Maurizio Oddo is a hard person to pin down. He has written about works by Le Corbusier, the town of Gibellina, projects by Pranco Purini and Laura Thermes, the Padre Pio church at San Giovanni Rotondo by Renzo Piano, and a score of other subjects, some intensely technical. He has endeavoured to practise as a professional architect whilst teaching the history of architecture. University teaching brought him into head-on conflict with the academic hierarchy, culminating in his filing a public denunciation against the then Dean of the Architecture Faculty at Palermo. Such clashes led to him finding himself without an academic position last year when (almost too old to take part, being born in 1966) he won a research grant at the Enna faculty.
Among his many activities is the compiling of a guide to modern architecture in Sicily, a monumental work of 1000 pages and more. Some have accused this, understandably, of being a kind of telephone directory listing the mediocre and the less than mediocre, but it does have the undeniable merit of being the first detailed census of contemporary building on the island.
The house Maurizio Oddo has recently designed at Erice for the Ditta family (in collaboration with engineer Alessandro Barracco) is fully representative of this multi-faceted personality, in my view.
He sets out to tackle five challenges: first, can one revive the architecture of rationalism, a tradition that has borne exceptional fruit in Italy (one thinks of Terragni)? On such a course is it feasible to go back to the lesson of the leaders of the Modern Movement, first and foremost the undisputed master of rationalism, Le Corbusier?
Second question: can one pick one’ s way through Le Corbusier and others towards a Mediterranean architecture fitting the climate and environment with greater empathy than Anglo-Saxon high-tech or the spatio-linguistic acrobatics of contemporary avant-garde? In short, does the South have a road of its own separate from Foster, Nouvel, Hadid, Koolhaas, Morphosis or Gehry?
Third: without falling into monumentality, can one pick up the lesson of certain famous names that stood for order, rigour and history: Louis Kahn or Álvaro Siza, for instance?
Fourth question: does it make sense today to talk of a genius loci. Without lapsing into the vernacular, can one resuscitate fragments of history like the materials used in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Trapani or the ceramic tile tradition?
Fifth: should the answer be Yes to these four questions, can one dialogue with some of the younger ‘live wires’ of the contemporary scene? i.e. design architecture which is brightly coloured, dynamic and hence basically not solemn and above all not academic?
It will be noted that Oddo’s questions are not new. The same issues were raised by the architects of the so-called Palermo school which took its cue from Pasquale Culotta or Roberto Collovà. This is the impetus behind a number of architects working in Southern Italy, and not just Sicily. I am thinking of certain neo-traditionalist, Spanish/Portuguese-oriented schools active in Syracuse, Bari, Reggio Calabria and Naples.
So where does Oddo’s originality lie? In the fact that he pulls out all these stops together, not a couple at a time. He aims at an all-inclusive synthesis that is both contemporary and traditional, in vogue and out of it. To this end his strategy is to go all out for the strong spatial effect, borrowing Le Corbusier’s notion of the promenade architecturale and turning it into a Mediterranean paseo.
In the Ditta house, on crossing the first threshold one passes under a covered canopy and then walks along a patio-like area. Inside the house a staircase climbs the triple height of the living room and emerges onto a garden terrace. Very much a pedestrian tour: but why “Mediterranean”? Because the whole itinerary plays on appreciation and filtering of light which is counterbalanced with shade; from the introversion of the patio one climbs to the extroverted terrace. These last two features are found in the Sicilian tradition: they answer an environmental need (being cool places at certain times of day) and reflect a balance between seclusion and town life (private havens against the chaos and confusion of the public square). Three ideas add character to this Mediterranean passeggiata: water runs alongside the walkway approach of the patio, light is let into the living room through large skylights in the roof, and a natural breeze is generated by a flue that sucks warm air from the lower floors and wafts it into the surrounding atmosphere at roof level.
Along this route one encounters a range of contrasting architectural ideas. There are fairly obvious references to the pure volumes of Italian rationalism; the Portuguese neo-rational composition motifs and neo-brutalism point to early Louis Kahn. Side by side with these traits are references to the island building tradition: black and yellow marble on the stairs, tiles from Santo Stefano di Camastra cladding the outside of the kitchen wall. But such features are all subordinate to the overall handling of space: eclectic though they are, they barely ruffle the unity of the whole.
Dialogue with the latest trends in architecture comes in the main elevation which dominates the patio and unfolds as soon as one comes through the canopy tunnel. Shutters or blinds would have made the façade unduly traditional, so Oddo has devised a masonry sun-shield to protect the windows from glare. This again draws on a Le Corbusier precedent, but the difference is that Oddo picks out the parapets in transparent coloured panels, reminiscent less of Le Corbusier than of certain young Dutch architects and their colour games. This gives a figurative line which the rest of the house tends to eschew.
Then result? It all hangs together: like a mathematical theorem, the house proves that the circle may be squared, though without pushing the experiment beyond a certain limit.
Other Oddo works are at the drawing board or building site phase. There is the square at Triscina, a village near Castelvetrano, a stone’s throw from Selinunte; or the single-family house at Valderice which is now nearing completion.
Here again, the aim is to prove a point. At Triscina the point is that into a background of wildcat building and squalor, one can inject a note of order that is both ancient and modern where rule and disorder seem to hint at equilibrium. The point with Valderice is that the Ditta house can be used as a method in quite different circumstances, at the urban scale.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi