Frascari Symposium VI

Thematic Currents

“The labor of finishing precedes itself and never comes to an end.”
-David Leatherbarrow, Building Time: Architecture, Event, and Experience (2020) 10.

Current 1 – Surfaces – Finishing as Polishing

The flow of this current leads to questions of Detail via: Material, Tactility, and Craft.

“I shall treat of polished finishings and the methods of giving them both beauty and durability.”
-Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture. VII. Preface. Morgan, 201.

As the final treatment of a building’s physical surfaces, finish provides what Adrian Stokes terms “the smooth and the rough.” Finishing can be a physical act, a labor of love, where materials are polished, sanded, painted, drilled, installed, smoothed or roughened with the tools of skilled workers. Building surfaces are sometimes judged superficially, but they remain the tangibly present skin available to the tactile explorations of a building’s inhabitants. Despite being the subject of the entirety of Book VII of Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture, finishing receives relatively limited scholarly attention.

In the practice of architecture, a satisfactory or “good” surface that completes or concludes the act of making is characterized as a “standard finish.” How much of the good of the finish is the desired end state, and what criteria are occluded in evaluating its performance? To what degree is a finish achieved or realized by a mixture of intentional (human) and unintentional forces (like weathering)?

In dialogue with these concerns, to what degree is the external surface finish of a building inherent to its value, use, or reception? Can ostentatious finishing blind us to design flaws? How is finishing present in the drawings of the architect? What semantic or ontological shifts, if any, take place when a surface is refurbished or refinished? Is it fundamentally changed, or just superficially adjusted, renovated? When we casually talk about surface-level changes, are we being disingenuous? To what degree should we conceive of the tactility of building as a central concern for the architect; more generally, how are finishes related to the embodied experience of space?

Why do craft workers such as stonemasons or painters often receive less credit than patrons or architects? Is a finish regarded more highly when it is “hand-made” as opposed to mechanically produced? Does a focus on finish inevitably lead to Venturi and Scott Brown’s “decorated shed” or can it be a site of resistance?

Current 2 – Projects – Finishing as Completing

The flow of this current leads to questions of Building via: Concept, Completion, and Reception.

“Finishing ends construction, weathering constructs finishes.”
-Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time (1991) 5.

Finishing in architecture can be the completing of a drawn design for a project, the construction of an edifice, or its later reception and ongoing life. Is finishing pertaining to an architectural project the idea of reaching an endpoint or state of completion? If a design is the final statement of the architect, including unbuilt projects that contribute to and appear in built projects, then why are architects’ design adjustments during construction providing the “finishing touches” essential to a building’s attribution?

​Even the widespread notion of finishing a project with the end of construction overlooks the life or many lives of a building through its subsequent renovations, additions, and revisions. Are buildings only finished when they are in ruins, or beyond that, demolished? Even then, what of the surviving spolia? Or, like the Ise Shrine(s), what of re-construction, re-creation? A building may be physically complete while a project still evolves in the minds of the architects, inhabitants, or historians. It may also evolve through use, through repurposing, through cultural, social, and historical change. This is especially true when considering architecture within the framework of a circular economy of a sustainable society. How are we to read later changes, perhaps unintended by the original architect, builder or patron? Are they part of an ongoing narrative? Do they represent new chapters? What is continuous among the discontinuities of edifices spawning new stories and new values with each generation, or even with each individual?

Should a work be interpreted differently when damning information comes to light about its origins or its creators? To what degree is a finished building connected to an individual architect, especially for structures in the public domain? Can protest legitimately target a finished building or statue, even if it bears no direct connection to the perpetrators? How does graffiti or vandalism interact with a once-finished piece, and its ongoing narratives? Can “canceling” a physical construction be a just end to a narrative of oppression, or can it be reclaimed as a site for reflection, education, reparation? Is something that is finished, therefore, irretrievably judged or normalized; its sometimes dark history forgotten? How can we, and when should we, engage in processes of architectural revisionism? For what purposes, and at whose instigation?

Current 3 – Times – Finishing as Ending

The flow of this current leads to questions of Architecture via: Performance, Teleology, and Oeuvre.

“God alone can finish.”
-John Ruskin, Modern Painters (1856) III. 117.

Finishing an architectural project is one sort of ending – a conclusion of designing and building; a conclusion of all that has preceded it. On the project level, architectural correctness is evaluated by rules and data – codes, regulations, standards, legal contracts, and statistics. However, endings also define a time-based aspect of architecture: the notion of a final scene provides a performative framework for the interpretation of buildings and their legacies, their afterlives. Tim Ingold (2021) explores continuity as inherent to life itself, a continuous flow, “a movement of opening, not of closure.”

Viewing a building as a performance thus describes not only the objective material conditions of finishing, but also the theatricality of finishes and flourishes at the final curtain call. However, unlike an ephemeral theatrical production, finished buildings often continue in time well beyond their creators, their zeitgeists. With this in mind, to what degree should one evaluate architecture in a teleological manner; are we to determine its ending by the degree to which it succeeded in performing the intentions (or ends) of its original creators? Where does this leave us when buildings are repurposed, renovated, reoccupied? Does a building have a denouement? An epilogue, an after-story, a sequel … a re-boot? Or should the performance be read (narrowly or otherwise) as the ongoing work of the architect, in different spaces and locales, with each finish merely an interlude, an entr’acte, a pause for breath?

More broadly, to what degree is time in architecture relevant to the notion of its finishing, or completion? Are buildings finished when they receive acknowledged classical status, or only when they lie in ruins (or even post-ruin dust, legend, oblivion)? What is the role of the restorer, even the archaeologist, in revivifying and “un-finishing” a building? Is each encounter with a structure a unique and discrete performance with its own narrative, its own beginning, middle, and end? With parallel narratives, and coterminous architectural experiences, have endings been commoditized and reproduced, as in other artforms?

Such considerations, therefore, beg the question: what are the ends of architecture? Are architectural ethics adequately ensured merely by codes and regulations? How do the ends, purposes or destinations of a building exist separately from the conditions and biases of its designers? Moreover, how do architectural drawings explicitly and implicitly suggest their criteria for evaluation? What are the greater social, cultural and aesthetic purposes toward which architecture directs itself? In light of movements around social justice, representation and sustainability, it is perhaps useful to consider who finishes buildings, how such narratives are accepted, denied, reimagined and reinforced, and of course, to what ends. With changing social ethics and narratives, how can different ends be served by contemporary architectural performances; even when buildings are bloodied by their histories, how does everyday life, social and environmental justice, occupy and maintain a lived and joyful presence in edifices?

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