Over the centuries the figure of the architect has undergone a series of important modifications.
If we look at the etymological root of the word, i.e. the Greek term which describes his function as an “organizer of builders,” we see just how much things have changed nowadays.
We can also say that at a geographical level, in the world, there are different nuances (more or less accentuated) with regard to the new role that this figure ought to play.
It seems clear that the extreme specialization of the various supply chains of the building industry in the American (and in general Anglo-Saxon) world is not matched by a similar specialization in the construction sector in the Mediterranean region (including Italy).
It is as if there was a tendency, in this part of the world, to see the activity of the architect as a direct legacy of the workshops of the master’s active at the dawn of Modernity, i.e. in the Renaissance.
Here the architect is viewed as capable of solving all the problems connected with the different disciplines involved in his work: he is a good designer of doors and windows (or rather: he has to know something about them too); he is an excellent structural engineer (he has to know about structures); and he also has to know something about history and philosophy, etc. It seems only right to point out that there can be pros and cons to both these tendencies, and this is not the place to solve such an enormous problem or make judgments about it. Yet it should be remembered that the same differentiation can be found in the specific field of writings on the discipline of architecture: an Anglo-Saxon world clad in streamlined and multicolored forms seems to contrast with a world of simpler constructions, more closely linked to discourses on traditional forms, in Mediterranean Europe (when things are going well; in fact there are pseudo-scientific emulators of those aerodynamic constructions in the Mediterranean world too, with all the technological consequences and figureheads that this entails). The same difference can be found in the publications linked to reflection on architectural themes, whether of the past or contemporary: a French historian of architecture will lay out the elements of his research as if in an orthogonal projection by his fellow countryman Monge, speaking, and always in order, of plans, sections and elevations. If we think of the reconstructions linked to the attribution of Charles V’s palace in Granada to Giulio Romano, convincingly proposed by Manfredo Tafuri in his last book, we find it really hard to claim that we are in the same sphere of exposition… as Monge. In fact the passage is not divided up on the basis of an analysis of plans, sections and elevations.
To sum up briefly, it seems that Tafuri, in contrast to Monge (if we can be allowed the chronological paradox) conducts himself like the artisan of the aforementioned workshop, setting aside the (as it were) scientific order of exposition in order to adopt a new one. The interdisciplinary method is just one of the characteristic traits of a new and fruitful approach (which in historical terms originated with the ‘Annales’), where the definition of the architect as an “organizer of builders,” i.e. a capitalist master of men (the artisans of the various branches of construction dominated and threatened by Filippo Brunelleschi himself during the building of his dome), seems to have been replaced by that of an organizer “of the form of materials ordered for the purpose of dwelling,” to use the magnificent definition given by Vittorio Gregotti, perhaps the best interpreter-architect of our times. Gregotti speaks of culture as construction of meaning: readings and information, historical data are as indispensable as technical expertise, but once assimilated are simply materials on which to reflect. In the same way, the subjects studied at university departments of architecture are all separate; they are a few distinct notions scattered here and there: it is up to the architect to connect them up in a new order, a new construction of sense that will form the basis of his own architecture.
"Cogito ergo sum"
The attention of the man and architect no longer seems to be focused on the technical know-how of his collaborators and executors, but on technical know-how of the organizer in charge. The first consequence of this attitude is of a political character. Just as for a young musician of the modern era, all this makes it possible to carry out remixes (fusions) of distinct pieces of music (of elements of different disciplines) without worrying about the problem of copyright, which is linked to the world of industrial production. I am the one who decides what the design of the doors and windows will be, on the basis of the requirements of the structural elements and walls of my building. I am (even) the one who designs the door and window frames that you, industry, may put into production. Of course by “materials” are also meant here the scientific disciplines that underpin the production of the aforesaid elements (including philosophy and history, in other words the so-called humanities). Perhaps it is worth pointing out here that it was precisely out of the fusion of distinct disciplines (such as mathematics, chemistry and biology) that fundamental ideas of the modern age have come, i.e. new disciplines like applied biochemistry (metaphorically, it is perhaps a question of institutionalized catachresis, to use the terminology of -Umberto Eco).
To grasp how important these different views are it suffices to say that research in the medical field, even into terrible diseases, would be able to progress much more quickly if there were real synergies between researchers in different groups, without the obligation of following roads based on patented techniques that (to put it briefly) are only intended to solve the small problems of that particular group, and thus depriving them of a long-term and broad-ranging perspective.
The inexorable and very rapid constitution of new disciplines, each with their own paradigms and hyper-specialized vocabularies, more and more closed with respect to the outside world, inevitably generates spaces of ensembles of words, of language, that we could describe as “neutral.” Among these expressions, words like “form,” “material” and “order” are the most innocent and therefore the most ambiguous, the ones that more than any others can (could) fit into any discipline and any philosophy. In antiquity, at the time of the Greek origin of the word architect, the word form coincided for Aristotle with that of harmony, and so in it there was already the discourse of purpose, i.e. of aiming at the happy medium. This was never the arithmetical mean but the happy medium for whoever was investigating it, i.e. the right proportion. And only with the passing of time did one get a better perception of what was “right,” because life proposed many examples through the experience of this or that happy medium. As the centuries have passed, the word “form” has lost the significance of harmony and nowadays we are obliged to add other words to it, words that are intended to turn it back into what it meant originally. Today, in fact, we say “the form of ordered materials,” without considering that form was already order in itself.
Certainly, for Gregotti the treatise becomes the measure of what connects and separates the intentions from the architectural results. So his treatise is in a perennially unfinished state, as is historical thought, but at the same time is as perennial as the principle of reality (see in this connection ‘L’architettura del realismo critico’, 2004) that he identifies in support of the unavoidability of the disciplinary foundations of architecture.
“While I think, I am"
Perhaps this is a vision similar to the one Heidegger proposes of Descartes: his “cogito ergo sum” is not a being that comes after thinking, that ergo is not consequential, but is instead a “while I think,” at the same moment, “I am.” And if it is a thinking of ourselves then we can indeed say we are dealing with the current vision of the architect who orders the materials with his own consciousness. Perhaps, if this thinking is (also) perennial as well as unfinished, the variations and changes in the happy medium are human impositions or reinterpretations. In his book ‘Oltrepassare’, Emanuele Severino declares (p. 44): “scientific specialization – i.e. the methodical separation of a particular field of inquiry from other dimensions of the world – is only the latest form, in the history of the West, of violence and the isolation of things, essentially required by their becoming other.” He also says (p. 30) that
“mortals do not know that what they believe they are living in is the earth isolated from destiny. The one who knows this – who knows – is destiny.”
Perhaps the words that we must add to that of form, to give it back its original meaning, are tolls of the same being form, and therefore not characteristics of it, but the repetition of a single, perennial concept, like the ringing of a bell.
It is strange how this historical occurrence created an almost perfect short circuit with the algorithm (called PageRank) used by the Google search engine: it looks at how many times the words entered appear close together, whether they are in capital letters or not, and how large their font is. Inevitably PageRank will find a large number of words (the interdisciplinary ones of which we were speaking above) to be “ambiguous,” to be close to each other; because they will tend to reinforce one another, they will tend to be found ever closer together, falsifying the results more and more.
But what does scientific, historical research, seem to be? When we admit the validity of a conjecture, seeking its justifications in other conjectures, if we want to be optimistic, we have two (theoretical) possibilities. The first, that of moving ever closer to an absolutely self-consistent logical construction (Cicero’s dream). The second, that of grasping the past fully with a single conjectures. This second possibility is unattainable because the understanding of any event in the past is never the fruit of just one hypothesis, but the sum of different conjectures. In any case when the reconstruction, in theory, coincides with the past, it becomes “our” past (these are thoughts close to those of Aulio Gellio). That is to say there is our, personal, entry into history, as characters in it. The first possibility also allows us to reach this point: but it does so in a “veiled,” emotional way. So that we can understand that this possibility really exists, and perceive its philosophical value. Become “part” of history signifies “inhabiting” language. But power speaks different languages (M. Foucault), each with its own copyright… precisely because the coincidence of our being with the past, with time, already exists in and of itself (if it is true that the one “who knows” is destiny): for this reason we always have to pretend more, inventing critical distances, catachresis of metaphors, new disciplines and new rights.
In confirmation of the different orientation of Renaissance culture, let us say that the composer Claudio Monteverdi, another native of Cremona, would also be capable of institutionalizing the mixture, the remix in the modern key: in his madrigals the superimposition of voices would be constructed with phrases understood as citations of poetic works by different authors… and no one would ever have dreamed of asking Monteverdi for the copyright for
‘Mentre vaga Angioletta ogn’anima gentil cantando alletta’.
Heidegger, Nietzsche: Der europäische Nihilismus (1940), Frankfurt 1986. Heidegger starts from Protagoras, who defined man as the measure of all things.
Tafuri, Ricerca del Rinascimento, Turin 1992. English ed., Interpreting the Renaissance: Princes, Cities, Architects, New Haven 2006.
Severino, Oltrepassare, Milan 2007.
Trakl says (in the poem “Verfall..,”): “On evenings, when the bells of peace are ringing, / I watch the birds’ miraculous migration/outstretched in queues, like pilgrims to salvation, / through autumn’s clear expanses southward winging.”