Page 1


COMMON PLACE No. 3 | April 2009



PREAMBLE In April 2008, I met my daughter, Elizabeth Snowden, in Granada, Spain, where we stayed for several days and then drove to the valley, not far from Órgiva in Alpujarra—a region that extends along the south slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains—where she had been living since the fall of 2007. She ended up living there until November 2008, nearly two years. Although my stay was brief, I came away with an impression that has deepened over time as Lizy and I corresponded and then conversed. Like equivalent places in California, the valley is a kind of litmus test of civilization’s ability to leave well enough alone and, equally, of the constant, seductive, even crazy-making pull that civilization exercises nonetheless—no matter how far off the grid you think you’ve gone. Yet Alpujarra has a real history, both a place of refuge after the fall of Granada and a region originally terraced for agriculture by the Hispano-Latin citizens of the Roman Empire who also put in place its elaborate fresh water channels. What follows are excerpts from the notes I made at the time, along with a brief postscript. 1



(Saturday, 26 April 2008) Granada is a bigger city than I imagined. The new part flows out of the old, which is well preserved. The topography is dramatic—the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the south, the Alhambra and the summer palace on the a tree-covered hillside, south of the old town, and a second hillside that’s filled with houses off of narrow, winding streets. We climbed both these hills today in reverse order, finding a plaza at the summit with a commanding view. The hills form a river valley, but there’s a drought, Lizy said, so the river’s low. The streets are cobblestone, but they’re made of smaller river stones, not the large, square stones you find in France, and so are easier to walk on. (Tuesday, 29 April 2008) Yesterday, we drove to the valley where Lizy lives, meeting up with her friend Ananda, who was working in Órgiva, the nearest market town. He’s an earnest young man of 19, good at anything of a technical nature, Lizy tells me. He and his family live below her. Her house, which she shares with Julia, a woman from Madrid, consists of a kitchen and a main room, plus a separate room where Lizy sleeps. It has a west-facing window that frames a view of the valley. The house is made of dark brown stones and mortar. It sits on one of the terraces that the Moors made, and gets a terrific amount of sunlight, Lizy said, although there’s some shade from a pine tree and other, smaller trees in front. It would be easy to put a garden in. She used to live on the other hillside, much lower down, and she would look up enviously at the house, picturing all that sun. The other occupant of the house beside Julia is Ruth, who came down from Madrid a week before, after breaking off with her boyfriend. She was writing an allegorical story about him, drawn as an elf that, because of a spell, is condemned to wear armor. It comes off magically for one night when the moon is full. The story continues, as the spell is complicated. Each part is illustrated with drawings in pastel crayons. Her depiction of the elf made Julia and I laugh as she told us the story. (Wednesday, 30 April 2008) Back in Granada, we went to the cathedral in all its baroque splendor, whitewashed stone and painted-on gold. The plan of the building is a cross with an imposed X. It includes a sculpture-and-painting of King Ferdinand conquering the Moors (in this case, one Moor) and a weird, 2

