Pippo Ciorra

New dystopias.

Architecture as the infrastructure of the world, and the conflict between theory and practice.

— 18 Mar, 2020 —
Pippo Ciorra
Pippo Ciorra

Pippo Ciorra is an architect, critic, teacher and – since 2009 – the senior curator of Rome’s MAXXI (Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, or National museum of 21st-century arts), for which he has worked on a number of exhibitions both in Italy and abroad. He is also a member of CICA (Comitato Internazionale dei Critici di Architettura), advisor for the Triennale di Milano’s Gold Medal for Italian Architecture prize, and the curator of the Italian version of YAP, MoMA PS1’s international program to promote young architects. He is professor of design and theory at the SAAD in Ascoli Piceno, and director of the international Villard d’Honnecourt doctorate at IUAV in Venice; he collaborates with various publications and has published articles and essays. He was also part of “Casabella”’s editorial committee from 1996 to 2012. Finally, he is on the board of members of Future Architecture Platform (FAP) and co-curator of Demanio Marittimo, a festival held on the beach in Senigallia every third Friday in July. / in conversation with Sara Fortunati, director of Turin's Circolo del Design, ed Elisabetta Donati de Conti, author and curator.

Outside Pippo Ciorra’s window
Outside Pippo Ciorra’s window

Elisabetta: In large cities, parks and public spaces are usually calculated in terms of square meters per person. For example New York is very proud of its Central Park, this huge green reservoir, but actually – as the current situation proves – we don’t have any absolute rights over these square meters. In this sense, do you think cities represent a contemporaneity that no longer exists?

Pippo: That is why so many families move to the urban sprawl to live in their little home, with their little garden, which is exactly what left-wing urban planners have taught us was wrong for centuries. The indoor-outdoor relationship might be redefined, but I don’t think we are living in a time in history when we have the radical tools to design cities: we can only carry out small projects and slight changes. Perhaps this re-thinking will impact on the countries that are able to build entire cities over the course of a few years. Having to claim an open space for each one of us beforehand, because we cannot access public areas, might also be a little distressing and too close to Agamben’s thought. At the moment, the home and its relationship with the external environment can spark both obvious and more curious and interesting reflections. 

Sara: We are trying to track a change that has partially broken down some of the barriers in our everyday life, from online groceries shopping to work-life balance. We have noticed a few small cultural crashes.

Elisabetta: Also in institutions such as museums and universities. What are the challenges rising in education?

Pippo: In the 1990s, the Louvre published its collection online at one point. Some feared nobody would go visit the museum anymore, but obviously these online collections have never worked – unless someone is looking for something very specific. Digital archives work perfectly: for example, I can go on the CCA’s website and look for a drawing by Cedric Price, and this actually activates the opposite mechanism people imagined, because after studying it I am even more motivated to go see it in person. What we should do is use this period to come up with projects that use a different, non-physical medium, which cannot replace the museum’s activity but can complement it with different initiatives. At university, instead, so far I’ve only administered a few exams online, and will start the workshop soon.

Pippo Ciorra reviews a project with one of his students
Pippo Ciorra reviews a project with one of his students

Elisabetta: Can you teach design remotely?

Pippo: I don’t think so! This is a revolution in proxemics – and hopefully a temporary one. Plus, I can’t tell my students to go visit places, which is still crucial in any faculty of architecture, although many may think it is not. So the focus of my workshop this year will be a competition for an imaginary Le Corbusier museum, and I will revise works online. But I still love giving feedback in person: I find design has a somewhat erotic aspect, and we might lose this eros if we replace it. Of course we will do our best, and everyone is learning to use all kids of platforms: we will make it work.

Elisabetta: Since you meet new young students every day, and since not every architecture or design student will actually be able to work in those fields, do you think some of them will come up with new jobs? Are there any opportunities opening, that designers might seize?

Pippo: In the past two years, the number of students applying to architecture schools has decreased by over 50% – a remarkable drop. Many of the students who don’t study architecture anymore now enroll in design courses. At UNICAM, the proportions have flipped: we used to have a lot more architecture students than design students, now it’s the opposite. I think this might stem from the fact that people today still see architecture as the discipline you need to build a building, design a neighborhood or renovate a home, while the design program seems like the gateway to a whole new nebula of professions that is very thrilling in a situation like the one we are living today. While Second Life-like digital architecture is not feasible because it soon becomes boring, the education you get in a design school seems at least to grant broader access to this hybrid area between digital and analog. The complete openness of the word “design” is interesting today, while architecture’s disease is everyone wants to be a curator – a term I try to use sparingly in my work: exhibitions are, for me, an instrument to produce theories and research. The role of the curator has expanded unbridled and perhaps will now enter a crisis, because curators right now are paralyzed – which is quite interesting in and of itself.

