An interview with internationally known architect and designer Roberto Palomba, founder with Ludovica Serafini of Palomba Serafini Associati.
The interview is an “extended self”, a sequel to the Instagram Live Talk “HouseWorld” between Roberto Palomba and Lydia Kallipoliti, curated by MDFF Greeece.
“HouseWorld” was organized on the occasion of the Pandemic Architecture International Ideas Competition curated by the Design Ambassador for Archisearch, for which MDFF Greece & Cyprus, is a community partner.
“Never let a crisis go to waste” _Rahm Emanuel. In what ways do you feel you have made the most out of this crisis? What’s the standpoint you have chosen to apply? What did the Virus help us visualize with more clarity?
After a crisis, there is always a boom, and after a boom, there is always a crisis. I believe that a crisis must stimulate responses to reactions within society. If we think about it, throughout history, humans have dominated the world because they are the only ones able to adapt and respond collectively to any type of crisis. I have personally coped with this period in a way that I was not expecting of myself. I am, in general, a reactive and proactive person. However, in this period, knowing that I could not do anything, and being closed up in the house, I tried to stop any external activity but not internal ones. Before the pandemic, I was constantly traveling, always extending the borders of my travels. Instead, I found myself embarking on one of the best journeys during the forced intermission: the one inside myself. I rediscovered fragments of my life, memories, and emotions. I got in touch with a part of myself that was buried behind my busy daily activities. This self-journey has served me personally and professionally, helping me better understand various aspects of my profession.
Sogliano Cavour Dimora Project by Palomba Serafini Associati
Tell us about your reading of and related expectations (in lack of a better word) from the Pandemic Architecture International Ideas Competition curated by the Design Ambassador for Archisearch. What is your role as a judge? What’s in your opinion the purpose of this competition?
I am part of the competition’s jury; however, I still cannot have expectations, but I can certainly have aspirations. If you live up to expectations, you will surely be disappointed. Instead, I hope that being involved in this global pandemic generates a strong desire to react and, therefore, to try experimenting with new visions.
How can we navigate a competition on pandemic architecture, when the future emerges as globally uncertain? Which are the filters and parameters to “judge” and “select”?
Each project in a competition also represents a great act of presumption. But what are creatives if not presumptuous, self-centered people who sometimes have the power to save the world?
How do the DNA roots of Design and Architecture change or grow when they cross paths with a despairing condition like a pandemic?
I believe that creativity is a response; therefore, a perfect society would not need creatives. An “imperfect” society requires creativity. I think that never before, as in this historical period, creatives feel as involved within the societal tissue, called to respond, rethink, and redesign our pandemic and post-pandemic future. One thing is sure: That our post-pandemic ambition will not be to rebuild the world as it was, because that world was the cause of what happened to us.
Quarantine moments, Ludovica Serafini and Roberto Palomba
How would you define the new needs, new standards, and even new forms of resistance that define the “new normality,” and what’s the role of Architecture in it?
We were living launched at a crazy speed, almost beyond human capacities within a society that trained us to be continually performing inside a loop defined by self-imposed needs. Needs that we did not need or ever questioned, all compressed into a consumer system. This sudden “break” has, ironically, allowed us to stand anew in front of a mirror, observe and reconsider our priorities and way of going about them.
Great architecture can give us hope. It can heal. How can we re-articulate the way we evaluate buildings?
Never as at this time should architecture be understood beyond the value of the individual building and the city. We need to also think about how city planning has impacted people’s lives. Each building has its value, and the sum of the buildings creates areas that are, in some way, the correspondence from the private individual to the public spaces. Depending on how these two aspects are interconnected, they can generate or not well-being. I believe that this moment of considerable rethinking will urge us to redesign our cities, both the existing buildings and future ones. A beautiful and urbanistically “incorrect” building is as “incorrect” as a poorly constructed and urbanistically “correct” building.
What would a more customized architecture that considers the collective vs. the individual look like?
Modernity has fundamentally marked the construction of buildings and urban planning standards that helped to urbanize millions of people, and simultaneously provide a civil way of life. During that period, however, the society was strongly coherent, that is, the system lived on a sort of standardization, revolving around traditional families – the society and the individual somehow corresponded to each other. Today, however, society does not compare to the individual, as it is no longer a sum of coherent nuclei but single units, inconsistent with each other. Just think of singles, LGBTQ couples, all new types of families, cohabitations, etc. etc. The residents of our cities are incredibly diverse, with entirely different needs, both physiologically and psychologically. The question today is perhaps to understand how to structure new standards that allow high customization flexibility. Today what we take for granted in the past was not; just think that in 1948 only 48% of Italians owned a bathroom at home. Tomorrow, we will have to give to future generations this flexibility and possibility of customization. Tomorrow’s generations will experience all this as an acquired right, rather than as an exceptional fact, as we experience it today.
Palazzo Daniele by Palomba Serafini Associati
Do you think that the role of a designer and architect in the future scenarios will change acquiring even a more philosophical and community-driven function?
I believe that contemporary architects are significantly removed from the role of philosophers and intellectuals, preferring that of aesthetes and archistars, trying to leave their trace rather than been concerned to build a relationship with the “unknown” user. It’s nice to get lost and then find yourself saying this pandemic may perhaps help us find the real way to go.
Architectural trade has demonstrated resilience and adaptability. From temporary structures as part of a city’s response to a pandemic – e.g., 1000 bed Hospital in Wuhan in just ten days and London’s Nightingale Hospital converted in 4000 patient places in only nine days to 3D printed visors, and an instant virus hotel; from manufacturers making gloves, masks, and uniforms for the medical staff, to an open-source collaboration between different fields. A new face of collaboration emerged! Do you feel that our present-day situation marks a moment that will change the way we collaborate when designing and building in the future?
