There is plenty of bad architecture all over the place. Stupid, wrong architecture. Architecture that failed, and failed miserably. Architecture that is full of mistakes. San Rocco 3 does not talk about that. San Rocco 3 is interested in another kind of mistake: mistakes that are the product of a disproportion, of a displacement; mistakes that are somehow generous, open, brave; mistakes that involve some sort of heroic failure; mistakes that shed a new light on the limits of the very same rule that labels them as mistakes.
Mistakes are evident, public. Like rules, they involve some sort of agreement. Mistakes are the opposite of opinions. Actually, mistakes despise opinions even more than rules do. Mistakes can happen only if there is a shared knowledge. Mistakes do not imply a complete refusal of the rule; instead, mistakes try to establish a relationship with the rule (even if this is not a very relaxed one). Mistakes are episodes in which the rule manifests itself in all its weakness and clumsiness. Mistakes are a comedy about rules, or the stumbling and stuttering little brothers of rules. There is something intimately didactic about mistakes. As soon as there is a mistake, there is some sort of correction, some sort of teaching, some sort of school. Mistakes are necessarily plural: if there is a rule, there will be plenty of mistakes. Mistakes suggest the possibility (and the necessity) of a new kind of rule, one that could even cope with this speci c kind of mistake. Mistakes somehow point toward some forgotten potential. Mistakes are progressive.
Mistakes sometimes display a certain hubris. Behind every mistake there is somebody that believes he can afford to make that very mistake (as in the case of Bramante and the different dimensions of the orders in his Belvedere, or in that of Bernini and the Doric colonnade with the Ionic frieze for St Peter’s Square).
Mistakes are sometimes the product of humbleness: provincial mistakes, made out of distrust, a lack of selfcon dence or instinctive conservatism (like the exquisite provincialism of the pillars of Figini’s House of the Journalist, or the touching clumsiness of the church in Roccaverano).
Mistakes can be intelligent, but they are de nitely not smart (smartness, in fact, is about avoiding mistakes). Smart mistakes are what Castiglione and Raphael – who were too smart to really like mistakes – called sprezzatura, a subtle negligence that undermines the rule without openly discussing it. San Rocco is not interested in that, however: San Rocco is interested in something less polite and riskier (or more honest) – something that involves running the risk of a total failure.
Sometimes mistakes happen precisely where different sets of rules con ict, or where different scales intersect. Here the rigorous observation of the overall logic demands that mistakes be made on a smaller scale: “Good reasons must, of force, give place to better” (Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene III). Bramante’s Belvedere is full of such mistakes.
Mistakes are sometimes elegant. They can have a particular beauty. They can be as sweet as Buster Keaton or Krazy Kat. They can turn the rule into something milder or gentler. There is a particular talent for mistakes (think, for instance, of Lewerentz – early Lewerentz, of course – or of Alvaro Siza).
In one of his letters, Schönberg (it was Schönberg, wasn’t it?) talks about the honesty of Mahler (was it Mahler?) in his having written necessarily bad music at moments when bad music was what was called for. Mistakes can be of this kind: disgraceful episodes that make a sacri ce for the sake of the global meaning of a work, voluntary ugly ducklings, self-sacri cing heroes like Judas according to Borges; or deliberate mistakes, such as the incorrect perspective of the cof n in Zurbarán’s depiction of St Bonaventura’s funeral, the wrong perspectives of the Kaaba in popular Muslim prints, the repulsive façade presented to the visitor by the monastery of La Tourette, the portico in front of nothing of the Collegio Elvetico, and the fake windows at Schloss Tegel...
Mistakes can also appear when somebody tries to prove that all of the rest of the world is wrong, and problems occur in the situations in which this pure truth collides with the stubborn world that refuses to comply with it. Thus, Palladio’s Basilica crashes its proud stairs against a little mediaeval house, and almost all of Giorgio Grassi’s schemes are mutilated at the borders of plots that are invariably too small to host the project that they should have hosted.
Mistakes can also involve pure enigma, like the bent pyramid at Dashur. Mistakes imply the existence of a story that we would like to hear.
