Interview: Stefano Boeri

Failures and betrayals

It was certainly one of the most appealing lectures we had in life and we still remember a long rethinking of our future and points of our future profession raised by it. Although it had been a perfectly well rounded story with a look towards the bright future in your professional life, we elaborated the following questions.

Students: In our architectural field of work, there is almost nobody who prefers to mention the failure of architecture. Architects do not consider them as an opportunitie to improve their own performance. On the contrary, they hide and remove these failure from their design life. So, how do you feel about this phenomenon and what’s the approach that an architect needs to adopt to face his failure?

Stefano Boeri: I have always thought about the difficult and problematic relationship between architecture and failure. At first, concerning the relationship between the design intentions and their actual implementation. The second explanation of the “phobia of failure” in architecture relates to the total absence, in our profession, of a procedure of faking. The truth is that we are almost never willing to submit ourselves to a test of any falsification of our intentions. A third explanation for the failure of the phobia in architecture concerns our difficulties to accompany in time the life stages of a building once its realization is completed.

S: In your PHD thesis, you were analyzing the activities of three well-known Italian architects of 20 century and mentioned books “The significance of the cities”, “ The territory of architecture”, “ The architecture of the city. ” Actually, all the three architects somehow failed comparing to their original intentions. What made you consider the failure of architects at that time?

SB: At that time, three important texts for the formation of a generation of Western architects who tried to cross the threshold between the territory of the phenomena visible and operable by the changes that architecture produces – and the sphere of processes and invisible energies: the deep structures of the economy, cultural customs and traditions, laws and behaviors of long duration. But you can see, the Gallaratese by Aymonino was considered a failure for being totally transfigured in its use compared to the original program: from a large residence of affordable housing to a rent condo for employees of Milanese middle-class.The University of Calabria was considered a failure for never being completed: only a third of the large linear settlement was built. The Cemetery of Modena by Rossi was considered a failure for the state of advanced deterioration that the work had a few months after its construction. But the point was different: in the thesis I recorded the total unavailability -in the cited books, and more generally in the public debate of those years- to consider these three architectures for their real life of buildings in some way, and at least partially, “failed”. The tendency of the three authors was rather to see them as essentially “manifestos made in stone”; translations in concrete and glass of their ideas on architecture and the city. With a total emphasis on the demonstrative consistency of architectures, able to represent both an explicit position in the relationship with the context and the author’s unmistakable poetic. And consequently, as “manifestos made in stone”, architectures were happy, victorious, effective. Regardless of the condition of use and the actual state of the three artifacts.

S: In your opinion, how should an architect handle the building designed by himself? I mean, the life of the building that we design will last longer than our life. So what kind of responsibility do an architect needs to have?

SB: Actually it is about the failures I mentioned before. If these reflections have a sense, we should all interrogate ourselves on a deeper issue: the absence in our discipline of an ethic of responsibility. An ethic that does not just look carefully consistency between intentions and effects built by a single architect, but that opens the responsibility of the architect to the later stages of his/her life: both those regarding the architecture as a mineral building and those relating to architecture as a symbolic simulacrum. An ethic of responsibility that lead us to consider that the life of the building that we design will last well beyond the end of the period (after all extremely short) in which we have accompanied its birth and construction; and what happens after that, although it is not directly “caused”, “generated” from us, however, we are concerned. However we have a responsibility. In the sense that we were the generators of an urban phenomenon that has changed not only the space, but also in the culture and the symbolic life of a community and if it is true that we can never predict and control the effects in time of our modification, I think we are supposed to feel responsible for these effects, just like a doctor/surgeon feels responsible in time of the health of a patient who he has operated, or a lawyer feels responsible for the effects over time that an outcome of the case may generate in terms of work and life of a client he defended.