International magazine of architecture and project design november/december 2013
Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas: the power of imagination
The Shenzhen Airport, the first major work designed and built by the Fuksas firm in China, has only just been opened as I venture on my critical reflection on a work and a career which has by now proven to be not only cosmopolitan and transversal, but also many-sided and original. It is a matter of such an important and convincing body of work that if we were to retrace his career from the latest works to the early ones, we could run the risk of being influenced by the last stages of a creative and human story which has culminated in and consolidated the hypothesis that the subject of our analysis the Fuksas spouses are a pair of great builders who have left a mark on, or rather designed, the image of the early years of this millennium. But this record belongs to China, its extraordinary economic ascent (the yuan has become the second most diffused currency in the world after the dollar, surpassing the euro) and the works which embody the immanent force of this eastwards change in the world’s interests: Beijing Airport by Norman Foster and the Olympic stadium in the same city by Herzog & de Meuron, the CCTV headquarters by Oma and now also the great Shenzhen Airport. However, while the aforementioned works strive for the exceptionality of the monument, the astounding and unattainable hypothesis pursued by Fuksas appears even more extraordinary because his work of architecture steers clear of all flaunting of physical power, preferring the role of a convincing civil building at the service of a country which is building infrastructures proportionate to its immense needs and resources. The intention of its architect is therefore revealed as a studied softness achieved with the invention of the origami which defines the architectural shell, creating a space that is studiously crossed by lights and shade in such a way as to attenuate, with sophisticated naturalness, the perception of the inevitable immensity of the construction. We could define it as exceptionality become normal. And so, rather than proceeding chronologically (a methodological rigour reserved historians), to instead roam between works and human vicissitudes with the curiosity of a dowser, one gets to understand the most authentic and appropriate meaning of that intuition: Less Aesthetics More Ethics launched in 2000 in connection with the directorship of the VII Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennial, as an admonition against the emphasis on iconic qualities which has conditioned architecture in recent decades. One also comes to understand the direction and meaning of that great wall of images of urban scenes and people going about their daily errands which crossed the entirety of the equally static and fascinating naves of the Arsenal in Venice. A world, intelligently represented as it unfolds, in the constancy of a collective desire to meet, exchange information, live, work. Experiences that are unveiled in the fluid spaces of the many shopping malls designed by the Fuksas firm over the years as Frankfurt and in the long itinerary among the pavilions of the Milan Trade Fair, where the architects have reinvented and designed a new urbanity, in the rigorous yet light offices of the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello, where the work is represented in the aptness of an experience that is as iridescent as it is intentionally simple. In the dozens of interpretations of the themes they have been entrusted with, dedicated to the community rather than to the futile avidity of critics in search of glory, a message takes on substance. It looks beyond appearances, beyond image, style, easy categorization and aesthetics; it is a message that searches for the essence of things, of peoples lives, a desire for life that rejects monotony and standardization. Indeed, Fuksas conceives architecture as an art, space as a form of expression, design as research, ethics of doing as a constant aspiration to test new ways and forms of living; a vocation in which the architect personally assumes all the risks of the profession, the dangers of failures objectively few by constantly following the typical instinct of the artist, which allows the most talented to foresee and anticipate the course of events. It is a matter of a visionary impetuosity, which is placated by the constancy of a partner in work and life who balances, with calibrated sagacity, a perfect creative mechanism. Without exaggerations, a kind of Steve Jobs of architecture, or more coherently a latter-day Brunelleschi. If they happen to design a cloud, some years later clouds appear all over the place, Apple invents the iCloud, Telecom, Italy’s leading teleEditorias company launches an advertising campaign named the simple cloud, the car brand Renault appoints him as testimonial of the future. If he builds the new gallery of Milan and the world’s biggest glass roof (1.3 km long) for the trade fair; the Chinese cannot think of anything better than to copy him brutally (quotations are more cultured and complex affairs) in 2010, turning it into the symbol of the street connecting the internal pavilions of the Shanghai Expo. In the course of a recent presentation of their work I suggested, with a conviction that has not left me, that Massimiliano has realized precisely what his fellow activists shouted in the streets and squares in the heated climate of 1968, when they wanted power of imagination; but while this was just another slogan for the protesting youths, an aspiration that was later disproven by reality, to Fuksas that suggestion has represented the essence of a life, the constancy of a work aimed at persuading the decision-makers of the world to realize his ideas, as in the case of the project for