In conversation. SHARE Architecture Awards: Roberto Beraldo

In the thought-provoking conversation we are joined by Roberto Beraldo, co-founder of Beraldo&Marras Architetti Associati — an important part of the jury in the Category comprising Landscape, Heritage - Refurbishment in Architecture, City Planning - Public transportation.

SHARE-Architects: What is the combination of qualities that you look for in a project, when judging/analysing, but also when being yourself involved in the process of designing?

Roberto Beraldo: The quality of a project is inherent in its belonging to a place, its culture and history, which are unique precisely because they belong to that place.
Understanding the “spirit of a place” is the basis for making a quality Project. And to be able to judge a Project, it is necessary to exercise the same design competence of studying the “genius loci”. According to Ernesto Nathan Rogers, an Italian master of 20th century architecture, a deep knowledge of the “environmental pre-existences” and the construction history of a place define the constructive and typological peculiarities of architecture.
Making architecture means changing the character of a landscape, natural or urban, it means building places and spaces for the human beings who have to live in them.
Making architecture, therefore, is an enormous ethical responsibility and it is always necessary to remember that we architects work to support civil society. Designing architecture is not exercising one’s “brand” independently of a place.
Operations of redevelopment of degraded areas in some European cities, starting with the architectural brand of famous “archistars”, in some cases, have produced results that are very difficult to sustain over time. Architecture, however, always changes a place, for a long time, either in a positive or negative sense, but when the latter prevails, it is an enormous social damage.
There is the poetics of every architect, always different, but this lies in the way of reading the history of a context and forming the Project in an architectural language appertaining to that specific genius loci.
Often, in the Project activity of our studio, I wonder about the gap between what seems to us to be the meaning of a Project and what it means to the inhabitants of that Project. It is interesting to observe how the spaces we have designed will be used over time: if people, regardless of their culture, are part of those spaces, it will have been a successful Project, and we will also have been able to explain to them how to experience architecture.
We often live in a culture that no longer demands high quality architecture, which we are not even educated to anymore, starting from school education.
An architecture award such as the one we are dealing with is a very important educational contribution to our society.

S-A: What are the main challenges that the architect (in general) has to take on in today’s architectural scene? What are the challenges that you yourself have to handle in your own practice?

R.B: The challenges of architectural design today are many.
Multidisciplinarity is one of the first, and not even the most recent. Already in the first century a.d. Vitruvis in his treatise “I dieci libri dell’architettura” delineated the figure of the architect as the supreme expert of each art: from mathematics, to art, to astronomy, which were synthesised in the Architectural Project. Today, likewise, a project is made up of many forms of knowledge, humanistic and technological, which must give rise to a Project that must be adapted to the client’s demands, which are a complex combination of adherence to a territorial, social and economic context.
Among the important challenges of our time there is also the economic aspect. Today, the chase to reduce costs, often even in the design of public works, is very difficult to manage as the quality of the architectural work and its durability are greatly reduced. Frequently, instead of calculating the value of an architecture over its entire life cycle, in a far sighted manner, the cost is assessed in the immediate term of its realisation, producing, in fact, a dispersion of resources on the long scale.
Sustainability is still one of the challenges of today. Although there is a lot of talk about it, the challenge is not met, especially in a global way. Many levels of building production, especially the more artisanal ones, even at the design level, are still a long way from being able to manage and design artefacts that are truly sustainable. And even on this front, construction costs often have an impact on the choice of materials that are truly sustainable in the present and future of buildings.
Another issue that I find crucial today relates to the technical authority of the designer. It is by no means taken for granted. Today, the training of architects has often shifted towards high levels of specialisation in certain design issues, with the result, however, of fading the architect’s ability to have an overall vision. It is necessary to be able to manage all the experts in the different technical components of the Project without losing the idea behind the Project itself, as a capable conductor can do. Today we are often overwhelmed by the complexity of technologies.
I have many concerns, but this last one is the most relevant to the fate of doing architecture today.

S-A: What are the essential three characteristics that any ”thoughtful” project should have embedded?

R.B: A well-considered Project is a Project adapted to its context.
I have already outlined many of the issues that I believe are necessary to produce a high quality Project, but I think it is useful to reiterate that a good Project, today, is the result of a great synergy between the operators that the contemporary nature of the Project demands of us. The technological component of today’s architecture has become extremely powerful, so it is necessary for the architect to exercise the ability to conduct an overall vision so that architecture is built for the individual and not measured by the “limits” of technology.
The architect must manage the very complicated design process without becoming engulfed in it, at the risk of losing the value of the architectural project.

S-A: How would you describe the evolution of the architectural field in Eastern Europe in the last 30 years?

R.B: Eastern Europe is a great laboratory of contemporary architecture that I have always looked at with great attention. In the last 35 years, after the change of political horizon in Eastern Europe, which in fact coincides with the period of my professional experience (I graduated on the day when the Berlin Wall came down!), the character of Eastern European cities has changed a lot. Renewal has been rapid.
But I think it is necessary to note that Europe is a context in which the architectural cultural heritage is enormous. Every European country has a wealth of history and architecture that tells of the historical stratification of all the epochs, including the 20th century, that have marked our culture.
The concept of protection, restoration and regeneration of architecture, of every era, must be conveyed in schools where the theory of making architecture is taught today.
The desire to renew and change cities must consider the identity value of the architecture of the past as a cultural heritage to be protected and regenerated.
I come from a country, Italy, in which the notion of protection of the historical architectural heritage is very oriented towards pure conservation, regardless of the architectural project which, in fact, is the only tool that allows us to give back to architecture historical future as long as its past.
In Eastern Europe I have visited magnificent architecture that belongs most absolutely to the present, great experiments, perfectly successful, driven by the audacity of the Project capable of assigning important values to a place. In many cases the new architectures were replacements of parts of existing and historical urban fabrics, but in just as many cases they were new buildings intended to host updated economic and social functions, leaving the spaces that originally housed them unused.
In the same way I was able to see historic architecture projects, regenerated with very sophisticated architectural languages, sometimes even rather “free”, if seen in relation to the concept of scientific restoration, which, however, were able to give a new meaning, also in terms of real estate value, to places that had lost it. And I believe this is a very important role of architecture.
I believe it is absolutely important to find a balance between a conservation/regeneration and replacement project that allows us to make the stratification of the eras of our cities legible, while delivering them to the future.
In the 21st century, today, we have a clear concept of the protection of ancient historical heritage, but I believe it is necessary to begin to understand what it means to reflect on the meaning of the protection of twentieth-century architecture, which has made our cities modern.
We are in a phase in which we run the risk of losing this enormous architectural heritage which is very easily replaced or left to neglect. On this topic, obviously, it would also be necessary to reflect on the economic difficulties generated by the recovery/restoration of a “delicate” heritage, in terms of building materials, of which twentieth-century architecture is built. The institutions should act on this front to ensure that replacing the historical heritage with new construction is not the only option that safeguards the future of our cities. By ensuring a correct balance between replacement and regeneration we will achieve truly sustainable cities and architecture.
Sustainability, now, is a complex concept in which economic and ecological transition issues are not the only ones that come into play in the field of evaluations of the future of architecture. It is important to observe how the concept of sustainability must be extended to the importance of the identity value represented by the historical architectural heritage of cities.