A Building (rocking on a swing without knowing what it's hung from)
Last year, isolation, distancing and a sense of caution and circumspection redesigned our relationship with private and social spaces. Returning to this text today after 11 years from the original publication, accompanied by a previously unpublished excerpt of the original installation soundtrack, opens up the reader to entirely new reflections and questions. We have been forced into a prolonged and intimate relationship with the domestic sphere. The home has become the office, the balconies a meeting place; what consequences will the experience of the lockdown have on the way we will live and imagine these spaces after the pandemic?
It all started with a stroll through the Garbatella neighborhood, I don’t remember when. A short walk after dinner, to enjoy the breeze and endure how it insisted on reminding me of the sea. I find the size of these public housing units surprising... I compare them to the regrettable constructions that I grew up in, and immediately label them villas with gardens. I feel like a teenager who sees everything so lim- pidly as to want complications: pub- lic housing in the ’20s, sure, but villas with gardens today! The urban plan- ning approach in this area is clearly aimed at maintaining a high percentage of greenery per cubic meter of built space. I tell myself it’s a great way to make people who migrate from the country to the city feel at home. These are the still-visible traces of an enlightened bargain between organized geography and migration, and they open my mind to the possibility that the concept of architecture can be indissolubly linked to that of movement.
I keep looking around like a botanist who has found a tropical plant growing, contrary to all expectations, right under his doormat: I caress the leaves in search of direct contact with that clear evidence of a long voyage, a great passage. Though they struggled against it, the architects of the Fascist period were forced to partially inherit Garbatella’s garden-city style of urban planning, and this friction between different goals reveals to me, once again, a subtitle in white on white. Verticality, the passion for destruction, artifacts forced to become functional relics, and a mammoth deployment of forces to achieve new dimensions: these components of the Fascist legacy are still alive and well in our cities. Today, however, they must necessarily be reinterpreted in light of the concept of movement. Geographic movement, first and foremost, hints at the omni- presence of the Duce and at his day- to-day movements, which trace out a single, imaginary, endless architectural path. Movement through time, on the other hand, allows works of Fascist architecture to slowly carry out their pedagogical function. It is our task to refute it, because up to now, dismissing them too quickly as rhetorical, or simply modifying their function, has amounted to absolving them.
I need to stop for a minute, I feel like I may have missed something. I think back on all the housing units that made up the landscape of my childhood in the ‘80s, that amputated part of me composed of apartments stacked on top of each other to form buildings. In an apartment building, the elevator, like the landing, robbed space from the total area of the home. While in the design stage, they were meant to encourage socialization among neighbors, the way they were actually used established them as extraneous spaces. Alien settings, since they were not private, places to flee from in order to avoid having to question one’s own solitude, or at least share it with others, face to face. (Although you’ll never get people who live on the outskirts of town to admit the fact that exclusion is always to some degree a desire not to be part of things.) My gaze, which developed in a flat area with an in- finite horizon, has always classified buildings as new symbols of presence. Seeing them spring up in the distance like flowers in a huge garden made it possible to imagine them withering and giving way to other crops. The buildings followed a concept of urban hierarchy according to which everything is in its proper place if it is clearly visible. From this standpoint, vertical elevation was a clear answer to the question: who’s new here? Raise your hands! These apartment buildings are an overt perpendicular challenge to horizontality, which in the moving image produced as I walk along, makes me interpret every form that towers over me from below.
If it is true, as Italo Calvino said, that the more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts, then it would be a good idea to wait for dark to fall in order to go back to seeing these walls as bits of plasterboard in a great materialist design. In the apartment building, at night, I would sneak into my parents’ bedroom while they were asleep and look out their window, because although the neighborhood was dozing off, the highway was wide awake. What seemed inexplicable at the time, and perhaps is still not entirely clear to me, was that my sleeping parents and the truck drivers behind the wheel were in the same position of immobility surrounded by softness: here with a mattress and pillow, there with a seat and headrest. I would stand there in silence, trying to imitate that stasis, in what time would reveal to be a magical, quadraphonic listening experience, two quarters dreaming and two quarters two-lane traffic. A few years later, when I first heard a track of techno music, I compared it to the sound of one’s heartbeat amplified by a pillow, combined with the sound of cars racing by in the distance.
I swerve off to avoid a construction site, which pulls back to offer me a sidewalk; I continue to gaze around, and become convinced that our housing needs have drastically changed. I think about when a building facade is restored, about the practice of selling the area covered by scaffolding to some agency that will plaster an advertising banner over it. I imagine the absurd situation that would arise if selling temporary ad space came to be more profitable than renting out apartments in the building itself. We would find ourselves with a new kind of building, transformed from a shell into a mollusk. We would look at these buildings furtively, like bits of décor in an abandoned room, charitably draped in colored cloths to protect them until they are needed again. But then, I tell myself, it’s true! A build- ing can be seen as a piece of furniture that has a reason to exist so long as someone has something to be kept in its drawers.
I thought it all started with a very normal question, but then realized that it was a very nomadic question: why should I have a wonderful home if I’m never at home? The dimensions of apartments are shrinking, and their value is directly proportional to their vicinity to escape routes: train stations, bus routes, subway stops. This diminished need for square feet of private property is constantly accompanied by the idea of lightness as architecture’s ideal way of expressing the concept of movement. Likewise, the reduction in the size of apartments is directly proportional to the gradual dematerialization of the everyday interfaces used to carry out our now-minimal domestic life. Continuing this flip from the outside to the inside, from the immobile to the mobile, one could compare the size of apartments to the size of drawers. They too are growing ever-smaller, better-suited to containing physical extensions of intangible memory (CDs, cables, flash cards, headsets, cell phones). And if the objects we surround ourselves with are invisible, it will be all the easier to inherit their inertia, compensating for it with the breakneck, ulcerous speed of deadlines that were once inconceivable. Or—why not?—to challenge this immobility by exploiting verticality and compartmentalizing space. And thus we would invert the axiom according to which the thicker and more visible a wall is, and the more it shows its economic power in the present, the more it carves out an island of visibility in the future, and the more capable it is of challenging what the past has been up to now. We find ourselves faced with a likely contradiction: we sweep under the rug (which in architecture one would call the exploration of materials) the dust of time, the same dust that used to pile up and harden into something perennial things, homes. And so I look up again, after serious self-analysis of my feet planted on the asphalt: rising up means becoming transparent... up there, the place where we moved to have a better view, is already sky from down here. And since those balconies are repeated floor after floor, along with the windows, who’s to say whether at some point they give way to a roof? Unfortunately, it seems I can’t come up with an answer to these questions because of a constant back-and-forth movement... and I keep rocking on this swing without knowing what it’s hung from.
By Riccardo Benassi
Translated from Italian by Johanna Bishop
Originally published on Riccardo Benassi, Letters from the Passengers seat with No One at the Wheel, Mousse
Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 9788896501269
Riccardo Benassi, A Building (rocking on a swing without knowing what it's hung from); books, modular drawers, stereo loud speaker, hidden mp3 player, digital loop 13'31''; books, bottom to top: Paolo Nicoloso, Mussolini Architetto, Italo Calvino, La speculazione edilizia, Ettore Sottsass, Foto dal finestrino; 2010, Courtesy the artist.