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THE ARCHITECT: A Mason who has learned Latin

Ivano Dionigi

At a time when we feel the urgent need to redefine our knowledge system and find new models, reflecting on what an architect is and what his role should be gives us two opportunities: to connect the ancient world to the present, and the humanities to technology. Notum and Novum Two opposing elements have always characterized all major changes that have taken place down through history, molding our world view, the development of society and the lives of individuals. Diametrically opposed, these two poles are best summed up by the Latin terms notum and novum. Notum stands for tradition, history, and the past. It refers back to our forebears and masters, to the classics. It is a state of looking backwards to the past. Novum stands for revolution, the new, that which has never been seen or experimented before. It refers to our children, our pupils, and to those of the modern world (modo in Latin meaning “now”). In every revolution, novum looks to the future. In ancient Rome, novum was invariably dramatic and traumatic. The rules applied by the Argonauts when they set out on their ill-fated sacrilegious expedition were novae. They left behind their known (nota) land to seek out the new, the nova. By the same token, a novus in ancient Rome was the opposite of a nobilis; he was the first in his family line to step up the social ladder and become part of the judiciary. Novae too were the res proclaimed by Lucretius with his revolutionary iconoclastic message in De rerum natura that overturned politics and religion, the two pillars of Roman culture. Nova and hence illicita (unlawful), was the Christian religion, which - in the name of a personal interior faith - rejected the exterior apparatus of the official religion (religio civilis) based on rites and sacrifices. In philosophy, religion, politics, art, and language, novitas was always the antagonist of the established known system. Nor could it have been any other way in a civilization posited on the lessons of the past and underpinned by the concept of eternal return. What are the events and manifestations that today appear as novum in our eyes? We are witnessing - unfortunately, more as spectators than actual players - two concomitant revolutions that will shape both our individual and collective destinies and lead to an eccentric world, i.e. a world without a center, devoid of yardsticks against which to measure ourselves and our actions. On the one hand, is the social revolution of immigration, which will bring down the curtain on Eurocentrism. On the other, is the technological revolution that makes everything instantaneous and planetary and which has led to the expansion of space and the devouring of time. Our once consolidated, reassuring identities have been cast into question. Our cultural identity is challenged by the arrival of other cultures. Our professional identity is shaken to its foundations by robotics, and our personal identity has been undermined by the upheaval in relations between the generations. We have witnessed the eclipse of words and concepts we thought irreplaceable and permanent, words like “father” and “mother”. The progress has been inexorable. First, blood ties - ghénos - were sidelined by the law, nómos, and now nómos has been overtaken by téchne, technology, which is reaching beyond known boundaries into the trans-human and post-human. The progression has been from biology to civilization, and then to technology. Faced with these seemingly uncontrollable scenarios, thought, or philosophy, appears to have nothing to say. It is almost as if we were losing track of certain fundamentals, as if we were experiencing the full complexity and drama of the Latin word finis, a word of multiple meanings that seems to sum up the true condition of man: “end” in the sense of conclusion, “end” in the sense of a goal to be reached, and “end” as a boundary to be crossed. Prometheus and technological monotheism How have we got to the novitas of technological monotheism? The split between the humanities and technical/scientific knowledge is a recent phenomenon. For centuries, poetry and science, philosophical thought and scientific enquiry, in other words, the skills of the hand and the brain, were never considered independent of each other or substantially different. From the pre-Socratics to the Middle Ages, and from the Renaissance to our modern age, a person’s curriculum was considered incomplete if it did not feature humanistic and scientific studies. Lucretius (1st century BC), like his poet-master Empedocles (5th century BC), wrote De rerum natura in verse. Seneca (1st century A.D.), determined to investigate first himself, and then the universe (Letter 65, 15 me prius scrutor, deinde hunc mundum), studying both works on morals as well as the natural world. The curriculum of the Schola Palatina, developed at the order of Charlemagne and used throughout the Middle Ages, laid down a program of study, which alongside theology included the arts of the so-called trivium - grammar, rhetoric and dialectics - and the quadrivium - mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music. The magnificent season of Humanism would return to - and even claim as its own invention - the priceless declaration of Terence - Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto ( 77 (“I am a man, I consider nothing human alien to me”). The blossoming of all realms of knowledge was so powerful and sophisticated that the Renaissance became a universal model we still aspire to. When did that meshing of knowledge break down and become discord? The first cracks appeared with the advent of three major schools of thought and their world views: the scientific revolution of the 17th century, with Bacon, Newton and especially, Galileo, that definitively rejected Aristotle’s syllogistic deductive method in favor of the experimental approach; the Enlightenment, which summed up the Kantian imperative of “dare to know” (sapere aude) and which would proceed to reappraise all knowledge including technical and scientific understanding - indeed Diderot’s and mathematician d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie bore the subtitle “Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers”; and lastly, the revolution that was 19th-century Positivism. The definitive split between the humanities and scientific knowledge came in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The literature on the question tells us that following the debate in 1881 by Thomas H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold (Literature and Science), which was taken up in 1962 by Frank Raymond Leavis (Two Cultures?), it would be the chemist and novelist Charles Percy Snow in 1959 to formulate the expression, making it the title of his famous book The Two Cultures. The causes of this dualism are, on the one hand, the fragmentation and specialization - indeed hyper-specialization - of knowledge, and on the other, the hegemony of idealistic philosophy whose scientific hypotheses were dismissed by the Italian philosopher Croce as “pseudo-concepts”. Indeed, Croce called any discipline other than philosophy “pseudoscience”. However, a full understanding of the origin of this phenomena takes us back to the end of the 19th-century when the machine burst upon the world, becoming a key factor of production and a game changer for the Economy and our social and cultural lives. The conflict between scientists and humanists spilled over into the realm of education just as it was being extended to more people in the second half of the 20th century to become a mass phenomenon. It was this that turned a simmering dispute into open warfare since science and its ally, Industry, demanded education that produced “technicians” while the humanities, heirs of a failing economic and social model, were seen to produce only work-shy “intellectuals”. My contention is, however, that it is today in our own time that the real division between the humanities and technical-scientific knowledge has come about. The discontinuity has been sudden and the transition - indeed transitions - swift and still continuing with increasing speed. It is not just a question of communications technology that makes everything synchronic and planetary, drowning us in information with our 23 billion devices that are always connected sending 187 million emails a minute, 38 million WA, and with 90,000 people opening their Facebook page. It’s not just a question of the Infosphere. There is much more at stake. Technical skill, or technology, was born as an ally of science in order to benefit man. Today, it is no longer just a tool. Thanks to man, who has become the demiurge of himself, technology, his prosthesis, has exceeded and perfected man and nature. The disruptive power and potential of technology has now invaded the domains of nature with genetics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence to produce a man in competition with the machine, intermeshed with and augmented by the machine. But also threatened by the machine. This has led to a reversal of the ends and the means, which has led to a new lexicon: from the human to the trans-human to the post-human. What the philosopher Antiphon (5th century BC) said has come about: “Thanks to technical knowledge we are winners where nature would seem stronger than us”. This leads to several decisive questions. Are the two parts of the word “Technology” - téchne and logos (reason) - which until recently formed a happy combination called the “culture of the hand and of the brain” - still in agreement, or is téchne engaged in a reckless bid to shake free of logos and team up with krátos, “overweening power”, giving rise to technocracy? Will philotechnia, or care of technological knowledge, become definitively divorced from Philanthropia, care for man? Already today we see that digital media technology has not made the world any freer or more just, but rather more subjugated and standardized because while everyone uses technology, very few control it. Will we one day devise a machine that will replace, if not eliminate us? The prospect of creating something that exceeds and survives us, something repeatable and replaceable, something perfect that is destined to remain is traumatic for us who are unrepeatable and unreplaceable, imperfect and destined to end. Prometheus, who is in all of us, and who has served and protected us for so long, has now outstripped us and holds sway over us, revealing the full power of his etymon: Prometheus, in other words, “he who understands first”, “he who foresees”, “he who predicts”. Faced with this disruptive forward-rush of science and technology, man for the first time risks feeling at a loss before the effects he has caused, the products he has created, and the machine he has built. He risks subjugation and humiliation, feeling antiquated and overwhelmed by “promethean shame” (Günther Anders)2. Every day we face this challenge of machines, but as yet we are unable to see whether they bring opportunities or risks. The prospect that “nothing is impossible” has enthusiastic supporters and skeptical doubters. There are those who believe in an infinite Prometheus and others who fear the return of Pandora; those who hope for a utopian future, and those who fear the future will be dystopic; those who prophesy a “Digital Athens” (Erik Brynjolfsson) - where leisure and wealth will abound and robots will relieve us of work, and those, the new luddites, who are openly hostile to the new achievements of technology. We are, however, well advised to look this reality in the face for even if unfamiliar and decidedly disturbing, it is advancing upon us inevitably and irreversibly. If we do not, we will make the same mistake as those 19th century intellectuals who, faced with the industrial revolution, did not make the effort or refused to understand. Technology and politics: the lessons of the classics Prometheus will not save us. Technology needs politics. This is the lesson in Protagoras by Plato (321c -322d): men were dying because they didn’t know how to defend themselves against the elements and wild beasts. So Prometheus gave them fire, which he stole from Hephaestus, along with other survival skills so they could protect themselves against harsh nature and the ferocity of wild animals. However, Prometheus’s gift did not protect man from other men and stop them warring and killing each other. This was because men “only knew technical skills (demiourgikè téchne) but not to the art of politics (politikè téchne)”. So Zeus, fearing man would wipe himself out, ordered Hermes to gift the human race “the art of politics”, the only attribute that can safeguard him and his cities. This would later also be Aristotle’s lesson. For Aristotle, man is “the only living being destined for the pólis”, for “he who lives separate from the community is either a god or a beast” (Politics 1253 a). Along with lógos, pólis is man’s other distinctive characteristic. History is not, nor has been very reassuring as to the primacy of politics. An example: Plato and Seneca, philosophers in power, both failed in their goal. But was theirs a personal and situational failure, or rather does it prove that knowledge and power are res dissociabiles, incompatible bedfellows since knowledge has to do with “what should be”, and hence requires consistency [“the ethics of conviction”], while power has to do with what “is”, and so requires mediation [“the ethics of responsibility”]? In our times, politics faces new tests and contradictions. We have to contend with those who usurp leadership and with a plethora of small-time supermen, which has led to a sort of mass Nietzscheanism. How can technology guide and steer us when the total connectivity it has made possible anywhere, anytime has led to the paradoxical “contrapasso” whereby relationships between people have been lost, and we have moved from the social sense of “us” to the solitude of “me”? Today we are facing a yawning gap between the power of technology on the one hand, and the powerlessness of politics on the other. Necessary humanism Today, politics does not guide technology. But can technology go it alone? Can it be autonomous? A new phenomenon is asserting itself with force: today’s ruling class not only deprives us of an awareness of history, it also exalts the spatial over the temporal dimension. We are seeing happen what Heschel3 feared: “technical civilization is man’s conquest of space…”. Can we live with the contradiction of being planetary in terms of space yet, being subjected to the dictatorship of the present, provincial when it comes to time? The price for this disconnect and censure is paid by young people whom we have criminally disconnected from an awareness of history. To those who affirm that science and technology will inexorably outstrip the humanae litterae, and that the problems of the world can only be solved in engineering terms, our answer should be that while science and technology have the duty to supply an answer (an ars respondendi) to the grave and urgent problems of the moment, humanistic knowledge has the duty to ask the question (an ars interrogandi). It follows therefore that science and the humanities must be joined in a natural but necessary alliance because although there are many languages, there is only one civilization. Even Steve Jobs4, in his famous Commencement speech at Stanford University (12 June 2005), underlined the need to return to the Renaissance-type figure of the engineer, the person who can “connect the dots”, noting also that the dots cannot be connected by looking forward, only by looking backwards. His words seem to me the most accurate comment and “translation” of the passage by the great humanist, Petrarch, who sums up his role as a bridge between the classical and modern world, between the past and the future, between patres and posteri, when he describes himself as being