If Civic Architecture was Language, Then it Would be a Common Good

by Sergio Los

Lecture from the first international conference of the National Institute of Bioarchitecture (Istituto Nazionale di Bioarchitettura – INBAR) and the University of Parma, “Architecture as Common Good: Recovering Urban Quality and Well-being” in Parma, Italy, May 3–4, 2018.

Originally published in the Journal of Biourbanism Volume VII, 2/2018


My title shows that I took this conference’s theme seriously. I have therefore worked on the problem of the “common good”, which I regard as a very interesting and urgent subject. It is my belief that if “civic architecture” (we are going to see what such an expression means) was a language, then it would be a common good.

Since I began working with architecture, I have felt its potential in dealing with the great issues of the world of life. My feeling was that the current aestheticization had blocked the theoretical evolution of architecture, which therefore started oscillating between computation and taste. The Enlightenment tended to place it among the techno-sciences, and this seemed the only possible alternative. The internalism recognizable within this trend made me understand its absurdity and the mercantile reason of its globalization. Meeting with artists, in particular Carlo Scarpa in architecture, allowed me to focus on thinking by images, which was―as an extension of geometry―a very common characteristic of the figurative culture before Reformation. Modern aestheticization is, on the contrary, consistent with the current iconoclasticism, and it shifts the description of the surrounding environment into the aim of disciplinary techno-sciences. Setting the image free from the reductive role of suggestion and entertainment is the recurring motif of most of my research.

Many authors have spoken about the problem of common good lately, for example Salvatore Settis (2014) and Ugo Mattei (2011). Even a Commission for the Common Good has been established, and its chairperson was Professor Stefano Rodotà, who, unfortunately, recently passed away (Mattei, Reviglio, & Rodotà, 2010). I would like to refer to the thought of Settis, first published in a booklet about the landscape as a common good, which refers to Article 9 of our Constitution (Settis, 2013) and then to his Academy of Mendrisio lectures on Architecture and democracy, published by Einaudi last year (Settis, 2017). Settis deals with the problem of protecting landscapes and cities. He does so by highlighting, among several issues, the fragmentation of disciplines that are supposed to focus on landscape.


When meant to protect the landscape and urban heritage, any discipline-mediated knowledge turns into ministries and specialized disciplinary institutions. These pursue their tasks through different and more or less complementary theories and practices. Settis notices that the landscape is the shared subject of at least four different institutions. These stem from different, unrelated, and uncoordinated disciplines. He is right. The matter turns to be dissociative because it follows an analytical attitude. Such an attitude ends performing a vivisection of the landscape. The focus on separate organs, treating them as components of a machine, eludes the integral character of the landcsape. In brief, such an approach is reductionist. It pretends that disassembling and reassembling the elements of such a “machine” would not change anything. That is wrong. Non-modern architecture could hardly perform a function by replacing some parts with others. Likewise, one could hardly succeed in transmitting the same content of a text if some propositions were changed. A steel structure concealed within an age-weakened column could translate the column’s performance to prevent a collapse. Yet such a column would be unable to communicate any meaning of robustness to the community. A foreign (or international) community, which is unable to interpret that meaning of robustness, could either reject the column or appreciate it from an aesthetic point of view.

A command is less ambiguous and easier to translate than a poetic verse when it is about making someone perform an action. A military program, which “shoves” people in order to make them obey, is designed for launching commands. It is a kind of functional machine and it transmits forces and performances. On the contrary, people who aim at negotiating better, common rules through conversation would rather make an effort to reach clarity of communication in order to avoid harmful misunderstandings. Conversing people would rather share an interest and engage in establishing a discourse ethics.

This does not happen when ethics is competitive, such as in modernity, where exchanges turn into challenges and conflicts for the strongest or the smartest to prevail. Such a culture cannot but disrupt any negotiation, because it sees exchange as an impermanent compromise aimed at tricking every challenge. A community committed to bringing harmony to prevail under the wings of justice must avoid the pitfall of competitiveness, which, by reducing the chances of communication, makes awareness and responsibility increasingly rare and difficult. Only a total disarmament of “competitors” allows for the development of communicative, symbolic languages and systems.

By reducing the energy crisis to a mere matter of saving on consumption, one could legitimize a solar- powered electric chair—an “environmentally friendly electric chair”. Solar culture is not a matter of technology. Rather, it is a social and moral innovation.

Figure 1. Bioclimatic architecture is about desire, not technological innovation (Image by the Author).


Disciplinary fragmentation hampers the discussion. Discussion is instead required by the intrinsic political dimension of the cultures of landscapes and cities, rooted in their own territories. It is the city, along with its landscape, which carries out the actions able to motivate relevant discussions. Its components, even if the good functioning of the city also depends on them, are not enough for such a purpose. The disciplinary monologue encourages actions with a limited aim. It belittles any communicative action, where experts from the same discipline engage in controversies. The capability of disciplinary knowledge to generalize and involve an international, global, and thus unlimited aim of validity, exalts its presumed neutrality and objectivity. This makes any confrontation a hard and even pointless task.

The universal individual promoted by the Enlightenment emerges more easily in nomadic merchant companies of movable products than in permanent civic societies of immovable products. The colonial perspective of the former will tend to make cultural differences irrelevant. Differences shrink to a matter of aesthetics. Therefore, they become a subjective, individual matter, acceptable provided they are all equally subject to the same economic calculation that appears neutral, objective, and international/universal. As a trend, nomadic culture goes on to sell patented movable products, while the settled culture goes on to teach how to make immovable products.

Just compare the British with the Roman Empire. My thesis is that the movable products of the nomadic companies are much less likely to become commons than the immovable products of settled societies. The current predominance of nomadic cultures and modern movable products gives their colonial industrial attitude a natural appeal since we look at settled cultures as unfashionable, old, and therefore condemned. The state of the planet is a responsibility of those nomadic cultures, though, and this shows that they are to be condemned. This is why I have argued here that architecture can be a common good as a language, not as a discipline. Accordingly, it shall be regional and refer to a specific symbolic community, not to an international, universal one.

Each discipline implies some subdivision in different areas of territorial relevance, which cannot overlap with those of other disciplines. These disciplines are characterized by the difficulty of choice induced by the scale of several fragmentations. Therefore, of course, it is easier to deal with events that are the same everywhere than with those that would be different elsewhere. It is thus not by chance that a complex of knowledge has emerged, defining a “situated knowledge” that is the subject of my talk. If the world were indeed external and independent (an illusion unfortunately shared by many), the problem would be much simpler. In fact, the world connects by retroactive circularities to the operators that are busy controlling its evolution, so things are much more complex. The phantom of physics is always present in every form of reductionism, even if we are aware that the landscape is not a machine.

Let us return to the focus of the conference: can architecture be or become a common good?

I believe that architecture has been a language for many centuries, and I think this should continue today—becoming a language again for those who do not believe it to already have been so.

There are other questions, though: how can we motivate a process that turns architecture into a common good? And, how does the common good relate to sustainability?


Indeed, the two questions relate to sustainability. Therefore, bioclimatic architecture again shows its connection to the common good. As long as we care for sustainability, we are the ones who have to deal with it. In fact, when architecture is meant as an “individual good” it makes cities and landscapes unsustainable. Widespread modern and contemporary architecture speaks for itself. It wastes non- renewable resources and destroys both the urban and the natural environments. Technological progress makes the building machinery plants so powerful and commodified that they can be identical everywhere, while consuming and polluting.

Engineering designs the efficient machines that architecture can aestheticize independent from places, as if the entire planet were an immense megalopolitan periphery where the same multi-national movable products are bought and sold. If architecture and the city were bioclimatic, then they would be regional, i.e. related to different geographies and cultures, contextual, and rooted. They would therefore be committed to represent and communicate the local cultural identities. For these civic communities, architecture could resume its task of knowledge embedded in the local language, so that the symbolic communities can discuss and govern their destiny and project.

Why should we choose a symbolic, linguistic, and located architecture rather than the current modern architecture, composed of many international disciplines such as aesthetics, engineering, urban planning, et cetera? My answer is that disciplines make architecture more exclusive, and less participatory and shared: a matter for professional experts only; instantaneous and objectifed; less contextual and holistic, and more individualistic and specialized.

Since disciplines are international, universal, and nomadic, they clearly separate the present from the past, and jeopardize the individual professional cognitive tools aimed at finalized actions. Languages are instead regional, civic, and contextual. They correlate the present and the past through semantics; target communicative actions; split into different, settled, and traditional cultural communities, and situate themselves in specific territories and geographic areas.


I would like to make a digression here, albeit concisely, to explain where this distinction between nomadic and settled cultures comes from. After a long nomadic period, humans develop different life forces in response to different places. This happens first in a locality, then by migrating to different locations on the planet. Cultural evolution brought out the first settled cultures, especially in the Mediterranean and in the area called the “fertile crescent”, which corresponds to the present-day Middle East. Topography and climate facilitate this transformation in some areas but hinder it in others, and this provokes a differentiation in the evolutionary processes of human settlements, for which some communities become permanent while others remain nomads. Cities form primarily and predominantly in cultures that are self-powered, and not in cultures that instead find forms of hetero- fed lifestyle more suitable, being so much more dedicated to the exchange than to caring for settlements and urban road networks. Even the economic theory, formed around the notion of “surplus”, is more understandable in the context of cultures of exchange and movable products, than in that of subsistence cultures and immovable products.

It is around this cultural evolution of settlement that the Greek polis also emerges from a philosophical point of view. This is extremely important, because it establishes the sense of a city in the use of language that is something very close to the concept of the commons. Romans, however, undertook the definitive step. The difference between polis and civitas is substantial, besides being relevant for what I am trying to communicate. However, both the polis and the civitas belong to the settled cultures of immovable products.

Continue reading in the Journal of Biourbanism Volume VII, 2/2018

Prof. Arch. Sergio Los (IUAV University of Venice, Italy) is an Honorary Member of the International Society of Biourbanism.