What Ever Happened To Italian Architecture?

Symposium at the Istituto Svizzero di Roma
October 15–16, 2010

curated by Reto Geiser

The DEPART Foundation and the Istituto Svizzero di Roma (ISR) present WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO ITALIAN ARCHITECTURE, the first installment in a series of planned biennial symposia that aim to explore the productive intersections and overlaps between art, architecture, and design, will take place at the Swiss Institute in Rome October 15-16, 2010. This two-day symposium will bring together emerging and established voices to discuss the current state of Italian architecture.

In the second half of the twentieth century, such singular figures as Aldo Rossi, Vittorio Gregotti, or Manfredo Tafuri, and collaborative practices such as Archizoom or Superstudio, not only shaped the architectural culture within Italy, but also took a prominent position on the stage of international discourse. Italian architecture gradually disappeared from the limelight as commercially driven forms of building replaced politically motivated manifestos and bold architectural visions in the advent of postmodernism.

How has Italian architecture since developed? What does Italian architecture mean today? What is the background against which architecture is currently produced in Italy?

An inherent part of every society, architecture works as an indicator of political, economic, and cultural conditions, as well as their transformations over time. It is consequently a goal of the symposium to consider the architectural production in Italy and the role of the architect with respect to a larger socio-cultural context.

Architects, architectural historians, and critics from both Italy and abroad, will come together at the Swiss Institute in Rome (ISR) to present and debate their intellectual positions and practical approaches to Italian architecture from the past to the present.

Alberto Alessi, Sandy Attia, Pippo Ciorra, Fabrizio Gallanti, Francesco Garofalo, Filip Geerts, Joseph Grima, Mark Lee, Elli Mosayebi, Matteo Scagnol, Paolo Scrivano, Martino Stierli, Pier Paolo Tamburelli, and Mark Wasiuta will look at the last sixty years of Italian architecture, considering contemporary developments and positions in order to debate future potentials.

The first part of the symposium will be dedicated to exceptional initiatives, institutions, and projects that evolved from the early to the late twentieth century. The second part will offer a platform to discuss the work of emerging voices in Italian architecture. In a concluding roundtable discussion, participants will consider the interrelations between design and policy, specifically focusing on the future role of the architect. Participants will frame their discussion within a larger historical and international context, comparing current Italian architectural production to developments worldwide. From tracing socio-political and cultural characteristics of contemporary Italian architecture to uncovering the political realities that serve as the backdrop of the country’s cultural production, it is the goal of this two-day symposium to foster critical discourse and enable open exchange about contemporary Italian architectural culture.

Admission is free. The programme is here below.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Istituto Svizzero di Roma – Via Ludovisi 48

Paolo Scrivano


ABSTRACT – In 1955, American architect and photographer George Kidder Smith published Italy Builds, a book that provided an original review of the status of Italian architecture in the postwar

years. One of the multiple initiatives that, at the time, addressed their attention to Italy, the volume by Kidder Smith evinced the high level of visibility the country had gained among international observers. What prompted this? Was it a form of italophilie (to paraphrase an expression used by Jean-Louis Cohen), perhaps peppered with exoticism and grounded in long-lasting traditions such as the Grand Tour? Or was there something else at the basis of this discovery of modern Italian architecture?

In effect, more than one reason seems to justify Italy’s newly acquired prominence after the Second World War and to explain its high consideration among foreigners. The significance of Italian architecture within the postwar debate was based on well-known traits: from the attention to both site and history that characterized numerous projects (which implied a re-discussion of the canons of prewar modernism), to the social commitment of patrons and institutions, and to the degree of experimentation pursued by architects and designers, all seemed to converge towards a rarely paralleled — in the country’s history — architectural quality. This fortunate condition was not deemed to persist for long, yet it contributed to the enduring myth of Italy’s “good design”.

Today, Italy still relies upon its recent history to keep its stock in the architectural world and, sometimes, to market its design products internationally: however, which heritagereally remains of the “golden years” of the postwar times is a question open to debate.

* * * *

Elli Mosayebi


Architectonic Quality At Stake In Postwar Italy

ABSTRACT – There are two differing histories on the quality of construction in postwar Italy. One deals with building speculation in the 1950s and the 1960s, when unscrupulous investors and their unskilled construction laborers built poor palazzos “without regard for building norms and safety regulations” (Ginsborg, 1990). The other history is characterized by the refined culture of architecture and craftsmanship during the same period. Buildings by Milanese architects such as BBPR, Gio Ponti, Luigi Caccia Dominioni or Roman architects like Mario Ridolfi, Ludovico Quaroni or Luigi Moretti are judged to be fine examples of quality design. While these histories are equally true, and the result of different premises, the vast numbers of buildings constructed for mere speculation laid a backdrop in front of which the architecture of high quality seemed to be exceptional. Furthermore, according to Vittorio Gregotti, during the 1960s, Italian architecture became a “luxury item” (Gregotti, 1968). Hence this paper addresses architectonic quality as a precarious commodity already in the postwar era. Put in this way, architectonic quality is regarded as an expression of an intellectual, political and social resistance against a disorganized government and an emerging mass consumer society in Italy.

* * * *

Martino Stierli


ABSTRACT – The American Academy in Rome and Post-war Transatlantic Exchange When the American Academy in Rome (AAR) was founded in 1897 it was a latecomer, assuming a model of artistic and architectural education that had been in existence for more than two centuries. While the French Prix de Rome came under attack from the modernist fraction, the American Academy in Rome, particularly in the post-war period, largely succeeded in keeping hold of its position. Not only did well-known American Architects sojourn at the AAR for extended periods of time; their preoccupation with the architecture of Rome furthermore entered into late-modern American architecture in transformed ways and considerably influenced its appearance. The travel experiences of two architects in particular constitute an interesting case in point for a more detailed discussion: that of Louis Kahn, who was at the AAR as ‘architect in residence’ in 1950/51, and that of Robert Venturi, who was a fellow at the AAR from 1954 to 1956 and who made use of his tenure by travelling extensively across Europe and the Mediterranean for educational purposes. Contrary to the common belief that the AAR was a bastion of a culturally conservative elite my paper will try to prove that the institution was informed by a liberal climate. Against this background, the American Academy in Rome can be said to have taken a key position in the transatlantic transfer of architectural knowledge and between the United States and Italy in particular.

* * * *

Filip Geerts


1966, Il Territorio dell’Architettura

ABSTRACT – Il Territorio dell’Architettura by Vittorio Gregotti, published in June 1966, is presented as one of three seminal architecture books coming out that year, the other ones by Aldo Rossi (L’Architettura della citt?) and Robert Venturi (Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture), making the case that all three are examining the material of architecture itself, and while sharing a moment, a space and certain preoccupations, the differences seem relevant. The specificity of Gregotti’s contribution is further examined through his involvement with the neo-avangardist Gruppo 63, culminating in the 1964 Milan triennial presentation, as a necessary step for Gregotti to transcend the “Dal cucchiaio alla citt?” idea towards the notion of territory as presented first in the magazine Edilizia moderna (n.87–88, 1965) and immediately after in his 1966 book. The presentation concludes with interrogating both the larger Italian context of the Citt?-territorio/nuova dimensione debate to which 1966 seems more a postscript rather than a manifesto, and with the

reception of Gregotti’s thesis internationally.

* * * *

Mark Wasiuta


ABSTRACT – Emilio Ambasz’s 1972 MoMA exhibition, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, introduced an American audience to not only the most exuberant examples of recent Italian design but also, through Ambasz’s encyclopedic method and through his social, political taxonomy, to the complex political structure he argued the design objects represented. That the objects occupied a matrix of relationships within the exhibition and within the “domestic landscape’ more broadly conceived was read as a registration of their “environmental” quality. While subject to at least the same degree of ambiguity and indeterminacy as the Italian design scene itself, “environment” was most often used in the exhibition to describe an open set of relations among the objects, their users and social groups.

Yet, if environment was invoked optimistically to consider a movement past the strict and limiting formulation of consumable objects into alterable, adaptable elements of interactive, collective behavior, environment also met its own challenge by the new media operations, and the strengthening systems of telecommunications that the exhibition encountered. In the aggressive response to the exhibition brief by several of the architects the new domestic environment emerged as nothing more than the circulation of communicative effects. However, a world without objects was not a world without media transmissions, systems and codes. Such a cohering or coding of environment was precisely what the French critic Jean Baudrillard postulated in his contribution to Ambasz’s Universitas project. Baudrillard claimed equivalence between the market and the environment, citing the environment as the “concrete compendium of all the political economy of the sign.” In this schema environment is not one sign among many, but a sign elevated to the status of an organizing principle, or system of exchange, and circulation. This paper will take up the simultaneous cohering and dissolution of the new domestic landscape and the question of the political economy of environmental signs through Ambasz’s reading of Italian design, radical, reformist and conformist alike.

* * * *

Francesco Garofalo


ABSTRACT – To try to answer the conference question, it is necessary to confront two popular beliefs: that of the “golden age” and that of the “political crisis”. In fact, if Italian architecture lost its ethos, maybe the cause is to be found precisely when and where it appeared to be hegemonic. Regarding the second belief, the complaint about the current conditions of architectural practice, risks to be a powerful alibi to avoid asking what is lacking at the core of our architectural research. The lecture will gather scattered evidence from venues like exhibitions, some designer parabolas, about the antagonistic ideology and the problem of architectural legacy from the seventies to the present.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Istituto Svizzero di Roma - Via Ludovisi 48

Alberto Alessi


Architecture all’Italiana?

ABSTRACT – Which image do we have in mind, thinking about Italian architecture? Which expectation are we projecting on this definition? Does Italian contemporary architecture exist? In what sense can it be spoken about? Which values should it embody? How is it best defined? Is it singled out geographically, culturally, politically, or through marketing? Is Italian contemporary architecture what is practiced by Italian architects or simply what is done in Italy? What does it means nowadays to think about architecture as national result? How is it decided that something belongs to someone? Who makes this decision?

* * * *

Pier Paolo Tamburelli


ABSTRACT 1. “Whatever happened to Italian Architecture?” Do we agree with the negative reading implicit in the title? 2. Recent Italian architecture looks irrelevant because it is irrelevant. 3. The problem of recent Italian architecture is not lack of intelligence, it is lack of courage. 4. Recent Italian cultural decline is parallel, but not immediately consequential, to the political decline of the country. 5. About Aldo Rossi, for instance. 6. There has been no serious confrontation with Rossi. 7. Was there anything ok after Rossi? 8. What to do? 9. Two attempts by baukuh.

* * * *

Sandy Attia & Matteo Scagnol


* * * *

Fabrizo Gallanti


Some case studies of a difficult relationship between architects and politics. From now back to the recent past

ABSTRACT – The history of modern and contemporary architecture in Italy has constantly been characterized by a close relationship between architecture and political discourse, between architects and power. Ideological positions and a direct involvement into reality have been a thread that has connected multiple and different figures, generating an articulated and diverging landscape of positions, where the crtitical revisitation of marxism has been crucial. But what is the current state of affairs? The demise of the great political narrations and the appearene of new forms of populism within the Italian scenario imply a substantial modification of this dialogue. A series of selected case studies taken from recent history will try to set up a few coordinates of today’s condition.

* * * *

Joseph Grima


* * * *


Concluding roundtable discussion with guests, including Mark Lee (Los Angeles) and Pippo Ciorra.

This symposium is made possible by the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and developRE.


(Carlo Scarpa, Museo di Castelvecchio Verona – photo: Maurizio Mucciola)


(Aldo Rossi, Cimitero di San Cataldo, Modena, photo: kalevkevad)


(Luigi Moretti, Corso Italia, Milano, photo: Filippo Scarpi - © 2010 www.filipposcarpi.com)


(Carlo Scarpa, Sede della Nuova Italia Editrice, Firenze, Vaclav Sedy©CISA- A. Palladio)


(Torre Del Greco, Napoli, photo: Gennaro Visciano)


(Milano Lambro, photo: Lino Mariani, Credits: CC Creative Commons)


(Scampia, Napoli, photo: Daniela Lepore [flickr: eropelad])


(Punta Perotti, Bari, photo: Claudio [flickr *RICCIO])