'I wanted to give a physical form to the concept of anthropology in architecture,' says Frassinelli

Florence – The following dialogue collects some fragments of a long discussion we had with Gian Piero Frassinelli after the first venues of the Savage Architecture exhibition. The aim of the dialogue was the comprehension of possible further developments of the research for an anthropological approach to architecture—a mostly impossible attempt at sharing a possible interpretation of his legacy. 

MATTEO CONSTANZOStarting from our frequent meetings over the past several years, we started to focus our interests about anthropology, coming to appreciate and study the writing of Claude Lévi-Strauss, in particular the book The Savage Mind (1962), which influenced the title of the exhibition we did together at the Architectural Association in London. We know that, in Superstudio, you strongly supported the anthropological approach to architecture. Do you want to tell us, first of all, about the origins of this attitude and how it developed within the group?

GIAN PIERO FRASSINELLI: I was interested in architecture, but was also very curious about anthropology. My interest in the topic increased during the development of my thesis project, and afterwards I tried to introduce it to the Superstudio office. When I began to talk about anthropology, the partners’ response was mainly resistance, at times even hilarity. 

Later, I slowly began embedding anthropological themes into the work. I was not actually considered a member of Superstudio until after I wrote the Twelve Ideal Cities in 1972. The Twelve Ideal Cities became a kind of entry point: they opened an unexpected window in Superstudio.

The initial lack of interest in anthropology faded and by the Five Fundamental Acts (1971-1973) there was a kind of awareness of the anthropological topic inside architecture. The Five Fundamental Acts led then us to work on the Extra-Urban Material Culture (1974).

GIANFRANCO BOMBACI: We would like to understand the transition between your interest in anthropology and the design of architecture. Your thesis was about an anthropology research centre and was an early attempt at establishing a direct relationship between these two fields of interest. There was an incredible shift in the work once this aim became the clear focus of the project, similar to The Twelve Ideal Cities (1971), where the architecture was not just the place where people studied a science, but actually the concrete translation and image of that science.

GPF: I wanted to give a physical form to the concept of anthropology in architecture. My ideas on anthropology also played an important role for the social housing building in Barberino Val d'Elsa. The Val d’Elsa project focused on accommodating former agricultural workers who had moved to the city. Farmers, accustomed to their freedom and independence, would go into crisis if forced into mandatory cohabitation. Each one had its own staircase accessible from a central courtyard where children could play, protected inside the ‘U-shaped’ building. The House of the Four Winds in Amsterdam is also a good example of this approach. It is considered one of the five houses in Amsterdam that has had the strongest social impact.

I wanted to give a physical form to the concept of anthropology in architecture 

MC: We are curious to understand if it is possible to deduce any architectural tools as a means of interpreting your anthropological approach. The feeling is that this was mainly a pre-design investigation in Superstudio. How can this become a useful instrument during the development of the project?

GPF: My projects always started from the interior. I prefer to design using sections, which are more human. The section gives you a point of view—it shows the height of both the building and the rooms. I always hated small rooms and have tried to make apartments that differ from one another. The individual apartments, in both the House of the Four Winds and those in Barberino, are all different, which is actually a very strong approach. What is important to me is that when one enters the apartment of their neighbour, they discover a different home than their own.

GB: We are often tempted to tackle the problem through a typological study, but at the same time we think that it is the wrong approach. Working through typologies seems too definite, or at least an overly simplified attempt at categorizing behaviours that are more complex. The Fundamental Acts enunciate something far from any concrete consequence. What led you to state precisely those five acts? How can we reclaim this theoretical thinking without losing any enthusiasm for architecture?

GPF: Simply, Natalini proposed The Fundamental Acts one morning. I did not agree, because they were not consistent. They had no scientific meaning—for sure not anthropologically. Then Adolfo proposed to develop The Fundamental Acts hoping to make our discourse more global and inclusive. At that point, the group was convinced of the value of anthropology as a field of research. We split the five acts between us and I chose Ceremony, while also contributing to both Love and Death.

Over time I realized that it was my obsession for anthropology that led me to design. You have to adapt, to consider the people who are supposed to use these spaces. What I have always criticized about rationalism is the lack of spirituality, of psychology, of confrontation with the social, with the non-physical.

