Ferlenga / Gallagher / Gattara / Gepshtein / Havik / Mallgrave / Miglietta / Pasqualini / Postiglione / Rich / Robinson / Ruzzon / Sim / Weisen
‘Fuck the context!’ When Rem Koolhaas launched this claim in 1989 in his competition entry for the ‘Trés Grande Bibliotèque’ in Paris(1) announcing the final divorce between the architectural bigness of our age(2) and the shape of the context—he perhaps would never have thought that this simple invective would become the manifesto of the objectification of contemporary architecture.
In disregarding the threads that potentially sew together fragments of the urban fabric, Koolhaas was actually consolidating the damnation of modernity, already well-tailored at the beginning of the last century in the West. Deprived of physical, social and cultural context, architecture gradually acquired the status of an object, sometimes ennobled as a piece of art, an installation, or a sculpture. No life inside, only images to be perceived from outside.
Thirty-one years later, a being fifty/one hundredth nanometers long named SARS-COV2, definitively brought us all to the end of that trajectory—depriving people of the actual context of life. Never before have we been confronted with the importance of the quality of the context in which are lives are embedded. Both indoors and outdoors—never we have had the chance to feel this sensorial deprivati on in our own bodies so profoundly. This simple fact has been radically magnified in the digital surrogate we necessarily adopted, namely in web chats.
If the digital screen seems to have saved our communications, at the same time, cognitive science has clearly demonstrated that our physical context is fundamental to meaningful experience.(3) Everyone recognises the sense of emptiness after a week of chats in front of the screen. Without contextual cues, multi-sensorial integration cannot truly take place—the almost imperceptible delay between visual and auditory signals is sufficient to freeze our mirror systems(4), and consequently inhibits the emotional involvement among participants in a web chat. This crucial fact together with the absence of other bodily cues leads to a heavier reliance on our adaptive capacities of attention and focus, inevitably leading to mental fatigue and stress.
Without concrete spatial scaffolding our memories cannot be contextualised—rendering both our memories and our experiences weak and fleeting. The deep intertwining of memory and context is crucial to our identity, and in their absence, our identity could be reshaped artificially, as if inside a video game. The absence of context of the digital screen is the apotheosis of the tendencies present since the time of Leone X’s Rome(5). Modernity surgically operated as a razor to the historical fabric of preexisting cities, and the failure to intertwine dialogue with context led to the all-too familiar spectre of an architecture of isolated objects in absolute emptiness.
The call to restore contextual meaning by sewing novelty into the deeper layers of the city’s memories was rapidly eclipsed under the massive pressure of the ‘Generic City,’ the architectural ideology of late capitalism, and in the opposite direction, by misguided nostalgic approaches to the same issue. Our memories are tremendously affected by this deprivation, and analogically our cities and their inhabitants are deprived of depth. The de-contextualised interface of digital communication necessitated by the pandemic brings the importance of the context back into the discussion, and it is to this inquiry that we dedicate this issue of Intertwining.
1. Along a debate, at the University Iuav Venice, the 7th June 2012, titled ‘Ancient and New, dangerous relationships’ Rem Koolhaas rebuilt the context in which the famous claim had been launched, for the first time. See Esther Giani ‘Rem Koolhaas. Working with History’ Iuav giornale dell’università:120.
2. Bigness, is a concept developed by Koolhaas, to explain the detachment between cities and new architectures, as a consequence of the hyper-extension of figures and programs’ requests, raised by the late capitalism developers. So, in his view the bigness is a necessity, with no possible other realistic solutions, and with the obvious consequences toward the towns’ fabric. See ‘Bigness or the Problem of Large’, an essay contained in SMLXL, published by Monacelli Press NY 1995.
3. Extensive research has been developed around the role of space for health. The discovery of the place cells, first, and later of borders, grid, head-direction, and vector cells, in the hippocampus, and in many other neighbouring regions, have underpinned the definitive and crucial role of space in the strengthening of physical and mental health. For a quick review of this field see Wayfinding, The Art and Science How We Find and Lose Our Way, by Michael Bond, Picador Press London 2020.
4. ‘The Role of the Human Mirror Neuron System in Supporting Communication in a Digital World’ by Kelly Dickerson and others, in Frontier n. 12 May 2017.
5. The great urban axes imposed by the Papacy in the Renaissance, gutting the medieval fabric of Rome, are read by Mafredo Tafuri, following Robert Klein and Walter Benjamin, as a large-scale manifestation of the Modern. With the development of the optical machine, or the scientific perspective, those urban transformations will mark the first triumph of the age of the image the scientific perspective, those urban transformations will mark the first triumph of the age of the image. See ‘Interpreting the Renaissance’ by Manfredo Tafuri, first Italian edition Einaudi 1992.
Alessandro Gattara, Sarah Robinson, Davide Ruzzon