on the frontier of two peoples “looking both forward and backward at the same time” (Rerum memorandarum 1,19 simul ante retorque prospiciens). On the theme of the connection between scientific and humanistic knowledge, or more specifically, knowledge as a single entity, it is comforting to see that the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) was amended in 2016 by Georgette Yakman to STEAM, adding the A for “ARTS”, in the sense of the humanities. This is exactly the philosophy of Steve Jobs when he said: “… Technology alone is not enough - it’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the results that make our heart sing”. Technological experts (and scientists), whose hyper-specialization risks leaving them “knowing everything about nothing” (Snow’s “ignorant specialists”), should never forget that having a PhD does not mean being a wizard in nanotechnologies, a genius in biodiversity, or a prodigy of astrophysics but a Philosophiae Doctor, an “expert in philosophy”, in other words, someone with a broad vision that binds everything together, the holder of integrated knowledge fueled by thinking in the long-term. It is the most apt of titles indicating what the Greeks called enkýklios paideia, “circular education”, the very opposite of horizontal or transversal knowledge! The sad truth is, however, that while scientific and technological knowledge does not hesitate to boast of its triumphs, almost as if to replace the discredited ideologies that once trumpeted the advent of a new man, the humanities are struggling to assert themselves, even appearing irrelevant. But dormant reason is likely to cost us dear. We feel the need to have a télos, an overall design, one that plugs us back into history, finds the thread that links past and future, memory and project, those who have been and those who will be. For we are disoriented and alarmed, as Ricoeur succinctly puts it, in an age in which the overblown means we have available comes up against a paucity of objectives. We also feel the need for diálogos, the coming together of different worlds, languages and knowledge. We feel the need to have a broad overview and horizon, a new humanism, not in the sense of the other half of our thought or as another point of view vis-à-vis the scientific and technological approach, but rather “long thoughts” able to mesh together all the different points of view, an integral science or “the art of synthesis” (Umberto Eco). For it was George Steiner who remarked some time ago that even the Nobel prize winners in his college at Cambridge did not understand each other’s work! Even 20th century philosophers recognized the impelling need to reconnect with the origins of our Western thought, in other words, with the language of the Pre-Socratics. For Martin Heidegger, the Pre-Socratics understood that the question of “truth” must be posed in terms of “disclosure” (a-létheia). For Karl Popper, one of whose writings is entitled Back to the Pre-Socratics, they were the fathers of the “critical tradition”. There is a need for a new humanism because the times we live in explain technologies, but humanism explains the times we live in. School and University We need to intelligere, interrogare, and invenire. Intelligere. Spinoza admonished us not to cry, laugh or protest but understand (Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari sed intelligere). Intelligere is to “grasp” (legere) the intimate sense (intus) and the “relationship” (inter) between things. We don’t need opinions (dóxai) but rather - as Empedocles would say - “long thoughts” in order to pull together so much fragmented knowledge, connect the dots and join the individual parts. Interrogare. Questioning, in the knowledge that ars interrogandi is more important and decisive than ars respondendi. Heidegger asked whether perhaps questioning was not “the devotion (Frömmigkeit) of thinking”. We should ask ourselves where the “whys” have gone? The world is full of incompetent charlatans who answer questions of no interest. Finally, invenire. “Discover”, both in the sense of “discovering or finding out” the notum we have buried and forgotten, and of “inventing” the novum that presents before us; in other words, take on board, compare, connect the lessons of the classics, our masters and forebears with the questions of the living, our students, our children. This is the task of school and university, institutions that have being entrusted with the “unending struggle to progress knowledge and pietas” (Umberto Eco)5. Several will object that the new and compelling task of schools and universities is rather to fulfil their much acclaimed third mission and transfer knowledge and technological skills to society. For, the argument goes, isn’t immediately useful knowledge demanded by businesses, the market, European calls for tenders, international rankings, and by our very own country with its chronic deficit of technical and scientific capability? Isn’t it time, they say, that universities become a vibrant breeding ground of patents, spin-offs and start-ups and help kickstart the Economy and employment? All of these are secondary knock-on objectives - beneficial add-ons - but not the primary fundamental raison d’être of our universities. Polytechnics, Fachhochschulen, and business schools are much better equipped to provide those sorts of results. In a speech to students some 30 years ago, former president of Harvard University, Derek Bok, underlined that those who believed they had come to his university to acquire specialization for a future job were wasting their time. For Bok, universities not there to prepare people for jobs that probably would no longer exist by the time students had concluded their studies given the rapid far-reaching changes in the labor market triggered by structural, organizational and technological changes. The only thing universities can teach, continued Bok, is the ability to learn, essential in a world that demands constant updating and re-learning. By this I mean that technological acumen, which often leads the pupil to outstrip his teacher, while certainly necessary, is not enough. There is much more besides! The origin of the word “architect” I am fully aware that the architect is no longer seen as an absolute holistic figure in the Platonic tradition, and that the designer of buildings is flanked by a multitude of other figures, the model maker, the draughtsman, etc. Yet I would like to go back to the original etymological linguistic meaning of the term. I see the architect as the professional operator whose job it is to combine the project in hand with awareness of the past, technological expertise and humanistic knowledge, which despite their different codes and languages belong to a single culture. Technological knowledge captures the novum of the present. It looks forward, adopts the paradigm of forgetfulness, is part of a physical space; it is familiar with life in the sense of zoé, the “vital principle”; it simplifies complexity, provides answers, harnesses and makes use of available hardware. Humanistic knowledge deals with the notum of history. It looks forward and backwards, adopting the cumulative paradigm of memory; it extends over time, is familiar with life in the sense of bíos, “individual existence”; it interprets complexity, embraces questioning, interrogates objectives, and makes use of software. The job of the architect - famously described by A. Loos as “a mason who has learned Latin”- is to keep together urbs and civitas, space and time, philotechnía and philanthropía, promote diálogos and question télos. It follows that the architect has a social “responsibility”. It is his duty to provide an answer. He must be upstream not downstream of politics, in the forefront of action. For how come it took a papal encyclical before we discovered the devastation caused by the Anthropocene, and how come it took the protests of adolescents to make us think about the climate? The very word “architect” points to this role. Architékton in fact means “superintendent and director of works”, or more precisely, “creator of the project”, which contrasts with cheirótechnos, “manual worker, laborer, craftsman”. In The Etymologies, Isidore of Seville says that architects are the masons who lay the foundations (19, 8, 1 Architecti autem caementarii sunt, qui disponunt in fundamentis), which in turn takes up an image of the Apostle Paul who talks of the architect as laying “a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it” (Corinthians 10 Ut sapiens architectus fundamentum psui, alius autem superaedificet). These symbols all refer to the concept of building: the Apostle is an architect, the first builder who places Christ as the foundation of the building that is the Church, which would rise after him. The architect is at the beginning of the process, the builder binding everything together. As Vitruvius succinctly says at the beginning of De Architectura, the architect possess empirical knowledge and technical skill but also theoretical and humanistic know-how: Archiecti est Scientia pluribus disciplinis et variis eruditionibus ornate. My point is reinforced by a story about Michel Serres6 and his experience during the building of the Aswan dam: “The committee was made up of hydraulic engineers, specialists on different materials, developers and maybe even some ecologists, but no philosophers, and no Egyptologists. Michel Serres was shocked. And the journalist was shocked that he was shocked, and asked: “What would be the point of having a philosopher”. Serres replied: “He would have noticed is that there wasn’t an Egyptologist”. Like the philosopher, the architect, thanks to his all-embracing overview, grasps the full range of problems, the convergence of capabilities, and the complexity of solutions needed in a project. 1. C.P. Snow, Le due culture, Marsilio, Venice 2005. 2. G. Anders, L’uomo è antiquato, “ Vol, Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 2007. 3. A.J. Heschel, Il Sabato. Il suo significato per l’uomo moderno, Garzanti, Milan 2018 4. S. Jobs, Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish. La vita di un genio che ha cambiato le nostre vite, “Corriere della Sera”, Milan 2011 5. U. Eco, Perché le Università? Speech given at Bologna University on 20 September 2013 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Magna Charta Universitatum. 6. M. Serres, in J.C. Carrière - U. Eco, Non sperate di liberarvi dei libri, trad. it., La Nave di Teseo, Milan 2009 Ivano Dionigi Latinist, President AlmaLaurea and former Magnifico Rettore of Alma Mater Studiorum - Bologna University


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