The Pritzker Architecture Prize winner was announced yesterday. Congratulations to SANAA for receiving the prestigious recognition. I thought I’d treat Roaming By Design readers to a lecture by a remarkable architect, which I heard while attending Cersaie in Bologna, Italy, last fall. Before attending the fair, I knew I would see a mind-boggling array of ceramic tile products from some of the world’s leaders in the global marketplace, but what I didn’t expect was being able to hear an array of inspiring speakers talk passionately about design and architecture. Starchitect Renzo Piano regaled a sizable crowd of international media during the fair and then turned his charm on fascinated fans in a packed outdoor theater—both talks were full of the vim and vigor for which the wily architect is known. Take a look at his advice to young architects on my Examiner page.
Though it’s always enjoyable to have an opportunity to hear what “the lauded ones” might say, one of my favorite lectures during the fair was Michael P. Johnson’s “Living in the Desert.” I asked the Arizona-based architect extraordinaire if I could share his heartfelt presentation with Roaming By Design’s readers, and lucky for us, he said yes! The über-appreciator of all things Italian had this to say:
I would like to thank those responsible for extending the invitation to me to participate in this important conference “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Over fifty years ago I was first introduced to the beauty and culture of this great country. When I was a young boy there appeared on the silver screen the incredible and unforgettable Sophia. In 1958 I was working in the field of architecture and read what was, in my mind, the most important book on the subject Architecture as Space by the profound critic, Bruno Zevi. We began a written exchange that turned into a life-long friendship. My correspondence with Mr. Zevi was the genesis of my unrelenting commitment to architecture. Through the years, my personal studies and readings about architecture have consistently highlighted Italy’s important contributions. In 1960 I subscribed, of course, to Architectural Forum, and in those pages discovered the talents of Arizona’s Paolo Soleri. I was deeply moved and stimulated by his fabulous designs for visionary cities, bridges and dams. We, too, began a correspondence and remain friends to this very day.
Also in 1960 I married, and like many newlyweds, I was in a position to select dining flatware to be used in our home. The choice was obvious to me: Gio Ponti’s Diamond silverware design, a pattern that is still much in demand at design auctions worldwide. By 1970 my architectural practice was in full swing. When faced with the task of choosing a typewriter, the only machine in my purview was the Olivetti Valentine, due to the functional beauty of the machine. Of course, its design was again Italian. I continue to turn to the products designed and manufactured in Italy. The list includes tiles, kitchen cabinets, closets, bathroom fixtures, lighting fixtures, and on and on. The products, with their elegance and beauty, are the architect’s assets in the creation of architecture.
Now to turn to the topic at hand: Building Dwelling Thinking. I would hope that those in attendance at this conference took the time to read Martin Heidegger’s 1951 essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking.” In it he states “we shall try to think about dwelling and building. This thinking about building does not presume to discover architectural ideas, let alone to give rules for building.” Heidegger eliminates art and beauty from his analytical treatise about what equates architecture. Although we are sentient creatures, Heidegger sees us as residents who, because of the need to survive, inhabit shelter. “To be a human being means to be on earth as a mortal. It means to dwell.” … Merely? One could say that the need to dwell renders us mortal and, according to Heidegger, “Mortals are in the fourfold by dwelling”—“fourfold” defined as earth and sky and divinities and mortals as belonging together “as one.” I concur that all these elements constitute the tenets of architecture, but as an architect I believe that what elevates some beyond mere mortals is the symbiosis of architecture, art and design.
One way to examine my philosophy is to consider how architects approach “Living in the Desert.” Mexican architectural critic Miguel Adria asserts that enriching the occupants, “the contemporary house is one of the most fertile laboratories of recent architecture. As original element and inhabitable object, the house is both a manifesto and a summing up of intentions. It is through the house—through their own houses in some cases—that architects define their positions. The house becomes a demonstration of the architect’s attitude to place, to the dichotomy between tradition and modernity.”
Today I am presenting buildings that illustrate Architecture. All are located in the Sonoran Desert, an arid region covering 120,000 square miles in southwestern Arizona and southeastern California, as well as most of Baja, California, and the western half of Sonora, Mexico. From about A.D. 700 to 1550, the river and Delta Yuman people—often called the Patayan—occupied the western sector of the Sonoran Desert, a fearsomely hot and dry region. Summer daytime air temperatures soar to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Soil surface temperatures approach 180 degrees, with annual rainfall averaging less than three inches. The Native Americans lived in temporary hamlets, or “rancherias” which comprise settlements of widely separated rectangular rooms and deep pithouses lined with timber. As addressed by Heidegger, these were buildings to merely dwell within.
The buildings I will present today are all located in the Phoenix Metropolitan area, which lies within the Sonoran Desert. We are faced with the same environmental concerns that the Native Americans addressed, although the tools we have at our disposal allow us to go beyond constructing mere shelter or buildings. Science and technology have provided architects with the ability to enlarge upon our architecture and mitigate environmental issues. The advancement of engineering and building methods refine and modernize what and how we build in the 21st century.
Great architectural ideas produce buildings that elevate the experience of occupancy from plebian to enlightenment. And that happens, according to Walter Gropius, “ [when] your contribution has been vital.” It’s his assertion that “there will always be someone to pick up where you left off, and that will be your claim to immortality.” This is how an architect’s legacy is developed.
I’m taking a break from Michael’s speech here because I’d like to say that when viewing his architecture, it’s so obvious that his ethic was developed with great heart and intelligence, taking nothing away from his talent and skill as a trained architect, of course. His legacy will be one that will stand the test of time, and Arizona is lucky that the desert captivated him enough to have enticed him to stay. Though I can imagine his projects in scores of other locales, I’m glad they are right where they are because their relationships to their settings is what makes them so stunning. I can’t wait to roam through his dwellings, which I hope to do during a trip to this aridly lush landscape at some point in the near future. Before Michael ended his lecture, he had this to say to his Italian audience and I felt it well worth repeating. I’ve edited the text to address you, the reader, rather than the intended audience at the conference: Before I close, I have left a small amount of time to present to you a grave concern of mine. I have attended Cersaie for ten consecutive years. Each of those years I have visited the Biennale in Venice. Near the entrance of the Biennale Garden, located in the sea, stands Augusto Murer’s Monument to the Female Resistance Fighter [or Monumento alla Partigiana]. Carlo Scarpa designed the development of the site and the monument’s pedestal.
This monument stands as one of the most neglected art works worldwide. It is now time for action to rectify this miscarriage of responsibility to the cultural history of Italy. In the United States each year we destroy many architectural icons purely for economic gain but here it seems that the neglect of the Murer/Scarpa monument is due to complacency. I am urging everyone reading this to commit to working diligently towards correcting the abuse of this monument. I promise you that I am personally committed to collaborating with anyone interested in coordinating a restoration effort on behalf of this work of art, and I ask that you join me in this noble effort. Thank you.