IN PRAISE OF FAILURE WHY WE NEED A SCHOOL OF FAILURES (IN ARCHITECTURE) - Stefano Boeri
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IN PRAISE OF FAILURE WHY WE NEED A SCHOOL OF FAILURES (IN ARCHITECTURE)

Stefano Boeri

Edited By Stefano Boeri - 19 September 2017

Why do architects shy away from or conceal their failures? Why do we find it so hard to accept defeat, admit our mistakes, or simply speak openly about our failures with others? Why is it that when we present our work, the narrative is only one of successes, victories and battles won? Why is it that unlike other disciplines and professional sectors, architectural failures are not seen as opportunities to throw light on shortcomings and so improve performance, but systematically shunted aside? Why is there no teaching that takes its cue from architectural failures? I believe there are three reasons for this very real “fear of failure”. 1. Intentions and Constructions The first reason has to do with how the underlining intentions of an architectural project line up with the end result. This is a crucial point. We are often so caught up in the desire to express our aesthetic that we fail to pay attention to the actual building that goes up to express it. In my doctorate thesis, written in Venice between 1985 and 1988, and published by Quodlibet a few months ago (Stefano Boeri, La città scritta, 2016), I attempted to look at the work of three famous 20th Century Italian architects: Carlo Aymonino, Vittorio Gregotti and Aldo Rossi. In 1966, all three had published their own book expounding their views on the city and architecture. Aymonino’s work was entitled Il significato delle città, Gregotti’s Il territorio dell’architettura, and Rossi’s (famous volume) was L’architettura della città (published in English as The Architecture of the City). All three are seminal works that formed a generation of Western architects trying to come to terms with the visible, tangible effects architecture had produced, on the one hand, and the workings of invisible processes and structures like the economy, cultural customs and traditions, laws, and entrenched behavioral patterns, on the other. Before examining the content of the three books, my thesis first described three architectural projects built in those years by the same three: the Gallaratese subsidized housing complex by Aymonino; Calabria University by Gregotti, and a cemetery in Modena by Aldo Rossi - respectively, a huge social housing block for the disadvantaged, a kilometer long university building, and a massive monumental cemetery. All three projects were powerful statements of their author’s aesthetic - that “inner city” of cultural paradigms and spatial connections that is an integral part of every architect. All three buildings were failures in the sense that they failed to live up to the original intentions of their author. Aymonino’s Gallaratese social housing is to be considered a failure for the totally different use to which it was put compared to the original intention. Instead of providing low-rent accommodation, it was turned into a condominium for the Milan middle-class. Calabria University was a failure because it was never completed. Only one third of this huge linear building ever became a reality. The Modena cemetery by Rossi was a failure for its deplorable state of disrepair just a few months after completion. My thesis looked at how the theories explained by the architects in their book related to the end result; in other words, how the built world described in words related to the built outcome. The intentions of the authors are clearly apparent in all three buildings. They are all obvious examples of design overkill: an excessive concern to ensure the work reflected the architect’s particular vision of architecture’s role in the city, to the detriment of the built result, and the cultural and political context in which it was placed. Excessive investment in the symbolic and scant attention to the technical side meant that while highly emblematic and expressive, the three buildings were undermined by reactions and contradictions their architects had not fully taken into account. But the key issue as I saw it was a total unwillingness - shown not only by the three books in question but also by general public debate of the time - to consider the three architectures in their real life context, and by that token, to admit, at least in part, they were “failures”. For the three architects saw their work essentially as manifestos in stone - concrete and glass exemplars of their ideas on architecture and the city. Their major concern was to demonstrate not only their unmistakable authorial aesthetic but also how each work related intimately to its particular context. As manifestos in stone, they were therefore seen as triumphs of effectiveness, beauty and appropriateness, regardless of the actual use to which they were put or the subsequent state of the building itself. That is tantamount to claiming that regardless of its urban and social context, a work of architecture is simply required to tick the box of being consistent with the architect’s intentions. In other words, how a building is used, how it withstands the test of time, or is perceived by the general public, count very little. And if these things do matter, it’s not the concern of us architects. 2. The Betrayal Test The second explanation of architects’ “fear of failure” has to do with the total absence in our trade of holding architects to account for failing to follow through. We are extremely reluctant to undergo a “betrayal test” of our intentions. November 1982 saw 25 world-famous architects (15 Americans, 3 Japanese, 7 Europeans) brought together for two days in a room at the University in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the invitation of Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Jacqueline Roberts, and Robert Siegel to be part of a marathon session to discuss their projects. In room were the crème-de-la-crème of world architecture: from Carlo Aymonino to Frank O. Gehry, from Hans Hollein to Arata Isozaki, from Rafael Moneo to César Pelli, from Robert Stern to Toyo Ito, and from Richard Meier to Oswald Mathias Ungers. The meeting formula was very straightforward. Each architect was to submit an unpublished project to his colleagues and be judged on the extent to which it confirmed or betrayed the architect’s intentions. There were four sessions, each with six presentations. The proceedings were photographed and recorded. Published by Rizzoli International a few years later in a small volume entitled The Charlottesville Tapes, the meeting was an unadulterated nightmare. The debate that should have sprung from the willingness of the invited architects to submit to the criticism of their colleagues - to go on trial for not meeting the original aims of their project - turned into a slanging match. “I’m a whore and I am paid very well for high-rise buildings”, retorted Philip Johnson, accused of disregarding the needs of the occupants of his high-rise buildings. A “miserable hole” was how Léon Krier described the project presented by Tadao Andō; “Silly tricks”, retorted Rem Koolhaas on proposals by Peter Eisenman. In an editorial in issue 877 of Domus of January 2005, I tried to bring up the question of why the Charlottesville experience had remained an isolated episode, never to be repeated in the history of contemporary architecture, despite the fact that the discussion format had proved of great importance in the history of modern architecture - telling examples are the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) debates and the Team 10 meetings. A few years afterwards, in September 2010, I tried to organize a similar seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Design where I taught Urban Design. I invited a small group of lecturers and architects to submit their projects to their colleagues. The result was a few sessions charged with intellectual and emotional tension. Preceded by many doubts and worries, the meeting was inexorably followed by a deafening silence. Like its Charlottesville counterpart, the Harvard meeting was hastily set aside and forgotten. It is almost as if the fear of failure - the fear of being accused of mistakes and having to account for them before colleagues - was tantamount to calling into question an architect’s underlying personal philosophy. Fear of failure takes hold because we project much too much of our ego into our projects. In contrast, accepting the scrutiny of others - taking the “betrayal test” - obliges us to adopt a critical distance from our work. As was seen in Charlottesville, however, refusal to accept questioning of our projects, leads paradoxically to a dramatic lessening of their power and efficacy. The “betrayal test” is not just a salutary antidote. I would define it as a sure-fire way of working through the pain of failure. Putting an architect’s internal reasoning - his basic semantic values - to the test and examining the overall consistency of an architectural design is a way of avoiding, or reducing, the number of mistakes before or during construction, and of acknowledging them in the case of a completed work. More importantly, the “betrayal test” transforms failure into a learning opportunity. It also makes our personal experience part of the learning curve of others, and turns our architecture into a historical document that will continue to speak down the years. But perhaps that is just what frightens us. 3. Architecture’s long life cycle The third explanation of architects’ fear of failure has to do with our difficulty to “accompany” a building during all the phases of its life after completion. I used the word “accompany” deliberately, knowing full well that once the worksite is dismantled and the inauguration over, the relationship between an architect and his creation is cleanly and irreversibly severed. From then on, we are excluded from any form of control. Except on very rare occasions, we are brusquely separated from a work that up to then had involved us intensely. For us, a project is almost always a major professional investment. For the building itself, however, it is just a fleeting moment in a much longer life cycle. Everything pivots around the fact that the architect tends to consider his work as a “translation in stone” of his own intentions, and hardly ever as a translation in stone of ways of living. We pay little attention to, and have little pietas for the changes that use and time will bring about to our buildings. Similarly, we fail to perceive the effects an architectural concept proposed but never realized can have on the semiosphere of architecture and the city. In the first instance, our reluctance to submit to judgment means missing an opportunity to acknowledge how inevitably, once built, those stones take on a life of their own. It is also a missed opportunity to become aware