Assertive modernity - Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel and Partners
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Assertive modernity

Residential and office complex Bergamo+

Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel and Partners

Edited By Valerio Paolo Mosco - 1 April 2020

Milan is all the rage in Italy today: Milan, the city state, as if it were detached from the rest of the country, with the style of its own: an assertive modernity, whose regular, efficient pace unfolds as a series of well packaged events that often, however, seem oblivious of their own raison d’être. Certainly though, no one can deny that Milan today has a style of its own, a measured but not self-effacing way of presenting itself, a style focused on finding the right tone, which at the end of the day is yet another trait of its slightly dichotomous bourgeois culture. For Milan’s pendulum swings between self-satisfaction and anxiety about being à la page, of being really sure it spearheads modern Europe. If ever Milan has an enemy in the style department, it is kitsch, bad taste exhibited by exaggeration and unbecoming ostentation, failing to find that subtle balance between form and content. The city’s response to kitsch is to exalt its measured composure. But then, on realizing this composure has itself become a cliché, it adroitly but selectively reinstates kitsch, allowing it out of the box in design, and especially fashion. And that is when it becomes apparent how the Milan style actually works: sobriety stands like a pole firmly planted in the ground while the elastic of expressivity attached to the pole is pulled almost to breaking point only to be then released to return within the confines of good taste, that aurea mediocritas recommended by Ernesto Nathan Rogers after World War II as a sign of stabilizing and therefore reliable modernity. This is not a recent phenomenon for Milan; it goes back a long way. It is even reflected in the prose style of the city’s most famous writer, Alessandro Manzoni. His flowing, measured but never pedantic style is in a certain sense anonymous, inventing nothing, but at the same time able to give ordinary words a very special flavor.

Accessible but at the same time elitist, Manzoni’s prose speaks to tradition but also to the enlightened modern. Likewise, the maestros of the Milan style, Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel. This was clearly apparent in the project completed by Citterio in the second half of the 1980s - the headquarters of Esprit, one of the Italian fashion houses that at the time was conquering the world market. The project hinted at a new era at the very time - in 1980 - when historicist postmodernism surged back onto the scene with the famously splendid kitsch Biennale curated by Paolo Portoghesi, which has gone down in history for its Strada Novissima. After that, even the best designers launched into ever more hazardous citations. Plasterboard arches, capitals and other adornments encumbered their works with cheap symbols and etymons, which very soon, however, appeared embarrassingly out of place. Those low-cost figures taken from the bazar of history were a trap that caught out even one of the last giants of modernity, James Stirling. At the time, however, postmodern historicism seemed to have no rivals, especially in Italy, which found itself at the center of the international debate. There were few exceptions, among them Bruno Zevi, who although ranting at the postmodernists proceeded to propose an impossible return to a modernism that had already revealed its deep cracks, especially in terms of urban planning. So, looking at the Esprit building today, you realize that this was one of the best, well-argued and successful criticisms of postmodernism. The same effective criticism is evident in another of the most beautiful and representative architectures of the time: the Menil Collection in Texas by Renzo Piano.

These two buildings are still astoundingly pertinent today. The language of the Esprit is clear: minimalist modernism stripped, however, of any overtly dramatic tribute to technology in the style of Mies van der Rohe, yet not falling into the trap of design with the addition of gratuitous forms. Citterio’s modernism is made of a few carefully controlled gestures that spring from an ideological choice he was later to fully develop with partner Patricia Viel, i.e. that architecture is not about creating figures but about creating backdrops. The Esprit edifice is a paradigm. If fashion is free to express itself as best it sees fit, and go beyond the limits of temperance and restraint, then the architecture that houses it must be the opposite, a composed anonymous backdrop that stands apart from what is symptomatic and synchronic of the times. In other words, architecture, if it is to be architecture, must be a little anachronistic. Architecture must respect its own slow pace because cities are built up slowly, even if they are the cities of the future.

Let us take another emblematic Citterio and Viel project of urban architecture as a backdrop: the Ermenegildo Zegna headquarters in Milan. Even if at first glance the similarity with the Esprit building is evident, testifying to the extraordinary continuity of the two designers, the Zegna building is the Esprit totally transformed, no longer a solid volume but now tending to transparency. The transformation has not been achieved with any plastic gestures, but simply by carefully adopting a different modern-day construction technique. Yet although a backdrop, the architecture must never be mere repetition, never become an ideological cliché. This is borne out by another prestigious building, the headquarters of Technogym in the city of Cesena near the northeast Adriatic coast. Here, we are no longer in an urban setting but some distance from the town, with the result that forms must be on a larger scale and more expressive. The large curving roofs are therefore part of a clear design strategy, especially since architecture set amidst the natural landscape has to blend with it.

The last example to illustrate Citterio and Viel’s concept of figure and backdrop is the interiors designed by them for Qatar Airways in Doha. The project includes all the symbolic etymons of air travel: slender elongated shapes and lightweight materials recalling aerodynamics. But everything is subdued, kept in the background so as to create an atmosphere of security and calm. What their Doha design seems to be telling us is that the backdrop cannot exist on its own but must always contain “figures”, or components, even if these are underplayed to the point of melting into it. The art of creating these backdrops is therefore the ability to transform their components into atmospheres but not to the point at which architecture becomes aseptic and forgettable. This is further confirmed by the project we are present in this issue: the renovation of a site in the northern Italian city of Bergamo once occupied by Enel, an electricity company, now turned into a residential and services district characterized by plot and building height constraints. Take, for example, one of the residential elevations with
full-height folding shutters. The simple pattern given by the string courses on every floor resembles a stave, or pentagram, on which the notes of the folding shutters are placed, their varying positions lending a controlled variety to the elevation.

Completing and especially mitigating the risk of too rigid a frontage is the discrete gently sloping crown of spaced pillars. The project sums up the Citterio and Viel figurative device employed to create their architecture of backdrops: start with a modern elementary
configuration - say, a pattern like a loom with a linear array of lines; pierce the wall; add other elements, placing them within the basic pattern, making sure to execute as few moves as possible using extreme, even obsessive, technical control. The result is compact,
well-balanced, solid and flowing - just like Manzoni’s prose.


Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel

This multidisciplinary architecture and interior design firm was founded in Milan by Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel. Operating internationally at all scales and availing itself of a network of specialist consultants, the company covers complex briefs such as urban development, residential and mixed-use projects, corporate headquarters, conservative renovation of public buildings and hotels. Today the firm has a staff of 100, coordinated by eight partners. Recent projects include the Fastweb building in Milan’s Symbiosis district, several luxury hotels in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and a residential building in Miami-Surfside.

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