How to “leave traces”. Mario Botta at Cersaie

Why is there existence and not nothingness? This question has formed the basis for centuries of western thought, writes Turinese philosopher Maurizio Ferraris in his “Rational aesthetics”. And yet for centuries, humans (and, Ferraris believes, this should also be the work of philosophers) have preferred to ask themselves how they can “leave traces” of themselves beyond their short allotted span of existence suspended between centuries and millennia of natural and human non-existence. These issues provide the theoretical background to the debate between Ferraris and the Swiss architect Mario Botta that will be held in the Architecture Gallery at Cersaie at 2 p.m. on 29 September.

Whereas the philosophers of old spent their lives contemplating the nature of existence, the architects were busy building the pyramids, the ancient Greek temples and the Great Wall of China. And in all likelihood even the megaliths of Stonehenge were to some extent the result of an architecture project. “Leaving traces” is a debate, moderated by Fulvio Irace, professor of history of architecture at Milan Polytechnic, between the creator (the architect) and the decipherer of traces (the philosopher, or at least those like Ferraris who have an interest in phenomenology). It is a debate that ranges from the themes of history and remembrance to the behaviour of humans in the places in which they live, resulting in the countless traces that are left in the landscape.

This is a theme that takes on even greater significance in today’s world dominated by an immaterial culture. The age of technical reproducibility of works of art appears to have ushered in an inexorable process of obsolesce of media: from the original 78 rpm gramophone record through to vinyl LPs and modern compact discs, in turn relegated to the attic to make room for MP3 players; likewise photography is an indelible art form rendered simpler – but also less durable – by digital technology. We cannot but help wonder how many traces will be left of ourselves and our culture in 20, 50 or 500 years’ time. Academic studies have shown that this theme is not just a natural product of our existence, but also a condition that in a certain sense precedes our capacity to think. “Are we sure,” writes Ferraris, that the sequence thought-word-writing is correct?”.

What I propose is simply a less Cartesian view of the nature of thought, guided by the hypothesis that archi-writing constitutes the condition of possibility of thought.”

From archi-writing to architecture, Mario Botta has long been exploring the theme of memory, of traces. The challenge that he faces is that of saving architecture from the cruel destiny that appears to be in store for the other arts, victims of dematerialisation. Which architect today has the ambition – or indeed the courage – to leave a mark? How many of our buildings reflect the sensibility of contemporary culture and how many of these buildings will remain for posterity? This is a dilemma that the Swiss architect has addressed in fifty years of professional activity designing buildings that bring together present and past, memory and future, without nostalgia or regret.

This “critical reason” of the fragility of the models imposed by globalisation is explored at Cersaie by the creator and the decipherer of traces. The goal? To ensure that Andy Warhol’s prophesy – that in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes, whether on YouTube, Facebook or some other non-place – never comes true. Architecture remains one of the principal solutions – perhaps the only one at the present time – to the human need to leave behind a trace of one’s existence.