There are unwritten rules in architecture that have been distilled and slowly filtered down the generations through the bed of experience and practical usage. They are rules born of a natural rapport with the climate and sun and generated by a rooted sense of what is urban and what is not. There are ways of conceiving and designing architecture unrelated to style or language that obey these unspoken rules of urban living and make a building clearly understandable to all. A building frontage that openly declares the nature of the world within; a system of entrances, staircases and courts that clearly orient visitors and inhabitants from the moment they enter; features that strike an unexpected chord in the passerby, making him pause, if only for a moment, and fix the place in his memory; a decisive yet unusual connection between earth and sky. These are all sensations I have had on several occasions when entering or passing through architectures designed by the Piuarch architectural practice. It is a warm, comforting feeling that everything has been built with a natural clarity of vision. Theirs are not repetitions of well-worn urban models, or signature buildings leaving their trademark on the land. Piuarch’s creations spring from an essential ability to read the particular urban context. I leave aside this Italian practice’s ability to build with dexterity and grace in that impalpable style that is contemporary design. Rather, I would like to explore their work as a continuity of the European urban tradition that still can teach us how to conceive and build our cities. Piuarch’s two recent achievements - the D&G headquarters in Milan, and the Quattro Corti building in St Petersburg - both take their cue from the traditional urban block. Given the different climates, however, their design strategies are diametrically opposed. The Milan programme incorporates two pre-existing buildings into one that runs the whole length of a city block. The architects have chosen to create a transparent prism that gives glimpses of the clothes, models and workers within. It’s a bit like watching actors on a stage, only the gestures and figures are distorted by the myriad reflections and transparent shades of the facade. In contrast, the clearly signposted entrance gives direct views onto an inner court enclosed by the complex. Likewise the vertical circulation route running through the whole building provides views of the sections and structures created by the renovation programme. On the way up you feel a bit like a voyeur peeping through windows from the streets. This new, totally transparent architecture in the heart of one of Milan’s affluent residential quarters overturns the consolidated principle of secluding private homes from prying eyes. The unconventional newcomer is nonetheless careful to maintain the same measured proportions as the elegant buildings all around. The St Petersburg building turns this principle on its head. Nothing could be farther from the Milan programme than the St Petersburg building. Here the new building practically disappears from street view, hiding as it does behind a carefully preserved neo-classical style facade. Only once you pass through a tunnel entrance to a first court does the Piuarch remake programme become apparent. All the walls are glazed with golden coloured crystal glass panels, not mounted flush with their frame but set at differently staggered angles and inclinations, setting up an infinite play of reflections, shadows and glinting shafts of light. Although a hyper-contemporary space, you still retain the feeling of being in St Petersburg with its gilded cupolas and architecture that subtly responds to the erratic climate. The new project is posited on the ordered sequence of four inner courts connected by a common ground-floor hall. The walls of each court are glazed in different shades. Indeed the main elevations have been placed internally, imitating the introverted nature of many Russian neo-classical residences, their courts discreetly shielded from the rigours of the climate and reflecting the ever-changing sky. The Bentini company headquarters in the outskirts of the small Italian town of Faenza tells a completely different story. Here there is no traditional urban fabric to fit into. It is all about making your mark loud and clear, stridently standing out in order to be noticed. Even in this situation, however, Piuarch opts for a contemporary building that simply asserts what it is. Everything is concentrated on the facade. Its dense, 3-D appearance is achieved by an uninterrupted series of deeply recessed openings in the manner of wide Renaissance windows. The elevation becomes a volume in itself, re-proposing a theme dear to Piuarch and featured in several other recent European architectures. Yet here the result does not give the impression of a self-important, albeit sophisticated, academic exercise. The deep recesses on the elevation facing the road lead into the workspaces behind, and then on to the inner court where the secondary facade, in total contrast to the front, is a transparent glazed curtain wall. The complex at Segrate posed a more delicate problem: how to combine residential density with quality architecture and public spaces and at the same time set a new tone in a desolate hinterland of low quality buildings. Here the urban model had little chance of surviving the shock of the disparate, ill-organized jumble that is this outlying metropolitan area. Piuarch’s answer has therefore been to counter the onslaught with excellence of architectural design and materials. As in their previous work, Piuarch’s more recent projects make use of the building facade to interpret the metamorphosis of the contemporary city and its possible uses. The quiet density and depth of buildings like the Village, D&G and Bentini Headquarters and the Quattro Corti never risk appearing mere aesthetically pleasing surfaces. Elevations meld with the volumes that lie behind them. They establish an overall hierarchy of place, connecting with new courts and vertical circulation routes, these latter promoted to assertively expressive structures moulded in a single material. All the buildings have been conceived and constructed as elementary urban systems delivering significance and order to their specific context. I believe this to be one of the most relevant aspirations of contemporary architecture today. Architecture should have no misgivings about striving to disseminate quality in a contemporary key. It should seek to build cities and provide spaces for the diverse communities that will dwell in them down the years. The architects at Piuarch seem to be trying to do just this while at the same time being attentive to place. Their work constitutes a clear, yet courteous assertion of possible futures.