14 May 2020
by Marco Romanelli
Can silence have something to do with architecture and design? Gio Ponti thought that buildings ought to be judged at night, by moonlight, while people are asleep, so that they are allowed to sing. A poetic approach, forgotten for a while. Architecture shouts these days (and at night, with the lights on, it shouts even more): silence is made to beat a retreat. Has something been lost? I personally think so: shouting doesn’t suit the sublime, if anything it narrates the here and now. The poetic silence practised these days by Tadao Ando, Alvaro Siza, Eduardo Souto de Mura, Alberto Campo Baeza and Thomas Herzog seems to have little appeal. Cocteau’s famous phrase “Le silence marchait, musique en tête” can no long be applied to architecture. Achieving a silence of forms, so dense that it becomes music, is too slow and complex a process for nowadays. It would require architects to carry out a comprehensive “excavation” of the location destined to receive the new building, as well as of their inner selves. A process of “subtraction” because designers can only end up with silence, they can’t start from it (that is aphasia, not silence!). Equally, a user (every one of us) has to take time when confronted with the architecture of silence – the time necessary to allow the music of silence to be absorbed. Refusing to allow ourselves to be daunted by the too big, too promotional, too obvious. Architecture these days has become a sort of “signposting,” but unlike California during the ‘80s (which actually made us smile) when small hot dog (or hamburger) shaped buildings were erected to indicate the presence of a service area in blank extra-urban areas, it demonstrates technical and therefore economic power through a structural and decorative complexity that is as surprising as it is pointless (crooked, curved, fragmented, gilded or logoed). Architecture has lost its independence and has become just another media option (unlike television and the internet, however, it cannot be switched off). One could argue that it always has been, but as applied to cathedrals or noble palazzi, “media” shared by the entire population, symbols of something other than themselves, fundamental elements in the building of a city. These days, apart from museums – the new cathedrals – they consist of banking or insurance skyscrapers, magniloquent headquarters of private companies.
The same applies to design, albeit on a smaller scale: the slow decantation that characterised the work of Jasper Morrison, Maarten van Severen, Pierre Charpin, Paolo Ulian, Michael Anastassiades and Francisco Gomez Paz takes time (again, time for the designer and time for the user). It means relinquishing right from the start that irresponsible light-heartedness, that experimentalism in its own right that begs furnishings that are too brightly coloured, too amorphous, too provocative (how often recently have we been presented with an end of year project by a creative student rather than a useful object?). It means having to wait patiently for a reward that will take years to come, during which time “the noisy objects” in our homes will continue to emit their irritating background hum, while the “silent objects” will be able to accompany us, help us and calm us down, in our everyday lives.
In the end, the sum total of the former will produce a cacophony (see certain “collectors” lofts, featured proudly in interiors’ magazines), while the latter will generate a submerged melody that silence will enable us to hear (and enjoy).
Let us not forget, either, that silence, in both architecture and design, is a valid antidote to “wear and tear.” As we well know, words and marks become worn over time, triggering a mechanism of obsolescence and, consequently, rejection. The “noisy objects” of our past will, sooner or later, become part of our children’s “unloading,” unlike the silent objects that will continue to live with us and with our heirs (and we will teach them to preserve and restore them).
Might one argue that the architectures of silence and the objects of silence basically make for rather boring, not remotely stimulating landscapes? A difficult case to make, given that we each have different perceptual thresholds - however we should not disregard the evidence that architecture and design actually form part of a triad of which the third pillar is art. Art can be delegated the purpose of transgression, the aesthetic shock. Art is an armed warrior, while architecture and design are simple soldiers.
The autobiographical expression of designers (now pretty much “globalised”) is always a danger in design – architects and designers should learn to “look through other people’s eyes” and filter their creativity through collective desires. Basically, they should learn to keep their voices down.
One must “learn to write with words soaked in silence,” Edmond Jabès, 1991