmly believe – our priority, then our attention must first be focused on understanding what this present time means to us, the people living in it.
To do that we should reflect on what has been happening for at least the last two decades. The innumerable technological innovations and their products have ushered in a new Eden for all, and they are by now affordable by the great majority of people. Mindboggling promises have been heaped upon us; they have profoundly changed our way of life and, still more, even our perception of life itself. But now things have very much changed. With the failure to fulfil those promises, we feel bewildered and perplexed, incredulous. We even have serious misgivings about whether what has been happening in this period has meant real progress at all for the majority of humankind.

By now, leaving aside these technological chimeras, which have quickly turned into new ideologies, today we need to go back and start thinking of using these innovations for what they really are: as forms of research and activities enabling us to create tools to widen our limited capacities – both physical and mental – and to help us perform our many activities to the best advantage, so that we can do things that we could never have done before.
It is easy to understand that all this is not so much and not only about current technology, but more generally about the word “progress”. Or better still, about a certain idea of progress which each of us, singly, has and pursues and which changes in different ways in the course of our lifetime. In contemporary life the term progress is commonly understood as defining an advance by humanity towards better forms of life than previously, attainable through our increased capacities and potentialities.

So this is not static. On the contrary, it is something in constant motion, expanding and altering people’s lives, generation after generation. At times unexpectedly and dynamically, at others more slowly and less conspicuously. Nevertheless we are still talking about moving forward, about changing from one earlier state to a more advanced one, about a passage from one way of being to another.
But advancing from what? To this question there is only one answer: compared to the life we led previously. In reality every one of us carries within us an infallible thermometer for measuring the degree of our progress in the present.
Everyone works out an idea of progress, asking themselves whether in that time span, of which we are the protagonists and the informed witnesses, life has been happier or unhappier than the one lived up until that moment (and it must be said that here the difference between the generations widens and becomes highly relevant) or, also, than the life recounted by the news sources, or than the life learnt from history.
Let us go back to the idea of technological innovation itself, which has for humankind always meant a combination of knowledge that has enabled humanity to create new and extraordinary tools to help people in their everyday lives. So here we are concerned with tools that are intended as useful means for doing something better, where the tools are never seen as means for their own sake but only as the means to an end.

These means, furthermore, are squeezed into a very limited working lifespan and they will inevitably be discarded forever as soon as another, better performing, more efficient, economical and innovative tool than its predecessor imposes itself on the dynamics of supply and demand.
To go back to what we were saying earlier, it is important at this point to pause to consider precisely this matter of the duration which these means have in relation to the other artefacts that humankind has made and keeps on making for our lives.
If we take, for example, the products of culture, such as music, poetry, painting, architecture and many others, we see that they have lifespans that are very much longer than ours. And in some cases we can say they are even eternal.
The products of technology have an inherent certainty of lasting only for a clearly determined time span and then disappearing. By contrast, the products of culture know they can reach beyond the reasons that created them and beyond their time, thereby becoming timeless and everlasting.
Conversely, the current digital revolution has been so explosive and complete that more than a few people have ended up by giving their products only the status of the means itself.
Moreover, the fascination exerted by these new available tools is so deep that for many, a great many, they become not only the means but even the end.
And yet we are a long way from being able to say that this digital revolution is over. For there are still so many as yet unimaginable innovations and products that will continue to flood into our lives over the next few years.  And yet today something has changed. Our attitude to that revolution has certainly changed. So have our expectations of the benefits that all this is likely to bring into our lives, whilst the critical effects of the indiscriminate use of these new tools are also now beginning to be seen.

Everyone works out an idea of progress, asking themselves whether in that time span, of which we are the protagonists and the informed witnesses, life has been happier or unhappier than the one lived up until that moment

Basically, we no longer see the present as necessarily better than the past. Indeed, we are beginning to doubt this certainty, which until yesterday had seemed absolute.
The facile promises that accompanied the numerous technological innovations and were declaimed by their high priests, promised they would certainly make our lives better and hurry us into extraordinary progress. But on their own, with no guiding thought to direct them, no critical culture to fully exploit their huge potentialities by steering them towards a collective and shared purpose, they have proven to be giants with feet of clay, of no proper benefit to our lives.
Without this necessary cultural mediation, which has been completely lacking, the digital has become for all of humanity only a potent, vast and unfinished weapon of mass distraction. Instead of making us freer, as proclaimed, it has made us even more alone than before.
It is too early to understand how all that has changed and will continue to change the sense of our lives and the world. But we can already take stock of what has happened. And we are doing so, by noting firstly, that after the crisis of recent years, a sort of new generalised pragmatism seems to be prevailing among contemporary humankind in their approach to living their time.

To be sure, the pragmatism may not in itself be positive. But at this time the good thing about it is that it has created around us, once again, a keen propensity to listen. In other words, most people, after the disillusionments of the recent past, are no longer ready to believe blindly in everything that comes along, nor to listen to everything and its opposite. This new inclination to listening selects, judges and chooses what is on offer; and then rejects or shares what is heard, this time with a heightened awareness. This renewed readiness to listen therefore allows our thoughts, ideas and actions to fall on more attentive, selective and demanding, hence more interesting ears, which will at least be less vague and superficial than they were a while ago.

On closer inspection then, the real novelty today is precisely this: the extraordinary scope unexpectedly afforded by the present time, after a period of material crisis and dissolution of values, with no guidelines showing us the way: the novelty of escaping that ineluctable resignation which for too many years had prevented us from even imagining the future, let alone thinking of it as different to the lives we were compelled to live, where words like sharing and solidarity had vanished from our everyday horizon and been supplanted by others, such as separation, closure and the fear of otherness.Now at last we can once again imagine first of all a future that could save us from the solitude which our recent past had forced us into. Now again we can think up, develop and realise collective and shared forms of being and working together. So, now it can be done. And we want to do it.

We are confident that many others want to do it too. Now we can unite around a cultural movement for a new architecture of today, true to the present time and profoundly attuned to it.
This unexpected possibility of bringing about a change is now within our reach. In the 1970s Pier Paolo Pasolini, speaking in an interview about his time, saw it as dark and said disconsolately that “nothing can be done about it”, while more or less in that same period Aldo Rossi had titled one of his drawings “Now this is lost”. But today, instead, we can say that “now there is much to be done and above all that it can be done”. And so it must be done. We do not want to waste this possibility. We want to fight to bring this about and work together with others, the many others, who are eager to share and with us to pursue this change, with a faith regained in our near future.
The change will be simple but far-reaching, historic. Something that will truly accompany us into the third millennium with a renewed interest in the sense of life and in humanity.
Now it can be done.

At last the conditions are right. And we can achieve all this by starting from the bottom up, precisely from ourselves, from what we are today, from what we are already capable of doing. We have all the resources needed to change step, to bring about a change above all in our point of view. Hence, by starting again from architecture and without waiting for anything or anybody. Let’s begin from ourselves and from the advantages that we have. We should seek to renegotiate our belonging to this world, the contents of a good and healthy civilised living. We have to renegotiate our needs and our priorities, our dreams and our desires, so as to quickly acquire an enormous and shared material to use as the basis of our architectural actions.

This incredible collective material has the capacity to determine as precisely as possible the contents that characterise our time and which are closest to the hearts of the people living in it. This magnificent material belongs to all, not to a few, with the basis of a new architectural endeavour. Only in this way will the architect gain the incomparable privilege of turning this material into forms, into forms that can improve the quality of people’s lives today. And for that very reason they can rival the works of the past  and so enter the future instead of going backwards.
Now all this can be done. And to succeed in all this, our priority today is to find a ‘place’ for this determination, a place in the mind but also a physical one, a real place. In short, we must create a context in which to rediscover ourselves. The mental place is movement; the physical ones may be several, indeed the physical places should be numerous and of diverse types: institutions large or small, public or private, central or peripheral. But then even a magazine, or an exhibition space, or again, a ‘collective’ and a lot more, can be places.

The change will be simple but far-reaching, historic. Something that will truly accompany us into the third millennium with a renewed interest in the sense of life and in humanity

The cultural movement ought to hold us together, even when we are each living only for ourselves, consumed by our jobs and businesses, but united in thought, in the ideals and in the sharing of goals to be accomplished and in the awareness of not being alone in wishing to achieve them. And so the forced solitude of our jobs constricted by specialisms, and the solitude which today’s world has accustomed us to, will be less serious, less oppressive and more bearable. It will be tempered by the feeling that we belong within a collective movement, together with many others, with whom we share the will and the hope of imagining a better future.
Yes, it can be done and so it only remains to do it.
Only thus can specialism once again be placed at the service of life instead of conditioning it. Specialism must not become an ideology, a superstition. On the contrary, it should widen our scope for thought, and for action.

Specialisations are necessary, especially in the contemporary world, where everything has now become interconnected and enormously complex. But if we fail to recognise what we really need them for, what to do with them, they will become our principal enemy. So, whilst the specialisations and the autonomies of our disciplines grow and become enriched, we must keep pace with them by also increasing our collective intelligence. As well as our capacity to direct these innovations towards what we really need, to what really matters to us.

That is what ought to be the main purpose of the new cultural movement: indeed to recreate the common shared basis that is indispensable to the making of architecture. For without that basis our work as architects would lose even its principal raison d’être: that of being, in fact its necessity to be, a collective art: an instrument at the service of a collectivity, the only one that can give architects the means and indicate their purpose. From this point of view we can well understand how serious is the lack of a collectivity today, the lack of a community capable of expressing all this, and how architects find themselves alone in having to supply answers without a real question.

Certainly the movement that we are hoping for cannot assume such a heavy and complex burden. Nor is that its task. The movement, in fact, is not the whole collectivity together, but only a part of it. But it will at least be able to ask the question, to share, promote and circulate it. And it will be able to seek ways and means of making the question as evident as possible, in the hope that that this may steer the present time towards real progress. So as to imagine better futures than the ones we have today. It can be done. 

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