Wednesday, August 10, 2005

An interview with my professor....why he's the greatest person I know.

Principal of Pleasure By David Gissen, Assistant Professor of Architecture*

David Gissen: In a recent statement describing your work, you said that you wanted to make an architecture that “makes people happy.” That struck me as a pleasantly optimistic statement, and I was hoping you could elaborate on what you meant.

Marco Frascari: Happiness is alien to most of current thinking in architecture. It seems that the majority of architects have forgotten that on the one hand the function of architecture is to make humanity happy, since buildings play a major role in setting the hedonic (devoted to pleasure) environment necessary for happy activities. Happiness is a sensation that arises from a certain conscious state, namely when we are assimilated or captivated within some elating and enjoying experience. Unhappy sensations arise when a situation becomes too complex for us to handle.

Happiness quickly fades without the presence of the assimilated consciousness that has produced it. A carefully thought and built architecture provides this particular absorbed status, a eudemonic status whose primary goal is happiness and well being through personal enlightenment and experience. “Eudemonic” is philosophical jargon. It simply means to be possessed by a demon. It is like saying that a compulsive gambler, in entering a casino, is immediately possessed by the demon of gambling. In an architecture properly built for happiness, people will be possessed by the demon of happiness. To be happy is to perform well the essential human functions, and happy buildings embody physically and metaphorically the excellence or virtue that enables a “vita beata.”

DG: Could you explain how this vision of a happy architecture responds to those critiques of spaces and events, such as amusement parks, cinema, political rallies, etc…, which emerged within modernity and continue today? In other words, how does your vision of an “architecture of happiness” differ from spaces of amusement?

MF: Escapist amusement provides ephemeral happiness whereas architecture provides a sustained or prolonged happiness. In architecture, happiness is not to be identified with a short temporality. The commercial celebration of Christmas is without any doubt a pleasurable event. It works because it has a short span, but it becomes a nightmare as it is demonstrated in the satiric parable about a permanent Christmas celebration wrote by Heinrich Boll.

Considering the ethical basis of happiness and the rational basis of happiness, it is like looking at two sides of a coin. Happiness is hypothetical, a longing, not a categorical imperative, but it is crucial. Even if the happiness is far away, we should not stop pursuing it, even for a moment. The search is for the smaller, reliable, lasting happiness that lies coiled, just ready to propel of the interrogation of infra-ordinary moments. When evaluating the happiness of their lives, people tend to use two more or less distinct sources of information — their effects and their thoughts, but rarely do they think about the architecture within which they live. The pursuit of architectural happiness is not a futile quest, but an essential condition of the transformation of tectonic acts into felicitous constructive elements and building solutions.

DG: You are saying happiness is essential to certain architectural transformations, but do you think happiness is a fundamental aspect of architecture in the way that authors have contested that science, phenomena, semiotics, and organization are fundamental to architecture?

MF: Happiness is not fundamental; it is generative. Happiness generates structures, spaces, functions, and symbols. Happiness is not commonly understood as the art of living well, merged with the art of building well and thinking well.

In this triadic merging, the sense is that happiness implies an intellectual activity and should be a consequence, but it cannot be in itself a condition of for standards. “Happiness” has so many connotations and denotations that an essential ambiguity seems inherent. However, to grasp the main determinants of happiness, the key question is not only what makes people happy, but also the reason why. Commonly speaking, individuals seek ways to optimize their happiness. Happiness is an esteemed notion in contemporary Western society. Not only does everybody agree that it is better to be happy than unhappy, but people prioritize happiness. Happiness outranks respected social aspirations such as ‘peace’ and ‘equality.’ A happy existence is even considered more important than social prestige or material affluence. This is not to say that happiness is considered the only and ultimate purpose. The greater and traditional part of writings on happiness give advice on matters of living and are based on worldly wisdom and ideological conviction, but no one explains or discusses the nature of the environment within which happiness should be promoted and nurtured. The role of architects is to embody in well-built physical constructs the human psychical well-being.

DG: I think we should conclude with a simple question: can you describe to our students and alumni how they might go about making or thinking about spaces that produce happiness? When I am standing over the drawing board or in front of the computer, what types of issues should I consider and what types of methodologies should I employ in designing buildings that produce happiness?

MF: First, to produce happy edifices, the architects must themselves be happy. An unhappy architect is always a bad architect. It is the difference between ‘feeling happy’ and ‘being happy.’ Many times, in architecture, it is the substitution of the question “What is good?” for the pleasure question, “What feels good?” Believe it or not, this is a technological issue, meaning that is dealing with both the construction and the construing of architecture. In this case, the tail wags the dog. Instead of architecture constraining our pleasures, our pleasures define architecture making buildings extraordinary or ordinary. Architecture provokes a beatific life when the edifices increase the inhabitants’ potential for investing in psychic ability.

To make a happy architecture is to question happily what George Perec calls the infraordinary, that is the micro-events, the everyday sayings and perceptions. Extraordinary and ordinary architecture are no good; only infraordinary architecture gives us elating and enjoying quotidian experiences that build a “vita beata” (beatific life). Playing a little bit with assonances and etymology, we can say that infraordinary architecture is in the critical making of “familiarly edifying edifices.” Vital differences exist between what buildings are in themselves (their substance) and the perceptible qualities or characteristics (their accidents). The building substances underlie all their visible, tangible, measurable qualities. However, these substances are not evident in themselves, materially quantifiable or measurable, because they have no extension in space.

The appearances of architecture include all those outward characteristics that can be perceived by the senses of sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing. In devising happy construction, architects make something out of unrelated ingredients. In other words, they are capable of converting what already exists into something that it was not before. They perform a metabolic transubstantiation: building materials are metabolized into the substances of a happy architecture and the “accidents” of the materials of construction are transmogrified by formal and sensuous blends of familiar events. These “familiarly edifying edifices” have a dual function: on the one hand, they protect us from the annoyances and inclemency of life, and on the other hand enlighten our existence when suddenly we discover traces in ordinary elements and configurations of the representation of a cosmological living totality.

*originally published here:


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