Architecture is scary.
It is not just difficult to deny this; it is impossible. Architecture involves something oppressive. Dictators by definition love architecture. Nothing is more typical of dictators than gigantic, tasteless architecture (this is the difference between dictators and gangsters: gangsters only need gigantic, tasteless cars). In Hollywood movies, bad characters are always hidden behind several layers of stone. Good characters usually just have a little house, a very ordinary one, possibly made of wood. Clearly, if you need architecture, something is wrong with you.
Probably this has something to do with the origin of architecture. Indeed, architecture appeared at a moment in time when society became more hierarchical, more established. Slavery appeared at the same time as architecture (as did writing, for that matter). Whether a cause or a consequence, architecture is somehow related to an increase in hierarchical structure and inequality. Architecture exposes the oppression embedded in our society; it reminds us that our great-greatgrandfathers had to slaughter the hunter-gathers in order to produce our lovely boulevards.
Architecture is scary because in order to build, one must destroy. Architecture changes habits, alters traditions, erases the existing, in order to introduce something else. Architecture forbids: its only way to enhance something is, in fact, to forbid the opposite. Architecture is possibly the supreme act of creative destruction (consider, for instance, how Bramante quickly and brilliantly razed old St Peter’s to the ground in order to ensure the realization of his new scheme).
Architecture is scary because it introduces an exaggerated time-span into our daily life. Architecture not only involves a distant past, but it also includes a distant future. Architecture is simply too slow and too cumbersome not to think over the (uber-)long term. Its association with kings and dictators is not just the result of a sadistic passion for oppression: architecture likes kings, tyrants and dictators because they are the only politicians who think about buildings and infrastructure for the long haul, and not just in megalomaniac/ monumental terms, but also more reasonably in terms of the fortune they leave to their heirs; indeed, kings invest in palaces because their sons will inherit them. It is the time-horizon of dictators, not dictatorship itself, that is sympathetic to architecture.
Despite all recent attempts to reduce the lifespan of architecture and dream up buildings that could easily disappear (from Futurism on), architecture still disturbs the perfect flatness of contemporaneity, suggesting a longer span of time. And maybe this is what is really scary about architecture: a longer time-horizon unavoidably ushers a new character onto the stage: death. Architecture is scary: this is a truth, not a choice. Still, scariness can also be a choice, a precise desire to scare (one’s enemies? one’s subjects? one’s allies?). The Parthenon, for instance, is a machine designed to scare people. Given the absurd amount of money invested in its construction (a gigantic potlatch?) and its incredible precision, the Parthenon’s emergence in the relatively shabby Athens of the 5th century can be understood only as a colossal menace. The precision of the Parthenon is the precision of a weapon of mass destruction. For all the legends about aliens building the pyramids, the most likely building to have been built by aliens is the Parthenon, the scariest object ever constructed on this planet.
So architecture is scary, and making architecture can be a reaction to the discovery of how fundamentally scary architecture is. If architecture is the most tangible sign of an oppressive architecture of society, design can be understood as an expression of this original evil. Guido Canella understood architecture in these terms. The dedicated desperation of Canella’s architecture is committed to the exhibition of this primitive oppression. As much as Canella’s ideological construction is awkward, and as much as his architecture is repulsive (and we’re talking about his best period), he had something there. The offensive ugliness that Canella laboriously erectedin the 1970s in the barren outskirts of Milan is not just the consequence of the impoverished life of the proletariat, for these nightmares are not only modern, and this oppression is not only that of the working class: it is also the oppression of the bourgeois architect as well as a deeper, somehow unspeakable oppression, a universal Unbehagen. Similar nightmares indeed appear in the work of architects as different as Ricardo Bofill, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Kiyonori Kikutake, Hans Poelzig, Paul Rudolph and Carel Weeber.
San Rocco 5 tries to deal with the horror of architecture. What should we think of the architects who have decided to scare the rest of the world deliberately? And what about buildings that are not just big and uncanny, but deliberately dark, windowless, gloomy, repulsive, antihuman? Is scary architecture just a desperate quest for love? As Black Sabbath would put it, “Happiness I cannot feel and love to me is so unreal”.
• Scary Architects: A Portrait Gallery •
Send us a portrait of your favourite scary architect!
• Ricardo Bofill, Scary Architect •
Ricardo Bofill understood from very early on that he himself would be the most despotic and, hence, also the most rewarding client. After a bizarre stint during which he had practically taken over a project of former friends, enlarged it and famously/supposedly driven its developer bankrupt while at the same time building some of the most exciting megaliths on the Spanish coastline, he founded the Taller as a self-constructing, post-hippy “community”. The magnificent Walden 7 complex soon became the epitome of a social community driven berserk. As a city-within-the-city of gigantic proportions, it had more in common with the Death Star than a building. Unfortunately, after all of this the prolific mind of the (self-declared) genius began to suffer delusions of George Lucas–like proportions. New gigantic design opportunities inspired a bizarre version of an all-encompassing classicism. Bofill became the unstoppable Sun King of a new palace-inspired, mirrored-glass classicism. Only the French could embrace this Jean Michel Jarre–style complete lack of self-relativity without any irony; lasers and columns can be surprisingly similar.
• Kiyonori Kikutake, Scary Architect •
Kiyonori Kikutake fought a lifelong battle with the permanence of the built object. He started his research on impermanence with a project of an intimate character, the construction of the Sky House for his family in 1958. His research got progressively out of control, however, and ended with the creation of gigantic megastructures floating on the most extensive and generic surface on the Earth: the ocean. His tendency toward impermanence, material and spiritual lightness, and a social and physical interchangeability finally generated monstrous concrete accretions intended to provide the infrastructure for plug-in inhabitable cells. Kikutake’s designs for floating nomadic cities that were to be sunk to the ocean floor once no longer useful to humans, perhaps to serve as an artificial reef for marine life (Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo would have fun swimming through them), foresaw a romantic future for these massive cruise settlements, far away from Japan’s postatomic nightmares and the pressure generated by his native country’s explosive mix of land scarcity, overpopulation and brutal economic development.
• Morris Lapidus, Scary Architect •
During his long life, Morris Lapidus designed over 1,200 buildings, including 250 hotels around the world. He brashly said things to which culturally engaged architects would never confess and he coined slogans like “Too much is never enough” – pure treason for Miesian loyalists – or “I gave them the kind of backdrop to make them feel ‘I really have arrived’”. More or less consciously, Lapidus set the standard for both gaudy leisure architecture and the tastes of ambitious newcomers to the criminal milieu (the Scarface set designer definitely owes something to him). How can we not feel at least a little sympathy for someone who, after his retirement, feeling angry and bitter about his reputation, burned fifty years’ worth of his drawings?
• Hans Poelzig, Scary Architect •
In his book Das Antlitz der Zeit, August Sander described the state of society during the Weimar Republic. In a group whose every element had to represent an entire class, the subjects he chose were unavoidably caricatures: the notary wore a light-coloured coat and was accompanied by a black Doberman, the span of the sergeant’s moustache equalled that of his shoulders, the butcher was bald and fat . . . and the architect was Hans Poelzig.
• Paul Rudolph, Scary Architect •
Paul Rudolph (the Brutalist one, not the early modernist from Sarasota) liked to impress people, or better, he liked to daze and scare them. It’s at least as hard to confute this as it is to deny the fact that he was terribly good at it. Indeed, his preference for using the section as the main tool for controlling and describing his architecture is deeply related to the task most of his buildings were asked to perform, i.e., vertigo. His obsession with spaces that were at least triple-height, with hyper-complex, vertically connected, interlocking spaces and with endlessly free-falling, edgy volumes becomes clear once you accept a continuous quest for vertigo as the core of his work. Similarly, his preference for diagonals, whether this was manifested in the geometry of the masses or the tension in the inner voids, helped cause the same kind of dizziness. And we shouldn’t forget how he used to handle materials, pushing their defining qualities to almost disturbing extremes, from the super-shiny, mirror-like polished steel of the handrails to the abrasive roughness of the béton brut. His famous apartment in Beekman Place, as a true self-portrait of the architect, condenses all his obsessions into a relatively small-scale project and displays them with extreme clarity. Imagine that a party was held last night. You wake up barefoot, lying on the super-thick Loosian carpeting. Still drunk, you drag yourself to the kitchen and sip a coffee. Your eyes wander over the space. Above you, a movement attracts your attention: three floors up, people are fucking in the glazed-bottom bathtub.
• Louis Kahn in Dhaka •
In the middle of an endless landscape of slums there is a castle. In the perennial grey fog, this grey castle emerges, just a castle surrounded by water in the middle of a lawn in the middle of slums. It is surreal, scary . . . and entirely absurd. But to be fair, what would make sense in a place like Dhaka? Maybe here Louis Kahn’s terrifying dishonesty finally became strangely reasonable.
• Stanley Tigerman’s Black Barn, or the Dark Side of the Force •
In 1973–74, some four years before Star Wars came out, Stanley Tigerman was already envisioning the main traits of Darth Vader’s devilish black mask. In charge of renewing a barn and turning it into a house, he was able to condense an almost tangible negative aura in this small, potentially banal building. And he was able to convince the client to build it, too. Although the barn is still there and its proportions are familiar, at the same time it is an obscure, alien object in the flat Michigan landscape. The structure is completely clad in black asphalt shingles and all of the glazing is greytinted plate. The openings are pierced into the flat surfaces in a variety of triangular shapes, suggesting arrows pointing at the ground (like a divining rod, Tigerman has said). No recognizable element helps us determine the true scale of the structure. A theatre organ located downstairs pervades the central free-fall of connected spaces with its sound. Beside the building, a pond with white swans (white swans!) reflects its dark profile.
• And Justice for All! •
Beginning in 1750, Carlo di Borbone and his architect, Ferdinando Fuga, started an ambitious construction programme dealing with the enormous amount of poor people in the city of Naples. The first building of this programme was the beautifully gigantic, and still unfinished, Albergo dei Poveri (Hotel of the Poor), which was erected on the eastern edge of the city. The poor were relegated to this area and fed in exchange for a bit of work and disciplined behaviour. The problem of getting rid of the bodies of the dead among the poor with a little decency was solved through the erection of a scarily rational cemetery for the masses, which was established in 1762 further east. The so-called Cimitero delle 366 Fosse (Cemetery of the 366 Graves) was a proto-Enlightenment machine for processing bodies. Its name derives from the number of mass graves, one for each day of the year, including the 366th in a Leap Year. The graves are arranged in a grid-like manner, in boustrophedonic order. Each day, the bodies were thrown in the proper pit, which was then closed in the evening to remain so for an entire year. The bodies were pressed against a horizontal iron grid by their own weight, thus accelerating the process of decomposition and allowing the periodical clearing of the bones. Any trace of rite was erased from the event of death, which was treated in purely logistical terms. Perhaps for the very first time, the foundation of the modern city – the (Lumpen)proletariat – was understood as such and was directly transformed into the stuff of architecture.
• Scary Modernism •
Modernism dealt with quantity. It terrifyingly organized masses of people within a Cartesian space: the houses of Pagano, Diotallevi and Marescotti’s Città Orizzontale were distributed among city blocks according to the number of members a family had. Pigeonholed as if placed in the methodical cabinet of an obsessive entomologist, dwellers’ interrelations were strictly classified and predetermined on the basis of physical quantities: singles, couples, three-person families, four-person families, and so on . . . In a sort of desolated metonymy, apartments stood for inhabitants, city-blocks for groups of people, cities for masses. In such a non-human landscape, people acquired a surreal quality. Surprisingly, human figures appear in Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt perspectives. As shapes cut out in black shown in groups of two and equally distributed in space, they stand on the bridges that the architect kindly provided. You won’t notice them at first glance, but they are there nonetheless. You have to wonder if their inclusion was a joke . . .
• Phalaris Takes Power •
In his Politics, Aristotle recounts that Phalaris (who lived from around 570 to 554 BC) was a Greek architect entrusted with the building of the temple of Zeus Atabyrius on the acropolis of Agrigentum. Phalaris is, by far, the greatest “success story” if we consider the historically one-sided relationship between architects and politics, in which the latter almost always strong-arm the former. Indeed, after receiving the commission for the temple, Phalaris lamented the lack of resources for the project and asked for more money and more workers. After his request was accepted, he used the money to arm the workers and installed himself as the tyrant of the city. Under his rule, Agrigentum seems to have attained considerable prosperity.
Phalaris was renowned for his excessive cruelty. His alleged atrocities included cannibalism: he was said to have eaten suckling babes. Phalaris is also famous for his brazen bull, which was invented, it is said, by Perillos of Athens. The tyrant’s victims were shut up inside the bull and a fire was then kindled beneath it, roasting them alive; their cries were supposed to represent the bellowing of the bull.
Phalaris’s exploits (except the bull, maybe) somehow remind us of everything Manfredo Tafuri always wanted (but never dared) to do: quit architecture, jump into politics, seize power.
• Julius Caesar’s Bridges •
Julius Caesar allowed the construction of two bridges across the Rhine during the Gallic Wars in 55 and 53 BC. The construction of the first bridge most likely occurred somewhere between Andernach and Neuwied, downstream from Koblenz. Book 4 of the Commentarii de bello Gallico provides technical details about this wooden-beam bridge. With over 40,000 soldiers at his disposal, Caesar built the first bridge in only ten days. He crossed with his troops over to the eastern bank and managed to burn some villages, but he found out that the ur-Germans had been smart enough to escape further east. After eighteen days without any major battle, he returned to Gaul and burned the bridge. Two years later, close to the site of the first bridge, possibly where the modern town of Urmitz is found, Caesar erected a second bridge, again built in just “a few days”, according to Book 6. His expeditionary forces raided the countryside but did not encounter significant opposition, as the Germans had retreated once again. Upon returning to Gaul, the second bridge was taken down as the first had been. Caesar used his technological superiority to scare more than to conquer. The bridges were, in reality, utterly useless, for the army could have crossed the river in all kinds of different manners; Caesar just wanted to put on a terrifying show for his enemies.
• A Career as a Scary Architect •
Even though there are scary architects who have enormous firms, it is the smaller practices that are arguably the most interesting. These small firms are almost invisible and operate in stealth. They seldom have real offices, and this makes their practices extremely agile and opportunistic; sometimes they even use another practice to make what they want to make. They rarely take full responsibility for what they actually do, but they leave no doubt about their involvement in the things for which we think they are responsible. They play hard, drive fancy cars, but have no proper office. Perhaps their work could be considered the equivalent of hit-and-run investment. By the time one realizes what these scary architects are like, they have already vanished, or at least the myth and the reality are so intertwined that one doesn’t exactly understand what really happened. Here, there is never liability, and traces of their involvement are hard to find; their presence is felt in their absence. Since scary architects are hardly there, people take for granted that they are everywhere, all the time. Extreme examples of the type would probably be Bramante and Carel Weeber. Their absence created their niche. In both of these cases, it turned out that that niche was so big that it almost encompassed the whole market.
• Pentagons •
Is there something inherently scary in pentagons? Indeed, pentagons are among the most violent shapes in Abbott’s Flatland (even more than squares, despite Abbot’s belief that the fewer the sides, the nastier the shape). In architecture, pentagonal ground plans are very rare (it is a pretty uncomfortable geometric form requiring rare skill to be employed). Nonetheless, they do appear sometimes, and they are always strangely associated with power. The two most famous pentagonal buildings are the Pentagon at Arlington, Virginia, and the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. In confirmation of this theory, the Palazzo Farnese was used as Pinocchio’s prison in the Italian TV series of 1972.