When the child was a child,
It didn’t know that it was a child,
Everything was soulful,
And all souls were one.¹
The essential meaning of architecture today is creation of spatial systems that are capable of initiating processes of social interaction and integration. Using the potential of architecture to present a true social catalyst should be implicit and yet, it mostly does not happen today. The total disintegration of social integrity, accompanied by the total failure of social ‘safety’ mechanisms, like empathy and ethics in general, results in actual dramatic social occurrences – both in Croatia and worldwide. Architects are confused; probably because they are unaware of both the scope of their own role in society and of the factual state of today’s world; and perhaps they are simply not interested. Because of the above, architecture has to consciously give up its privileged aesthetic position in order to be able to realize its socially active role (in other words, in order to reacquire the needed credibility for such an attempt), it has to descend from Parnassus, to return to its own source. Therefore, it is necessary to re-establish the conditions within which architecture is a socially relevant activity and in order to be that, it has to become a truly integral part of communities again, within which and for which it operates. Or, in the words of Handke, it is necessary to reach again the state in which ‘all souls are on’.
I am certain that a statement composed in such a forceful manner can leave an impression of being unnecessary or exaggerated to those who have been aware the whole time of the vital connections between architecture and society. Nonetheless, I am also certain that this statement could sound blasphemous to many architects because it perhaps threatens the indisputability, or ‘sacredness’, of the right to a privileged authorial position. This is precisely why it is necessary to accentuate the initial statements.
The question of meaning always seems a bit rhetorical, nevertheless it is really essential for each and every profession, therefore for architecture as well – if for nothing else, then because it is easier and more meaningful to ‘sharpen the pencil’ and ‘draw another line’ every day, over and over again, being aware of one’s own professional role – in somebody else’s name. Today, when an incredible quantity of buildings, whose starting points, means of expression, and set goals are irreconcilably different and also often entirely arbitrary, are placed under the aegis of Architecture the question of meaning imposes itself more than ever. Or, am I wrong? Perhaps the very quantity of today’s ‘architectural works’ is sufficient evidence that everything is all right, that the meaning is unquestionable because this is a moment of final and total triumph of the profession, a conquered right to form literally each and every building and each and every spatial segment – at least in the ‘civilized’ part of the contemporary world. Furthermore, perhaps one should conclude that the current pluralism of expression is a sign of ‘a thousand flowers blooming’, an unambiguous indicator of the total affirmation of the endless multitude of individuality, enabled by the prevailing liberalism. Truly, the question of meaning could be seen as rhetorical if the acquired rights did not also bring about obligations that surpass those to immediate clients, in other words, if the consequences of each and every architectural act did not multiply exponentially until eventually spreading over literally every inch of the world and of every person. Therefore the question of meaning should be reformulated and we should ask ourselves – is architecture today capable of presenting the interests of an entire community or, can it act with all the rights from the position of the first person plural? I do not establish this doubt (solely) on the basis of my personal feeling of the social impotence of architecture, but on the basis of facts – of the obvious disinterestedness on the part of most architects to provide concrete spatial answers to concrete social questions; on the basis of the fact that architecture has still been primarily dealing with itself, although the current boiling or burning social occurrences undoubtedly show that such a practice is narcissistic and autistic; finally, on the basis of the obvious impotence of architecture, in spite of its occasional efforts, to positively use its inherent capability as a social catalyst and to help maintain social integrity, in other words, to promote true benefit for all. I simply try to understand what went wrong (with us) and why (our) architecture ceased to be the promoter of positive social and spiritual tendencies, or creator of stimulative spatial systems for all users.
