What Is Architecture?

From the very first time I passed under the red-black capital ‘A’ placed on the main façade just above the entrance of the School of Architecture, at the Politecnico di Milano, I seriously tried to answer ‘The Question’ every architect or student of architecture wants to figure out: ‘What is Architecture?’

Image 1: Main entrance of the School of Architecture, Politecnico di Milano, Milano, IT. Architect: Vittoriano Vigano’ (project/realization: 1970 – 1985).

Before getting enrolled at the Politecnico, when I was still attending the last year at the High School, I had to choose my future academic career. Which University did I have to choose?  I had almost no doubts: Architecture was a natural choice, maybe not even a choice, but simply a passage, a transition. I will tell you why.

In my past experiences as a schoolboy, I was good at technical and freehand drawing; I was creative, and I had good craftsmanship skills; I liked Art and History, and I had a pretty good background in scientific and humanistic disciplines as well, thanks to the High School I was attending to, the Liceo Scientifico, where I could learn Latin, Philosophy and Literature, as well as Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry,  Physics, Technical Drawing and Art — I think that was a very good choice suggested me by my parents, when I was twelve years old, and I had to pass from the secondary level schools to the High School. Very likely, that choice influenced my future intellectual bias for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary knowledge. But that was not the real point. There was much more behind that choice for or transition to my future academic career.

Since I was a child, the act of entering notable buildings like churches, sports arenas, cinemas, museums or even peculiar houses, has always been a special experience for me. I can still vividly remember the impression that the wide interior extent of the Gothic Cathedral, the ‘Duomo di Milano’ —  the city I come from — exerted on me, when I visited it with my parents, for the first time: the peculiar smell of incense, the light coming in from the coloured glass of those tall and narrow windows; the cold and polished marbles of the floor, the sound of my steps, the music played by the organ — the typically prolonged reverberation of sounds in such wide indoor expanses, due to the prevailing use of ‘hard and cold’ materials like marbles, polished stones, glass, or concrete. That experience was overwhelming, different from any experience I had as a child, and that sensation never left me: every time I pass the doorstep of a church, those powerful feelings and images come back to my mind, as a kind of imprinting; either I walk into a Roman, Gothic, Renaissance or a Modern church, entering a church is, for me, a highly memorable, esthetical experience.

Image 2: Duomo di Milano, Milano, IT, 1386 – 1774.

Likewise, I was deeply impressed by the strong inward inclination of the suspended roof of the ‘Palazzetto dello Sport di San Siro’, in Milano, the first time I attended an indoor professional tennis event, as a spectator when I was eight years old: I will bring forever in my mind the moment in which the blue carpet of the tennis court was disclosed to my eyes, under the roof hovering over my head, with its massive sloping presence, and my entire body was pervaded by a profound sense of joy and emotion.

Image 3: Palazzetto dello Sport, Milano, IT. Architect: Studio Valle (1969 – 1975).

Unfortunately, for several circumstances, that boldly inclined, suspended roof collapsed under a heavy snowfall on January 17, 1985, and a few years later the building was pulled down. More than forty years after that experience, I don’t remember who was the opponent of my tennis hero at that time (John McEnroe), but I still vividly remember the emotional effect that that roof contributed to exert on me! The powerful presence of that sloping roof, hanging over my head, contributed to freezing that moment forever in my mind.

And I still vividly remember the atmosphere and ‘feel’ the comfortable sensation of the dark red velour of the seats, the soft dark red velour of the carpet under my shoes, the heaviness and smoothness of the velvet curtain that I had to touch, hold with my hand and move apart in order to pass from the lobby into the cinema hall at the ‘Cinema Odeon’ in Milano, the first time I went to the cinema together with my schoolmates, without my parents. I wasn’t a teenager yet.

Image 4: Red Velvet Chairs, indoor Cinema Hall.

Not to mention my first unconscious encounter with the ‘raumplan’, inside the house of my primary-school teacher, when I was six or seven years old.

Image 5: Villa Moller, example of ‘Raumplan’, Vienna, AT. Architect: Adolf Loos (1927 – 1928).

Probably, my current bias of architect overstates the importance of a small difference between floor levels — maybe a couple of steps, as I remember that difference now, can hardly be understood as a traditional ‘raumplan’ in the ‘Loosian’ technical meaning of the term — nonetheless that difference between levels, when I entered the apartment of my school teacher, allowed me to seat on the steps leading to the living room in a way that I had never done before inside an apartment, and, from that privileged point of view, I could admire the wide physical extension of that room, the biggest I had ever seen.

