Piergiorgio Semerano was born in 1941. He graduated from Venice University under Giancarlo De Carlo, and worked with him for a certain time. He was also drawn to the genius of Carlo Scarpa. Not the uniquely inimitable style that his mediocre epigoni wax so enthusiastic about, but his ability to dialogue with the pre-existing architecture and preserve it, though only after changing the spirit of it in a way we would nowadays consider violent.
Feeling out of his element in the Venice milieu, Semerano decamped to Finland where he worked for some months with Alvar Aalto. He tried to introduce various Nordic architects to the Venice scene, but with limited success: the informal language deriving from organic architecture tended to be misunderstood by a school that was increasingly bound up with ‘historical’ and neo-rational tenets. He set up a practice in Padua but was often away on lengthy, usually solitary, journeys to the East where he would alternately visit monuments of the remote past - monasteries, fortresses, hermitages - and works of recent years: Chandigarh by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn’s Dacca. For a while he emigrated to the United States, living in New York for preference, designing and fitting out stores there.
A typical product, one might say, of the years around 1968: restless, inquisitive, anti-academic to the core, as enamoured of archaic civilizations as of the ultra-technological. His idea of architecture follows much the same line: intensely anti-conformist, lacking the certainty exuded by some who see architectural design as about drawing up a decent plan and four elevations. To Semerano it is about the human body in movement and space. As he confided, “I’ve always felt a building should highlight the way things follow one another. Not freeze the gaze on a dominant image, but kindle a kinetic experience”. Hence the site-oriented approach where the architect gains insights that elude him in the studio: the quality and brightness of the light, the sounds and smells. In short, the physical relationship between a space and those who will be making use of it.
More drawn to doing than theorizing, Semerano did not reap the 1970s tribute paid to the cerebral radical school of design led by Alessandro Mendini and Andrea Branzi. Again in the Eighties he found himself on the opposite side from the winning brand of Italian architecture: the Rossi school, Trend, design architecture. The opportunity to emerge came relatively late in the day when he was invited down to Salento to refurbish an old house. Before tackling the project Semerano asked leave to sleep in the ruin, “to pick up the feeling of the place”, as he puts it. He was struck by the clear morning light flooding through the windows. Around that feature he arranged his whole operation. It brought him success and the commissions flowed, to the point where he decided to open a practice between Lecce and San Pietro inside a former tobacco factory surrounded by thirty acres of arable land and an orange grove for a courtyard. It became his Taliesin. The place where he would set up a laboratory attended by youngsters from all countries seeking design experience and - prompted by Semerano - watching the seasons change.
One of his most stunning works is the recently completed house at Casarano. The brief was to renovate a country residence and add on an extension serving to form a living room. The intention was to make this last a see-through glass area unencumbered with pillars. From the climate angle the idea might seem a trifle bold. It is one thing to find the Glass House at Plano in North America, designed by Mies van der Rohe, and another altogether being in the sunbaked Salento of southern Italy. Semerano got round the problem by wrapping the curving shape in a thin almost square-plan metal structure standing on columns some four centimetres in diameter. These are so spaced that the bearing function is hardly apparent. In juxtaposition with this is a free arrangement of non-structural wooden posts of differing colours serving as sunbreakers. From inside you thus get the sensation of being in a light, free space, while from outside the play of columns gives the construction a vibrant a-tectonic appearance.
Determined not to knock down the former building and lose its memories, Sembrano re-designed the façade using a fence-like
curtain-wall in wood. It serves three purposes. It insulates the building
heat-wise, like a diaphragm shading the perimeter masonry. It incorporates indoors a number of secret gardens which allow bedroom privacy to spill out of doors. As well as their communal garden, the family members thus have places they can retire to. The third function is to remove the banality of the former structure, doing away with door and window apertures. These re-appear, needless to say, as soon as the shutter panels are slid up - a trick by which the architect ensures some degree of security against intruders, as well as avoiding window bars and conventional shutters.
The ‘fence’ is destined to have vegetation growing up it, “paying back nature for what has briefly been taken from her”. On the same principle a pergola is formed out of the junction of curves like some paper cut-out.
Another original work is the bar-restaurant-hotel at Roncade, in the province of Treviso, completed in 2006. It sprang from the idea of creating an open-ended process, a complex in which it was not so much function dictating shape as the other way round. That is, Semerano’s restoration put back a series of outdoor spaces each with their own physiognomy, though having no specific use. That would follow in time, as circumstances developed. “Something like what happens with the various squares in a small town”, he described it. The building would look like an ordinary country property from the outside, but for a sculptural light steel structure made in a workshop and built up on site, again devoid of any specific function apart from being an architectonic landmark. It is a perfect example of the craftsmanship’s skill that maybe only in Italy can still be found.
The farm complex, or masseria, called La Castellana near Otranto, work on which took from 2000 to 2003, is another emblem of the architect’s approach. Renovation operations cleaned it of accretions, restoring character to the architectural mass, maybe even more than it ever had. Once he had got what used to be to dialogue with the new, Semerano put in a tunnel of raw clay. A texturally powerful hallmark-cum-pathway which enables the existing space to be enjoyed from new and unusual standpoints. The inside of the tunnel bears certain minute inlays of amber and copper, reminiscent of Venetia tradition and Scarpa at his best. These give the construction colour and unexpected reflections.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi