Past has never passed. Museum, an apparatus for the soul

Susanna Piscella

During the last half century we are witnessing the increasingly rapid reversal of the relationship between man and the world. The museum, more than other architectural types, is a clear mirror of this process. If traditionally we used to enter a museum to let ourselves be fascinated by remote cultures and natures, today we enter to colonize new portions of centrality, thanks to the numerous digital devices which are offered, maybe in order to compensate for the insufficiency of the exposures in capturing attention. From a concave predisposition of the visitor, we have passed to a convex attitude, that of "active visitor"; i.e. that of consumer, of user. We are used to interact with the collections by selecting them personally, creating our own paths, leaving our own traces, always, everywhere. In order to claim that leading role that the digital society promotes in every sector, deluding us of being always at the center. Thus, if the school has been asked for the "upside-down teaching" instead of the "frontal”, if we expect to intervene constantly on the radio and to be invited on stage, then even the museum needed to find its own participatory form to rejuvenate and become part of the new generation, dynamic, interactive, horizontal1.
Digital collections for an audience being accelerated if compared to the traditional one. Constantly in a hurry, over-stimulated, "excited", as Georg Simmel called it at the beginning of the Twentieth century2. An audience prone to anguished boredom, because incapable of concentration and attention. Sick of impatience because deformed by the scopic gaze, unable to enjoy due to the impatience to arrive3. And because of a populist, commercial tendency, it is, as always, the institution to give up in order to become attractive to a wider public base. So it adopts horizontal languages and habits. Neurosciences are one of the privileged devices to implement this step: mental maps that with the automatism of an algorithm based on reactions to electrical stimulations would like to visualize emotions and desires, generating customized museum tours. This has been attempted by the Mibac Ministry in some of the national archaeological museums, including Ferrara, Altino, Ancona, with the aim of "establishing the centrality of the visitors-users’ experience through the expression of their desires"4. The museum becomes a sort of smart phone on the architectural scale, with the indexing of preferences. This is the case of the M9, Museo del Novecento in Venice-Mestre. In this case the social networks were used to create a public base even before the architecture was built.
Then it is not surprising that even Domus, one of the leading international architecture magazines, in 2011, reflecting with M. Gioni, director of the Venice Biennale of art, on how ideal museums should be conceived, argued that "what really makes great a museum is software, not just hardware: it is the work of art, the exhibitions, the audience, not necessarily the bark of buildings"5. Architecture tends to disappear and to reappear violently in forms of extreme protagonism, such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Maxxi in Rome, the Royal Ontario in Toronto, etc. Excesses that witness a pathological, clinical issue within the discipline. The inability to relate to architecture, to the city, to the person. A messy ride in search of originality, a category that Theodor Adorno would describe as the most conservative, as it is measured only in the short term, while if viewed over the long term it shows its constant repetition6. The museum has always been characterized by an excess of representation rather than function, but in this time refusing representation but giving space to exhibitionism, it seems that apart from the mad gestures the museum architecture is reduced to an useless "rind" .
Representation is the great excluded not only from the museum typology, but from the landscape in general, precisely because it implies a patient observation. Great attention to the complexity of reality, in search of what the singularity of the city and of the person is, in order to regenerate contact, resonances. As the word itself says, re-presenting means to bring into existence something that is absent in today, or simply not visible. The examples of this approach are more silent, because they do not attempt to escape that miracle which is the ordinary and its power. Italian architecture after World War II boast good examples, from Carlo Scarpa to Francesco Venezia.
The three examples that I propose, three projects by Renato Rizzi, start from this idea, to which we could give the name of "restitution"7 and which is linked to the idea of care. In the contemporary landscape, where the wounds of the anesthetic and the aesthetic of the land and of the person are more deeply engraved, it is a matter of restoring the meaning. Because architecture cannot be an abstract space to be traversed quickly, like the windows of a smart phone, and not even a tracking shot like the great world-museums, the British or the Louvre, where one flows and does not experience anything due to the lack of time8. Architecture should be a place where to stop, in which to encourage the occurrence of thoughts. I.e. the stage for experience. Even more today, the era of digital collections, where the architecture of the museum seems something perfectly useless. The question today is: what is the essence that makes an architecture a museum? Originally, as the presence of the muses in the name reveals, what is fundamental is the occurrence of knowledge. The one that Karl Kereny9 would call “feast”, or epi-phany, the meeting that is an appointment, to which one arrives strictly concave. Datives. The experience is never nominative, intentional, but it is what unexpectedly happens to us and crosses us in an unexpected way and for this it hits us, it collects us from everyday life. It kidnaps us. It cannot be programmed10. It would then be about making space, letting the thought breathe. Hardly the stimulation induced by the bombardment of video-images-audio information of the new museums leaves time for the questioning of meaning. The authority of experience is incompatible with the certainty introduced by modern science and its devices11.
The three projects, designed for Cairo, Warsaw and Ferrara, but never realized, linger on the gaps, on the potential of the "unsaid"12 hidden in the city and offer they themselves as works of completion for images remained in suspense, accompanying them beyond the threshold of their time, updating them. These projects open unexpected perspectives, sometimes extraordinary because they are ordinary, because they do not invent anything new, they simply let emerge what until now was not visible.
The Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo (2002) elaborates as a subject of the project the dual dimension of time in the Egyptian landscape: ground life and underground death. And the experience of circularity between these two poles. The chosen project area is the physical boundary between these two worlds, i.e. the edge separating the Nile valley from the desert, which is about 40 m higher. This line is crossed by the Egyptian enigma of life, the symbol that keeps active the boundary between matter and meaning. The direction is solar, east-west. The museum assumes this double gaze, which is translated into a double-axis plan. The T figure (fig. 1), which is borrowed from the Mastaba type-plan, allows the museum to disappear under the ground, avoiding direct confrontation with the pyramids. In elevation this figure translates into that of the mask (fig. 2), the immortal face, traditionally mounted on the mortal face of the pharaoh, to effect its metaphysical transfer. The project is articulated into three masks which record the excavation depth of the museum, exploiting the full height of the edge. At the same time, the mask is ornament, the necessary digression for suspending the visitor's chronological time and plunge it into the timeless space of the enigma of life. The three areas of the exhibitions are connected by processional paths, along which one rediscovers the dimension of one's own singularity. The distribution system configures like a vision preparation device. There are many entrances to the museum, only one exit. One enters from the city, from the level of biological life, and goes out, alone, through the desert, the level of spiritual life, where the past is never passed. Where one, once removed from the grip of time, finally coincides with the world itself. The museum elaborates the theme of conservation, for a better maturation of the sense.
In the project for the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (2007), the subject is the direction of the gaze of the city. The site is the lot of the Palace of Culture and Sciences donated by Stalin to Poland during the reconstruction of the second post-war period, 1952-1955. The building is addressed to Moscow. Its rotation and its mass density ideally drags the entire Poland towards East. With its 237 meters of high ¬it was the tallest building in Europe until recently. After 1989, the city has repeatedly discussed its demolition. The project fits in this context, in the thin interstice of time between 1955 and 1989 and it proposes to turn again the head of Warsaw, but towards Brussels, nowadays. The project suspends time by detaching the lot from the rest of the city, as if to symbolically free the entire nation. Then it traces a second interstice that involves only the perimeter behind the building (fig. 3). The new museum proposal opens twelve cavities that progressively swallow the shadows cast by the Stalinist colossus. A sort of cemetery of twelve pits, oriented to the west and called to daily erode the totem of Communism (fig. 4). The project elaborates the theme of the past, trying to overcome the conservative nostalgia and its tendency to immortalize the permanence inside history. It treats the Stalinist building as a dynamic body for a new life, returning the future hidden in the past.
The third project is the Museum of Italian Judaism and Holocaust, Ferrara (2010). It elaborates the theme of the soul, the most real, physical landscape where Jewish people move, scattered around the globe. The soul in relation to two further themes, the limit and the language, on which the Jewish culture has always been measured. In other words, the consistent hermeneutic structure developed around the impossibility of naming, even uttering the center of that culture, God. Three metaphorical figures of this path are three types of wall and three types of water. First, the well-preserved system of the city walls; second, the walls of the prison, a place designated by the notice for the future museum; third, the walls of the ghetto.  Similar with regard for meaning, radically different with regard for direction. The former protect, the second exclude, the third imprison. Three water systems: the marsh and lagoon in which Ferrara was historically immersed; the river; the water originating within the Museum. Water is the great geographical issue repressed in the city. The project raises the theme of water up to the biblical dimension, where the exegetical line, from Baruch Spinoza to Carlo Enzo, recognizes inside the word “water” the code-name for “word” itself. Potable words are those alimenting the Adam, such as the rainy words; non-drinkable words do not feed, such as salty marine ones, etc. A new system of board walls strengthens the walls of the prison, to then reverse their direction, generating new interior landscapes (fig. 5). Connecting the museum walls to the city walls means to trigger a new circularity with the city's womb, in an area where the walls were compromised by disintegration, and restores continuity to the urban scale. From segregation to integration. The visitor, at the end of the path, comes to be exactly under the entrance, in the "Sala della Torah" (fig. 6), which becomes the panoptic, the connection center of all the levels of the museum and its possible view perspectives. From the slow and incessant circular movement of the five rolls composing the Torah are distilled droplets that reach the city walls, where other types of water are collected (fig. 7). Judaism has excluded space, replacing it with time, the time which is necessary for the construction of Adam, the fertile soul that we are.

There is a fourth project, which however has been excluded from this paper, the Fortunato Depero Museum of Futurism, Rovereto. It is conceived for all facing inwards. The project empties and then reassembles the house of Depero, according architecture to the iconographies of his works (fig. 8). The formal matrix is the vertigo of verticality (fig. 9). The four high and narrow floors of the interiors develop, like a negative in three dimensions, the quick sequences of his thoughts. They allow the visitor to enter his gaze, to walk inside his own soul and, at the same time, to fall into the vertigo of his own.


1  P. Mastrocola, Al diavolo le élite? in Il Sole 24 Ore, 2019, January 27th
2  G. Simmel, La metropoli e la vita dello spirito, Armando Editore, 1996
3  G. Simmel, La Moda, Mondadori editore, 1998
4  Mibac, web site, Dynamic Museums, Program, 2016-2017
5  M. Gioni, Domus online, Musei ideali, 04-10-2011
6  T. Adorno, Teoria estetica, Einaudi, 2009
7  A. Tagliapietra, IUAV lectures cycle Le Pentadi 2018-2019, entitled La macchina mitologica e il progetto. Memoria, conservazione, restituzione
8  W. Benjamin, I passages di Parigi, Einaudi, 2010
9  K. Kereny, L’essenza della festa, in Religione Antica, Adelphi, 2001
10  A. Tagliapietra, L’esperienza, R. Cortina Editore, 2017
11  G. Agamben, Infanzia e storia. Distruzione dell’esperienza e origine della storia, Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, 2001
12  N. Gardini, Lacuna. Saggio sul non detto, Einaudi, 2014



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