1. Communication and technological innovation
The western cultural model has its roots in the Jewish-Christian tradition.
One of the foundation of this tradition, together with Greek myths, has the Book of books as its archetype: the Bible.
There is a famous passage, Genesis Chapter 11, which, in my opinion, may help us in reflecting upon what is happening today.
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Why this passage of the Bible?
- because it talks about communication and language
- because it talks about technological innovation
- because it talks about conflict between men and god-nature.
In my opinion two important considerations rise from the interpretation of this passage which make it extraordinarily modern.
The first one, the strict relation between language-communication-technological innovation,
”And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. They said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly…”.
Building a city, and, above all, a tower so high as to reach the sky is possible, provided that this connection is made
“and this they begin to do”. The second one, the conflict between men and nature, between artifice and nature (God!). Exceeding the limit.
“Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”
This God should be happy that his children are united to achieve their goals, but he isn’t! Why?
Let us consider which is the goal of men. Actually, a nonsense, an act of pride, building a tower
...whose top may reach unto heaven. Their goal is to get power, ...and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
What are men afraid of? Losing their unity and being scattered. Does this seem an exaggerated concern?
It certainly does, if my concern is solving the conflict within the strength of union.
One of the peculiar features of this passage from the Bible lies in the fact that God does not send lightning, as Greek Zeus does, he does not hit them with an earthquake to knock the tower down, but he confuses men and their communication system, language:
"Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's
speech". Let us consider the Gulf War or the air attack to Serbia. This God seems to know modern military strategy: first, attacking the enemy’s communication system in order to puzzle him and ensure supremacy in the sky.
Artifice is made possible by language, by communication. Technology is possible if there is a common language which unites men, but when artifice challenges heaven, heaven rebels and takes revenge. How? By confusing languages and spreading men.
Where does salvation lie for men, then?
In this passage from the Bible there is another great truth. This passage belongs to the book of Genesis, that is to say the beginning of the history of men, God-Nature confuses languages, but by scattering them, he gives the possibility to inhabit the earth through diversity, identity and multiplicity.
Nature does not know one single way of living on earth, but the thousand ways each animal and plant species have imagined for themselves to procreate, reproduce, hunt, and defend themselves.
This, in my opinion, is the necessary indication. Salvation for men is not solving the conflict with nature, but recognising themselves in it. Not in unity, but in multiplicity.
2. From communication to representation
What distinguishes us from the rest of the world, from the animal and plant worlds, is not the ability to communicate as much as that of representing ourselves and representing the world. Through representation we express our awareness to be there, to exist.
We architects work with language, a language made up of images, but, above all, we work with the public imagination, and that is the very reason why our work must be founded on a few shared values.
Representing means showing, making reality visible, perceptible, evident, but also symbolising, staging, interpreting.
We show reality through means: images, drawings, photos, models, virtual models; in order to represent we use instruments, simple or sophisticated tools: pencils, sheets of paper, computers, etc.
Do equipment, instruments, tools affect representation? Are they neutral, or do they bias language?
They are neutral, that is to say, they are means to represent a thought, an idea, but at the same time we must cope with the constraints and the degree of freedom those means grant us.
Therefore, there is also a language of the means: type of drawing, way to photograph, type of cinema, of TV, of software, Internet, etc.
We must specify that, when we talk about architecture design, representation is not just a final condition, that is communication to the others, but above all a means which exists throughout, that is, the representation to itself. There exists a third level which we may define representation as a product, when representation goes out of the direct relation between two subjects and takes on its own life; when, therefore, it becomes film, video, CD-ROM, etc.
In this case the architect’s traditional language must cope with the specific languages of each single means:
the language of cinema, software, television…
Let us consider how a project may be affected by its representation system: perspective in the place of axonometry, an image processed with Photoshop© or a rendering.
A first consideration is needed:
- Fixed or moving, all belong to the two-dimensional perception field, no matter how sophisticated the means, they are always representations on the plane, be it sheet of paper or monitor.
What is going to happen when they enter three-dimensionally into the space represented? How will this affect designing?
If I just think of what happened by replacing the drafting machine with Archicad © rather than Form Z© in the design choices, I do not dare thinking what will happen with an oleographic representation.
What is new in representation and what is old? The answer may be, on the one hand, nothing new under the sun; on the other, everything has changed.
But in what sense everything and nothing? Maybe in the sense that on the one hand, the new means certainly add and at the same time take something away.
They add, give other possibilities, for example:
- simultaneity of sight, that is, of perception, no longer and only a perspective or axonometric view, plant, cross section or prospect, but all these almost simultaneously;
- rapidity, the speed at which these are presented or, better, present themselves and the need to choose and decide quickly;
- accuracy with which you represent, almost as if chance did not exist: consider the study of shadows, of reflections, etc.
Instruments seem to be giving you precisely something more, nothing is left to chance.
What is it that they take away? Probably the degree of uncertainty, chance, discovery, surprise between what was thought and what actually exists.
In other words, we loose innocence, our ability to be there.
Representation tends to replace direct experience, it makes itself interpreter, mediator
- representing is a way to communicate: or rather, representation implies communication
- communication needs language: the need to communicate determines language
- without identity there is no communication
- identity is given by belonging to the self, to one’s own personal history, to the history of one’s community, to all those things which represent our memory.
What is new in communication, and what is old? What is dangerous is that language becomes not only a means but also an end.
The question we should ask to ourselves is:
Communicating and representing what?
Language freed itself of its status of means to become an end. Let us think of poetry. It uses language simply as an end, but at the same time it is a means to communicate something noble, elevated, maybe only moods, maybe just beauty.
A freed language, without any end, without goal, becomes mere aestheticism which speaks to itself only.
This is the curse of the Babel tower: challenging nature with artifice makes us unintelligible, we can no longer communicate and the end is lost.