The AE was founded in 2011 to generate a public discussion about architecture and the architect’s role in shaping the discipline. We have since gone on to explore a variety of topics in an attempt to make sense of the recent past and current preoccupations. Themes are advanced but not adhered to dogmatically. This website is an archive of our activities. 

69/3 East Claremont Street
Edinburgh, EH74HU, United Kingdom


Samuel Penn
Penny Lewis

Neil Gillespie
Cameron McEwan
Rowan Mackinnon-Pryde



FROM THE ARCHIVE: “Between the 1960s and ‘70s we did extensive surveys of towns in Ticino together with Vacchini and Carloni. We surveyed all of Bellinzona, all of it, all the levels of the houses, of every house, from the ground and up to the roof. We were supposed to develop a kind of urban plan, a masterplan. And we felt that these surveys were important or fundamental in order to understand these towns. But actually we ended up doing the worst masterplan ever. So these survey drawings weren’t useful. Contrary to this I gave my students at the ETH various bits of Bellinzona to do proposals without showing them the surveys that we had done. They ended up doing much more interesting work.” Luigi Snozzi, 2013


︎︎︎Penny Lewis


Following the publication of his book – The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture – which is very thought provoking, we thought it would be fantastic to organize an AE event with Pier Vittorio as our invited guest and to engage in a conversation with him. This evening he’s going to talk about his work and then we’ll follow with a discussion.

Thank you. Today I will sketch a book I am working on at the moment. The provisional title is, Architecture Without Quality: The Project of the City and the Rise of Urbanisation. This book is a follow up to my previous one that was, to some extent, the opposite of this one. In the previous book I was focusing on architecture as an ‘island’, a singular artefact, an exception in the urban environment. In a certain sense, architecture gives the urban environment a mark, an anchor. In that book I used the archetype of the archipelago. The way I was looking at architecture was through the island defined as a punctual element that goes beyond its scale and form. In this new book I am shifting my analysis to the sea around the islands. That sea is urbanisation.

It seems important to me to make a distinction between these two words: city and urbanisation. We very often use them interchangeably but historically these two categories address two radically different conceptions of the world in which we live. ‘City’ refers to the community of people who share a public sphere. ‘Urbanisation’ on the contrary refers not to the people, but to the infrastructure that those people can live together and reproduce themselves. As I described in my previous book, the urban environment in which we live has a very conflicting history. We can say that urbanisation has won against the city. The city is more a fetish, an image that we constantly try to project onto urbanisation in order to make urbanisation something we can understand. More and more, issues such as public space, civic space and coexistence seem empty expressions because the infrastructural apparatus that constitutes our daily existence is so important for the properties of our life to exist. In this book I look to the rise of urbanisation. Not urbanisation as we experience it every day, urbanisation is ninety-nine percent of our daily experience, but through the work of architects and theorists who have tried to propose an architectural approach in relation to the rise of urbanisation even before the word urbanisation, as you will see in this presentation, is theorised in the nineteenth-century to coincide with the beginning of the modern city.

I would like to start with this image that explains what I mean by ‘architecture without qualities’. In a way this image was also the inspiration to write the book. It is a photograph by the American photographer Lewis Baltz and part of a project called the Prototype Works, which he developed in the 1960s and ‘70s consisting of a series of photographs of anonymous details of the urban environment.

fig. 1
The Prototype Works
Palo Alto 1973
© Lewis Baltz Trust

Baltz was working in Los Angeles, but his work doesn’t give a clue to allow us to identify the place. This was the purpose of the project: to abstract as much as possible from the landscape of this urban environment and to portray the generic properties of urban space so that we cannot identify if the photograph is of a house, office, factory. But at the same time, the paradox of the photographs by Baltz is that he tries to give them a monumentality. The contrast between the anonymous and generic-ness of the details but at the same time a commitment toward them. A certain resolution exists in contrast to the distraction, as Benjamin noted a long time ago in how we experience architecture. The symmetry, the subtle shadows, the composition of the image is strong in contrast to the absolute banality of the architecture that is being portrayed. I want to stress with this image and that what I say about architecture without qualities, is that I am not talking about bad architecture or ugly architecture or vernacular architecture or architecture without architects. I am not interested in those categories, which seem popular among architects. Architecture without qualities is neither good nor bad. It is what it does without specific aspects or qualities. In a way we can say that in the contemporary city a lot of properties are disappearing. The tragedy of the contemporary city is that it is becoming too good and too bad, and there is nothing left—laughs! That is why I am interested in the quality of the generic and that there is no quality of good, nor bad.

My interest at the beginning was purely aesthetic. But I began research on the origin of why the city has more and more assumed these features and appearance as well as the daily experience of our life. I went back and selected the projects and images that would allow me to understand the origins and the ‘why’ we have ended up with this experience of the city and how urbanisation is the fundamental paradigm in which architecture has taken form.

Let me go back to the beginning of the modern city, which is the transition from what historians say is from the Middle Ages to Renaissance in the 12th to 15th century. In Europe it is a moment of intense social and political struggle. The transition of the old feudal order changes to the rise of a paradigm of governance that would later be the nation state. This transition has a fundamental protagonist, the bourgeoisie, the class that found its power in the city and not in the land, which was not a transcendental or metaphysical order, for example with the church. You can see the impact of that paradigm shift in the city.

There is a famous fresco still visible in the Palazzo Publicco in Siena called Allegory of Good Government by Ambroggio Lorenzetti, that teaches what a good government should be. He had a very clear idea. The good government of the city consists of production, in order to be a good city; a city has to be productive. For us it is a cliché, anything that exists in this world has to be productive, has to be good, you, the city, the university, the nation state, but at that time this was unprecedented because before, in antiquity, cities to be powerful solely had to have a strong military capacity, so strength. It is only in the Middle Ages that for a city to be powerful it was production, so labour. Labour becomes a fundamental activity, a social apparatus through which a city is governed. There is an increase of density, of domestic space, something that in the ancient city was undefined. The rulers were mostly concerned with the defence of the city and with monuments, while in the Middle Ages domestic space becomes extremely important. Private property becomes crucial because it is the infrastructure for a family, or a clan, to be productive and to establish its own power in the city. You also see the consequence of this in the public space and the private interest of the city. This distinction was very unclear and often is the reason why cities were chaotic and led to conflict. We have the image of the medieval city as peaceful but it was exactly the opposite. It was a constant struggle. This is the reason why we have the modern city. The modern city was developed to tame this incredibly chaotic situation. Production becomes an engine of power.

This is the moment at which the importance of labour and production is put to the fore. The importance of housing and domestic space and an environment unlike the traditional locus of architecture, the monuments, the cathedral, the ancient forum, architecture is no longer a special place, but is a common place. So it is exactly when architecture engaged with common space it loses the aura of uniqueness and becomes a comprehensive apparatus that governs the growth of the city. This is a very long process and for the sake of brevity I have to jump forward in this presentation.

In a way the city becomes literally a machinist apparatus. Architecture is no longer just the monuments but it is entirely the apparatus that allows people to reproduce their labour power. Labour power is not only the capacity to do a specific thing but is the living body that reproduces mental and physical strength and this becomes a major concern for those who rule the city, to provide enough infrastructure, to provide enough comfort and habitat for those who are productive, for city subjects, the people, who work in the city.

One fundamental change that this condition produces is that the household itself becomes part of the economic cycle. Before modernity the house was a sacred place. You would never rent your house to someone else. It was unthinkable a person would move from one house to another. There was no understanding of the house as an economic commodity. It is only within the importance of labour and production that the house, the most rooted space of our life, becomes part of the economic cycle.

Haussmann was the reformer of Paris with Napoleon the III and one of his most fundamental changes, apart from the famous restructuring through the boulevards, was in the systematic economisation of households. People who live in Paris would now be able to not only move from one place to another, but also put their house on the market and in doing so, the entire life of the inhabitant would be integrated into the productive cycle of the city. This was a fundamental tactic that Haussmann used to prevent a revolution, which of course later failed, to integrate the inhabitants as much as possible. You see the consequence in this series of very beautiful paintings by Gustave Caillebotte, which are representations of a post-Haussmannian city.

fig. 2
Paris Street, Rainy Day
C/O Scala Archives

Caillebotte expresses the uprootedness, the fact that people are more and more detached from the environment in which they live, gazing at the city where there is nothing to see, nothing to experience. The fundamental raison d’etre of the city is circulation, the fact that people and goods have to move, to circulate and everything is part of that process. This is when the theory of urbanisation is founded, and is something I described in my previous book.

The first theory of urbanisation is by Ildefons Cerdá who wrote the important book unfortunately only partially translated. It is really this book that explains everything about urbanisation and is published in 1867, which is an interesting coincidence because it is also when Marx published the first volume of Capital. Cerdá and Marx, theorise using different categories, the same thing, which is the importance of political economy in the distribution of power in the city. Cerdá is the first to invent the neologism ‘urbanisation’ to replace the term ‘city’. For Cerdá the term ‘city’ is no longer useful when it has to define something that is no longer based on community or a finite place. He refers to the city as a machine and as a constant system of flows of circulation where people and goods are constantly moving and reproducing. Cerdá had the opportunity to test his theory. The book was written after one of his major projects for the extension of the city of Barcelona where the main criteria of the design of the city was what Cerdá called the circulation, and the importance of circulation in shaping the city. The whole Barcelona layout was defined by a careful analysis of how traffic flows would influence the fabric of the city to the point you have the strange solution of the crossing of the blocks cut at forty-five degree angles with the intention to facilitate the flows within the city. Yet, for Cerdá an important aspect on the design of the city was the design of domestic space, the space of reproduction, those who live and work in the city. The city repetition of protocols that lose architectural attributes and become a machinist apparatus where what matters is not a representation of transcendental or metaphysical values but the matter of fact of cities. Cerdá is the first planner to use statistics to prove his solutions. He is not referring to metaphysics or allegories of the city such as in Lorenzetti. He refers to science, pure scientific facts, with architecture simply the accommodation of data in numbers of figures and people. A fundamental metaphysical category becomes population, which is simply the biological reproduction to address the possibility of reproducing living bodies for the sake of production. This is not because of an intrinsic value, moral or ethical, but what matters in this scheme is production. This is why architecture had to cope with this condition and lose its specificity to address basic immanent forces, which are devoid of representation. I will show you now four theories and be very fast, with just a few images which I consider the most extreme cases in which architecture has engaged in this transformation.

The first one is the book on domestic architecture by Sebastiano Serlio, completed in 1535 but never published. It is interesting because it is the first time architecture addresses, in the form of a design proposal, the design of domestic space for all classes. Starting from the house of the poor peasant, which is a contradiction as Serlio says because it is exactly what would be self-built by the person who lives in that house. You see how architecture starting from the 16th century, was no longer interested in the production of monuments for those people who have the possibility to hire an architect, but for a larger population in need of a new domestic space to produce their labour power. You see how this process reduced architecture to pure inhabitable space, which loses any formal refinement, to become a place in an architecture made of openings, doors, roofs, corridors. There is no attempt to use architecture as a figurative form of representation as with monuments and exceptional buildings.

This understanding of architecture in the 18th century becomes an understanding of the entire history of architecture. The famous Recueil by Durand, the important professor at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, who applied a rigorous orthographic projection through which Serlio and other architects had attempted to systematise the design of domestic space, but Durand applied it to monuments of architectural history. The monuments are seen through this anonymous, almost meaningless way. This had an influence on how Durand theorised the design of new institutions of the modern city where architecture is purely defined as an anonymous set of principles which Durand called compositions, in which the creation of space is disconnected from the representation of meanings. Space becomes a purely functional host for different programmes and activities and this implied that architecture shifts from representation to organisation; to being a system of spaces and partitions, simply organised to order the complexity of the modern city where activities are indefinable to make the city a productive environment.

One of the most extreme cases of architecture without qualities is the architecture of Ludwig Hilberseimer, the German architect who had an enormous influence on Mies. Hilberseimer designed few built projects. Most are theoretical like Serlio and Durand. In 1924 he took part in a famous competition for the Chicago Tribune newspaper which launched one of the first global international competitions in which the paper wanted to define their new headquarters as a kind of icon of the city. So this is the first case in which architecture is being instrumentalised as a branding tool. Hilberseimer submitted a project, contrary to expectations of the jury, to radicalise as much as possible the anonymity of the building using the architecture which at that time was newest, the assembly line factory. Hilberseimer literally took the architecture of ‘Highland Park’ by Albert Kahn, an important architect who developed work for Ford and became known for his radical typical plans through which his factories were built. Kahn had an interesting way to define his work. He said that his projects are ten percent art and ninety percent business. Architecture is reduced to its bare minimum to allow a form for the contents that were in constant transformation, which was the production of cars. What is interesting is that Hilberseimer applied this type of space to office space, where the form of labour was no longer the physical production of commodities like in the factory, but what we would call today, ‘immaterial commodities’, the production of information and knowledge. Using the same type of space the different programmes of the modern city were made representable within architectural form and the only form that could contain this constant change was the typical open plan of the factory where architecture dissolves itself. What comes to the fore is the structure and the organisational framework of architecture.

I will conclude with the last project where the concept of the typical plan was applied to something that is a place where we are now, which is the University. It is the Cedric Price project for the ‘Potteries Thinkbelt’ where Price attempted to apply the abstraction of industrial architecture to the university. Price realised, in the 60s, that university was more and more part of the economic and labour organisation of the country. The reason he applied the principle of anonymous industrial architecture was in order to cope with market and economic changes that constitute the cycle, where university itself had to be a space of constant change, in constant flow. The only way to govern such a space is to reduce space to its most minimum conditions in order to allow all kinds of technology to govern that space and make that space in tune with the transformation of political and economic conditions of a particular place.

In a way what you see in these examples is not the contemporary fate of the urbanisation, which looks different. For me it is very important to remember that the origins of the landscape that surrounds us is not something that was invented in the last decade and therefore something I wouldn’t define as a default conclusion of modernisation. The reason I attempt this archaeological analysis of the rise of urbanisation is that the problems of today, the loss of form, the loss of orientation in the development of the city, are something inscribed since the beginning of the modern city and therefore not the heroic period of modernity. Modernity has had these problems since the beginning. These problems are today simply becoming an extreme manifestation and at the same time, as Lewis Baltz reminds us in his beautiful photographs, this phenomena has in the end a material and physical manifestation. It has certain properties that we can describe and feel even in the most anonymous and absolute condition of lacking any form of representation or any allegorical value. but still it is architecture. It is still architecture, it is something we can describe and define. This is exactly where the possibility lies, in the way this process, perhaps without being changed, can be understood and more defined.

You covered a lot of ground and undermined a number of sacred cows in architecture. I don’t want to monopolise your time because I know there will be a number of questions from the audience. But to start, the difficulty I have in entirely understanding what you are saying is that you are almost saying it is inevitable that architecture leaves the stage as a result of mass society. I don’t believe that’s the case but because you posit this problem and because you situate it so far back in history, even before the Enlightenment, it’s as if there is no other option but for architecture to leave the stage. I don’t think you are saying that but I’d like to hear your response.

