The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. How do you accommodate that into your architectural heritage? That is a question the Italians have been struggling with for half a century. Here are some ideas I have about architecture, Italian architecture in particular. *
Architecture is the business of taking control of the building process which is something that is in continuous motion: it can be harnessed and channeled into something that is more restrictive, and in being restricted, becomes studied – either for aesthetic reasons, or for reasons having to do with the program, the means of construction, or a higher principle (sustainable construction, low cost housing, philosophies of planning, etc.) Without that control, building defaults to the lowest common denominators of predictable forms, time-worn programs, conventional materials, poor detailing, etc. Needless to say, there are countless architects who fail to fulfill that role and merely act as functionaries in the execution of mediocrity.
Eighty years after the tidal wave that was the modern movement in architecture, there is virtually nothing to be seen that indicates that some progressive attitude about building ever embedded itself in the public consciousness. Good architects continue to push toward creating new works that recapture some of the lost ground but it is a Sisyphean task and one for which they will always suffer. Architecture becomes a form of struggle against the prevailing stagnation of the building industry – even in the simplest act of picking a color from an array which features vanilla, beige, hunter green, and brown.
Italian architecture exists in the same way that Italian food exists – it is less defined by any particular detail than it is by a deep, passionate engagement culturally with the matter – in this case, design. A glance through international publications will clearly reveal, in Italian matters, a more thorough dedication to design and the attendant reverence for materials, style, and most importantly to me, a more profound incorporation of modern design vocabulary into everything that can be built, from factories to carrot peelers. Additionally, there is an internal dialog with grand historical styles, the greatest and most engaging of which have been Italian, that reveals a broader spectrum of perception and tolerance for the complicated balance of incorporating progressive and contemporary architectural ideas into a fabric of historic and non-reproducible architectural styles.
It is this balance between historical styles which is most salient and palpable about Italian architecture. One can always see the overt decision that has been made by the architect regarding the degree to which a contemporary building is engaging it’s context, which in most cases in Italy, is heavily laden with a rich, codified historical architectural style, whether Roman, Palladian, neo-rationalist, or bright 1980s red. It can be characterized by a hardness of style, a lingering residue of Roman and Etruscan architecture. Strong rectangular forms, a rigidity and order – columns, arcades, grids, hard tiled floors. Incorporating stone – marble in particular – is an important element, along with the extensive use of ceramic tile. An obsession with bathroom and kitchens (plumbing fixtures, cabinets, layouts), particularly modern and minimal – even if lacking in discretion – is another element which leaps from the pages of Italian design magazines.
I have a notion that the enormous effort of designing a building, and seeing it through, not to mention paying for it, warrants a grandeur, of concept at least if not design itself. Having determined a program and a location, I believe one must review historically how that particular program has been achieved to the greatest effect, both conceptually and aesthetically, and then one must reflect on the suitability of any particular solution to the specific location. Regarding newness, I am not at all inclined toward “new” shapes, or clever geometry, and in this way, I find myself more in line with the Italian sensibility wherein the reductive formality of historical styles is a driving force in the design. What then is grandeur? Dramatic, monumental scale, aesthetic decisions that challenge the inevitably mediocre context, richer materials, an increased emphasis on formality, both in the design as well as in the unfolding of the space as one moves through it. But there is a minimalizing trend as well, a reduction of clutter and emphasis on simplicity – but not rigidly or uncomfortably so. Finally, there is a strong imposition of an idealized way of living, which, again, is along the Italian line, one in which cooking, dining, reposing, and drinking wine are absolutely central to the organization of the house, as is a clear articulation of and progression through private and public space.
* For a concise review of Mussolini’s architecture, look at