Andrea Branzi on architecture in the age of information and consumption

With the development of the electronic media and mass-culture, architecture has become something of a minor art. Even if by this reductive term one means all those cultural activities applied to minor structures and systems of communication, this distinction, however academic, may be of some schematic use in revealing the modifications in specific weight to which the various cultural techniques have been subjected in our society.
Architecture, once considered the most complete and noble of the arts, has lost its pre-eminence not only because of the external difficulties of a political and economic nature that it has always encountered, but also because of a deep internal crisis now afflicting it as a result of modifications in the mechanisms of cultural production and of the urban function itself.

Today the city is becoming more and more a structure offering services, a place merely to live in ; it is no longer one of society's cultural structures. 
The communication carried out by architecture, based on the allegory of balances between man and his natural environment, is motionless in space and lacking in the depth of psychic penetration that the electronic media have achieved. 
Today the city is no longer a cultural " place" but a "condition". Urban culture, in other words, is independent of the city as a place and it coincides with the culture of consumption.
To be an urbanite today does not mean to live in a city but to adopt a specific model of behaviour made up of a certain way of speaking, of printed and televised information, of a particular kind of clothing, of the music one listens to: wherever these media arrive, the city arrives. 
There is no longer any culture external to the urban phenomenon in as much as there is no longer any countryside representing a real and logical alternative; there is no place which does not to some extent communicate with the city and Its models. The "urban condition" coincides with the social circulation of goods, which can be exported from any metropolitan area. 
Every day millions of cubic metres of this new type of city are produced, and every day millions of cubic metres of city become rubbish, in keeping with the laws of a metabolism unknown to the immoveable equilibria of the city.

The concept of culture itself is changing. 
Until quite recently produced by a small group of intellectual professionals and consumed by a numberless mass of readers, visitors, subscribers, enthusiasts and voyeurs who had only to buy the book, disc or ticket, and were institutionally excluded from any right to produce or consume a private culture as a natural right (since culture is a higher and "universal" good, to produce which one must undergo a stressful series of exercises, tests, studies, examinations, consultation, and dedicate his life to it), culture, as I was saying, is now experienced as an immediate, spontaneous good, the direct product of a certain social behaviour and a model of consumption, an economic stimulus. 
What we are witnessing here is the reversal of the traditional hierarchies; more importance is attributed to the window dresser, decorator, fashion designer, expert in colours, upholsterer, opinion leader, taster, make-up expert, etc. than to the "artist" intent on sending out allegorical messages to the world.

Architectonic quality is much less important than the quality of the microclimate one experiences inside, and good acoustics are preferred to observance of the laws of composition ...
Architecture now becomes a "minor art" applied to the harmonious resolution of functional and structural problems and kept outside the real circuits determining the" quality of life" and culture.
The masterwork of architecture ended not only when culture became an article of consumption but when the profession definitely took the place of the art; as long as the schools of architecture were clubs for a few enthusiasts, methodological planning opened large areas of "creative" variations; but now that architectonic planning has to be taught to thousands of people, it is idle to think of introducing unknown quantities of any kind. 
The number of unknown factors that architectonic planning is called on to resolve today has been reduced almost to zero.
Variation in design consists of a simple compositional scheme often chosen at random without regard for different cultural areas, but only for the availability of elements differentiated on the industrial plane alone. Pasolinl claims that there are no longer any somatic differences between youths of the left and the right. It is also true that there are no ideologies capable of producing different results in the architectonic idiom.
The long Italian battle fought against construction surveyors, responsible for the low cultural level of much urban architecture, is the result of a mistake rooted in the certainty long cultivated by the Modern Movement that there Is an indivisible identity between urban quality and civilization. 
The quality that we ask of the city today has nothing to do with form or composition, but only with the quality of social services and the market. 
For architects, the time has come for a bit of modesty ...

Andrea Branzi, Radical Notes, 1975 (via NDLR)


September Pursuits

Fall has been coming slowly. I feel it in the early morning breezes, the abunding apple harvest in my fridge,  and the way darkness sneaks over Beirut by 7pm. I will be teaching a studio this semester at LAU, in which we explore alternative concepts for the public library in the age of information. I feel good about it and about getting back to teaching after a semester off.
I would like to take the chance to refocus this month on reading and running. Maybe take this blog as a mean to post some reflections on my readings. I am looking to be in shape for the Beirut Marathon in December. 


Berlin from A to Z

Berlin is a very special city, one that I truly admire, and that i got to visit last month. Destroyed twice by world wars, penalized, divided by a stupid, ugly wall; it has certainly overcome all these colossal constraints to regain its position as one of the most livable, vibrant cities. Even at the peak of its dark history and in the aftermath of the wars; the cultural, intellectual and nightlife scene has preserved their integrity and originality, as obvious in the exhibition Art in Berlin 1880-1980 at the Berlinische Galerie. Unlike Beirut, war has not over-monopolized  post-war arts,  cinema and intellectual discourse. It has not served as a pretext for mediocrity and cultural decline.
Due to its division by two opposite regimes since the fifties, the city grew in opposite directions. As East Berlin undertook a socialist lifting in architecture and urbanism, conserving a pedestrian scale; West Berlin branched out to adapt to a car scale development, typical of the sixties new towns.
While it is East Berlin that most of the tourists walk by foot, West Berlin is perceived for a first time visitor as a monumental sequence of civic buildings, embassies and museums with parks, promenades and miles in between. and for that, a bike is a must.
Due to having two parliaments, two national opera houses, and two of each civic monument during the cold war era, Berlin is today what i call a double city. Abundant with well-documented memorials, it is a city that not only has a strong collective memory, but also moved on successfully beyond its violent past, turning its scars to witty architectural landmarks.

A like Architecture

B like Badeshif Pool, Berlinishe Gallery

C like Checkpoint Charlie

D like DDR Cars

H like Holocaust Memorial

J like Jewish Museum

K like the Kreuzberg Canal

M like Monumentality

P like Parks, Promenades, Public Space

R like  Reichstag

S like the Spree river

T like Topography of Terror

W like Wall Memorial(s)


ecological economies

During my stay in the Netherlands, I encountered an extremely interesting water project,  Room for the river, which at first glance, seemed a philanthropic project executed by the Dutch government for the enjoyment of nature. Digging deeper, the project was driven by a powerful economical incentive- safety from flooding, in addition to public green space
the river was given more room to be able to manage higher water levels. At more than 30 locations, measures were taken that give the river space to flood safely. Moreover, the measures were designed in such a way that they improve the quality of the immediate surroundings. the result was safer and more attractive river landscapes. 

In the context of developing countries that cannot afford the creation of green spaces just for the sake of recreation and wellbeing, the project was a powerful lesson of ecological economy and how to incentivize the creation of public green space by coupling different roles of water landscapes; so they deliver functional services while becoming civic green spaces.
Similar approach could be used for example to restore canalized rivers of the lebanese coastal river system, while coupling river restoration with water reclamation and harvesting. More on that later.