The reason I showed these examples at the end of my analysis of the rise of urbanisation, the examples of architects work, is because I think what is meaningful in their work is that the architects are engaging radically in the process of urbanisation. Maybe they are not able to change something so historically rooted in the beginning of Modernity, but the intensity of their work shows they engage in this process and it’s testimony that there is agency, room for reform. I showed this work because I have faith in architecture and that architecture is not just about building something. I also think architecture is a form of pedagogy, of teaching, of the transmission of knowledge. None of these architects have realised important buildings. Some of them almost no buildings, but the way they have approached the problem of the city has had a strong influence on other architects. For instance the influence of Hilberseimer on Mies is important. You cannot understand Mies without understanding Hilberseimer’s thinking on the city. At the same time, the reason I open and close with Lewis Baltz is that when we take urbanisation seriously then maybe things can change and be modified. The problem is not urbanisation. The problem is we don’t take urbanisation seriously and at the level of intensity that this condition requires. That’s the reason I choose Baltz because in his work you have the absolute banality of what he is representing and the absolute commitment with which he represents it. That commitment is what is at stake.

Is the case of Ildefons Cerdà a representation of commitment?

Actually the case of Cerdà is problematic. His position is very ambivalent. He tried to do something in his own way, which was very progressive. Don’t forget Cerdà’s plan was a consequence of Barcelona as a city with huge social problems. It was the last European city to have built city walls around the existing old city, and these were built by Madrid as a form of punishment toward the population of Barcelona, which at the time was against the central government. At the same time, Barcelona was the most industrial city in Spain, which gave a conflictual reality. Cerdà wanted to solve this problem but in the solution also lies the problem. His solution was not just a solution to conflict but also a way to inscribe in the solution the governance of the population and Cerdà exemplifies the problem of urbanism. Urbanists want to solve problems, but the solution is never value free. It always comes with a new form of reification and alienation of those people being urbanised. So in that sense Cerdà has all the best intentions but also those intentions are very problematic.

Are there any questions from the audience?

Yes, I’d like to know a little more about the movement and circulation you describe in relation to Haussmann’s Paris boulevards and how you see the manifestation of space in the city.

Haussmann’s Paris is mostly known for Haussmann being a policeman of the city and trying to restructure Paris in order to avoid the fabric that would allow revolts to happen. Therefore the boulevard was a technique to make space more controllable. The success of Haussmann’s plan was the way he strongly controlled the development of the city through the real estate market of the city, integrating people’s needs with the market in a stronger way without any form of military control. In a way it is interesting because one of the sources of the current economic crisis is exactly the way households, property, are part of the crisis, which has long roots in the transformation of the 19th century, when the house becomes a commodity. The house becomes something to be put on the market and Haussmann was key in that transformation. His work was even more influential in that sense, more so than his influence as a boulevard maker. The second point about space is very important. If I can simplify the paradigm shift I have tried to sketch, it is the shift from the city as form to the city as space. The ancient city is a city of form. Form is always defined, it has an edge, it defines what is inside and outside and is what gives to space a sense of orientation. The modern city is no longer the city of form but is the city of space. Space is the open ended condition of the city. Space becomes more important than the points of orientation and it is not by chance that the precondition of the modern city is one of space. From the Renaissance to Haussmann, to Robert Venturi, the street, the network, circulation and also the means of material mobility is more important than the physical properties of the city. The architecture of the city literally disappears and the architecture becomes relative to the spatial substance of the city.

When you show the plan of Barcelona some students will be surprised that the layout of Barcelona is based on traffic, yet when in Barcelona, it is civil and urbane. It’s the very idea of the city as a beautiful place. What do you see as the future of the city?

We have to be careful with the idealisation of the city. Yes with the Medieval City there is a certain kind of civic representation of citizenship in the beautiful squares and town halls but at the same time it was a city of commercial interest, which was becoming very strong and powerful and later became a way to make urban conditions more governable. Over time communities dissolve. But the seeds of dissolution were already there with the urge to make the city productive over other urges. In cities from the 16th to 18th century you see the opening of big streets, which were seen as alien to the tight fabric of the old city. We have a detachment or disintegration of urban form exactly at that moment. When you look at Via Giulia in Rome by Bramante, which is one of the first straight streets, it is idealised as a beautiful testament to the Renaissance city. But the inhabitants at the time were very unhappy with that street. First, because it had nothing to do with the scale of that part of the city and also it was a new understanding of public and private space, under military and economic control which was more important than the possibility for people to meet and see each other in that space. The second question where is the future of the city? What I find problematic today is the fetishism of the city. The fact that everyone likes to talk about the city. But at the end, the city is just an image and we don’t understand that the city cannot be reduced to a square, a museum, a street, a traffic solution. The city is a political form and if we don’t understand the city as a political form we will always fail to address the reality of the city. It’s amazing to hear politicians and architects who use the most clichéd phrases when talking about the city. The future of the city lies in our ability to go beyond the fetish for the urban, where everything needs to be more urban, when we have forgotten what the urban needs. This is the premise for something more meaningful than what we have today.

You use words like alienation, reification and fetishization. One criticism of what you put forward, and I appreciate that what you put is in sketch form, is that you can be criticised for a materialist conception of the history of the city. It often sounds like a thinly veiled Marxism.

Yes, for sure, there is a materialist understanding of the city. One of the aspects I didn’t mention behind my analysis is the understanding of labour and the organisation of labour in relation to the organisation of urban space. The work of Marx has been very important, especially his definition of labour power and how labour power becomes a fundamental category for capital to root its power. We always see the power of capital in obvious emblems such as the wealth of a certain class. The root of capital power is the governance of the living body and the reproduction of the living body as a primary ingredient. You are right. There is a danger to over emphasise the fait accompli of the human species as a source of production. In the last part of the book I open up this critique in which one challenge to the history of urbanisation is to see man as an unproductive living body and perhaps this is an important step. The work of Baltz again is important because although these photographs are of parts of the enormous machine that the city has become, in his photographs the machinist network is completely fragmented. So in a way the productive environment becomes suddenly unproductive. The possibility of being unproductive, which today is impossible because our life today is all about production starting from the emails we receive each day, when you think how much we spend producing, it is incredible and in these photographs, this chain is cut. Although my work starts from a materialist premise, the conclusion is a plea for unproductivity as a fundamental form of emancipation from the rise of urbanisation.

You could argue that unproductivity, a lack of productivity, is a contemporary form of romanticism. I’m just back from Detroit and it is shocking and also exhilarating to look at a place that is no longer productive, to see the consequences of that, the way time has a different quality on the place. A lot of people get excited about that notion. It often seems it’s part of contemporary thinking to celebrate our unproductive life in terms of food culture, wine culture, and so on. So is there a danger in what you say as perhaps a bit nihilistic?

This new ecological thinking, environmentalism and sustainability, is part of a new productive ethos in times of crisis. In the 20th century the productive ethos was eschatological. Today it’s all about austerity, consuming as little as possible. Even in new forms of ethical production this ethos of production remains. The problem of sustainability is it really has that kind of productive and technocratic aspect, although it’s hidden in this very friendly appearance. The concept of unproductivity is rooted in political economy and is not a kind of romantic refusal of modernisation but tries to place a possibility at the centre of what has made us productive. Maybe I am not able to frame it as I should and the last thing I want to give, as a conclusion is a romantic dimension. On the contrary I want to give a realist dimension because it is the hope of all of us inside this room to see our relationship determined not only by this urge to produce but also relations that have other meanings. My urge to address this problem is not from an abstract concept but to see that our life has been completely destroyed by this hyper activity that has been placed within our historical development from the very beginning of modernity. To reach that awareness, and therefore possibility, we have to be clear about its premise and that is the nature of this work, exactly not to be romantic.

The line you draw through the modern period taking in differences between city and urbanisation and the move away from the city, looking at our current context, and the idea we need to get back to the city, is it possible urbanisation is not bad?

Absolutely. If you ask me where I would rather live: either in the medieval city or the worst type of urbanisation, I would say urbanisation! The medieval city was a place of violence and struggle. All the images we have come from the 19th century when in fact the image of the medieval city was to reject industrialisation. I am not talking about urbanisation as something bad, alien, on the contrary, I am talking about urbanisation as extremely normal, and with which we have an ordinary relationship. I don’t want to go back to some idealised city. At the same time I have a problem with the uncritical acceptance of urbanisation. For example I admire the work of Rem Koolhaas, but I often think his obsession for the forces of modernisation is uncritical and in a way sometimes a bit naïve. He doesn’t really understand that those forces are dynamic and always changing but at the same time are incredibly stable at maintaining a fate for the transformation of the city; stable in terms of maintaining a certain kind of power, for example the power of capital. For instance when you read Koolhaas’ writings the word ‘capital’ is never mentioned.

Do you see fundamental qualities in architecture; formal, cultural or political?

The work of Mies or Hilberseimer shows that very well. They show that even when there is nothing to represent, no value to celebrate, that we can finally experience space itself. This is not just culturally conditioned but politically conditioned. The reality of the situation without its mystification can lead us to a political constituency and not only aesthetic and cultural. This is why I believe architecture is a form of mass pedagogy. Walter Benjamin said that architecture has this quality and possibility more than other arts, not only through buildings, but photographs and images, to be a mass pedagogy to allow people to clearly define the world in which they live.

Geddes would share that position.

And there are many architects who pursue this.

The idea of the architect reacting against the political condition rather than being a subject, when you say there is a pedagogical aspect, when you say there is a will toward something, it seems more like a reaction to political conditions or basic societal conditions. Do you think there is some premise for the agency of the architect beyond pedagogy, beyond simply explaining a situation?

I am interested in the pedagogical aspect of architecture. I don’t think architecture can solve all the issues that urbanisation has brought. Architecture is not literally a solution. Architecture can provide useful reforms for the city though. For example in terms of housing, in terms of the way domestic space can address certain problems. But I don’t believe architecture in itself can be a solution. We cannot replace people with objects. I am against a paternalistic use of architecture. This is a problem in contemporary design, which has become paternalistic and replaces agency. For example I grew up in Rome in a very problematic housing block. It was a modernist block on the periphery of Rome, and it’s well known. It’s a very long building. I have to say everyone has very negative opinions of it and they say it looks really bad, really aggressive. But I remember that in this building there was a lot of solidarity with the people living there. It allowed people to dwell there, to take the initiative and inhabit that place, even with its severity. Then when we moved to a more bourgeois part of the city and to this bourgeois apartment, the initiative, the community, was gone. This experience has taught me a lot about architecture. I don’t think the city has to be too friendly, too nice. The moment the city and architecture becomes too smooth, it does not allow us to take the initiative and struggle with the city. The problem I have with contemporary urban design is always the emphasis on being friendly, nice, constructing an environment that has to please everyone. There is never this sense of a bit of alienation, of anonymity, of a lack of quality, which would allow the inhabitants to react to it. Architecture can have a pedagogical value in pushing people to react.

You would say Ungers would answers this?

Yes but he is not the only one. It sounds banal but the architect I always have in mind when I talk about this kind of thing is Mies, especially the late Mies, where his spaces have no attempt to condition the life inside them. It is the architecture without quality, which is important in my work.

So architecture without quality is both a problematic and a solution?

Yes, there is a danger to run away from the problem and find solutions elsewhere but I believe often solutions, if there are solutions, can be found in the problem itself.

Are you saying there are specific principles, autonomous qualities, which are expressed by an architect such as Mies?

I like those architects who turn the most problematic aspects of the city into something meaningful. Serlio trying to design what was undesignable, the ordinary bourgeois house, or Durand who would design the most humble and utilitarian buildings, or Hilberseimer designing buildings that would be completely empty. What I recognise in their work is an intensity. Mies is the most extreme in that sense. I sympathise with these architects. There is a certain commitment, a visionary commitment, which is much more inspiring than those who openly want to change everything.