For the global collective imagination, Italian architecture is epitomised by Venice. Although a somewhat reckless statement, it is nonetheless a declaration of hope. Put simply, it associates architecture with the ability to transform the world we inhabit in two opposite ways: by signalling power or by signalling governance. The signal of power is the highest tower in the world wherever it may be; the signal of governance is the urban plan: the Eiffel Tower as against the Flatiron, to quote two neutral icons. In this sense Italy’s contribution to architecture has been much more a culture of governance than of iconic projects that stand apart from the everyday. In other words, the Italian architect is seen as able to plan lifestyles rather than architecture. If this is a plus, and we think it is, then there is hope for Italian architectural projects. On the world market, the Italian architectural project enjoys this sort of expectation. We are recognised as having that “lifestyle” factor thanks to our product design; our deftness at many different project scales has given Italian designers and architects a very special identity. Our way of working is considered European in its intense bond with context, and Italian in the quality of life it expresses - as technologically sophisticated as a design object but at the same time unique, unrepeatable or at least, not standardised. The growth economies of the world producing and consuming design projects today are all societies have been marked by some catastrophic event in their fairly recent past that signalled the start of their leap into the modern world. For China, it was the revolution, for India, becoming independent. This sort of historical discontinuity has led these countries to see their traditions as divorced from what they are today. As a result their identity is fraught with conflictual sentiments and nostalgia, a malaise that shows through in, for example, China’s nascent contemporary architecture. The need for reassuring emblems of past glory gives rise to constructions that are borderline grotesque, like Doha’s desert Venice. The concept of everyday quality of life, leisure and the private sphere is epitomised by the Venetian townscape with its small brick houses, windows, shutters, cornices and tile roofs. In the collective imagination this stands in stark contrast to the glazed tower blocks of cities designed for work: a Disneyland of historicized vernacular localism in preference to the deep-frozen architectures of abstract technological globalism. However surprising it may seem to us, the European - and especially Italian - architectural tradition is seen by the emerging countries as an historical continuum of past and present, an unbroken line stretching from idyllic urban models in the era before cars to the multiethnic, digital technological present. Everything is seen as having taken place against a backdrop of squares, tree-lined boulevards, houses, pavements, with people on foot or riding bikes. The priceless heritage of our historic cities, the sheer density of features that have been condensed in this corner of the planet between the Alps and the Mediterranean, with Florence and Venice only 300 kilometres apart, mean that Italian architects are expected to produce “contextual” rather than “conceptual” projects, a broad landscape design rather than a single object, a whole narrative, not a mere sign. Italian architectural projects take on board the genius loci. Programmes bring out the qualities and potential of the site rather than forcefully graft on architectures at times of dubious compatibility with their surrounds. Especially in fragile contexts of weak or muted character, the Italian project may well be more successful and recognizable although less iconic than others. These architectural objects contrast strikingly from the celebrity buildings enjoying the limelight on the world stage today. Albeit with a wide range of outcomes, Italian projects achieve an integration at all levels of scale thanks to a tradition of attention to every programme detail - from landscape to furniture. As a result, original contemporary architectural designs carry with them all the aura of the Italian tradition of “classical timeless beauty”. Yet these architectures we so admire are a unique achievement, unrepeatable in any other time or place because they are inextricably imbued with the “momentum” that brought them into being. It follows that we need to forge a new cipher of European architecture in a contemporary key. Not so much to create an architectural object but a complex whole capable of generating and supporting environmental quality demands. The emerging world is now leaving behind its fascination with the nostalgic and the picturesque as a means of countering sterile, characterless curtain-wall blocks. However, competing with standardized, pre-packaged architecture or with coloured concrete Disneyland fantasies of pseudo Venetian-style human-scale living, with or without canals, demands that Italian projects set new quality standards. European architectural practices are no match in either size or complexity for the huge - mainly American - worldwide architectural design firms. But increasingly, the network of relations our design tradition sets up among players in the supply chain - from site location right through to project sign off - represents a way of working much appreciated by those in search of high quality standards. Indeed large architectural firms are now tending to organise into dedicated project teams to resemble the “tailor made” style of European practices. However, the depth, consistency and specificity of our solutions still have a cutting edge that is difficult to beat. But we have to overturn an entrenched mercantile value system. Construction time should matter less than the final building’s ability to last; its form and presence should matter more than the “idea” or symbolic content by which it justifies its existence; the finished building must be more convincing and reveal more of itself than any rendered narrative. There is a demand and there is a market for quality architecture that does not have to be buoyed up by a celebrity building. There is an architecture that truly transforms the urban context, adapting to the local morphology rather than landing from out of nowhere and causing the surrounding areas to wither. Site, context, building traditions, materials, climate or views, the epiphany of an image, are all building blocks of this way of making architecture, an approach rooted in the value of things and a sense of what is real.
Antonio Citterio, Patricia Viel