Be the first to like this
Anatomy of the Swiss Army Knife
Availability and Appropriation - an extended function of Art in the City
Lecture and essay, June 2001, Siena, Italy
Victorinox Inc., based in the town of Ibach-Schwyz, Switzerland, manufactures the Swiss Champ Swiss army knife. There are thirty-three functions and sixty-four individual parts concentrated in this knife, which weighs one hundred and eighty-five grams. It takes four hundred and fifty manufacturing steps to make a single Swiss Champ Swiss army knife.
The Swiss army knife is a statement incarnate about hybridization, densification and multifunctionality. If an icon needs to be found that represents an extended function of art in the city, the Swiss Army Knife is a Swiss Champ.
Some five hundred meters from here Ambrogio Lorenzetti created his frescoes in the Sala dei Nove. These stunning allegories of good and bad government suc-ceed in condensing universal laws of cause and effect into one monumental dis-play, surrounding the nucleus of the Siennese city republic.
Outside, the Piazza del Campo slants gradually towards the Palazzo Pubblico, causing rainwater to flow towards the building where once a unique social and political experiment came to development. The Piazza is materialization in stone of what Lorenzetti conveys in the ‘The Good City-Republic’: the fertility of water merges with the fertility of good government.
In sum, art was profoundly political and politics were profoundly artful in the days of the Siennese republic.
The Piazza del Campo and Lorenzetti’s frescoes are the reflection of a new Ren-aissance order. Within this order each individual’s position in society was clearly defined, including that of the artist. We all marvel at Siena’s well-preserved buil-dings, palazzi and public spaces, but at the same time one should always be aware under what circumstances city states like Siena were developed. Socially, politically and physically the city of Siena remained proudly independent, until its hard-won status quo was overrun by the powers that be in Tuscany.
Nowadays the powers that be create a multitude of different urban and architec-tural scenarios. Between historical reconstructions in European cities on the one hand and the rampant building boom in Chinese and Latin American cities on the other, there is a multitude of emerging urban scenarios. It seems as if the hybri-dization of the world population reflects itself in a hybridization of the city as a li-ving organism.
Basically my lecture centers around this very question: what are the instruments one needs in order to shape one’s surroundings, one’s houses, one’s artworks?
In 1977 I found a partial answer to this question in ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’, a seminal book written by the American architect Robert Venturi. The title conveys the essences of the book: complexity can be a quality, and con-tradiction can be an asset to a building or an artwork. In his book Venturi shows the way in which architects and artists develop new conceptual and material in-struments to redefine both their profession, their attitude, and as a result, their buildings and artworks. Basically Venturi advocates a both/and attitude, a simul-taneity of urban and architectural spaces: spaces acting as multi-interpretable statements about space, both in the cognitive and physical sense of the word.
Somehow this book is a plea to adapt the instruments of architect and artist to the newly developed status of both the private and public domain, and as such to the social implications of one’s undertakings.
Much has changed since the publication of Venturi’s book. The practices of archi-tecture and city planning have become as hybrid as the cities themselves. Apart from the new Asian economical zones where the private and public domains are clearly defined, and in the American gated communities where the ‘collective’ pri-vate domain of a happy frightened few is shielded f