“I consider this work, if you permit me, to be rather good and [something] which will even get better over time. I have tried to put some poetic imagination into it, through not in order to create poetic architecture but to make a certain kind of architecture that could emanate a sense of formal poetry. I mean an expressed form that can become poetry, though, as I said before, you cannot intentionally make poetry.”
- Carlo Scarpa: Can Architecture Be Poetry? 1976(1)
One of the most celebrated architects of the twentieth century, Carlo Scarpa - through a small, concentrated body of work – opened our eyes to the transcendental dimension of architecture. The epigraph above references to Brion Cemetery, in San Vito d’Altivole, a project widely regarded as his magnum opus. It was completed shortly before his accidental death in 1978. From the architect’s own words we can learn at least two things: First is the aspect of time in creative work. Second, poetry in design cannot be intentionally made; it has to become.
There is a third element in his statement, demonstrated, albeit unintentionally, through the way he elaborated on what he meant by poetry. Ironically, he refused to label his work as such. But why? For those of us finding the occasional need to talk about our or other peoples’ work, I wonder if such pet peeve of a rhetorical triviality worth our attention.
Without being overtly didactic, I shall, if you permit me also, explain my predicament with a simple math problem. An MIT physicist and cosmologist once claimed that everything in the universe is part of a large mathematical structure.(2) There is some truth to this statement, if you peek into the world through a pure scientific lens. As you shall see, where it fails to apply lies precisely our predicament.
This is how the math problem goes:
Write an 8 on a piece of paper and uses an eraser to erase the left half of it, then ask yourself: is this a “3”?
The simplicity of our question belies an inherent dilemma. If your answer is affirmative, you are saying half an 8 is 3, which is numerically incorrect. Your answer cannot be negative neither: whichever way you look at it, the symbol is clearly a “3”.
It should be apparent by now that our (trick) question does not lie in the realm of mathematics, but semantics. It exploits an improbable contradiction between a numerical value and a numerical symbol. While this can never happen in genuine mathematics, in semantics the perceived meaning of a word in mainstream culture (its symbol) can diverge from or even contradicts its actual meaning (its value), to the point that renders the word ambiguous or obsolete.
We seldom cross-examine certain rhetoric we have taken for granted, however negligible the differences are between what they seem to mean and what they really mean.
As members of the creative professions, we have our fair share in contributing to this phenomenon. We take liberty in expressing ourselves, whether in designing or talking about design. We accept that these are opinions and preferences in the eye of the beholder, and are not obliged – unless by conscious or conscientious choice – to define or justify our words accordingly. As a result we seldom cross-examine certain rhetoric we have taken for granted, however negligible the differences are between what they seem to mean and what they really mean. What becomes problematic is how incongruent symbols feed back into our thought process and condition how we think and talk about design, and have, over time, created a “meaning dilation” much like how an astronaut experiencing time dilation will become younger than his twin brother on earth.(3)
Here is an example. We often hear people commending a design being contemporary, as if it is a fashionable style. But what exactly are the qualities? If they were based on some loosely interpreted concepts, should a building be designed such that it is interpreted by the client, the architect, or the scrutinizing public as contemporary? What about concerning the passage of time? Can a building remain contemporary amid shifting cultural perception, vogue and technological advancement? If a building can never be truly contemporary, for what purpose are we still designing or calling our design as such?
Timelessness - a notion half cousin to contemporary - is another elusive word worth musing upon. It is used profusely in design and lifestyle publications to earmark the crowning achievement of an architectural work. Often such project is published at the time when it is freshly completed and not yet moved in. The space is immaculately presented in large photographs, with such perfection that it almost seems otherworldly. And surely somewhere down the page you will find the word pinned into a paragraph like a gold medal on the lapel.
Oxford Dictionary defines timeless as “not affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion.” That is one way to look at it. Elsewhere, like in Elton John’s Rocket Man, the word takes on a slightly different meaning.(4) Nevertheless, both describe an opinion or emotional response that is personal, perhaps implying prolonged observation or profound experience. The word is not quite a homonym, but there is an interpretative aspect to it, and is not taken casually.
There were a handful of occasions when I visited noted architecture around the world that I fumble for the right word to describe my reaction to what I saw, and, finding none that could capture such overwhelming sensation, wondering if “timeless” would do justice. Leaving out the ancient architecture that have indisputably withstood the test of time, I can vividly recall my pilgrimage to Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery, and the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. I have also visited grassroots, commoner buildings like the Leça Swimming Pools by Álvaro Siza Vieira and the Apollo School by Herman Hertzberger, and feel the urge to return. During my Massachusetts years, the Eero Saarinen Chapel was only across the street from my classroom. I had spent countless hours sitting in the sanctuary, alone, ruminating on some magic simmering of daylight bouncing off the exterior moat into the dark interior. Something pulled on my heartstrings in all these places, each in its own peculiar way.
One of the most memorable experiences was to visit the Salk Institute by Louis Kahn, in a class trip during my third years in architecture school. As rowdy as a school bus full of college kids we were, the moment we stepped afoot the central courtyard, none of us could utter a word. The tour guide was mumbling something but I could care less. The architecture had completely taken hold of me in a razor-sharp moment that seemed to cut into eternity.
If architecture can be truly timeless, it must be like an empty vessel capable to be filled with time.
Many years have since passed. The sensation lives on this day. My passion for these buildings has not faltered through the passage of time or changes in fashion. By the time I visited them, these buildings and a handful other mid-century architecture I admire were already a few generations old. They were no longer polished by any magazine standard. Some were well used and duly worn in. But they possess qualities that are beyond words. And I am here wondering if they also deserve the gold medal, fearing that the word that is suppose to mean what it means has already worn its meaning thin because it has become too big, too broad and too dilated, that its intrinsic value is overshadowed by a simulacrum which no longer holds any gravity.
Like a meteor storm of other adjectives, including classic, poetic, minimal, beautiful, conceptual, peaceful, spiritual, serene, and silent, catchwords such as contemporary and timeless sometimes fly on such a high plain that they become labels of certain ideologies that we do not fully fathom, let alone emulating them in our own work. It is because we can never create beauty by creating beauty, nor silence by creating silence. They have their own will, their own time, their own worth. They will become when you are not there.
Carlo Scarpa turned 70 years old when he implored us not to label his architecture poetic. He had no desire to justify his work with the convenience of a label or a style. He knew labels and styles have expiratory dates. Instead he tried – almost clumsily – to explain that he did not make poetry. Poetry cannot be intentionally made, nor can it be “explained” with words. Scarpa simply left Brion Cemetery open onto the future, for time to judge its worth, for all of us to experience. If architecture can be truly timeless, it must be like an empty vessel capable to be filled with time.
If our universe were a giant mathematical structure, then architecture must be one of those unsolved conjectures. It confounds us at the onset. It demands a physical presence, but its essences are in the absence. It is an intellectual undertaking, yet not everything can be explained. There are moments when we have to stop stifling architecture with prepackaged rhetorics and start listening to the sound from within, and be content that what you hear is without words. Only then, I believe, can our creations come alive and not bogged down by symbolism. Only then can architecture truly speaks. Otherwise we might as well rewrite the rules of mathematics, and watch our universe crumble into an abyssal chaos of symbols and values. In this wishy-washy universe, the Rocket Man will no longer discern whether he is drifting away with half an 8, or something never quite 3.
(1) P. Noever, Carlo Scarpa: Die andere Stadt, Ernst & Sohn, Berlin 1989, p.17-18.
(2) Tegmark, Max, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, Random House/Knopf. 2014.
(3) A recent case at hand involves former astronaut Scott Kelly having spent one year on a space mission during 2015-16, orbiting around Earth at 17,500 mph. Upon returning, he became older than his twin brother Mark, albeit by some fraction of a second. According to Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity, time moves more slowly for objects in motion compared to a stationary observer.
(4) From the lyrics of the song, “...it is lonely out in space on such a timeless flight.”