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‘Le degré zéro’

Photo 1:© Robert Ryman, from “Valerio Olgiati’s Iconographic Autobiography,” El Croquis 156 (2011), 6-15

Photo 2: © Helmut Federle, Pro Litteris, from “Valerio Olgiati’s Iconographic Autobiography,” El Croquis 156 (2011), 6-15

Cristian Beșliu

In his book of literary criticism, Le degré zéro de l’écriture (1953), Roland Barthes distinguishes the concept of ‘language’ from that of ‘style’ and ‘writing’, in an effort to emphasize the fact that literature should seek autonomy in the very act of writing, dispossessed of any meaning outside itself. Ideally speaking, this close to impossible quest for the ‘zero degree’, or ‘colorless writing’¹, would somehow be able to authentically transcribe into writing the primordial Adamic language² without any sort of mediation. By means of analogy, if we rid ourselves of style, be it fashion or idiosyncratic manner, and we reductively assimilate architecture to language for the sake of this experiment, we may come across the fact that the true nature of ‘Adamic architecture’ would reside in a so-called ‘zero degree construction.’

In this line of thought, it is not at all surprising that, when speaking of his obsessive pursuit of a non-referential architecture, Valerio Olgiati often hints to a certain propensity of his architecture for achieving a ‘monolithic condition’. On the one hand, this certainly has to do with the paradigmatic difference between what he calls ‘the divider’ and ‘the composer’, another reiteration of the centuries-old debate between ‘the stereotomic’ and ‘the tectonic’ transferred into the architect’s choice for his practice – articulating separate constructive elements or creating architecture with the use of a single homogenous material. On the other hand, though, speaking of monoliths inevitably brings into question the act of lifting a block of stone upright for the very first time in history, regardless of whatever ritualistic or symbolical meaning – the T0 moment.

This sort of chronological ‘zero degree’ may explain some of Olgiati’s choices of words when talking about his work. Valerio Olgiati’s architecture seeks to be ‘archaic’ not just through discourse, but through its very material nature. At the same time, any reference to a specific site seems to be topographical and geological rather than geographical in a conventional way – ‘the territory’ as the framework of a homogenous pristine natural space, rather than ‘the city’ as a manmade construct of specific places. The continuous search for a non-referential architecture therefore brings into question an artificial reinstatement of the Adamic status quo as the most necessary condition for this pursuit.

Even though the very first gravity-defying act of raising a single massive block of stone in an upright position may appear sufficient for the invention of architecture, it certainly is not. Pure statics does not suffice, and architecture must therefore be not only free-standing object, but also containing space /receptacle.³ A monolith can possibly be a shrine, but it may never be a temple! For this very reason, the quest for the ‘zero degree’ in architecture is not concerned simply with the history of the monolith, but also with the well-known odyssey of the primordial hut, the very first human shelter.

This essential double condition is to be found in architecture in general, yet Valerio Olgiati’s effort towards the non-referential is one that focuses exclusively on these two aspects refusing anything else as part of architecture’s constituent fabric. The Plantahof Auditorium in Landquart is the epitome of all these things; it is nothing but the pure monolithic expression of its physical condition and structure, a statics diagram devoid of any other unnecessary accessories and translated as such into architecture.

The building is literally a concrete slab that rests on a beam supported by a robust buttress, but also an enclosure with an entrance apparatus and windows that overlook the territory; it is merely the structure, the three walls, the roof and, possibly, even the schematic gutter and gargoyle system for collecting rainwater.

The Auditorium summarizes a concise, yet everlasting testimony of the primordial hut as a monument, but, at the same time, it manages to put together, in a didactic manner, an accurate description of the physical and atmospheric conditions it encounters; it is the ‘zero degree construction’ par excellence, an object stripped of everything to its very archaic nature, something essential that lies beyond abstraction or so-called ‘minimalism.’

Valerio Olgiati’s project in Landquart is the equivalent of Roland Barthes sought-after ‘colorless writing’. It is ‘colorless architecture’ reduced to its animality, the ‘white representing nothing’ (fig. 1) rather than the “golden representing everything” (fig. 2).

1 To Roland Barthes, ‘colorless writing’ would stand for a literature that is put together unlike that of the ‘well-behaved revolutionaries’ that was still evidently ‘well-written’ in pre-determined literary tropes and metaphors. “A colorless writing is one that is freed from all bondage to a pre-ordained state of language.” See Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, English translation by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967).

2 The language in which god spoke to Adam, or, alternatively, Adam named all the things surrounding him in The Garden of Eden.

3 “Architecture is the making of spaces and objects. That is what architects do: They make spaces and objects!”. Valerio Olgiati in Markus Breitschmid, “Valerio Olgiati’s Ideational Inventory”, El Croquis 156 (2011), 31.

Cristian Beșliu has graduated from UAUIM Bucharest in 2016. In 2019 he finished his master’s degree programme in Architecture and Museum Design for Archeology at Accademia Adrianea di Architettura e Archeologia (Rome, Italy). He has been a teaching assistant since 2016 at UAUIM Bucharest and has occasionally been invited for lectures at different architecture schools, international workshops and conferences. In 2015, after having worked as an intern architect at TGIN Arquitectura (Barcelona, Spain), he became part of STARH architecture office (Bucharest, Romania). Since 2019 he has been working as an associate architect at STARH. Along with some of his closest collaborators, he co-founded Alt.Corp. studio in 2018. Most of the time, his activity revolves around academic research and architecture competitions.

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