Elisabetta: Would you say the role of the curator can be described as being parasitic?

Pippo: Of course it’s parasitic. With age, I have developed a certain admiration for the way art curators typically work: they disappear behind the artist, activating a kind of transference to weave together monographic shows. But I remain convinced that this cannot work in architecture. Architecture curators that work like this, including many whom I respect, end up collaborating with people who tend to behave like artists anyway. Instead, I think architecture as an infrastructure of the world should be managed with theoretical thinking and precise goals. The quick answer to the issue of education, therefore, is that architecture education is a little sterile in this sense because, in a situation like this, its limited flexibility becomes even more obvious. How many projects and funding plans will fall through in these days? As a consequence, architects are paralyzed and bogged down, and take refuge in the idea of becoming curators. But clearly we can’t all be curators, or there would be nothing left to curate.

Every year, we set up a FAP, Future Architecture Platform: a project that attracts approximately 400 proposals from young and ambitious creatives. The theme always has to do with architecture, but looking at the submissions we receive you can understand very well the confusion and the desire to spread out that are in the field. Designers can make a living out of this only if museums, biennali and triennali allow them to. If every year a certain mechanism produces an x number of curators, we will have to create as many biennali around the world so they all have a job. This is why designers have a much wider variety of opportunities to approach their profession today – if nothing else, because an entire digital world has been added, and has exploded enormously at this point.

Sara: Will architects’ challenge still be analogical? I think part of the profession’s essence is an interest in new forms of living in spaces, which might have to be partially reconsidered.

Pippo: There is a dark side in all of this. First, the attempts to consummate the marriage between architecture and the digital world – think of the parametric architecture dream – have almost all failed; and digital philosophy inspired by Schumacher is a luxury only emerging countries, the so-called “tigers”, can afford to apply to their projects. Second, the transformation of the web into a very active platform for economic exchange is a threat to the profession: there are a bunch of websites where you can upload the floor plan to your house and offer 1,000 euro to whomever comes up with the best solution. This sidesteps any professional organization, any guarantee provided by formal training, any degree: it is an extremely interesting form of suicidal democratization of the profession.

This is all very well if we don’t really care about the quality of objects and the quality of spaces. If we decide that the best part of our life is to come home and find everything in place, well organized with working infrastructure, then what happens outside doesn’t really matter: this is the chaos my generation liked, but we now realize is probably not very productive. The idea that outside space can be complete junk is the same idea we are falling victim to right now, because external environments are our new enemy.

Elisabetta: In many cities, places for socialization and entertainment that are not tied to shopping have been pushed to the outskirts; this gave museums a new mission to attract the city’s social life to their interior spaces. Now, with this sudden shift towards the digital dimension, will these activities die down? Or will they branch out in unexpected ways?

Pippo: Some of the online initiatives that are arising in this context might be useful to start building meaningful criteria within the debate: clearly, this situation can spur a potential re-thinking about the concept of home or the relationship between inside and outside. On the other hand, it’s easy to see the risks in this process too, and all of these new elements will also help us be better equipped when public and cultural spaces receive other blows after this one.

Sara: Although all of this is true, in cultures like Italy’s the city square has always been and will always be a crucial place for social aggregation.

Pippo: Everyone builds their own city with shopping malls, beaches, cinemas, places where you can take a walk. Cities also include a piece of historical center, because you go to the central square when you want to breathe in a little bit of their identity, but this is turning into just one of the many options on the menu, because squares have already lost the central role they had in building a culture of space. 

In the 20th century, architects had a radically different approach to the culture of space: if you entrusted Giorgio Grassi with designing a doghouse, he would design a corner of the city and go on like that, obsessively and dramatically. Today, Italian architects who are asked to design an object just design it, without realizing their mortal sin. I’ve sometimes been asked to recommend any young professors who would be able to design cities “like Italians do” – but I had to say there aren’t any left, because we have lost this way of thinking in our contemporary practice. Our masters made a somewhat perverse use of this method, often attracting people’s hate, but new professionals are at the opposite extreme and see architecture like the production of a wonderful dystopian movie.