Towards a precarious architecture

by Alessandro Zorzetto, published in the volume P.I.G.S., edited by Escuela Moderna / Ateneo Libertario, Milieu Edizioni, Milan, 2016, pp. 68-77

The other day, in a moment of overflowi, I thought it might be a solution to temporarily dust off the Epicurean lathe biosasii to find a moment of serene independence. I realise that I spend my entire existence rejecting and running away, chasing an illusion. Refusal of school, of church, of work. Escape from affection, from communities, from places. In search of autonomy, independence, freedom. There is no escape: I always find myself caught in a new net, a net that tightens and delineates the boundaries of reality. There is no reality without a net, and freedom, in the highest sense of the word, is just an illusion: after all, we are always dependent on something. So we find ourselves calling freedom what is instead a comfortable net, which allows a reasonable range of action imprinted by desire. One feels free when one does not come up against the limit. Freedom in this case becomes the expression of a desire limited a priori. And it is for this freedom that we must fight.

Liberal profession

We are talking about a profession that, although it is called liberal profession, only retains the etymology of freedom. After eight years of compulsory schooling and at least ten years of specific studies, you have to sit a state exam to join a professional association, and then have a tax status, with the obligation of continuous training and payment of taxes, contributions and annual fees for membership of the Associationiii and professional insurance. This is the minimum to be able to sign and stamp a project as an architect. Once you have obtained the stamp, you realise that it is time to find a job. Let’s say you have no clients, or you want to gain some experience, so you start looking for a studio, in Italy or abroad, that is similar to your design skills. This is when what some might elegantly call cognitive work capture devices are triggered, but which should simply be called traps: probationary period, internship, stage aka underpaid work, or even unpaid work aka volunteer work, to name but a few. Here is where the naive side of goodwill is uncovered, which, fuelled by a false hope of finally getting a real job, leads us instead to a disappointing job. A bit of the crisis, a bit of the fact that we are the last to arrive, a bit of the fact that there is always a young graduate knocking at the door. After a few months, we find ourselves unemployed, paying taxes and contributions. This happens two, three, four times. So we try to go freelance, we convince ourselves that the most beautiful room in our rented flat should become our studio, we equip ourselves with computers and internet connections and we try to communicate our professionalism to the outside world, the only fixed point in this affair. Most of the assignments, if we have the courage to call them that, come from relatives or friends of relatives, because they are the only ones who have the courage to trust us. We make do with the little that arrives and delude ourselves that one day the situation will improve: we are freer than in our previous jobs, we can now organise ourselves and manage our time independently, we are finally free to develop our talents. But the work does not come, and when it does, we force ourselves to work harder, because only a quality project will make us progress. Instead, it is only quantity that counts, the money you charge for your services, and we realise that the time sacrificed for quality frills has drastically reduced the cost of work, and therefore the very quality of work we are looking for. Time is money.

Liberal Employment

So let us close our imagination in a box and try to see the profession as a tool. We become workers in a service-producing mechanism and devote ourselves to the most superficial part of the process: the production of images, not imagery. The project is taken away from us and we become highly de-qualified technocratic mercenaries, cheap problem solvers embedded in competitive mechanisms, hunters of small money deposits. We become part of an unrepresented workforce, refined performers of a symphony of which we are no longer the composers, each relegated to his own solipsistic position in this dystopian factory. We have gone from being liberal professionals to being liberal employees, not legalised but tolerated, like soft drugs in the capitalist new age. We have lost all the rights for which entire generations before us have fought, we have lost the ability to fight, the system has become part of our DNA through alleged welfare and other media, so much so that we are unable to become aware of all this because we no longer even have the cultural tools to do so. Divide and conquer has survived history and reappears in a congenital and finely structured form. In order to defeat these forms of domination, we will have to start from an inner struggle, which cannot be limited to an individual struggle, but which must become a collective and shared struggle, far from any dogmatic or superstructural imposition, in order to become perhaps, one day, a new reality.

Precarious Architecture

These perceptions gave rise to an attitude, made up of experience, experimentation and attempts, which I will call Precarious Architecture. To explain the meaning of this oxymoron, let us start from the roots of classical architecture, where we find the Vitruvian paradigm: utilitas, firmitas, venustasiv. These are three requisites that qualify any building work of which there is memory, even according to the various declinations that these terms have taken on in different historical periods. Well, if we try to use these three simple words to describe the factual world around us, in most cases we would not be able to use more than two of them at the same time. For example, social housing – useful, solid, but beautiful? Or all the structures built for past World Cups, Olympics, World Expositions: nowadays beautiful, solid, but used? Or all those houses and buildings that collapsed during disasters: solid? The misrepresentation of these three simple concepts is a source of great unease in contemporary society, and it is an unease that is palpable in the cities, suburbs and countryside that we find ourselves passing through every day. What is it that does not work? Here are some possible causes, by way of example: pollution, building speculation, gentrification. And who is behind these mechanisms? Public and private administrations, companies, investors, technicians, consumers. And why do they do it? To continue producing and consuming, to circulate money, to maintain themselves, families, houses, private and public buildings, workplaces, banks, municipalities, regions, provinces, states, to pay credits and debts, in short, for something that basically does not even have an ideology, a sort of godless religion: Capital. Capitalism has managed to squeeze our minds, our bodies, our places, our relationships, our lives and those of present, past and future generations.

So does it still make sense to talk about utilitas, firmitas and venustas in architecture? Before addressing the issue from a theoretical point of view, which would risk leading us prematurely into the sphere of desire, it is necessary to analyse the limits within which architecture is created. Let us talk about work, specifically the work of the architect in the third millennium. Is the architect’s work useful, stable and beautiful? Or is it ugly, useless and precarious? How can an ugly, useless and precarious job produce useful, stable and beautiful architecture? I think this is the fundamental question. This explains the oxymoron Precarious Architecture.

Towards a precarious architecture

By defining architecture as precarious, we legitimise its basic instability. If the work of architecture is destabilised, then along with the profession comes the fall of the ordinance system, which is unable to take action regarding the latest achievement of the 6.800v architects who are qualified to practice every year: the precariousness of the work of architecture. During compulsory courses, but also when reading newspapers and magazines, or going to the Architecture Biennale, self-congratulatory averages and statistics are continually proposed on how the number of architects per inhabitant, per year, in the regions, provinces and states is increasing, to be summed up in European percentages: Italy has produced one third of the architects in Europe. And no one is making any proposals on how to manage this mass of professionals left to their own devices, or on how to put a stop to the continuous recurrence of the problem every year for more than fifteen years now. In the meantime, the social security fund for engineers and architects, a competitor of the Inps, has accumulated a surplus of 901,6vi million euros in a single year, while an architect with a gross income of less than 15,000 euros a year is obliged to pay about 3,000 euros (a fixed amount, not proportional to income) if he wants to have the entire year’s pension contributions recognised. In short: we work all year round, for too long, without managing to save a single euro. Many members withdraw from the profession and invade other spheres of work, becoming labourers or restaurateurs. It is the only way to make ends meet.

But back to the figure of the freelance architect: architect – freelance? The English word is clearly a pleonasm, since freelance implies that it is an autonomous profession. Perhaps it serves to distinguish the freelancer from what we have previously called the liberal employee, who camouflages himself in working environments and is commonly referred to by the epithet “fake VAT number”. But let us see the contradiction inherent in the pleonastic oxymoron: free lance literally means free spear and was a way of defining soldiers of fortunevii, but who are the soldiers of fortune today? The term free-lance is used to refer to professionals registered with the Association and professionals without an Association, the so-called “separate management”, but it could also describe an army of precarious non-professional workers hired by temporary agencies. Here is another key to reading Precarious Architecture: non-professional architect.

