With our selection of an architect as the winner of the Erasmus Prize, one might think that it is obvious what constitutes good architecture.
What is architecture? A successful division and enclosure of space? Providing shelter and safety? Creating an orderly, functional and harmonious environment? Is it about the creation of an aesthetic object or about a building as a machine? Should a building be in keeping with the surroundings and the tradition? Or should it, in fact, be a reaction to those aspects? We could go on and on this way, posing countless questions to which we can give a variety of answers.
Taking a backward glance at history, we see that every era has its own interpretation of architecture. The problem now, however, is that a uniform definition of architecture no longer exists. Our laureate today calls us: “Unworthy heirs of our past… We have managed to transform our towns from places with an expanse of culture into places with an expanse of culturelessness, absolutely terrible places unfit for habitation. Why are our towns so beautiful? … because they were permeated with culture; from the culture of the bricklayer to that of the architect. Both bound by rules, but at the same time free in their own worlds…”. To put it even more strongly, as a result of economising and the activity of project developers and fast profit makers, an architect is in danger of becoming merely a construction foreman; one who takes refuge in random improvisations or gimmicks as soon as his work goes beyond the practical criteria. Is it so surprising then that a recently published book on contemporary architecture bears the subtitle ‘Architectural principles in an age of nihilism’?*
How stimulating and refreshing it is when we are confronted with the work of our laureate, as we saw a few minutes ago. From the time you were young you have been interested in building sites, intelligent constructions and solutions that are as ethereal as possible. The impressions of the changing light; the contrast of the old city of Genoa and the open sea; and the billowing sails along the coast which you saw as a young boy. All these things have influenced and guided you throughout your life.
You are not a philosophical theorist, but first and foremost an artisan; an intelligent designer and experimenter. You reject dogma and are always open to new ideas. It strikes us that you do not revert back to the old Italian tradition, but rather find your inspiration in the Gothic forms, Art Nouveau and functionalism. And yet, you consider the 15th century Florentine architect Brunelleschi, designer of the famous ribbed dome of the cathedral in Florence, as your shining example: the craftsman who has mastered all the elements of the métier and for whom there is no question of a division between the intellectual conception and the handiwork. It is no wonder then that as early as 1964 you became friends with Jean Prouvé, winner of the 1981 Erasmus Prize, who shared the same interest and became your spiritual father. Among others, it was Prouvé – as chairman of the then jury in 1971 – who selected your design for the Centre Pompidou from among the hundreds of entries. You later called this revolutionary exhibition and communication machine, this open construction of tubes, cables, tie rods, pipes and glass walls, an example of a Jules Verne-like technology, a kind of joke, a social challenge to the concept of the institutionalised culture.
After the completion of this piece of handiwork, you were understandably ranked among the high-tech architects. However, you quickly distanced yourself from this by placing increasingly more emphasis on the immaterial aspects of architecture. I mean by this, light, sound, colour, the spatial atmosphere. You continually endeavour to link a maximum of cohesion and strength to a minimum of material. These are the qualities that give your architecture its humane, gentle touch, whereby we undergo a nearly poetic experience when viewing your constructions. And with this, you confirm the definition of the 19th century German architect Schinkel: “Architektur ist mit Gefühl erhabene Konstruktion”. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in one of your latest creations – the Kansai Airport in Osaka.
By using the most advanced computer programs, you know how to achieve the convergence of expertise, technique and science. A biomorphic form emerges not on the basis of specific stylistic principles or a preconceived idiom, but as a logical consequence of technical and practical criteria; like the ideal form for a fish to swim or a bird to fly. But just as there are countless different fish and birds, so are there innumerable succesful buildings. Nevertheless, your’s distinguish themselves by a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that constitutes the quality of your work. The essential aspect is that technique is not your master; rather, you have mastery over technique and make optimal use of it. By this attitude you set an example for all of us in today’s world.
Far from being architecture in the classical tradition it is the animated and humane aspect of your work which forms the link between the eye and the understanding. It reminds me of what Geoffrey Scott wrote in one of the most beautiful books about architecture: “The whole of architecture is in fact unconsciously invested by us with human movement and human moods. We transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves…. The scientific method is intellectually and practically useful, but the naive, the anthropomorphic way which humanises the world and interprets it by analogy with our own bodies and our own wills, is still the aesthetic way; it is the basis of poetry and it is the foundation of architecture…. It is the way of the poetic mind of all times and places, which humanises the external world”.*
You have rightly called architecture a tainted art. After all, the architect is not only nurtured by society but also affected by that same society. Architecture finds its rationale in this paradox and should fulfill a pioneer function because it must follow in the footsteps of society’s developments and demands. You have an exceptionally sensitive ear when it comes to the desires of society. I have been told that you are an excellent communicator and a good listener. You listen not only to society and tradition, but also to nature and the genius loci. You have acquired direct contact with the people through the highly original, mobile workshops and information centres you have set up for the restoration of the old town centres in Italy. Now a tremendous urban development assignment awaits you in Berlin: the rebuilding of the tradition-laden Potsdammerplatz. One of your tasks will be to unite people, tradition and know-how in order to avoid the disintegration of urban planning and architecture which so often occurs these days. As you say yourself: it is this dialogue that keeps you from becoming the victim of mystification and untamed creativity, and from an artistic position without self-control.
Because with each new project you meticulously take the circumstances into account, your work has great diversity – all the more since the evolution of your work corresponds to the latest technological developments. You point out that restoration and adaptation to the genius loci is much more difficult than the construction of new buildings. So we are most curious about the Science Center that is to be built on the IJ in Amsterdam.
Dialogue and the art of listening have taken an exceptional form with you. It is a particularly striking facet of your personality that all your work originates from the Building Workshop you set up in 1981, with locations in Genoa, Paris and Japan. Inspired and guided by you, dozens of specialists, including many young people of varying nationalities, exchange ideas about a project, its elaboration, the choice of materials, the details, etc. These colleagues from your ‘temple of craftsmanship’ share in the honour we pay you today.
However, your inventiveness and your gift for summarising and simplifying and – may we use the word – your taste, in accordance with the best Italian tradition, are decisive. So perhaps, after all, we can indeed say that we know what good architecture is. Its creator is a generalist with a broad interest who unites in his work craft and technique with tradition, nature and mankind – and does so in the most compassionate and personal way. In the words of your illustrious 15th century predecessor Leon Battista Alberti, such an architect may be ranked among the great benefactors of humankind.
It is therefore my great pleasure to present you with the 1995 Erasmus Prize.
* Roger Scruton, The Classical Vernacular. Architectural principles in an age of nihilism, (1994).
* Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism (1914), New York/London, 1975, 159-163