Is architecture really over?
A recent outburst by Alvaro Siza expresses the bitter realization that, in the current situation, architects are deprived of relevant parts of the project process, especially in its implementation phase, even when it comes to extremely significant works. In fact, during a recent work assignment in France, Siza received a letter (the “worst letter ever written by a customer”) in which he was told that the final part of the project should be completed by a team of experienced specialists.
In the early 90s Kenneth Frampton claimed on several occasions that architecture, as it used to be known up to that time, would die within a few decades. Obviously he did not mean that nothing would ever be built again. He believed, however, that the role of the architect would become more and more marginal and less influential, in the realization process of the work and even in the conception of the project. In other words, some specific characteristics of architecture, would be lost. These firm thoughts probably originated from Frampton’s very vast and in-depth knowledge on the developmental trends in contemporary architecture, especially in the countries which were deemed peripheral compared to a presumed centrality of the Modern design culture, expressed at that time in Western Europe, United States, Japan and partly in Latin America. In the late 80s, the opening towards Europe produced an unparalleled acceleration in the housing market in Portugal, which required in turn an abrupt reformulation of the architect’s role with respect to institutions, society and the construction industry. Much of Eduardo Souto de Moura’s early architecture drew inspiration from the awareness of working within the hybrid space created by local production, the influence of which was gradually becoming internationalised. In the end, the paradigm of the so-called “School of Porto”, which is still extensively published in specialized magazines, was actually developed during the modern work review period, operated by the same cultural milieu to which the editorial staff of “Casabella” directed by Gregotti also belonged. Frampton, who has several times written for Casabella magazine, talked about the “critical regionalism” which was exemplified precisely in Porto by Alvaro Siza’s works. Siza, in fact, assumed all the physical and perceptual information inferred from the context, as the references on which the project of transformation of the place should be found: the pre-text. The programme would have to adapt to the context and not vice versa. This efficient and empirical pragmatic process of transformation of the place was done by making adequate use of the building industry products available on the local market, with no prejudice against technologies and materials. The well-known drawings of Siza are nothing more than an attempt to understand the resources and the intrinsic elements of each place. He imagines and organizes, on this awareness base, a project consisting of intuitively definite volumes, with a skilful assemblage of natural materials, preferably extracted from the local areas and transformed in an almost hand-made production system. Semi-finished materials were used by Siza at the beginning and then high technology products, but always in a moderate, disenchanted and unamazing manner. The engineering and material technologies, according to Siza, have always been means available for an architectural project, but not its very purpose. Technology language is never polemically flaunted against tradition. This is demonstrated by the overhanging parts of big public buildings in Santiago de Compostela or Setubal and the bold gamble of the huge reinforced concrete sail covering (30 cm thick and 60 meters long!) of the Portugal Pavilion at Expo ’98 in Lisbon, which after twenty years does not reveal the slightest sign of collapsing. In these cases, as well as in newest projects realized in Europe, Brazil and China, Siza’s method has not changed: the project is controlled and designed in his office, from the conception of the idea to the executive phase, solely aided by study models made from foamcore, cut and readjusted several times to check proportions, light and spatiality of the project. Realistic images and perspectives are categorically excluded. No complacency for the production of images. On the contrary, you can not find one of his works that does not have a detailed drawing, in an appropriate scale, of each part of the project. Looking through the papers of his projects, it is impossible not to find details drawings of frames, jambs, door handles, handrails, gutters, pipes and so on. We could almost hazard the doubt that Siza’s work is even too close to the artisan world, which travels on a different path than the evolving industry of building materials. Therefore it is important to remember that throughout the modern period, including the Italian post-war era, architects were the ones to invent languages, techniques and materials. We could mention Franco Albini’s flooring for the subway in Milan, which was put into production by Pirelli with the name of “bolle”, and became one of the largely used materials in public buildings in all the world. But also Norman Foster and Renzo Piano are in possession of many patents of structural nodes and materials of various kinds. Siza’s name itself is related to some building materials, for example the ones realized for the reconstruction of the Chiado, but also to interior furniture and design. Traditionally, it is the architect who has always been in charge of the decision-making process and about how to perform the construction work.
Nowadays, on the contrary, we are aware of the difficult relationships between all parties that contribute to the creation of an architectural work, and how the single responsibilities are intricately divided, due in part to technological and regulation complexities that require increasingly demanding skills and specializations. In the design process, the new specialisms prevail over the generalist nature of the architect. Furthermore, the gap between planning and the knowledge of production processes and the nature and origin of each material is growing ever wider. Cost containment often requires the chronological and spatial fragmentation of the production processes, and the distribution of the roles from different spheres, the coordination of which is assigned to the manager of the construction company who should ensure work completion according to schedule. The realization of a project seems increasingly like a choral enterprise of a Gothic building, rather than a Renaissance one, sanctioned by the separation between the master builders and the architect, who was the intellectual-designer who possessed the utmost in technical knowledge and was able to discuss on the same political and institutional level as his clients. This phenomenon has put the architect in a position of insecurity and vulnerability. Often, all that is left to the architect is the conception, the initial sketch, an icon that has to compete in the global image market as a brand label.
The assimilation of the formation processes of architecture to the production of any other investment or consumption asset, is the most important phenomenon that characterizes this specific historical stage. Architecture is just one of the many products available on the shelf of the consumer society. In this society, the priority need is to achieve the economical purpose with costs and time controlled as a function of the analysed real estate question. Besides, the building phase is assigned to companies closely related to the price changes in building materials on the global market, which can be verified in real time on the Internet. Enterprises receive their supplies and work process subcontracts are made, through agreements with syndicates that often include design companies, technicians and architects. In the majority of cases, the large lobbies of semi-finished and prefabricated material producers define architecture languagesand fashions. In this context the architect is often called “a posteriori” to adapt his project in which it becomes extremely difficult to recreate even a minimum of coherence, therefore a valid reason for his project choices. The architect lives in the illusion that technologies allow him to create open dialogues, but the vocabulary is limited and “a priori” defined by the “system”. The architect is one of the terminals of a larger pre-established device, and not even one of the most important ones. When professionals do not have the awareness of this mechanism, the shapes are simply the result of the assembling of a linguistic sample publicized by sectoral magazines or major cultural events. Obviously there are exceptions, especially in small scale works, but there is the risk of a role reversal in which it is difficult to understand who is the real “writer”: the architect or the system that should be dominated by him. In addition, an object created in this way has the advantage of possibly being reproduced by the production syndicates anywhere else in the world, according to the advantages of the real estate market. Similarly to what happened with some recent towers in Milan, which were built with materials and shapes already seen in the Far East. In the end, for the benefits of environmental sustainability supporters, and against the energy consumption, the context conditions are a problem and not an opportunity, for these types of architectures. The geographical aspects of places, the environmental constraints operated by governments to protect local communities, and architects who critically challenge the market are the only obstacles to the spread of this new and emerging architectural phenomenon. I think all of this can be summarised in Siza’s statement: “Architecture is over!”.
Translation by Philip Grosch