A rich man came to ask me to bring art under his roof… I immediately threw out his furniture
[AJ WRITING PRIZE] Shortlisted: Rossella Scalia
The wealthy businessman, Mr Conformity, and his friends have an ongoing competition. Every Wednesday, each one of them invites the dumbest jackass he can find to a dinner, and each one of the guests is invited to discuss a chosen topic. After the guests have left, the group of friends make fun out of them and vote for the stupidist and most idiotic guest.
That evening Mr Conformity began with a question: ‘Do architects have a duty beyond satisfying the demands of the client?’
Mr Success, a world-renowned architect gloating over his good luck, passed judgement: ‘Architecture is the most imposing form of cultural expression. It literally defines our way of looking at the world and interacting with each other. It allows the client to believe in his absolute power and the architect, in turn, to control people. Our responsibility is to produce artworks, the Gesamtkunstwerk.’
He drank all the wine in his glass and continued: ‘I want to tell you about a rich man who one day came to ask me to bring art under his roof. Money doesn’t matter. I went to the man’s house and immediately threw out his furniture. The rich man was overjoyed. He went through the new rooms. Art everywhere he looked. Art in everything and anything. I had forgotten nothing, absolutely nothing.
‘I returned because of his right to check on the placement of the objects, and to answer complicated questions. I didn’t recognise the happiness of the prosperous man, but discovered something else. “Why would you be wearing those slippers?” I blurted out.
‘The master of the house looked at his embroidered shoes, and sighed in relief. The shoes were made from my original design. He answered thoughtfully: “But Mr Architect, you designed these slippers yourself.”
‘Certainly,’ I thundered. ‘But for the bedroom! With these impossible pieces of colour you are destroying the entire atmosphere.’
The prosperous man took the slippers off immediately, and was pleased as punch that I didn’t find his socks offensive. 1
Miss Integrity, an architecture student invited by Mr Success, was visibly irritated by his words. She whispered: ‘The architect, the artist who designs a building, shouldn’t seek formal, aesthetic, stylistic values nor impose his own taste: all that is ephemeral. He should aim for perpetuity. Architecture is perpetuity. 2 “Time” is the core element of an effective project. Engineers just build spaces, architects build beyond time.
‘Have you ever thought of reproducing the Parthenon or even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater? Impossible, they are mono-types, they have a shape and a size, and they can fully work even as a ruin. They are artworks, and art is not affected by the changes of time and progress. A technical piece of work, for instance a Fiat car, can’t be timeless because it presupposes self-transformation and self-improvement.
‘Architecture is a thing of art, a phenomenon of the emotions, lying outside questions of construction and beyond them. The purpose of construction is to make things hold together, of architecture to move us.’ 3
Mr Authenticity, a young filmmaker, the guest of Ms Compromise, looked at Miss Integrity, delighted. But his ecstasy was interrupted by laughter from his neighbour, Sir Greed, a German-born politician and the chairman of the Greed Corporation.
‘Art…Emotion…Time…Perpetuity … Have you folks heard what she has just said? You still have a lot to learn, my dear. Architecture is simply a political tool. What for? For glorifying countries, intimidating enemies and generally for inflating the egos of kings, dictators, politicians and businessmen.
‘History speaks for itself: Napoleon III, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, the American presidents, John Simon Guggenheim, Irvine Sellar. All of them stout patrons of architecture. Think about the Twin Towers and have a guess as to why they have been destroyed. 4 Perhaps because they were another piece of bad architecture?’ he said, sneering.
‘Architects are just tailors paid to fulfil the needs of powerful people, the clients. Don’t forget, in the past, an architect was as much a uomo di corte as a poet, a painter or a musician. He just discharged his duties without following his own ideas and inspirations. The king was the decision-maker because the king was the client.
