The space we live in and perceive is expressed on different levels, from the cell in which we live to the segmentation of our cities; how does today’s architecture interpret this continual blending of the places of contemporary living, and how can architecture provide responses that reconcile the two extremes?
MAURIZIO DE CARO. A complex score
Imagine comparing a city with a score composed by a number of different composers at different periods in history. Each new element that is added brings new harmonies and exists as a sound interacting with the others in semantic and conceptual autonomy. Each sequence fluctuates in a perpetual state of becoming, in a sea of transformations. In this apparently confused flow of unfinished and infinite sounds, the city is like this composition, which has no finale and thrives on the cultural interaction of the parties contributing to it. A city is clearly not just the sum of its parts but above all the rhythm of its empty spaces, unexpected urban permeabilities, pauses in a planned speech, sudden aesthetic silences that add to the evident sound produced by any work of architecture, in any place of any size. Like music, the city thrives on consonances and dissonances, on the rigid and the unforeseeable, on origin and destiny, and of course what reigns supreme over this gigantic human monument is our interpretation; our complex everyday lives incorporate everything we see, because a space of any size exists only in the enchantment of perception, solitary and personal. Architecture and the design of urban space take material form in the hope of being shared, of becoming literally "commonplace", of compressing the contradictions of the parts into an expression of identity, unity, sharing. The ego that perceives builds the unforeseeable multiplicity of the undifferentiated plurality that culturally organises the idea of the contemporary city.
You are working on the vast web surrounding the city of Milan, in that continuous series of borderlines studded with fragments of the local history and culture of dwelling. As an architect, how do you manage to reconcile these two aspects?
MAURIZIO DE CARO. The borderline
The borderline is the place where everything starts and where everything ends (or is changed). The outskirts of one place is always the centre of another, and the drama of today’s crisis in urban planning is experienced on the margins, as the result of an emphasis on the sovereignty of design over the eroticism of improvisation and the self-determination of space.
The borderline represents the victory of emotion over reason, the defeat of definite processes in the unforseeability of the neo-place, which is much better than the asphyxiated and cynical non-place: it is the point where the human "voluntary inhabitant" of the city can still be surprised. The history and culture of a place are the sum of all the memories of the people who have chosen that space and that time to establish a dialectic between the city and the countryside, between emptiness and fullness, between the meanings they have given to these words and vocations. If we want to play around with the theory of interpretation, we might say: "In the beginning was the place, only, and it did perfectly well in the absence of architecture, but man chose it among the countless outlines, and gave it cultural justification. That place became the first item in a new catalogue, it became word and thought itself, which is why in the beginning there was the word."
The citizens of these small towns, these open-weave territories, are no longer sedentary as in the past but tend to move around more. Do you believe that a project like the one you are working on in the old Ponte Lambro district reflects our need to move around and our need to stop somewhere?
MAURIZIO DE CARO. The obsession with motion and the enigma of stasis
We can't really stop, we don’t find peace anywhere or, unfortunately, in any kind of response; travelling is a stubborn metaphor for the layout that encloses the essence of architecture as practice and theory. I move towards an unknown geographic location and I create a project of movement, I move to reach an aim rather than a place. I must move. I must understand what lies beyond, or, if you prefer, within, behind, underneath, on the other side of the hedge, within the entrails of a corpse (if I imitate Dr. Faust). I live only because motion allows me to imagine change, and that which exists (the old Ponte Lambro district) is not enough, and so I have designed another district, as big as the existing one (4500 inhabitants), at the start or end of a trip into Milan. A useless project, suspended in time, ground up by other rationalising professions, intended to provide a contemporary response to the dream of history’s most famous social housing district. What I mean is the district the homeless build for themselves under the direction of Totó il Buono in "Miracolo a Milano”, the film by Vittorio de Sica. My architecture does not claim to "create the home", but simply marks the boundary between reaching a hypothetical cultural and therefore neo-urban place and going beyond it towards new models of social organisation of the city, a literary and utopian project, a low-cost project, to use the term preferred by the rhetoricians of our tormented present. In the space of this big new city district I want to built the enigmatic place of stasis, and direct the new inhabitants toward centripetal destinations.
The new housing complex you are planning for the old Ponte Lambro district is intended to create and intervene in wellness in living and urban quality. Do you believe it is possible for an architectural project to have an impact on people’s habits, behaviour and expectations?
MAURIZIO DE CARO. Living well (with architecture)
My office is working on a lot of housing projects, some of which are on a very large scale, while others are smaller. I have always believed that architecture could help create a hypothesis for development of a natural space, constructing existential potential of great value. Without upsetting the lovely, tender utopias of the twentieth century, I don’t want to create a “new man” who can live in a quality, healthful place, a sustainable place (though this word is less and less sustainable, second in ugliness only to the obscene term “domotics”). I would like to demonstrate that the formal and, unfortunately, formalistic ambition of the contemporary not only fails to improve life for anyone but is totally superfluous, so that building, as in my case, whole districts presumed to have a "bold" new look, but serves to design new models of adaptation, new stories for new communities that may become places like Corviali and Scampia, but what can we architects do about it? Someone has to offer an alternative, someone has to say that what exists can be improved, or simply changed. Between proposal and construction lies history, and often the daily news is enough to make us forget millions of presumed masterpieces which were intended to force a better life on someone who was expecting something entirely different.
Do you believe we can use architecture to create a mould in which to form new housing developments and therefore new experiences of human cohabitation?
