by Anmol AhujaNov 19, 2021
Being an architect transitioning from practice to journalism, I had always wondered what is alluded to in the title of this documentary film: The Importance of being an Architect. What then, is that importance? Is that importance titular? Is it role or duty driven? It may as well boil down to the very pertinent question of what an architect actually does. It perhaps is a lifelong quest to ascertain that, or to take the journey for that discovery, even for professionals sure of their craft and the bearings of the profession. However, a possible answer that is lent to the curious viewer in the first 10 minutes of the film: the architect is the director. There perhaps is no better way to arrive at that thought than a cinematic allegory, especially in the context of Italian architects Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel attempting to answer that through their eponymous film.
Premiering at the Milan Design Film Festival, the documentary is conceived and designed as a virtual dialogue between personalities and professionals from the world of fashion, art, design, and architecture, squarely setting its gaze on the work and methodology of Milan-based ACPV. Through the established dialogue, insights from Italian architects, Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel, co-founders of world renowned architecture and interior design practice, ACPV, find their way into the narrative of the film as endearing accounts, wisdomous parables, of a two-decade legacy. The discourse gains special provenance in a world slowly rising from the clutches of COVID, christened as a “post-pandemic era”, as the cohort of design professionals shed light upon the specific yet malleable role of an architect, and architecture at large. The film is staged in four acts, each separated by an elaborately mounted musical piece, with structures by ACPV serving both a muse and a backdrop: a testament to the fluidity of space and its virtue of not being contained, confined, constrained.
Finding itself amid a vastly different world, and one that transforms with every breath, architecture today serves to shoulder an era that is torn between acceleration and slowing down: between machine learning and computational design, the fast-approaching effects of global warming and a mass-exodus into our urban centres. The solution? “An armistice between nature and the built environment,” state Citterio and Viel. Interestingly, Viel also radically propositions a shift in thought; that of buildings being a man’s ‘natural environment’, despite the “idyllic and bucolic” dream of people living amid nature. “Nature is a contrast to architecture’s harshness. In this, architecture itself becomes a tree and nature makes its roots grow,” states Viel at an important juncture in the film. Suitably, the first act focuses on the compatibility between architecture and nature. The second act takes a more retrospective stance, musing upon Citterio’s origins and his journey to his current stature as a renowned architect. The third act is structured as a “day in the life of”, as the camera follows Citterio and Viel, along with their sizeable team, on sites, in their studios, and elsewhere, attempting to capture the process that helps ACPV deliver a consistently impeccable quality with their work. The final quarter of the film explores with a deeply personal lens, the alliance between Citterio and Viel: how it came to be and how it endures.
Perhaps the most distinctive parts of the documentary, and ones that I have no qualms in admitting overshadowed the architects’ wisdom on the subject, were the transitions between the four acts, each earmarked by a distinctive musical piece set in one of the buildings by the architect duo, situated in Milan, L'Aquila, Hamburg, Taichung, and Miami. The camera here follows the artists, placed quite distantly, across landscaped terrain, across the cascading levels of a courtyard, and beside a riverfront, nearly unbroken in its seduction with the musicians, engrossed in their art. The architecture and music establish a dialogue between themselves, known to only them: only the artists playing are allowed a peak as facilitators of this alliance between the built and the fluid. The spaces, at those instances, are not only filled with musical notes, but acquire new dimensions of fluidity: almost as if the solidity melts to be one with a force that cannot be contained. The musical pieces too, fused with life and building up to nearly spiritual crescendos, act as activators of space. The relationship between architecture and music is at once re-established and redefined.
An apt close to the film is the filmmakers posing the film’s titular question to both architects. The responses, though not entirely vastly different, encompass two rather varied aspects of the social responsibility of architects, and how they continually morph in an ever evolving world. Before we delve into those, here is an interesting observation though: the answer to a question probing what the importance of an architect is, lands in the territory of responsibility: what an architect ought to do, ought to be, seen from a lens no smaller than a worldview. While both Citterio’s and Viel’s responses circled around sustainability as a tether, Citterio, interestingly delved into the physicality and temporality of architecture, while Viel settled on the more sociable aspects. Stating his interpretation of sustainability as beginning to think along the lines of the termination of a building's life, Citterio reinforced how buildings must have an end of life, as opposed to the current thought of building to create a ‘place’. In transience must the architect design, and seek solace in impermanence! Viel, on the other hand, believed that architecture had to transcend itself to assume a sort of collective conscience, wherein a “perfect city” could function and evolve through mutual cooperation and solidarity.
The omniscient question, by this point, becomes a discussion. The subject nature by itself invites not just constructive critique and experiential dialogue, but also perhaps scrutiny, in the pursuit of an everlasting discussion. The day we perhaps have a singular, definitive answer to the question, the need for the profession would no longer be.
Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel indulge in an exclusive conversation with STIR, furthering the discussion.
Anmol Ahuja (AA): You deem a certain process, a sequence of steps as necessary to ensure the quality of projects that ACPV is known for. Do you remember an instance where you ‘broke the mold’ and it resulted in a memorable outcome? How important is a sense of experimentation in your work?
Antonio Citterio, Patricia Viel (ACPV): Over the years our studio has built up a methodology that is a guarantee of quality for our projects. Whether it's a hotel room or a piece of town, the attention remains the same, only the degree of complexity of the object changes.
But in this process, we have learned to leave ample room for experimentation, creativity, and originality. One project is never the same as another: we have never wanted to be recognisable but to offer coherent and innovative solutions. This is the strength of our projects: the method allows us to be able to manage complexity, the innovation to overcome it.
Human beings really do have an intimate relationship with time and rhythm, and music is a very direct language in that sense. It helped us showcase our architecture. – Antonio Citterio
AA: The documentary is a fine display of music elevating architecture and vice-versa. What do you have to say about that enhancement taking place in spaces designed by you? Did you originally design with an intent of musicality, a chorality, a certain fluidity?
ACPV: The original music, composed for this film by Giorgio Ferrero together with Rodolfo Mongitore, was originally something very clear in the directors’ minds but not for us: we understood what was going on with the music at the end! The first time they made us listen to the sound of the trumpet reverberating in one of our projects, we were enthralled. For us, it was a completely new way of “looking" at our architecture. We often confront ourselves with photographers who, through their cameras, manage to crystallise the essence of an architecture in an image. But music, on the other hand, allowed us to go through the places we designed and investigate them as we had never done before.
The music of the film has grown together with the storytelling of the film itself, piece by piece, instrument by instrument, like an architectural project, where many intelligences work and collaborate to create a unique soundtrack. When we design, we always imagine how a person enters the space, how they traverse it, as if it were a stage where the user is the protagonist. Human beings really do have an intimate relationship with time and rhythm, and music is a very direct language in that sense. It helped us showcase our architecture and allowed the audience to almost experience and traverse it.
The method allows us to be able to manage complexity, the innovation to overcome it. – Patricia Viel
What is the importance of being an architect?
Segueing from the introduction to this narrative, I would, at this point perhaps, propound a different theory that lies much more in accordance with the fantastic close of the film, summing up both Citterio’s and Viel’s responses. An architect would be somebody who operates at, and is perhaps even caught between, the intersection of multiple precipices: of the past, present, and future; of the tangible and intangible, of art and design; of creation, and of definition. There is palpability in the power an architect can hold over entire sections of population they design for. With great power, however, comes great responsibility. And it is that dichotomy, the condition of being stretched between two ends, only to be propelled nowhere but ahead, that could most suitably come to define the importance of an architect.
Stylistically charged and mounted on an ambitious scale, the film utilises its third dimension, a spatial one, apart from the visual and aural, to great effect. That effect, somewhat necessary for any document of architecture, is a rather rare proposition, but the film thrives on balance, while assuming just the right amount of philosophy in tone, probing into the rather omniscient question its title poses.
The film also scores well on an element of interaction, steering away from a strictly academic trope that most architectural documentaries find themselves an uncanny victim to. The musical pieces, planned by Ferrero himself, are a definite standout as stated before. Ferrero positions himself at the forefront of this project as a rather invisible force, flexing both his directorial and compositional skills. While the success of the venture often depends upon the successful marriage of these two, it is easy for the latter, the chorality to take over the senses, simply because the orchestral arrangements are great, slowly revealing themselves as the camera traverses space, piercing plane after plane. The Importance of Being An Architect is a joy when the music crescendos and soars; a contemplative experience in the gaps if you are open for it, and it is within these that the film finds its true rhythm.