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Fantasy is a place where the rain comes in

Fabio Novembre

“Fantasy is a place where the rain comes in”. Taking his cue from a famous verse of Dante, this is how writer Calvino describes imagination and fantasy in his American Lectures: an enclosed place, but open at the top so that the rain can come in. This is a recurrent image in Italian folklore, notably in a children’s nursery rhyme where “a house without a ceiling” can only be found in “Crazy Street”. Only a singer, not an architect, could imagine a “sky in a room”. But why are fantastic, imaginary places the prerogative of other creative disciplines? I always remind myself that the cave was our ancestors’ first place of shelter, a space they took possession of with various forms of personalization. I often imagine a typical day in the life of our primitive relatives, sitting around after a long day’s hunt for food to ensure their survival, telling vivid stories of their experiences, bringing glimpses of hope and optimism to the rock walls. When later our ancestors showed the first stirrings of what we call architecture, leaving their cave dwellings to build tents and huts to meet their new nomadic requirements, their ceilings were - and still are - the heavens, which we have always studied, learning to read and interpret the stars. A recent visit to Petra in Jordan and its marvelous architecture carved into the rock reminded me that we often forget that the real life of what was then a bustling trading hub took place in makeshift encampments, and that the solid stability of the carved rock façades were exclusively tributes to the dead. Which is exactly what the Giza pyramids are all about. They represent the height of pharaonic splendor enclosed within a primary shape; hordes of riches placed together to die alongside their maker, leaving just a pyramid-shaped simulacrum. Although the epitome of pure power, the pyramids do not let the rain in. The permeability of architecture is a metaphor for inclusiveness. This is perhaps why I have never concerned myself with the private sphere. Although today the division between public and private is no longer a question of ownership but of ethics, I have only ever designed and built public spaces - places of gathering, the baseline conditions for experiencing love. Much of contemporary architecture is, albeit unconsciously, funereal because often exclusive and self-referential: envelopes are designed for their sculptural impact on the skyline. Nor is there that striving towards transcendence that gave us masterpieces of abstraction, from the constructions already mentioned through to the Taj Mahal. This is because we no longer honor our dead, a cult that all civilized societies have always decreed. The clatter of daily life continues against the backdrop of these sculptural effigies if they were mere props for the stage on which we are born and die. What then is architecture: a backdrop or a landscape? As human beings, our first perception of space is undeniably linked to our memory of the amniotic sac, that elastic, watery thermo-regulated container in which we developed. Once delivered from that sac, our subsequent activities are all geared to creating a series of layers: from clothes to furnishings, or from the mobility cell to the machine à habiter. The very complexity of language can be seen as a form of expressive stratification. That said, however, some disciplines are able to shorten distances and speak to people’s hearts without too many intervening cultural layers. Architecture has always been one of these. Its communicative force has been used in every era to amplify a message. Denying this pop-culture side of architecture is not to understand the essence of our discipline. I see myself as a singer-songwriter who has adopted a three-dimensional medium as a way of adding value, for I believe architecture to be a fascinating narrative of lives whose paths cross, the sum of which finds holistic expression testifying to the here and now of each of us. I am always told to make a clear distinction between building and architecture since although the former holds sway, the few virtuous examples of the latter will always be sufficient to counter the nefarious effects of the former. The fact remains, however, that building should go back to being a symbolic, propitiatory act, responsibility for which weighs much more heavily on the shoulders than a simple degree in architecture. In most cases though, the mannerism propagated by the lazy blinkered descendants of the Modern Movement is stultifying current building practice. In fact, it may well be that the realm of experimentation is moving into digital pastures, and that the real heirs of a tradition that goes from Boulée and Ledoux through to Sant’Elia are the visionaries who fill the web with utopian architectures that, just like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, will never be built. Calvino’s rain seems to me very similar to Bauman’s “liquid life”. For me they both conjure up very appropriate liquid inferences: that our bodies are made up of two-thirds water and its gradual loss measures the ageing process. Further evidence of the passage of time is our progressive succumbing to the force of gravity, the baseline condition constraining any consideration of space. In fact, immersion in liquid attenuates the effects of gravity, giving us an amniotic sensation of freedom. Then, of course, there are the liquid excretions resulting from bodily exertion and excitement, exchange of which triggers the vital spark of life. Unwittingly quoting Calvino, Elémire Zolla remarked that in architecture, the dome is a void, and that a void defines a solid form. So, architecture could be seen as a huge all-embracing uterus, in other words, nothing to do with Euclidean theorems or golden ratios, but rather a discipline based exclusively on bonds of affection. Indeed, if architecture were given gender identity, it would be female because, like the female, it contains. While a man is condemned to forever want to cross back over that threshold from whence he came, in a sort of mythological reiteration of the original event, a woman who is anatomically equipped to contain, feels in harmony with the universe and has no such obsessions. Men live as a function of his obsessions; women live in harmony. As a man, I have always approached the theme of space as if it were a form of courtship, using instruments of seduction to bring about fertile spaces. I have followed feminine complementarity to develop situations of harmony. Anthropomorphic architecture has a long tradition; it is born of the drive to represent the Divine in human likeness, since we are unable to imagine any higher idea of perfection. Returning to Calvino’s original metaphor of fantasy as a place where the rain comes in, perhaps we have understood that we must speak of architecture in terms of the people who will live in the buildings we make, that space must be an embrace, and that in order to make such spaces we must let ourselves be flooded by life and things if we are to imagine another lives and other things. For reasons that may be called “geo-climatic”, I feel closer to a sunny day than a grey sky. I imagine the future, though, as one of those very rare days when it rains while the sun is shining. I look out for those days.

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