‘Money is the motive behind architecture. Your role models? Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Albert Speer, Marcello Piacentini, Boris Iofan, Zhang Kaiji, Philip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind and many more. They truly are masters in the art of construction.Your perfect client? The richest. Your task? Obey. Your aim? Profit, profit, profit.’
Those last words rumbled in the dining room and everyone remained silent for a few seconds. Mr Modesty, a little-known architect and designer, who met Sir Greed recently, yelled: ‘Shame on you. You think you can buy the world with your money, but remember, Sir Greed, you will never buy people’s dignity. Probably what I am going to say will sound mad to you, but I learnt to be magnanimous, obliging, fair, reliable and, most of all, not gluttonous. No project is ever successful without loyalty and moral rectitude. My great master, Vitruvius, said architects must be men of learning. 5
‘All the people you mentioned as role models are not examples of architects with strong creative skills. They are just people who shaped their own ideas to the current fashion, to the likes of others; to impress.
‘Impressing through dimensions is a vulgar exhibitionism, which underlines a lack of identity. Who, even today, is unimpressed by Andrea Palladio, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Oscar Niemeyer, Richard Rogers. It is certainly not a question of the building’s size. All are architects of noticeable personal and creative identity and for that reason they are my role models.
‘Their perfect client? Architecture. Their task? Predict. Their aim? Enchantment, enchantment, enchantment.’
Mr Authenticity, nodding in agreement, added: ‘I’ve never compromised my ideas with producers on my films. If I had, I’d be rich. I’ve simply tried to make a film the way I saw it, very honestly. 6
‘I’m not commercial and I believe in following my passion. We have to work for man, not against him.
We have to give him culture, art, creativity, originality and avoid speculation, squandering, conformism, laziness and ignorance.’
His speech was interrupted by clapping. ‘Let’s have a big hand for the dreamer,’ Ms Compromise, a TV producer, uttered sarcastically. ‘I’ve been listening to this for too long, please stop moralising about architecture and the whole world.
‘Unfortunately we common people with lazy minds, we vain clients, we silly ignorants, we don’t give a monkey’s about your enchantment.
‘Architecture doesn’t belong to dreams. It’s not an illusion. Let’s discuss stairs, walls, roofs, floors, windows, rooms and also about concrete, wood, stone, steel, ceramic, glass, aluminium. Mix all this, make some decisions, arrange a couple of drawings and the project is done, ready for the client. Easy. I pay for that. And everyone is happy.’
A noisy murmur accompanied the dessert. The guests kept talking until the master of the house, Mr Conformity, editor of an international architecture magazine, closed the debate and the meeting with a diplomatic standing speech.
‘The world we live in, whether we like it or not, is a simple game. If we accept the game’s rules, we play a fantastic match. Let’s leave the imaginary to people less practical than we, clumsy players. Dreams are just dreams. It has always been like this. It has been a pleasure to hear your opinions.’
Full of doubts, the visitors made for the door when a voice broke the silence. Miss Creativity, a novice architectural journalist interviewed by Mr Conformity a few days before, who had remained silent all evening, turned back to the table and with a confidence she never knew she had, addressed the rest of the group: ‘Architecture is a crystal. Pure, magic, closed, exclusive, independent, unspoilt, uncorrupted, absolute, definitive. Exactly like a crystal.
‘These words are not for true architects, who already know all that, these words are for that people who want to know how architects tick. Love architecture. That’s the only way to truly understand it.’7
She went away smugly passing Mr Conformity. He closed the door shocked and turned to his friends. They couldn’t help themselves from laughing. A fake smile appeared on his face, he wiped away the sweat from his brow and pronounced: ‘She is definitely the winner.’
1 Adolf Loos, The Poor Little Rich Man 1900
2 Andrea Palladio, The Four Books of Architecture 1570
3 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture 1923
4 Deyan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World 2006
5 Marco Vitruvio Pollione, De Architectura 29bc
6 Michelangelo Antonioni, interview 1964
7 Gio Ponti, In Praise of Architecture 1957