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New Italian Architecture: 5 Steps For A Common Language

1AX Architetti Associati | Avatar architettura | Brhpiù | 2ApiùP Architettura | Demoarchitects

Edited By Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi - 3 March 2010

Who are the young architects? One might say those still under thirty-five, or at most forty. Old enough once upon a time to have received outstanding commissions. Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Jørn Utzon are examples. But the answer is not that simple. 

Owing to the present dearth of professional opportunities, one can call even the over-40s young architects. So it would seem if we look at the Casabella yearbook devoted to new ideas: it pushes the threshold up to fifty, though obviously removing any generational reference from the front cover. Thirty-five, forty or fifty? It could be an idle question, and in many respects it is. But as with most idle questions, there is an intriguing problem behind it: whether common attitudes distinguish some age brackets from others.

To my mind such distinctions do exist. Though of course they need taking with a pinch of common sense of the kind that enables historians to realize the arbitrariness of dividing two eras by a key factor or classifying an author under a stylistic generalization according to his date of birth or publication.

With this caution in mind we might claim that the present generation of forty-fifty year-olds has managed to extricate Italian architecture from the doldrums of post-modernism and its Italian version, Trend, and to drag it kicking, hesitating and back-tracking into the mainstream of European architecture: take such different practices as Boeri, Cucinella, Archea, 5+1AA, Zucchi, Ian+.

It did enjoy the advantages of the post-tangentopoli climate when many administrations - like municipalities in the north-east and north-west - felt an urge to start afresh and hence put their trust in the young. This played into the hands of the most skilful/uninhibited at using competition strategy. They were helped by a new generation of critics who used them as a means of getting architecture in Italy to turn over a new leaf. But it was also these groups’ own extraordinary talent for public relations: learning from the Star System, they cottoned on to the fact that a good image sometimes counts for more than a good building to one’s name. Add to this that the Nineties were a period of hopes, tensions and innovative ideas, and we have what might be called a lucky generation. 

The present generation of thirty-forty year-olds is following a far more dreary course. First, in the wake of 2001 with its symbol of tumbling towers there was a good deal of soul-searching, especially about globalization and new technology - two phenomena that had previously been seen as driving forces.

It is also because the professional tone has declined. In Italy, especially, though throughout Europe too, the dire decision to multiply faculties of architecture has spawned a boundless regiment of underpaid graduates: one architect per 400 people - and if we throw in engineers, surveyors and short degrees, that makes one building “expert” for every 100-150 inhabitants: i.e. more or less one per block of flats. 

Five points seem to typify the modern dynamics.

The first is nomadism. If the previous generation began to globetrot thanks to Erasmus programmes, this one now lives permanently on the move. They may not necessarily migrate from one place to the next, but they are quite clear that work is to be sought in any quarter and national boundaries no longer apply. Hence the increasingly common practice of working for trans-national groups and liaising with foreigners. As a recent survey by Newitalianblood shows the most highly rewarded under-35 groups, whom we theoretically consider Italian, are only so in part, pace the doleful litany from those who go on about “identity”. NuvolaB, for instance, divides between Belgium and Italy. 

1ax is a group of Italians some of whom work in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and who met while abroad. Demoarchitects operate in Rome, Amsterdam and Lausanne. 

The partners of brh+ have practised in Barcelona and San Francisco. The second point is mistrust of formally showy Star System architecture. It is no accident that, while the explosive Biennale 2000 was directed by Massimiliano Fuksas, 2010 will be a back-to-basics performance by Kazuyo Sejima.

Back to basics is a bit like anorexia nervosa: it works on getting rid of form, not fleshing it out, albeit in elementary geometrical shapes. Does that mean not signing one’s work, not harping on name? Not a bit of it. But somewhat after the way of fashion - thinking of the Japanese chain Muji, for instance - the younger generations feel the need for understatement and tidiness, which puts paid to any flaunting of individual hallmarks.

The third feature is eclecticism. That does not mean a license to dabble, but that, failing any powerful theories, anything (and its opposite) may be a pretext for architecture. There has never been such mingling of low and high tech, internationalism and regionalism, natural and artificial, colour and black-and-white. The aim would seem to be getting away from any style as such, be it deconstructivism or our evergreen minimalism. Mixing Miesian boxes with Baroque-esque decoration, for example. Or take the Turin town roundabout by 2A+P (Round Blur) where nature twins with new technology. 

It is particularly instructive to compare two works by the practice brh+: one is a spa at Florence which revamps Sixties-style imagery with its plastic materials and bright colours; the other is an extension to a house at Rocchetta Belbo (Cuneo) which is all wood and natural materials, though handled in a modern idiom.

The fourth point is realism: the search, that is, for the practicable and feasible. Professional opportunities are hard to come by: pointless to blow them by excessive experimentation. Hence a resorting to what has always formed the best yet most dangerous Italian mainstay: elegance and quality workmanship. 

Utopian ideas are still occasionally put forward - I am thinking of 2A+P or Avatar - but mainly with a view to intellectual provocation. What one very rarely finds is an idea being pursued to its extreme limit, whatever the challenge to the eye or the practical difficulties. 

A good example of realism is Microscape’s town-square at Povegliano in the province of Treviso, which incorporates the usual features of a public area - portico, dais, fountain, the square itself- into two city sites, the first of which has been dubbed a “relational garden”, the second a “stone garden”.

The fifth point picks up on the fourth. To be realistic, it pays to have unexplored territory, sometimes derelict owing to its past. This gives scope for the fringe operation - “zero cube” projects, for example, or architectural restyling of what had previously been the province of design or engineering. Or again, working on poor materials, low-cost processes, threshold strategies. One example is the charming pavilion 1AX built at Villa Borghese (Teatro San Carlino). Or Lugar Específico, 2A+P’s arrangement of urban gardens for the benefit of elderly inhabitants. Or again Avatar’s ideas for reviving the use of bamboo, a material that is not just ecological but has excellent elasticity and toughness. 

brh+ are engaged in various walks of architecture, from graphics to product design in which they seek to combine methodologies. 

Whereas the previous generation were drawn to the glamour of fashion and museum snobbery, the present youngsters’ are finding there may also be opportunities in the great social themes: housing, schools, communal facilities. Perhaps also low-price accommodation, such as Demoarchitects have gone in for, and eco-sustainable housing like 1AX’s Caseaccorte at Foligno.

Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi

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