The Significance of restyling
An issue of Casabella during the 1930s carries an article on what at the time was called “building reconfiguration”. We are shown several buildings, for the most part small 19th Century town houses, stripped of their brick façades and given a modern-style facelift: stark white cladding devoid of moldings, and horizontal openings that just stopped short of being strip windows. Unintentionally, the article heralds a theme that would become a key tenet of post-modern architecture. But let us take things in order. In the second half of the 1960s, Robert Venturi published his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which would revolutionize architectural thinking. Venturi’s thesis was based on a logical sequence, which at the time appeared faultless: modern architecture had failed because it had not taken into account two paradigms, which, if one excluded the more radical Renaissance, underpinned the whole of western architecture, i.e. complexity and contradiction. In his delicately ironic throwaway style, Venturi accused the modern movement of rejecting what in fact was the natural difference between the outer and inner aspect of a building. This led him to draw an important conclusion: if the distinction between the exterior and interior of a building was a self-evident fact, then the two environments should play different roles - the interiors should concentrate on domestic life while the exterior should be part of the public realm. Venturi lived in the heyday of pop art, advertising hoardings and the aesthetics of consumption. As a result, his programs were of hyper-domestic interiors and hyper-pop exteriors. But leaving aside Venturi’s mixed architectural exploits, the dogma sanctioning the equivalence between the outer façade and interior of a building was definitively laid to rest and from its ashes rose a new zeal for the urban role of the façade, now appreciated as a key player shaping a city’s image. The building by Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia / AF517* in the center of the new Milan gravitating around piazza Gae Aulenti and the Bosco Verticale tower seems based on just such restyling considerations. Here too, however, some introduction is needed. In recent years, we have witnessed what can be called a physiological sea change in buildings triggered by the increasingly stringent energy-saving requirements they must meet. This led to a phenomenon - until the early 1990s defined as envelope architecture - whereby every building had to be clad in a complex and articulated series of façade layers seemingly in an attempt to seal off the whole building from any contact with the natural elements. Several designers - certainly not the best on the market - became so technically specialized in the building envelope that buildings themselves started being described exclusively in terms of thermal coefficients. With this building in Milan, Alfonso Femia’s practice has taken on the job of rescuing the envelope from the degrading aesthetic based on thermal coefficients to once again consider it part of an urban strategy. Their program is grounded in Venturi’s concept that a building façade belongs to the public domain, to the street and the city. However, unlike the American architect, Femia conceives of restyling as discreet, eschewing anything that might resemble an advertising billboard. In other words, restyling can be implemented within the context of large urban blocks, the basic unit of European cities like Paris, Berlin, and Milan. The choice was therefore to clad the façades in different ways using different techniques. The frontage on viale Melchiorre Gioia has a tight series of narrow bow windows in the shape of truncated cones extending the full height of each story. Five of them project further out than the others, their useable floor area turning them into closed balconies overlooking the street. The shades of the enclosure glass range from blue through to gray. The façade on viale della Liberazione is completely different: an elevation divided up into a regular series of vertical openings whose glass infills are mounted flush or recessed vis-à-vis the façade, or inclined to the left or right. The internal façade on via Bordolini presents as a vast mullion and transom array, the glass infills flush with the surface. What holds everything together is the métron, the measured rhythmic patterns defining each façade. It is the regularity of the architectural segments and openings that form the primary - indeed archetypical - feature of Femia’s building, a characteristic that is even more pronounced than in the past when decorations and moldings as well as rhythmic reiteration were the main features of architecture. Stripped of decorations and moldings, modern architecture has, since its beginnings at the end of the 18th Century, been the art of instilling rhythm. Subsequently, with expressionism, it became a plastic art form - think Gehry and Hadid - even sculptural art. But for Femia - and for most Italian architects - architecture that resembles plastic sculptural art is unacceptable. Our tradition is rooted in the idea that architecture cannot be unbridled expression, that expressivity must be kept within the confines of its role as a part of a city’s architecture - in other words, an object that relates to the other objects making up the urban fabric. Femia subscribes to all this. He understands that if architecture is to serve the city, its expressivity must be exercised in the rhythm given to its various segments. In this particular case he has taken things to extremes, juxtaposing different rhythmic patterns as if they were fragments of several buildings that time has amalgamated together. Like a watermark on paper, the strategic reasoning behind this restyling operation by Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia / AF517* is clear: to reinstate “rhythmic” urban architecture, in this case in the context of Milan.