San Rocco 3 is interested in mistakes and in the grammar of architectural mistakes. On the following pages San Rocco presents a list of mistakes we would like to know more about.
• Fake Geography •
When Gaspar de Lemos arrived in Guanabara Bay on 1 January 1505, he believed he had discovered the mouth of a great river (therefore naming it the River of January).
Rio de Janeiro never overcame the lack of this missing river. Even today, the city remains a marvellous cul de sac: a Potemkin city with 6 million inhabitants and with no hinterland, a European stage attached to the American coast. There is no valley that ends at Rio – no territory, no agriculture, no economy. It therefore does not come as a surprise that the exploration (and exploitation) of Brazil started elsewhere (in São Paulo, a city curiously close to the Atlantic coast, but entirely projected towards the mainland). Rio still survives in the fabulous, mistaken geography unintentionally invented by Gaspar de Lemos.
• Wrong Pilotis •
Luigi Figini designed the Casa del giornalista (House of the Journalist) in 1933, four years after Le Corbusier completed the Villa Savoye at Poissy. The house by Figini takes the ve points quite seriously: free plan, free façade, roof garden, ribbon windows, pilotis. Yet something is wrong here: the atmosphere is contracted, somehow frozen. The pilotis are not round. More like a Lombard farmhouse than a modernist villa, the House of the Journalist has long, clumsy, squarish pillars.
Regardless of Figini’s bourgeois background, the House of the Journalist looks like a relative from the countryside at an elegant dinner: it is too rigid for the occasion and too serious. Zero savoir faire. The squarish pillars are clearly a mistake, for they kill the modernism of the villa in one fell swoop. The house does not oat; rather, it is brutally re-attached to the earth. Here, modernism, as if seen through the eyes of a Lombard farmer, looks a little less glamorous.
• The Pond of the Glass House •
In 1951, Lina Bo Bardi completed a villa in Morumbi, which at the time was a remote green area outside of São Paulo. Due to her infatuation with tropical life, Bo Bardi designed a pond to be lled with rainwater collected by the roof. A gigantic spout was built to funnel the water into a large concrete pond located just in front of the house. The pond proved to be a failure, however. The stagnant water immediately became a culture broth for mosquitoes, and the Bardi soon got rid of the pond. The mediocrity of everyday tropical life took its revenge on an idealized world that could exist only in the fantasy of European émigrés. Real Brazil was way more annoying than ideal Brazil.
• Villa Conti at Barlassina •
Villa Conti is a single-family house in Barlassina (a village north of Milan) by Mario Asnago and Claudio Vender. Asnago and Vender restored (re-made) this villa in 1958. Villa Conti is full of mistakes, so much so that we do not even know which one to begin with. It is modern merely in order to collapse the banality of the villa, and it is banal merely in order to ridicule modernism. The villa is pink, with thin steel columns attached here, a greenhouse there, a pitched roof that somehow becomes a sheet covering a wood-panelled rotunda with a steel staircase, a crazy façade with two round windows and a modernist-looking bow window inserted in the roof. At Villa Conti, Asnago and Vender’s architecture of small adjustments (small deviations from a substantially unquestioned rule) makes a quantum leap: the number of exceptions overturns the rule. The result is surprisingly radical. Villa Conti looks like “everything you should never do”. It looks like an early work by Frank Ghery, but Italian, bourgeois, provincial, spoiled, eclectic, lazy . . . and strangely cool.
• Wrong Pyramid •
In Dahshur, some kilometres south of Saqqara and Giza, stands the so-called rhomboidal, or double-slope, pyramid. It is the pyramid of Snefru, Cheope’s father, and was built around 2596 BC. Its characteristic form depends on the changing inclination of the façades. At about the middle of its height, the external stone walls change inclination, thereby de ning a faceted volume – a sort of diamond emerging from the sand. There are several hypotheses that attempt to explain this anomaly. The most quali ed one talks about construction difculties: the rst inclination of 54°46’ would have produced a pyramid that was 140 metres high, an impossible mission. To avoid the pyramid’s collapse, which they started to sense once they reached a height of 49 metres, the architects reduced the inclination angle to 43°60’. The nal height of the pyramid is 105 metres. The Dahshur pyramid did not become a model. Its geometry did not convince the pharaoh; only the nishing of its surfaces was successful. In fact, the at external walls substituted the steps introduced by Djoser at Saqqara. As a result, what could have been a re nement (a gentle modi cation of an obvious geometry) that started a tradition of re ned diamond-shaped pyramids was simply understood as a mistake, a contemptible departure from the search for geometric perfection.
At any rate, some mystery remains. What exactly happened at Dahshur?
• The Statue of Zeus at Olympia •
The Statue of Zeus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was produced in Olympia in 433 BC by Phidias. The statue was about 12 metres high and represented Zeus seated elegantly on his throne. The work was often criticized for its gigantic size, which did not t well in the relatively normal space where it was installed. Strabo was one of the work’s critics: “Although the temple itself is very large, the sculptor is criticized for not having appreciated the correct proportions. He has shown Zeus seated, but with the head almost touching the ceiling, so that we have the impression that if Zeus moved to stand up he would unroof the temple” (Geographica, Book VIII, 3, 30).
• Vitruvius against the Doric (Book IV, 3, 1–2) •
“Some ancient architects have asserted that sacred buildings ought not to be constructed of the Doric order, because false and incongruous arrangements arise in the use of it. Such were the opinions of Tarchesius, Pitheus, and Hermogenes. The latter, indeed, after having prepared a large quantity of marble for a Doric temple, changed his mind, and, with the materials collected, made it of the Ionic order, in honour of Bacchus. It is not because this order wants beauty, antiquity, or dignity of form, but because its detail is shackled and inconvenient, from the arrangement of the triglyphs, and the formation of the sof t of the corona.
“It is necessary that the triglyphs stand centrally over the columns, and that the metopae which are between the triglyphs should be as broad as high. Over the columns, at the angles of the building, the triglyphs are set at the extremity of the frieze, and not over the centre of the columns. In this case the metopae adjoining the angular triglyphs are not square, but wider than the others by half the width of the triglyph. Those who resolve to make the metopae equal, contract the extreme intercolumniation half a triglyph’s width. It is, however, a false method, either to lengthen the metopae or to contract intercolumniations; and the ancients, on this account, appear to have avoided the use of the Doric order in their sacred buildings.”
• Mistakes and Consciousness in the Early Work of Peter Märkli •
In 1995, Peter Märkli built his rst sort of modern building, a two-level single-family house on a plot on the outskirts of the village of Grabs. The square-based parallelepiped in polished concrete seems to oat a few centimetres above the unfenced lawn, fully exploiting the structural possibilities of the in situ construction. A terrace screened by aluminum panels wraps around two sides of the ground oor, while the upper level is pierced by a bunch of horizontal windows. Everything seems to t into the panorama of the late modernistic Swiss architecture of the nineties. But something does not feel completely right. Indeed, and signi cantly, the plan is almost a square. Only the entrance corner has an angle of exactly ninety degrees; all the other ones escape perfect orthogonality. At rst glance, even an accurate observer is not able to detect the almost imperceptible distortion, which is clearly revealed only in the terrace, where the non-parallelism between the outer perimeter and the inner glazed walls becomes noticeable. One could argue that this apparent mistake is a reaction of the platonic form to the trapezoidal plot, and, therefore, that the house is opening up toward the landscape (indeed, the ninety-degree corner faces the most consolidated part of the village, while the distortions take place on the other side). A diagonal tension along the entrance–living room–terrace sequence distorts the square. But site-consciousness is not what is at the core of this bizarre choice. The point is that the house, being almost a square in drawings, becomes a square in reality. Remember all the stories about visual corrections in Greek architecture? There is a pre-modern, and thus post-modern, mastery at work in Grabs: perfection by means of mistakes.
