Can beauty be objective?
Faculty of Architecture in Nancy, 1996, Livio Vacchini
On beauty... against the kitsch
I’ve been having conversations with Livio Vacchini for a long time now, talking a little about everything. What brought us together was, of course, the passion for architecture but we used to speak about everything: music, food and as the saying goes, about “women and cars” (Bruno Lauzi, Italian poet). It was simply friendship, and this, ten years after his death, still stays with me today, because it’s memories, never-ending arguments, emotions that come back. When I see architecture, I’m always wondering what Livio would have said about it.
One day, while working on the book we later named “Masterpieces”, he told me: You know Roberto, the basic thing would be to understand what kitsch is all about. It was as if he had suddenly discovered the core issue.
Strangely enough, in that period I was working on a course about the kitsch at The Faculty of Arts and Design of IUAV University of Venice. I didn’t say anything. I was searching as well to finally understand not so much the problem of kitsch, but rather the reason why it overwhelms us.
That ”You know Roberto…” became a source of torment for me; it helped me, it gave me the key to interpret his work: never fall into kitsch, into the picturesque, into the emotive or expressive, into the new for the sake of new, in the logic of style – be it good or bad, or in the trap of thinking that any random idea could work. A key of great importance as far as his work is concerned.
I used to say to my students that having an idea does not necessarily mean to think and that for a project (not only an architectural one) it is not fundamental to have any random idea – it is even dangerous; what is fundamental is to think thoroughly. I wanted to make them understand that they should not trust what is traditionally named creativity and that intuition is useful only if it is completed by reason. Even this was a syntony with Livio Vacchini.
In that moment, for me it was obvious that not only the matter of kitsch (of bad taste) was in discussion, but especially the question: How can we define beauty nowadays? And we also have to figure out: is it objective or subjective, and does it have to be valid to everyone or only to me?
What became clear is that the kitsch is always in opposition to the objective beauty and it is to be found where the subjective dimension of beauty is dominant.
So in the end the questions can be:
Has the age of objective beauty ended? Or better said – that of the classical tradition?
When and how was that era born and why did it disappear, if it disappeared?
Are we in an age of subjective beauty? See the pop, postmodernism and deconstructivism
And does this mean that everyone can perceive and live according to his own way of understanding beauty? And in the end, can we make everything we want with the architectural project?
And is this completely relative or does it paradoxically imply the objectivation of the relative? The massification of the subjective in such a way that we are all to be found in an aesthetical unity?
Would it paradoxically mean that we have all become the same because we are all different ?
Now I would like to propose some considerations on beauty (Objective? Subjective? Or beyond the dualistic logic?) and Kitsch. Furthermore, I will reflect upon Livio Vacchini`s way of projecting and building and the reason why he was trying to understand the kitsch or, better said, trying not to be absorbed by it. With a premise: confronting the theme of beauty makes your heart beat out of your chest for its extent and for the issues it brings up. And I do not make the presumption of solving it. I can advance some hypothesis and considerations, all of them to be tested. Finally I settle for “playing” with a series of provocations.
The empiric beauty
If we consult the scientific literature of cultural anthropology, we can see that in the so called primitive communities the idea of beauty was meant for something pleasant, useful, satisfying that made you feel good. For example, the representation of divinity was frequently achieved with forms that we can only describe as ugly or terrible. Even in the culture that precedes the ancient Greek era, which we name Classical, there is a sense of beauty that can be only defined as empirical.
The Greek culture that precedes the beginning of philosophy (not only the pre-Socratic but also the Homeric one), used the term kalos to describe something that was satisfying, agreeable, marvelous, like the Chinese word mei. Therefore, beauty was seen more as adequacy or amazement than as transcendence.
An illustrious character of the German philosophy, Otto Pöggeler, a longtime director of the Hegel-Archiv of Bochum, while translating Homer discovered that the term kalos is used to describe a state of well-being. Homer uses even the term Karis, which is the root of kalos for describing a garland or crown placed around things, a virtuous twist, a composition where everything is held together. On the other hand, the word kalos is compared with the antic Indian word Kalja that means healthy, vigorous, gifted, excellent, adapted, skillful, useful. It had nothing in common with the beauty considered transcendental, in opposition with utility or necessity, beauty that should only be contemplated.
At its origins and in Homer`s writings, kalos does not yet have a transcendental, metaphysical value. Only with the pre-Socratic should the term receive this meaning.
According to the testimony of Aezio, the introduction of the term kosmos is due to Pythagoras. We know little about Pythagoras , but what we know is rather important. We know about his trip to Egypt where he learned about the Canon laws. It is said that in another trip he met Zarathustra. It seems that he had foreseen the sphericity of Earth. Pythagoras affirmed that the soul is immortal, the kosmos is ordered and everything is number. He was able to do these affirmations due to his studies on the movement of stars, on crystallography and especially on the connection between the musical notes and the length of strings of different instruments. How is that possible and what does harmony signify? It is said that after returning from his trip in Egypt he gathered his disciples and built in front of them a musical instrument with seven chords of different lengths, placed in a certain order. He played the chords and asked for his disciples` opinion. They all responded that the sounds they had heard were pleasant. Then Pythagoras replaced one of the chords with a bigger one: there was not an ordered succession of sounds anymore. Suddenly, the apprentices covered their ears and concluded that the sound was unpleasant and created discomfort. Furthermore, he took a shell and cut in half, measuring in a straight line the distance between the spirals. Then he said that the ratio he had used for the chords of the lira was the same with the ratio of the spirals of the shell: meaning that what corresponded to the laws of nature was beautiful and good and what was against the nature was ugly and bad. And nature always follows measure, order and proportion (the same as Aristotle would affirm later). Of course that when we look at a starry sky or inside a forest we will see an enormous variety of figures and forms, but our duty should be to discover the laws, the rules and the harmony behind this great variety.
Even what firstly appears as indistinguishable or chaotic can be related to numbers and if the multiple can be reduced to irreducible, there should be a number among numbers, a ratio that determines the most ordered order, the one that will later be called the golden ratio, the divine proportion and that even nowadays we use to call the golden section. This is the core of the world and from this we should be able to deduce the ratios of the human creations and of the human proportions.
The problem of universality was probably questioned for the first time by Pythagoras and the pythagoreans. And they even succeeded in developing a relationship, thought to be logic (and I would say logotechnic) between the visible and the invisible.
In conclusion, it was within the classical Greek-Western culture that this idea appeared – which leads to the objective beauty. Before this moment, in other cultures the idea of beauty was not linked to objectivity. It could have been perceptive, emotional, sympathetic, empathic, functional and others more, but it could not have been conceptualized as transcendental.
The objective beauty
The idea of objective beauty – that differs from the individual perception, took shape in the classical Greek culture in direct correspondence with the birth of philosophy and of the metaphysical universe implied by it.
For assuming this dimension, beauty should be seen as transcendental. There is no other culture that puts the problem of beauty this way.
Therefore, beauty becomes the characteristic of the divine. As I affirmed earlier, the iconography of the divine was firstly characterized by terribleness in the pre-classical period; afterwards it progressively became a search for portraying, for representation, and, in the end, a search for beauty.
Speaking of kalos, the Greek of the beginning of the classical era was designating an overall condition in which what was healthy, complete, ordered became a whole, both in the exterior appearance and in the interior behavior. And this is one of the reasons why kalos aspires to the divine universe.
A mutation took place with the foundation of logos and the fundamentals of metaphysics. This transformation was particularly significant for Platon, when kalos connected with agathon so with the divinity itself. A divinity usually related to light, to sight, to apparition, to phenomenal, to occurrence. To this idea of kalos kai agathos we can link the symmetry and the truth and is pantheon…kalon aitia (res 7.517 c). We can understand here the metaphysics in its vastest and most fundamental meaning, as it was understood by the Greeks: inseparable from “the holy knowledge of the origins of the world” (the myth), and in the vast dimensions of alethe (“open”, “true”), of agathon (“good”) and kalon (“safe”, “sane”, ”beautiful”).
There can be an idea of objective beauty only if we consider the transcendental linked with the universal, with absolute values. On one hand, the transcendental is the characteristic that all things have in common and is therefore the reason why they surpass the diversity of types. On the other hand, the universal has two declinations: in an objective form it is any determination that can be part of or can be attributed to a large number of things; in a subjective way it is the possibility of every reasonable being to make a good judgment.
Putting the problem like this, it is inevitable to think of beauty as something related to good, perfection, order or truth. It is a little like saying that beauty does not belong to this world and that we can only search for it, chase it and if we finally find it we have to cancel, through contemplation, all our needs, interests and passions.
Therefore, the dynamics and the ways in which the objective beauty took form become clear now: it is born of divinity, of a pre-human or non human order (measure or proportion), of the world of ideas, that lie above humankind. [..] The subject that can produce beauty (the artist) is the holder of a substantially mimetic and adaptive ability. He should search to neutralize himself in the work of art. The only thing that should emerge in the work is the absolute.
This way of conceptualizing beauty, that in my opinion evolved within the classical Greek culture, continued to exist, even if in various structures and occasions, in several expressive forms and styles, until the end of the 18th century; at this time debates arose: upon the forms and functions of the transcendental, the mimesis as the base of the same knowledge and the socio-political function and value of subjectivity.
It is therefore necessary to reaffirm that if the objective beauty means transcendence, yet what characterizes it is its appearance. In other words, the beauty is the mediation between the immutable (the transcendental) and the accidental (the immanent), between invisible and visible and eros is the force that allows this mediation. The result of this mediation is unity. This is not available only for the Ancient Greeks but also for the Stoics, for the Theologians of the Scolastica, especially for San Tommaso d`Aquino and for the writers and artists of the Renaissance. For Leon Battista Alberti, the unity of the work of art, similar to its beauty, was achieved when finally nothing could be added or removed.
Appearing happens and presents itself as an event, something that takes form at a certain moment, in the most unexpected way. Heidegger attributed the same meaning to the use of term ereignis: a way of understanding the being not as a static presence but as an eventual becoming. The event, the ereignis connects the being with time and opens up the being to its alterity – to the other. It is Heidegger’s attempt to solve the metaphysical contradictions of the Greek thinking. To remain objective, the beauty has to transform itself into phenomenon. In Ancient Greek the word fainomena is born of the root fos, which means light. It is that which stands into the light; having at the same time its root as Theos. The divine is an opening to light. This is the nature of Ancient Greece polytheism. During the appearing of beauty as a bridge between visible and invisible, the truth would also manifest itself, a truth that could not be other but a transcendental one.
It is not by mistake that the ontology of beauty started with Plato. Beauty is per se, in itself, with itself; it is eternally univocal. Beauty born from eros is fatal in the relationship between the accidental and the immutable becoming. To human kind, beauty offers the privilege of being destined to eternity, holding together the truth and the appearing. Truth and beauty merge into the manifestation of idea; they both reveal the being.
A better way to explain the objectivity of beauty is through the hypothesis that both the transcendental and the universal can find their empirical reasoning in nature, better said in the laws of nature, whether thought as implicit or explicit in phenomena. In conclusion, as there is an order in the movement of stars and in the succession of seasons, there should be an order in the human works of art as well. Man can of course go against nature, he has his free will, but then he can fall into what the Greeks thought to be the most terrible thing that could happen: the hybris.
This bond between the laws of nature and beauty begins with Pythagoras and is strongly affirmed by Aristotle.
And so, from an objective perspective we can find the doctrine of beauty as order and symmetry ”of a greatness that deserves to be comprised in its integrity by a single glance”. Accordingly, now emerges another condition of the objective beauty – that of unity, closely linked to identity. For example, beauty should be identical to itself, recognizable in its own unity and supported by universal composition rules, so as to obtain a timeless condition. What we call the classical and try to place in a period of time or style, therefore in a specific language, was actually born to be timeless and affirms the very idea of identity as absolute form.
Resuming: beauty as good, truth, order is objective and transcends impulses and interests of single individuals. The beautiful works of art should always have specific and metahistoric laws. The premise is the metaphysical. In the history of arts` language this is the classical.
The subjective beauty
The objective beauty can lose its metaphysical horizon for a series of reasons that cannot be summed up here. The crucial one can be pointed out, though: the appearance of subjectivity, the one that we call modern, at the end of the Middle Ages and beginning of Modernity, with the emergence of Humanism (even if here should be made many distinctions).
We can think at the subjective beauty as something nurtured by vanity or by the arrogance of the subject who becomes a judge of himself and of the world, by the “will to power”, by the frenetic charm of variety and diversity, by the “It is me who makes it so I make it as I want”, by the inclusion and manipulation of temporality. The subjective beauty tends to live the moment and not the eternity; it falls in love with caducity and the occasional. It is exactly what the objective beauty, which searches for timelessness and absolute laws, refuses.
The subjective beauty does not have an ontological value anymore; it is not anymore the manifestation of the good, like it was for Plato, or of perfection, unity, order and symmetry, like it was for Aristotle.
Starting with the 17th century, while trying to find universal laws not only for the experimental science but also for sensations and perception, philosophers will start questioning the idea of taste and especially the reason why different subjects perceive sensations differently. Is therefore a precise and experimental science possible as far as subjectivity is concerned?
Trying to objectify the sensory perception leads to a contradiction that comes from the classical Greek idealism, that clearly separated the sensory perception (aesthesis) from reason (nous).
The subjectivity, especially the modern one, the vir faber fortunae suae (every man is the artisan of his own fortune) does not accept to subordinate to the universal, without a pact. The most significant result of this pact would be the Declaration of Human Rights and the French Revolution.
The considerations on taste, find their fulfillment with the birth of Aesthetics at the middle of the 18th century and beauty becomes sensitive perfection. This means, on one hand, perfect sensitive representation and on the other hand pleasure that accompanies the sensitive activity.
The attempt to find universal laws in the huge variety of tastes will find no solution: reason and sensitive perception will remain conflictual.
The last attempt will be made by Kant, with the identification of the most important characteristic of beauty: indifference. In doing so, he defines beauty as “what universally and without concepts appeals” (Critique of Pure Reason), insisting on the independence of pleasure of beauty, for every interest, be it sensitive or reason related. He affirms: “Everyone names likeable a thing which is satisfying, beautiful, and good, a thing which is appreciated and approved, therefore a thing to which an objective value is attributed. The pleasure is available even for unreasoning animals; but beauty is only for the human beings that possess reason, not only as they are rational but especially because they are at the same time animals. The good has value for every rational being, in general.” (Critique of Pure Reason)
Kant distinguishes between free beauty and adherent beauty. The first concerns natural beautiful things like flowers and does not require a concept for what the object should be like. But this does not happen when evaluating an architectural object: there should be a concern for the purpose of the object. That beauty would be therefore adherent.
In conclusion, with Kant occurs the acceptance of the epistemological impossibility to uniformize the objective and the subjective, the acknowledgement that there are two truths, the scientific one and the artistic one, the general and the singular, the conceptual and the intuitional one, or we can say the objective and the subjective, the universal and the singular truth. In other words, this is the crisis that existed in all metaphysics, be it ancient or modern; a crisis resumed in the Kantian phrase: “the starry sky above me and the moral law within me”.
With Kant beauty becomes a value or better said a set of values, but all with an ontological contradiction: they are values that are born from superfluity, therefore from something that should not have value. This is the paradox of our Contemporaneity, and not only as far as art is concerned.
According to Kant the human being is that animal that presents himself as such because he is consuming and producing superfluity in a superhuman condition. What defines or represents him is a singular product called work of art not only for its own superfluous nature, related to a finality without purpose, but also indefinable, a machinery that continuously transcends its own existential condition, destined to constantly produce its own hyper affirmation and its own negation. It is called single machinery. The work of art would occupy the space of the event. We can find this concept even in Heidegger.
At its utmost, humanity will then produce a maximum of superfluity where values will continuously be deferred... Mere idolatry. (This should be denied!) Adorno can say that every true work to be as such should have to kill all the others, past, present ... leaving the future open, to its possible best. Modernity is confirmed; some will talk of will of will and will of power. This is how there is no art without art history.
The Idealism and the Romanticism will bring the transcendental in the work of art due to the Genius, an individual/subject having exceptional aptitudes. The abilities of the Genius evoke the universal, but shelter the personal, the singular. The duty of the Genius, after Kant, is to give rules to art, connecting them with nature itself so as to consign them to another brilliant individual that should exceed them. Its talent belongs to nature. It is like the absolute would transform itself from transcendence into immanence, incarnating into the figure of the Genius.