MC: Developing our interests in anthropology, we searched Lévi-Strauss’ books for pages that might influence architecture. We have identified some topics that we would like to discuss with you. The Savage Mind appears to be an instinctive part of man, able to relate naturally to their specific environment. Another aspect is that the savage mind is basically a rational mind. Therefore, an architect who goes back to this idea can still produce a rational form. It relates anyway to our modern traditions.

Finally, there is the concept of bricolage, which we understand as the difference between Western men­—those who are comparable to the engineer­—and the figure of the bricoleur. These two figures describe two different approaches to intellectual tools and history. The engineer builds a progressive history while the bricoleur does not archive anything, because everything is reusable. We are curious to understand how the same thing can happen in architecture.

GPF: I think that we have two different points of view: mine is no longer an architectural perspective, at least not in the sense popular within universities. I have always distanced myself from the profession, so far that I completely failed from the point of view of the project.

However, trying to get closer to your perspective, I would like to make you think that half of human cultures don’t know the meaning of history; they have no interest in the Western concept of history. All the civilizations without books—which do not have writing as we know it—are not interested in history. The fact that they don’t want a history totally changes the mentality of both the individual and social group. Relative history is a fundamental principle of anthropology.

Other cultures have a way of seeing history related to a deity, or to a certain kind of religious tradition. Our Western way of thinking is rather absolute. An architect who wants to deal with anthropological architecture should understand these basics; he must change, even overthrow, his current mentality. Nothing is certain with cultures. It is not true that there are basic features, shared amongst all cultures. There is no common ground; everything is relative in the field of anthropology, even the concept of the human being or the ‘self.’

GB: In the 60s and 70s you were among the first to question the modern movement. These were the years when alternative projects were tested, bringing to light the most contradictory aspects of modernism. After 50 years, we are still confronting a modernity that has already shown its limits and failures; we are suspended in a postmodern stall. Again, we face a moment of great crisis, but this moment also allows us to question the given postmodern scheme. Do you think there are opportunities to take a similar attitude today?

GPF: Many years ago, I proposed the creation of a building conceived of as an infrastructure, which was supposed to be sold per cubic meter. Buyers purchased a volume that they would then build themselves.

When Fons Elders told me about a contest for a social housing building in Amsterdam, I suggested something similar. I designed a reinforced concrete frame with only services, stairs and elevators. The rest would be self-made by the people in Amsterdam. This system allowed people to see and join different cultures – an experience they seemed ready for. In the project I drew an Arab house or Native American, thereby building a large multi-ethnic infrastructure. This is another important note: the freedom to design­ is a sort of bricolage that becomes architecture.

MC: We are trying to conceive of architecture as something that gives users the freedom of customization. A neutral architecture made of primordial forms of spatial organization – the minimum needed in order to allow people to carry out various activities.

GPF: We are facing this challenge for the first time in at least two centuries. In the past, the architect was not interested in the life of normal men, fortunately. When the ‘powers’ gave people the freedom to arrange their own solutions — without being harassed by wars or taxes – they sometimes produced masterpieces, but certainly people always found the best available way to survive.

You have to adapt, to consider the people who are supposed to use these spaces

GB: Another interesting consideration is that our method of living is changing. Increased mobility, social instability, job insecurity, technology, and the European education system – we live in one city but may work or study elsewhere. This has led to the failure of the European bourgeois dream. Single parents are more common than complete families. It seems clear that the urban response cannot be the same.

The hypothesis of Savage Architecture seems to be a line of research that might address this situation. Where the home is the ground on which the most important game is played. We want to understand whether or not, through an anthropological reading, we can find different forms of aggregation, or spaces to live, by sharing parts of our lives.

Immaterial labour no longer needs a defined space or a precise schedule; this is changing the way of structuring the city. In this sense, the collective house is a collector of multiple activities, where life and work are intertwined. We are currently developing these opportunities through our experience and work with students. Again, the feeling is that an anthropological, rather than a typological gaze, is the most effective way to undermine a preconceived scheme.

GPF: The bourgeois mentality is setting. The problem is that politics must deal with this situation as well, but it seems to be something they do not even think about. The condominium unfortunately is now a place of conflict, where the individual vents their frustration. The biggest problem is the schematic thinking of the people maintaining the government’s power, while at the same time this thinking has also led to the deprivation of people’s individual design skills. Your work is extremely interesting and I'd like to follow the outcomes for what my age will allow me.

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This is a piece that was originally featured in our book, Legacy. You can purchase a copy here.

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