Casa Rezzonico, Vogorno TI, 1984-1985, Livio Vacchini
Is genius loci a fashion?
E l o i s a V a c c h i n i
Architecture and Landscape
Considerations for the 10th anniversary of Livio Vacchini’s premature departure.
Quality building is deeply related to the architect’s sensibility, his cultural level and his knowledge of territory and its history.
My father certainly had these qualities. His certainties were few, but clear. Nowadays, due to the congestion of our territory, the relationship between architecture and landscape becomes more and more complex. Sensitivity, knowledge of the territory and talent are not enough anymore. For our generation and for the future ones, being able to build and assure a healthy relationship with the landscape will be possible only if the cultural and educational level of the entire society – and at the same time the quality of its politics - experience a radical change.
Our landscape is continuously tortured by interventions that transform the area into a totality of disharmonious forms, styles and colors. Who is to be blamed for that? Real estate speculation, bad architects, laws and general development plans that make no sense and actually force to opt for questionable choices, to say the least? There are many causes and the theme of building integration and building quality is extremely complex). Within such a complexity of topics, one theme deserves to be debated. We’re talking about social politics, fear, egocentrism, the need of cultural revolution: these topics are too often misunderstood, neglected and taken into little consideration. A cultural revolution brings along a different way of living and, as a consequence, a different way of conceiving architecture.
There is need for a turning point – or a revolution. Our territory desperately needs it.
Architects have an important role in bringing a healthy balance between architecture and landscape, but they cannot carry the whole responsibility for this. Politics should play a significant role, too. I herewith mean social politics, not landscaping politics. The reckless exploitation of the territory is a social and educational problem. If good architecture is, first and foremost, the work of a good architect then good land planning depends on the society’s educational level and its capability to teach human beings how to share space and live together.
The Southern part of Switzerland where I live and work is sprinkled with individual houses. The great majority of the families dreams to build custom’s tailored homes, built according to one’s personal taste, important thing is to be “individual” in order to dictate your own taste and feel safe. Some architects prefer that their work gets published. Therefore, the risk of following formal rules instead of rules dictated by social needs is really high. The consequence is that formal rules tend to get the supremacy and the architect’s mission are in constant evolution. Sometimes this does not evolve positively.
Is it just a matter of form? No, without any doubt this is mostly a social matter.
Today, the desire to stand out and be recognized is the main priority, closely followed by the need for security. If we try to translate this concretely, everyone prefers to build his house on top of a cliff rather than build it in the center of a city, where one is supposed to share some of his life with others. Moreover, every day we find out about furious fights between neighbors, protests against the noise in the staircase, in the squares, outside the bars and even in playgrounds. We are not able to live together anymore and as soon as we have the opportunity to isolate, we do it behind walls. We continuously opt for the castle, preferably surrounded by thick walls, bordered by barbed wire fences and with flashing alarm lights.
And this is not enough. Stylistically speaking, our image of the ideal castle should remind us of forms and styles that we met in our childhood, in order to offer us the impression of safety. Further, we are since early childhood bombarded with conventional shapes that are supposed to make us feel safe. Therefore, we grow up believing that they correspond to safety. That tradition which was born and affirmed in social and community practices had disappeared a while ago, but we pretend that nothing happened and mechanically apply its element (sometimes for a paradoxically opposite purpose: to isolate ourselves from the others). The form remains, but it is empty. Therefore this is the best way of spreading the kitsch: formal opulence, shapes without substance. The result is a totality of buildings conceptually similar to castles, decorated with apparently reassuring shapes, but in reality, disturbing and chaotic.
Fortunately, the idea that our ways of transforming the landscape leads to chaos started emerging in common sense during the last decades. The “genius loci” is brought into discussion again, as well as the relationship with the landscape. People are crying out for more severe and incisive legislation. But have we ever truly reflected on our incontrollable need for building our own fortresses? It is clear that we cannot scatter castles everywhere. First of all, there is not enough space, but even if we had infinite land at our disposal, the idea of individuals selfishly affirming their own visions of the world is repulsive. Not only because in this way the landscape transforms into a tangled, introvert chaos, but also because it leads to future disharmony, lack of listening, absence of sociability and rationality as well as absence of reasoning.
