Architecture that builds values

 The Economist 1843 Magazine ‘s  article, ” Versailles in the Valley”, frames quite well the current trend of digital corporations – like Facebook, Google and Apple – in building headquarters which represent the brand values. Versailles was the palace that Louis XIV built to centralise his power through parties and events that entertained Parisian aristocracy; the Versailles in the Valley symbolises a similar status. Facebook, Google and Apple campuses are palaces, which make tangible the politics of the brand. Whether sustainability, sharability, “open source”, etc brand palaces look after the physicality of the images that makes them real (it’s a kind of skeuomorphism). If in the past values were represented by statues carrying specific symbols (snake, flames, mirrors), nowadays building are asked such role. The way the building is experienced from a human perspective, materials and human interactions are factors that represent the company. They are not random; they come from society. However there is nothing new in this methodology; building monuments had been a political strategy that leaders from the past knew very well; if in the V century BCE Pericles gave shape to democracy by building Athens, Mussolini designed Fascisms through Rome urban planning, which extended to the whole Italian peninsula. Apple, Facebook and Google campuses (the word campus is already controversial in this specific context) are media that gather users’ imagination. They are tangible outcomes that shape digital intangible interactions. As drivers of people’s imagination, they enable transferability of something universal (as values are) to something specific to the company. Will community be understood as Facebook? There is also another effect; values can buy people’s trust if the message reaches the audience. If one of those values, which I believe in, becomes the company’s one I trust the company as we share the same values. As consequence I trust what the company does, without questions, which is a risk for my criticism and ability to make choices.

I guess the challenge we need is to keep universal words as universal, and avoid any specific identification that might lead to an even more constrained world of thinking and find our own solution, credo and ability to articulate our thought independently. We need to handle our trust carefully. We design our lives through our choices. Our actions and decisions make a huge difference in society; being responsible of those is our own priority.

When totalitarian politics meets society

During the last stage of my PhD, which analysed the relationship between Fascism and Fascist architecture, I became interested in the use of social networks. I started to observe people’s behaviour, how posts change in relations to social networks, how interactions work and which reaction such interactions cause. The reason why I looked in particular at these aspects lays on the value that architecture and urban squares played for the Fascist propaganda. During his government Mussolini “moulded” Rome in order to transform the space of the city in his stage, as theatre does for actors. Pictures of him speaking in Piazza Venezia from Palazzo Venezia’s balcony are striking for the quantity of people he managed to collect in one place. In addition the Fascist year was a sequence of public events people participated to become witnesses and experience the Fascist propaganda. By experiencing and being part of the marches and “Fascist rituals”, people were no longer a passive audience, but active actors, who granted power to the Fascist leader by being there and witness his version of Italian history. Mussolini wanted to be recognised as modern emperor, heir of the Roman great emperors of the past. Nonetheless to be an undisputed leader of modern Italy he needed to bound Italians under one flag and common identity, which was still unclear to the most as Italy became a nation in 1860, after being divided for centuries since the fall of the Roman empire in 476 AD. To achieve his goals Mussolini worked carefully on the Italian shared memories of the past: “What if I am the heir of Augustus, Adriano, Caesar? People would believe it, they will recognise my power with no questions, like religion does.

I am been quite disturbed by the recent history, i.e. the emergence of populism around the world. For my three-ish years spent on reading archive Fascist documents, I’ve got a bad feeling. Is it coming back? It has been disturbing seeing people getting used to the worst, and making the worst the new normal.

Back to social networks and the “urban quality” they have, I observed that people’s behaviour resembles “public space” (as it is not public at all) interactions. If on one hand the value of contemporary physical space has decreased, in terms of the social bound it triggers, on the other hand people got more confident with digital social network interactions. Another element to add is the political engagement in social networks, like Facebook presidential campaigns and politicians’ tweets.

Of course we know who is currently the “campion” “politician” on Twitter. Indeed the recents facts of the United States politics, reminded me my PhD thesis. If in 1930s architecture and urban space played a pivotal role for the Fascist regime, nowadays 140 characters do. The use of Twitter for political propaganda is quite interesting. How to speak in 140 characters?

Back to my thesis. Mussolini shaped Rome as the stage of his propaganda. He worked out how people had to behave, by balancing the relationship between empty/solid space. Fascist marches run at a specific pace; they gave rhythm to people’s experience. Marches and public speeches were sophisticated machines that bridged Italians’ collective memory to the present. A BBC programme analysed the way the current US president tweets. The simplicity of the message is not a case; the rhythm of his tweets either. The two together are well balanced; they enter the threads of social networks’ infrastructure, and the way people use them. None of his tweets sounds out of place. Tweets are not a speeches; they are a comments, as anyone’s else. By reading this article from Politico I noticed another similarity with the Fascist leader. The US president’s presidential speech looks like the Roman empire story Mussolini constructed to be recognised as unique and undisputed leader. By portraying a dark age (not even Tolkien’s “Lord of the Ring”- “The Two Towers” – managed to give such dark picture); Trump ignites the public with dark mood, which makes anyone feel lost, with no direction and hope for the future. Such state of mind returns a tabula rasa feeing, i.e. makes one think: “where do we start? Is there any light? What can we do?”

Then it comes the next bit. Trump said that he is giving power back to American people, i.e. “if you give me power I will help you to go through this dark period”. Hence the answer from the public perception would be: “Great somebody can help, he can drive us out of such grim present. Let’s trust him and he will help us”. Trump speaks at singular; it looks he doesn’t have any team to help. He is the man. People need to trust him.

I am personally feeling quite lost too, but after observing and reading around I need to react. This is all perception. Politics, as many other storytelling based disciplines, is based on stories one can believe or not. The US president’s reality is not mine. I have hope and I think I am not alone. We can contrast the way the present, and the future, have been portrayed to us by thinking – and making- a different future by taking actions through what we do.