6 letters on Architecture

Failures

Dear Rem,

in the upcoming Venice Biennial, I have accepted to present and comment one of my recent and more visible professional failures — the settlement designed for the unhappened 2009 G8 in Sardinia — which is nowadays in a state of total abandonment.

Facing that failure — not caused by me, but inevitably linked with my personal commitment — I was reflecting on the rarity of descriptions of failures in the architectural rhetoric; on the resistance we normally exercise to make our fiascos explicit — and use them as fertile experience.

Why does all this happen? Are our failures a sort of dark, b/side material? Is this amnesia determined by the frequent non-epic nature of our fiasco? “Learning from failure”, is this something we cannot accept?

Best,
Stefano


Dear Stefano,

crucial subject… I think the answer is that under the market economy, you cannot talk about failure openly because its a crime, it does not only discredit you but the entire profession with it… But that makes it exciting when you break the taboo, the way you did in the film, very compelling and somehow very “new”… I used to do it a lot, but that was easier, failure was competitions you lost…

Best,
Rem


» Stefano Boeri forwarded the conversation to Peter Eisenman

Dear Stefano,

I am a little perplexed about your proposed project. First, I think that the terms “success” and “failure” do not apply to architecture, especially in relation to competition winning and losing. Perhaps “good” or “bad” might more appropriate. Let me give you an example: Rem lost the Lavillette competition but it was not a failure. It remains one of his best projects. The same goes for his Jussieu Library project and his Très Grande Bibliothèque de France project. Both of which he lost but they certainly were not failures. In fact they are among his best and most radical.
I lost the Quai Branly Museum competition to Jean Nouvel, but my project was certainly not a failure. I think asking architects to examine their failures will only lead to a covering up of real failures. Perhaps the necessary dialog that you want needs to be couched in different terms. What these are I am open to speculate with you.

Peter Eisenman


Dear Peter,

thanks a lot for your answer. I’m not referring my considerations, though, to the “failures in the design competitions” (not only to them, at least — you are right: we count so many cases of “loosing proposals” that were more successful in the media and the theoretical sphere, then the winners were).

I’m more interested in questioning why we don’t speak enough about our real failures. We do mistakes that, once built, we cannot erase nor correct. We produce spatial effects that sometimes are penalizing their physical and social context. We accept compromises that sometime become treasons…

This happens in every discipline and professional commitment. But — that’s the point — we, as “cultivated architects” are simply not used to talk about our failures in public. We refuse to mention our failures in our lectures, essays, or conferences… We prefer to present ourselves as the main characters of a continuous sequence of victories.

Why is this happening? Which kind of hidden bias is forcing us to avoid accepting and using the fertile amount of information and knowledge we could extract from the explicit address of our failures?

Best,
Stefano


» Stefano Boeri forwarded the conversation to Vittorio Gregotti

Dear Stefano,

I believe I am better known for the failure of two projects that I consider to be important still today – the Zen quarter in Palermo and the University of Calabria – than for other projects such as the Bicocca quarter in Milan, my stadiums in Spain and North Africa, the opera theatre in Aix-en-Provence or the residential quarter in Pujiang, China, to name a few, whose completion came about in a positive manner amid normal difficulties.
Then there are the competitions that I justly or unjustly lost.
I have written a great deal about the mostly political reasons for my built failures and the ones I designed but that remained unbuilt. I can send you some of these writings.
The most interesting ones might be the musings on the buildings where we admit to having made mistakes, either in the general layout or in details, which sometimes adopted solutions that did not correspond to the intentions of what should have been proposed.
It’s up to you to decide which of these different reflections is the most stimulating.

Kind regards,
Vittorio Gregotti