area 129 | urban architecture

Via Novissima: Josef Paul Kleihues, Hans Hollein, Massimo Scolari

Preparatory to the research conducted by the magazine on the subject of the urban building (architectures inserted in the masonry curtain of the consolidated city) we have asked Paolo Portoghesi for a dialogue-interview on the subject, 33 years after Strada Novissima. The meeting has casually – but symbolically – taken place in Siracusa, in Ortigia, on the occasion of a conference organized by professor Luigi Alini for the Faculty of Architecture. After the transcription of the contents of the discussion we have asked Vittorio Pizzigoni to comment, as a “voice over”, on the matters we have discussed, participating in the discussion with the necessary distance – indeed, it is not a matter of a mere spatial separation, but more appropriately of a generational one – also in an attempt to understand whether the time that has passed may offer new perspectives and observations.

Marco Casamonti: The generation that is beginning to work today, or that has just finished its educational cycles, probably does not know the “Via Novissima”, unlike our generation which has initiated a profound and intense debate on that Biennale and on that cultural proposal. More than thirty years after that exhibition we can reflect on that experience with the necessary detachment, also because I believe that behind the title “The presence of the past” there is a more complex reasoning than may appear at first, a research that involves, with the proposal of a façade design, a complex idea of city that identifies with the concept of continuity and permanence, beyond the assertion that an urban building is a part of curtain with a standardized dimension and not a monument, a singular object.
Paolo Portoghesi: That experience has certainly featured an intrinsic ambiguity. On the one side the intention was to accentuate the topicality of the street after the negation proposed by Le Corbusier and his celebration of the corridor as antithesis to the idea of urbanity. However, the years after World War II have been years of reflection and there is no doubt that Le Corbusier himself had undergone a conversion, manifesting an attention to the significance of architecture that included history as a fundamental design element, as witnessed by the experience of the Convent of La Tourette.
On the one hand the Via Novissima was this, that is a reconsideration of the direct relationship with the European city in its genesis; on the other it has been interpreted as a kind of exhibitionism of personal styles, because according to many critics our proposal represented an attempt to swim against the current, because we were moving away from the Modern movement in every possible direction. Vice versa, our attitude only aimed to be a return to the urban logic, and a taking a distance from self-referentiality.

Vittorio Pizzigoni: I have only known the “Via Novissima” through books, without partaking in the architectural debate around it.
But I don’t believe it is only this distance in time that makes me think that one of the most significant characteristic of this exhibition has been the complex plurality of the architects involved. Architects with very different approaches have measured swords without giving rise to conflicting factions and without feeling need for excellent exclusions or enemies to fight. While maintaining a clear approach that is well summed up by its still topical title, “The presence of the past”, the first Biennial seems to me to have been characterized by a certain inclusiveness. Also the triple homage to Gardella, Johnson and Ridolfi – a trilogy that has always fascinated and surprised me – may to some extent confirm this trait, characteristic of a great cultural operation.
M.C.: The extraordinary fact of Via Novissima is that it saw the participation of figures as Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry, because one did not only invite those who could identify, in cultural terms, most easily with the idea of the building of the city in a traditional sense, but also architects and intellectuals of different opinions. Has there been a debate on the theme? Did everyone agree with your proposal? What elements of dissent have emerged?
P.P.: Everyone refused the suggested rules, which had been studied together with Francesco Cellini and Claudio D’Amato. Our idea was that the facades had to be behind the columns so that they could serve as border, but everyone had on the contrary conceived facades that stood in front, that made them disappear. It has been a matter of a kind of disobedience that has revealed the desire for a personal expression. As to the fact that not only those who had a relationship with history were invited, but also those whose relationship with it had taken a very different and non-conformist form, I may mention that Gehry had just completed the famous Loyola University and when he arrived in Rome he only wanted to see the works of Borromini.
But Borromini’s influence only becomes visible in the works designed five or six years later, because at that time he was still a realist architect who had succeeded in expressing the American marginality, and he had an extraordinary interest for Venice: he was chosen precisely due to his promise of non-conformism.
Koolhas, on the contrary, surprised us because his design simply consisted of a canvas stretched in a curvilinear shape, and I remember that when he saw that his façade was close to mine, he told me that we both nurtured the same passion and attraction for the curved line. In actual fact Koolhaas had been chosen for having written “Delirious New York“, for having established contact with history in a different way.
M.C.: Rem has been appointed director of this year’s Biennial, and of all the contemporary architects, obviously excluding of the nostalgic ones, his work is the one that is richest in quotations, from the past and from history, including Modernism. For instance, within the context of the last Biennial, he has occupied himself with old towns, a singular theme for a Dutch architect. This somehow makes one understand that the debate on the theme has not, in the final analysis, been sufficient; however, as his interest shows, the theme is an important one, and perhaps yet to be investigated.

P.P.: We must remember that there are probably Columns of Hercules in history, borders that cannot be crossed, and that we can for instance recognize in proposals from 1920 or 1870. I have always fought to tear down these columns even they once in a while, inevitably, re-emerge. Koolhaas, for instance, is a very cultured personality, he has studied with Ungers, and is therefore an architect with strong ties to history, but this relationship of his does not imply any sense of responsibility for it. Moreover, we have not yet seen the city proposed by Koolhaas: when he intervenes with the Auditorium of Porto he shows outstanding formal qualities, inserting the building like a meteorite arrived from above, that lies casually on the ground, which nevertheless refuses a direct relationship with the ground, with the urban tissue.
M.C.: I see Rem Koolhaas as the accomplished expression of the postmodern architect, the architect who more than any other, today, looks to history and adequately to the context; the CCTV skyscraper in Beijing has been an act of protest against the request of the competition announcement to create a vertical building; having ascertained that Beijing has always been a horizontal city, Koolhaas has decided to present a strange building, a horizontal skyscraper that turns back on itself, that begins by following the instructions of the government, and ends up in the sign of tradition.
P.P.: This building is a typical example of postmodernism, I agree with that; but it is significant to note that this flirt with history has never produced profound relationships. It is certainly a matter of a great personality and unpredictability is a merit of his, but it is at the same time a weakness, because no method of Koolhaas goes from beginning to end, passing through the design process with consciousness. In this sense he is, a bit like Stirling, a personality who has used history magnificently to express a complex and rich personality. To return to the “Via Novissima”, I believe it has been very influential for architects precisely because it reproposed, in a direct manner, a street that unfolds between two backdrops. The continuity of the backdrops and, at the same time, their variability recreated a sense of competition between architects that had died out, everyone made his own architectonic hypotheses, combining Mies and Le Corbusier, for instance in the Weissenhof, even if this was something impossible and off-key. In spite of its small size, the Weissenhof reveals an inability to create a city. Good neighbourhoods have certainly been created during the rationalist period, but not cities.
V.P.: One characteristic of the “Via Novissima“ is also that it has exhibited architecture through real buildings, and not as is often the case, by means of drawings, models or photographs: an exhibition method that makes it possible to appreciate the spatial values of a work of architecture, rendering it easily understandable also to the general public.
M.C.: I think of the “Via Novissima“ as a virtual union between Genoa and Berlin, or in other words between the Strada Nuova of Genoa which is, so to speak, its origin, and Berlin where this strategy has been consolidated in the contemporary age. It is sufficient to think of the work of Hans Stimmann, that is to say the proposal to rebuild the new buildings on the Gothic lots, relying on the street to play a fundamental and founding role with respect to the city. Friedrichstrasse is, in the final analysis, precisely the Via Novissima. It would be interesting to understand whether you believe that the Via Novissima has played a role, as I hold, in the constitution and the consolidation of these two phenomena.

P.P.: A play without rules is not a play. In actual fact Via Novissima was born precisely in Berlin: I got the idea by looking at the place where the Alexanderplatz is now. In that moment there was a Christmas market there, where every stand had two floors, but the top floor served no other purpose than to fake the existence of a house.
I was fascinated by this image because I have discovered the idea of the joyous city, especially the southern one: in Siracusa, where we are now, all the buildings have a balcony which mainly serves to create, in certain conditions, a projection of the house towards the street. That is the secret of the high quality of the city that has been born in the Middle Ages and developed subsequently, where the wall no longer is a closure and division between one domus and the next, but has become an extraordinary element of expression of the relationship with the society, of staying at home and at the same time make it possible to be in the street. Unfortunately, none of this has been realized in the “Via Novissima“ because almost half of the buildings is of a disconcerting austerity, some are intentionally ironic but with an excessive scenic inspiration.
Gehry has realized one of the façades that I am most fond of, which vaunts an absolute transparency, that depends more on the structure than on the image, and that makes us understand that Gehry was at that moment full of doubts, in an extremely positive existential situation. Later he has become a man of certainties, and terribly repetitive. At that time many saw his gesture as a surrender to academicism, but on the contrary I think he is the person who has given the most problematic response to an embarrassing question, as that of facades.

M.C.: I am convinced that Italy has seen an extraordinary period, also linked to particular contingencies, World War II, the bombardments, the destroyed old towns, and we have responded to these requirements in an equally extraordinary manner for about ten years, from 1947, the year of Gardella’s Casa del Viticoltore, developing exceptional examples and reflections on architecture and the city which have been realized, in particular, between the years 1957 and 1960 and among which we find three exceptional examples, including Albini’s building in Piazza Fiume in Rome (the current Rinascente), Gardella’s Casa alle Zattere in Venice and the BBPR group’s Velasca tower.
In actual fact, in those years Italy participated in the European debate by proposing a completely original and prolific path with respect to the theme of urban reconstruction, I therefore believe that one has to start from there. In that particular moment the Italian culture has proposed the most interesting and far-sighted cultural proposal in an attempt to get out of a situation of crisis and provide a solution that, in the final analysis, still proves to be wholly topical today. Then there have been twenty years of darkness, until the Via Novissima (1980). Now thirty years have gone by and I believe this message is very relevant today, especially as a response to emergencies; for instance Beijing, a city built on the orderly and horizontal tissue of the Hutongs, is becoming a city of isolated skyscrapers. I think the moment has come to once again forcefully propose the message of the existing environment, of the respect for and enhancement of the identity and differences with respect to the rampant urban standardization.

P.P.: I believe that Europe must in any case settle its own accounts, and so must America, even if it is a matter of two completely different situations: the mania of standardization is wrong. Also America has a problem of memory: American cities have historical centres of considerable quality, which have been transplanted from Europe (for instance through the chessboard scheme) even if with some linguistic originality, but through the vertical development, the imagination of the province, it has taken on different characters than those which, for instance, distinguish Italy. Europe, in general, vaunts numerous cities of incalculable environmental value, each of which features a peculiar and specific identity; the force of European culture is to be found precisely in the differences. We must not extinguish local identities and traditional elements, and therefore there is no other solution than to retrace our steps. The values of local identities in European architecture are fundamental, because we have a heritage that cannot be forgotten or dispersed, it must be turned to profit. The architecture of the Fifties is important, because Italian architects have succeeded, from within the Modern Movement and maintaining a whole series of rules and conducts, in re-establishing a continuum with the local history. For instance, Albini’s building in Parma makes sense because Antelami’s Baptistery is in Parma, if it were not for that building, Albini’s building would not be there either; it is inspired by a reflection on the identity of the city. The important thing is therefore to learn from history and to listen to the place; when Rogers spoke of environmental pre-existences, proposing a discourse that could in a certain sense appear retrospective and romantic, he was asserting, precisely, that one could understand the value of a design by observing the architecture.

V.P.: I believe the context is an objective peculiarity of architecture and it is something that cannot be ignored. Unlike sculptures, buildings cannot be moved; they occupy a place in the world and prevent other things from occupying it. It is not clear why one should not take advantage of the treasures offered by the context.
M.C.: It seems to me that we live in a historical phase in which these reflections become extremely important because we have gone through years in which action has gotten the upper hand on thought. Now it seems to me that there is a kind of rebellion to the theme of gestural expressiveness, because when it becomes totally free, architecture loses its belongingness and its role with respect to the discipline, becoming non-architecture. I believe that in general, in the face of globalization and the phenomenon of free-form design, one discovers that the most beautiful works of architecture are those that harbour a spirit that bears witness to knowledge and to the longevity of architecture. Even in the architects who seem to be furthest removed from this logic, we are in essentially observing a return both to the exceptional of the proposal and the suggestion (also unconscious) of the context; I am for instance thinking of Massimiliano Fuksas’ Milan Trade Fair, which certainly owes its success to the glazed arcade, that brings to mind Mengoni’s Nineteenth-century design. In my opinion, many works of architecture are extraordinary precisely because they remind us of places and longings that are part of us. The Strada Novissima, 33 years after its first edition, is an extraordinarily topical lesson, and this is why we want to present it anew, with the idea of restarting from some works as, precisely, Michelucci’s INA buildings in Florence and Albini’s building in Parma. There are many such examples in the contemporary production, it is not such a rarity but a question we must render programmatic. The theme of the relationship and the continuity with architecture is of fundamental interest for the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians.
P.P.: We must manage to respond both to the world that needs a new alliance with nature, and the world that needs to return to the city as a place of communal life, subjected to a series of fundamental rules. It is a matter of two lines of development that are different, but that we must perforce try to unite. I believe that the heritage of organic architecture is one of the most relevant issues today. I notice that there are many architects to whom the experience of Giorgio Grassi represents the ultimate achievement. On the one hand I am comforted, because I see true dedication to rigour, but on the other it scares me because stopping at Grassi means stopping before self-referentiality, which even it is not personal, is nevertheless disciplinary. If there has been an error in the work of the starchitects, it is that it has principally met with consensus among architects, on the contrary avoiding popular involvement and participation. It is a matter of an architecture that exists because it is backed by the media, while the challenge is to involve ordinary people, those who lack an architectural culture. Architecture must bring pleasure and joy, not only intellectual consensus; otherwise it remains a class phenomenon limited to the world of intellectuals. Today it is futile to think of pursuing the architecture of Wittgenstein, before whom I kneel as I do before Brunelleschi. Wittgenstein was able to propose a particular idea of architecture in an unrepeatable moment in history, by a philosopher who was just then making a discovery of incalculable importance; but we must not delude ourselves that the path of rigour can still be very fruitful. The resources must be found elsewhere, through a re-conquest of a new concept of people, that is no longer linked to nationalism but that recognizes that a lot of people who share the same aspects form a people, which has both interests to defend and common roots. To relaunch the topicality of the work done by Italians from 1950 to 1970, also through a reflection on the typologies, is a way to react to the risk of a true annihilation of the architectonic culture.
V.P.: Architecture is a weak art. It may perhaps be possible to avoid all contact with other art forms, but we are always surrounded by architecture, even if we were to decide to isolate ourselves from the world. This is why I believe that, even if the consensus on the discipline and its media coverage may be influential, the popular judgment is ultimately the most important. To me, and to my firm, the architectures and writings of Grassi have been more of a starting point than a goal. I also think that Grassi’s complete indifference to peoples’ desires eventually has rendered his wonderful buildings sterile. Returning to the “Via Novissima“, I must say that I believe that another peculiarity of that exhibition has been precisely its joyous and popular vitality: an aspect that is missing from many architecture exhibitions today. I am reminded of the “Fête moderne“ that was held in New York in 1931, the famous masquerade ball in which every architect wore a costume representing the skyscraper he had designed. I believe that this has been a very important aspect, and that it has been appreciated by the general public.

M.C.: There are many areas in the world, I am thinking of China and South East Asia, where new cities are being built. Perhaps, with respect to these necessities, our reflections on the “Via Novissima” may prove very relevant. What are the rules and methodologies on which it is important, today, to base one’s research in an attempt to meet the need of realizing newly founded cities?
P.P.: The planning of a city is unfortunately almost always entrusted to a few persons, at most two, four or six hands, or in other words a planning firm, a homogeneous group that makes an enormous effort to simplify something that should on the contrary be complicated. The program should consist precisely of the research of a necessary complexity of the urban phenomena. It is incredible to consider that Milizia, who was a neo-classicist, in a time of rigour, order and exaltation of order, understood what we insist on not understanding, namely that the city must be chaos, but with order in the detail. The contemporary city must contain the two fundamental aspects of life, without which people live as if they were guests, not feeling at home: chaos and order. I believe they could do so easily in China, because they do not have problems of maximum occupiable space. Vice versa, I have visited districts that look like luxury concentration camps near Shanghai, one in Dutch style, on in French style, with houses with two, three floors.
M.C.: There is a singular place in Beijing, the Sanlitun district, for which Kengo Kuma has realized the master plan. To create a place that was neither a contemporary Chinese city nor an American one, he has built a piece of Venice, with little piazzas and alleys, an Italian and European place where the Chinese love to get together, because they walk, because there is a relationship between streets and shops, because it, in the final analysis, represents an urban model that is much closer to the traditional way of life of the hutongs than the international compounds that are being built today. When you propose a urbanity that satisfies peoples’ desires of belongingness and identity, you succeed in creating very successful places, regardless of the architecture.
P.P.: The Chinese ought to go back to their own roots, because I have seen villages with marvellous streets that form the element of continuity, in which the distinction between street and shop is not as clear as with us. I believe that in twenty years’ time, when the young students I have seen in Chinese faculties will be more mature, Chinese architecture will rid itself of this terrible Europeanizing or Americanizing varnish. It is terrible for a Westerner who loves the city to witness the destruction of the original Chinese houses that created promiscuity between the public sphere and the private one through the courtyards. One is making room for monstrous tall buildings that people are not happy to live in; unfortunately a great many of these complexes are being built and the development does not seem to be coming to an end, at least not for now.
M.C.: There are many Chinese film-makers who are denouncing these phenomena, showing life inside these vertical blocks, containers of mismatched humanity; it is a matter of descriptions of the malaise of people used to live in a horizontal, communal dimension, who are uprooted from their lives due to a violent and uncongenial lifestyle.
V.P.: Comparing high and low houses as solutions that are, per se, good or bad brings to mind some debates of the Twenties, but perhaps we have learnt something from those debates, namely that it is not necessary to choose one single urban system. However, there is another aspect of the issue that I find more interesting: namely, that the tall buildings are almost always more economical. To construct buildings with just one floor is really a luxury.
This makes me wonder whether low buildings are truly sustainable in a world where the population is growing without respite.

