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Fundamentals for Architecture

After having seen the architecture exhibition of the Venice Biennial directed by Rem Koolhaas I am still convinced that the foundations of the discipline are resting on solid bases which are objectively unmodifiable, because they are linked to the needs of humans to inhabit and live space according to rules that have been consolidated in the course of millennia: the space, the way in which it is defined and in other words its morphological structure, the way in which it is organized and thus its typological plan, the ways to use it and thus its distributive characters. But if we go beyond the correct provocation of the title – which is necessary for purposes of promoting the idea but perhaps not quite rigorous on a disciplinary level – Koolhaas‘ hypothesis would prove more exhaustive and interesting if, in addition to stressing the historical-critical reading of the single building parts, he were to bring once more to the fore the profound significance of the work of the architect and the term architectural composition, from Latin com-ponere which literally means to put together, combine different parts and elements by amalgamating them harmoniously to obtain, precisely, a composition. Now, while the importance of these single elements cannot aspire to represent the exhaustive value of the whole, and may as mentioned not be considered among the fundamental aspects of the discipline, it is also true that they cannot be underestimated and given a secondary or inferior value with respect to the end result these very same elements contribute to define. The sense of his research, conducted, or rather entrusted to Harvard University together with AMO (a research team within the OMA firm) is therefore not only useful – more to the general visitor and students than to the architect who should be familiar with what is presented – but also compelling, because regardless of how exceptional an architecture is in terms of fundamentals, space, light, relationship with the context and so on, all this may be destroyed on a perceptive level by the unsightliness of its elements, as wrong casements, inferior materials and so on, while an arrangement which is banal or repeated by other analogous constructions may on the contrary be enhanced by a care for its details and parts, by the glass panes, the lighting or systems of movement within the building, from the lifts to the escalators, which certainly, but also obviously, influence the final result. In a nutshell, to use an example from cooking which is easier to understand for the general public, the excellence of a dish depends, also and above all, on the quality (genuineness, origin, flavour) of its ingredients, and this is a well-known fact that no master chef can ignore. All this confirms two convictions which Area submits to the readers in the form of reflections and arguments for discussion. The first is that Rem Koolhaas represents the clearest expression of the criticism levied against modernity, as it embodies the highest sense of the values of a mature postmodernity freed from nostalgic and historicist elements where history, in the sense of arena for transmission of evolutionary chains of thought, is once again centre of architects‘ attention as knowledge, and that this knowledge is moreover also based on an awareness and study of the principal technical and constructive elements. The second concerns the importance assumed, more than ten years ago – 2002/2003 – by the experience of a group of Italian architects united under a perhaps too symphonic acronym, AIDA or Italian Architecture Agency, with the intention of establishing a dialogue, through the project, between the architectural milieu and that of manufacturing, to compare the value of their ideas and realizations with the manufacturers of components and parts used in construction in a conviction, which is corroborated by this Biennale with a very different emphasis, that building elements play a crucial role in the overall result of the work of architecture. I still remember that short-lived experience with fondness, despite all the limits of a pioneering adventure as the installation at the Venice Biennial of 2003 of a pavilion/village, Lonely Living, because I am convinced that architecture – as language and artistic and social expression – cannot do without technique, just as literature cannot do without grammar. At the same time we also relaunched a magazine, d‘Architettura, which unfortunately was discontinued after a few issues, where manufacturers presented images of workshops or construction of parts in lieu of advertisements, as if to show the importance of their role and their research in relation to the results pursued by the architect. The significance of that attempt is linked to a conviction that we are today heading towards a modus operandi where the knowhow associated with the building site, once an arena where the craft of building was handed down, has definitively migrated to the research and development departments of the parts manufacturers, and that the building site has therefore gradually turned into an extraordinary site of assemblage of elements which have been researched and developed elsewhere. That elsewhere, united and studied systematically and historically in the way presented by Koolhaas, then comes to assume new significances, where the part, the single component, assumes a value in relation to the whole, where the whole is the project and its built result, which is architecture. However, seen from this perspective the Venice exhibition ends up with confusing the means with the ends, and Koolhaas‘ proposal, architecture not architects, becomes ambiguous to the point of comparing the constitutive elements of architecture, which are certainly important and determinant in the construction of the project, with architecture itself, and in the final analysis confusing building with living. On the other hand, the other section of the Fundamentals exhibition, titled Monditalia and staged at the Ropeyards of the Arsenal of Venice, also appears scholastic and on the whole superficial, because it focuses the architectural debate on a country which today objectively speaking plays a completely marginal role with respect to the issues and transformations in progress on a worldwide level. The homage to Italy – for that matter documented and portrayed by an extraordinary journey through Italian movies from the postwar years until today – obviously represents an expression of regard for a country which Koolhaas loves profoundly; but beyond personal passions the case of Italy certainly today cannot represent a “fundamental” example for understanding – and this should be the mission of the Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennial – what horizon and commitments the architectural debate is heading for. In any case, beyond the legitimate exercise of criticism, it appears necessary to reflect on and concretely evaluate the angle of observation implied by Koolhaas‘ proposal, especially with the Elements of Architecture exhibition, considering its implications for the contemporary production. This is only right and proper, not only towards an author who undoubtedly represents one of the most genial and eclectic protagonists of the architectural debate of the last thirty years, but also in relation to the value the very Venice Biennial represents as central stage of cultural elaboration within the context of art. This recognition is the sense and purpose of this issue of Area.

Marco Casamonti

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