03 October 2011

Modern- Postmodern. After Postmodernity is Modernity coming back?


Once the spirit of Postmodernity has ended
are we going back to the ethic of Modernity?

With a nostalgic look at the origins of modern architecture
we now look at a more realist and shared future
through an ecologically sustainable and technological improvement.

Planning by starting from the primary needs of man

A disenchanted photographic exhibition so as to look into themes of the ongoing philosophical debate
into the comeback of the realist thought, and their germination
in the current theory and practice of the project

Versione in lingua italiana su:


Above the title a classic shot of Notre-Dame du Haut Church in Ronchamp, realized by Le Corbusier in 1956. The Church, icon of modernism, has played a fundamental role in the field of architectural history of the Modern. In fact, it emerged as a foreign body, when its image appeared for the first time to the eyes of public opinion, from the waters in course of wear of the so-called International Style, spread by the Modern around the world causing furore and huge inerest. Like every great genius, its author, already included among the fathers of the architectural renewal of the century, has been able to wrongfoot, with this work, every critical forecast even at the highest levels of sophistication. The chapel was immediately included among the masterpieces of Modern Architecture, for those characteristics that couldn’t ascribe it to anyone but its author, for the different details that constitute it, but most of all for that innovative mark that its shape showed. The author had been able to portend how wide the roads of Modern  could become, and to contradict those ones who started seeing in the Internationalist formulas of the new architecture all the limits of repetitiveness and excessive schematism. This work keeps being a beacon of modernity, even if it is prefigured in it that idea of free creativity that others would subsequently tranform into fashion as an end in itself. In fact, we have to underline that, while the chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut is a monumental exception, connoting the territory with its excellence, you can see many morphological characteristics still presented in those years by Le Corbusier, necessarily based on modular schemes repeatable even if differently aggregatable. The necessity of structuring the interventions on the territory, and distingush between the emerging phenomena and the homogeneous weavings was becoming really important. Below the title an image of the Ville Savoye by Le Corbusier, in Poissy, of 1929-31, prototype of modernist rationalism. The image represents the patio on the exterior, derived from the flat covering of the villa. The rigour of the experiment is highlighted, and the wide living room outdoor represents its peculiar characteristic. Even if the house has been bult for high bourgeois clients, it is not based on new luxuries, but on a new simple and natural vision of living, made of healthiness and wellbeing, of a new relationship with air, light and green, which will become the “leitmotif” of all the modernist vanguards of the first half of the XX century, and will make the “social housing” become its primary goal. The Ville Savoye has become “historical monument” of France in 1956.

In one of his latest books, “Three forms of failed architecture”, Vittorio Gregotti asserts that “between globalized homogeneity and postmodern oddity, the schizophrenia of contemporary aesthetics is seriously likely to destroy an extremely ancient artistic practice like architecture”.
We believe that the ancient architectural practice has already been destroyed for the most part, or at least have been destroyed all the possibilities to see beyond the image of the product, in its essentialy social content, made of collective fruition (from the individual to the numerous public), made of a deep knowledge of the logics of people aggregation, and their essential needs (inhabiting, studying, meeting, participating, having fun, etc.).
We believe that, if we want to give these tasks back to architecture, we need to concentrate the architectural thought on the meaning of reality, by bringing into play an ethic, like every profession should do, and projecting it onto  a mission, overcoming every personal vanity and the idolatry of the star-system.
Looking for quality in the widest sense of the word, and not only in the sense of the product for fashion (which is what postmodernity has pursued), is the new task of architecture, nowadays.


The Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, by the American Frank Gehry, October 2003, is the prototype, together with the previous one constituted by the Guggenheim Bilbao, of the most marked postmodernist deconstructivism. You can see the use of pure formal aesthetics, as a sculptor could do for a free shape in the space. The primary intent of its author is to amaze the consumer with an image at the limit of the unreal, of the fantastic. Besides Guggenheim Bilbao, nothing similar had been done before. The operation is similar to the one that, for example, did Bernini or Borromini in the baroque Rome, with the Scala Regia or with Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. In this experiment, every kind of ethic communication is overcome by the predominance of formal aesthetics, expressed with pure spectacularity, as an end in itself. An exception that doesn’t prove the rule.
The English James Stirling made a similar attempt some years before (1984) with the Staadtsgalerie of Stoccarda, in which, within a heap of mixed typologies between the storicist and the modern, he wanted to insert a full-length window with variable slope based on a hyperbolical curve. His experiment, rich in interesting surreal experiments, which often deformed also the dimensional criteria of the function (as would happen, for example, with the use of a series of abnormal pink handrails), can be ascribed to the first postmodernist period, to which he had adhered with his great intelligence and curiosity, in an ironical and critical way.

The Notre-Dame du Haut chapel by Le Corbusier is making a comeback in these days; it literally made me “get high”, when I saw the pictures and the drawings on a booklet with a red cover given me as a present by my father when I was 15, of the Community Editions (mark Adriano Olivetti). I already loved modern architecture because I had read a quite romanticized biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, which had inclined me towards it a year before (when I joined Brera High School in Milan), and some other books like “One-dimensional man” by Mumford, “Space, time and architecture” by Gedion and something that had introduced me to it, through the pen of Gillo Dorfless. But that Church, with that strange shape, literally “bewitched” me, insomuch as I started creating some models in my own hand, during the lessons of technical drawing and architecture, with details that were an exact copy of it. I understood some years later that the church was an integral part of the History of Modern in architecture, and a special variant of Le Corbusier’s lesson on its whole: it was a monument of high scenic value, but it didn’t deny all the previous lessons made of conceptual and typological schemes abstractly applied, as it had happened in the famous villas, as well as in the Unitè d'Habitation on a larger scale. The same thing had happen to the hospital in Venice, which, though not realized yet, highlighted all the “respect” that the Master assigned to the urban fabric as such, in which it was necessary to “lower the tunes”, by doing also, if needed, some operations of pure seriality.


 The poetics of futurism had its greatest architectural interpreter in Antonio Sant'Elia. In the drawings and the projects left by him you can see a desire, almost heroic and completely modernist, of a new and efficient city, in which every new technical invention could give its positive contribution in terms of new functionalities, but could also have a new symbolic office, as a futuristic hymn to a future that, while progressing, can already be celebrated.
On the contrary, while Futurists sing the praises of the new city, all devoted to the creed in the new technique, the Rationalists consider useful the care for the idividual and the community, within salubrious and well-planned spaces, in which you can make the green of nature and the beauty of art stand out. The study of the house, seen as a single family cell, becomes primary, together with the care for its distributive structure and its details. Among the biggest italian representatives of this tendency were Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini, here represented with a detail of “Villa-studio for artist”, designed by them and presented at the Triennale of 1933 in Milan (see also in TACCUINI INTERNAZIONALI their projects for Adriano Olivetti in Ivrea: "Memorie di Adriano" and "Memories of Adriano")

 As we were saying, this icon of architecture is having a comeback, because Renzo Piano (architect firmly lie both to the tradition, historically speaking, and to the innovation of Modern) is completing, nearby, the Poor Clares monastery, project about which there have been numerous debates (by many critics also ferocious) and whose inauguration is about to take place in these days. It is interesting to see that this discussion about the unquestioned mainstay of the “interpretation of modern” is happening right when also in literature and philosophy the interest for the realist thought is recovering, and is strongly expressed by all the Tradition of Modern, while all the fires that have been fueling the various fields of postmodernity for the past fourty years are going out. The idea that also the rules in architecture, which direct every possible individual interpretation of reality, can sanction some ethical principles, is going up again, marking the inadequacy of some positions about the most urgent and essential themes that the project must face. It’s no accident that there haven’t been any International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) since the times of Le Corbusier, while we would need them now more than ever (in sectors, but also seen in the widest sense), as it happens in the fields of science, medicine, etc.


The Scarzuola, city designed by Buzzi, is the result of a postmodernist phenomenon ante litteram. Tomaso Buzzi, who has been its author and purchaser at the same time, in the extreme attempt to create a New Athens in Umbria, has been carried away by the oniric journey through history, giving into an interpretative fantasy  rich in surreal references to icons. Its realization took place at the beginning of the critical anti-modernist storm, starting from 1957, when he buyed the ruins of an ancient Franciscan convent of the ‘200. Tomaso Buzzi here founded an ideal city,  creating a simbolic neo-Enlightenment path based on esoteric knowledges. The Scarzuola is made of buildings assembled following seven theatrical scenic tracings, metaphors of life. After his death, in 1981, the property was passed to his nephew Marco Solari, who continued the construction, using the projects left by his uncle; today it is practically completed. Tommaso Buzzi is a leading figure in the italian culture: at the end of the twienties he founded together with Gio Ponti the magazine Domus, in which he wrote only until 1937; in 1932 he was the art director of Venini (Venice), he made the international prestige of the company grow, and he participated to numerous editions of the Biennale with his works; during the thirties he planned some quarters of Milan, and he completed Villa Necchi Campiglio  after Piero Portaluppi’s death. In 1936, after the enacting of racial laws, he dissociated from the regime and started a path of personal independence; he thus became one of the biggest architects of the italian upper middle class and nobility. The germ of his message, remained on the quiet during the expansion of the theories of modern and of the critical succes obtained all over the western world by the new architecture, developed in the moment of maximum crisis of the latter, towards the end of the ’60.
Above: the “Ca' Brutta” realized by Giovanni Muzio in Milan in 1922 is today seen by many critics as a postmodernist anticipation. What has subsequently been named with the term “Architecture of the twentieth century” has given its historical legacy, together with Piero Portaluppi, Pier Giulio Magistretti, Enrico Griffini, Giuseppe De Finetti, through the expression of an historicist modernism, able to have a prophetical and bold run-up, sometimes even finely represented, but still unable to completely abandon the shapes of a decorativeness which was still too sought-after by the Milanese high bourgeois clients of those times.


Looshaus in Vienna, in Michaelerplaz, built by Adolf Loos in 1922. The uproar caused by this architecture, and the contempt expressed by the emperor when he saw it for the first time in front of the empire Palace, immediately decreed in the critics its belonging to Modernity. The author had applied the theoretical principle, expressed by him in “Ornament and murder”, according to which in the new architecture every form of decoration needed to be banned. To his detractors, who started many press campaigns so as to determine its demolition, it appeared as an out-and-out insult to the dominant taste of the time.


In 1928-29 in Milan, in Domenichino street, Gio Ponti constructed this corner building. The great Master of milanese Modern, known worldwide for his thin and elegant Pirelli skyscraper, still indulged, some years after Loos had published “Ornament and murder”, in classic or exotic shapes, like in the famous temple with cusp that  stands out in Domenichino street in Milan; it symbolizes how many people of the city were still demanding decorum and historicism in its self-representation, while elsewhere the new requests of architecture were already humming with activity, and Gio Ponti subsequently became a paladin of those. The one of Ponti was a round figure, definitely not shifty, able to provoke elegance and clarity, rather than noise and opacity.


In his most famous production, "Fallingwater", or Kaufmann house, Frank Lloyd Wright thrilled his fans, which means almost all the americans, when he presented it to the press in 1935. It also caused quite a stir in Europe, especially in the articles and the books of the most organicist of the critics during those times, the italian Bruno Zevi, who transformed it almost in an object of worship. The particular relationship that this house evoked in the fantasy of everyone was the one of an always present nature, only sporadically nocked by human intervention that can always be able to stand out in it like a jewel, and whose inhabitants could fully breathe in that pioneer spirit always evoked by America in every poetic “prosper”. This architecture keeps appearing futuristic and full of charm, in its ability to integrate and not camouflage itself, in its will to place itself on the river without even touching it. An architecture that expresses his anathema against the ones who wanted to desecrate it.
For the same purchaser Edgard Kaufmann, worked some years later Richard Neutra, not in Pennsylvania but at Palm Sring in California, for the project of the house with swimming-pool, one of the greatest examples of pure modernity from the ’40 (the house was bulit in 1964).
The two examples, ten years apart from each other, represent the highest level reached by modern architecture, and are still acclaimed by the lovers of this subject, and also by the remaining wide public, because of their high aesthetic qualities and for the paradigmatic global expression of the theoretical statements of the respective authors, who were enthusiastic propagandists, at that time, of their ideas about architecture.


Here, the “Swim center Bruno Bianchi” in Trieste, designed by Alessandro Mendini in 2002.
The pointillist man (alias Alessandro Mendini) has brought in architecture, following in Ettore Sottsass’ steps, the supergraphic of advertising and posters that fills the pages of all the fashion magazines, causing in the landscape, with marks expressly drawn from comics, super coloured and incisive, an unavoidable shake with disastrous consequences for a reality already tormented by signs and messages of any kind, shape, dimension and colour. The result is simply pathetic, in most cases, due to an abuse of redundancy that both culture and praxis are not able to give nowadays. The task is not impossible: in other countries of Europe, it looks like they have been able to carry it out. In Italy, it will involve the double effort of the new making, and the revising of everything that has been made in a wrong way so far. The question of Mendini changes, if you address it only to design, whoch means withinc contexts that allow to give emphasis to what wants to have emphasis, to neutral contexts maked by signs anything but opposite. This is one of the most resounding cases of the postmodernity’s failure. The urban and extra-urban landscape, in which live the masses of a globalized society, needs quite another thing, maybe an opposite that requires administrative levels more difficult and less permissive. In Europe, they have been able to do it in the most cases. In Itlay everything will be doubly hard because they’ll also have to redo everything that has been done in a wrong way so far.
Above, we have wanted to show the image of the famous library of Ettore Sottsass "Carlton" for Memphis, of 1981, declared manifesto of postmodernity in design. The counter altar of the strong impact that its publication has caused, has been the ephemeral, almost empty real message that the time has diluted into thin air. It was fashionable phenomenon, its biggest maket has been the american one of the upper class of Los Angeles, and it has suddenly run out of steam. The architectural translation of Sottsass’ vocabulary in design can be today seen in Malpensa (milanese airport whose layout of the interior he has taken care of). It appears in all his decontextualization: it should have been the good lounge of the milanese accomodation capacity. It has instead become the small theatre of a degradation, due to the ignorance of the one who directs and manages, but often also of the one who professes and creates art.

Let’s compare, in this article, alternate examples of architectural Modern and Postmodern, picking some examples almost at random. In the comments, we are expressing our preference for Modern, and our out-and-out passion for its Great Masters (the “us” is referred to all the interlocutors whom I have met in various companies during my professional experience and who have discussed and confronted themselves with me). And of course, to the contrary, we are also showing our critical position towards the postmodernist thought, which has developed at the same time as the so-called weak thought; the latter gave importance, in philosophy, to a vision of reality conditioned by the individual interpretation, while in architecture it brushed up any kind of repertory, provided that it could influence and overthrow, the so-called International Style (born from the principles sanctioned by CIAM, which had had an extreme importance in the process of growth of all the biggest western cities.


The formal repertory created by Aalto, born in the study of Finnish geography and in the love for nature, puts itself up for becoming a product of nature, mediated by the bright activity of man who respects nature and conforms with it, producing an habitat which is wisely balanced in every way. This is the modernity spread by the Scandinavian realism, which is totally missing in the recent history of our country, apart from rare, almost paradigmatic exceptions.
As Alvar Aalto covered, in the far 1964-69 the home room of the Polytechnic of Helsinky in Otaniemi, Stirling did the same thing in 1968 in his famous project for the faculty of Cambridge. A glass waterfall that floods with light into the big hall of student gathering, as if it was a square. Two worlds apart from each other in time and space. Two different interpretations of the same theme. A single modernist view of collective life of a community that conveys culture. Also the space in which it operates can convey culture, and a contemporary view of the infinite resources of an architecture able to live its time, conversing with everybody.

The Politeama Theatre in Catanzaro, inaugurated in November 2002, is a work by Paolo Portoghesi, guru of the italian postmodernism launched at an international level from the stage of the Biennale of 1980, dedicated to the “Presence of the Past” with the unifying project of all the similar experiences in other countries, called “la Strada Novissima”. The theatre’s facade is the summa of the “baroque” view of the famous studious of Francesco Borromini, who summarizes every intolerance for the modernist idea that imposes rigour and limits to the individual creativity for the higher purpose of getting a more “human” environment. A similar procedure, applied to the royal french residences of the eighteenth century, instead of the reading of the Roman baroque, is the one here showed, work by Ricardo Bofil, at the gate of Paris, in la Marne La Vallée quarter, 1979-83, for buildings designed to be in use of powerful speculative operations. Really dense building volumes, on cheap lands really far from the city of Paris, but promoted as happy islands for the leisured classes, who want to live in palaces similar to the ones owned by the aristocracy one time, equipped with modern technological levels in the comforts, but also with a highly connoted and special look, as if they were drawn directly from the projects of Mansart or Le Notre.

You finally have to eliminate a possible misunderstanding: many people still assert that the generalized application of the modernist theories to the projects of urban growth, starting from the postwar until the ‘80s, is the main cause of their trashy look and the formal poverty that characterizes the banal way of constructing their buildings. In the same manner, you can imagine that the chaotic mark of all the built-up areas created in the last decades comes from the most flashy examples of postmodern.
It is true that the modernist boost was born with the purpose of contrasting the weary and repetitive decoration of the facades in the cities at the turn of the XIX century, and giving new social answers to the rising labour-classes, and to the needs for emancipation that had appeared due to a growth of the people’s rights. It is also true that during the ‘70s you could notice, especially inside the faculty of architecture, a need to experiment with new expressive formulas, and with languages able to overcome other formulas all too abused. But nobody ever felt the necessity, at that time, of  having recourse to historicist formulas (even if the study of Enlightenment architecture became popular, and people got hooked on the pure geometry of the most extreme examples like Ledoux or Boullee). Truthfully, we preferred drawing our inspiration from the great elementary geometries of “My Architect” (the bright Luois Kahn who had been able to stand, almost in a salomonic way, on the balance line of the two  sides of thought).


 The work of Mies represents the most extraordinary contribution to Modern that the architectural contemporary history has registered, due to the extreme synthesis of the language adopted and the appealing ability to involve inside the spires of its sublime refinement and its aesthetical rigour. Ludwig van der Rohe, in these two works of his first mature period, the house Tugendhat in Brno of 1929-30, and the german Pavilion at the expo in Barcelone of 1929, was able to knock down the wall of international notoriety, thanks to the high level of his original synthesis, which he will later coagulate in the motto “Less is More”, officially joining the list of those ones who will be defined Great Masters of the Modern. His lesson, which continued before the Great War as Director of the Third Bauhaus in Berlin and after the war in the United States of America, can’t still be considered concluded.


