Dwellings of Light: Claudio Silvestrin Germano Celant

 

To put Claudio Silvestrin’s method in the right light it is necessary to think of design and architecture before they are actually ‘designed’, in other words to tackle them with a ‘primary’ attitude that does not look at the end product but at the overall and specific approach to physical space, to its transformation and to its interpretation. An activity that starts out from a ‘degree zero’ of the territory, which initially presents itself as a flat and deserted wasteland. At the outset the area lacks a boundary and a definition and it will be the job of the architect or designer to find the hidden source from which meanings for things and habitats can spring. At the same time his or her investigations, as diviner of a possible way of constructing and living, will be related to the geographical and cultural environment. So it is a work on the beginning of construction and on the ‘primary’ and elementary solutions that can affect the way of life of a person or a family, and these will initially be based on the point and the line, while on the physical plane the material values will be those of the historico-social location. This essentiality of approach that turns on ‘groundwork design’, which looks at the heart of the problem before defining it, is linked to the methodological legacy of A. G. Fronzoni, who, with his effort to eliminate any hint of superstructure, took his research into graphic and object design to an almost abstract level, in which the means and processes of production were always obliged to start again from scratch. It is out of his work, which derived logically from an exemplification and reduction of signs sufficient to render them invisible and immaterial, so that they came to resemble pilgrims and wayfarers on the surface of the paper and land, that the methodological approach came which has inspired Silvestrin’s thought since 1986. His use of the construction process is influenced in fact by a ‘nomadic’ way of thinking,(1) one in which his whole design is based on a territorial background set at zero, inside which it is asked to produce settings, furnishings, utensils, things and boundaries. Rather like the primitive and plain progress(2) of a ‘tribe’ that, entering or crossing a particular territory, concentrates on the activities to be carried out and translates them into places for living, capable of exploiting all the artificial as well as natural resources.

 

A building of ‘dwellings’ that Silvestrin renders contemporary, even while taking on their ancient significance of ‘process and artefact. It is the process of living at a location and it is the physical expression of doing so [...] Dwelling as the activity of living and residing, and dwelling as the place or structure which is the focus of residence.'(3) A poetics of the primary and the basic that entails the desire to erect something protective, but at the same time simple and without fuss, very close to the earth and its habitat. Whence the identification of elementary spatial concepts like centrality, orientation and linearity, as well as of the symbolic and cosmic value of the materials, from stone to water, from light to vegetation, and of living and functional archetypes. It could be said that Silvestrin proceeds by intuitive and tactile reflections and responses that help him to clarify the semanticisation of the structural elements that belong to the history of architecture, but that appear to him to still offer the potential for reduction to a greater essentiality. An extreme attitude in which space has to be liberated from the complex convergence and complexity of elements, then observed and finally constructed on the basis of relationships that are open to interpretations of life and history, of poetry and memory. So we can understand what it is that, before intervening or thinking, drives Silvestrin to ‘demolish’ the existing, in order to find a new ‘spirit’, between material and immaterial, of the environment: ‘The first step is the demolition. Just as the farmer cuts the grass before sowing, I knock down all the walls. Then I start to reconstruct on the basis of the functions. Above all I use theatrical wings, walls that divide but allow the passage of light and perception of the whole space.'(4)

 

So the layers of the design follow a sequence that starts from the definition of a landscape or territory with its natural features, first of all the light, and then moves on to the dwelling (whether used for life or for work). The symbolic accentuation of the territory corresponds in the first place to a specific analysis of the material and immaterial components that become the instrumental matrices of the spatial relations. So he starts out from emptiness and silence, which are the ingredients, as they were for Mies van der Rohe and John Cage, of a poetic mission in which at the beginning no narrative or figuration appears, in order to arrive at a formally cohesive and essential construction; one where the materials are symbolic individualities that build a work of architecture or a symphony of images, based on elementary rules of syntax and expression: ‘Emptiness, silence and light. Emptiness does not exist, space is not empty. It is space in its essence. It is freedom, it is liberation from physical and cultural conditionings. The perception of the fullness of the empty is existential, it has an active function, it is the removal of excess. The same is true of silence. In silence we observe, we think, we remember. Important things in our daily life happen in silence, so building places in which silence can be perceptible is an important part of architecture. Space and light have to be born together.'(5)

