The alleged specificity of Italian architecture (its supposedly specific hallmarks) is one of the latest idiocies thought up by critics and frustrated architects to explain the dearth of international acclaim for our domestic output. The claim to national originality is paradoxically maintained by two groups from opposing camps: the first are those architects aiming to pass off their effete traditionalist efforts as a serious national contribution to the present-day debate; the second are imitators of new trends – at times with clone-like fervour – seeking to stand out from their foreign counterparts.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not denying the existence of certain pet themes among Italian architects – landscape and context-based, for example – or disputing that there is a certain characteristic approach to form, a high touch. I only mean that from that to some contemporary Italian way is a long step. And the number of talented architects admissible to such an Italian way – a slippery enough terrain in conceptual terms – are few and far between. Very, very few; but among them is Cino Zucchi who has succeeded impressively in building in Venice, where foreign names of the stature of Wright or Le Corbusier have been known to flop.
A sign, evidently, that he is not viewed as an iconoclast or a one-locality artist. But unlike others, such as Gregotti, who have tried their hand in that most delicate of contexts, the Venetian lagoon, Zuccchi at once picked up the international accolades because his buildings were seen to be both novel and important.
What, then, is the secret of this Milanese architect, born in 1955, who graduated first at MIT Boston and then at the Milan Polytechnic? One simple thing, I would say. He combines rule and exception in a framework of pictorial order.
Rule comes perforce from familiarity with the Milan environment, town-planning based on a composition of simple, repeated elements distributed along the highway axes, building clusters laid out so as to hint at a unifying plan among the pre-existing chaos. Exception is represented by the specific, unrepeatable sense of place and its given form, an approach in which individual sensitivity is all, the personal touch, combined with a distinct taste for decoration.
We are thus far from straining after the avant-garde. In Zucchi’s work there is no revelling in the rich welter of urban chaos or the town for the town’s sake, no especial thirst for experiment and innovation, and certainly no blending of building and landscape in the contemporary quest to blur nature and artifice. Yet we are equally remote from much of the Lombard school of design and its rigidity: by which I mean not just the hard-liners, Aldo Rossi, Vittorio Gregotti, Giorgio Grassi, but also the more human, moderate face of the younger generation, those intellectually involved with the journal Casabella.
Take for instance the concept plan for a Business Park at Milan San Donato (2001). The plan foresees a linear arrangement of traditional-shaped buildings: maybe a hint too elementary but lending themselves to later design touches and not requiring particularly innovative techniques of construction. The saving grace is a central connecting walkway on a delicately curving line varying in section so as to prevent the otherwise rigid deadpan corridor perspective. Broadways, the same effect is achieved by alternating full and empty spaces: if a building stands on the right of the pedestrian swathe, there is greenery to the left, and vice versa. The result: two simple strokes give the operation a human touch; without resorting to gimmickry, the prospect is kept new and unexpected.
The most masterly example of this interplay between rule and exception is at the Helsinki Central Pasila Master Plan (2003).
The project divides into two connected parts: the more regular of the two is bounded by a slightly over-arching building-cum-wall which serves as a noise shield from the adjacent railway; the other is made up of tower-like edifices on an irregular trapezoidal plan and an apparently random layout. Apparently: their secret function is to sew the area together and suggest a span across the two sides of the railway. Alignments are changed and a square carved out on which abuts the commercial centre building with its jutting roof bridging to the station. The tower profile is a varied one that lends movement to the skyline; the whole urban fragment affords variety to the eye but a broadly unified design - all obtained by the simplest of means.
The same approach is adopted at Lugano’s new Cornaredo district (2004). In this case the building shapes are even simpler, if that is possible. They are optimally aligned to set off the surrounding green surfaces and the watercourse that cuts across these.
A city effect is ensured by clumping buildings in circumscribed areas, as well as by lining the building blocks along the main axes. Entrance to the district is marked by a few buildings with a rounded outline: their varying heights keep the skyline irregular and distinctly pleasing.
Let us recap: no constructional futurism; rational but not geometrically arranged groupings; designs incorporating curves, trapezes, departures from the square or rectangular; alternating full and empty spaces, especially building vis-à-vis greenery; varying heights to the building blocks; care with public areas.
These features pertain to town-planning; on the construction side we may group the points under the heading of ornament. Zucchi sees ornament as no crime: it is only the way by which any building or type of building shows off its relational qualities.
In the town-planning operation at Cerea near Verona (1997) the road is marked by lengthwise lines, closest-packed where they delineate the carriageways, more spaced out in the pedestrian areas. This well-defined motif is reflected in the tree-row, flowerbed or bench arrangement, while the pattern bunches or widens as one approaches the grander buildings. Result: a new effect of simple markings links an otherwise “bitty” stretch of road to the untidy surrounding buildings, whilst marking off and clarifying the various functions.
Where decoration becomes art is glimpsed in residence D on the Venetian island of Giudecca. Zucchi uses three different strategies together: he plays with porch and window depths (some are flush with the walls, others inset); he avoids lining up the apertures; and he sets the white Istrian stone mouldings against the façade colour.
The aim is to fit in to the setting. Istrian stone is a frequent motif in minor Venetian historical building, serving to straighten the inside window surrounds and improve the fit of the window frames. And then, as Gardella’s house at Zattere shows, Venetian window apertures follow no strict plan, so one must adapt accordingly. Zucchi does so to perfection, but what he proposes has nothing to do with constructional or internal layout requirements. The windows are arranged to no particular plan, while it obviously makes no technical sense to keep Istrian stone surrounds in modern construction. But that is neither here nor there: the building stands mainly as an icon, much like Gardella’s house, which Zucchi demonstrably draws on. Constructive realism playing on image more than substance? Doubtless. Façade play and patchwork aestheticism? Maybe. But of a calibre we have not seen for some time. New and old contrive to rub shoulders in a convincing fusion (this is the Italian way), a compromise that seems to hit off that much-sought unity of mutually antagonistic principles. One might add that the structure is cuboid, somewhat after Terragni, but has a trapeze-shaped courtyard which is clearly modern, capturing the spirit of Zucchi’s trans-temporal synthesis. But there are other strings to his bow, besides these. He visualizes the building as a simple self-contained unit – to repeat the patchwork motif might have smacked of harlequinade – but sets it off in accordance with the principle of variety by other works probing other ideas (though all forming part of an overall design in keeping with the local town setting). Applied to other contexts, the formula of a simple building style clothed in pleasingly sophisticated “tattoo” may prove a little unimaginative, as in the more conventional, though none the less elegant, designs for Nuovo Portello (2004) where Istrian stone is replaced by an interplay of coloured shutter panels, while the off-centre look of the façade is made more pronounced by a glass porch motif (what is a real gem of patchwork composition, perhaps in being fresher and more theme-tied, is the inside design of a private textile prints museum built in 1999). A more compelling line has been taken in refurbishing the Carlo Biscaretti Automobile Museum (2005).
The building is wrapped in a transparent skin which combines old and new but brings out the differences. By the slightest of alternating projections and recesses, the horizontal line of the bands is kept varied, vaguely recalling Wright’s effect with the Johnson Wax building. There is a suggestion of organic architecture here which just might mark a turning point towards new design horizons.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi