Thursday, November 29, 2012

What should a house represent for a man? Architecture in the age of ephemera.



Diogenes of Sinope, in the third century before Christ, said that he had finally thrown even his cup away, after he had seen a child drinking water from his cupped hands.
He owned nothing, and he lived in a large earthen jar, saying that he wanted to live as simply as a dog; therefore he was called a "cynic". But he was by no means a cynic in the way we mean today: he sought wisdom through the liberation from material desire; and he said that Prometheus was justly punished for giving man the skills to produce the complications and the artificiality of modern life, which burden us and distract us from our pursuit of wisdom.
Be indifferent to the goods (material and immaterial) that chance might bestow on you, said Diogenes, and you will be free from fear. It's the way of the Tao (from an Oriental perspective), as James Altucher also says in the following excerpt from his newsletter. (Mr. Altucher is an American entrepreneur, investor, and immensely popular blogger). 
It seems to me that what Altucher is talking about is more a sort of "ephemeralization", (just to add an "ization" to the ones that he lists in his article); that is, a way of being able to do more with less physical impediment. In any case, he's had it: he's going to throw everything away. So I guess he won't mind if I pick up some of the stuff that he left behind and re-blog it, as a way to introduce another translation of mine:


   
I give up (says James Altucher); I’ve been constantly burned by my possessions. None of them have ever given me pleasure. They all eventually have given me stress with maintenance, costs, upkeep, storage, transport. I want none of it ever again.
I am going to throw everything in my life away. I used to say “don’t own a house”. Now I don’t even want to rent a house. I used to say, “lease a car”, “don’t own it”. Now I don’t want to lease or own. I don’t want to shop for food. I don’t want to have a computer. I want to get rid of almost all of my clothes. I want to throw out all my books and furniture. I want to throw out my TV screen. All of my plates and dishes and coffee machines and beds and dressers. Gone.
What do I need them for?
The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 48: “If you want to learn: increase every day. If you want to have wisdom: decrease every day.”
I opt for wisdom.
So I’m going to do it.
I’m going to give up my rental. I’m just going to switch to constant airbnb. A month here, a week there, six months here. I can live in places like a tree house in Costa Rica; maybe I will spend a week there. In a chateau in France: (for $191 a night. Cheaper than any hotel in Manhattan); or in this Manhattan deluxe apartment for almost nothing. Wherever I want. No responsibilities. For the rest of my life I’m going to live this way.
What about clothes?
Guys, be realistic. We wear three outfits, tops. Some t-shirts and we’re good. If I need another pair of underwear, I’ll go to the Duane Reade (it's a drugstore, in the U.S.). Or there are plenty of people with PhD's in Nuclear physics but no immigration status thanks to America’s backwards immigration policies that would be happy to make money washing my underwear.
What about my extensive library of books? Throw it all out! I already have five times as many books on my kindle.
What about a computer? What a drag it is to carry around a computer and make sure it’s connected to the Internet. I’m throwing out the 5 computers in my house. I have the Galaxy Note II for tablet/phone and I can always go to a Kinko's if I need a computer.
What about an office if I want meetings. There’s about 250 spaces in New York City (and I’m sure in other places), where I can get a conference room and a desk for $25 a day.




 
But don’t you need to drive? Ok, Uber if I need a car service, Zipcar if I want a car waiting for me one block over with the key already in the ignition. I never need to own a car again.
Don’t I need food? Seamless web for food, MaxDelivery for bulk goods like toilet paper.
I’m done with it.
For the rest of my life I’m decreasing. Until I have nothing. No address. No belongings. No nothing. I don’t even need an identity. I’ll use incorporate.com, set up a corporation. Make it a C Corp so there’s no look-through. Get a corporate credit card because we live in a cashless society. Use bitcoin when I can to pay for things.

But you can’t get rid of everything, you might say. Don’t you need a job?
I’m on the board of a temp staffing company with ½ billion (U.S. Dollars) in revenues. I can guarantee you that when a job opens, it is never getting filled. Ever again. The era of the fixed job is over. We are moving towards an employee-less society. I see it from behind the scenes. Not a single Fortune 500 company wants to hire full-time employees ever again.
Again, the entire concept of a “job”, which is a modern concept, has been replaced by globalization + localization + mobilization + digitization + monetization. The “izations” have crushed the job market.

It’s over.
So you either need to be a temp staffer or an entrepreneur; and an entrepreneur can find random conference rooms and desks all over any city for $25 a day. We think in the age of computers we are somehow getting more and more and more. Phones, tablets, computers, digital TV, digital cars. But the reality is, computing is designed to make our lives more efficient, instead of the increasingly complex lives we’ve built up, in our never-ending quest to keep up with the Jones family next door.
The jig is up. The tide has come in.
Follow the Tao. The way of wisdom is less. I’ve already started throwing everything away. And one day I hope that there is so little trace of me left that I’m effectively gone. A digital version of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man...







This (above) is a model of a house designed by the Italian architect Cesare Cattaneo. (The furniture was designed by Carlo Mollino. If you don't know who he was, check him out, please). It's located in Cernobbio, Italy. Today it is known as Casa Cattaneo, but it was designed, and built, as a rental property between the years 1938 and 1939, (maybe for people on their way to invisibility, as James Altucher might say).
However, it still exists, and it reminds us that a beautiful object of design, even if it's meant to be experienced in a transitory way (like a rental, an automobile, an item of clothing) represents the product of the interaction between human creativity and reality. Therefore when uniquely gifted individuals, like Cattaneo, create something, the result is unique and ever-lasting, and it enriches creation. Someone might even say that human creativity represents part of a divine plan. Cesare Cattaneo certainly thought so, and he had his ideas, also, about what a house should represent for a man, as Ebe Gianotti explains in the following article, that I have translated into English. (The article was published in Italian on La Bussola Quotidiana. All the models that appear in the pictures are by Onirofabrik).


Cesare Cattaneo and the Ideal House.


  Even for architecture, the years of the 1900’s were the century of experimentation, the years of a clean severance with tradition and the past, and the architects who flowed to Rationalism, the most important architectural movement of the first half of the century in Italy and in Europe, were inspired by the certainty that architecture in the new century had a messianic role to play. 
   In their work and in their plans, their conviction to be able to change the people and the world by the strength of the principles on which the new architecture was being founded is obvious. However, the tension that prompted them was ethical, social, ideological, but almost never religious or spiritual; except in some rare case, such as the example of Cesare Cattaneo (1912-1943).

Cesare Cattaneo
   
   In anticipation of the celebrations of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Archivio Cattaneo published a book in two volumes: Scritti di architettura (Writings on Architecture Archivio Cattaneo Publisher), that contains many interesting documents, including a 1942 article, which was summed up in previous notes entitled Manifest for a Catholic Architecture.
   The article was written for the architecture magazine Domus and, even today, it seems to point to a method that is very different from the path followed by some contemporary architects. Rather than offering themselves as interpreters of human needs, or problem-solvers at the service of Man, these demiurges, having cut the umbilical cord which connects architecture to its history, see themselves as makers of their own fate with a programmatic prosopopoeia all of their own, which is closer to an ideology than a craft.

  
 The title of Cattaneo’s article is very significant: La casa e l’ideale (The House and the Ideal). It took some guts to propose it to one of the foremost avant-garde architecture magazines! Could there have been a more glaring mismatch than that?     We must remember that this was the historical period in which the home of the working and lower middle classes was the object of an analytical and almost fanatical study to determine, with ergometric precision, exactly the minimum space required for each room of the dwelling in relation to the number of occupants and their movements, while they engaged in their various activities.
   Stated that way, the concept doesn’t even seem wrong. But it is erroneous because of the peculiarity of the thought that generated it, that is, the scientific-engineering approach which classifies people’s needs as they relate to dwelling as if they were exclusively of a functional and physiological nature – a thought that, even today, is still held in high regard. 
   Cesare Cattaneo understood this limitation clearly and, in his article, he proposed as an alternative a project called Family House for the Christian Family; premising his report with a quote from one of the Wednesday’s Audiences of Pope Pius XII: “The family is the beginning of society. As the human body, the family is composed by living cells which are not just placed one near the other, but with their intimate and constant relation they constitute an organic whole. In the same way a society is not formed just by a conglomeration of individual sporadic beings who appear just for an instant only to disappear; rather it is formed by the economic association and the moral solidarity of the families which, transmitting from one generation to the next the precious heritage of the same ideal, the same civilization, the same religious belief, assure the cohesion and continuity of social ties.”




   Cattaneo was a refined intellectual, one of the most brilliant in the fight for a new architecture, and was neither a traditionalist nor at the margins of the debate; therefore, the fact that he asked himself the crucial question which everybody else avoided, that is, what should a house represent for a man - and from that he started to design it – amounted to nothing else but taking a revolutionary position.  Even today, his analysis of the concept, which at the time was just embryonic and now is widespread, is lucid and correct: the view of the home as a haven for the freedom of the people who live in it, as the place where one can set free his instincts and his whims, and where the dwellers are just “incapable to give their intimate lives a meaning which was not individualistic and romantic.”

A model of the Christian house, as envisioned by Cattaneo

   In the process of designing on the basis of the codes and the modern rules of distribution (“the pedantic rules of orientation, lighting of the rooms, height of the ceilings, cubic meters of air per dweller...”), what Cattaneo felt was the lack of a fundamental principle capable of orienting his work  (“[A]nd why should the kitchen be near the dining room?  Why eat in the dining room at all? Wouldn’t each dweller maybe eat more comfortably in his or her bedroom?”). That is, he felt an absence of a principle that took into account the impossibility of reducing man to a simple vegetative biological entity, as if he were “a single isolated animal or just simply close to other people, disregarding the effort he makes to fuse himself with other men in an organism which is superior to his own individuality.”  He thought that if we “Exclude[] synthesis from man, how can we even think about synthesis in architecture?”
   The ordering principle, for him, could only be found in the Christian concept of the family and, holding fast to that idea, he set out to develop a model, with several variants, to find an answer to the natural need for a home that arises with the establishment of a new family.


   Cattaneo’s description of the founding act of the new home - which is the delimitation of the land with a fence wall and the laying at the entrance of a stone with the name of the family carved on it - has the character of a sacred act. Also sacred in character is the construction of the family room in a central position with respect to the land. That room is dedicated to the safe-keeping of especially valuable objects that are linked to the memories of the ancestors and the marriage.  It is the chosen place for prayer and to receive relatives, and is the room around which all the other rooms of the house develop. Today we would call it a “work-in-progress” house.




   In fact, Cattaneo’s house is not rigidly defined from the beginning of its construction and set-up. Cattaneo forecast that, in time, the bedrooms will develop starting from the main nucleus, as more children will be born, mimicking a process similar to the growth of an organism; because Cattaneo thought that an architecture should be considered an organism. What will happen when the children will have grown? The house will empty, little by little, until the marriage of a grandchild who will acquire it. If the taste and the fashion will have changed he or she could demolish it, though preserving the fence wall, the threshold name stone and the family room.



   Cattaneo’s intuition was extraordinary: he recognized the ancestral need to put down roots in a place and then transfer it to the new generations; and the need to work to give an architectural shape to this ancestral need, which is tied to memory and to the construction of one’s identity – and that has nothing to do with any functional blueprint – adapting the architecture to the modern needs that force us to change within closer and closer frames of time. This change severs one’s roots to one’s place of origin, while it “would only be natural and appropriate that in a rapidly moving life a man also held a firm reference point.”


   However, Cattaneo’s building techniques were subordinated to the hierarchy of the different parts of the organism: particularly precise rules of execution were set and solid long lasting materials were chosen for the family room; while in the temporary sections of the house the structures were light and flexible.
   These days, the flexible parts of the house would be particularly suitable to be built employing the many alternative materials offered today for temporary and eco-sustainable housing (for example the m² 100/€ 100.000 house exhibited at the 2010 Triennale). Also, this way, the issue of ecology would be brought back to its proper dimension of a means, and not an end; losing the character of unassailable dogma that it has acquired.
   Cattaneo didn’t hide from the problem that such a house could only be built for a small number of people; although, thinking about the suburban neighborhoods in our country, with single family homes as far as the eye can see, maybe we’re not really talking about a minority. His answer to the raising of that issue was the following: “The problem of the mid and low income housing will be truly framed when we will have settled the question of the higher classes’ house, which should serve as an example for the former. Leon Battista Alberti: “Be the house of the poor similar to the house of the rich, but not the reverse.”
   If the low-income house today is so ugly and inadequate to give true happiness to its occupants, it’s mainly because the rich have lost the sense of the good and beautiful dwelling and of the right family life.”

   Ebe Gianotti is an architect and a journalist. She writes for the Italian daily newspapers L'Ordine and Il Giornale.
I hope you enjoyed her article and your comments, as always, will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
L. Pavese 




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