There, There, Calm Down: No Need for Mimesis
I read an inordinate number of texts describing architectural projects, and I also write many texts of that same type for publication in journals. In this area of my career, I’ve come to observe a certain preoccupation, a recurrent sense of discomfort or insecurity, in the way architects talk about their own work.
Sentences like “The work merges into its surroundings” or “The building enters into a dialogue with the landscape in such a manner that it becomes almost invisible” are endemic. Even when the building in question is a solid, angular, imposing structure, its project description will invariably say it “merges into the natural landscape”.
But I’d like to put out a message of tranquillity. Calm down! There’s really no need for mimesis. It’s not necessary. A design won’t be any better or any worse for it. We shouldn‘t be afraid of intervening, and we’ve certainly no reason to lie about it.
The idea behind a project is strongly influenced by the location, its conditioners and existing factors?: OK.
The project reinterprets the cultural landscape?: OK
The design incorporates a certain morphological continuity with regard to the location?: OK
Visual relationships with the landscape are used to establish a dialogue with the surroundings?: OK
But none of that is mimesis. Here’s a brief clarification of terms, according to the DRAE (Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy):
From Lat. mimēsis, derived from Gr. μίμησις mímēsis. <0}
- In classical aesthetics, the imitation of Nature as an essential objective of art.
- Imitation of a person’s speech, movement and gestures.
- tr. To imitate (do something in another’s style).
- Pronom. verb. To take on the appearance of surrounding beings or objects .
Actually, I’d go even further: mimesis is not, in itself, an improvement. In my opinion, all this confusion which has resulted in architects tip-toeing through their project descriptions, terrified of spoiling landscapes, has its roots in that past period of indiscriminate interventions, property speculation and subsequent obsession with green, green, supergreen when it was fashionable in the architectural world to exalt all attempts to leave the environment untouched.
As an uncle of mine used to say while he was preparing the Sunday paella, “builders are destroyers; informers are disinformers”. For me, that observation has never lost its validity, not even now, twenty years on.
We have to come to terms with the fact that architecture and its construction process mean transforming places: that as a result of intervention, a place will turn into something else, where the final result may be completely alien to the language that defined that piece of land beforehand.
That doesn’t mean the design will be a bad design, or that it’s an attack on the environment. Some buildings contrast sharply and prominently with their setting, but they do so with an essential awareness, a subtle sense of love for their environment. Even in popular architecture, which is so repeatedly held up as an exemplification of that (hypothetical) “mimesis”, there are thousands of examples of projects which most certainly don’t vanish into their surroundings or decline to use materials or finishes that will generate contrast. What about the delicate, white little fishermen’s houses on the harsh black coast of Lanzarote, or the inscrutable trulli on the Murge plateau?
To insist on mimesis is to make a precautionary plea of extenuating circumstances for a self-defined infringement, a mea culpa that weighs on the architect’s conscience simply for having built something. Let’s accept that intervention means transformation, that to build something it’s necessary to destroy something. And let’s at least try not to inform using disinformation: it’s not even a question of life good architecture or death.