area 109 | art and architecture

Marco Casamonti: Oliviero Toscani has, together with the youths of Sterpaia, realized a photo reportage on the opening of the auditorium of Ravello, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, a project I do not consider so much a mere architecture, a theatre with facilities for concerts, as a true work of art which enhances the entire landscape of the Amalfi coast which it overlooks. I would like to know your opinion, and your critical observations on this work.
Oliviero Toscani: I’m not one of those who think that architecture should be adapted to the landscape, and when it does so, it never proves to be a work of art. Vice versa, it must contrast with its surroundings, because while there is nature on the one side, there is Man on the other, and it is precisely this relationship that is interesting.
In the eternal conflict between nature and artifice, is it also correct that the monument succeeds in making its presence felt?
Certainly, it is sufficient to consider the pyramids, which are a foreign element in the Egyptian desert landscape, or the Eiffel tower in Paris, a project which was subject to strong opposition in the early years of last century precisely because of the contrasting effect it provoked.
Also the auditorium of Ravello may be defined as an architecture which imposes its presence on the landscape, and which has given rise to a lot of debate... How does the result appear to you, now that work is finished?
I have followed the vicissitude personally, also writing various letters of support to the president of the Ravello Foundation, Domenico De Masi. I believe I have a very personal approach to architecture, which never seeks to subject the work to any personal judgment. I like to see great architecture, even when it does not suit my own taste and philosophy, because I love to see someone else’s idea become reality. I would not have chosen Niemeyer, because I consider him to be, to some extent, a regime architect, but all the same I like his projects: the headquarters of the Mondadori group in Segrate, the plan of Brasilia and also the auditorium in Ravello, because I consider it a surprising work, and I believe that one of the goals of architecture is to surprise, to touch your feelings. When you arrive in Ravello you notice the auditorium and the new square in front of it, a unique public space which previously did not exist, an outlook to the sea created by Niemeyer’s modernism.

images from "Razza Umana" and Santo Spirito project - photo by La Sterpaia
images from "Razza Umana" and Santo Spirito project - photo by La Sterpaia

