Letter from the Editors

Baukultur: Nostalgia for the Future


Arbib \ Condia \ Di Gregorio \ Durth \ Escoda \ Frampton \ Gattara \ Hirshfield \ Holl \ Macleod \ Mehrotra \ Olszewska \ Pehnt \ Perez-Gomez \ Robinson \ Rueda \ Ruzzon \ Sigel

The Davos Economic Forum in January 2018, declared their mandate to engage Culture in the shaping of our artificial environments. One must ask why this illustrious summit dedicated to economic and political concerns and the infinite and progressive enhancement of their late capitalist outcomes, suddenly recognized that the quality of the built environment deserves such urgent attention?
Beyond the economic, political and social consequences of placeless environs and sickening buildings, there is something still more profoundly at stake in the configuration of our human habitat. At the very origin of human development, the artificial shape of the environment has formed the human mind. And, as some now suggest, the very form of our architectural settings may have triggered the Mind Evolution, the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution some twelve thousand years ago. Thanks to the plasticity of our brain/body, and our innate inclination to couple with the surrounding world, our ancestors developed progressively refined meanings and social bonds. This was perhaps the definitive step in the Neolithic Revolution, contributing to the complete growth and complexity of our vocal capacity, and therefore to spoken language and eventually to writing.
In this scenario, a clue to the urgency of the Davos Declaration gains immediate clarity: brain plasticity is not only progressive, but also regressive. What does this mean? If the configuration of our artificial environment did indeed decisively shape our evolution, what caused succeeding generations to impoverish that same environment with such flagrant disregard—how did we find ourselves in this destruction, this polluted, meaningless and absurd arrangement of contemporary cities and surroundings that seem only to worsen.

BauKultur is the compound of two different words and two different worlds: Bau and Kultur. The first is the external, tangible built world in which we live; the latter is the invisible structure of behavior, practices, customs with their multifarious nuances that seem to exist inside our minds. What kind of Culture should we transfer to future generations, and what would be the right way to compose materials in a way that would meaningfully contribute to and nourish human becoming?
The kind of Culture we have to assume as a guiding reference is certainly not the techno-economic one, whose sole aim is to maximize the profits of the private realm without regard to social and democratic values. Such insidious motives have undeniably contributed to the environmental, social and psychological devastation with which we must now reckon. Techné, split off from humanistic culture by Rationalism and dealt its final blow in the Enlightenment, was reduced to the sterile calculating thought. In this framework, our bodies are inevitably subdivided by the fragmented perspectives of the different sciences. As Picasso and Braque intuited more than a century ago, we are incapable of even conceiving of wholeness in the context of Rationalism. Our image, our bodies, and our surroundings are the precise portrait depicted by the Cubists: split and scattered.
Culture dwells not only in the celestial spheres. Culture also means to cultivate, as a way of taking care of the life of an organism. We humans were simply organisms from the very inception, and remain so: our peculiarity consists in the inseparable coexistence of bios and nous. We need to find a Culture able to care for the implicit human need to couple with the Bau--with building processes. To find the proper transformation of our contexts of life, we have to search for a Culture constitutively able to join the human sciences, philosophy, art, and architecture.
How can we best assemble elements and materials in the process of making? We must first take into consideration the ultimate role of manufacturing space around us. If the evolutionary leap has been strictly connected to the externalization of Myth, Memories, and Rituals in the form of artificial settings, we can move forward asking ourselves how those thoughts and emotions, incipient in the mind of our ancestors, were able to find to shape, to mirror themselves, into the external physical environment. Refinement and prediction, memory, and projection: these words are likely the keys to reconcile brain, body, mind, and environment in a multidisciplinary dialogue. The progressive refinement of bodily gestures, from Homo Erectus, first triggered the interlacing of primary with the more subtle background emotions, the extraordinary capacity of humans to predict with increasing rapidity the immediate future as the possible outcome of movements and actions, the accumulation of diverse daily experiences; the intertwining of different expectations with intricately layered emotional valences has very slowly been transferred from long term memory directly into the bios, to the DNA. And further, the fundamental human need to project desire, emotion and myth into the external environment, in the form of bodily gestures, movements, and rituals, produced useful affordances in space, but also gradually and more crucially these functional features, from their very inception, ripened into, and became metaphor.
When the ‘ritual affordances’, have been elevated and transformed into metaphors, that is the precise moment when Poetry found its first home. And from that moment, cognitive evolution increased rapidly. The artificial settings of hunters and gathers were a sort of gymnasium of the mind, or as Alva Noë suggests, a kind of second consciousness—a catalyst of poetic actions and reactions.
Bau should be the mirror of a Kultur able to reconcile human expectations, or what we might more fittingly call the poetic desire of humans with the shape of our environment. Precisely for this purpose, we should now focus our attention on the definition of what it means to be fully human in our age. If we are always also animals, we must carefully pay attention to the attunement between our emotions and our settings, as the attunement of architecture with human demands, depicted as emotional potentiality, has been fundamental to human cognitive evolution. Recognizing and responding to deeply rooted primal human needs, is mandatory to finding the proper way to compose architectural elements capable of creating harmony, in every sense of the word.

‘Nothing is more useful than a good theory’ said Kurt Lewin, as someone quoted, on the Inaugural Day at the ANFA Conference 2018 in San Diego. So now, we are asking, “How can we attune the ‘metaphorical architectural affordances’ with the poetic desire of people, with the diffused sophisticated multifaceted cocktails of emotions, pre-reflectively evoked each day?” Researchers and scholars over the course of the last decades have defined many aspects, many essential bricks. As Louis Kahn said about the brick, “It wants to be an arch,” we could also say that all the bricks made through research in neuroscience and other disciplines, consistently now want to be internally organized to make feasible the attunement of human needs with the urban and architectural environment.

Which bricks do we choose? The profound role of natural settings, proportions and fractal geometries, the crucial weight of light, pre-reflective responses, colors, materials, human scale and perceptual limits, space mapping knowledge, topology, proprioception and movement relationships, proxemics of boundaries, enrichment of context and engagement: these are some of the bricks now available thanks to hundreds of papers written in the last decade. Our shared approach is far removed from the idea of casting architecture in a role subservient to science: it is rather that architecture can be informed by science in a relationship “built upon love,” to borrow the endearing words of Alberto Pérez-Gómez--not slavery. This approach is not a way to legitimize architecture in the eyes of the capitalist marketplace. Our aim is rooted in the effort to acknowledge and support the deepest and most generative human needs, and locate them at the heart of the building process.

Is Baukultur, a purely nostalgic term? If we see how dramatically the primary emotions of anger and fear are correlated with mental diseases in our chaotic megalopolis. If we consider the tremendous pressure of the Climate Emergency forcing us to give up our destructive addiction to fossil fuel and endless consumption, the darling cornerstones of capitalism on whose foundations modern cities have been built--we must admit that the design and management of those cities has been decisively wrong. The most profound economic reasons for social depression have been perpetuated rather than alleviated. We now must redefine the role of the urban planning and the real objective of architectural design. The word nostalgia is rooted in the word, nostos, which means place, and algia, which means pain. Nostalgia in its deepest sense means the pain of being torn from a beloved place. Our dwelling places have decisively shaped who we are -- and for better or worse -- will determine who we will become. Perhaps Baukultur means not having nostalgia for the past, but the nostalgia, the very possibility of having a future.

Alessandro Gattara, Sarah Robinson, Davide Ruzzon