The whole of history reflects architecture’s striving to create clear and complete spatial systems that talk about the existential, spiritual, and technological frame of their time on a symbolical, but also on a literal level. In other words, architecture has always been a privileged (and therefore limited) profession that primarily deals with aesthetic upgrade or spatially objectifies ideas of the cosmological order, providing in the process a social community with the material frame within which everybody can position themselves. Along with such an elite, almost philosophical activity of architecture (which, because of that, used to adorn itself with a capital ‘A’ with all its rights) the immediate existential space – that narrowest one of individual habitats, broader of villages and towns, and the widest of the Ecumene – has been being built from itself organically, like that of bees, termites or beavers, in other words natural builders, during almost the whole of history. Such a complementary relationship of architecture and building functioned all the time while sophisticated gentlemen architects were creating spaces for other sophisticated gentlemen, no matter whether they belonged to aristocratic, church or bourgeois circles. I think it important to recall the fact that historically, architects were building their professional credibility on expertise that involved all available knowledge, therefore performative-technological knowledge as well, and they were acquiring this knowledge through direct learning, apprenticeship to a master-mentor who had also been someone’s apprentice initially... Such an order of things enabled the natural development and gradual upgrade of knowledge, or pushing one’s own boundaries as well as professional ones – of both architecture and building. Transfer from unconscious building to conscious architecture is determined by the degree of self-awareness, personal and/or collective, which is again conditioned by numerous exterior and interior factors. Here, the direction of movement can go both ways. Therefore, the conscious ‘I’ of an authorial architectural effort and unconscious ‘we’ of general or communal building have an unbreakable connection, simply because they belong to the same existential, spiritual, and technological system and therefore share a mutual destiny because they grow one from another.
Historically, architects were dealing with the creation of towns rarely and mostly fragmentarily; when they did, they would always set an urban super-system ‘from above’, no matter whether they inscribed it on the existing structures or they started ab ovo; they were not interested at all in the very constructional tissue of a city, individual anonymous buildings. And then, at one moment, gentlemen architects became responsible for forming of literally everything constructed, simply because trends in society were developing in such a direction. Also, architects were close to the circles of sophisticated citizens with political legitimacy and/or financial power to provide them with the authority for it. The architectural profession became the ruler of every constructed place, at least in cities and at least in the progressive (and until recently rich) part of the world. Since they share their destiny, the rise of architecture meant the parallel fall of historically and traditionally rooted activities of building (which builds individual habitats) and city building (which, guided by strict communal regulations, develops organically). ‘Ordinary’ building, that was initiated from the inside, from self-awareness that was in fact unconscious, but was intuitively profound because it was based on continuity and gradual development, ceased to be, at least within the Western cultural circle – construction without an architect became literally illegal. What does the fine gentleman architect, part of the social and/or intellectual elite, know about the spiritual, existential, and even technological reality of social circles that require action now and whose everyday life is not known to him on the literal level of daily routine, as well as on the finer level of ‘the routine of the soul’?
Since there is no positive visionary spirit among those at the highest positions within the political, spiritual and economical elite, nor even sincere conviction in the correctness of the existing directions, driving social (economic, architectural, philosophical) powers have weakened entirely. In other words, the paradigm has disintegrated into numberless fractions of which none has either the necessary credibility or sufficient strength to create a new paradigm. What do today’s many architects do in such an unfavourable situation? In accordance with the fact that they obtain professional credibility by means of university education (and we are aware of the historical meaning of architecture and social position of architects), most architects see their professional role, or disclose their learned orientation, within the domain of aesthetics. Judging from that, the conclusion can be drawn that nothing of importance has changed; however, reality undoubtedly shows the opposite, primarily because most ‘works’ that take great pride in the aegis of architecture are not nearly close to the level of inherited true aesthetics. Instead of critically challenging the unfavourable situation and seeking a possible way out of it, ‘authors’ poke about the surface of aesthetics and entirely arbitrarily determine what is ‘beautiful’ and what is ‘ugly’ and while doing that, they manifest narrow-mindedness and capriciousness in defending their fragment of truth. Metaphorically, one could say that today’s architect ‘aestheticians’ behave like they belong to a football supporters’ group that cares more about the colours of their club (or being part of an aesthetic fraction) than about the game itself (or the broader sense of architectural activity).
Because of all of the above, the examples I present are either not architectural works at all or are merely their fragments – these are socially active individual artistic expressions that are aware of the significance of space (and this is the domain with which architecture deals) or are architectural (authorial) places that have become real places exactly because they are sufficiently discreet to seem anonymous, which then enables anyone to appropriate them. This is possible because these works are liberated from (at least fragmentarily, mostly at points of connection of the private and public domain) aesthetic and programmatic ballast; in other words, it is possible simply because their authors managed to suppress the excess of their formative passion and/or inclination to provide users with ‘prescriptions’. The patronizing attitude of architecture (especially that which is primarily, or solely, based on aesthetic expertise) is not a possibility anymore, since it is not efficient. These non-architectural and/or ‘post-architectural’ examples are important due to the liveliness they manifest, which rarely graces even the best architectural works today. In order for non-conditioned, or unexpected, actors to recognize spatial possibilities of any place, architects ought to have their awareness raised, at least intuitively, of their potential as social catalysts, in other words, they have to be creators capable of the spatialisation of human life in forms includes those they alone have not been yet able to imagine.