MAURIZIO DE CARO. New life
Of course we have to re-search, and follow up on all the intuitions that might offer the right conditions for a transformation of any kind, and we must not be afraid of making mistakes; we architects need to create the conditions for a huge amount of self-criticism and a collective self-analysis session. We believed that unusual, strange, different, complicated forms were interesting simply because they were unusual, and we have forced ourselves into an impossible form of twelve-tone architecture, created by a computer, with only marginal human participation. And as everyone knows, a machine need not apologise, because the fault lies with the little digital man who forgot to look out the window, who did not listen to the noises, who did not see how all the other people were getting organised (without a design, but with the ability to plan). And now I want to build homes, large or small, if that’s what they need, or plan to leave these places as they are, because existence can be happier in a space which is not polished and has never been photographed. As for the new forms of social organisation, co-housing, co-working and so forth, they are ideas that could become architecture, but also cultural anthropology, from which we are receiving confused messages but to which we ought to pay more attention. The new life needs good architecture, it needs good architecture, but not too much, because the cerebral nature of codification of the sublime makes it arid, abstract, anxious.
Ethics and aesthetics now seem to have come together in a sustainable vision of the dwelling-place. What are you doing in your work to give form to such an essential, controversial theme in contemporary architecture?
MAURIZIO DE CARO. The deception of aesthetics and the attraction of ethics
Ethics and aesthetics are such different categories that it took an ugly Biennale a few years ago to limit their dialectics and the weights of joint responsibility in architecture. How can I put it? I am an architect, but I don’t work for dictators, for speculators, for organised crime; I want the beautiful to be an expression of the good (and here’s a new philosophy!). Why should aesthetics be exempt from morality? I think the forced “very glam” look of the moment is rhetorical. A wise man once said: only good politics can design good architecture. But the answer we find in Rome, Como, and all those places where the tottering ethics of various regimes, no matter how short- or long-lived, tell another story. I would risk claiming that ethics can either mould aesthetics or stand by and look at it, but aesthetics runs faster than any of its members, and the struggle for beauty is used to justify all kinds of crises and moral lapses. If beauty cannot save us, how can morality glorify us; and yet in this Pinocchio-like repentance (and let us recall Prezzolini: "if you understand the beauty of Pinocchio, you understand Italy", cited in Suzanne Stewart-Steimberg’s important book, The Pinocchio Effect) there is conceptual hope and an ideological constraint. Ethics and aesthetics are not on the same plane, but seeking a place for them in our design practice demonstrates the failure of the theory of architecture, because human space is necessarily political and therefore made up of ethics and aesthetics; you tell me what percentage of each!
What is your position on the different European experiences that are opting for protection of the land and its morphological aspects, in which architecture becomes a minimal sign, maintaining all the expressive power of the landscape unaltered?
MAURIZIO DE CARO. Cultural landscapes and the culture of landscape
There’s an interesting attempt at forcing cohabitation of architecture (a cultural project) and landscape (unforeseeable nature), because this once again expresses our Faustian will to build the power of God on earth, or of the gods, if you are an unbeliever or a Darwinian. Territories which are heavily affected by human activity express a wish to build an alternative order to that of the seasons, of the crops, of environmental disasters, and this has allowed man to colonise a major percentage of the planet’s soil, consuming it, devouring it, raping it to the point that our production and consumption of resources has gone beyond the point of “no-return” to potential degeneration. That is, we are starting to lose power; the planet can no longer support our growth. Our hunger for power (excuse me for borrowing the term) has taken the form of an inability to stop this unwise voyage towards one of the most terrible forms of contamination imaginable: an artificial planet, a technological and digital duplicate of the original. We have made only a very miserable attempt to remedy things by saving land from concrete and bringing the planet back to its natural state. How? By consuming less? By using half the resources we now use? Or by suddenly discovering several millennia down the road that we want to help the environment, save what we can and continue to give a meaning and reason to our so-called ability to plan.
The world is full of stupid things, but why should the stupid worry?
To what extent do you think construction materials can support a complex concept of design such as the one you work with, made up of so many variables, from human to landscape, from anthropological to environmental?
MAURIZIO DE CARO. The skin and the senses.
Materials are the last hope of contemporary architecture. They represent our only opportunity to redeem ourselves from the slovenly aesthetics that are filling the pages of moribund architecture magazines. Now is the time to restore dignity to valuable research into the technologies of new materials and create more interesting opportunities to use the classic materials of our construction tradition. It is in conceptually incorrect uses that we may glimpse the true experimental traces of a possible new season in design. Materials will play a key role in my projects on an urban scale, because I want to write a story about multi-faceted use of materials and the importance of materials in the process of composition, a study of architectural skins and their multi-sensorial functions; it is in this reorganisation of the original concepts of the aesthetics of architecture that I can glimpse a new path that could surprise us, and give our wonderful career the power to amaze once again.
Can ceramic surfaces play a role in all this?
MAURIZIO DE CARO. The art of building with clay
I cannot deny the symbolic rather than technological value of ceramic surfaces, because the etymology of the word ceramic conceals lightning and thunder, that is, that which burns, on the basis of the Sanskrit root, and therefore I cannot help using as my prime material the highest form of the synthesis of fire, defined as a force, as a surprise, as unpredictable liveliness of layout. This composite world of materials fascinates me, both for building façades as a natural skin and as an urban sign or covering for human flows, both public and private. With the infinite ranges of porosity/roughness of archaic animals bend to the architect’s will, in bright colours or compressed into neutral shades. An ancient but futuristic world waiting to be discovered, in which to get lost, without worrying about finding the path back home again. I feel safe among these natural materials, I feel at home: in Europe.
Maurizio De Caro architect's