 

The relationship between space and light is also ‘earthly’ and ‘natural’, in the sense that Silvestrin thinks of it as the experience the nomad has in shaping his own space: having to move between completely diverse climatic situations, he is driven to create a personal one of his own, in which he can stop and feel at home, in stable physical conditions. In fact, after moving through a chaotic and dynamic territory and time, those of the city, each person feels the need to experience himself according to parameters that are determined by his body and his mind, no longer in movement, but as a sensitive and quiet entity. This pressing existential need to experience oneself as a hub and boundary between the urban outside and the inside of the individual place, and between the informative outside and the intimate inside, is one of the conditions that govern and influence Silvestrin’s research. It is a research that finds parallels in Italy with Lucio Fontana and his cuts into a metaphysical dimension, going beyond the surface of the canvas and beyond the wall, and in California with the investigation of environments of natural light and the reductive experience of the body carried out from the 1970s onwards by artists like Robert Irwin, Maria Nordman, Eric Orr and Doug Wheeler, who constructed a series of perceptual spaces with the aim of feeling an individual and energetic dimension on the human and bodily scale. The purpose of such spaces was the ‘recovery’ of the individual sensory experience.(6) In the first place their spaces were constructed, like Silvestrin’s, independently of the existing architecture, even if they set out to utilise and integrate architectural memory and symbology. But they tended in general to produce an aspatial situation, one which immaterially eluded perceptual control. This dimensionless condition was obtained by reducing to the minimum any point of reference, such as the corner of the wall, or by using non-physical pigments and anechoic materials, capable of eliminating the sense of a physical and aural limit. Inside these spaces, which sometimes appear completely dark when you enter, it is necessary to wait a certain length of time before the body, sinking into itself, begins to perceive sound and light. In fact they were created in such a way as to polarise and amplify natural events (or artificial ones, as in the case of James Turrell and Bruce Nauman), producing a field of sound and light whose experience was fundamentally regulated at an elementary and primary level. Silvestrin’s settings display the same aptitude, depending on the degree of reduction or expansion of simple phenomena, such as the impact or reflection of light on walls and on natural materials, for permitting descent into the self, typical of the cultural reference to the Oriental vision. In fact the aspatial and non-physical field produces an experience analogous to a pre-logical and prenatal condition, emblematic of Zen philosophy. Initially one experiences a sensory deprivation, with all optical and aural disturbance completely abolished, and while the passage from this state of sensory deprivation, due to the light effects, functions as an insulator from the context, the physicality of the raw materials, wood and stone, brings the sensation of the self back to a natural reality, with which to approach minimal sensory phenomena, such as touching and smelling, hearing and seeing. Thus through sight and feeling, all sensations, with the help of elementary stimuli, are brought back to a concentration on the self. For example the Neuendorf Villa on Majorca, 1991, and the Donnelly Gallery-Residence in Dublin, 2002, rely on the formalisation of reduced and elementary stimuli, such as the relationships between expanses of water and the surfaces of walls, between luminous apertures and the use of materials like the stone from Lecce, sequences of glass or doors made of oak, that invite the occupants to confront themselves in a completely tactile and visual experience of space; a space that presents no dispersion of phenomena apart from the rippling of the natural elements, like the expanses of liquid, light and materials. In fact Silvestrin seems to be interested in inviting the user to focus solely on the natural, internal and external, events that ‘shape’ the habitat. And thus not to concentrate on the objects or functions, but to pay attention instead to the refractions and transparencies, to the effects of light and shade that create the impression of an immaterial space, in which the void is revealed to be filled with meaning.

 

Once exposed to the experience of the non-material it becomes possible to move onto sensations that concern the material, such as the elaborate roughness of the stone or the linear structuring of the wooden staves or the forceful surface of the glass, or again the rhythmic cadence of the spaces, one after the other. A working on the objectivity of the elements intended to bring out their tones and colours, turning the whole into a territory of contemplation, both inside and out. In fact the relationship with the context, through transparency, is another key to Silvestrin’s architecture, which stimulates users to look both at themselves and at the surrounding nature. Almost a spur to attain an alpha state, a state that is ‘calm, watchful, relaxed, open to any inner experience’, in which one remains ‘alert, expanding one’s attention in all directions’.(7) And it is on the contrast between nature and construction, between physical limit and opening onto the landscape, between opacity and transparency, that a non-objective environment is constructed, one composed almost entirely of volumes and surfaces of air, but nourished by the use of crystalline materials and impenetrable materials. The latter include bronze, limestone and sand-coloured porphyry, often placed in contrast with water and marble, while at the level of volumes the figures are those of the cylinder and the parallelepiped, the cube and the sphere.

 

The same can be said of the Princi Bakeries, 2004 and 2006, and the P Apartment, 2009, in which absence and essence hold a dialogue with the changes in the atmospheric situation, which stir up the light effects, or with the activity of the consumption of food and the relations that are formed between baker and public. Everything is shown for what it is, following a severely restricted number of functions, those of sitting and walking, of the table and the display case, as if echoing the traditional, extremely austere and reductive structure of Japanese architecture. In addition, there is an oscillation between the architectural articulations of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, as well as the Bauhaus, although in Silvestrin the symmetries and axes of traversal tend to convey something vibrant and crude, harsh and intense, capable of touching people and stirring emotions in a way that was not in keeping with international rationalism. It is as if Silvestrin were seeking a mediation between an abstraction of architecture, while adopting the object-oriented logic of Giorgio Morandi, only that the architect-designer is not interested in setting images with popular and figural outlines against a ground, but in tracing lines and surfaces that, when looked at from the front, blend together against the backdrop of the wall, like the lines and planes of Jan Vantongerloo or Ben Nicholson, while the volumes are inserted as abstract objects on the floors, in the manner of Constantin Brancusi and Donald Judd. All the rest is a connective void that has to be filled by experience, so that the place of absence is animated with existence. A dialectic that is extremely marked in the P Penthouse in Montecarlo, 2006, and in the loft for Kanye West in New York, 2007, where the role of the tables and desk, of the shelves and the floor, made uniform by the recourse to wood and limestone, is to form non-objective nuclei, able to visually and physically disappear.

 

This formal and plastic absolutism, which leads to a unitary totality of spaces and routes, is a manifestation of the contemporary spirit, shaped by a universal and abstract vision, but its roots lie in history, that of an orthodoxy dating from ancient times. In the first place the idea of a permanent and united space, which survives the flow of the ephemeral and the temporary, as if the habitat ought to be the mirror of an immortality, in contrast to the mortal spirit of its inhabitants. Out of which comes the relationship between earth and sky, stone and light, that embodies a mythical way of thinking capable of challenging time. In fact the use of stone is expressive of a sacred aspect of the place, with its symbology ranging from the veneration of the ‘black stone in Mecca to the worship of the god Mithras, who was said to be ex petra natus, in other words the light of the sun was fixed in stone’.(8) The dialectic of stone and light is also part of the alchemical process: ‘Stone is a symbol of the solidified, crystallised spirit, but as spirit it too can volatilise and to use the language of alchemy pass from the phase of coagula to that of solve’.(9) This sacred architecture reached its height in the constructions of the Romanesque period, and it is to them that Silvestrin looks when designing a space that is an ideal projection, an image of the human being as well as nature: ‘The light to which I’m referring is the light of Romanesque and Cistercian works of architecture. It comes from a balance between the openings and the solidity of the walls, of the volumes; blades of light that stand out against walls and floors coexist with shadows, precisely to make it possible to perceive the image more strongly. The effect sought is in any case one of calm and monastic purity.'(10)

 

An interweaving of thought and emotion, spirituality and creativity, that leads inevitably to archetypes in which the exemplary image and model of the construction of that profane temple that is the house reappears. But the primary construction, in stone, is also at the root of public spaces, and is promoted by those who profess a belief, like the one in art. The interpretation of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, 2002, develops along an axis, in the manner of the Corridoio Vasariano, that functions as a means of access to the artistic event, as well as to the refreshment and commercial functions. As visitors follow it from the entrance, they are subjected to different experiences that range from consumption of products to aesthetic communication. Moving towards the territory of art, the public is confronted with a route, marked by blades of light that coincide on the outside with the portals of access to the building and on the inside with the thresholds of the spaces used for display of the works and that also divide up the exhibition spaces from above. These are perceived as large chapels or enormous halls where the bodies of art can be moved around and arranged to stimulate in the visitors ideal experiences or emotional information. An avenue marked by beams of light declares the modulation of the distinct spaces, some physical, some non-physical, of the Donnelly Gallery-Residence, except that in Dublin light and nature are substrata of the perception and interpretation of the works of Pablo Picasso and Cy Twombly, while in Turin what counts is the illuminated threshold that functions as an architectural introduction to contemporary artistic illumination. Finally the internal space of the Italian foundation functions as a traditional and classical ‘white cube,’ in which what count are the bodies of art that connect up only with each other, as they are by a single author or collective.

 

Finally there are the designs for the Aquapura Resort, in Ceará (project, 2007), and for the Sandy Island Villas in Singapore (project, 2008), in which it is not just the interior of the house, the shop and the art gallery that are distanced and isolated from the world, but the entire work of architecture. The elaboration continues to be abstract and essential, but opens up to the context, accepting its involvement in the environment. Thus the spaces open horizontally and vertically, simplifying the structural and formal systems of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe in such a way as to create a metaphorical, and not just theoretical and ideal, bridge between the real facts and the world of elementary forms. In comparison with other works of interior architecture or museums, the light here acquires a splendour and a richness that turn it into luminous architecture. It succeeds, with its variations and contrasts, in expressing the voids and the structures, giving them different intonations, as it is reflected by or sensitively fills the wrinkles in the wood or stone, or slips gently over the surfaces and the water, creating dynamic and profound effects due to the dialectic between luminosity, half¬light and darkness. Sceneries of light, rather than architecture, where both the traveller and the viewer are enchanted by an ideal paradigm. Dwellings, with pure volumes and essential geometries, that create an eschatological tension between earth and heaven in which to receive with wonder the marvellous vision of a dialogue between purified forms and past experiences.

 

July 2010

 

Postscript to the book The non-materiality of the material by Claudio Silvestrin, Allemandi & C., 2011.

 

 

 

Notes Dwellings of Light: Claudio Silvestrin by Germano Celant p 315-319

 

1. Nomadism within language was immediately defined and utilised by A. G. Fronzoni when he designed the first book on the architect’s work, Claudio Silvestrin (Birkhaüser, Basel 1999), in which reading the images and the texts is treated as a landscape to be traversed, and thus to explore and circumnavigate, like a traveller within the architecture. Only that the pages were turned into maps, helping readers to find their bearings when looking at and trying to understand Silvestrin’s designs.

2. Enrico Guidoni, Architettura primitiva, Electa, Milan 1975.

3. Paul Oliver, Dwellings: The House Across the World, University of Texas Press, Austin 1987.

4. Silvia Robertazzi, ‘Gli ambienti puri di Claudio Silvestrin’, in Io Donna, no. 13, March 28 1998, p 88-91 (passage quoted on p 91).

5. Claudio Silvestrin interviewed by Massimiliano Locatelli, in Casamica, no. 21, 17 May 2000, p 144-149 (passage quoted on p 147).

6. Here, I am drawing on ideas expressed in Germano Celant, Arte/Ambiente. Dal Futurismo alla Body Art, Electa-Biennale di Venezia, Milan 1977, p 121.

7. Maurice Tuchman, Art & Technology. A report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967-1971, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles 1971.

8. Bent Parodi, Architettura e mito, Pungitopo Editrice, Marina di Patti 1988, p 54-55.

9. Ibid.

10. Claudio Silvestrin interviewed by Massimiliano Locatelli, in Casamica, op. cit., p 144-149 (passage quoted on p 148).