The Problem of Value

“What of objects, of their consistency, of their duration, of their stability? Objects have always been consumed and grown useless, however, in the cycle of production-consumption, which cannot be interrupted, they are considered in relation to their rapid uselessness. In fact, not only is their transitoriness foreseen, but even their ‘expiry date’, which must be as short-term as possible. Thus instead of being limited to the end of their existence, the end of an object’s existence is conceived from the outset as its aim. Within this process, where the principle of destruction is immanent to production, the use of objects must coincide as much as possible with their usage” (Galimberti 2003, our translation).

The substance of the relationship between architecture/waste resides in the encounter between the desire to conserve and possess objects, a form of control, and the destructive tendencies of matter itself (Viale 1994; Royte 2006; Scanlan 2005). The possibility that form and formless coexist or find modalities or necessities of encounter is the subject of this conciliation.[1]

The incinerators, one of the many facilities now existing for transforming and giving new meaning to waste (Thompson 1979; Pawley 1982), inherently contains the reasons of this disturbing relationship: the industrial machine, often required to coincide with the architectural factory, modifies useless material in order to seek remnants of necessity within it. The nature of the container and its content are contrasting and, at the same time, the use of the term “value” contains an inherent contradiction: it may speak of a “virtue of the soul” as well as the “merit or price of any good.” The machines that transform waste are part of a cycle of production that subtends the end of all things: their umpteenth “valorisation” finally leads to a total disappearance of the object, to its accommodating disappearance. Architecture is called upon to contain the mystery of pulverisation, but “one has the impression that thermodynamics allows for the surfacing in a certain sense of the negative of energy processes and that it corresponds with a sort of initial return of what has been removed in the era of machines, where in the end the qualitative returns to disturb the quantitative” (Emery 2011, our translation).

What burns inside of incinerators produce powders that change the air quality and the ecological parameter. They are the black shadow of this close relationship between waste and energy.

Leonardo da Vinci, in his project Il fiume Arno e la sua regolazione in canale (1502-1503), confronted the problem of controlling matter in continuous movement and change.[2] His drawing restores the rigour of an idea that wishes to organise and bring about a new configuration, based on a consideration of the convective movements of water. In Il diluvio he narrates the spreading of the ruina, the deformation of the appearance of things, arriving at the supposition that water as destroyer was subject to the destiny of waste in contemporary society, in other words to be dissolved.[3]

Form and formless labour to encounter one another for great periods of time; the distances in meaning between the two often waver, above all in architecture. The Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters, a true monument to the useless given new meaning and a new conception of process, has become the system of the architecturally formless, or better yet of “fluid,” “continuous” spatiality, intolerant of the rules of tectonics, which however translate conditions in itinere into crystallisations, designed by chance or the absence or partial control of their author (Schwitters invited his friends to participate in the definition of the piece).

The hospitality offered by architecture to waste causes its very meaning to undulate. The container, conscious of the dichotomy of containing its very opposite, is not content to offer itself as a mere box or, better yet, attempts to overcome the separation already narrated by the condition of I’m a monument learned from Las Vegas (Venturi et al. 1972). Architecture, when it lends itself to hosting waste, confronts its own role as a machine of transformation, a possible monument to the mystery of the separation of matter, an object that despite its own intentions is separated from urban and territorial dynamics, self-isolated as a result of normative and cultural issues. If architecture is not a part of the city, if it does not institute relationships with the territory; if it has assumed the role of a cathedral, though orphaned of its stately and symbolic content, if the process of transformation that elevates it to the role of a machine of progress testifies in reality to a dysfunction in the productive process that is unaware, unable to foresee, incapable of fully controlling its own the end, then the architecture of waste must respond, similar to a sort of psychoanalytic session, to its own nude condition and thus support its own reasons of necessity.

Against the background of these cathedrals—where production is washing its own conscience—is the landscape of the earth, water, air and people. There is no redemption for waste: their transformation into energy produces fine particles, killer to the environment and to humans. Today by the term Anthropocene we try to emphasize the responsibility of men in changing the planet, while the waste cathedrals (incinerators and landfills) continue to show the dark side of production. Climate change, led mainly by the manner in which energy is produced, is the most explicit link between the danger of human action and the fragility of the environment, connection underlined by the name given to the contemporary era, actually called the Anthropocene. Not by chance in the waste cathedrals is not expected the presence of man, they are empty and inaccessible places because they contain the secret of a production that continues to have a dross: the subtle and dangerous dust generated together with the energy.

  • [1] “The darkest desperation can exist side by side with the most striking invention; entropy andefflorescence are fused together. Because so little has remained, it is not possible to dispose ofanything and new possibilities have been discovered for utilizing materials that were once scornedand considered junk” (Auster 1987).
  • [2] In Sigfried Giedion’s book Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition(Giedion 1941), the project for the Arno River is cited as a vision able to reconcile technique andevocation of the environmental system motions.
  • [3] So writes Leonardo: “Here, then, natural reasons fails us; and therefore to resolve such a doubt wemust needs either call in a miracle to aid us, or else say that all this water was evaporated by theheat of the sun” (Richter 2008).
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