Illustrations and text by Alberto Favaro
In the town hall of Siena, inside the Council Room, there is a cycle of frescoes painted in 1339 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. They form two allegories, each composed of two representations: the good and the bad government with their relative effects. While in the allegory of good government a personification of the Commune of Siena is depicted sitting between the virtues, in the allegory of the bad one a personification of the Tyranny sits between the vices and figures of evil. Close to each of them their respective effects are depicted: a vision of a prosperous Siena surrounded by a peaceful landscape, opposed to the one of a derelict Siena encircled by an unsafe and unproductive countryside.
One allegory is facing the other in the opposite wall of the room, setting consequently the limits of the world, as it could possibly be imagined.
In the middle of it, bordered by those representations, the council of the time was called to decide the future of the city. Whatever future they would chose, it would always stand in between these two allegorical representations. No chosen government would be possibly worse than the one imagined in the bad allegory, neither better than the one depicted in the good one.
In fact, if the reality would for some reason exceed the idealization of those two extremes (thing that never happen), then those visions would lose their idealization and goal. The representation of the “bad government” would become paradoxically one of a “good government”, at least when compared with the new real one, or vice versa; then the need to paint a new ideal representation (worse in this case) would arise on top of the old one, to aspire to, or to escape from. A new idealization would be needed, to contain the new reality.
Using a term coined later on (XVI century), we can than say that in order to imagine the future of Siena, the councilors had to place themselves between the utopia they wished, and the dystopia they wanted to to avoid.
Under this perspective the council room could be seen as an allegory in itself: the frescoes were bordering the council physically (being in fact part of the perimeter walls of the room) as much as imaginatively, representing the limits within which councilors could imagine any potential new world. The wider the distance between the two opposite visions, the broader would the range of possible real worlds to be chosen or escape form. Both visions (utopian and dystopian) although inverse, do in fact share the same objective –the good government, albeit the former through emulation, the other through fear.
Those are probably the reasons why both visions (and not just the utopian one) had been extensively depicted and explored by painters and architects, or narrated by saints, philosophers and novelists (of science fiction and not), despite Plato’s injunction that the bad should never be represented.
History is packed with examples of how imaginative representations have been used as mediators to investigate or communicate the possible world thought out of its limits.
Avoiding ancient examples, I would like instead to invoke some visions closer to us, as the ones conceived at the beginning of the century by the avant-gardes, or in the 60s by the radical movements. Drawings and collages of fictional architecture became manifestos tapping, as explained, into both the utopian and the dystopian imaginary.
Among the most famous count the highly mechanized and industrialized cities imagined by the futurist Santa Elia; the urban visions developed by the expressionist architects for movies as “The Golem” and “Metropolis” (an interesting case where a utopian and dystopian city coexist, one literally on top of the other); and, later on, among the radical architects of the 60s, it is definitely worth to remember the “Walking Cities” imagined by Archigram and the “Continuous Monument” by Superstudio. All visions were far from being close to what reality could become (or at least not in short term), yet were aware that their function was the same as the one of the frescoes in the council room of Siena: to increase the possibilities of the real and create idealizations to aspire to.
A quip by the expressionist architect Bruno Taut, well summarizes the utopian ambitions that animated visionary drawings during the avant-gardes period:
“Today there is almost nothing to build… lets us consciously be imaginary architects!”. It was written as the incipit for his epistolary exchange of architectural visions “Gläserne Kete ”, a correspondence that took place during the professional inactivity experienced in the second world war.
What makes this imagined architecture the favorite research mediator for all those visionary architects and planners? I will venture an explanation since, drawing imaginary spaces is part of my activity as an architect as well, and I consider it a significant activity, as much as it may seem like a naive representation of purposeless architecture.
First of all, in order to better frame this activity, it is useful to tackle the distinctions between the design finalized in construction and the one of pure visions.
Architecture, as the activity preceding that of construction, exists and is characterized by the presence of a demand. A client (private or public) points out an issue and the architecture is supposed to be the response to it. In contrast, unlike built architecture, drawn visions are not intended as pragmatic and targeted answers to a problem. Rather, their reason for existence is precisely to raise questions about what otherwise seems unproblematic and self-evident. If visionary architecture has, from its conception, the awareness that it will never be build (as the allegories in Siena), it also has the advantage (vis-a-vis built architecture) that, not only does it allow a wider range of answers to emerge due to its not adherence to reality, but actually it empowers itself to question the demands themselves, and possibly reformulate them. It is then evident that developing architectonic visions is not just the freedom to represent what is unfeasible thereby expanding the limits of our thinking, but it is mainly a different modality of thought.
To put it in another way, it is a different attempt to negotiate the future. It is an approach to the future, not just as management of expectations and a unproblematic adaptation to them, but actually a pure creation. Visionary architecture posits a future that is not so much limited by the present (intended as contextual restrictions to which to respond), but mainly by our capacity to imagine it and construct possibilities for it.
Let us see then how an imaginative architecture could develop in the absence of demand, with its attendant impediments and compelling issues.
Besides the obvious fact that non-adherence with reality allows visionary architecture the freedom from physical laws such as gravity, it also identifies pure research and speculative thoughts as its only goals. Imaginative architecture should then be seen mainly as coinciding with the process more than the final visions delivered. It is an architecture of the possibilities, opposed to the constructive one of exhaustion thereof.
In this context it becomes clear that not all architectonic visions could be considered utopian or dystopian, nor have this as their own scope. Not all visions are intended to represent states of absolute goodness or badness. Instead they should often be intended as a challenge and problematization of the way we understand the present and the idea of the future we have.
In line with these intentions, then, imaginary architecture could purposely explore the oddity and the paradoxical as potential fractures in the common understanding of reality we just tacitly accept. As Eugeno Montale put it in a famous poem: “[..] the error in nature, the still point of reality […] in order to get at the true.” (Montale, 1925)
Last point but not the least: how does the role of architects and planners change when, as Bruno Taut (1985) put it, they become “consciously imaginary architects”?
Visionary architecture not only widens the possibilities of architecture but it even widens the role of the architect. The profession of the architect nowadays is mired in a series of specialized fields, where it is less and less demanded of them to have a complete vision of the circumstances within they are operating, let alone develop visionary worlds. The development of such imaginative visions in fact does not only need a certain recklessness of thought but mainly the need to engage with and draw on fields that are quite far from the ones architects usually are asked to haunt: such as the political, the social and the economic, just to list some of them. Well, I think that today more than ever, with an architecture that becomes more and more self-referential and marginalized, there is still the need for architectonic visions, or better, allegories, as the ones depicted in the council room of Siena.
Alberto Favaro is an Italian architect currently residing in Malta, where he has lived since 2005. His architectural work has always been accompanied by artistic research. As a part of it he produces graphic works and drawings of imaginary architecture known as “Architectural Conflicts”.
-“Metropolis”, (1927), film directed by Fritgz Lang, set designed by Eric Kettelhut.
-Bruno Taut, “Gläserne Kete ”, epistolary exchange that took place between November 1919 and December 1920 published in, Iain Boyd Whyte, (1985), “Crystal Chain Letters: Architectural Fantasies by Bruno Taut and His Circle”, MIT Press.
-Eugenio Montale, (1925), “I limoni,” Ossi di seppia”, Piero Gobetti Edizioni, Torino.