(Rab, the town’s loggia, photo TP)
Led by the self-awareness of citizens and determined by strict communal regulations, every traditional town has a clearly structured relationship of public (or shared) and private (or personal) spaces. Therefore, points where these complementary domains meet are of extreme importance. So, for example, the town’s loggia has the main role in every Eastern Adriatic town. As a constructed place, it symbolically embodies communal identity; it is able to do so because it is a physical place accessible at all times and to all – for both social interaction and manifesting the peculiarities integrated in the entirety of a community.
(Siniša Labrović: Marking Territory; photo: Boris Cvjetanović)
St Mark’s Square in Zagreb is a symbolical place of Croatian sovereignty, but also the place of real political power of those who are authorized to rule the country. Although the right to public space is a basic democratic right of every citizen and St Mark’s Square is part of the public city space, it is not that in reality. In his performance act, artist Siniša Labrović uses the most elementary animal act of marking a conquered territory so he urinates here, asking in this manner for his (and in fact, anybody’s) share in distribution of social power. Social power is directly related to the right to distribution of space; dealing with space is an elementary architectural activity; the only conclusion that can be drawn from these two premises is that architecture has to accept the elementary political feature of its own acting, at least if it wants to serve all its possible users impartially.
(Ivana Knez: An Office in the Open / the Open Office; one-day architectural action; photo (from left to right): Damir Gamulin, Luka Rukavina)
The opportunity for direct social action (and this is the elixir of architectural youth) is accepted, at least occasionally, by more and more today’s architects. A certain number of them deal with large themes, therefore they save (or ‘save’) the world; another part of them are active in their own neighbourhood (with or without being paid), therefore they solve their neighbours’ burning spatial issues. From the point of view of authorial dealing with architecture (which we also practise) such a task might look minor, nevertheless this is a foundation that proves our professional credibility, in other words, it gives us right to act from the position of the first person plural; if for nothing else, then because such a gesture reflects awareness of the true social significance of our profession in the created conditions; also, because it displays a social interest and empathy we should be proud of, at least through a symbolic act of limited immediate effect.
(Kata Mijatović: Sleeping between the Sky and Earth; photo: Zoran Pavelić/skater, photo: Ervin Huseidžinović – both on the public concourse of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, author Igor Franić)
To begin with, interaction requires a place somebody can appropriate. If such a place is constructed then architecture begins here, for every citizen. Someone will desperately need it to sleep through the night, another to practise his or her lust there. Sometimes, two artists recognize one another in a poetic manner, deeply intuitively (like Ivan Kožarić and Kata Mijatović recognized one another), and sometimes an appropriate spatial fragment is recognized. This same spatial fragment that accepted one can accept two as well, or many, therefore recognition again occurs (no matter if it is impersonal) between the author of the spatial fragment and its appropriator. Only when architecture takes the risk of uncertainty of the possible interaction, or its own interpretation, can it become truly socially self-aware, in other words, relevant.
(Iva Letilović and Morana Vlahović: state subsidized housing Krapinske Toplice; photo: ?
/ Veljko Oluić and Tonči Žarnić; Technical School, Zadar; photo: Miljenko Bernfest)
Except for solving the immediate given problem as authors, sometimes architects add (as much as opportunities offer and as much as they are socially emphatic or aware) a small spatial bonus. In my opinion, this is a real opportunity for real social acting for most today’s architects. In order to do this, they have to (like a cunning child) wangle the opportunity for it from the investor, and every investor (whether private or public) primarily represents his own interests therefore jealously keeping all the parts of the ordered spatial assembly for himself because he defends his money. Only in this way can spatial fragments be created (or entire systems) that represent an unexpected bonus for each and every hypothetic, or unknown, user – not only for personal usage, but also as a place in which elementary human interaction can occur. And when it happens, architecture reacquires social relevance and not only aesthetic credibility.
¹Als das Kind Kind war,
wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war,
alles war ihm beseelt,
und alle Seelen waren eins.
Peter Handke: Lied Vom Kindsein / Song of Childhood, 2nd stanza, English translation from wim-wenders.com website