INTERVIEW Andrea Caputo
“Architects are among the few professional figures capable of translating policies and new ways of inhabiting the planet into ‘space.’ We are already in a paradigm shift, we just don’t know it yet.”
Spaziale – Everyone Belongs to Everyone Else is the title of the Italian Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice (from 20 May to 26 November 2023), curated by Fosbury Architecture, a collective of five under-40s who live and work in Milan yet have plenty of international experience under their belts. They are Giacomo Ardesio (1987), Alessandro Bonizzoni (1988), Nicola Campri (1989), Claudia Mainardi (1987), and Veronica Caprino (1988). Their work for the Biennial is divided into two phases: The first, entitled Spaziale presenta (from January to April 2023), consists of nine site-specific events in as many locations around Italy (all documented on the website spaziale2023.it and @spaziale.presenta on Instagram), in collaboration with other studies and local organizations; the second, the actual Pavilion in the Arsenale, will be a formal and theoretical synthesis of the processes launched in the months beforehand, giving us a different and original image of Italian architecture in the international context.* They chatted to Andrea Caputo, born in 1976 and also an architect, who works between his studios in Shanghai and Milan. One of the projects he is working on is Drop City, a design and architecture hub to be built in the Magazzini Raccordati tunnels at Milan Central Station.
Andrea Caputo: How did Fosbury Architecture Studio come about? How has it evolved over time and how do you run it today?
Fosbury Architecture Studio: Fosbury was born while we were studying at the Politecnico di Milano. We were very critical of the path we were on and worried about the job market that awaited us. We felt the need to set up—alongside our university courses—a platform through which to develop independent projects and cultivate research on topics that were important to us. Even though we all started working once we graduated, we continued to enter competitions and a few victories made it possible for us to open our first studio. We were very young and totally unprepared, but we still decided to rent a basement and give it a go. After some time and the odd defection, we realized that trying to make the office work as an economic machine was absorbing all our energy, especially our creative energy. So, in contrast to the classic evolution of an architecture studio, we decided to keep Fosbury Architecture as an incubator for collective projects and to each develop our own path in parallel. And this was how things worked until last summer, but our appointment as curator for the next Italian Pavilion was an opportunity to change course for the umpteenth time. Today, we all work together full time, with the help of two collaborators.
A.C: I’m interested in learning more about your methodological approach, can you tell me how you develop your projects?
F.A.S: The most complicated part of working in a horizontal structure was finding a formula that would allow us to make choices quickly. For us, the phase that many would still regard as concept definition consists more simply in choosing a position. We have always promised each other that we will both raise questions and suggest answers and this oblique vision still guides our proposals. Each project draws on all the research we have worked on and are working on and opens up new fields of interest, both within the discipline and externally. We always try to start from zero. This obviously exposes us to greater risks but we avoid automatisms and repetition. Once we all agree on the direction to take, we divide the tasks and organize subgroups to oversee the various project phases. We try to constantly shuffle around to avoid comfort zones and keep learning. As for the rest: Whoever does, decides.
A.C: Today there is an entirely legitimate media obsession with environmental issues. This has driven a process of cause and effect that has generated collateral—and sometimes distorted—effects within the production of architecture, effectively influencing decisions towards a product that is sometimes forcibly ecological. How has this obsession with green influenced your approach to the project?
F.A.S: The only positive side effect of the pandemic was transforming the ‘ecological transition’ into a global emergency. After fifty years of scientists speaking out in vain, the theme has finally become omnipresent and essential—is it too much or can it never be too much in this case? The often clumsy rush of many to reposition themselves is glaringly obvious, but at least it is an attempt and a sign that snobbery towards ecology is fading. After the economic crisis of 2007-08, which practically annihilated the real estate market, architecture strategically retreated into yet further introspection. In total detachment from reality, we discussed how to redefine our role, which representation techniques to use, and disciplinary autonomy. We have for too long neglected the fact that as well as proposing solutions, architecture is also part of the problem; that the construction sector is among the biggest polluters and that, as industry operators, we have objective responsibilities. As far as we are concerned, we trained and developed in a regime of scarcity. It is not a choice for us, but the context in which we have always existed. We can say that we are ‘sustainable natives,’ professionally speaking.
A.C: How do you maintain your own coherence when faced with pressing ecological needs as well as inevitable pressure due to the expectations of clients and the media?
F.A.S: Although we have been taught that recognizability of practice, i.e. those distinctive stylistic features that characterize the built work, was the goal to pursue, over time we have learned to attribute creative value to attitude. After all, in our ten years of life, we have seen it all: from urban strategies to domestic environments, from unfinished public works to historical labyrinths, from fanzines to short films; projects of all kinds whose only common element was perhaps an attempt to design by critically observing the context in which we were operating. Economics and disciplinary debate are naturally part of this context, but the Nineties are a distant memory and the era of the archistars is fortunately drawing to a close. In terms of project communication, it is impossible to follow trends and even worse to try and set new ones. We believe that the time has come for a more ethical, conscious and empathetic approach to the market: more attention on process than form, on content than product, on experience than entertainment.
A.C: To what extent does the competition system affect you in terms of finances and staffing? Do you agree that the circumstances in Italy do not allow for economic sustainability? Actually, let me change the question to: What do you think of the current competition situation in Italy?
F.A.S: It’s been a long time since we’ve done one. We have been waiting for the results to be published from the last one we took part in seven years ago. Not to lump everything together, but there are too many unknowns and, over time, we have become totally disillusioned. We are also very suspicious of the constant proliferation of online platforms that hold competitions for ideas. Most of these hide money machines that turn profits in exchange for pathetic prizes and low visibility for the winners. Competitions by invitation are a whole different story, but it is very difficult for a young (Italy drags so far beyond common sense on the issue of age) architecture studio to have access to them. In the words of Bruce Mau and his ‘Incomplete Manifesto for Growth,’ we would like to offer the following advice to architecture students and recent graduates: Don’t enter award competitions. Just don’t. It’s not good for you.
A.C: How did you finance the studio in those first few years? Getting into chronic debt with your architecture firms has always been an almost inevitable rite of passage.
F.A.S: As already mentioned, our initial business plan was really very fragile. We were looking for private clients and mainly doing competitions in the meanwhile. Both paths were littered with economic unknowns. That is why we decided to undertake parallel individual paths so that we weren’t a burden on the shared budget. We were very concerned that survival would become the studio’s sole raison d’être, with the obvious collateral risk of no longer doing what you like in favor of what you need. We have been on the verge of closing or radically changing the format many times, but the collective dimension—almost endowed with a will of its own—has always prevailed over individual intentions.
A.C: How do you reconcile Fosbury’s working method with what is happening today? A process of adaptation is underway not only in terms of new spaces, but a new way of exchanging information and managing the project between colleagues and clients. Do you think it’s time to be even more rational when it comes to planning or, on the contrary, adapting better to frequent instantaneous and unpredictable events?
F.A.S: The era we are living in is full of unpredictable changes that very quickly render consolidated practices obsolete. We don’t have a recipe for this, but we do recognize the value of collective work as it has allowed us over time to adopt ever-changing configurations and processes, which can absorb external stress. We are not against hierarchy per se, but horizontal practice makes it possible to share risks and successes, as well as making the best use of the capabilities of the individual components and creating space for individual personal fulfilment. After all, it is increasingly normal to work this way, both in architecture studios and other disciplines
A.C: What opportunities might an economic crisis generate for architectural firms?
F.A.S: The potential market for architecture in Italy is already residual: Some sources put it at 16%, others at 14%, but everyone agrees that it is inexorably declining. It’s an unbelievable figure, but still very high compared to the rest of Europe. For us, this means that the transformation—the crisis, if you will—is already underway and it is necessary for architecture to evolve, even only in utilitarian terms, to avoid becoming irrelevant. At the same time, the most pressing crisis is not economic but environmental, and as Lesley Lokko underlined at the press conference for Laboratory of the Future, the 18th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale which she curated, architects are among the few professional figures capable of translating policies and new ways of inhabiting the planet into ‘space.’ We are already in a paradigm shift, we just don’t know it yet.