So what are the positive qualities of precarious architecture? What is the revolutionary aspect? Catàbasisviii does not have to be a tragedy: as in Dante’s Comedy, we find ourselves in a dark forest, but it is certainly not an expulsion from paradise. We are a multitude going through experiences that resemble circles of hell: internships, apprenticeships, probationary periods, etc. The important thing is to find a way through. The important thing is to find a way not to get caught up in this bandwagon, and to continue. Precarious Architecture is both an awareness and a détournement: let’s see what advantages our situation of decontextualised people can bring us. We can then glimpse a margin of freedom of a figure that is moving from the legal sphere towards that of a-legalityix.

In order to redefine the concept of architecture we put forward a hypothesis, that of questioning the Vitruvian concepts of utilitas, firmitas and venustas. The utility of an artefact executed according to purely architectural techniques may be different from those identified by manuals and legislation, or even be an end in itself, as in the case of an artistic installation. Stability may decline over time if untreated natural materials are used, as is the case with land art works. We are not always able to make a positive aesthetic judgement, for example in the case of an unfinished, incomplete or destroyed work. We can then start talking about non-Vitruvian architecture. In this new dimension, architecture appears to us stripped of the illusion of eternal beauty, often associated with the aesthetics of power, and reveals man, his life, his history and his future. Uses change, buildings decay and disappear, and with them beauty and the concept of immortality, infinitely distant from man and what he is capable of producing. We begin to measure desire against concrete limits and carefully calibrate the construction process. When we are able to build what we have designed ourselves, then we will have accumulated enough experience to entrust its construction to someone else. Only then will we be able to design something human, only when we have learned from our mistakes what time and effort, skill and technique mean. Only when we have understood and verified the characteristics of materials will we be able to predict their behaviour for larger, more complex structures. By using the tools of the trade ourselves, we will be able to understand the profound nature of a job that is a cohesion of strength and intelligence. When the architect becomes a craftsman there is no longer the proverbial distance from his work, and he can no longer be the willing accomplice of the client’s arrogance. This is what self-construction entails.

It also happens that the figure of the architect coincides not only with that of the builder, but also with that of the client. We are entering the world of self-production, a term widely used in times of economic crisis to mark the defeat of a system in which entrepreneurship is tragically relaunched by an army of very young makers, a phenomenon that in Italy immediately breaks against the rocks of the start-up drift, a system in which funding and salaries are mainly collected by the incubators of this type of initiative. If, however, we change the context and refer to experiences carried out within small collaborative communities, the term self-production takes on a different meaning. Self-production becomes a contingent necessity, linked to the development of the community, which with few resources is able to obtain better results than systems in which individuals compete with each other. This is how new practices of knowledge sharing and collaboration arise, in a process of democratisation of work processes, which becomes the manifesto and methodology of an alternative production. In-depth work in close contact with the community is perhaps the only way to fully understand needs, desires and potential, and to create a coherent work. In this way, architecture finally returns to its social role, becoming a goal and a starting point in the evolution of the community, along a path of emancipation.


i Information overload

ii Literally ‘live hidden’, in a state of aponia and ataraxia, i.e. away from sources of pain and disturbance

iii Professional association, in this case the Association of Architects

iv Literally ‘usefulness, solidity and beauty’., in M.V. Pollione, De architectura, 15 b.c.

v Statistical average as of 3 June 2011, covering the period 2000-2008

vi “Inarcassa’s National Committee of Delegates has approved the 2014 Final Financial Statements, which close the year to 31 December, with an economic surplus of €901.6 million, €270.8 million higher than the budget forecast (+21%) and net assets of €8.2 billion.” Inarcassa press release of 12 June 2015

viii Descent into hell

ix Neologism indicating the border between legality and illegality, i.e. the legal sphere in which there are no permits or prohibitions. Cf. S. Cirugeda, Situaciones Urbanas, 2007 Ed. Tenov, Barcelona

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