Those faraway experiences still belong to me, like many other strong sensations aroused in me by certain buildings. To put it briefly, some valuable experiences that accompanied my physical and psychological development as a child, like a happy afternoon spent with my parents, the live spectacle of a tennis match between professional players, watching a movie at the cinema together with my schoolmates, or an encounter with my school teacher in a place different from the classroom, all of those experiences became unforgettable, even because of the physical surrounding context (that is, because of the place, its atmosphere or ambience… even if I suspect that Loos would probably question my use of the term ‘place’, instead of ‘space’, in regard to a difference of levels between adjacent rooms) which accompanied those experiences. With hindsight, I cannot describe those architectural contexts as backgrounds for those experiences: they were almost foregrounds, that is integral parts of my experience. My perceiving body, my mind as an integral part of it, and the physical environment surrounding me were one and the same. Many years later, I discovered that there is no ontological priority of one — the environment — with respect to the other — the body:  at the fundamental level, they are made of the same stuff, and it is from the complementarity of their reciprocal actions that experience and knowledge arise. Therefore, their equally important role cannot be overstated. Ultimately, those surrounding contexts that contributed to arousing and fixing deeply in my mind-and-body such impressive feelings and memories were buildings. Indeed, from buildings — from certain buildings — I could distinctly perceive an undefined sense of materiality emanating from walls, windows, floors, roofs or ceilings, vibrating through the air, reaching my body and resounding with-in me.  It was as if walls, windows, floors, ceilings… were trying to communicate with me: how could I interpret those messages? Well, now, after so many years, I know they were fundamentally telling me what architecture is about.

Image Credits

Featured Image, The Salk Institute (architect Louis Khan), on twitter.com

Image 1 (source), School of Architecture Politecnico di Milano, on polimi.it

Image 2 (source), Duomo di Milano on in-lombardia.it

Image 3 (source), Palazzetto dello Sport di Milano on milano.fandom.com

Image 4 (source), Red Velvet Chairs, by Kilyan Sockalingum on unsplash.com

Image 5, Villa Moller, from Beatriz Colomina’s essay: Intimacy and Spectacle: The Interior of Adolf Loos.

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1 Comment

  • Alessandro Calvi Rollino
    Posted January 4, 2023 9:57 am 0Likes

    Where is ‘space’ — where is the term ‘space’ in that personal account of some experiences of built architectures? It is absent. Space does not belong to the corporeal essence of architecture; space belongs to its conceptual essence, as a derivation of men’s intellectual activity and creativity. Contrarily to most traditional phenomenological interpretations of architecture and reality, which take notions of space and place as given data, à la Newton (“I do not define… space [and] place… as being well known to all”, the distinguished physicist said in a famous passage of the Scholium), I maintain that space does not ultimately belong to the flesh of reality — which is the place where processes and experiences are finalized, or actualized, becoming discrete and concrete, or corporeal. Space belongs to the intellectual agency of the human brain, which, in the case of abstract thinking, is the place where processes, whether potential or actual ‘cogitationes’, remain in a continuous abstract state — i.e., a mental state. From this distinction, which we do not have to intend as a separation but as a standpoint for the correlation of two different aspects of One and the same reality (physical-and-mental), derives my understanding that architecture, as a discipline which acts in-between abstract and concrete domains or realms, creates spaces and modifies places for dwelling. ‘Space’ or ‘spaces’ are the product of men’s creative agency, or imagination — specifically, in the case of architecture, they are the creative product of the activity of architects. Space or spaces are abstract entities. ‘Place’ or ‘places’ are the contextual background and foreground of whatever happening, event, or process; as a natural fact, they surpass the human realm, containing it. To begin with, place or places are concrete entities. ‘Dwelling’, at the dawning of a new era — the Anthropocene —, and in the most general sense of the term ‘dwelling’, that is a sense which is inevitably grounded on an anthropocentric perspective but aims at transcending it by including all physical existents, is the ultimate scope of architecture. The correlation of spatial and placial states of architecture, which converge on the abovementioned extended sense of ‘dwelling’, constitute a new realism for architecture – see my brief post On Architecture.

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