I recently visited the Metrogramma practice. Work was underway to annex the lower floor to part of the first floor. Showing me round the new premises, Alberto Francini, one of the partners, pointed to where the lift linking the two floors would be. Surprised by the size of the shaft, I asked what sort of lift was being installed. A normal size one, was Francini’s reply, simply that the shaft would be lined by bookshelves, a space-saving ploy that would also make even this short journey an interesting spatial experience. “Like Koolhaas in the Floriac villa?”, I asked. “Yes, come to think of it”, was the answer. “But”, he added, “I don’t think we were thinking about that particularly”.
In fact, while Metrogramma can claim credit for being the first to import both the lexicon and planning approach of the Dutch school, it also has many original arrows in its quiver. The practice defies any attempt to give it a label. They sum up their work with three key words: continuity, rupture, future. Meaning a willingness to cast a wide experimental net without exclusions from present or past - and that includes post-war Italian architecture, especially the more experimental figures like Albini, Ponti, Mollino and others.
Graduates of Venice and Florence respectively, Andrea Boschetti and Alberto Francini, Metrogramma’s two principals, were trained in two grand temples of architecture, hermetically closed, however, to any innovation or experimentation. In 1995, realising it was time for a change, they packed their bags. Andrea went to Columbia University and then to Rotterdam to work for Rem Koolhaas, who although not yet worldwide famous was definitely an emerging talent. In 1996, Koolhaas would publish S,M,L,X, perhaps one of the most important architecture books to appear in the last decade; around the same time, he completed Euralille and several other chefs d’oeuvre that would usher him into the star system. Alberto went first to New York to work with Giuliano Fiorenzuoli, a member of the radical Florentine group during the sixties and seventies. He returned to Rome where he collaborated with Massimiliano Fuksas, also on his way to stardom.
Like many other young Italian architects of their generation, Andrea Boschetti and Alberto Francini understood the need to cast into question much of the dogma that still dominated a conservative country like Italy, obsessed with conservation and still profoundly influenced by the reactionary rigueur of Vittorio Gregotti, the metaphysical historicism of Aldo Rossi and the baroque post-modernism of Paolo Portoghesi.
There was a need to open up to what the avant-garde had to say: not the revolutionary, idealist avant-garde that marked the sixties and seventies, but the pragmatic, thoughtful, market-aware approach of the Dutch school.
Metrogramma was founded in 1998 in Milan, a year after the inauguration of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and two years before Fuksas’ seminal Venice Architecture Biennale, two events that profoundly impacted the architectural debate in Italy, releasing energy and radically changing attitudes.
This was the time of burgeoning new practices, some of which Metrogramma had a natural affinity with. An example of their collaboration is the publication in 2000 of “5tudi” (an abbreviation of 5 Studi, or practices) with Privilegio-Secchi, Mantia, Ian+ and Stalker, with an introduction by Bart Lootsma and Yorgos Simeoforidis.
Despite the magical moment and new lease of life for architecture, the two partners found little work. So, again taking their cue from the Dutch, they decided to invent it. They set out to show that creativity - the attribute traditional given to the architect - need not just produce tasteful yet useless objects but can be harnessed to improve urban design, generating economic and quality-of-life value added. A study by the Bolzano city council entitled Habitat (2001) is an example. The aim was to bring about improvements in the existing city fabric also in terms of energy consumption. Solutions included the “casa-clima” (climate adjusted house), and “green roofs” that improve air quality by adding green surface area on rooftops.
Together with the Italian National Craft Confederation (CNA), Metrogramma produced Superinfrastrutture, three new takes on the traditional industrial shed: tower, strip and plate configurations that were more compact, economical and saved space. These facilities brought together several functions: as well as large new containers for producing goods, they also included retail outlets, residential, public and community areas. The Descho showroom is on a smaller scale. Completed in 2001, this is another example of how good architecture generates value added. The showroom is on the first floor of an industrial shed whose ground floor is a warehouse. To get round the lack of streetside visibility, the first floor dips to incorporate a glass-fronted ground floor area giving passers-by views of the showroom inside.
The multi-purpose Calliano complex (2002) contains a crèche, middle school, library, gym, canteen and cultural centre. The different environments are denoted by the use of different materials while the communication circuits give a unity to the whole complex.
Metrogramma’s submission to the competition for the new Lombardy Region’s headquarters in 2004 is another new conception of what a building should be. Designed together with FOA and Luca Molinari, their skyscraper comprises three blocks that come together in the upper floors. The ground floor becomes a covered square bordered by the three blocks while the top storey, more than 100m above ground, is a large unencumbered space for social and cultural activities, with views over the city and its surrounds.
Then there are the slim, elegant blades proposed for the Pirelli competition. This would be an intelligent addition to the city’s skyline, the soaring elements offset by a volume that juts out courageously from one of the structures making up the complex. It deserved to win the contract, but the alchemy that comes into play during competitions did not make that happen. Another large scale project which, like the two previous ones, has remained on the drawing board, is the new library in Guadalajara: a gigantic sphere about 70m in diameter. In contrast to the pure stereometric outside, the interior is intricate and fractured, resembling somewhat the sculptures of Italian Arnaldo Pomodoro.
The reading rooms, auditorium, conference halls and vertical and horizontal communication routes have been gouged out of the round mass to create a continuum of galleries and spaces. Apparently without any pre-set plan, spatial organisation follows the subtractive approach used by Koolhaas in 1989 for the Bibliothèque de France, where a sheer exterior prism stands over an interior labyrinth of circuits and openings resembling a termites’ nest or piece of Gruyère cheese. Which goes to show that today, rather than the hackneyed forms of past traditions, what we need are new, even unusual images.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi