Mario Merz: ‘The Unreal City’

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Mario Merz ‘Unreal City’ 1969
‘It means that it is unreal; our cities are unreal and suspended in a vacuum’

Interview with Caroline Tisdall :

My aim is to create an architecture that starts from the inside and works outwards. The problem of architecture in other words is this: there was a river, and the river was the water carrier – the life element. So towns grew up by the rivers. The formation and the shaping of these towns provided the definition of the spaces in which people lived. Some were based on large spaces, some on small, and that gives the nature of the particular town, but the spaces were determined by the division of the land. Think, for instance, of Flemish space: little houses barely over two metres high in which the space is minimal and even the furniture too. That’s the phenomenon of Flemish architecture, of those peasants who came together to work, and who clustered around those huge churches which were, you could say, the community centres. And the smaller a house is the warmer and more intimate it is. But the whole process grew and proliferated to such an extent that these towns exploded into the country, and the measure was lost.Now you get cities like Turin that are completely out of proportion and where 200,000 people work in the city but live outside it. And no Corbusier can make a city human. It has been tried, but the results were just formalist variations.

CT: It seems that there is a possibility of applying a system like Fibonacci to the main problem of such cities: the way in which the single unit relates to the whole is after all the key to human or humane living, and is exactly the relationship that we have lost. But Fibonacci can quickly progress into vast numbers, and our problem is to know when to stop, firstly, and then how to decentralize.

MM: Capital absorbs an enormous number of people of course, but the effects of it are not just social. They are human and psychological. Take the field of work. In a small community it makes sense, and a sense of enjoyment. If they are happy people can work up to, say, 16 hours a day. But with the unhappiness of today they are finished after two hours. Why? Because all the energy is absorbed from outside, by external factors. The noise, the stopping and starting. Then the form of capital that uses technological means rationalizes it: we give you the possibility of reducing from 6 working days a week to 5 then 4 then 3, it says.

CT: So what would you propose in the spectrum between your small Flemish scale and your wide open Australian desert?

MM: Flemish space was fantastic as far as it went, because it was a balance between space itself and the realization of space according to what life then could be. Now we feel that this balance is no longer there, nor is that life. So I want to tear down those walls. I want to say: the wall no longer exists. This division of one space from another is no longer of interest. Walls are no longer of interest, and paintings too for that reason have not much sense either.I did those canvases as part of a cultural reality, but it’s not a thing that interests me in the total sense. What really interests me is visible space without divisions, the fact, for instance, that you can create a unity that passes from a table for one single person to a table for 55 through intermediary stages. That for me demonstrates clearly that you can progress to relationships with greater or smaller numbers of people, up to a certain limit perhaps. Now if you have an organization like that, you can organize a kind of life that could be more interesting than the kind of life we lead today, and more rewarding. The kind of division we have serves a form of expansion. But in reality there is no relationship between small and great unities, or the relationships that do exist are irrational. And the bigger they are the more tragic are the internal explosions that this irrationality provokes.

CT: They also provoke an even greater division between the single units: the hardening of society into rigid little boxes both physical and mental. And that in fact is the mechanism that society has devised for punishment: prisons formed of closed and minimal space

MM: That’s exactly the concept of punishment. The Indian reserves were just such an invention of society to enclose even whole populations in small spaces. And architecture as we know it has to be understood for what it is: it has always been the most visible expression of a culture.

CT: Have you ever related the closed space of architecture as we know it to the notion of the nuclear family for instance?

MM: Yes, all these phenomena are related, and they all have to be analysed. Sometimes they seem like realities and turn out not to be. It’s the same thing as this business of open space: does it exist or doesn’t it? I’ll have to try it out before I decide. The same goes for the idea of the family: it’s a bourgeois idea based on the transferral of capital from father to son. The patriarch needed an enormous quantity of strong arms and applied them to more open spaces. Then when capital itself was no longer a physical thing to be worked on, the needs changed. The family became smaller and more isolated. The normal family in Turin now is a closed family, but the younger generation want a more open situation, a higher concept of community: the nucleus need no longer be so absolute.We cannot yet understand new social relationships because we live in a way that is still conditioned more architectonically than culturally. Today for instance there is more space for culture through books: the space that opens up through books is greater, cultural journeys in that sense are greater, while real and physical space is more restricted. And the problem of restriction is clearest in architecture: the roots of the problem are physically visible, and the effect is restrictive absorption, the opposite of cultural expansion and liberation.

CT: And art for you retains this liberating potential?

MM: I have thought a lot about art as divulgation, as a spreader of ideas that could be sensitive to, say, the culture of books or elementary philosophical culture. But the essential thing is to reach a physical form. This doesn’t contradict the philosophical interest: we must find a physical and objectivized form for what we lack, objectivize ourselves, if you like.I do feel that even art that supports the power structure does ultimately have a democratizing effect on it. In a way, that is the problem of architecture: architecture as art. By that I mean the visibility of art and not the contemplation of it: the passage from art as contemplation to art as visibility, and I see this as involving architecture. The problem there of course is that architecture as it is used is a realization of capital, whereas it should be the opposite. Let me give an example: in Venice, just opposite the station, there is a church with a copper dome, an 18th-century church that has been used for years by young people arriving in Venice without money and nowhere to go. They slept in sleeping bags in there because it was open, deconsecrated. Then there came a moment when society said: No, this space must be closed. It was a place where you could meet and sleep. Now it is closed, and inside there is nothing. It is a space that is completely and absurdly closed.CT: The same as and

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