of mistakes great and small during the design and construction phase. The second blind spot is a missed opportunity to correct or improve the exemplary value that works never realized continue to have - often because their perfection is never put to the test! In both cases the fear of failure seems to go hand in hand with an inexplicable simplification of the complex nature of our work and the effects it produces. These effects are never merely physical, mineral and measurable in space; nor are they just media-bytes, intangible symbolic concepts for the collective imagination. The state of contemporary architecture today should make us reflect on the double lives of the world’s most famous and referenced works. For once built, these iconic works take on parallel lives: one, in the specific geographical location where the building is inhabited by people and subject to the passing of time and life around it; the other, as a fluctuating symbol that comes alive every time a simulacrum appears on a student’s blog, in a newspaper or during a university lecture. These two lives drift constantly apart, not bound by any principle of consistency or mutual adaptation to the passing of time. The simulacrum lives on, often never compared to its physical “body” standing somewhere in the world and which changes, subject to the wear and tear of time, becoming totally independent of its representation in the semiosphere that - paradoxically - testifies to its existence. Unless we take on board this vital double dimension of architecture, we will fail to understand that failure of an architectural venture - of which we might be the guilty party or its accomplice - is a complex phenomenon but irremediably part of what architecture is all about. It is difficult to appreciate how failures can be turned into successes and vice versa. It is equally difficult to appreciate how designs never built - like, for example, the Fun Palace by Cedric Price or Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin - can become more important, down to their smallest detail, than any built volume. Or, how an idea never realized, like the 1972 manifesto of Friedensreich Hunderwasser advocating cohabitation with nature and humans living in trees, can come to life again 40 years afterwards in my project for two high-rises in Milan where there are two trees for every inhabitant. Without a full understanding of the different phases of a building’s life, and the different but constant role the architect can have throughout the building’s life cycle, it is difficult to accept the very idea of failure. Because if you don’t accept the principle of variable responsibility for your work, if you don’t consider the constant fluctuation between appropriation and separation that characterizes our long-term relationship with the buildings we have designed, failure will be synonymous with total collapse, a black mark against us, and a ruined career. Yet, failure to accept the extraordinarily stimulating value of failure as a useful and necessary part of our professional life is a failure in itself. An ethic of responsibility and a School of Failures If these few thoughts have any sense, we should ask ourselves a profound question: why does our profession lack an ethic of responsibility? I am not talking of the ethic of ensuring the architect’s intentions are translated into the built object. I mean a broader sense of responsibility for the successive phases of a building’s life, both the material object and its symbolic simulacrum. This ethical principle implies acknowledging that the life of the building we have designed will last well beyond that very brief period during which we helped it come about; and that what happens afterwards, even if not directly caused or generated by us, nonetheless concerns us. We must accept responsibility since we were the cause of an urban phenomenon that has not only changed the environment but also the culture and symbolic life of a community. Even if we can never predict or control the effects of the change we have brought about, we are nonetheless duty bound to feel responsible, just as a surgeon feels responsible for the subsequent health of a patient, or a lawyer feels responsible for the long term effects a trial outcome may have on the living and working conditions of his client. It follows that given the “fear of failure” and the absence of a sense of responsibility in our profession, we should all commit to a School of Failures. The School would consider new architecture as the embodiment of the thoughts and idiosyncrasies of its architect but also as urban events that change existing equilibria and have long-term effects. It would be a School where those who are designing or have designed a work of architecture can find a sounding board for their basic assumptions, an arena where these are challenged, and so an opportunity to improve on them. It would be a School where the powerful effects of unrealized works would be studied and their lessons perpetuated; a School that would encourage reciprocity between a built work and its symbolic media-broadcast image, starting from the reciprocity that each have with their initial creator, the architect. My School of Failures would be a breath of fresh air, promoting reflective intelligent criticism in a profession that has made individual success its hallmark. We should give it a try. At most, all we risk is failure!


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