ABDR stands for Arlotti, Beccu, Desideri, Raimondo, and is the acronym formed by the first letter of the names of the four partners in alphabetical order. They have been a foursome for almost 30 years, since their days at the Rome Faculty of Architecture. Today they have one of Italy’s largest design practices with some 35 employees. Briefs include Rome’s new Tiburtina station, the underground stations along the capital’s B line extension, reconstruction of the Piacentini Glasshouse at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, the new landscaping project for Rome’s EUR district, projects in Lecce, in southern Italy, and a public area revitalisation project in the small Sicilian town of Barcellona.
At the outset of their careers, the four were enthusiastic advocates of the “designed” architecture promoted by the Tendenza movement of those years. Their interpretations were radical and intransigent. Soon, however, the ABDR four moved on to more practical research. Complex architectural structures and advanced construction techniques were developed on a minimalist matrix that shied away from all ostentation of technology. The end result was maximum performance with a minimum of signs. Theirs is simplification, not forced reduction. Today, when each construction project requires specific solutions that cannot be plucked from a ready-made toolbox, such simplicity can only be achieved by those who know how to meld the intricate threads of the niche specialisms involved in every brief. And specialist know-how is increasingly part of an evermore technological product. Stakeholders range from the numerous public departments that flock to technical briefings, to structural, sound, electrical, plant and services, IT, and climatisation engineers – not to mention the many services and component manufacturers. Each brings his own internal standards and know-how. And each would like to have an architecture that optimises his requirements even if to the detriment of others. Against this sort of backdrop, the architect (as Desideri puts it) resembles an organist: he has many registers but knows that if he maximises them all at the same time, he will get no sound.
Like the organist, the architect understands the resolving power of form. If we listen to the Santa Fé school and their thoughts on complexity, and the recent morphogenesis theories, form, we are told, can resolve the contradictory demands of a system by projecting them onto a higher conceptual plane, as Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian literary critic pointed out. This takes place in architecture when you stop working with groups of quantitative variables and make a conceptual quantum leap, re-organising the system of relations. It is when you abandon one structural concept for another, introduce a new material, invent a technique or completely new way of re-organising functions. Form is no longer ornament but solution. The end product is a ‘poetic’ ensemble of engineering not a catalogue of signs. If a building communicates something to us, this is because it clearly expresses the way it has solved a problem, not the anxieties deriving from that problem. A building that communicates is one that has achieved a level of uncluttered language that eschews stylistic flourish. And that includes the no less overbearing tones all too often adopted by High Tech.
This aesthetic – or rather, ethic – is clearly at work in the Tiburtina station. The structure is contemporary, designed to optimise the existing building and improve flows (an estimated 200,000 people a day). A latticework of girders provides a virtually column-less structural frame, delivering vast expanses of uninterrupted space in which services and equipment seem almost to hover. The glazed façade – whose varied screen-printed patterns ensure constant light levels – heightens the overall feeling of airiness and space. Large spaces also help to ensure comfort zone temperatures, especially in the summer. Indeed, ABDR’s recent projects are placing increasing focus on “bio-climate” requirements.
The Piacentini Glasshouse is another engineering feat. The slender iron frame supporting the crystal glass panels - an engineering achievement in itself – lends an immaterial quality to this structure located in the heart of Rome behind the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and a stone’s throw from the Quirinale. The project forestalls criticism from a finicky heritage authority which had demanded that a minor work by a minor architect (Pio Piacentini) be restored to its original state without, however, making available any documentation as to this original state! So the brief became simply not to create yet another artificial re-make of which there are so many in our long-suffering eternal city.
Environmental regeneration is the subject of the Eur project. Minimal landscaping and urban furniture – newspaper kiosks, open air cafés, and information points – revitalise one of the most interesting green areas of the capital, relating the numerous residential and office buildings of the quarter in new ways, and linking the disparate public transport services, including an underground line, into a coherent network.
Why is the ABDR approach so relevant? Because it is much more interesting and effective than the two mainstream practices that seem to prevail in Italy today. The first of these is wholly preoccupied with returning to the work of traditional craftsmanship, at any cost. It is a pathetic, picturesque concern, to the exclusion of all else, for the illustrated plates of old architectural manuals. Its practitioners revel in the works of Ridolfi and the hot-potch projects of post-modernism. They still work with cavity walls and embedded circuit wiring. It is a mindset that has no interest in advanced technology. The buildings produced are loaded with signs that could have been created by anyone, even the technically illiterate. The second, more modernist approach makes a clear cut separation among the diverse aspects of the construction process, leaving the design team the job of accommodating technical plant designed elsewhere by other specialists. The result is an eye-catching outer container, an immediate-impact product. The risk, however, is that the architect becomes a designer of artificial shapes, a communicator of exterior panache, not the orchestrator of forms that mediate numerous specialist requirements. All too often, architectural design is just one of the many voices struggling to be heard. By mastering today’s engineering requirements, ABDR intends to restore to the architect his primary role as the creator of form and content. This has, of course, been attempted in the past, not always successfully. It is significant though that Gropius’ “Scope of Total Architecture” published in 1955 was translated in Italian as “Integrated Architecture”, two words that figure largely in the ABDR lexicon. And today, in the light of recent theories of complexity, the prospects for experimenting and producing excellent results seem better. Recent works by ABDR and architects like Renzo Piano confirm this: although from different angles, they are all heading in the same direction.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi