Stefano Casciani - Shall we begin with something difficult, the new Rome Conference Centre at EUR. This project hanging over you since 2002, I expect you feel is the most troublesome of your career.
Massimiliano Fuksas - A bit less now than it was: thanks to support from Mayor Veltroni, it’s the only project, with at least part of its funds still needed, that got included in the Finance Bill approved this December. But some time ago, too, we wrested the site from a firm that’s been practically marking time for three years.
S.C. - Is the architectural side finally sorted out?
M.F. - That side has always been sorted out. The plans have always been there, as you see them and have always seen them: the only thing we’ve changed is the hotel. That’s no longer an experimental design but something more conventional. It’s still worth a packet, though, in the order of tens of millions of euros.
S.C. - Why do you think such a vital project for a city like Rome has had such a long and complicated history?
M.F. - It’s the old story with public works in Italy, that’s why it’s complicated. Now the new Milan Fairground at Rho Pero is a private job, so one might say it was a model case, in European terms too, which we virtually built in two years. Like the Ferrari Product Development Centre, another private job. But when you’re dealing with public works, things get complex, mainly due to the amount of bureaucracy: it’s pervasive, compulsive… And when bureaucracy stops serving the State and becomes an end in itself, you get complete nonsense. It’s surreal: it has no other rationale but its own survival.
S.C. - So I suppose that explains all the obstacles around a vastly more utopian project than the normal run of Italian public architecture?
M.F. - Many problems have come from a terribly enlightened but not very pragmatic or realistic idea by a government that imagined the private sector would be dying to invest, itching to risk their capital. They decided to pass a law enabling private concerns to do that: the State and private enterprise joining hands to serve the collective good. There was only one response, a firm from Bari who hadn’t done much before, and they got the contract. You see, no-one else put in for it, and of course no-one had the courage not to go through with the project.
S.C. - You do actually like making your life complicated. One of the last competitions you won was for a multi-purpose building at Amiens, where I seem to remember you’ve been concentrating on textile structures for the outer skin.
M.F. - There are two buildings coming up, in entertainment and so forth, one at Amiens, the other at Strasbourg, one for ten thousand people and one for eight thousand: they form part of the same family.
The roofs are in textile materials and a bit translucent: that is, they let light through but they also make it into a territorial signal towards the outside world. It’s a bit like flexible sculpture. Buildings clad in a kind of teflon. That of course is the idea with the big indoor cloud, in the new Rome Conference Centre.
S.C. - It’s six years since the Architecture Biennale “Less Aesthetics, More Ethics”, the one you and Doriana put on at Venice, which re-stated the idea of how to communicate architecture. Now they’ve just finished another one with the resounding subtitle of Architecture and Society. How far, in your view, does this kind of explicit statement mark a step forward from the line you were taking?
M.F. - It’s confusing to talk about society: one straightaway thinks of the Seventies, and forms of socialism and town planning schemes. Society can be blamed or praised for anything you like, usually with the help of statistics, numbers, quantities. I believe in setting up quality against quantity, democracy against society. Statistics, of course, will tell us that Campo dei Fiori is denser than the Roman countryside; but not what it’s like to live there, whether it feels good, or people are happy, or if they’re mugged at night or not. You can give us your figures on crime and theft, but none of it has a face or a body: it’s just numbers, cold like numbers. It’s like when you see the face of a murderer on the TV: it makes no impact since nothing is true on TV. The same way that nothing is true about statistics, nothing is true about opinion polls. It’s only true within the world of television, numbers, economic aggression.
S.C. - What one felt was missing from the Venice exhibition was architecture itself: after a load of interesting, well-presented statistics, you got to the end and there were no designs, no architecture.
M.F. - It was missing because a title like that is incompatible with architecture as we mean it: as sculpture, expression, a democratic event. The architecture that ought to accompany those statistics is bound to be deadly dull. It doesn’t solve a town’s problems because anyone who lives in a town – or anywhere, for that matter – demands quality, not quantity. You can’t use quantities to build, I don’t know, Santa Sofia in Constantinople, since it has no reason for existing. If you do a quantitative, statistical, economic analysis, there’s no earthly reason for building Santa Sofia, or any temple, church or museum. It’s only rational to build a few houses, the odd university and some offices. That’s not a “fun” city.
S.C. - and not symbolic, either …
M.F. - Exactly. But that Biennale was put on by someone who doesn’t know what architecture is, not the first idea. It gives you a sense of frustration, that exhibition, deep frustration. After all that statistical meditation, they’ll go on doing atrocious things in Dubai, China or Singapore. Your true professionals will go on doing their towers, like Calatrava: only more so, because they’ll know, statistically, where it pays to work.
S.C. - But to get back to architecture and society, you have a project under way that’s bound up with this idea: the Jaffa Peace Center, devised for a society like Israel, one hundred percent schizophrenic, split in two.
M.F. - One half for peace, one for war: I’m on the side of peace.
S.C. - That is…?
M.F. - It’s like the Cloud at the EUR Conference Centre: no-one really thought it would get built, like the Peace Centre. There are those extraordinary ideas which you know from the outset will never come to anything – which makes them reassuring, in a kind of way. Only I’m not that reassuring: I always try and see them realised, I stick my neck out. Then if it comes out badly I accept the fact: I’m the author, after all. I believe authors still exist: the cinema still goes ahead with authors, for example.
S.C. - How do cinema and the media tie up with architecture?
M.F. - For instance, there I was thinking my life was of no interest to the newspapers, TV and the media; I thought I was doing a normal, run-of-the-mill job. Instead part of one’s life does interest the media, and that serves to communicate ideas and not just projects, design. I get quite a kick out of that. I can’t be doing with statistics, pragmatism as an end in itself: it bores me rigid. I’d go and see an exhibition on Mantegna any day, rather than read book after book on numbers which I’m meant to exploit to know where to go and work…
S.C. - I still don’t actually understand how this great fashion for statistics in architecture is going to improve quality, including quality of life, when it comes to buildings. It strikes me as a great alibi for going on doing the same old things, with one more ideological justification up one’s sleeve…
M.F. - Our society is getting old, but it doesn’t want to die. By systematic recourse to numbers it is somehow trying to make the whole world die symbolically along with it. Every twenty years or so the delusion appears that everything is about to end. Back pops the demographic fear, fed by statistics, of course, fear of anything Different.
Then it takes ten years to calm down and another ten to pull out some ideas. And then we start attacking the worn-out notions, and everything starts all over again.
S.C. - Personally, what place do you take up in this battle between quality and quantity, society and democracy?
M.F. - Even in a democratic country, I think the best position is to keep a detached attitude to daily politics. Many people, even friends, are amazed when I tell of things against my interest, like when I didn’t go to the inauguration of the new Milan Fair at Rho Pero. But I happen to believe that if one makes a “mistake”, one goes through with it for life, if only out of a kind of consistency…
S.C. - What will become of the Peace Center, now the war between Israel and Palestine has started up again?
M.F. - Yasser Arafat is no longer with us, though we do have Simon Peres. And the Palestinians are still there, too… Anyway, the Peace Center is to contain a huge library with all the documentation on the peace process, but also the Peres archive – he being 83 years old now, I seem to remember. It’s a valuable bequest, of great historical interest.
Then there’s a lecture hall and lots of offices where they can thrash out some kind of cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. But it’s not just for them, anyone concerned in working for peace can work there, alongside. Remember Jaffa is a largely Arab-inhabited territory, on the sea, on the beach, the border between earth and water, sea and sky, between two worlds. Like the Islamic and the Jewish.
S.C. - For the Peace Center what implementation schedule do you foresee?
M.F. - In Israel the timescale is very slow, it’s a slow country.
S.C. - From now till February will any new projects of yours be finished?
M.F. - By April the church in Umbria should be finished. Then we’re involved in an important building in Pescara for De Cecco. We’re drawing up a couple of design plans for Eindhoven, a square and a building at Brescia. Then there’s the master plan for the Abuja University Campus in Nigeria: now that is a cause: the democracy of information, education… This is a tiring sort of profession: you have to go to Africa to do anything important (he smiles).
S.C. - Let me try one last question, a more concrete one. What kind of arguments do you use to persuade your clients?
M.F. - I’d say that anyone coming to ask me for a plan has already made up his own mind. I don’t get any old people: only a few come my way, but those who do are definitely looking for something different. They don’t need persuading, they’re looking for architecture that also packs an emotion. I’m unlikely to be given a job because I represent a “brand”. Most clients want me to work with them on something they’re trying to achieve. That makes them try and get inside my way of thinking.
S.C. - It’s sounds like an engagement.
M.F. - That’s right, a good relationship with a client is not unlike an engagement.
S.C. - And they don’t ever back out, they don’t “dump” you?
M.F. - Anyone taking such an important step goes through with it. Until now there haven’t been any real divorces. There may have been clashes, arguments, confrontation, but always working out positively in the end. I don’t go in for wars without a reason: I prefer there to be a deep reason. For me a project is also a form of ethical responsibility. Yes, clients are more likely to become friends in the end, not enemies.