No, because the costs of these extra-ordinary interventions cannot incur during regular periods. We have certainly understood that very often (I speak of my country, Italy) the will is a power that has been affected by bureaucracy. How many delays and how much cost did the bureaucratic system generate in periods of presumed normalcy?
During this intermission, what has prevailed as local, and what as global?
Globalization carries both great values and great risks. It can be a problem and a solution at the same time. In the ’60s, the influence of Hong Kong took a year and a half to arrive in Italy. In the recent Covid-19 pandemic, the spread has been comparatively much faster; this is due to globalization. Contamination has been a global phenomenon, and I hope that the same applies to its solution.
Let It Be Sofa, Poltrona Frau by Palomba Serafini Associati
“Restart.” How do we move on from a phase of interruption? How can one reconnect and re-approach a project ideated before the pandemic to continue, evolve, and relaunch it after the pandemic?
The human being always reacts in the same way. When for example, we have a limb in a plaster cast forcing and limiting our movement for some time, before we can use it again properly, we need to go through a transition phase with some physiotherapy. Similarly, I believe that after this pandemic, we will all need a period of physiotherapy both for our soul and creativity.
If we were to pay attention and listen, what remarks do our cities and nature make? Are there new dialogues we need to awake with our cities?
Cities have indeed become dormitories because somehow we have all lost the sense of home, we go out in the morning at dawn to return in the evening. Somehow we have relegated the house to a place where we can seek refuge for rest. Nevertheless, in recent months we have discovered that the meaning of home is much more. With smart working, we have found that we can do the same things that we used to do at work even from home, thus allowing us to dedicate that time earned to ourselves. It will not just be smart working because it would be alienating. Still, a balanced system may, in consequence, have less impact on the city.
In the BBC article “How do you build a city for a pandemic,” you shared that to build our way out of the problem, we require a shift in thinking. You added that your interest is in focusing not just on design but on our broader relationship with nature, growing out of an abusive relationship towards a respectful coexistence with other creatures. How you practically envision this?
Fortunately, nature, having no philosophical excuses, in contrast to humans, reacts in a very simple way. If you leave a space, nature will occupy it. In the days of total lockdown, nature, animals, and plant life began to fill the temporarily human-free spaces. Deers visited the city squares. The bees populated all the Milanese terraces. Wild species colonized the same spaces that used to be defined by noise and light buzz. There are interesting observations that nature once again made known to us. Projects that see nature’s comeback through the green corridors from outside the city into the cities themselves are interesting. When we give the natural realm the possibility to self-regulate, we can find systems that allow for cohabitation of common spaces. I dream of an earthly paradise where new ecosystems can be rebuilt within our cities. It would be a great achievement, especially in the education of the new generations!
Quarantine Moments, sketch by Roberto Palomba
“You don’t choose a dark night for yourself. It is given to you. Your job is to sift it for its gold.” “A dark night is your invitation to become a person of heart and soul…” _Thomas Moore. It’s believed that remembering a challenging period enables us to have a better future by avoiding those same mistakes. What’s your take on this?
In the past, communication took place through controlled systems, such as the TV, the press, and the radio. However, it had a “master” who chose what and how to highlight and filter certain news over others. Today we live much more democratic systems as we are all part of a communication circuit. That said, even in these systems, government cells can infiltrate, attempting to distract public opinion from important events that call for collective awareness. The society we live in today on the media is much freer and much more self-managed than it was in the last war. I do not think that self-distancing will be the new way to live and experience each other. I do not think that digitization will become our only form of communication. In other words, I choose not to envision a society where exchange cannot be physical. We are now going through a phase of adaptation, and just like other historical pandemics have taught us, these times are short-lived. I believe in science.
Interview by Annie Markitanis, Director of MDFF Greece & Cyprus, Partner of MDFF
“Our creations, whether they be pieces of design or architecture, are derived from observations of change in human behavior. It is important to see these products outside a fixed location or period – they do not reflect the latest fad but are the result of rationality and considered craftsmanship. Our initial drafts are projections of our own needs. Our two visions are complementary, and our design consensual. The challenge of our work is merging function, innovation, and longevity. We seek to project courage and serenity through the purity and originality of our work. When a work is finished, it is not complete. Time will continue to shape how others consider it. An anticipation of this helps greatly in shaping classic objects which retain their beauty and utility. Perhaps we are trying to pluck our creations from a collective unconsciousness, and our task is to mold and deliver them. A truly successful piece of design must feel fresh but not unfamiliar when it is discovered. As with a partner, love is evident. And there it is, that is what characterize our creations: research, often long, difficult, exhilarating – to reach what is finally EVIDENT.”
Roberto Palomba, architect and designer internationally renowned, lives and works in Milan. In 1994 he founded with Ludovica Serafini Palomba Serafini Associati; the studio develops interior/ exhibit/industrial design and architecture projects worldwide. He is a strategic consultant and art director for several historical design companies, collaborating with leading international brands such as Boffi, Cappellini, Dornbracht, Driade, Bow, Elmar, Exteta, Flaminia, Foscarini, Kos, Laufen Lema, Plank, Poltrona Frau, Sawaya & Moroni, Samsung, Talenti, Tubes, Viccarbe, Zanotta, Zucchetti. He has been a lecturer at the Polytechnic of Milan (Degree in Industrial Design). He has been awarded numerous international recognitions, such as Compasso D’Oro (Italy), Australian International Design Award (Australia), Good Design Award (USA), Interior Design’s Best of the Year Award (USA), Icon Design Awards (Mexico), Wallpaper Design Award (UK), German Design Award (Germany), Red dot Award (Germany), Elle Decoration International Design Award.