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Utopie realizzabili - Review

by Manuel Orazi

Architecture has just to realize fine objects – pleasant to see and functional to live – or create something useful for everyone? In short, this is the question at the base of all the work of Yona Friedman, the French architect and urban planner of Hungarian origin known for his visionary projects between the 50s and the 60s.
Friedman presents his last book translated in Italian “Feasible Utopias” (originally released in France in 1975, republished and revised into Italian in 2003) that actually is not a book on architecture but on the contrary is for everybody as it is about how to solve problems like democracy, poverty, communication, starving and metropolitan congestion: he doesn’t offer solutions, and he doesn’t adopt, either, an univocal position about the questions he himself, in fact, helps to foster. Actually, supposing that a solution exists, the feeling is that Friedman judges the persistence of doubts sounder than the achievement of certainties, whatever they are.
“In medio stat virtus”, Aristotle said. In other terms, virtue set itself half-way between excess and failing. Architecture, which is not an exact science, just finds in this compromise its noblest expressions – or better, in the search of an ideal synthesis between what is fine and what is useful, between form and substance. Friedman doesn’t love labels – “bureaucratic formalities”, he defines them – and he should not love that one of Aristotelian, either. But it’s this principle, after all, he always tried to assert, his theoretic and practical works seem to suggest.
Friedman created new doubts to those who expected to get answers: “We pursue struggle and competition, but we dream the heaven. Not all that I wrote is the same as proposals. I resort to images, and my interest is to provoke a reflection about the opportunity to realize them or not. With a fine distinction: that if we never managed to recreate the earthly paradise, well, the most urgent thing to do should be the search for hell”. Practically speaking, a solution good for all does not exist.
One of the most ambitious bets of utopia is just if individual must pay for the happiness of society – heaven on the Earth, in short. Everything depends on the consent. The feasible utopia consists in the achievement of the consent. But the question recurs: is it possible to theorize the consent of everyone? It’s just what dictatorships tried to carry out, with the results we know. According to Friedman, the feasible utopia can exist only in the little communities. It’s his defence of individual against standardization, against the conceit of some architects inclined to impose their particular vision of the town, of the whole society, as the one well-grounded. “During my life, I realized some projects which disprove this way of thinking, as the project for the Bergson Lycée in Angers, where professors and parents was involved in the planning of a building which fully met their vision of the school. “Because also aesthetics is a need of the human being”.
And yet, some images of Friedman induce to think to technology rather than aesthetics, as we usually understand it. The mobile city, consisting of houses able to change by themselves adapting to the needs of people who live inside – not of the client who commissioned the work – is exactly the expression of this utopia, as the “Museum of Simple Technology” in Madras, India, inspired by the same principle, but founded on traditional techniques and materials of construction. Friedman treats only realisable utopias then, not merely visions like in the case of many utopian architects of the Sixties.
Friedman explained that “the only thing to change is the level of complexity of the prefabricated element”. At any rate, technology is always the means, never the end. The end is the individual, and the right means, as Aristotle claims, is the possible way. For example technology has been a mean in order to unite our continent: “I think to Europe as a ‘continent-city’, a web linked by hi-speed trains with 120-150 stations that mean the medium and big cities. I don’t think that these are going to develop further, there will be rather a simultaneous moderate increase of the junction-cities of the web”.
As this can be conciliated with globalization and the not always univocal messages of those who oppose the phenomenon, is a chapter which Friedman tackled with a good deal of scepticism: “the most substantial contribution the movement of Seattle is giving to architecture is to undermine the certainties of everyone”.
Friedman thinks the young architects’ projects are often “empty shoe boxes”. But there is a “but”. Because if Friedman doesn’t love to be defined a utopian, he certainly loves to refer to himself as an incurable optimist, convinced that every process, also the most apparently inexorable, can correct itself. This is true for the dramatic situation in Israel, the country the birth of which he attended –he lived in Haifa for ten years before moving to Paris after the CIAM of Dubrovnik in 1956 -, this is true even more so for architecture.

Manuel Orazi was born in Macerata, Italy, in 1974 and graduated at the IUAV in Venice. He is currently attending a Ph.D. in History of Architecture and of the City at the School for Advanced Studies in Venice with a thesis on the work of Yona Friedman. He also collaborates with the Italian publishing house Quodlibet and he regularly contributes to the monthly magazine “Il Giornale dell’Architettura”.

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