For Schelling, the art of the Genius is the supreme form of knowledge able to spontaneously understand the Absolute, in its unity between nature and spirit. For Schopenhauer the Genius is the objective direction of the Spirit. Of course there will be certain positions, in that historical and social context, like, for example, the one of Hegel that considered the Genius` work of art, animated by imagination and spontaneity, to be just romantic daydreams, while an artwork can become really artistic only by the means of technical aptitudes and rich knowledge and experiences, governed by reason.
In the end, when defining beauty, even Hegel has to measure himself with the objective beauty and ask himself about his own relationship with subjectivity. He writes: “Beauty can be defined as a sensitive emergence of the idea. Beauty and truth are the same thing. They can be distinguished only because – while to truth the idea has an objective and universal manifestation, to beauty it has a sensitive manifestation.” (Lectures on Aesthetics) That sensitive determination is nothing more than the subjective perception. The sensitivity is the subject`s own nature. The transcendental does not have sensitivity, it does not perceive: it is or it is not. The sensitive is the history itself or we can say that history is composed and produced by the infinity of sensitive people. This is the Hegelian dialectics.
Even positions like the one of Stendhal induce the transition of beauty towards subjectivity. He writes: ”Beauty is the promise of happiness”. So to maintain a transcendental horizon, the fact that beauty can be interpreted as universal refers to a perceptive modality (phenomenal) that belongs to subjectivity, to an aesthetical eudemonism experienced by a subject in its own singularity: before being happy together we have to be happy by ourselves.
To sum up, the challenge is the following: for the entire world of ancient classical culture up until the Humanism, the idea of objective beauty is predominant; with the Humanism, the individual pretends a determinant role. Furthermore, in Contemporaneity he starts affirming his own supremacy. The Contemporaneity begins with the French Revolution, so with the moment in which a new political subject appears: the mass. Consequently, the correspondence between subjectivity and massification starts being analyzed.
From here on it will begin the idolatry of art and separately the idolatry of science, like enemy sisters, rival metaphysics. But where there can be two conflictual truths, the one that loses its sense is the metaphysical horizon itself. Everything that happens, not only in art and science finds itself in this crisis, to which there can be different responses. I can signal two extremes: rebuilding the metaphysics – Hegel, or learning to surf on the waves of this enormous crisis – Nietzsche. Paradoxically, in the end, these extremes will meet.
Going back to the phenomenal, as far as art and science are concerned, they can be interpreted and experienced as something that can both save or lose us; they can lead to liberation or final destruction. This is particularly significant for the idolization of technology. Even today there are people who completely trust or distrust technology.
Also as beauty is concerned there can be found contradictory positions especially in the second half of the 19th century and first half of 20th century: on one hand Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for whom only beauty can save us, and on the other hand Rainer Maria Rilke, who writes in his Duino Elegies: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” These two positions are clearly antithetical and they would deserve a larger space for being interpreted. The first has however a unity guaranteed by religion, despite the human depravation and the inevitable conflicts with the evil; the other separates the sacred from every religious justification or places it beyond every possible explanation. Therefore, the beauty cannot offer comfort, on the contrary! It is the terror! What should be considered is especially the non-coincidence between sacred and religious.
And for Rilke, this is given to be asserted as the sacred has the appearance of terror, one that can certainly not characterize the re-ligio: what holds together.
The challenge is attributable to the dynamics that refer to the secularization, meaning the progressive autonomy of politics from religion and the separation of the sacred from religion. The secularization will be the main feature of Modernity that articulates, on one hand the secularization as emancipation and on the other hand the desecration as the liberator of the nihilism, for some reasons indebted to the same Modernity, in the good as well as in the evil. The secularization decrees the absolute power of subjectivity and the relativization of beauty or, better said, the victory of subjective beauty. Durkheim believes that the progressive crisis of religion leads to the sanctification of the individual and to the cult of self. At the same time, Max Weber interprets the Modernity as disenchantment and victory of reason that moves as an abstract subject, or better, as a collective subject, for example in the form of bureaucracy. On one side there is the sanctification of the subject, and on the other side the mass as ethical abstraction, validation, collectivization and universalization.
It ss obvious that: a) there is a major difference between the ideas and the practice related to the objective beauty and those that can be attributed to the subjective beauty; b) the objective beauty has been exceeded by the socialization of the subjective beauty; meanwhile the first is normative, the second is dissipative. The first tries to find the essential, the other one to disperse it. The first aspires to universality, the second one to singularity. We are therefore under the supremacy of the subjective beauty or under the relativization of beauty whose phenomenal shape is the kitsch. Or at least for me it is, and it was the same for Livio Vachini.
The theological beauty
For now I would like to return to the previously proposed plot, looking at it from a different point of view: that of those who have not accepted, or do not want to accept the separation between the sacred and the religious, and especially during the secularization between religion and the world. It is amongst those people who nobly (and inevitably) overturn the relationship between beauty, transcendental, human and divinity.
I will consider perhaps the most significant, problematic and philosophically consistent case: Von Balthasar, whom Henri de Lubac described as “perhaps the most cultured man of our times”.
Von Balthasar intends to find the unity between theology and metaphysics developing a Christian theology“ in the light of the third transcendental, completing thus the consideration of verum and bonum through that of pulchrum” .
For Von Balthasar as for Enrich Przywara, theology is “adaptation of mystery”, a mystery that despite remaining the same, it opens up to man through revelation, and comes forward into the light, thanks to beauty. In this way beauty presents itself in the Glory. It is beauty that allows to grasp “the truth of everything, the truth as a transcendental property of being” that is not an abstract element but “the vital bond between God and the world”. In his monumental writing The Glory of the Lord he writes:
“Beauty is the last word which the thinking intellect dares to pronounce, for it only dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness”. This is what von Balthasar writes, referring to the Greek aesthetics, intended not as philosophy of the fine art, but as aesthesis, as sensory perception: “Before the aesthetic was reduced to a science that was regionally defined, by the late rationalism (Baumgarten) and criticism (Kant), it was – as seen in the entire tradition – an aspect of metaphysics as a science of the being, and up until the moment where “being” was intended as the last element that made up the world’s multiplicity, metaphysics was inseparable from theology. Now, for the truth and the fragmentary and transitory good to be comprehensible, they are anchored in the eternal and total truth and good, in the way that the beauty which shines with contingency is anchored in an absolute and immortal beauty that resides in the intact arkai of the being: amongst the “gods”, the “divine”, in God. For von Balthasar, from Homer and Pindar, throughout Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, the Early and High Middle Ages up until the Renaissance and Baroque, there exists the intuition that calls “transcendental aesthetic”, in a sense that kalon ( as a reality that is safe, healthy, splendid and beautiful ) is one of the transcendental determination of the being as such. The critique to our times and to the idea of subjective beauty is clear, but the alternative is not, in this case, an objective beauty, but a sort of theological-mysterious and pre-objective idea of beauty, a synthesis between the true, the good and the beautiful in the unity between religion, sacred and metaphysics. Capable, moreover, to bind together ancient Greek philosophy and Christianity.
To conclude, there is an aesthetic of the objective beauty, the subjective beauty and the theological beauty.
The phenomenal form of the subjective beauty seems to incarnate itself in a word: kitsch. The kitsch is of great interest to the visible art, architecture, design, the so called decorative art, literature, cinema, photography, music, the world of television and videogames, comic books, publicity, cuisine (particularly the pastries with which there is much affinity, the kitsch being a world of sweetness), fashion, theme parks, the vast world of tourism and souvenirs and that of religion and politics.
The kitsch is also a “…hidden vice, a tender and sweet vice, permanent as sin”, it is a “radical evil” (H. Broch), it is “the art in the era of the death of art”, and “mediation between art and non-art” (A. Moles), “it is brought from an aesthetics such as gastronomy, that produces a contamination governed by non-authenticity” (T.W. Adorno). And again, the kitsch is the “reign of the dictatorship of the heart”, the “screen that shields the death”. In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Milan Kundera writes: “… before being forgotten we shall be transformed into kitsch. The kitsch is the passage between being and oblivion”. Even a figure that is more focused on questions of ontology rather than those of sociology, like Heidegger finds himself talking about the kitsch there where in “Being and time” confronts the theme of small talk, like non-authentic language, pure fact of communication, deprived of interior reflection; or in “Contributions to philosophy”, he states that crescent flattening and emptiness of our times, caused by technology, leads to the fall into the kitsch.
The multiple dynamics of the kitsch must be confronted considering the concept of authenticity, the mechanisms of estrangement, the forms of fetishism, the dynamics that allow the collective identities and the logic behind the concept of belonging, the appearance with force, and mostly in the second half of the twentieth century, of the camouflages, the glamour and the camp and the relationship between the culture of the masses and the culture of the elite, between high culture and low culture.
Returning to Livio Vacchini
Livio Vacchini fought against all of this. It is completely obvious that his projects are anti-kitsch: there is no stylistic or compositional search; he wants to cancel the presence of the author and therefore of himself, refuses the decoration seen as redundancy; he wants that technology to make its presence felt as structure, knowing that it is necessary but not enough; his relationship with history and the preexistent is based on the autonomy of the work itself; it’s a search for the less trying to achieve more.
Starting from a certain point Vacchini refused the traditional use of architectural drawing because he realized that he could easily fall in love with it, chasing the shapes produced by it and losing therefore the main reason of the architectural project.
Having in mind the considerations made earlier, can we interpret Vacchini`s work as an attempt to turn back to the objective beauty and the classical canons? Obviously I do not think this is the right way of interpreting it.
I am asking myself why Livio used Le Corbusier’s Modulor so many times in his projects. It may seem an implicit borrowing of the corbusian ideology and so of an architecture built at a “human scale”, neo-humanist in a way, functionalist, as a machine, at the same time.
I remember the furniture from Le Corbusier`s studio in Paris, designed using the measures of the Modulor. It was clear! Everything was at your fingertips, at your disposition. For this reason we can affirm that Le Corbusier was maybe the last trying to hold together the objective beauty, the universe of function and technology, the last struggle to hold together the measure of the world with the measure of the man. It is not by mistake that Le Corbusier was a careful reader of Matila Ghyka`s texts “The geometry of Arts and Life” from 1927 and “The Golden Number: Pythagorean Rites and Rhythms in the Development of Western Civilization” from 1931.
And Vacchini? He used the measures of the Modulor as a pretext but not for an anthropometric reason or to point out a direct relationship between function, human body, geometry, mathematics and a presumed natural order. The system of proportions (for example the golden ratio) serves to Vacchini for “producing”, “ordering” the autonomy itself of the architectural work. While Corbusier`s purpose was the heteronomy, so the functions, for Vacchini was important to create an identity for the architectural work. It is however obvious that this is homage to the great Master, but – according to Vacchini – the masters are masters only if we understand where even they can be wrong.
In Vacchini there is such a disenchantment, a radical secularity, an a-theism that does not find solution in nihilism or in the mortification of a creator`s idea, but in the abandonment of presumptions in order to make the opera autonomous. And this should not be available only for the architectural works, but for everything that the human beings need to do. There is not a God that can save us. Our destiny is in our hands and therefore we have to learn to confront the absolute, being aware of our ephemeral nature.
Paradoxically, even if I clearly highlighted Vacchini`s secularity, we can find analogies between his work and the vision of the theological or religious beauty. Why? For the same search of the absolute, of the timelessness, of a subject able to negate itself in the work it creates.
Roberto Masiero teaches Architectural History at the Instituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia and the Facoltà di Architettura di Trieste. He has published many essays and articles in sector periodicals. He has also published many books, including: In un luogo superfluo, Venice 1985 // L'arte senza muse, Milan 1986; Trieste e l'Imperio (with F. Caputo), Venice 1987 // La questione architettura. Teoria, storia e critica (with V. Ugo), Venice 1990 // L'architettura del Ticino 1966-1996, Milan 1998 // Guida dell'architettura neoclassica nel Veneto, Venice 1998. He is the editor of the book by Hans Sedlmayr, Das Licht in seinen Künstlerischen Manifestatione, Mittenwald, Mäander 1979. For Electa he has published Afra e Tobia Scarpa. Architetture, Milan 1996.
Among his extensive writings on Vacchini's works: Livio Vacchini, Works and Projects, G.Gili, 1999 (aussi en italien chez Electa) // La casa delle tre donne, Casabella, nr.681, 09/2000 // Architettura fa il luogo, Casabella, nr.698, 03/2002 // Vacchini e/o Gehry in Anfione e Zeto, rivistadiarchitetturaearti, theme Armonia, n.16/2003, ed. Il Prato // Spacek Vacchini Vacchini Spacek, ed. Libria, Melfi/Potenza, 2003 // Nel-Il+, Livio Vacchini disegni 1964-2007, ed.Libria 2013.