• Ferrari’s Factory •
Rumour has it that the Ferrari factory stands on a plot that is on a 0.8-degree incline. One of the most glamorous Italian companies – known all around the world for the beauty of its sports cars, which are an indisputable symbol of speed and precision – has a factory built on an (almost) undetectable spatial aw. This would normally not be all that important, but in the new extension of the Ferrari assembly lines recently designed by Jean Nouvel, a 180-metre-long building, this slope produces a noticeable variation in height of 1.44 metres. It was not possible to use steps in the building’s design due to the need for continuity in the assembly lines, so the brand new building of the “Ferrari City” is on an incline itself. To hide the mistake, the second oor of the building has the same inclination of this new reference plane too. Thus, a building with a surface of 21,000 square metres – which is divided into assembly lines for the company’s 8and 12-cylinder cars, test and prototype-development areas, of ces, meeting rooms, relaxation spaces – is tilted by 0.8 degrees. Here a minute error, one not visible to the naked eye, forces architecture to nd solutions and produces a complexity that becomes surreal.
• The Forbidden Side •
Charles Jencks “revealed” – it must have been in one of the seven incarnations of his book on postmodern architecture – the forbidden corner of the Seagram Building. In most canonical publications showing the building’s front and square, the back and side façades are elegantly avoided. The forbidden side of the building, with its unresolvable glass inside-corner (a mistake, according to purists), reveals that Mies van der Rohe is a strange contextualist. Not only does it elevate him above the mediocrity of his minimalist epigones (the ones who just drop buildings on empty planes), but it also seems to sneakily introduce another kind of imagery, one disguised as some kind of screwed-up European urbanism in the “city of possibilities”. Perhaps it shows the inevitable cohabitation of success and failure, reality and dream. But then again, what is the dream?
• The National Gallery •
Venturi’s Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery is deliberately designed as a mirage. Squeezing as many elements of the original Wilkins building as possible into the small plot reserved for the extension, Venturi makes a contemporary building with a compact plan sitting atop a museum shop, auditorium and storage spaces. The question here, perhaps, is this: Which is the mistake of what? In this attempt to marry a compact, contemporary museum with a classical envelope, it is not very clear what came rst. Ultimately, one could understand the outer façade as a correction, a mask or even a bridal veil designed to protect the bride from the world before she can actually wed.
• The Upper Belvedere •
Bramante built the Belvedere to represent the self-styled greatness of his client, Pope Julius II, who, in an attempt to match the splendour of his ancient Roman predecessors, not only renamed himself Caesar, but expected an equally imperial architectural work to represent this identity. Bramante’s solution was the bold answer one would imagine for such a deluded mind. He constructed a gigantic “hole” that was to function as a perspective machine to be seen from the papal headquarters. Any tool was permitted, from different sequences of orders and different heights inside of the same order, to fake perspectival views, the most important being outright architectural mistakes. Since the side walls of the upper courtyard were designed with pilasters of decreasing height while maintaining the base height of the pedestal, they create a shifting proportion. Bramante even considered it possible to design the concluding façade with proper proportions and different measurements. The corner confronts both and, upon closer inspection, reveals the trick: it shows the mistake, which was invisible to the deluded patron sitting far away in his papal headquarters.
• Scamozzi vs. Sansovino •
Jacopo Sansovino died in 1570, leaving the Library of St. Mark un nished. The building, described by Palladio as “il più ricco, & ornato edi cio, che forse sia stato fatto dagli antichi in qua” (the richest and most ornamented building to have been made since antiquity), displays the results that were attainable by reemploying the tools of classical architecture with the utmost freedom. Yet the ease and con dence with which Sansovino uses the classical repertoire were no longer acceptable only a few years later in 1581, when Vincenzo Scamozzi was asked to complete the Library and build the new administrative quarters of the Republic (the New Procuracies) on St. Mark’s Square. Scamozzi attacked Sansovino from two sides: on one side, the orders of the Library and the Mint clash violently against each other, while on the other side the correct Ionic frieze of the Procuracies clashes with the irregular one of the Library. Scamozzi dedicated all his energy to underlining Sansovino’s mistakes, strictly refusing any adjustment that could have hidden them (he thus extended the Library, without modifying it, just so that it would crash into its architecturally correct neighbours). There is something pathetic in this afrmation of the rule. The aggression against his dead rival reveals the vulnerability of the censor. Mistakes were a luxury he simply could not afford.
