Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Stacks & Slices

“We want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.

Italy has been too long the great second-hand market. We want to get rid of the innumerable museums which cover it with innumerable cemeteries.

To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?”

Taken from ‘The Futurist Manifesto’ 1909, F.T Marinetti

"For me 'the past' does not exist, because I consider that everything is simultaneous in our culture and similarly in judging architecture I do not see any fracture between ancient & modern."

Gio Ponti, Amate l'architettura, 1957

^Universita degli Studi di Roma Tor Vergata Administrative Centre, the totemic Stack project, together with Calatrava's pools dominating the city's eastern suburbs 

The past is no longer a burden. It is no longer an immense archive of untouchable and superior achievement that presses down on an unworthy present. It isn’t the dead weight of millennia that must be cast-off before anyone can be free enough to do anything. We no longer need to unburden ourselves of the knowledge that nothing we will ever do will ever compare to anything in the countless multitudes of past perfections.

Historians no longer have a monopoly on our history, they cannot continue to tell us where we come from, who we were and therefore what we are. They are not the guardians of a one and only unitary truth, or of sterile debates about fine distinctions in polite disagreements. They have lost their gatekeeper status, they were caught unawares, asleep on the job, their chickens have flown the coop.

Their libraries and primary sources and secondary sources and boxes of files, and opinions and finely framed debates have escaped, they have dispersed on the wind for any of us to catch. The old wise men are just old men now that anyone can share what they had always before kept locked up for themselves. Like the shrivelled and tiny Wizard of Oz behind his screen and the magician without his secrets, they are revealed to be the terrified little humans that they are once stripped of their magical hoard.

History is not in Museums any more either. The carefully crafted didactic order, the geographic hierarchies, the chronological sequencing, the derisory narrative summaries, it is all over. It has all run into the streets. It has all escaped into the ether, onto the internet, for our delectation, for our use, for our own ideas and madcap creations, it has run away from the convent and is discovering the joys of the world.

History is a lithe, liberated, vivacious young woman who is free to mingle with whomever she so wishes, is free to sleep with whoever tickles her fancy. She is lush and fertile and whimsical and serious and silly and capricious and profound and in turns she pirouettes between wanting to go to the Opera House, the Gallery and the Library, and other times the fetish club, the protest and the beach.

The entirety of the past is now as light as a smartphone, and as fun as a theatre’s wardrobe.

History belongs to us. Each of us. We can cut it up and put it back together in whatever manner we choose. It doesn’t belong to those who made it: they bequeathed it to us in the very act of dying. It definitely doesn’t belong to an Oxford Don, or in an ivory tower. It is our gift, it is our head start, it is what makes us uniquely twenty first century human, it means we do not need to begin each time from scratch, it means we have material with which to build our future.

History is our quarry. History is an ancient monument on our doorstep that is ripe for plunder. It is our Colosseum from which we get bricks and blocks and metal to put together our own churches. Only in this case the Colosseum isn’t diminished by our rapaciousness, it is nourished by it, it gets bigger every time something new is formed from its bones, it grows and fattens. Every stone we remove sows the seed for three more in its place.

Our acts of creation with the stuff of the past transforms the whole of history. We keep it alive. We keep it growing.  We save it from the Historians and the Museums. It is us who make sure that the most obscure medieval painter is as much a part of our lives as the latest dancing puppy video.

The past is out. The bible has been translated, published and distributed and we can all interpret it however we like. The priests be damned.

The past is now, and it is ours.

Taken from ‘The Doge-storia Manifesto’, 2014 or ‘15, un-attributable collective

^detail of the stack in the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies Tower

As a designer, artist or architect in Rome, positioning oneself in relation to the past has always been of primary importance, its all-pervasive everywhereness sort of forcing the issue. Each successive generation hosts its own debate with its own set of positions expounded throughout the period in texts, works, academic positions and public commissions.

There are always the progressives and the reactionaries. Or as some would rather say there are the philistines and the civilised. Or perhaps it is always just a divide between those who are eager for dramatic change and those who favour continuity. Then again, maybe it’s the aesthetic manifestation of a perennial tension between those who have vested interests in keeping things as they are and those who don’t.

A consensus of sorts is normally achieved, a status quo, an equilibrium of mutual disagreements in which either party agrees to look the other way so long as any territory they have staked out is not infringed upon, clients are not stolen, sectors not entered into.

Things can however sometimes get a bit vicious. Occasionally civility and decorum break down, descending into petty recriminations, and a truce needs to be enforced.

As was well documented at the time in the pages of the quarterly journal “Estetica Epiche” (whose online archive I have been delving into), the controversy between the popularly labelled ‘Stacks’ & ‘Slices’ was not an amicable affair of respectfully disagreeing parties. It was more a playground turf war dressed up as academic debate, a mud-slinging affair in which both sides repeatedly accused each other of being the perfect embodiments of everything they considered wrong with society at large.

The whole drama was perhaps quite so nasty because the camps happened to be much closer to each other than had any previously arguing oppositional pair. The proximity made them mad. Although they would never admit it, they felt tarnished by association.

