Luca Molinari

Designing proxemics

The primary themes of architecture and intellectuals' role in storytelling

— 14 Apr, 2020 —
Luca Molinari, fotografia di Alberto Cristofari
Luca Molinari, fotografia di Alberto Cristofari

Luca Molinari is an architect, author and curator, and through his namesake studio focuses on consulting, curatorship and publishing for architecture. He has held various positions at different institutions and schools, and is currently associate professor at the “Luigi Vanvitelli” University of Campania, a member of the Superior Council for Cultural and Scenic Goods, and an editorial advisor for Skira’s architecture and design volumes. He has received a number of accolades and has been published in Italian and international publications. One of his many books, The Homes That We Are (Nottetempo, 2016), has recently become a bestseller, so Molinari wrote an additional chapter during the lockdown, freely available here since yesterday, that will be included in the next edition. / in conversation with Sara Fortunati, director of Turin's Circolo del Design, ed Elisabetta Donati de Conti, author and curator.

Sara: If some of the activities we used to do outside are going to move inside our homes, narrowing our view of other people and our relationships, do you think our houses will transform to include the aspects we are relegating to the virtual dimension in this extreme moment?

Luca: I think today we are under the effect of trauma, and our thoughts are inevitably tainted by 45 days of lockdown. Right now, trauma – in the Freudian sense – makes us feel like half our lives has been amputated: the half that lived outside the home and can only be a memory or wish at the moment. I want to believe we are not looking at a horizon of complete closure, in hyper-private mode, because we are all social animals that need contact. The lack of debate, the lack of that spark that pushes us to face strangers or unknown situations, leads to a huge impoverishment in existential, experiential, cultural, symbolic and anthropological terms. As curious animals, we will need to head back outside.

Our homes may change, but they will still have the same walls: we cannot tear them down or duplicate our balconies in reality. We will certainly work – in the design field – on folding walls with modular and overlapping functions like the ones in Sir John Soane’s London home, where every wall is also a bookcase that opens up and reveals further layers; or the ones in architect Gary Chang’s Hong Kong apartment, which he designed to the last millimeter in order to include in a mere 32 square meters a bathtub, a shower, a home cinema, a kitchen and a full-size bed, which can all be put out of sight when not in use. 

Hygiene and sanitizing might also become more relevant themes, and perhaps we’ll start seeing entrance/bathrooms where we can wash our hands as soon as we come in.

However, in these two months everyone has focused more on doors, windows and balconies – so I think some of the elements we will work on, both in private and public contexts, will be interfaces, i.e. spaces at the border, which perhaps will have to also help us sanitize or be safer. It could be interesting to imagine how security areas will be built around many public places so that the community inside can agree to a series of principles to respect each other’s health – but this is a projection of the times we are living today.

Elisabetta: In a recent interview, you said homes have become like our new little workshops, impromptu do-it-yourself projects with an added awareness about our needs. When and how will this phase impact public spaces too?

Luca: Proxemics change in real time, and right now we live in a proxemics of fear: when we go out and see someone come our way, they’d rather walk in the middle of the street than come close to us. The fact that the virus is invisible has a powerful effect: we will continue behaving like this even when the vaccine becomes available, because there can always be another COVID. I’m afraid we will start living in a long loop, during which our public life will have to coexist with these phenomena. We still don’t have the elements to understand what will happen in the future, but one of the consequences of this pandemic will certainly be that our lives will slow down – simply because we will have to stand in line more and more often.

Luca Molinari’s studio
Luca Molinari’s studio

Sara: The concept of space is obviously changing in the way we perceive our lives. Do you think time will also change the way we live, work in cities, have relationships, get our groceries?

Luca: To give you an example, on Saturday mornings I now take an average of forty minutes to do the same things that used to take five: buy some bread and the newspaper. If we project this time dilatation on a pseudo-normal day in which we will have to keep our distance from everyone, it will certainly have an impact on any routine activity. For example, students will have to go to school in different shifts, while their parents do the same for work. Minimal consequences on every action in our life will make more important problems emerge soon, and then we will understand what type of creativity designers will have to offer, also because there will be limited financial resources. However, it will be interesting – so my question is, how can we guarantee physical social distancing (which is a contradiction in terms in and of itself!) while breaking down the concept of distance? This is one of the challenges we will face for physical and mental spaces in the next few years: figuring out how we can work to not create fear.

Sara: As you mentioned, it’s a burst of contradictions. Could it be an opportunity not only to solve the problems we are focusing on, but also to think about a new direction?