• Doric with an Ionic Frieze •
The classical order of St Peter’s colonnade is Doric. There is probably some relationship to the supposed “heroic” nature of the Doric order (St Peter was a martyr), but the main reason for its use is a formal one: the Doric is the simplest order and the church’s square required a repetition of simple columns to de ne its border. The colonnade’s frieze, however, is Ionic. Bernini did not care too much about the correct syntax of the orders (he probably also knew precedents that could justify this solution, but that is not the point). The Ionic frieze was necessary to the design for the same formal reasons that required the columns be Doric. The scale of the square requires the most extended, most uniform solutions. A correct Doric frieze with metopae and triglyphs would have introduced dramatic shadows, interrupted the continuity of the horizontal ribbon of the frieze and compromised the quietness of the space. Here the city required that the architecture be incorrect. Bernini did not lack the courage to make a mistake.
• Bramante at Roccaverano •
Roccaverano is a super-small village in Piemonte. There is a church there by Bramante. Bramante was asked to design the church by the manager of the construction site of the new St Peter’s in Rome, Bishop Enrico Bruno, who was originally from Roccaverano. The church was not a really fancy commission for the architect of St Peter’s. We suspect that Bramante was not particularly enthusiastic about the task (he was, after all, quite old at that point), but he probably could not refuse. At any rate, he put together a design, recycling his previous proposals for the church of San Celso. A wooden model was probably made and sent to Roccaverano (most likely on the back of a donkey). Later on, since it probably took about a month for the donkey to arrive, the citizens of the small village received the model, thereby landing the most radical architecture (or better, the most radical architecture ever) in the most provincial spot on the planet. What was to be done with this crazy thing? Well, the citizens of Roccaverano did not do that bad a job. The church is still there, and the interior is impressive: it is an abstract, radical Renaissance experiment with ve domes in a quincunx arrangement and a very re ned use of the orders. Only the façade is a bit ugly; the pediment is too steep. However, it does snow heavily in Roccaverano . . .
• Hagia Sophia •
The construction of Hagia Sophia began with Emperor Costantine, and later the church was reworked time and again until its fundamental reconstruction in 532 under Emperor Justinian and his legendary architectscientists, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. Fires, earthquakes and many collapses of the dome, which is 31 metres in diameter, required several different reinforcements to keep the building viable. A detective’s eye capable of investigating the weakness of the structural project would uncover a minor history of trials and errors, an instructive fable that points to no established conclusion.
• Bad Photographs •
Since its beginnings, photography has grown through mistakes. Technical limitations were what rst pushed photographers to invent new strategies and devices. And once photography had reached its technical perfection with work by the likes of Walker Evans or Paul Strand, a new generation of photographers felt the desire to investigate and ask themselves new questions about the potential of photography as a language. The candid “wrong” photograph became the starting point of a new exploration of the photographic language. A de-institutionalizing attitude and a new gaze emerged; a new attention to what had been ignored before developed; and a new sense of curiosity generated a different sort of imagination and produced a new kind of realism. Paul Graham and Wolfgang Tillmans thus inherited some of the formal issues of authors like William Eggleston and John Gossage, and built up an attitude that, while classic, opened up new possibilities in the evolution of the language.
• Apollodorus Criticizes Hadrian’s Mistakes (A Bad Idea) •
In what, to our knowledge, is the only surviving piece of debate among protagonists of Roman architecture (Cassius Dio, Historia Romana, LXIX, 4, 3), Apollodorus of Damascus criticizes Emperor Hadrian’s design for the Temple of Venus and Rome. According to Apollodorus, Hadrian made a mistake by not using the large foundations of the temple as storage space for the machines needed for the nearby Colosseum. The Emperor did not like the critique, so he exiled Apollodorus. Interestingly enough, the only surviving bit of Roman architectural debate only talks about the combination of formal and functional aspects. The art of Roman architecture is all about coupling rhetoric and pragmatism in the radical blending of the hyper-functional with the hyper-formal. Apollodorus did not criticize the functional mistake; rather, he blamed the emperor for not taking formal advantage of functional needs. In any case, the real mistake was Apollodorus’s; it is better not to put your faith in the open-mindedness of emperors.