Nicola Leonardi - “People Meeting Architecture” is the title chosen by Kazuyo Sejima for the 2010 Venice Biennale of Architecture. In the words of the curator, the idea is to help individuals and society relate to architecture, help architecture to relate to individuals and society, and help individuals and society to relate to each other. Do you agree with the title and Sejima’s explanation of what’s behind it?
Luca Molinari - Sejima has launched a really interesting theme. It is one of today’s hot topics, an issue that makes us reconsider the whole question of the crisis of contemporary architecture. As a curator, I have total freedom about the design concept for the Italian Pavilion, but I was keen right from the outset to build a link with Sejima’s approach - out of respect for the person first and foremost, but also because I think there must be dialogue between the pavilion of the Biennale’s host country and what goes on in the international pavilion. We both agreed that the pavilions should have common elements. That especially applies to our conviction that the sets, their graphic communication and contents must be truly striking, with sparing use of written explanations, and very few diagrams in order to let the images and spaces tell the story. Over and above that, we naturally saw eye to eye on the underlying theme. We should never forget that architecture doesn’t exist without people to inhabit it; yet at the same time, architecture turns people into inhabitants and citizens. This is the starting point for all my conceptual design projects. N.L. - How does architecture relate to society today?
L.M. - As a rule, architecture responds to the client who makes the building possible in the first place. The more open-minded the client, and the greater his awareness of the potential underlying value of the architecture, the more interesting the architectural product will be. We see this at work clearly in Italy. Leaving aside the prowess of certain individual architects, without good clients, architecture would produce nothing. Secondly, if the social context is unwilling to accept, prod and stimulate improvements, all too often the results are poor. It’s difficult to generalize, but Italy is paying the price for its reluctance to accept the idea of contemporary architecture in its midst. Italy’s modernity and symbolic emancipation has been achieved through the possession and use of everyday objects rather than the construction of new-generation spaces. Modern architecture is still considered an issue here. It is still not part of the normal dimension, as architecture to live with, enjoying the often unexpected results. There are interesting situations to be found in Italy, however, in areas at the forefront of the country’s social, economic and political development. The north eastern region of Trentino - Alto Adige has become a living laboratory for cutting edge programmes thanks to the combination of enlightened public authorities, a solid economy, a society that sees contemporary architecture as a form of self-representation, and last but no less important, quality companies and craftsmanship. All this has meant that architecture in the region has made a quantum leap that is still unthinkable in other areas of the country. Italy’s rapport with modernity is an anomalous one that’s been with us since the Sixties at least. Producing quality contemporary architecture in Italy is a daunting task. A good Italian architect finds it ten times more difficult to produce good architecture in Italy than his counterparts in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain or Portugal. In addition, they have to work with budgets that are often not even a quarter of the allocations available to other architects in Europe. Which has also meant that Italians have learned to produce on the tightest of budgets, often with surprising results.
N.L. - How do Italian architects and Italian architecture stand on the globalised scene?
L.M. - Italian architects now in their forties took the important step of gearing themselves to be on a professional par with their European counterparts. Names like 5+1AA, Camillo Botticini, C+S, Piuarch, Labics and Park come to mind. In the last 10 years these architects have allowed Italian architecture to return within the range of advanced professionalism, producing contemporary architecture for run-of-the-mill clients at the right market price. But I think this drive has also inevitably led many to conform to the European mainstream. The end result is that today in Italy, while some good architecture is being produced and is acclaimed abroad, we still lack that experimental quid, the willingness to think outside the box and produce those autonomous effects that could give a distinctively Italian identity to the architecture being produced in Italy today. On the one hand, we have the advanced professionalism of many excellent architects who have given a new thrust - with what has been termed “critical regionalism” - to the environment in which they operate. On the other, however, we lack the experimental dimension: those blurred, often imperfect products that came out of the most interesting Italian work of previous decades, when sudden flashes of genius produced something quite unique and different to look at.
N.L. - How do the new generations of Italian architects work? Is there ongoing debate?
L.M. - The so-called Erasmus generation that are now 30-35 year olds is different from the generation immediately preceding them. These very young architects were trained especially in other European countries and on their return, often started some really interesting experimental work. Today there’s another phenomenon at work. Many talented thirty-yearolds have set up their practices outside Italy. They considered themselves Italian but they are based abroad. Thanks to low-cost travel and the Internet, they are geared to a different set of interrelations, which impacts they way they see the job of the architect today. These young people have been uprooted from their traditional contexts and move within a European framework even if they continue to assert their Italian identity and the Italian concept of space. Another interesting aspect of today’s very young architects is the strong return to rethinking the theoretical basis of architecture, something we lost in recent years. Practices like Dogma, Salottobuono, Baukuh and Gabriele Mastrigli are making a real effort to review the underlying theoretical and critical tenets of architecture as well as examine the profound changes architecture as a profession is undergoing.
N.L. - How difficult was it to choose which architects should be invited to the Biennales Italian Pavilion and what criteria did you apply?
L.M. - It was very difficult. Ours is a heterogeneous and complex country with widely varying situations and experiences. I’ve been involved with Italian architecture for at least 20 years, so I think I have a pretty good idea. Despite that, there may well be some interesting examples that have escaped me, of people who have not succeeded in making themselves know. Many people put themselves up for the exhibition, which in some cases did throw up some interesting projects. I travelled a lot, looked, studied carefully, analysed dozens of sites, consulted journals and sought advice. I then tried to actually view the work I had selected - I don’t trust photographs too much; I still believe in the need for the direct, physical experience in time and space.
N.L. - What will your account of architecture be in the Italian Pavilion?
L.M. - The Pavilion has a three connected sections. The first “Amnesia nel Presente” (Amnesia in the Present) is dedicated to the last 20 years of architecture and our recent memory. It’s an important section that tells a simple, highly visual story. You can’t even start to understand contemporary Italian architecture if you don’t consider the last few decades. The central section is the “Laboratorio Italia” exhibition that looks at present day Italy. Here I have placed only built works. It’s a bit radical as choices go, I know, but I didn’t want an exhibition full of sketches and drawings. Importantly, I also wanted to debunk the myth that nothing is going on in Italy. I think that one of the duties of the national pavilions is to give visibility to quality production. I identified about a dozen critical categories or themes I think significant and exemplary both as regards the current Italian scene but also with extraordinary potential for the immediate future. I have chosen a large number of works for this section because I simply cannot get fixated on just one or a few representative projects. I think that the Italian scene today is made up of many small works that together inform an interesting, composite landscape triggering many considerations. The last section is called “Italia 2050” and tries to prompt extreme forms of experimentation around a series of issues and themes that will concern our country in coming decades. I approached the magazine Wired for help in finding 14 people from the world of science and advanced experimentation. We then paired them with as many architects. Together they will draw up proposals on the designated subjects.
N.L. - You have called the Italian Pavilion “Ailati. Reflections from the Future”. Why the name Ailati? L.M. - The name “Ailati” (literally, ‘on the sides’) springs from how I see our country: as one that some time back lost its central identity but which, nevertheless, has been able to produce truly original work. It is the idea that since we no longer identify a centre focus - which, for me, anyway is a hollow core, weaker and fragile - we start thinking laterally, looking around in a different way; our glaze takes a different perspective. And that’s when we are able to come up with those anomalous ideas that lead to conceptually sophisticated, original, powerful and really top quality creations. Terragni, Mollino, Aldo Rossi in his early days, Superstudio, Archizoom: they were all lateral thinkers vis-à-vis architectural practice of their day. Thinking laterally they created a different way of tackling projects that had a profound effect on the international debate. Each time we insist on seeking out a centre that simply isn’t there, we end up lagging behind, becoming provincial. When we are able to think laterally, we produce new concepts that result in fresh, exclusive and unique programmes, because our history is laden with these anomalies and strident ambiguities.
N.L. - Do we see this ability for lateral thinking in the architects chosen for the Italian Pavilion? L.M. - The selection “Italia 2050” with the 14 architects sums up quite well my idea of people who represent this idea of experimental lateral thinking. Some of the people asked to produce their visions and scenarios for the future, however outlandish, have never stopped pushing back the horizons of their projects - not just in the direction required by the client but also in an anomalous, untoward and imperfect way. This is a group that has made lateral thinking a way of keeping an open mind, of sustaining intellectual curiosity, casting things into question and producing open-ended content.
N.L. - How important is communicating architecture and how best can this be done?
L.M. - Communicating architecture is a very difficult art because architecture exhibition are notoriously boring. Architecture is a specific art, an art for specialists; a non-architect doesn’t understand most of the terms architects use. We architects share a series of technical elements but for the general public an architectural drawing is absolutely incomprehensible. Nothing is as effective as a model or architecture on a 1:1 scale, the inhabitable models. I think the most effective exhibitions were the old Triennale shows, where people experienced the spaces directly, or that fantastic Biennale edition by Portoghesi, “Strada Novissima” where the idea of a street and its façades was the simple way of communicating architecture and its significance. Space must be seen and experienced. The exhibition experience must be as less metaphoric as possible. Sejima here has made a very intelligent choice calling 45 architects and giving them each the chance to work on a surface area where visitors will be able to experience their projects. There’s nothing like experiencing space to help the visitor understand what architecture can be all about. Sejima’s choice might seem banal but it is very powerful, with a directness of impact that, if well used, will give maximum results. Talking about architecture also means returning to a simple, playful narrative. The digital fad has come and gone too. The public is now used to the Internet and 3D; it is accustomed to increasingly sophisticated cinema images, so digitalized video shows are no longer an attraction. We have to set our minds to finding a series of elements that will allow us to transform an exhibition into a story that will be then passed on to others. A collection of drawings is incomprehensible, totally abstract and very boring. Drawn architecture doesn’t pass on the emotions aroused by a work of art or sculpture. Architecture is all about space, and space is there to be experienced, to walk around in. This is the best way of making architecture understandable and accessible to everyone.
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