Luca: It certainly is, but it’s a challenge to our all-around ecology. We have to think of the long-term scenario but also feel the pressure of the current one, and we rarely have visionary reactions under the pressure of limited time and resources. This is another great contradiction: we realize the world we have built, in which we act as important pathogens, does not work; but we are talking about an overhaul, an epistemological rupture – as philosophers call it – in which we must process change without considering the pressure of trauma alone. I’ve read a Harvard study that confirms what almost all of us have guessed by now: there is a strong correlation between contagion and PM10 levels in the air. So it is not by chance that the provinces around Brescia, Bergamo, Milan and all of Piedmont were hit the hardest: they are the regions with the highest GDP and production intensity. So population density, particulate matter density and economic density are all causes of viral density.

In a recent interview, Richard Sennett explained we also risk creating a new social gap – between people who can work remotely and people who keep the city running, and who cannot afford not to be out there because they deliver things, manufacture things, and are poorly paid for it. This is a political and social issue because working on relational spaces means working on the outskirts, imagining social housing by building spaces that can mediate and defuse the inevitable tension. But it’s also a design issue, because we will have to work on new formats for housing, markets, eating and social infrastructures. We are looking at a very important revision of our system, but the answer cannot be to slow down – because the weaker parts of society cannot afford to do so.

Elisabetta: Museums are perhaps some of the most promiscuous spaces in our cities: visitors are invited to move around freely and take their time reading or looking around. This is the field you are mostly focused on, and you are currently working on temporary exhibitions for the ADI Museum. Has your vision changed, for this type of space?

Luca: I think many institutions will strongly develop their app systems and digital interactions to prepare people before their visit, since accesses will be limited. Digital platforms will become even more important because they provide users with the tools to plan their time relative to others. The topic of temporary exhibitions is more delicate: I wonder if the rules for change will be defined by doctors, architects or mixed working groups. It will be an important shift, which will have to take into consideration common sense and the civic value of socialization.

Elisabetta: Do you think a new profession will arise in this field?

Luca: Architects will be more motivated than ever to collaborate in team with people from different backgrounds, and this will force creatives to join forces with other experts: epidemiologists as well as anthropologists and sociologists, and other professionals who specialize in distance and closeness in cultural terms. When we are scared we rely on a deep logic that is cultural, animal and familiar in nature, so it will be better to work with a psychologist, an anthropologist and a virologist, rather than another architect.

Sara: Will there be new opportunities in this sense?

Luca: This is an extraordinary opportunity that will take architecture and design back into reality, adding a very real civic, political and social meaning to their role. Working in this way could allow them to provide a very powerful collective service, combining their vision with knowledge from other fields, forcing them to focus creativity in a direction that would be meaningful for many. I think this is an epochal challenge.

Elisabetta: Is it a matter of method, more than operations?

Luca: Yes, and it also is a matter of market logics: designers will be asked to work this way, and some of them may go to their clients – perhaps even public bodies – to suggest alternative solutions to face the problems that will emerge in the next few months. This is more important for spaces than for objects, but designers can also work on walls like we said before: multi-functionality will intensify in the homes where we are forced to live. But we have a long tradition in this work, so it will be a matter of refining solutions. However, I can imagine design and health care companies will also come together, because businesses will have to start collaborating with different production skills, and this might generate some very interesting synergies. Architecture is entrusted, instead, with primary themes, tied to spaces that are not functional anymore in the world we live in today.

Elisabetta: In the past month, you’ve exchanged thoughts with different professionals on Instagram, often showcasing strong and different points of view in a dialogue with your own. Have these conversations helped you form an idea of what a collective point of view may be? What scenario lies ahead?

Sara: I agree, and I think this moment is a strong call to responsibility for intellectuals and anyone who strives to support culture, precisely because we are living in a time when many reference points must be reconsidered, and the cultural world has the duty of keeping a critical light burning. When this will all be over, we risk everyone rushing to tactical solutions for the emergencies that will arise – but someone must keep track of certain suggestions also after we overcome this trauma.

Luca: Intellectuals’ critical role has always been crucial to give phenomena social meaning. Intellectuals, thanks to their multidisciplinary culture, are able to mediate between different sets of knowledge and to transform knowledge in a widely accessible narrative. This is our goal: mediation and storytelling. Thus, intellectuals’ work is now even more useful and necessary, because solutions emerge from different narratives – else we’d just repeat the same answers under a different skin. But storytelling requires generous mediators and visionaries, who are in love with reality, available, full of doubts and imprecisions, and kind. These are all words that had been demonized lately, but which we could recover to give new meaning to the human aspect of relationships, breaking up the fear and keeping, even from a distance, a very important sense of closeness.