(Preparatory notes for an oral intervention in the closing session of the Architects’ Congress of Catalonia, held at the headquarters of the professional architects’ association (COAC), in Barcelona, on 24 November 2016.)
I have been asked to speak about values in architecture.
I am faced with a twofold difficulty:
– On the one hand, the breadth of the subject – which makes it difficult sometimes to advance with pure abstraction, and easy to get stuck in commonplaces.
– On the other, we find the difficulty, in the contemporary world, of speaking of general, commonly accepted values. Value is always a cultural phenomenon, which means social and historic – which means in transition, changing.
While accepting the inevitable relativism, I will try to speak in terms of what is, obviously, my viewpoint, but with an approach that aspires to be broader, with more collective interests.
I. Architecture and society:
Architecture is the expression of the world. Without it, the world would be unintelligible.
Our relationship with the social phenomenon is, then, direct, structural.
Architecture reflects/formalises social energies, and also forces and passions, without well-meaning idealisms: will to power, pettiness… though I would add two things.
a) Our professional tradition supposes that the qualified project is built on a foundation of generosity, openness, the search for the best possible future.
I think of our modern history: from the social hygiene movement in the nineteenth century that changed the typological conception of space, to the search for mass housing in the 1920s, with studies of the Existenzminimum or analyses of the internal functioning of the dwelling…
Our activity has always worked for the future, and for a better future.
b) The architecture-society relation is not deterministic, it is not based on cause and effect. Always, after the analysis, after the data, after popular participation, a project has to emerge. And this role of synthesising data and determinations to create a project, to produce a new reality, is that of architects, it is our role. And if we do not accept it, others will (sociologists, geographers, politicians…), because it is necessary. Analysis and accumulation of data do not automatically lead to a project.
II. Architecture as a physical narrative:
Architecture is directly related with the world of matter, of space, of sensible experience. And this brings us into contact with the world of science, but also with the world of sensations.
A project is always an idea, a dream that has to be controlled to make it reality.
And our work, as I see it, gravitates between two poles: one is ideal, utopian, abstract and pure; the other is material, raw, physical. This dialectic is typical of architecture and points to certain limits: pure political, ideological will, or pure manual sensibility.
III. Shared values:
I referred earlier to the difficulty involved, and the relativism surround it. But in this context, I would like – with many provisos – to pronounce some of the values that underlie our activity.
These common values are not the product of the present moment. They are old, they have always been there. They are the values that were first proposed by Vitruvius (the original theoretician of architecture), and then recalled by Alberti, during the Renaissance.
And they are, still today:
Firmitas: the search for solidness, the value of matter, the importance of construction.
Commoditas: use, wellbeing, space. Architecture is not just surface or volume, it also has an interior. And, in this interior, human life develops.
Venustas: the desire for beauty, transcendence, an instrument of connection and permanent communication of humankind.
On this basis, I think we can, with pride, defend our territory.
Which belongs to all of us.
Josep Lluís Mateo
Excerpt from Josep Lluís Mateo’s intervention (in Catalan).