Dante O. Benini is one of those architects who are better known outside the restricted circles of specialist literature readers. Only two architecture reviews have systematically dealt with Benini’s work: l’Architettura, cronaca e storia, until edited by Bruno Zevi, one of Benini’s greatest fans, and l’Arca, again thanks to the enthusiasm of editor-in-chief Cesare Casati. An increasing number of articles and interviews are appearing in the general press and non-Italian journals on Benini’s brilliant, unconventional and often controversial, urban and environmental projects.
The reason for this oversight on the part of mainstream Italian architecture critics of his conspicuous body of work is probably because Benini - like other architects supported by Bruno Zevi - belongs to a school of architecture running counter to Tafuri, Gregotti or Portoghesi, who, although in different ways, dominated architectural discourse in Italy during the Eighties and Nineties. There must, however, be another real reason for such neglect. Otherwise it is hard to explain why Benini continues to be ignored even today when bridges are being thrown up in the name of all-embracing eclecticism. Very probably, Benini is still regarded by mainstream architectural thinking as belonging to a grey area, his work still jangling sensitive nerves. In fact three aspects of Benini’s approach still arouse controversy. First, his suspicion of the assertion that architecture stands apart as a separate discipline; second, his belief that architecture is a professional trade; third, that technology is part and parcel of artistic creativity.
Suspicion of autonomous architectural values. Apart from an initial phase under the clear influence of his Venetian mentor and later employer, Scarpa, Benini’s later work asserts his preference for action rather than form, or in the words of Anceschi, heteronomy not autonomy. Benini’s buildings meet needs, relate to their contexts, afford function. They are not nostalgic rehashes of consecrated models. As a result, they often explore new configurations rather than settle for ready-made solutions, even at the risk of being outlandish, sometimes ungainly. Yet they reflect an expressive freedom that raises purist hackles.
Architecture as a trade. Benini is one of a dying breed of professionals who still thinks in terms of budget and performance. Challenge any choice in any of his buildings, and he will justify it citing lower costs, spatial economy, better maintenance or greater energy savings. His reasoning is simple: for a professional, a building is synonymous with capital outlay, and so must be built to last. It is not primarily an aesthetic object, but if it is, that is only because it meets the first, most important prerequisites.
The fascination of technology. A pupil of Oscar Niemeyer, under whom he graduated in Brazil, and friend of Frank O. Gehry, with whom he worked in California in the late Seventies, Benini sees technologies as a spur to the imagination, sparking a universe of new shapes, even deconstructed ones. References to high tech abound: the poetic transparency of his huge glazed façades, the unconcealed structural elements, the use of micro-perforated sheet and his attention to energy efficiency and the effects of light.
Among his practice’s most significant briefs is the Torno Internazionale building in Milan, executed in two phases in 2000 and 2005. Not so much a new construction, more exemplary urban regeneration, the project started with the renovation of a non-descript building. Glazed curtain walling was added to enhance an uninteresting, stolid construction and allow interesting light reflections. A new building to hold public functions was then added, set slightly back from the road to create a functional public forecourt.
As well as impacting is urban context, the protruding “sail” structure links the taller pre-existing building to the smaller new construction. Its perforated metal surface also acts as a brise soleil and protective screen while not obstructing the view from inside. When lit, the sail resembles a gigantic lamp, even at night a dramatic urban landmark. Another curved metal surface on the short side of the taller building stands in counterpoint to the sail - and also conceals pipes and other service plant placed against the exterior wall. Similarly, other hollow metal structures repeat the metal motif and serve as plant housing. Keeping the service plant outside the building improves interior flexibility, considerably increases available useful space and reduces overall volumes.
The sun’s changing reflection on the glazing and perforated sail structures changes the building’s appearance as the day proceeds. At night, under artificial illumination, the building changes once again. Light is also a major concern in the interior. The spectacular staircase is illuminated from below by reflectors that project light onto a series of mirrors hung from the ceiling. Energy efficient, this lighting system eliminates the irritating shadows caused by traditional spot-lighting. Cost effectiveness is the aim of the curtain walling and the coloured lighting along the glazed corridor floors - a solution that gives a pleasant, if somewhat giddying, sense of spatial complexity.
Among the other projects by Benini’s practice is Pisa’s Third Millennium Plaza. This 45,000 sqm project aroused considerable interest and criticism since not only is the main building the same height as the leaning tower, but it also seems to lean because, like the Torno sail, the crystal cladding sways slightly in the wind. It is a clear example, however, of a willingness to engage contextual icons and symbols to create new urban landmarks - and lace architecture with technological metaphors, like the sail. Interestingly, the practice has a department that designs boats.
The new constructions at Milan’s former Sieroterapico seem three evanescent glass structures. Benini eschews all historical remakes and goes decidedly for the “ultimate future”, using sloping floors to mesh the various levels. True to the teaching of Zevi, Benini again asserts that the ultimate aim of architecture is to create space.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi