A conversation between Andrea Branzi, Catherine David & Leanne Sacramone
Catherine David: The installations you designed for the Fondation Cartier combine formal and conceptuel characteristics that have always been at the core of your research. Could you tell us how these projects were conceived and explain some of the principles they develop?
Andrea Branzi: The two projects that I created for the Fondation Cartier are architectural installations made using construction techniques that are different from those used in traditional architecture. They are spaces that are transparent and traversable, and the techniques used to construct them are akin to those used in handicrafts. What characterizes them are little things, like the use of woven glass and rope. These two projects are in keeping with the ideas expressed in my book, Weak and Diffuse Modernity, which explores the possibility of taking architecture to an abstract level, a level of immateriality. Rethinking architecture, in other words, not just as a technique for building buildings, but as a strategy for transforming the world by changing small things. My work is in fact based on the observation that, over the past few centuries, every other artistic and cultural activity except architecture has broken out of its institutional limits. For example, painting has become abstract, music has turned into noise and begun to go beyond harmonies, writing has taken the form of a sort of stream of consciousness… All of these fields have evolved in this direction, towards fluidity, dematerialization, exploring other areas of experience and knowledge.
Catherine David: What is striking and very intriguing about these installations is that you have found a way of making the in-between, the gaps, and the material contrasts perceptible. You seem to have concentrated all of your research into these very unusual objects, meta-objects that can inhabit different spaces, somewhere between architecture and object, between sensible materiality and cognitive space.
Andrea Branzi : What makes this space specific is not its overall shape, which is very simple, archetypal; it’s something found on a different level, in the details, like the construction technique, for example, or a surface that can be taken apart. Architecture is no longer a composition of volumes, it’s now based on the philosophy of electronics in which objects no longer have just one function (like computers, for example). The urban network is characterized by a portable computer every 20 square meters. As for the rest of the city, it’s nothing but a set of infrastructures! The way space is used changes over time. The city, in Milan or Paris, is still the same. Nothing has changed in the architectural landscape except, of course, for a few new buildings. But if we take a doser look, we’ll notice that universities have been set up in factories, museums in gasworks, banks in garages.
Catherine David: It seems to me that your work makes references to other cultures and civilizations. l’m thinking in particular of Japon, Japanese space, culture, rhythm.
Andrea Branzi : Yes. The poetic quality, the aesthetic quality of space—which in my installations can be found in the delicacy and poetry of the ikebana—is, I think, the big political problem of today. In our society we’re going to have to improve the quality of the hospitality, of the habitability of both the environment and the modern metropolis, or else there will be a serious political crisis. I remember the speech given by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky when he received his Nobel prize. He said that the crisis that shook the socialist countries was the result of an aesthetic crisis, because the aesthetic shock produced by an environment that’s out of control, where there’s no quality of living, produces an ethical shock, for aesthetics and ethics are closely related. So we have to be very careful, for in addition to the ecological problem, aesthetic pollution can affect the quality of our everyday living space and lead to political protest. This has not yet been understood on a political level. Thus, in my work I seek an aesthetic quality of space, which I believe is a question of a political nature. Ecologists only talk about the problem of the overall quality of the environment, but in my opinion they don’t understand that there’s another problem as well, a problem of aesthetic pollution, which can also produce another kind of crisis. As we saw in the socialist countries. Joseph Brodsky’s analysis is very interesting. I knew those countries quite well, and it really was like that. Their social System was based on the idea that ail that was needed was to take care of social issues by using the right formulas. No, that’s not enough. Life is more complex than that.
Catherine David: This ethical plea for aesthetics, which could also be attributed to a conservative point of view, is forward-looking in your case. You’re very interested in new inventions, in new developments, in a potential clash between materials. And it has nothing to do with an interest in beauty for beauty’s sake—which would inevitably be the beauty of a past age.
Andrea Branzi : I don’t think l’m the only one, many others share the same concern. For example, last spring, we organized an exhibition of young Italian designers at the Milan Triennale. It was an experience that was full of surprises. Design has now become a mass profession, but when I started out in Milan there were only about twenty designers. We asked young designers to send in their projects for the exhibition via the Internet, and we received over 1,500 proposals. And it’s not just an Italian phenomenon. There are 50,000 students studying design in Europe, 70,000 in Japan, nearly 35,000 in Korea. In the past few years, China has opened 200 design schools. Design has become a mass profession, even in countries that aren’t very industrialized, because it’s considered to be an energetic field that produces innovation. Design has become a major protagonist today because globalized competition makes it necessary for companies to innovate every single day. For this exhibition at the Triennale we chose approximately 200 young designers who work, not on tables or chairs or sofas, as in our tradition, but in an interstitial domestic area, i.e., on small things, on very light, pleasurable objects. They’re aiming to get into the empty spaces of contemporary society, to create a certain quality of hospitality, of habitability in the city via things that seem quite useless. It’s very important to work on useless things.
Catherine David: You’re a designer who has often worked on objects verging on the useless, or of paradoxical utility, thought-provoking objects that onticipate certain cultural or sociol changes. And it seems to me that this is also found in the work of certain designers that you’re interested in, like the Bouroullec brothers. You’ve also created objects that, in terms of scale and usage, were more like « models, » somewhere between architecture and object. This is far removed from the doxa that sees design as purely functional and productivist, intended for a purely consumerist society.
Andrea Branzi : Yes, that’s true. I talk about uselessness in a positive sense, as a quality that represents an overfiowing of energy, an overflowing of generosity. In my opinion, investing a lot of energy in this idea of uselessness is something that’s very important on an anthropological level, because all civilizations and societies have developed by putting lots of energy into things we call useless: music, poetry, art, enjoyable things. That is what has enabled civilizations to develop, not just functional objects. It’s knowing how to add a gift to what already exists, like a flower, and that’s very important on the social and political level. We need this kind of attention, innovation and generosity, things which are materialized through objects of hospitality. Japanese civilization has put a lot of energy into this sort of thing. If we look at the great Japanese interior designers—Shiro Kuramata, for example—we can see that it’s the interior that produces this sense of hospitality.
Catherine David: Let’s talk about your recent objects, ond those you’re exhibition at the Fondation Cartier. The more I look at them and the more I Iisten to you, the more it seems to me that your work subverts the idea (and the practice) of applied productivist functionalism. These works make me think of the work of Helio Oiticica or Fausto Melotti, even though the materiality of your objects is much more complex. They aren’t useful objects, certainly, in the way that a work of art isn’t useful, but they suggest other possibilities to us, such as slowing down or stopping when things are going too fast, inviting people to think, to get bock in touch with their sensorial and emotional faculties.
Andrea Branzi : In order to answer the question, « Are these objets d’art or not? » l’d say that they’re objects of design that belong, in my opinion, to a certain type of Italian tradition. I say « Italian » in référence to a certain philosophy. That is, they use a technique for its aesthetic possibilités and art for its technical possibilities. Their domain is neither in the area of artistic performance nor of technical performance. Take, for example, the use of glass. Glass is an extraordinary material, it’s transparent, but it’s usually used in a traditional way, such as here in the Fondation Cartier building, where it is sustained within a structure that supports it. But glass can also be used in other ways in architecture. For example, in the Ellipse, the use of weaving makes it possible for the glass not to be sustained by a metal frame. At the CIRVA we worked on creating glass that would be self-sustaining, that could support itself. In other words, we can use these techniques and technology to serve art and art can be used to serve technology. That, in my opinion, is the territory of design. I describe my book, Weak and Diffuse Modernity, as a work of « theoretical physics ». That’s what my work always is: it’s not applied physics, it lies within the area of theoretical applications over time. So much is changing in society, in the economy, in cities, and in technology that it’s impossible for architecture to function without an experimental laboratory. We need to have that possibility, we need an activity that’s not concerned with immediate market applications, an activity that demands another kind of time, specific tools, but which will have real effects. There’s a lot of energy these days in contemporary design, but it all seems to go towards producing new types of chairs, sofas, tables and lamps. However, these objects never make it to the market. Architecture, on the contrary, is still seen as a profession linked to the business of building and construction, whose growth is determined by the market. But the reality is much more complex, architecture also needs to have its own area of independent research, its own forms of thought, of experimentation. In fact, the difference today between a designer and an architect is not so much a professional difference as a philosophical difference.
Leanne Sacramone: Your exploration of the idea of horizontality, of territory as extending into space, which is connected to agriculture, can be found in the Ellipse. And the interweaving of naturel materials—such as rope—brings to mind very basic handicraft techniques. How is this installation related to these ideas?
Andrea Branzi : That’s right, in this installation we find the theme of architecture as an activity which is less figurative and more enzymatic, i.e., which transforms the territory horizontally; architecture that is closer to agriculture than to the contemporary exhibitionist buildings of today. An agricultural landscape is extraordinary because it’s a culture that’s horizontal, spread out, that doesn’t have a definite boundary, that can change. It’s a territory that’s almost infinite and that changes over time (changing the crops isn’t a big problem), but which has never produced a « cathedral, » in other words, a powerful symbol. Contemporary agriculture has reached the highest level of technology because it’s a genetic technology that’s linked to changes over time, over the seasons, changes in the weather, with a self-adjusting equilibrium that changes with time. I think the relationship between architecture and agriculture is a theme for the future. During the Classical Age, agriculture was a semi-architectural reality and architecture was a semi-agricultural reality. It was a mixture (in the Mediterranean countryside, you can see this very interesting kind of mix). In the 20th century, an alliance between architecture and industry was established, and this is the basis of all modem movements. Perhaps with the current developments in contemporary culture, we can start thinking of a new alliance between architecture and agriculture. In my work, I often try to incorporate natural materials or symbolic forms associated with nature directly into the architecture.
Catherine David: What you express about the political aspect of your work could be related to what’s been called the « distribution of the sensible, » as defined by Jacques Rancière, i.e., that the political potential, the possibilities of a work lie not in the gesticulation, in the proclamation of an ideological position, but in a System of differences, nuances and qualities that allow a subject to experiment, to imagine and to (re)position him or herself within the « sensible » and political space.
Andrea Branzi : I think the role of democracy is not just to provide social justice. The aim of democracy is the quality of the city—to create an environment of the highest quality. The aim of politics is also justice, equality, etc., but it cannot be achieved without visible results. Solving one problem is not enough. The problem of equality is very important, but if the city isn’t improved in a visible, audible, real way, that becomes a very serious political shortcoming. This is an idea that politics is starting to consider, although it still tends to focus on one single problem—the quality of the environment, the ecological issue. But that’s just one element among others, and in wanting to respond to only one single problem, we have to be careful not to cause an aesthetic catastrophe, l’m constantly arguing with my designer friends who work in ecological design and who end up making paper furniture that’s an aesthetic disaster. I tell them to be careful because if preserving the environment means making a more brutal, more unpleasant environment, then it’s a solution I can’t accept. Ecologists, in my opinion, want to resolve one single problem. But solving only one problem on that scale becomes dangerous, because reality is so much more complex. Using sustainable, recycled materials is good, but one also has to take into account the cultural quality of the space. It’s a very important factor.
Paris, December 2007