dark gold side chapel dedicated, I think, to the Holy Ghost. The gold looked almost spray-painted on. You can see the origin of lots of things that were emulated and/or parodied later. A detail from a painting by Bellini, “Presentation of the Virgin” hung on one side of the main altar. Tomorrow is “Las Cruces,” a holiday specific to Granada. It’s also the first of May, workers’ day everywhere else (and here, too). According to the man at the café, the local event includes “alcohol and processions of the Virgin.” The town will be crowded, and the event goes on through the weekend. Walking back here, I realized that the church at the head of the alley that leads to our building must have been a mosque and that its location across from the “Arab baths” implies that it was once in the very center of the town, downhill from the Alhambra. The area is called the Albaycin, and it’s where the Moors briefly lived after the Alhambra fell. According to Lizy, the valley she lives in was their last stop before they were expelled. The whole of southern Spain reflects or is steeped in the Moorish heritage: the names, the cuisine, the music and dancing, the general appearance of the people. “The Moors” is a misnomer—they came from different places, ruled in different cities as their emirate was diminished by re-conquest. The original capital was in Cordoba, and it shifted to Granada after Cordoba fell, existing for 300 years as a vassal state of the Spanish king. The Moors were expelled, I read, because of edicts, after the fall of Granada, eliminating their language and culture—very similar to the benighted policies of Franco in reference to the Basques and the Catalan (and also of the northern French kings toward the kingdoms of Provence). At seven p.m., we went back to the Church of St. John of God, a local saint born in 1495, to hear the rosary (although we didn’t know this is what we’d hear). The church is amazing, a basilica with an entirely gold interior, an altar that climbs three or four stories, and a dome at the center. After the service, they lit up the whole church. The saint himself is represented in three life-size sculptures, and the Virgin presides over the altar, holding the baby Jesus in her arms, with a crescent moon before her. The service, recited in Spanish, was familiar enough that I could follow parts of it, including the Lord’s Prayer. Numerous older women appeared, but there was an audience of tourists behind them (and us). It’s hard to describe just how encrusted with ornament this church is, and yet it has more integrity than the cathedral in terms of self-consistency. The last time I heard the rosary recited was at Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, also a basilica, now that I think of it—perhaps this is the form that churches dedicated to the Virgin take? That church was built after a plague, my Venetian friend Marta Moretti told me. They pledged to build it if God would end it. Or perhaps they made this pledge to the Virgin. Walking over there, I began to see what how cars plague a town like this. They’re everywhere, and they demand to share the tiniest streets with pedestrians. Scooters invade even the alleys that, because of stairs and other obstacles, are really only wide enough for people to walk. There are public buses that are inexpensive to use, yet everyone drives. The car we rented is sitting in a public parking garage, chewing up 18 Euros every 24 hours. It seems like a waste to have it, but it was cheaper to take it for six days than to rent it twice. Owing to accidents of time and geography, the sun is just going down at nine p.m. I think it’s because we’re an hour ahead of GMT, but not very far to the east of the demarcation line. And despite being in the “south,” I guess we’re actually fairly far north. The Lebanese restaurant that we’ve gone to every night was closed, so we went to a Moroccan restaurant a little higher up, run by an impresario, fluent in all the different tourist languages. Several families from California were at the next table—I heard Napa Valley mentioned, and Lizy said later that the snippets of conversation she overheard were typical of someone’s friend being grilled about her experiences here and answering with a recitation of her classes. The restaurant itself, together with the food, was the polar opposite of the other one, as overdone in décor as one of the cathedral’s side chapels, and with ingredients that came from a can, whereas the Lebanese restaurant has the wife as cook and everything is made fresh. The soups are especially good because of this, with very subtle flavors. 3

The last building on our alley, which ends at the garden gate of a former convent, houses a woman who goes around Granada yelling things like, “You’re really ugly” (in Spanish) at students. Late at night, she emerges from her building and calls her dogs in a loud, manly voice—I thought it was a man, but Lizy said, “No, it’s a woman. I know her.” I guess you never forget a voice like that. I haven’t lain eyes her, but ears—yes. I heard her while I was washing up, but in that interval, she went inside. Sleep well. (Thursday, 1 May 2008) Back in the valley, Lizy and I walked down to Ananda’s house and met his father, Nuriel, who speaks Spanish slowly and clearly enough that I could understand. Their house, which he built on the ruins of an older one, is well made—he laid and mortared all the rocks himself. You can see how it’s progressed over the 26 years he’s lived there, adding a room for his wife and a sleeping alcove for both of them. The boys have a “studio” downstairs with a computer and various music-related electronics. The brother is into hip-hop and the Internet. I met him on Monday and again this evening— he showed up wearing earphones and carrying an mpeg player. Modern life, I said to Nuriel. As a parting gift, Nuriel gave us avocados and squash from their root cellar. Then we came back and Lizy made a salad, soup, and quinoa, which was all very good. We ate on two orange-crate-like tables, seated on the floor—this seems to be the norm here, as Alma and Nuriel also sit on the floor, Turkish style. (However, Nuriel produced a chair for me and I noticed another. The boys also have chairs in their studio.) Before we went down to Nuriel’s house, I started rereading Lizy’s copy of the book on Dōgen that I have at home. There was much that I’d forgotten. Later, we were briefly visited by Julio Donat, the author of the book on the plants of Alpujarra. He speaks English, although he said that he had difficulty understanding my American accent. I asked if I could buy two copies of the book—one for Lizy, one for me. Like every other man in the valley, he has a beard. I would probably have one, too, if I lived here for long, since shaving takes a certain effort (and you either have to heat the water on the stove or wait for the sun to heat it up the water in the hose on the roof.


The valley’s irrigation system is amazing—channels of water that wind down the hill, with a smaller system to divert it to the plots. Nuriel’s plot has a sprinkler system that Ananda installed.



(Friday, 2 May 2008) Julia, the housemate of Lizy, arrived this afternoon. At least, I think she arrived—it might have been someone else passing through. There’s a path that comes down from the road—I could have parked the car there and walked down, avoiding the narrow drive, but I felt it would be harder to carry things down from there, since the incline is steeper. I met Julio, for example, while he was walking down from the road after the bus dropped him off. Yesterday, a woman tourist walked by and apologized for intruding. (Later) Lizy has just left in the near-darkness, assuring me that she can find her way to Ananda’s house, where we had dinner this evening—a salad with avocado that she whipped into a kind of yogurt (as Nuriel described its consistency before she started). I learned that he’s from Seville originally and was an artist who sold his wares in different places until he settled here 27 years ago. His wife Alma, who’s from Barcelona, came here 20 years ago. He is a master of reike, a healing method that he learned from “una maestra de Canada” who lived in the valley. He gave me a booklet in Spanish, printed in Idaho, which described it. The patriarch, a Japanese Christian who studied at the University of Chicago, returned to Japan and studied Zen, and after much searching worked out a method that he believed was shared by Buddha and Jesus, “the laying on of hands”. He offered me a session (and offered a second after he walked me back here). Most of it was cradling my head in different ways, and at one point I felt like my head was in his hands and body was floating. Whether it has healing powers remains to be seen, although there’s at least one positive sign—my digestive system is working again.



Reading the Dōgen book, I was struck by the phrase “topsy-turvy world” and its Japanese original. The valley, despite its beauty and slowness, is very much a part of this. The larger area is just as damaged by tourism as Granada, although this same tourism makes certain good things possible. Could it be done in a different way that would keep those things alive, allow tourists their access, but—for example—ban private cars, which are the principal menace, in favor of the bus system, which works well and is used by all the locals? (It costs a Euro to ride it.) I could have come here directly from Granada by bus. Instead, I spent hundreds of Euros on a car that has presented a parking challenge in every village. Lizy assures me that only animal life that’s the least untoward are the coyotes that roam the hills. She sometimes hears them howling when the moon’s full. There are bullfrogs that sound like raccoons attacking squirrels, and endless clicks and scratches and thumps. Walking up here with Nuriel, he discovered a small snake that wrapped up into a tight circle when he prodded it, after first lunging at him. Let snakes lie is my motto. (Saturday, 3 May 2008) Slowing down is a way of recharging, and perhaps the real meaning of Slow is in taking the time—taking enough time—to gain rather than lose energy along the way. Lizy and Julia are talking with a friend of theirs in the kitchen. I had a real cup of coffee, made on the stovetop, and brushed my teeth, but I still have to shave. It’s a little after noon. The sun is out and it’s warming up— there’s warm water from the spigot, for example. Last Saturday, I was in Granada recovering from the flight. Lizy and I walked up to the Alhambra. She was fighting the city, and that resistance took a lot out of her. Over the ensuing week, we’ve been talking about that. I’ve quoted Dōgen, who said that light and dark can’t be distinguished, that enlightenment emerges from everyday existence, the topsy-turvy world, as he calls it, as part of the giddiness of karmic life (another phrase of his). Trying to separate yourself from the world is as pointless as trying to make a mirror by polishing a tile. We arise in life and are eventually subsumed by it, organic and transient creatures that we are, unfolding from the spark that set us into being, a journey in which we are enlightened and deluded in turn, being in the midst of life, not apart from it. Buddhism is “very yang,” Lizy said a few days ago. Yesterday, I asked her to explain, and she answered that she finds Buddhism more of a man’s than a woman’s philosophy of life. After we heard the rosary at the Church of St. John of God, I said that it was really like chanting. It’s also a repetitive act, saying the rosary, a daily ritual of a cyclic nature, focused on the mother, on women, as the channel of God, “mother of God.” In this view, the importance of Jesus is that he “was made flesh,” that God immersed Himself in the world and used a woman as his vehicle, a woman being the only way He could do it. This is true of the old gods, too. Like men, they hungered for women and begot various semi-divinities with them. Jesus is one, “half-man, half-God”—and when he shed his body, God entirely, they say. I agree with Swedenborg that everything in the world has its corresponding thing in heaven or hell. That Swedish gentleman took in it all in dispassionately. He was good at reading malice and falsity, and ignoring both when he encountered them. The world didn’t slow him down because he didn’t waste his time resisting it, but instead gave his time to things that resonated—studies, public service, people whose goodness deserved his notice and kindness. Other things he sidestepped. This valley is as rich in correspondence as any city. It has its hell as well as its heaven. Thanks (or no thanks) to having access to wireless, I’ve kept up with events at home. Nothing seems to have changed much in these days, although small “urgencies” (as the Spanish call them) have arisen. I like that Spanish word, urgencia, which feels better than emergency as a descriptor. The latter puts its emphasis on “things developing,” emerging in a particularly bad way, but the former just lets it go at that: whatever it is, however it developed, it is urgent now. (Later) Nuriel appeared and asked me if I wanted a second session of reike. I agreed, and walked with him down to his house, this time to have a full front-and-back treatment, which involves, he explained, a subtle transfer of negative and positive energy. At the outset, he produced crystals, pink quartz, and an egg of onyx. I liked the egg, I said, and he commented that onyx is the stone of Capricorn. (He’s one, 6

too.) The different minerals represent air, fire, water, and earth. Alternatively, he may have meant that they channel forces from the heavens. I’m not sure which it was. My Spanish is getting better, listening to him. Sometimes I could follow him, but not consistently. Lizy said that she and Alma are studying chiropractic with a German adept who’s told them to obtain the original book on the subject, by a man named Zimmer. Alma has a copy of the German edition, but no one can read it except the teacher, so Lizy’s been trying to track down a copy via the Internet. She said that the difference in methods has to do with their subtlety, and that modern chiropractic is something like shiatsu, while the old school is very gentle because their knowledge of the spinal cord is more detailed and their methods more sensitive. The reike session lasted maybe 90 minutes—this is a guess. Lizy arrived meanwhile, and she and Nuriel made an elaborate salad. I watched Nuriel add oil and lemon juice and then mix it in. He sliced everything up so the salad bowl was heaping when he was finished. I realized that I could make it, too, having watched him, and said to Lizy later that this is rare for me, to learn something by observation. I asked Nuriel (with Lizy translating) if he knew how to garden when he came here. “No,” he said. “I learned mostly by myself, but when I got into some difficulty, I went to see a more experienced older man named Antonio.” Lizy feels that you just plunge in, and maybe she’s right, but I said that I like to know someone who can help me when I get into difficulties, as I inevitably do. While in the midst of the reike, I thought about the garden of my house and about my room. I’ve had “remake the room” on my list since the turn of the year, but now I have a clearer image of what to do: empty it out. When I came here before, the terrace in front of Lizy’s room was filled with people, friends from the valley plus one who’s not. They said hello nicely, but were caught up in their own talk, and I came and went, getting my camera so that I could document the way the water system works. It’s quite something how intricate it is and with what exactitude it delivers water where you need it. That makes sense, of course, in a climate that’s basically a step away from being a desert. There’s been a drought for four years, Julio said two days ago. We’re supposed to visit him—the Henry Thoreau of Alpujarra—this evening. Right now, though, Lizy is still with Nuriel and Ananda. (Later) Close to dusk, we walked over to the house of Julio Donat. He was out, and we met Pedro, his tenant, who lives in Granada, but comes down here for the weekend, and Pedro’s girlfriend Julia, who’s originally from Munich, Polish-German, and an artist, studying at the University of Granada. What kind of artist, I asked? Etching, she said, but at Granada you have to study every sort of art—you can only specialize as a doctoral student. She works in copper, after finding working with zinc too toxic. This was later, though. Pedro was the first to greet us, and then Julio appeared. He’d been up organizing the flow of water, as his area will get some next from the channel system. He said that it begins at the highest village—I don’t remember the name—and is fed from a source that comes directly from the mountain. The water depends on the snow pack, and this past winter was dry and warm, so there isn’t much. The spring rains didn’t really help. Julio took us to his attic, which is a herbarium—shelf after shelf of herbs and plants, which he makes up into herbal or plant mixtures for various conditions. “Hawthorne is good for the heart and circulation,” he explained. “You drink an infusion, and you can drink it as often as you like without ill effect.” This in response to my comment about foxglove (digitalis): “You never know what the result will be, so you can only take it in a hospital, not at home.” Lizy explained later, when I wondered aloud why he didn’t sell his mixtures on the Internet, that a larger market would strip the region of its plants. “He sells them in local markets,” she said, “and earns enough money for what he needs here.” I bought two copies of his book—at 20 Euros a piece. It’s a wonderful book, and I urged Lizy to translate at least a chapter so we can show it to publishers. Julio speaks English, although he had trouble understanding my Californian, and Lizy says that he teaches classes locally to small groups. He’d be an interesting visitor to our region. His book, too, would find an audience. It’s a model that other regions could profitably emulate.1



I brought over a bottle of red wine, so he invited Julia and Pedro to come over and we had a supper that was the exact opposite of our two meals with Nuriel—cosmopolitan in spirit, talking about New York (which Julia intends to visit), Berlin (a city she likes), US and Spanish politics, the films of Peter Greenaway, books like Ecotopia (a copy of which Julio produced, and which led me to mention that I’d met the author, Ernest Callenbach), and the music of Jobim (playing in the background). Lizy drank some wine and enjoyed the conversation. It was a fitting way to end my last full day here. Julia loaned us a headlamp and we walked home in the dark. I followed Lizy, who knows the path better than I do. Something else about the channels that Julio said: they predate the Moors, as do the villages—they were probably put there by the Romans, which makes complete sense to me, thinking of their skill with aqueducts and other waterways. This was the land of the Hispano-Latin population that fell on hard times in the fifth century A.D., as I learned during my visit to the Archaeology Museum in Madrid. They did well, and it stuck. (Sunday, 4 May 2008) I woke up at 7:30 a.m. and washed up. It’s surprising how easy this proved to be, after all my qualms before getting to the valley. From the experience of the morning before, I left the room closed up so its warmth didn’t dissipate. A few days before, with all the windows open, I got so cold that I had to get back under the covers. Worried that Lizy wasn’t coming, I went down to find her, encountering her and Ananda just at the beginning of the path down to Nuriel’s house. I continued down and said goodbye to Nuriel, thanking him for helping Lizy, and then walked up again, running into Ananda, who was coming back down, and said goodbye to him. 8

I left the house before Lizy, and met up with Julio Donat at the top of the path where the car was parked. We spent 10 minutes talking. Then Lizy arrived and we headed off, talking the whole way until we reached the bus station in Granada, where we left him, on his way to Madrid to visit his mother.


Julio said that the largest of the towns in the Alpujarra, Lanjaron, is a spa whose waters are said to help rheumatism. It’s also a source for bottled water, and as a result, the bottling enterprise is taking water from the irrigation system, to the detriment of the local community. His sister lives in Vancouver, he said—she’s married to a Canadian Chinese who’s a diplomat. I hope he’ll come to California. He knew about Yosemite and other parks. His other interest is trees, Lizy told me yesterday. In the car, he told us that he studied psychology at the university in Madrid, but then came to the valley a bit before Nuriel— which means that he’s been there for about 30 years. “My father came to visit a few months before he died,” he said. “That visit was important for me, because he said, after seeing the valley, that he understood why I’d done what I did—choosing to make a life there instead of pursuing work as a psychologist.” He’s acquired all his knowledge of plants since then. Note: Julio Donat and Anabel Sandoval: A tus plantas, Alpujarra, Asoc. de Mujeres Órgiva, 2006




While writing the essay “Urban Terroir” (see Common Place No. 2) I started reading David Cacey’s interviews with Ivan Illich, a Croatian who grew up in the “fat tail” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A J.M. Coetzee review of the work of Italo Svevo (in Coetzee’s Inner Workings ) describes how Svevo, a native of Trieste, benefited from the cosmopolitan nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That rich culture of difference fell apart after World War I, but Illich absorbed it nonetheless, becoming in effect a citizen of the cosmos. Reading Coetzee on Svevo gave me a new appreciation for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is usually dismissed as impotent in the face of everything that confronted it. Yes, probably so, but then that “everything” has proven diabolic. Life was manifestly better for citizens of the cosmos. It being dead, we’ll have to reinvent it—not as an Empire so much as a state of mind. The valley where Lizy lived is in the orbit of the market and tourist towns that surround it, and connected to the wider world by wireless as well as by mail (delivered to Órgiva). A naturalist like Julio Donat is able to write and publish his book on the medicinal plants of the region locally, and to lead tours that draw people from England and elsewhere. He subsists on the infusions he sells in local markets, and on the income he derives from the spare room attached to his small house. Everyone in the valley who doesn’t have an outside income raises their own vegetables. It’s a way of life that was lived by Lizy’s grandfather on the outskirts of Miami in the 1930s, when he and his brothers made what cash the family had delivering newspapers, everything else being raised, hunted, or fished. At a conference on future metropolitan regions held at U.C. Berkeley in 2005, the landscape architect Randy Hester said in passing that “government “should limit itself to regions and neighborhoods— focus on them, and everything else will take care of itself.” While recognizing the utopian and also flippant nature of the comment, I think it’s true. Regions are typically defined by their ecosystems, while neighborhoods are defined by clusters of people who identity with them and with each other. A city is more arbitrarily defined, and its interests are often at odds with the region and with its neighborhoods. Cities will deliberately harm the ecosystem in the name of short-term interests. Regions, especially if environmental stewardship is their main responsibility, have a harder time doing so. Neighborhoods, like families, are conservative when it comes to disregarding their own traditions. And yet, like families, they can be remarkably, contradictorily cosmopolitan when they see an evolutionary reason to do so. 1