What is architecture if not the answer to a social and educational need, rather than response to a functional one? Today’s society is in the run-up for sensational architecture, where the shape, the appearance, the glamour and the personal affirmation is the most important thing. What can we do, as architects, to help the world change direction, to obtain livable cities and harmonious territories?
Observing the others, I noticed that listening is not fashionable.
And architecture means listening, not form.
Designing means listening, listening the people, the landscape, the climate.
Silence can be form.
Dialogue can be a silent act.
Architecture harmoniously integrated into the landscape does not shout.
On the contrary, it expresses the desire for sharing.
Let us try to observe the territory using this idea of interpretation and we shall discover that harmony does not depend exclusively on good architecture.
For example, we can say that the clustering of buildings on the Greek islands is a totality of ugly houses, if they were to be taken separately. However, thanks to the fact that they are piled up one on top of the other, all white so therefore all similar, they create a harmonious, serene and silent unity. Even the historic centers are founded of buildings that have no particular individual qualities. Still the harmony of the whole is strongly present. Uniformity of colors and materials is fundamental. The uniformity creates silence, it allows you to think, to watch.
Should therefore all the groups of buildings have the same color, the same materials and the same building techniques? The color can be an answer but not the only one. But to impose materials and building techniques would be insane. It would mean to give more importance to shape, style or to a certain historical moment, than to creativity and the construction of a cultural and social identity, well defined and especially contemporary.
Starting with 1930, Rationalism revolutionized architecture, cutting off every link with the languages of the past. This happened in order to support the social and cultural rebirth after the First World War. The goal was to raise social awareness to the level where everyone could have a house, acknowledging the dignity of the laborers and their families and offering them salubrious and functional spaces. From this point of view, the artistic research gave birth to new ideas: when one is not busy being afraid, one is free to think. This development constructively emerged into a new architecture, whose form was the answer to the need of a new, different lifestyle.
One of the most important technical revolutions was the modern use of terraced roofs. This was a new interpretation of the relationship with landscape: when the man felt the need to elevate himself and get out of his own cage made out of walls, the roof became a terrace. The roof becomes a place for watching the stars and the world, being in relation with the surrounding landscape and the whole world.
The terraced roof made the traditionalists feel uncomfortable. Therefore they tried to impose by law the sloped roof, as if a form could assure quality and a harmonious integration into the landscape. Fortunately, the beauty of this revolution overcame the formalism.
A desire to live one`s life in absence of fear and in communion: this is the key that allowed the architect from those flourishing ages to insert the building into the context, creating at the same time a new place. The terraced roof is not the result of a formal imitation of the African buildings, but the tangible sign of a social, cultural and pedagogical progress.
Architecture can fight the increasing fear that characterizes the individuals and the society nowadays; it can teach silence and listening.
It can, for example offer – if the politicians invest adequate resources in education and culture - spaces pedagogically adapted to the children`s rhythm of growth and learning. Architecture itself and an adequate pedagogy, could teach them to listen. Listening leads to respect. Respect for the others and for the environment. Listening means knowing and observing. The architecture of school buildings can be the first step: developing spaces that help one to listen and to show respect, curiosity and dialogue will develop as well. This is the quintessence of intelligence.
In the Technical University Institutes of Switzerland, the Universities and the Academies, professors should all believe that architecture does not mean form or style but silence and listening, functionality and creativity (understood as the ability to understand a place). Students should finally learn to think of others, not of themselves. Young people usually believe that architecture is artistic talent. In fact, building using the rules of form means deafening the world by shouting out loud one`s own arid desire of supremacy.
With the support of a society used to listening and hospitality, architecture could come back to the concept of humility; humility understood as getting close to the earth again and fertile listening of the land - that humus which, with patience and silence nourishes the world.
After graduating the school of achitecture at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Eloisa Vacchini traveled and worked one year in Australia and one year in Argentina. In 2000 she has become an associate architect of Livio Vacchini and worked on the La Ferriera projects in Locarno, the Nice competition, Secondary school Bellinzona, Inceneritore Giubiasco, the Ascona apartments, the sports complex Mülimatt. She's the holder of her father's studio since his disappearance in 2007. www.studiovacchini.ch