Giuseppe Pagano was one of the most interesting figures on the Italian architecture scene. Restless and contradictory, he was often able to argue his point, reasoning from a broad perspective. In the 1930s, he and Edoardo Persico, co-editors of Casabella, sitting at desks facing each other, kept up a constant dialogue on topical issues: the role of architecture in Italy’s cultural and political scene, and how to relate to the Modern Movement the country was avidly importing, with surprising results. What these two men had in common was an unremitting aversion to the assertive, bombastic, monumental architecture championed by the regime. Pagano’s remedy was clear: there had to be a return to what he defined as “everyday” architecture, a restrained style than nonetheless expressed civic, social and environmental values. That was one side of Pagano’s character. The other was the contradictory, generous Pagano who, towards the end of the 1930s, advocated an amended, less ideological and paradigmatic version of the Modern Movement: a style he saw impersonated by Alvar Aalto. The idea of “everyday” architecture half way between high and popular cultural norms had been a major theme in Italian culture since the 19th Century when literary critic Francesco De Sanctis had described the country’s ills in terms of the great divide between its sophisticated, brooding high culture and popular traditions that had no inkling of that other world. It follows that if today the aim is still to produce quality everyday architecture able to slip effortlessly into the social fabric, those who pursue that goal will evidently have little interest in definitions like
Post-modern, Deconstructionism, Minimalism, Post-postmodernism, Digital and so on. All these trends are the brainchild of fancy, fuel for the bonfire of vanity, part of an obsession with zippy memorable soundbites.
Until recently, the thought of a return to everyday architecture would have been equated with nostalgic whimsy preached by people clinging to a bygone era. Things have changed. Having seen how quickly architectural extravaganzas have become outdated, we are rediscovering architecture showing a sense of restraint, or what used to be called decorum, in other words, a building’s ability to relate to the things that surround it. Italian architecture has often been accused by many of being unable to keep abreast of the times, of lagging behind the vibrant centers of modernity. Reyner Banham’s damning condemnation at the end of the 1950s was summed up in the title of one of his presentations: “The Italian Retreat from Modern Architecture”. Let us suppose that Banham was right and that this “retreat” is continuing. We should thank that retreat, especially today, since it has allowed our architecture to escape the trap of the uselessly in-your-face shapes produced by deconstructivism, cheapskate holier-than-thou minimalism, and the ridiculous pretense of digital architecture, to mention but a few. It was not, nor is a retreat. In the best of cases it is an awareness that architecture should never relinquish a sense of proportion, in other words, common sense. All this is demonstrated in the sober, mindful architecture of MoDusArchitects. In our “Journey to Italy”, we have already looked at the architecture of Italy’s South Tyrol, noting how this frontier region sees architecture as a common good, and how the rest of Italy sees South Tyrol as a happy island whose architecture is for the most part homegrown. With one exception, however: Sandy Attia and Matteo Scagnol, who although not natives of the region, moved there and adapted their architecture to the context.
They work on the basis of a very clear objective: to interact with client, place, and building traditions, which in this part of Italy are a very deeply rooted. The way they design architecture could be defined in terms of weaving in the sense that they seem intent on creating a fabric in which the weft of modern tradition meshes with the warp of client’s expectations and local regulations, both of which can be a challenge, often placing limits on creative exuberance. As a result, their design never starts from preestablished figures or a-priori ideas belonging to a signature style, but rather grows out of the dialogue that takes place as they weave the various threads together. Take, for example, one of their buildings, a house for an artist at Castelrotto in the province of Bolzano. Not so much a single volume rather two separate segments, the first is a sunken - almost brutalist - base of fair-faced reinforced concrete. On to this the architects have “woven” a completely different upper portion, a lightweight timber volume utterly at ease in its natural and built setting.
What is interesting is the way color has been used to bring everything together. The restrained sober shades seem designed to conceal the carefully conceived, almost sophisticated shapes and spatial distribution. Looking at this work, it becomes clear that by weaving elements together, the architects are seeking out designs of expressive naturalness. The result is an architecture that does not give the impression of being the child of tormented thought born of tireless effort, but rather the logical conclusion of quiet reasoning. This easy unflustered style is also visible in another great project, the winner of a competition for a school in Milan. MoDusArchitects met the demands of the brief for what we would define today as sustainable architecture as closely linked to the natural surroundings as possible by leaving aside all ideologies or slogans and resisting the urge to produce impactful design features. The result is a delicate weave of functional requirements and green architecture - not because this is what should be served up today, but because it is the right kind of architecture for that place, context, and physical and social conditions.
Attia and Scagnol have already built several schools each different from the other since on each occasion the different physical and social conditions required a different response. Indeed, the message of MoDusArchitects and their architecture can be summed up as follows: although high and low culture, superior and everyday architecture can be braided together, they will never produce the same product, which must always fit the conditions for which it is created. In this issue we present a residence - the Fischer House on a hill - near Brixen, again in South Tyrol. This five-sided two story building is set into the sloping terrain to allow all-round views from inside. Like the houses designed by Wright, it springs from a central core containing the staircases, fireplace and flue, and services block. Spatial distribution is arranged on the basis of a dual concept, a frequent feature of a MoDusArchitects plan: two distinct functional levels, which although divided, are linked in fluid continuity. Although the basic pentagon shape has been delicately molded to fit the uneven terrain, the deformation is gentle and not taken to the point of deconstruction. The architects have taken a geometrical figure like a pentagon and turned it into something organic, empirical and yielding.
The many materials used are also woven together to create an amalgamated texture, devoid of strident elements, once again an expression of the effortless naturalness that is their hallmark. Indeed, the Fischer House is not everyday architecture but rather an enhanced form of everyday architecture, which although coming close to architecture d’auteur, maintains a restraint that keeps it within the bounds of what we could call “sophisticated normality”. The architectures of MoDusArchitects bring to mind the works of Ignazio Gardella whose delicate essential designs respond to their surroundings while still expressing a force of character, their often stark geometric plans softened in order to weave into and negotiate with the their surroundings. Italian architecture has often proved skilled at handling this difficult negotiation, and Attia and Scagnol, with other designers, prove that they continue to do so.
Founded in 2000 by Sandy Attia and Matteo Scagnol, MoDusArchitects stands out on the international architectural scene for its bold heterogeneous body of work, an amalgam of the different cultural backgrounds of the two partners. Since its inception, MoDusArchitects has addressed a wide range of programs - from infrastructure to school buildings. Combining expressive flair with awareness of context, their impactful buildings are a fine balance of intuition, tectonics and attention to ethically compliant detail.
Widely acclaimed, MoDusArchitects was shortlisted for the 2015 Mies van der Rohe Award. In addition to their professional activity, Matteo Scagnol and Sandy Attia teach and conduct research at Princeton University’s School of Architecture.