The Making of Things - G. Camponovo

Published by SKIRA, edited by Eduardo Grottanelli de'Santi

It may be useful to begin these reflections on architecture and the architect’s profession, according to Giampiero Camponovo’s vision and experience – that span an over fifty year career and have made him one of the most internationally well-known and successful Ticinese architects – by quoting Frank Lloyd Wright: “The artist-architect will be a man inspired by his love of the nature of Nature, knowing that man is not made for architecture, architecture is made for man. He will see the practice of architecture never as a business but always religiously as basic to the welfare and culture of humanity as, at its best, it has ever been. And we must recognize the creative architect as a poet and interpreter of life.”
To the abstractness that often characterizes the architectural debate, Giampiero Camponovo prefers the concreteness of projects and works that are always executed by taking into account the people who are destined to inhabit the spaces. According to his vision of the profession, the lines, forms and materials utilized convey, far better than words, what each architect is able to express and the feelings he wishes to communicate; but also his idea of architecture, which is based on his conception of life and consequently the role that must be played by fundamental activities like working, inhabiting, and living the various moments of the day. After the decades of work and dozens of prestigious buildings he has constructed, he is still convinced that architecture can play a fundamental role by responding in the best possible way to the essential needs of humanity, both from a material and spiritual standpoint. “Those who know me are well aware that I have always refrained from facile pronouncements and preferred making, in other words designing and building, to expounding principles and theories that often prove to be mere exercises in style. Nonetheless, I think it’s only right to ask architects which ‘city’ they have in mind ,and the needs it should fulfil. We should go back to talking about the identity of a place and how to modify it. Just to give you one example, the beginning of the second half of the 19th century cities were redesigned to accommodate the railway and its stations, and thus the mobility element, the ‘intermodal’ encounters of people coming and going, became the pivotal element in city life. And way before that, in the Middle Ages, the creation of the square – with the church, representing religious power, on one side,and the city hall, representing civic power, on the other – provided the basis for the birth and development of the European civilization. What type of city do we want today? Architects must consider the problem of peripheral urbanization. Today, living on a street, as most people do, is no longer beneficial or enriching. It is simply living in the endless suburbs, outside the cultural contexts of the historic centres of the major cities, all endowed with schools and universities, an efficient transport system, and opportunities that enhance their citizenship, human relationships and identity values… What we have yet to define are the architectural and urbanistic models that we would like to have in the coming decades. The rampant development of the punctiform urban fabric that often occurs nowadays is definitely not the answer.
“In a certain sense, architecture can be compared to high fashion: there are the leading designers, the ones who are always in the spotlight and set the trends, but there is still the problem of everyday dressing – and living. It is no accident that the major projects mostly fall into the category of public buildings (theatres, museums, places of worship) that are intended to represent, or even symbolize, an entire city. But building activity is mostly linked to private commissions for custom-designed homes or structures for office use. And it is in the area of functionality that an architect’s ability to offer excellent solutions is tested; solutions that simultaneously take into account the limits imposed by the space, the environmental context, the volumes, the choice of materials and, of course, construction costs. Making architecture can be very difficult within this framework. We must never forget that the pivotal element in all this is the individual, the human being. Designing structures in which functionality, light and spaces have been sacrificed to formal architectural aspects is truly losing sight of the main purpose of building.”

