Monday, 2 November 2009

Italy’s mission to the Irish: ‘The Reconstruction of the European City’ as imaginary for architecture

This paper was presented at the Metropolitan Desires: Cultural Reconfigurations of the European City Space conference, Manchester September 2009

The preamble to this paper concerns the representation of modern urban space as exemplified by Mario Sironi's paintings of the perifery of Milan from the years following the First World War, which provides the context for what is to follow.

For this is an urban story which begins with Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City, (first published in Italian in 1966 and translated into English in 1982) and with the body of his drawn and built work.Developing from the specific context of post-Fascist Italian architecture, Rossi invoked the ‘rational’ classificatory procedures of the Enlightenment but combined his approach with a distinctive graphic language and these two aspects appealed to two different audiences. While Rossi was taking the researches of the Italian school of urban morphologists and defining a series of architectural types, his images also evoked a series of urban atmospheres where scale disjunctions attempted to link the domestic and the urban.

This new avant-garde movement (referred to variously as la Tendenza or neo-rationalism) presented their proposals in boldly geometric forms, and for Rossi the political context of this focus was the type of authenticity which intellectuals often ascribed to working class life (rather than a romanticisation of the previous social conditions), but from early in his career his work was to be suggestive of nostalgia. However, in a period marked by considerable social unrest, Rossi’s position on the political Left was to lead to him being banned from teaching in Italian universities by the government, and the pursuit of an academic career outside Italy and an international influence.

The 1966 book presented a tough critique of the modernist city, but used marxism to argue for an almost fatalistic adherence to the zeitgeist. Rossi proposed that architecture stood outside the fluid tide of history, dependent for its power on the qualities of its geometry and accumulation of patina through its survival over time. The poetic content of The Architecture of the City broke out from the quasi-scientific tone it adopted as a cover. Influenced by the left leaning utilitarianism of contemporary architectural theory, it moved beyond the common explanation of vernacular typology to the then unfashionable study of monuments. This placed great emphasis on the collective experience of the city, and consequently reduced the individualising tendencies of the unique monument, creating a significant focus in this analysis on the issue of permanence in architectural typology. Historical examples cited by Rossi such as the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua and Piazza Anfiteatro in Lucca evoked the power of a form to support different uses and interpretations over centuries, a phenomenon which contradicted the monofunctionalism advocated by orthodox modernists.

Rossi’s study raised three challenges. Foremost among them was the extent to which certain aspects of physical urbanism are related to the manifestation of political structures and fictions. There was also the issue of the precise methods of representation of attitudes to citizenship and the ability of architecture to provide an adequate and expressive urban language. And thirdly there was the question of what the analysis of historical types revealed about the application of similar spatial techniques to contemporary situations. Within this intellectual milieu, Rossi’s early substantial projects approached the issue of urban space in a stealthy manner, as if to break cover would impede the success of his strategy to recover urban values in architecture. The housing Rossi designed between 1969-70 at Gallaratese on the outskirts of Milan revealed the particular characteristics of his evocative use of typology. Rossi’s block is more modestly scaled, reticent in its modelling and faced in white stucco. The principal public feature is the portico which runs the length of the block, providing a portico to the development on two related levels, the junction of which is negotiated by a monumental set of steps and four overscaled cylindrical columns. The daunting abstraction of this space is ameliorated by the delicate use of scale, with the endless colonnade made of frequently spaced fin walls, their dimensions related to the distance between the hands of an outstretched figure. The regularity of its form reflected its origins in traditional types of Lombard housing, but its refusal to articulate the uses to which its public element could be put meant that it was regarded as heartlessly oppressive and misinterpreted as a late flowering of fascism.

The curious power of an essentially personal vision as a repository of public expression compounds the mismatch between Rossi’s influential writing and his widely published design work, and also the differences between the drawn and constructed work and the relationship between intention and realisation. His drawings with their intense shadows, violent juxtapositions of scale and bright colours presented a much more immediate and evocative experience, and generally an urban one, of familiar elements in unfamiliar combinations. Intriguing and easy on the eye, their superficial appropriation as exemplars of Milanese design culture and their association with postmodernism meant that many of Rossi’s theoretical positions remained obscured. Rossi’s path instead suggested a degree of inevitability to his forms which simply presumed acceptance. This very muteness, the lack of rhetorical flourish is one of its most tender and enduring qualities. The most evocative elements of Rossi’s work, the shadows and the memory are precisely the elements which had been banished from architecture by modernism. Their use to redefine urban space as a phenomenon of more than quantitative value was perhaps his lasting achievement given the poor quality of much of his constructed work. Yet, as an architect working in the conditions of the late twentieth century, he created urban objects which stood apart from their context. Rossi’s modest stance was that the city was beyond the capacity of design as control, its political status had a symbiotic relationship with its form, where ends and means became one.
Through his teaching in the United States Rossi’s legacy would influence the so-called ‘School of Miami’ and therefore become an influence on the conservative urban design movement New Urbanism. However the thread I wish to follow is that of the young Irish architects influenced especially by the exhibition of his drawings in Dublin in the early 1980s and the English translation and publication of a small selection of his essays by Gandon Editions at the same time. This group, numbering amongst them Paul Keogh, Shane O’ Toole, Sheila O’Donnell, John Tuomey, Shelley Macnamara and Yvonne Farrell would go on to redefine Irish architecture through the reconstruction of Dublin.

This influence resulted not only in theoretical pursuits such as the classification of Irish vernacular architecture as a form of primitive classicism, but ultimately in the collective design of Temple Bar in Dublin, through a series of cultural, residential and commercial projects. An emphasis was placed on the positive design of urban space, so that, as at Meeting House Square a strong sense of civic continuity could be invoked.

A key element in the Group 91 masterplan for the area (a group which included the previously named key individuals), a new civic space was created within the body of an urban block. A children’s theatre the Ark , by Shane O’Toole opens on to the space, and faces a building by Paul Keogh. Mixed in use the studio spaces occupy the upper floors above a double height café space, the glazed façade of which addresses the square.

Running counter to this axis, and rather more robust in its brick defensive character is the National Photography Archive (Sheila O’ Donnell and John Tuomey) which converses with the Gallery of Photography opposite by the same architects as an upper window provides a projection booth for the screen on the Gallery façade. Carpeted in Wicklow granite, and furnished with trees and mobile furniture, Meeting House Square revived the idea of place through the tradition of the urban room. In this instance, the buildings and space form a consistent composition. The architectural language, though eclectic, is relatively muted, allowing the positive figural qualities of the space to be more clearly understood. The robustness of this strategy means that with very little apparent effort, the square can be adapted between different types of formal performance use and the casual theatricality of the everyday.

Another element in the framework plan was the creation of Temple Bar Square by Grafton Architects (Shelley MacNamara and Yvonne Farrell) featuring a new framework façade applied to the untidy backs of some existing industrial buildings. More abstract in its design, the scheme hinted at a slightly more anonymous architectural typology, which would be re-exported to Milan with the practice’s extension of the Luigi Bocconi University, won in competition.

The University already had its own place in architectural history though the commissioning between 1937-41 of a building by the leading Milanese critic and architect Giuseppe Pagano, a pivotal figure in Italian architectural thought whose influence connects the intellectual groupings of the pre- and post- Second World War periods despite his death in a German concentration camp in 1945.

Developing from a series of educational projects for schools and universities in Ireland, Grafton Architects' design features a complex slab of city where ribbons of office space hang over a submerged lecture theatre, with the public realm providing the glue. The materialisation of this formidable structure was described in terms of skyscape and groundscape and promised an exemplary demonstration on how the city should interact with academe.

The immediate context is that of the densely built up bourgeois palazzine which characterised the mid twentieth century. Against that idiosyncratic conjunction of reinforced concrete construction and a tendency for decoration, Grafton Architects’ building presents a sober face, at first encounter apparently expressionless but revealing on closer scrutiny an exquisite taste and control.

A major urban rhythm is established, very different in scale from the more object-like buildings of the earlier elements of the university campus. Instead it is an extended and controlled rhythm which acknowledges the precedent of the Ospedale Maggiore of Milan, Antonio Filarete’s design of 1456 acknowledged by Rossi in The Architecture of the City as a significant element in the Napoleonic replanning of the city. The Ospedale Maggiore is in Rossian terminology a type of urban artifact, the long history of which has seen its typological autonomy house the transformation in function from hospital to university.

It might therefore seem appropriate as a type for Grafton Architects’ new university structure, a ‘type’ rather than a ‘model’ since to paraphrase Rossi’s quotation of the nineteenth century art and architectural theorist Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremere de Quincy formal imitation is prescribed in the model, but the capturing of an essence is described in the type.

The urban qualities of the Bocconi University building are perhaps expressed most strongly in the abstract handling of solid and void, the above and the below, that metropolitan sense of other lives and existences beyond a wall or below our feet.
The generality of the Bocconi University is that of a metropolitan institution, exerting its presence by repetition and modulation rather than monumental expression, defining the urban routes of boulevard, street and corner, reserving its spatial generosity for the urban node.

The interior exposes the relationship between the city and the room through the panoramic treatment of the urban corner, framing the perspective quality of the city beyond. A dynamism is introduced by the sculptural modulation of the space, and its folding to contrast for example, the deadpan street level glazed screens with the mysterious luminosity of a clerestory window, the horizontal continuity of inside and outside with the vertical plunge down into the subterranean spaces that constitute the archaeology of any city.

If typology in Rossi’s design work was a poetic rather than a scientific category, his legacy is that the application of a few forms in different combinations and contexts paradoxically creates a highly recognisable and individual language of architecture. In Grafton Architects' work the ambiguity of their urban composition allows its appropriation by the context in which it is woven, a genius loci which is far from being parochial or even merely Lombard, because in origin it is based on the idea of the architecture of the city itself, a supercontextual response which accommodates use but is not limited by it, and provides a new episode in the narrative continuity of the city.

The use of a porous local stone ‘geppo’, the scale which is redundantly or perhaps significantly oversized, and the glazed screens are the elements of the typical Milanese environment from which an architectural and urban typology might be deemed to arise. Its very banality is a sign both of its ubiquity and its comprehensibility, and links the building to its physical context and the metaphysical city evoked ninety years earlier by Sironi.

Hugh Campbell et al. (eds.) The Lives of Spaces: Ireland’s participation at the 11th International Exhibition, Venice 2008 - Irish Architecture Foundation, Dublin 2008
John O’ Regan (ed.) Aldo Rossi: Selected Writings and Projects - Architectural Design, London and Gandon Editions, Dublin 1983
Patricia Quinn (ed.) Temple Bar: The Power of an Idea - Temple Bar Properties Ltd., Dublin 1996
Aldo Rossi The Architecture of the City - M.I.T. Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 1982

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