“The art developed here is never completely the product of fable or verismo. Rather, it is the result of the intellectual observation of reality where nature is translated with reasoned sensitivity”. This was how writer and critic Guido Piovene interpreted Florence at the end of the 1950s: as a city that had preserved its taste for the intellectual observation of reality, a way of looking at the world that had molded both its history and architecture through a succession of styles: grafting the objects of the Renaissance onto its mediaeval fabric, subsequently adding Baroque extravagance, to which were later added the eclectic Umbertino style dear to the late 19th Century bourgeoisie, and finally a few hints of Modernism. The 1960s signaled a clear discontinuity, not only in architecture. Acute and caustic, the intelligentsia of Florence, famous for its pithy clarity of thought, proposed a completely different, albeit conventionally conservative, approach. In architecture, this new wave is epitomized by Leonardo Ricci and Leonardo Savioli. Their Brutalist, hyper-plastic forms appear an unabashed challenge to the graceful moderation of the past. Looking down on Florence from the hilltop church of San Miniato, clearly visible at the edge of a city that has managed to remain true to its character are the towers of Ricci’s courthouse complex. Austere and extreme almost to the point of being kitsch, it nonetheless commands attention and exudes a certain pride. This break with the past continued after Ricci and Savioli with the so-called “Radicals”, firms like Superstudio, Archizoom, and 999. Theirs is an ideological architecture of extremes, imbued with the new frontier spirit that characterized the 1960s, to which native Florentines added their innate irony. Yet the radical architecture they created was more an intellectual concept than an exercise in construction.
It had lost that “reasoned sensitivity” described by Piovene, and took “intellectual observation of reality” to the extreme. As a result, when this new-frontier spirit came up against the restless 1970s, the radical wave retreated leaving behind it, like driftwood on a beach, scattered images and utopias of the new world that should have risen from the ashes of the old. After that, and for the next 20 or so years until the end of the 1980s, architecture seemed to disappear from Florence. The city seemed to close in on itself, encased in its own narrative. Then, during the 1990s, things changed. A group of young artists started taking a hard look at the city’s past, developing a strategy for the future. The question they asked themselves more or less consciously was whether there could be a concept of architecture - possibly less radical than the creations of the immediate past - that could be reconciled with and sit alongside a built fabric that for too long had seemed untouchable. They also asked how they could not only reach beyond the thinking of the Radicals, and rationalist “La Tendenza” architecture, but also what already at that time could be defined as Italian Post-modern architecture in order to shrug off Florence’s complacent, somewhat haughty, isolation. The answer was provided by Tuscan architects like Studio Archea, Ipostudio, Piero Carlo Pellegrini, and - in a different way - by Paolo Zermani. Despite their diversity, all share specific characteristics.
First, they see themselves as part of a continuum of Italian architectural culture on the strength of their unshakable belief that architecture must always be accountable to the city or landscape in which it is set, which necessarily entails viewing architecture as a backdrop, in other words, having a limited figurative presence.
Second, they do not forego the idea that architecture must be underpinned by a constructive and compositional logic. However, as members of a post-ideological generation, they do so without exhibitionism or ostentation. Indeed, in contrast to their predecessors, they have rediscovered what we could define as beauty in construction, the creation of clear, defined - and especially - well-built works. Take, for example, the 1993 project that first put Ipostudio - the firm presented here - on the world architectural map: Copenhagen’s Royal Library. The term we would use today for its conventional yet monumental pantographed design would be “iconic”. Still very topical, its program seems a forerunner of the current romanticism of the likes of Barozzi-Veiga, Valerio Olgiati, Caruso St. John and many others. While undoubtedly owing much to the poetic of Aldo Rossi, the library was built with an attention to construction that was something new for the time. No longer acceptable were cobbled together plasterboard panels and cosmetic cladding. The architectural construction had to embody the image it presented to the world. Ipostudio’s reasoned sensitivity is the glue that binds together its wide-ranging spectrum of projects, fitting them into a very compact register. As architects, they have never strayed from their founding principles, or betrayed their initial style. Take, for example, the Museo degli Innocenti built in that masterpiece of grace and clarity by Brunelleschi.
Together with the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore Museum by Adolfo Natalini, it is one of the best expressions of contemporary Florence. Although Ipostudio’s program for the Innocenti Museum seems to start by submitting to the austere elegance so typical of Florence, it then steps away to deliver an expressiveness very different from the “penitential” approach to life that pervades Florentine structures. Like another Florence-based group, Studio Archea, Ipostudio excels at dissimulating the strictly ordered approach on which its programs are based, cutting away all bombastic moralistic features. This is borne out by another more recent project: the Micas in Malta. Here too, the rhythmic iteration of closely set elements blends seamlessly with the setting, the program appearing almost an infrastructure. It is almost as if Pier Luigi Nervi had combined with Giorgio Grassi. However, this apparently untrammeled rigueur contains complexity, as can be seen from the articulated section, and the way the structure fits into its location, creating articulated spaces in which no corner is wasted, yet where expressive exuberance is constantly held in check. Take also the student residence of Villa Val di Rose presented in this issue of our Journey through Italy. The project gives us an insight into how not only Ipostudio but Italian architecture in general have conceived the architectural project over the last 20 years. The Val di Rose student dorms and services unit are housed in two separate but connected volumes, one slightly rotated on the other and accessed by a series of walkways. It is an elementary plan, verging on the conventional. The two volumes are visibly different. The brick student housing harks back to the architecture of Giorgio Grassi, with the addition of elegant bow windows in glass and steel. The lower services building is a contrasting volume in travertine and white plaster whose folded façade recalls the international style of the 1990s. In sum, an unpretentious building whose parsimony of means has, in the best Tuscan tradition, been successfully ennobled. Yet although at first sight simple, the program has multiple references. Indeed, the architecture of Ipostudio - and much Italian architecture - is Mannerist in the sense that it takes from the “La Tendenza” rationalist architecture of Giorgio Grassi as well as from international Modernism, but also leans into Álvaro Siza and the Porto School with, for example, the slight rotation of the buildings and the ease with which humble craft building techniques have been employed without flourish. It is a special sort of Mannerism underpinned by what art critic and historian Lionello Venturi called “pride in modesty”. Very popular in the 1930s, “pride in modesty” sums up a precise cultural project: that a country like Italy, which in the last few decades has given little attention to the sector, must develop socially accountable architecture. Italy needs not only “architecture in the city” but architecture that can create a city out of nothing, doing so by capitalizing to the maximum on the scant resources available. It is the direct opposite of design architecture, which is all about extreme extravagant forms, unique creations whose exalted performance capability overshadows any urban setting. For some time now on our journey through Italy we have proposed reinstating an edited version of Venturi’s “pride in modesty” as shown by the work of firms like Ipostudio and many others encountered along the way. Reinstatement must, however, be in continuity with our history and also adjusted to include inputs coming from outside our borders. And, as in the case of Ipostudio, do so with Florentine reasoned sensitivity.
Ipostudio (Lucia Celle, Roberto Di Giulio, Carlo Terpolilli, Elisabetta Zanasi Gabrielli, Panfilo Cionci, Beatrice Turillazzi, Luca Belatti, Mariagiulia Bennicelli) was set up in Florence in 1984. It operates in the architectural design sector focusing on civil architecture, urban renovation and the reuse of large scale building complexes. Their work has been published and exhibited locally and abroad, including at the Venice Architecture Biennale and the Triennale of Milan. The firm was recently among the finalists of the 2019 BIGMAT Architecture Award. It was awarded the Premio Architettura Toscana in 2017, a special mention at the 2006 “Medaglia d’oro dell’architettura”, and the XIX Compasso d’Oro ADI in 2001. Ipostudio’s projects were the subject of the volume Ipostudio, la concretezza della modernità, by Marco Mulazzani, Electa 2008. Recent work includes the Museo degli Innocenti in Florence, the Micas Malta International Contemporary Art Space, and the EOC Lugano Hospital.
Location: Sesto Fiorentino, Florence, Italy - Client: Università degli Studi di Firenze e Dipartimento
di Tecnologie dell’Architettura e Design “P. Spadolini” - Completion Date: 2013 - Total Area: 1,420 m2
Cost: 4,750,000 Euro - Architect: Carlo Terpolilli, Ipostudio - Technical Director and Coordinator: Paolo Felli
Restoration of Villa Val di Rose: Massimo Gennari - Design Group Coordinator: Adolfo Baratta - Design Team:
Shira Brad, Tommaso Chiti, Alba Lamacchia, Claudio Piferi, Chiara Remorini - Construction Management:
Maurizio Salvi - Execution Director: Giuseppe Fialà
Text by Valerio Paolo Mosco
Photography by Pietro Savorelli
Portrait image by Sara Riggi
All images courtesy of Ipostudio