Architecture for man

Giampiero Camponovo’s work is based, therefore, on two fundamental elements: man and the environment, since this is the context within which architects are required to work. When they start from a human being’s “real” needs and also the environment he inhabits, it means creating quality sites by adopting a sustainable approach that the consumption of non-renewable resources and makes people’s needs central to the design process. In other words, it is a question of finding the most effective solution for each specific environmental, social and economic context. This must be based on the concept of civitas which, by encouraging the development of interpersonal and intercultural relationships, increases our sense of community as well as of the collective good as a value. This community legacy is not the sum of individual possessions, but rather an asset that belongs to each and every one of us. In order to achieve these objectives we must redefine the concept of “well-being”, which embraces health, safety and, more generally, the “quality” of working, studying, having fun, moving from place to place and, of course, living. “If I had to define my architecture, I would say that is primarily concerned with the quality of life of the people who inhabit, work or live in the buildings I construct. This interest in the well-being of the individual, which is central to the design process, probably dates to a period in my youth when my family moved to Lugano and took up residence in a building that was prestigious, monumental even, but in which I did not really feel at home and was not that happy in. Quality of living is achieved through light, transparency and the use of certain materials. I have always paid particular attention to the aspect of light because I am convinced that every structure must be a space that communicates with the outside, first and foremost through light and transparencies. Another priority theme is the organization of volumes around spaces to create a system of relationships, because the social aspect of living and inhabiting is all-important. Houses should not be closed spaces in which people isolate themselves and offices should not become hidden, isolated places. Man has a natural need to see and to be seen, to exchange feelings and emotions, to socialize. Indeed, establishing social relationships is one of our fundamental needs, and the organization of a space around which life revolves, in all its manifestations, should always be one of architecture’s main concerns. This principle can be applied to every kind of building, be it a residential complex, a workplace, a hospital or a church.”
If we study Giampiero Camponovo’s architectural projects it is immediately evident that his reflections on the themes of living are constantly underpinned by a desire to satisfy both basic and complex needs. Houses, like workplaces, are artificial spaces constructed by human beings for other human beings, in which biological and social needs are recognized and met. As society evolves individual needs change, along with forms of inhabiting, the original meaning of which was “to be familiar with a place”, hence not just being enclosed within the walls of the home or the office, but rather interacting with places, and time and space. Inhabiting is the action of the human being who reflects rather than simply submits to life and its hardships. In this sense, the term “inhabiting” also means looking after yourself and others. “A house provides shelter in order that the basic needs of living may be met. This is why architects should never lose sight of the functionality of what they intend to build, or sacrifice their design choices to the cult of form, or rather formalism. In fact, they should consider not only the organizational aspects of the spaces to be shared, but also the personal dimension: the profound meanings of inhabiting, which everybody carries with them; the need for an individual space, and respect for each person’s privacy. The home is not a static space but one of relationships, of equilibriums between interior and exterior, between needs and desires, intelligence and reason, which, in the final analysis, makes it the place where the individual takes care of his life. Hence, the architectural aspect of a project must inevitably be concerned with satisfying human needs. In other words, it is important to make sure that a system does not impose its inner coherence, namely itself, to the detriment of the demand that generated it. When the means loses sight of or excludes the end for which it was created, it becomes an end in itself through self-preservation. “This is a general problem from which, unfortunately, architecture is not exempt. Works by archistars featured in magazines and newspapers and on television intrigue the public even though they have no grounding in the subject. Yet these works do not always improve people’s lives. This is because architecture has, in fact, become a self-referential game, everything centres on the ‘signature’, on the genius of the individual architect who is quoted on the stock exchange of fashion, just like any brand. Architecture has a lot of influence, for better or worse, on living conditions in the city. But architects take refuge in the artistic to justify any choices they may make. They are often entrusted with the conversion of whole areas of a city, as if it were simply a question of form. But cities function differently: they are the deep territory on which the collective unconscious acts, the place of belonging and conflict. This does not mean that we should jettison quality design, but rather forego a certain spectacular effect in architecture that is an end in itself, as has sometimes happened in recent years. So let’s begin again to reflect in a more aware and mature way on the founding principles of our profession and on what architecture’s role in contemporary society should be.”

Researching materials

Over the years, the innovations in the field of materials have radically changed the way in which buildings are conceived and constructed. New products and systems appear on the market daily, giving the architect more alternatives to choose from but implying that he acquire the knowledge required to properly use the evermore innovative technologies based on the use of state-of-the-art materials. “The current perspective on building is increasingly orientated towards the optimization and reliability of the products and systems, and the economic and environmental sustainability of the architecture itself. This means that these materials can be useful in finding more efficient solutions in terms of saving energy and the duration of the life cycle, because fewer raw materials can be adopted, and they can reduce and facilitate maintenance, generate clean energy and absorb pollution agents, thus ensuring durability and reliability over time. “However, it is necessary to consider the consequences linked to the equilibrium that materials can establish with the environment, which is determined by the constant exchange of energy flows, matter and data that, if not completely controlled, may be detrimental to people’s health. In my work as an architect I have always sought to come up with innovative solutions or to experiment with traditional materials and use them in a different way. I began by constructing buildings in stone and in wood, but I soon went against the prevailing current by introducing bush-hammered reinforced concrete to make surfaces more aesthetically pleasing and durable. “Similar considerations may be made with regard to my choosing, in more recent years, to create façades with different metals, or glass walls. The aim is always to develop solutions on a par with the current level of knowledge, for example by bearing in mind the present irreversible trend of making buildings more performative from the standpoint of energy consumption and environmental impact. All this involves taking risks, because very often we experiment with extremely innovative solutions, materials and technologies, on which there is as yet no established literature – like I did when I created the first ventilated façade in Ticino. “The use of new technologies is a particularly sensitive theme in designing architecture be cause we constantly have to ask ourselves if the adoption of innovative solutions really is in the interests of humanity, and if these solutions are compatible with the surrounding environment. “Think about a phenomenon like electrosmog and the damage it causes in housing and the workplace. In fact, everyone wants to live in a comfortable home and to experience well-being, which is determined by the sensations created by temperature and humidity, and levels of noise and light. Environmental comfort is proportional to the psychological and physical well-being of the people who inhabit the space (home, office, garden) and it is dependent on environmental conditions that can mostly be planned, which makes them one of the architect’s responsibilities. Those who build change the environment, and doing it in a sustainable way means taking responsibility for yourself, your children and future generations. A good planning that respects the regulations of green building, must therefore consider not only the shape of the lot, but also the energies that are present or lacking on the site, and which forces to utilize in order to create a dwelling that meets the needs of whoever will inhabit it. The exposure of the rooms must marry with the positioning of the basic elements; construction materials and forms will be chosen from those most suitable for creating the best equilibrium between man and the environment.” Notwithstanding these considerations and developments in the architecture profession, the signature line, the idea that characterizes the project still remains. But from then on the work involves a range of specialized skills that span the various fields of human knowledge. “No one builds according to the canons established by centuries of architecture history any more. The adoption of new technologies and their integration in a coherent project means that architects have to constantly update and seek new solutions, also with the help of consultants. Perhaps this is the most stimulating challenge that contemporary architecture poses. The architect’s task is, in a certain sense, like that of a conductor, since he has to harmonize the ‘sound’ of all the ‘musicians’ to execute the work.”