There was a time when Rome seemed to be stirring to life. It was at the end of the 1990s, the millennium Jubilee was just round the corner. Our capital city had received funds, projects had been approved, and worksites were underway. Without daring to admit it, people had begun to think that maybe the city was shaking off the indolence it had been shrouded in for centuries. Movies, art and architecture no longer looked to the historic city but turned to the peripheral areas where a patchwork of juxtaposed fragments and leftovers was held together in a landscape that had magically kept its fascination, even at time its tender beauty.
The periphery no longer looked longingly back to its magnificent center but rather to international modernity, even in its most extreme, expressive forms. Home from France after many years, Massimiliano Fuksas became the catalyst for strident, hyper-modern buildings. Muscular creations sprung up, almost as if in defiance of their context, their designers seeming to rage at the preaching of a lumbering, exhausted academic world. Nothing happens by chance. This aggressive defiant modern take had in fact been foreseen by Bruno Zevi when he talked, well before the term was coined, of “ground zero”, in other words, the sweeping away of semantic codes in open revolt against academe, even against modern schools that continued to uphold an inward-looking Post-modernism. Written in 1997, Zevi’s “Manifesto of Modena” had openly taken sides with deconstructivism, convinced that there was a need to start from scratch with open, experimental, disconcerting forms that deliberately overturned the pre-established order. Young architects at the time, many of whom were being trained at the Fuksas practice, not in designed architecture but in executive drawings of increasingly ample scale, chose to look outside Italy in their search for a more radical “modern” than they had learned in school. They swapped books by Gehry, Libeskind, Van Berkel and Hadid. They devoured the writings of Koolhaas, seduced by his hyper-realism; Koolhaas who talked of the “culture of congestion”. And what city was, and still is, more congested, stratified, complex and dissonant than Rome?
Nemesis was founded in those years by Claudia Clemente and Michele Molè. Theirs was one of the most significant new additions to Rome of those years: the Parish Center in the Quartaccio neighborhood. Just as Zevi had recommended, the box was taken dismembered to create a building that opens out to its surroundings, turning it into an open public space. The disruption of form is here strategic. Deconstruction is not an end unto itself but employed to reach beyond previous urban categories. With this project, Nemesis achieves a balance between an open, fragmented form and the traditional closed shape of a building, an equilibrium that was to be the founding principle of its poetic.
Another significant brief is the design of the visitor route in Rome’s Trajan’s market. The practice followed the same rule of being completely modern in form, technique and materials even in one of the most hallowed places of ancient Rome. Here too, form is not gratuitous but always in relation - here in stark contrast - to context, which is the designers’ way of avoiding a colorless museum setting for the fetish celebration of antiquity. After that, Claudia Clemente and Michele Molè went their separate ways. Clemente, together with Francesco Isidori, founded Labics, a practice that has produced some of the most significant Italian architecture in the last few decades - Bologna’s MAST Foundation and the Città del Sole in Rome are two examples - while Michele Molè and Susanna Tradati continued as Nemesi, producing increasingly radical work, in line with the most exuberant modernity of those years, like that of Jean Nouvel, and especially Thom Mayne and Morphosis - work that can be defined as creating the ultimate alternative place. It is almost as if Nemesi are trying with every project to visualize the lines of force and tension present in all places, embodying them in impactful architecture. Deconstructing the building box and its envelope, stripping and fragmenting its components is a way of showing the tensions and forces at play. This is how we should read one of their most important works: the Italy Pavilion for Expo 2015, and another project now underway: the ENI headquarters in San Donato Milanese just outside Milan, not surprisingly designed together with Thom Mayne. In both cases, the project provides a large central public space. Indeed, the project itself seems more like an imposing architectural backdrop to this space. Everything speaks of overdesign, a feature that Mayne, Gehry, Miralles and Libeskind are very familiar with. Overdesign can be summed up as a relentless emphasizing of themes and components, a new version of the theatrically decorative. Overdesign stands in stark contrast to the sobriety of composition and form that still characterizes Italian architecture.
It should be remembered, however, that the constant emphasis by overdesign of certain features is in fact a reaction to the standardized language that already at the early 1990s was proving a constrictive straitjacket. Although this author has never been overly fond of overdesign, it was without doubt a historic necessity, bringing about experimentation and breaking the mold of the established language and limits of architecture. Overdesign can therefore be credited with not being frightened of venturing into extreme, hyper-expressive, overloaded, over-abundant form. And not being fearful of kitsch. For unless someone dares experiment with kitsch, languages and expression will die. As Paul Valéry put it, good taste is nothing more than thousands of layers of questionable taste laid down over time. This is exactly Zevi’s theory, which Nemesi has adopted as an ethical principle. The project that is considered in this issue of our Journey through Italy is the recently built Yun Xi Sales Center in Shenzen, China, an interior design project that real estate company Shenzhen Rongjiang uses to sell spaces of another project to be built, yet again by Nemesi Architects, in the same city, whose proximity to Hong Kong has made it one of China’s most vibrant cultural centers.
The interior design is all about appearance. Its job is to seduce and astound potential customers. The billowing structure sweeping across the ceiling compresses and expands space as it flows through the hall. A simple long sandwich space, with straight floor and ceiling has been turned into memorable architectural experience. The hallmark is fluidity, extreme, unabashed fluidity. Aldo Rossi wrote that great architecture should be forgettable; Nemesi Architects sees it differently: great architecture should be unforgettable. I would even go so far as to say that here we have an ontological difference in the way architecture is considered. Seen like this, Nemesi can be considered to follow on from Francesco Borromini, the last works of Wright, eccentric characters like Bruce Goff, or John Lautner. For all of them, creating awe and astonishment is an end unto itself - it explains their sensual need for overdesign.
For as we have already said, Nemesi has distanced itself from the aura mediocritas of our urban settings that still characterizes much of Italian architecture. But it doing so, this Italian practice confirms that eclecticism is still today - as it was in the 1960s - a fundamental characteristic of how we build in Italy. Guido Piovene often repeated in his Journey through Italy that Italy was contradictory, a fact that should always be borne in mind. This contradiction is seen in the distance that separates Nemesi from Cino Zucchi Architetti, Renato Rizzi, Park Associati and Archea Associati. A contradiction, which in an international scenario tending towards the cliché, appears not only a distinguishing feature but a virtue.