Just as, in a marriage that breaks with racial or cultural taboos, the appearance of children mends the generational rift, regionally-beneficent changes to the fabric of a neighborhood that the neighbors themselves interpret as a favorable evolution will do much more to transform it in the long run than an intervention that bypasses the steps that make this possible. These changes attract favor, not exactly by fitting in, although that’s part of it, but by opening a door to the future that invites people in. Much of what is presented to us as the putative future has an “eat your spinach” quality. Cities nag and scold. Meanwhile, their own hypocrisies are too much in evidence for them to hold much moral authority. Despite its primitive character, Alpujarra is a product of successive civilizations—the generations of people that terraced the land and then built the elaborate system of channels that brings fresh water to every valley from the melting snowpack of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Civilizations come and go, but what is valued regionally is preserved, maintained, and extended locally. Cities once had the knack. The church near where we stayed in Granada, a former mosque adapted to the new order, is an example. When Lizy was in Berkeley last summer, we talked about the relative “simplicity” of life here. I put the word in quotes because it’s a byproduct of affluence, reflecting how the urban affluent organize their days. In the valley, much more time is spent “subsisting,” but there is still time for reflection. It is possible for a naturalist like Julio Donat to pursue the kind of program of local knowledge that Thoreau pursued in Concord, cataloguing what it in front of him and understanding and documenting its value. This happens here, too, of course, but the connection between nature and naturalist is more tenuous. To put it another way, we don’t think of someone consciously coming to a place in order to master its secrets and then put them to work in a pragmatic manner. There are people who do this, but how often do we encounter them? Thoreau is the great American example, steadily setting his sights on Concord, but without provincialism, the world being alive in Concord, and Concord in turn being alive to the world—at the epicenter, actually, of our nascent, transatlantic culture, its tendrils reaching out to Asia. A while ago, I started reading Reflexions, a memoir by Richard Olney , a chef and writer on food and wine who ended his days living on a hillside in the French countryside, “letting the world come to him.” In his case, the tendrils extended across the Atlantic, an admiring network of friends, colleagues, and readers. Planted in the country, Olney remains cosmopolitan. This is also true of Julio Donat, I believe. Born and educated in Madrid, he’s comfortable enough in both settings to move between them easily although he chooses to live in one place, not the other. Being a citizen of the cosmos demands this. 2

Notes: 1. J.M. Coetzee: “Italo Svevo,” in Inner Workings, Literary Essays 2000-2005, Penguin, 2007, pages 1–14 2. Richard Olney: Reflexions, Brick Tower Press, 2005



THERE IS NO CRITICISM, ONLY HISTORY MANFREDO TAFURI INTERVIEWED BY RICHARD INGERSOLL Manfredo Tafuri is a prolific author on a wide variety of subjects ranging from 16th-century Venice (L’armonia e I conflitti, coauthored with Antonio Foscari) to more alien topics such as The American City (coauthored with Giorgio Ciucci and Francesco Dal Co). Each of his works serves as a platform for questioning the methods of architectural history, which, as he so emphatically states below, is not to be distinguished from criticism. In Theories and History of Architecture, he identified a major problem of “operative criticism,” endemic to architects who write about architecture. His suggestion to counteract this tendency to impose contemporary standards on the past was to shift the discourse away from the protagonists and individual monuments and consider architecture as an institution. His most widely read book in America, Architecture and Utopia, advanced this position, proposing an ideological analysis of architecture. His disconcerting message for those who had hopes of a “progressive” architecture was that there can be no class architecture which can revolutionize society, but only a class analysis of architecture. In his most recent theoretical work, La sfera e il labirinto, he has outlined a method of history called the progetto storico. This historical project, which is indebted to Michel Foucault’s “archaeologies of knowledge” and Carlo Ginzburg’s “micro-histories,” seeks to study the “totality” of a work, disassembling it in terms of iconology, political economy, philosophy, science, and folklore. His goal is to penetrate the language of architecture through non-linguistic means. At the core he still finds the problem of “the historic role of ideology.” The job of the Tafurian critic-historian is to “reconstruct lucidly the course followed by intellectual labor through modern history and in so doing to recognize the contingent tasks that call for a new organization of labor.” In November, 1985, we interviewed Professor Tafuri on the subject of criticism—Richard Ingersoll There is no such thing as criticism, there is only history. What usually is passed off as criticism, the things you find in architecture magazines, is produced by architects, who frankly are bad historians. As for your concern for what should be the subject of criticism, let me propose that history is not about objects, but instead is about men, about human civilization. What should interest the historian are the cycles of architectural activity and the problem of how a work of architecture fits in its own time. To do otherwise is to impose one’s own way of seeing on architectural history. What is essential to understanding architecture is the mentality, the mental structure of any given period. The historian’s task is to recreate the cultural context of a work. Take for example a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Madonna, built sometimes in the Renaissance. What amazes us is how consistently these buildings have a central plan and an octagonal shape. The form cannot be explained without a knowledge of the religious attitudes of the period and a familiarity with the inheritance from antiquity—a reproposal of the temple form devoted to female divinities. Or take the case of Pope Alexander VII, whose interest in Gothic architecture at the cathedral of Siena [mid-17th century] compared to his patronage of Bernini in Rome can only be explained through a knowledge of the Sienese environment and traditions. The historian must evaluate all the elements that surround a work, all of its margins of involvement; only then can he start to discover the margins of freedom, or creativity, that were possible for either the architect or the sponsor. The problem is the same for comprehending current work. You ask how the historian might gain the distance from a new work to apply historical methods. Distance is fundamental to history: the historian examining current work must create artificial distance. This cannot be done without a profound knowledge of the times—through the differences we can better understand the present. I’ll give you a simple example: you can tell me with precision the day and year of your birth, and probably the hour. A man of the 16th century would only be able to tell you that he was born about 53 years ago. There is a fundamental difference in the conception of time in our own era: we have the products of mass media that give us instantaneous access to all the information surrounding our lives. Four centuries ago it took a month to learn of the outcome of a battle. An artist in the 15th century had a completely different ref12

erence to space-time; every time he moved to a new city (which was very rarely) he would make out his will. In earlier centuries, time was not calculated but was considered to be a gift from God. Knowledge was also considered to be God-given and thus teachers in the Middle Ages could not be paid; only later was their payment justified as a compensation for time. These factors belong to the mental web of another era. The way for us to gain distance from our own times, and thus perspective, is to confront its differences from the past. One of the greatest problems of our own times is dealing with the uncontrollable acceleration of time, a process that began with 19th-century industrializations; it keeps continually disposing of things in expectation of the future, of the next thing. All avant-garde movements were in fact based on the continual destruction of preceding works in order to go on to something new. Implicit in this is the murder of the future. The program of the “modern” artist was always to anticipate the next thing. It’s just like when you see a “coming attraction” ad for a film, essentially you have already consumed the film and the event of going to see the film is predictably disappointing and makes you anxious for something new. This anxiety for the future represents a secularization of the Book of the Apocalypse—things only have meaning in relation to the eschatology of their final goal. This is the basic parameter. This continual destruction of the present contributes to the nihilism of our times. What you would call an “architectural critic” serves as a truffle dog looking for the new to get rid of the old. Scully is a good example, when he first discovers Louis Kahn and then dumps him to go on to Venturi. For this sort of critic, truly profound work, such as that of Mies, remains “unread” because it does not fit into the scheme of continual destruction. As to how to select buildings that are worthy of history, it is the problem and not the object that concerns the historian. The works selected are irrelevant on their own and only have meaning in the way they relate to the problem. If you look back to the fifties, you’d see that two of the most published architects were Oscar Niemeyer and Kenzo Tange, architects who have not enjoyed continued prominence in successive histories. They were swept up in the news in an ephemeral notoriety, but this exposure did not assure them a place in history. The historian has to abandon his prejudices about the quality of the work in order to deal with the problem behind it. The work of Eisenman and Hejduk was much more interesting 10 years ago than it is today because it showed a curious problem of Americans looking to Europe, and what they chose to look at was an “Americanized” Europe—Eisenman’s Terragni is an architecture without human history. Using the theoretical precepts of Chomsky and Lévi-Strauss (rather than the more characteristic American pragmatism), they succeeded in emptying their historic sources of the human subject. As to the problems of architecture, it is more interesting to note cycles—series of things—rather than individual works of architects. The historic cycle tells us more than stylistic taxonomies. In the US, for instance, the attitudes toward public housing that emerged during the Progressive era under Theodore Roosevelt were regenerated during the New Deal and present a significant cycle for the historian to analyze. The greatest confusion in the “criticism” of architecture is in fact due to the magazines attached to the profession: architects should do architecture and historians should do history. Can you imagine what would happen if I built a house? Or do you think that Reagan took a copy of Machiavelli (or even something contemporary like Schlesinger) to Geneva—impossible, he just acts, and this is also what the architect should do. The study of history has indirect ways of influencing action. If an architect needs to read to understand where he is, he is without a doubt a bad architect! I frankly don’t see the importance of pushing theory into practice; instead, to me, it is the conflict of things that is important, that is productive. I don’t see it as being prophetic, but what I was saying 15 years ago in Architecture and Utopia has become a fairly standard analysis: there are no more utopias, the architecture of commitment, which tried to engage us politically and socially, is finished, and what is left to pursue is empty architecture. Thus an architect today is forced to either be great or be a nonentity. I really don’t see this 13

as the “failure of Modern architecture”; we must look instead at what an architect could do when certain things were not possible, and what he could do when they were possible. This is why I insist on the late work of Le Corbusier, which had no longer any message to impose on humanity. And as I have been trying to make clear in talking about historical context: no one can determine the future. Until recently history has been conceived of as Universal History, which had a finite sequence from beginning to end. There was always a goal to history, inherited from millenarian thought, and this remained with historians as they moved from hermeneutic history based on the interpretation of sacred texts to a history based on human action. The desire to understand life according to a final outcome necessarily led to a causal way of thinking, evident even in someone as modern as Benedetto Croce, who considered history as the history of freedom. If we look at it, however, as the continual exposure to the unexpected instead of seeking causes, we get a different history, one that presents concatenations rather than causes. Instead of a linear history, we get a history with a hole in the middle. To live in the world today is to live in a state of constant anxiety. Look at the minor architects, the unfamous ones who a decade ago would have been content putting up curtain-walled boxes. They now feel obliged to inject symbolism into their work: a pseudo-temple on top and an Italian piazza below— thanks to Jencks’s and Portoghesi’s “recovery of history.” All of this is being done from the point of view of publicity and exercised just like advertising. History has been reduced to fashion and understood in the way Walt Disney understands it—Venturi, who thinks he is being ironic, actually ends up more like Mickey Mouse. But let’s step outside these judgments on matters of taste to examine the problem underneath, the sense of insecurity so common in our world. Gone are the certitudes. Just as a child discovers the truth about Santa Claus, we find ourselves confronting the great “truths” about the world. Phillipe Ariès in his excellent history of death (The Hour of Our Death) shows the change in attitude toward death during the late Middle Ages after the invention of Purgatory. The certainty of leaving one life for a better one was suddenly thrown into crisis, and from that time on we can observe humanity’s hopeless struggle to eliminate death. Along with this uncertainty comes a nostalgic search for a center, thus in our times we see the return of the pope in Italy and the triumph of Reagan in America. In architecture, we might see Graves like Vignola in the 16th century, not having the talent or the courage to really design. But even the work of a good architect, such as Stirling, shows this problem of the search for the center. The mass of architects shouldn’t worry, they should just do architecture. If we take two theorists who are currently enjoying a revival, Loos and Tessenow, the latter especially advised never to insist on invention but rather on production. One should refine a few elements to perfection as a good craftsman. In our times, Richard Meier does this, he is a good craftsman. The avant-garde oriented architects are infused with some sort of mysticism awaiting an ultimate epiphany, a final word—but the word already exists, they just are unable to hear it. Contemporary architects are heirs to an enormous effort of liberation, yet is often appears that they would prefer that the liberation had not yet occurred so that they might repeat the process. The time of connections (collegamenti) is over. Knowledge seen as analogy is no longer valid. The correspondences that were considered capable of linking microcosm to macrocosm (i.e., treating the headache as a storm in the head), this system of concordia-discors gave way because it could no longer alleviate man’s anxiety. Even our great 19th-century minds—Nietzsche, Marx, Freud—retained some millennial thinking when they proposed the possibility of a better time by bringing us to the limits of our own existence. Building on their knowledge, we can only try to live more completely—if we really are resolved to eliminate anxiety, then we would realize that history serves to dispel nostalgia, not inspire it. There is no criticism, only history, an interview with Manfredo Tafuri conducted in Italian by Richard Ingersoll and translated by him into English, appeared in Design Book Review, no. 9, spring 1986, pages 8–11.


COMMON PLACE Notes and commentary on Granada and Alpujarra Š 2009 by John Parman; interview with Mandredo Tafuri Š 1986 by Richard Ingersoll and Design Book Review Credits: Cover photo and others of Alpujarra and Granada by John Parman. Website: Contact:

Common Place No. 3  
Common Place No. 3