Cherubino Gambardella’s recent monograph, published by Electa, is called “Magical Neo-realism”. Why the title? No mean question, since an answer to it requires an ability to link up the recent works by the firm of this 47 year-old Neapolitan architect (born in 1962) with landmarks in the movement that hovered between metaphysics and realism, launched under fascism by Massimo Bontempelli and numbering Antonio Donghi, Felice Casorati and Cagnaccio da San Pietro among its followers. I think we may rule out politics. No hankerings for the Twenty Years: for one thing, in some Latin American countries critical realism has been espoused by writers from such different ideologies as Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges. My money is on three explanations bound up with architecture itself. The first is a desire to solve a contradiction within Italian architecture, above all, that of an academic matrix, namely a refusal to go along with the experiments of post-deconstructivism and variants on high tech, including soft tech; but at the same time a refusal to be cooped within a reactionary mentality. To pick up the threads from a seasoned movement with its own creative surprises - magic realism - means taking a stand within avant-garde on a stamping-ground for differences of opinion, heated dispute and manifestoes of intent still firing the enthusiasm of those who deep down believe in experiment and innovation. The second reason is biographical in nature. Cherubino Gambardella trained under and was an assistant to Franco Purini. Through him he came to see Italian architecture as an - albeit fertile - clash between two trends: futurism and metaphysics. To opt for magical realism, with its many points of contact with metaphysics, means taking a position within this frame of reference, choosing a course that is basically (though not a priori) anti-futurist and hence not far removed from the master’s own. Contents-wise, that means going for contemplation rather than action, completed form rather than spatial dynamism, the finished product rather than an on-going artwork. The third reason is to do with patronage, bureaucracy and the building trade; that is, the people in Italy, and above all the South, who have never shone by their cultural progressiveness or their taste for innovation. To style oneself a realist, over and above the magic, means accepting the rules imposed by those people, standing inside the building market, not on the fringe, striving through a thousand limitations to produce architecture that makes sense: trying to transfigure reality by projecting it into the realm of poetry, or what is seen as such, especially by a milieu that feels the pull of tradition. In this light, I feel, we may interpret the three works presented here. A complex of low-cost housing at Ancona struggling to stay within the skimpy budget of today’s public authorities. A modest building block at Montesarchio, the skeleton of which was already standing so that only so much could be done to change it. An ancient tower at Pontone d’Amalfi, listed by the Fine Arts. “In 2006”, Cherubino Gambardella relates, “I was rung up by someone in charge of the autonomous Ancona social housing institute. He asked for tips on how to go ahead with a project I had long thought dead and buried. He said I’d have to get a move on as they had already cast the reinforced concrete parts of the building and were onto the infill”. In 2008, nearly ten years after the tender, the work saw the light of day. It is a somewhat unusual building of the raised porch variety. Gambardella’s idea was to divide off the porch from the house by an open space and connect each dwelling to it by catwalk bridges. This keeps privacy - which is generally not a priority in such buildings - and gains light which would otherwise be lost in the slope of the land. Without the trench between the porch and the house proper the six flats on the ground floor would have had no daylight at all on the entrance side. Seeing that they are straightforward units with only two outer walls, that would have been a handicap indeed. The plans are also enhanced by the staircase linking the two covered porches: it recalls 1930s Italian architecture re-cast in Portuguese idiom. There is also plentiful use of railings and window grilles from the Mediterranean tradition of the Campania. Movement is imparted to the valley-side elevation by a series of projections and indentations down the six first and second floor apartments. The cellars below are painted blue, while a different colour is given to the interior of each of the twelve apartments. In relation to the overall budget the result is striking: the whole operation comes to about 800,000 Euros, hence not much more than 65,000 Euros per housing unit (the sizes range from 75 to 90 sq m). The Montesarchio building was all set to be one of the largest postmodern projects handled by local engineers, when the customer decided to take the assignment away from the professional who was conducting it and give it Gambardella. Using a strange system of pre-tensioning, the skeleton was ringed by a large cornice which it would be disproportionately expensive to dismantle. Gambardella has given it greater prominence, raising it to nigh on three metres so that it becomes the outstanding feature of the new construction. He has eliminated the balconies and replaced them by closed projecting bow-windows which serve as fitted cupboards or shower cubicles on the inside. On the façade he has used a gold paint specially made by Sikkens to withstand the oxidation typical of normal paints. The result is hyperkitsch, instantly dubbed the Golden Palace, much to the satisfaction of the owner and inhabitants. It has become a town landmark with an architectural dignity of its own - though playing substantially on irony and a, to my mind, questionable “Campanification” of the Venturi lesson. The third work is restoring the ruined tower of Ziro. Untouchable like all listed historical monuments, it is also in the hardest of positions in which to set up a building site. Gambardella’s decision was to create a metal frame structure containing the stairs which culminates in a parapet protruding from the tower and affording splendid views of the surrounds. A chestnut log floor painted kaolin white, as a tribute to the artist Beuys, runs rounds the staircase on the intermediate floor. The technical conduits pass inside the bars, on which the lighting is mounted. The entire metal structure was made off site, transported by helicopter and lowered inside almost without touching the shell. Total cost: 72,000 Euros.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi