The authority of boldness

From the Glass archive: The authority of boldness – In a conversation with Glass, revered Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas talks about power, ethics and conciliatory architecture

There is no common style or logical sequence in the work by Massimiliano Fuksas. His architectural language is varied although consistently bold and intrepid: shapes are not repeated but there is faith in the potential of architecture to affect and change. In this way, aesthetics are combined with ethics… “it is not enough to be a successful architect; it is good, but it is not enough … ethics discover the sense of life.” Under this ideology, Fuksas applies a dialectic methodology of design that confronts and includes difference: it is not about A or B, it is about the possibilities, tension and productivity of their encounter. To him, diversity is power.

Fuksas is one of Italy’s most renowned contemporary architects. Of Lithuanian descent, he was born in Rome in 1944. In 1967, before he finished his academic training, he set up his own studio in the same city where he received his Architecture title from La Sapienza two years later.

Sao Paolo Parish Complex, Foligno (Perugia). Photograph by Moreno Maggi - Italy. 2001-2009Sao Paolo Parish Complex, Foligno (Perugia). Photograph by Moreno Maggi – Italy. 2001-2009

Since 1985 he has worked in partnership with his wife Doriana Mandrelli who has become a pivotal figure in his practice. They opened a second office in Paris in 1989, a third one in Vienna in 1993 and another one in Frankfurt in 2002 – the latter two were active until 2001 and 2009 respectively. In 2008 he expanded his practice to Shenzhen, China. Different from other international studios, Fuksas maintains complete creative control over all the projects in all the offices.

Awarded with several recognitions – such as the 2011 Ignazio Silone International Prize for Culture in Rome, the 2006 Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London and the 1999 Grand Prix Nationale d’Architecture France in Paris – Fuksas has devoted over thirty years of research to urban problems in large metropolitan European areas.

From 1994 to 1997 he was a member of the Urban Commissions of Berlin and Salzburg and from 1997 he was adviser to the French Institute of Architecture Administration Board. These experiences led him to conclude that the problem with suburbs is that they do not envisage being part of a town. According to him, a town is like a sculptural mass that can be carved in order to create piazzas, streets and urban spaces. The way in which the voids are extracted will define the manner in which inner cities and peripheries are functionally and aesthetically linked.

From 1998 to 2000 he directed the Venice Biennale’s VII International Architecture Exhibition, themed Less Aesthetics, More Ethics. During these years he conceived the idea for the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa, in Tel Aviv. This project aimed to spatially represent an institution of peace and regional harmony by and for the people of the Middle East, joining together the Israeli and Palestinian cause. Through this building, Fuksas not only incorporated ethics into his practice but also suggested the potential of architecture as a conciliatory discipline. He asked himself “Why am I doing this project? Can we do something more?”

This concern for integral design questions current understandings of power and the status of globalisation. Fuksas insists that Europe and North America are failing to grasp the reality of a post-globalisation era while he sees in China a powerful nation that no longer “sell us t-shirts but the highest technology”. As a result, architecture needs to balance the political, financial and ecological conditions of the world.

Since 2000 Fuksas has also been the author of the architectural column, founded by the influential critic and theorist Bruno Zevi, in the weekly magazine L’Espresso.

Sketch of Armani Fifth Avenue. New York - USA. 2007-2009 by Doriana FuksasSketch of Armani Fifth Avenue. New York, USA. 2007-2009 by Doriana Fuksas

How would you explain your architecture?
I’d like my architecture just to be recognised by emotions, strong emotions. All my life I have fought against form, shape and style. My work is a sort of a study of facts and problems, a continuous development of challenges. I prefer to use bold elements, simple forms that allow me to play with them on a grand scale. It is like music, sometimes you repeat a theme, other times you incur in variations and at times there is the need for a jam session.

It is said that you prefer Borromini over Bernini (both eminent Italian architects in the 1600s who would shape the Italy we still see today; there was fierce rivalry between the two and despite Borromini’s greater architectural inventiveness, Bernini, due to his religious connections, achieved the greatest commission of their lifetimes – Saint Peter’s Basilica). Could you explain why?
Borromini, one of the greatest geniuses that ever existed, was in constant crisis – no less than any architect of our time. His life was defined by problems. He suffered thousands of frustrations and defeats: a perpetual dark man with a tragic sense of life. Whatever he built was the result of a complex and dramatic approach.

For example, the Church of Saint Yves at La Sapienza, conceived as an infernal machine, was the external manifestation of an inner psychological space that portrays madness. That is why I love Borromini! Because of his consumed, sad intelligence that looked to the future as a challenging insanity, without considering the past or seeking only one form, one way or one style. Bernini, on the contrary, was happy in his happiness and success, he was perfect in his perfection, he was very proud of himself. Borromini’s obscure doubts and queries are far more intriguing.

Your work relies on form and its potential, lately on organic shapes like clouds and tornadoes. How would you summarise the role of form?
If you have nothing in your head, you just create form. It is like writing: first, you must imagine and picture the project in your head; then you must relate it to a concept that has to emerge and be developed and articulated. In this way you start building, even before you have drawn anything.

How do your sketches and paintings inform this process?
I did not want to be an architect, I wanted to be a poet and then a painter (Fuksas was trained by Giorgio de Chirico – a prominent surrealist artist). The process of the thought behind my work is more like the one of a visual artist. At first, there were only my paintings. Still today I think that the best way to design is painting. Sketching, drawing and painting are tools that allow me not only to express my architectural intentions but also to increase emotional tension. Emotion cannot exist if tension is not potentialised.

You have studied the urban fabric and the conditions of slums of the outskirts of European cities. How has this influenced your understanding of public space?
Only a few 100 thousand people live in the centre of capital cities while the remaining millions of human beings live in the outskirts. Hence my conclusion is that the real city is where human beings live, it is not where monuments and “architectural beauty” are. In our [European] culture there is still an aesthetic hierarchical matrix, but there is not the habit to care for social critical masses.

On the contrary, architecture is something that belongs to the city, to the people, to everyone. Furthermore, it also must be able to accommodate new buildings within historical surroundings. In order to do this, there is the need to find a dialogue between actors and spectators.

Our beliefs, our ways of representing our society and our community are not the same any more. The certainties are gone. This leaves space to doubt, but from apprehension you always get something better. In the future, I would really like to focus on the city and to search for the mysterious algorithm that can transform the sublime chaos of the megalopolis into more livable places. Verticality can solve a lot of problems, but in the centre – in between vertical elements – greenery and landscape must exist.

Armani Fifth Avenue, New York - USA. 2007-2009. Photograph by Ramon PratArmani Fifth Avenue, New York, USA. 2007-2009. Photograph by Ramon Prat

What are your views on sustainability? How have your incorporated these principles in your work?
When we build, we think about the following principles: recreating parts of nature, incorporating water and maximising energy storage. Obviously, protecting green areas or creating eco-compatible buildings is not enough for sustainable urban development; however, we firmly believe that we can improve the sustainability of our cities with acts, design and planning that integrate environmental, politic, social, intellectual and economic aspects. The aim is to create a built geography that combines landscape, economy and humanity.

Our latest projects are conceived, from initial stages, with systems that intend to reach the highest energetic efficiency levels by using geothermal science and cogeneration. In addition, we also employ more conventional solutions, such as glass insulation that reduce energy consumption, like in the design for the Ferrari Research Centre in Maranello; water veils as cooling systems like in the Nardini Centre in Bassano del Grappa; and photovoltaic integrated elements and rainwater harvesting like in the New Congress Centre in Rome.

What are you working on at the moment?
During 2012 many of our important projects will be finished. In France: the New National Archives in Pierrefitte sur Seine Saint Denis (for the Minister of Culture) in Paris and the Lycée Hôtelier Georges-Frêche in Montpellier; in China: the Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport; in Italy: the EUR New Congress Centre in Rome. They are very remarkable endeavours for us, not only from the architectural point of view but also from the interior design work, led by my wife Doriana.

by Christian Parreño

From the Glass Archive – Issue Seven – Boldness

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