the Peres Peace House built in Israel and opened by Shimon Peres in 2008. Many will obviously consider this as a mere matter of fortunate coincidences, of chance, of cultural and social conditions that are in the air. But even if all that is true, still Fuksas has been able to capture them and turn them into designs, buildings, works of architecture, never failing to be in the right place at the right time. Luck? No, ability, constancy, obstinacy but also intuition, instinct and vision: qualities that are indispensable for an artist and even more so for an architect. When I asked Franco Purini, Roman architect who is the same age as Fuksas, about the failure, at least in terms of architectural production, of a whole generation, he explained in convincing and objective terms that it was practically impossible to be an architect in Italy in the Seventies. To those who were thirty at that time, to speak of architecture and design while people were shooting and dying in the streets, in the heated climate of those violent years, represented, as one may easily imagine, an illusion that was at most nourished in the small circles of the university, through a programmatic renunciation to build. But since renunciation has never seemed to be part of either the revolutionary and combative instinct of Massimiliano or of the resilient pragmatism of Doriana Fuksas, the activity of the team and its protagonists moved to Paris, following the example of many artists from Italy and other countries in the years between the late 19th and early 20th century, from Modigliani to Le Corbusier, or more prosaically the many revolutionary intellectuals who chose to seek refuge in France. In any case, the horizon of the Fuksas team has not been associated with the judiciary-political adventures of 1977; they did not look to Scalzone or Toni Negri, preferring to focus on joining the young Piano, about ten years their senior, who had just achieved sensational success together with Richard Rogers, by winning the competition for the Centre Pompidou. Throughout the Eighties France was a kind of promised land for architecture, in which the Fuksas team gained experience and fine-tuned its ambitions in constructive and creative terms, moving from museum design to social architecture, from restoration to dwellings. They participated, first in the ranks and then as leading figures, in that fervent cultural climate in which architecture is the essence and subject of the debate between intellectuals and politicians, leap-frogging from conviction and contingency the partial Italian successes of tendenza and the return to tradition. The selection of works and projects reveals an incredible and consistent productive capacity over the years, and like a painter who cannot do without his canvas, Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas have begun to travel and widen their horizons in all of Europe, from Vienna in Austria where they build two slender glazed towers placed side by side, to Germany where they realize numerous projects. Their success has earned them their first important Italian assignments, many of which are the result of first prizes in international competitions. The Eur congress centre in Rome, the aforementioned Milan Trade Fair, the tower housing the regional headquarters in Turin, the church in Foligno, in addition to prestigious direct assignment which they design with painstaking attention regardless of the size of the project, as witnessed by the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello or the fascinating design of the Nardini Centre in Bassano del Grappa. Returning to the present time after this brief but necessary biographic reconstruction, which is also indispensable to understanding such a complex and articulated work, in order to make a critical analysis of an expressive vicissitude that is so hard to catalogue, I would like to underscore a trait that is unconsciously Albertian as paradox of a modernity that refuses internationalization and a standardization of behaviours, by identifying solutions that are original, but at the same time incredibly appropriate, in every project (the term Concinnitas, introduced by Leon Battista Alberti in architecture, indicates a particular attention to the form and order to harmonize the human elements with natural, mathematical harmonic or rhythmic rules). Appropriateness could, superficially, represent a strident rhetoric provocation and conceptual oxymoron in relation to the works of the Fuksas firm. Vice versa, a great many works of architecture pay little attention to the context, preferring to place the authors distinctive elements in the limelight something that blurs the sight, work and results of many great international firms rather than looking for the most coherent solution with respect to the demands of the customer, the program and the site. With this approach, architecture is transformed in programmatic simplicity and logistic efficiency in every project that calls for an efficient distributive plan and an intelligent constructive resolution, as witnessed by the recent design of the State Archives in France, or marine infrastructures as the harbour of Castellammare di Stabia; it becomes austere and rational when it concerns work places, iconic and fascinating when required to communicate the uniqueness of a motif. And analogously, it becomes fluid and light for an airport, solid and massive to express the holiness of a church, Spartan and splendid when it cuts a rock to mark a museum entrance, sophisticated and changeable as a white drapery dropped from the sky inside the Armani shop in New York. So where do we find the red thread, so dear to historians, perforce accustomed to cataloguing the unexceptionable, that connects the stitches of thought In the tireless creative ability and in the sagacious, and as we said appropriate, use of invention.