Archis 2001 #3

Three tales of ordinary Italian perversion

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Overwhelmed by the far-reaching European wave of new architecture from Holland, London or even Portugal, Italians too want to be young and up-to-date, fresh as in the pages of Wall Paper or in ‘blob’ architecture, to pretend for a moment that the structural backwardness that separates us from the rest of Europe has suddenly been abolished.

Today every self-respecting fashion supplement (D / Repubblica, Io Donna / Corriere della Sera, Vogue) has a column devoted to the latest novelties or crazes or to the new star architect who’s been invited to build a bridge here or a museum there. In this field however Bilbao and the communicative power of Gehry’s Guggenheim has surpassed anything achieved locally. For four years now the charter flights have proliferated, dumping on the Basque city a cargo of curious tourists, local administrators, architects, politicians and the latest – and earliest – critics. They come, as on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, to worship this icon and to dream in secret of a new, salvation-bringing titanium cathedral for their own city.

(Tale One. Act One. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
For some time now television has regaled us with an excruciating ad from a well-known Italian telephone company. A gorgeous Australian model is visiting the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; she catches sight of a pair of roller blades displayed as an art object, takes a long thoughtful look at them. The next second off she goes, speeding across the curved roofs that have been transformed into a perfect skate board track.)

At the start of the 1990s architects started climbing the social ladder. They ceased being simple players of ‘tangentopoly’ and brokers of dirty business and became creators of the ‘immaterial’ and the attainable dream thanks to the capital and technology of the New Economy.

(Tale One. Act Two. Architects as a testimonial and the romantic prototype of the creator.
Vittorio Gregotti presents Volvo, Renzo Piano poses for Rolex and, last but not least, there’s a publicity spot by Renault with Massimiliano Fuksas. The architect’s in the driving seat but what he’s really doing is dreaming with his eyes wide open. He stops, gazes at a solitary cloud high in the sky, takes out his inevitable felt pen and draws its silhouette on the windscreen. Then he draws a box round it and, presto, the silhouette is now the logo for the new European Space Centre to be built in Rome in the foreseeable future.)

In a country that has cherished for centuries the subtle perversities produced by unremitting immersion in the holy water of the Vatican, but which has never attained the heights of Spanish Baroque or the iconoclastic distortions of Buñuel and Dali, the only gauge we have to measure the rate of architectural and figurative perversity is a microscopic one, more suited to a story by Calvino or Borges than to the work of a simple critic of architecture. Not because there isn’t any perversity – on the contrary we are swimming in it – but because perversity for us remains a subtle and improbable intuition with regard to the accepted norm. It is a message that is so strong as to become unacceptable, even provoking instant social and moral condemnation. Meanwhile the contradictions which Italy is currently going through are so powerful and paradoxical that any perversion we can possibly imagine is mere child’s play, a puerile attempt to avoid a devastating confrontation with reality.

Perversion then merges with parody, farce, the grotesque; its acid smile dissolves into a grimace; the subtle anarchistic slither disappears only to transform itself into the laboured movements of someone struggling not to drown. Reality proves more powerful than any conscious creative act that aims for perversion as a way of exposing established opinions or undermining a short-sighted normality. Or else perversion is the indirect result of an excessive condition, only capable of producing paradoxes that verge on stupidity.

(Second tale. The architect president
Having previously announced himself as the worker president, the businessman president and the farmer president, centre-right candidate Silvio Berlusconi has blown a breach in the world of architecture by publicly proclaiming himself an architect president. It goes without saying that he has masses of experience in this field; in the 1970s he founded the new expansion area, Milano 2 – a prototype that lies somewhere between a garden city, a suburban apartment block and a golf club. As he puts it himself, hundreds of English and American architects have come to study the brilliant ideas of the entrepreneur-creator, the only example I know of an estate agent who calls himself ‘art director’ with his name listed as such in credits, above those of the architects. The minister of culture in his new government will be Vittorio Sgarbi, the well-known art historian with his D’Annunzio-style behaviour, a rabid inquisitor of modern architecture and of the damage done by the Communist architectural culture in our ‘bel Paese’. When reality beats the imagination into a cocked hat…)

One of the most common perversions that is seen every day and which is generally accepted by both Italian and international public opinion is however the notion of architecture as a two-dimensional (journals) or virtual (Web) product. Nobody takes a blind bit of notice any longer of the lies of architecture, even less are they viewed as dangerous and scandalous perversions. Nobody is upset by a steel structure concealed by a brick wall. But when it comes down to it, even Palladio recommended that in the absence of real marble one should take the trouble to paint the columns; the effect, after all, is the same… And just as in a sixteenth-century pageant set, this effect hardly makes a scrap of difference to our society or at least to its consumerist majority.

It comes as no surprise that the world of Italian fashion, that has been one of the most generous patrons of contemporary art, has observed this phenomenon for some time, giving architecture a hearty welcome in its circle of ‘additional resources’.

(Third tale. Prada has called on the two most recent Pritzker Prize winners – Rem Koolhaas OMA-AMO en Herzog and De Meuron – to design seven new buildings. ‘Scandal’ shout the jealous, the purists and the smooth operators – ‘fashion has taken over architecture!’ Meanwhile the fashion mags are calling it a miracle. Prada is looking for a good return on its investments.)

I admit that in dwelling on this subject I risk displaying the moralizer in me. And I don’t want to indulge in a sweeping condemnation of everything with the cynicism of critic and voyeur. There is no linguistic perversion so strong that it doesn’t need the backing of a subversive analytical and creative idea capable of shaking off this infuriating atmosphere of political correctness that permeates our press and all our public debates.

As far as I am concerned, I can only welcome these unfathomable perversions that will, I sincerely hope, disturb our gilt-edged dreams.

Luca Molinari
May 2001