M.C.: The issue of Area dedicated to the theme “Art and architecture” seeks to sustain the idea that every building must elicit emotions, building a relationship that is also narrative. If architecture succeeds in this arduous task, then it is transformed, as if by magic, into a work of art. Otherwise it may be classified as a mere construction, a banal box containing functions.
O.T.: Tuscany is an example of an architectural region because everything is artificial, even the land, the orderly vineyards, the streets, the hamlets on top of the hillocks. Environmentalists must understand that environmentalism does not mean to deny any architectural intervention, but to build well.
M.C.: How have you directed the photographic work done on the occasion of the opening of the auditorium?
O.T.: I wanted to take some images during the opening day for “Human Race”, a project which Sterpaia has been working on for some time. We thought we would have an opportunity to photograph interesting personalities, as usual by placing them against a white background in order to highlight the differences but at the same time trying to make them neutral. We also made a reportage on the auditorium and the opening day.
M.C.: I assert that those who photograph architecture should not do so when the buildings are empty, but once they have been lived in and used...
O.T.: I agree completely, the human being intrigues me more than the landscape, I am a convinced anthropocentrist, Man is the most interesting element. In any case, we will return to Ravello to realize another photo reportage, perhaps with a better light, because the determinant thing in an architecture is the light around it, which reflects in the surrounding landscape. It is the essential element and in the case of Ravello it has numerous nuances: the light in the morning, the one at sunset, colours which give the place a strange image.
M.C.: You specialize both in architecture, as witnessed for instance by your research on “banality” which we published in Area number 106, in art and, obviously, in photography. What is the relationship between these disciplines and how do they coexist within the context of Sterpaia?
O.T.: Photography is a means of communication which serves to document what remains of the historical memory of humanity; it is therefore a human document which will always remain, in the final analysis we will all be what we are in photography. I am a fan of architecture because I consider it as the means of communication which is closest to art, because it is one of the plastic arts, and at the same time it involves the human condition. Any art which only stops at the form, at composition, at aesthetics cannot be anything but mediocre, and even if it is of high quality, it will always belong to the category of mediocrity. The only art which deserves its name is art which involves the human condition.
M.C.: To what extent do the various arts, the various disciplines confront one another within your school?
O.T.: Sterpaia is not so much a  school as a Renaissance art workshop. There’s a master who works with other masters who collaborate with us from time to time, and there’s a team of youths who work and learn by doing so; this is my workshop. The disciplines interact all the time: music, video, photography, architecture, design, all of them are linked together, and more and more so.
M.C.: And so the peculiarity of this workshop-laboratory-atelier is that these arts merge, there is no true distinction.
O.T.: The one needs the other: graphic design needs photography, which needs sound, video and so on.
M.C.: When did you create Sterpaia and when did you feel the need to focus a part of your interests and activities on this workshop?
O.T.: I have always worked in this way, because I have never really had a true studio, only a kind of workshop. It all began with the creation of Fabrica, as it was called then, founded as part of the Benetton company, but I soon realized that being part of such a famous brand was too limiting. Then I decided to found my own school, which I called Sterpaia because it is located inside the San Rossore park, in the hope that the region would appreciate the potentials of this workshop and thus help us to fund it, but things did not work out like that, and so Sterpaia has become the workshop of Oliviero Toscani. There is a branch in San Rossore which hosts the photographic archive and a branch in the small town where I live, in Casale Marittimo. I like to decentralize the activity completely, considering that I edited the Colors magazine from a lawn, and so I consider it fundamental to find a place which others consider a holiday resort, and work from there. The creative part, the nucleus from which the ideas are born is in Casale Marittimo, then we have an office in Milan and we will continue to open other workshops like that, here and there all over Italy. I consider decentralization to be a fundamental aspect.
M.C.: How does Sterpaia work: how many years has it existed, and how are the students selected?
O.T.: Those who want to join Sterpaia must submit a portfolio of their work, then we meet a couple of times, to look one another in the eyes, we put him to the test and if he passes, he stays. The duration of the stay is more or less a couple of months, room and board included, it is an apprenticeship period during which they learn a lot. And no-one wants to leave once it is finished. Some, for instance, have been with us for as much as four years, and by now they have become teachers for those who have just arrived.
M.C.: Last October you presented a book in Florence, dedicated to the old Florentine district of Santo Spirit. the result of a photographic project conducted with your young team, all of it dedicated to the places in the district, its people, its streets, churches, houses, shops, craftsmen, museums and its most hidden corners. The result was more than 21,000 images. Is this project, which is based on living in certain places, getting to know their inhabitants, immortalizing and memorizing them through the images, something you are continuing to work on, and which will lead to the discovery of other hidden neighbourhoods? What are the most important projects you are working on in this moment?
O.T.: It is unfortunately quite hard to develop this kind of projects in Italy because this is not a country where things are done, and no-one invests in culture, which has paradoxically become one of the cheapest things you can buy. As to the project dedicated to the Santo Spirito district, we will propose this kind of work to other cities, photographing them in the same way, with the youths left to their own devices in other interesting places. As to the “Human Race” project, the next destination is the Holy Land, where we will photograph Arabs and Jews, once again placing them face to face; from there we would like to begin to take this project around all the world.
In Pisa, on the contrary, we will carry out a study on the territory with Salvatore Settis and the Normale University, an old project of mine from thirty-five years ago, titled “the new Italian landscape”, aimed at making a reconnaissance of the territory, investigating its metamorphoses. Students of the Normale in Pisa and apprentices at Sterpaia will work together, to survey the Italian landscape. Our intention is to create photographers capable of denunciating situations and monitoring the national territory, telling the story of its condition.

La Sterpaia, Bottega dell'Arte e della Comunicazione, is the meeting point between creativity and entrepreneurship, including training and production, it represents a new way to combine culture and industry, art and economics, ideas and market across the communication as an expression of a "industrial culture" It is an ethical factory that will produce cultural innovation, an incubator for new creativity, a interdisciplinary media lab.