Both accepted the primacy of history. Both rejected abstraction. Both believed in continuity. Both used collage. They simply defined it differently. Very, very differently. In their texts anyway. To the amateur bystander the results were often interchangeable, the disagreements comic.

The ‘Stacks’ (known to themselves as “I Conservazionisti Ricostruttivi”) liked the history books, the museums, the grand narratives. Continuity for them was the reiteration of an epochal historic sequence, the elaboration through design of a series of sacred chronologies in which one thing led to another, which gave birth to the next thing and so on in a scientific enumeration of civilization’s progress through time.

They saw their job as the perpetual reiteration of moments within that great story, the re-construction in miniature of sections from within the eternal sequence which would function as didactic displays, educational reminders to the rushing commuter of our place in a formidable history, our rootedness in a proud past.

Each project became an opportunity to construct the layered historical strata of Rome anew, but this time more clearly, not just an incomprehensible crush of rubble, but a legible text in architecture, clearly legible to the average passer-by. Hence the stacking. Each project was to have a sequence, a set of styles, was to represent the progress from one period to the next. But clearly, with each era in its carefully allocated place, discrete and beautifully complete, with the relationships between these separate but neighbouring parts absolutely determined, absolutely set. Like in a Museum. Only stacked one on top of each other in piles, like layers of uncovered ruins.

^detail of the slice in the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies Tower

The ‘Slices’ (known amongst themselves as the “History Whores”) were directly inspired by the Doge-storia movimento, the manifesto of which I have partially appended above, and which sought to radically alter the way in which the past was dealt with by the progressive sector.

They were firmly in the camp of creatives who were of the belief that to not acknowledge the past, to reject it and attempt to start again each time with a clean slate, was only to be unwittingly ruled by unquestioned beliefs, habits and assumptions from that very past itself. To truly break free of the hegemony of history required a new kind of ownership of history itself.

Doge-storia were particularly influential and eloquent, but they were just one of many contemporary groups calling for history, for heritage, for the past to be disrupted, democratised, blown apart and reborn in the same way so many other sectors had been rendered completely unrecognisable since the advent of the digital era.

So the History Whores sliced, they diced, they wilfully upended, mirrored, flipped upside down, monstrously recombined at entirely incongruous scales the elements, the facades, the materials and languages of every single architectural style that could be found through a google image search. Sequence meant nothing, the overall effect, the juxtaposition of parts, the dynamism of contrasting and contradicting elements meant everything.

The Stacks were the Museum, the academy, row after row of orderly cabinets, while the Slices were the wild illogic and pure joy of a private collection, the plastic pig next to the roman fragment, they were the profuse abundance of over-stacked living room cabinets.

^elevation of the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies Tower

Both became highly successful. And they despised each other. To the point at which public competitions became unmanageable, or rather unbearable, for those organising them. Every decision was either overturned or disputed, endlessly, and if a commission was awarded, slander, personal denouncements, lies, sympathetic newspaper editors commandeered to discredit the individual members of each and every management committee, their names dragged through the mud.

There were two deaths in rapid succession. the murder of a prominent Slice and of a young Stack. They most probably had nothing to do with the controversy, and nothing was ever proven, but the atmosphere was so poisonous that everyone involved believed foul play.


^Aerial view from the South of the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies tower on Piazza Venezia

As the general chaos began also to negatively affect a host of public procurement projects, from the new City Subway line to the new school program, the Mayor stepped in to force a resolution to what he saw as an utterly ludicrous situation. Their buildings looked so similar anyway, it was an absurdity that they could not work together.

Which meant that the Slices and Stacks were forced to work together. Always. On every single new public project in the City of Rome. Forced to work together, with neither running the show, instead with an engineer in charge making all the final calls. There was a rigidly imposed new code of conduct and set of procedures and criteria to follow for every stage in every project.

That was it. Controversy over. The fights could continue on the pages of ‘Estetica Epiche’ if they so desperately wanted to vent their accumulated bile, but not in the professional sphere.

The new protocols were worked out on the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies Tower that replaced the Palazzo in front of Piazza Venezia which was heavily damaged in the Latina earthquake and the subsequent tremors.

The tower effectively marked the end of both movements, with the explosive passions that had propelled an exciting period of formal innovation, rapidly simmering into a tepid bureaucratic approach in which the fundamental formal approaches were maintained, and half-heartedly incorporated into each project, but all the vivacity was lost, all the ideological fervour was extinguished. No more towering columns of historical literacy, nor vast, coruscating slabs of dynamically intersecting architectural epochs. Just a couple of things on top of each other here, a diagonal slice there. The exhausted iterations of mutual failure. The tower on Piazza Venezia, the token slice, the sad stack, whilst still not entirely devoid of interest, absolutely embodied all the failings of the generation of projects that were to follow.

^Aerial view from closer

The topping-out ceremony for the new Ministry building marked the resolution of a controversy (which had lasted little more than five years), the death of two ideologies, and the birth of an undead official style that dominated the city for the next decade and a half.


N,B. In case you hadn't realised this is a post based in Fiction.

References: Text of translation taken from James Joll, Three Intellectuals in Politics

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