Michail Graves has been one of the most important exponents of the architectural postmodernism between 1970 and 1995. Awarded many times even for furnshing works, is still active in projects of big dimension. In the picture you can see the Humana Building, Louisville KY of 1985, one of the most published. It has many characteristics linked to postmodernism: formal refinement that tends to consider the building as an object, through symmetrical compositive criteria, endowed with a strong tendency to geometrical expressionism, really fashionable during those years. This tendency has had a great success in Europe and also in Italy, even in late examples. Graves has been really successful as a designer of objects for the house, some of which were produced by Alessi (like the famous kettle with the little bird).
Charles Moore adopts in “Italia Square” (New Orleans, 1976-79) a deliberately kitch language, in which everything, decontextualized materials, luminescent and improbable colours, “Piedigrotta” illumination, grotesque and unreal urban shape, building trade “Las Vegas”, contribute to deform reality in an super postmodern way, chasing a fashion that had even brought the other designers to present commercial semicrumbling buildings (Site architects).

We must now have, I would say compulsorily, a rethink about architecture as a vehicle for contributing to the “happiness of man”, as a discipline able to express an ethic, even before a beautiful shape, and able to use criteria of realism and psychology; as an interface with man and the cognition that he has of himself as an individual (discipline, the latter, rarely used outside the single housing unit, and rarely utilized even in that context).


The “big vortex” inside the Guggenheim-New York erected by Frank Lloyd Wright between 1957 and 1959 is the structural-creative core of a modern architectural icon. The role played by the american organicism, especially the one created by Wright, in the architectural vanguards of the XX century has been widely analyzed, and enthusiastically divulged by Bruno Zevi.
It is in some ways a  phenomenon parallel to the north-european organicism, and it has exerted a huge influence on the growth of the modernist interpretation of reality, built as a will of man to emerge and dominate nature, by imitating nature. From the years of the Prerie Houses to the years of the organicist utopia of Arcosanti,  which means from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, it seems like an inevitable answer for the new generations of architects.  They learn from organic architecture an idea of Modern that overcomes the schematisms of the international style, as well as the last Aalto and the Pietila have overcome, in the Scandinavian countries, the lesson of Bauhaus, filtered by Stutgard Weissenhof and De Stijl. Between Bauhaus and Kahn are thus the fruitful variables of the american and european Modern, with the personal languages of the Masters: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from Berlin to New York, Frank Lloyd Wright from Taliesin to Marina Country, Eero Saarinen in New York, etc.
Dependent variables, of a single substance that regulates the personal dynamics of the style within large -but real- knits: a conception of reality that evolves into a positive scheme of common rules, a view of progress within a recognizable common praxis of the project.
Not many years ago, the national Master in Italy was Giovanni Michelucci, come to the fore thanks to his beautiful projects for the florentine train station Santa Maria Novella, projects that marked his architecture, made of measured and balanced structures, but also of  attentions for the tiniest details, as belonging to the purest italian modernity: a masterpiece of Italian Rationalism, of 1934.
After the war Michelucci kept working, as a univerity professor and an architect. His most famous work, whose interior is here showed, is the Church of the Sun Highway, inaugurated in 1963, some years after the one of Guggenheim in New York. The antebellum rationalism seems to be betrayed by Michelucci in this work, and the church, whose project has probabily been influenced by the chapel of Ronchamp by Le Corbusier, seems like a hymn to deregulation. Certainly the anti International Style characters were spreading over modernism too. The church, though, doesn’t betray the civil and moral commitment of being a monument which is also the kingpin of a unifying spirituality, placed on the highway at the crossroads with the Florence-Sea. As well as in Ronchamp, the intention is modern, and so is the stereometric rigorous structure, made of traditional materials.
Different works, the two ones here represented, opposite both in their function and in their style, but unified and unifying within the same spirit, the one that moves man towards a condition of rigour, a planning rigour, in which the project’s structure can become a variable that depends on the act of taking note of a common destiny to be pursued, supported and kept under control, so as to get a better future for everyone.

End of first part

Lesa, 18 settembre 2011
Enrico Mercatali 
(traduzione dall'italiano di Penelope Mirotti)

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