To travel through Italy is to traverse through time concretised in the walls, arches and domed ceilings of ancient buildings. Even the most random little hamlet in some neglected corner of the countryside, with potholed roads, three-wheeler Piaggio vans, and a temperamental electricity supply, will present you with stunning architecture. There is likely to be a church, or town hall, built in the thirteenth century over Roman ruins, with gorgeous frescos and the ever present Madonna and Child adorning the altar. Or, in the middle of nowhere, you’ll stumble upon a series of houses, nestled atop a hill and overlooking a sweep of ancient vines, plump and pregnant with the juice of the gods. Casually, over a sugar encrusted cream tart and bitter espresso, the ‘nona’ will reveal that her family has in fact lived in the stone clusters since Etruscan times (around 500 B.C).
Coming from a ‘new world’ country - South Africa - this sense of time encoded in designed, built, refurbished, lived-in stone walls continually astounds me. I grew up thinking an ‘old building’ dated to the 19th century. Conversely, I also grew up seeing San rock art, and Bapedi stone ruins whilst hiking in rural locations. Indeed, the ‘Cradle of Humankind’ is located a 40minute drive outside Johannesburg - it doesn’t get ‘older’ than that! These edifices of our shared pasts far outdate the sweep of Tuscan stone hamlets and churches. And yet, they are a distinctly different encounter of time; hidden in caves, scattered over vast savannahs, or etched beneath mountains, they feel more closely integrated with the natural environment. They speak of a truly symbiotic existence between human and nature. This symbiosis is now foreign to us. They call upon you to look harder, to peer more carefully and beyond all markers of familiarity to detect historical traces and read profound and fascinating messages from the past.
But the Roman, Etruscan, Medieval and Renaissance architecture I have encountered in Italy does not demand so much of you. It is overtly beautiful, and shouts ‘impressively old’ as boldly as the towers atop each rise over the Chianti hills thrust towards the heavens. The beauty drips off the shutters, the doorframes, the frescos, the bounty of statues, the terracotta tiles, and the ornate flourishes and swirls of artistic design. Time here is encountered within the framework of recognisable and pleasurable form. This form seeks out and bows at the feet of beauty. The past is revealed through human logic and design, good engineering, and outstanding appreciation for beauty. All this is placed in proximity to soft rolling hills. vineyards and olive groves. It’s heady stuff.
As I enter yet another cool, dark stone entranceway into yet another ristorante with ‘Anno Domini 1546’ written above the door, I’m brought to wonder about the persons, or peoples that designed the building. What human did they imagine would be using the space they designed and in what way? The study of architecture reveals to one deeply social and political insights. In some ways it is a study of the past imagination and expectation of the human body. A building organises the way we move in an obvious sense - though this hallway, up those stairs that are placed in that way, leading to that room - but it also designs the way we are. Whether we sit together, or apart, whether we interact with the cook, how close the living quarters are to the ’public spaces’, how we can or cannot bathe and even think (a table and chair, or, a chaise - in a darkly lit corner, or, before a window overlooking a river?).
So as I have been curiously imagining the person(s) designing these gorgeous old buildings, I have also been imagining the sketched little life-form on their plans and drawings. Perhaps there was a dummy seated in the hallway, or at the altar, to give scale to their sketches or prefigure the intended use of the building space or floor. Surely every designer gives birth to these strange little inanimate humans, that are so easily arranged and obedient, ready to occupy any piece of furniture, to perform any activity? In the way a building is a redesigned human space, the scale form is a redesigned human. It appears to be benign and static in a drawing, and yet it is not. It is a protohuman - a precursor to the next version of ourselves, and so the design of a space is deeply social and political.
In a brilliant little yellow soft cover volume on the archeology of design, Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, write that, “each designer invents their own unique avatar that paradoxically presents all possible users of the design”. It is curious to note that often a designer, in the early days of their career, will settle on their own signature ‘squiggle’ or stick figure. This form is then reiterated over a career of design, with variations here or there, and yet always devoid of gender, race, opinions, pasts and prejudices. That squiggle is a person without qualities, and yet it is a needy figure, ready to be sheltered and equipped, and in turn to become the outcome of the design.
In this way, the design of buildings is the design of humans. The design process prefigures our living spaces and modes of interaction, and it affirms that “the human is a question mark, a work in progress, with design seen as a crucial part of that progress.” As a project develops from the mind of the designer to actual build, so the figure gets filled in with more detail, and is able to perform more tasks. The once ghostly inanimate sketch comes alive with animation - a shock of auburn hair, five fingers, an elbow pivoting as it lifts a device. The detail grows until suddenly there is a magical jump and the ghost is us, iphone in hand in the atrium, bowed over the microwave in the open plan kitchen on floor 5. In this way, “design grows humans”.
It should be added, however, that the practice of sketching a protohuman in design, be it architectural, technical or functional, is actually a very modern phenomenon. After imagining the design process of, for example, a thirteenth century tavern having included protohuman sketches, I was shocked to learn in Colomina and Wigley’s treatise, Are we human? (Lars Müller Publishers, 2016), that this ghostly squiggle first appeared after the catastrophe of World War One. This prototype is a cornerstone in the development of modern design. The design of the buildings I have been consuming with such fervour and enjoyment in Tuscany were completed without a prototype human sketch at all. It follows that this protohuman is also a traumatised human, ill at ease with its own modernity, seeking to escape form, and institutions as much as it is continually crafted by them.
Are we human? expands on this point through the study of designers like Otto Wagner and Frank Lloyd-Wright, who were prolific at the end of 20th century. There is a shift in design at this time towards simplicity, stripping down all the embellishment and overt, opulent beauty seen in the Italian architecture surrounding me: “As architecture and industrial design were increasingly stripped down to a smooth shell by the 1920s, so too was the figure and its clothing.” This is when we see the silhouette without gender, details, personal social or political identity. This is when function overrides form and the smooth outline of the industrialised body and its movements became blurred with the smooth outlines of machines and buildings.
It would be easy to presume that the concern for functionality over beauty is an empowering and humanising moment for design. Yet ironically, as Colomina & Wigley reveal through their study, the inclusion of the human figure, and modernisation in design history was simultaneously the deduction of the human to an inanimate squiggle. Has the rise of machines, the industrialised world, and sleek functional objects that litter our living spaces better provided for the human? Have things become more equitable and humane? Concurrently, how have we been redesigned? Does modernisation make us more human, or less so? The answers to these questions are unclear, and worthy of a lifetime of study and deliberation.
One thing is for sure, if the edifices of architecture lining the streets in Florence, for example, tell you anything, it is that form trumped function. Even today, in Italy there is a passion for ‘la bella figura’ - loosely meaning, to do something beautifully, to add beauty to your life and to value beauty as something sacred. It is part of a philosophy of life here - show up, and do it beautifully. I wonder, as I walk through cobbled streets bathed in late evening light, and breathe in everything beautiful - even street lamps, and door handles are elegantly designed and made with colour and flair - how does one experience this if the ugliness of poverty and the sharp edges of the unequal economical landscape in Italy are your reality? Is beauty, even when embedded into the social fabric through the philosophy of la bella figura, always ultimately exclusionary along social divides? What use is a beautiful street lamp if you are an economic migrant recently arrived from north Africa and in need of a solid meal and roof over your head? To privilege beauty, from this view, seems such an archaic, inhumane extravagance. Or, does beauty feed society in different ways? These difficult questions are integral cogs in the transformation of a society, looking back with fidelity to a monumentalised past, and peering uneasily at the fluid present.