P.P.: We must reflect on the fact that we are a consumer society, that we are abusing a tendency to self-destruction. Unless we manage to get out of this blind alley, there will be no future for cities, there can be only small isolated paradises but never a global solution. I am convinced that a process of return to the limit is indispensable for the Western society, through a recovery of the typologies, of the integration of history. Not everything that has happened in the Fifties should be discarded: the contributions to knowledge, to in-depth analysis, to the meaning of architecture have been many and also precious, but the horizon in which they could be used correctly is certainly a horizon of total change, of a decisive turning point, which could undoubtedly be imposed by this profound economic crisis, that one can only get out of by changing lifestyle. It is hard to think of a society that on the one hand possesses extraordinary new technologies and that on the other must overcome this condition. Some believe that it is possible to retrace one’s step, also forgetting the good things time has given us. We must find a perspective in which we save the positive things of the Internet, the web, technology and at the same time learn to once more appreciate local values, as for instance of farming which has, through industrialization, lost the value of civilization that had built the landscape. Are we willing to forsake the landscape? I don’t think so; if we did, for instance tourism would be meaningless.
M.C.: If you were to become the director of the Biennale once more, 33 years after the Via Novissima, in what would your proposal consist?

P.P.: For years I have been cultivating the idea of geo-architecture, which is not the one of photovoltaic panels, but the one of a new sensibility, that knows how to learn from nature and history, that is able to continue innovating in a different form, that tends to save the earth and create a new alliance between humankind and the environment. It is very hard, because we must not change from a semi-alliance to a concrete alliance with the environment, but from an intense conflict to a situation of peace with nature. Does humankind have a future? There are those who believe that technological progress can solve all problems. I, on the contrary, believe that this is only a dangerous religion of a dirty and consumerist earthly infinity, rather than the more seductive one of romanticism. Things cannot go on like this, and it is really necessary to reawaken the sense of responsibility; I am in fact sustaining geo-architecture as the architecture of responsibility: everything we do, every material we move from one point on earth to another, has a consequence, and we must take stock of what it costs. This should be a spontaneous attitude; it must not be a calculation provided by a certificate, everyone must be aware of doing the right thing. The great styles of history are linked to this revolution of awareness.
V.P.: The ecological issue is extremely problematic to me; I personally prefer to think of what is economic, and interpret the ecologic requirements in this way. In the final analysis, the development of building techniques can also be interpreted as a series of improvements aimed at reducing construction costs more and more. I also believe that if we want to be objective, we must recognize the essentially violent nature of architecture: it alters the landscape, it subjects it to human needs; it opposes the terrible violence of nature and tries to render it hospitable. An attitude of radical responsibility for nature would make us stop extracting stone from the mountains, taking sand from the rivers or cutting down trees from the forests. As Piranesi writes, it would lead to the building of an architecture “without walls, without pillars, without roofs; piazza, piazza, flat country“.
M.C.: In the last few years I have visited and stayed a lot in South America, I have got to know cities as Caracas, Rio de Janeiro and San Paolo. I have visited and lived in informal cities; 80% of the cities I mentioned are often made of communities, favelas, created without rules, completely spontaneously, where there are no streets, only alleys, where there are no parking spaces and therefore no cars. In the end I have understood that these cities are not so much a problem as a possible resource for the contemporary reality, because they actually offer a higher quality of life; the sense of community, of neighbourhood relationships, the lack of viability and thus of traffic represents a problem, but also a great opportunity. These favelas, as the ones that cling to the mountains in Rio and from where you can see the ocean are, beyond the problems with hygiene, less dense than the skyscrapers along the Copacabana beach, regulated and planned only according to the rules of the market. This means that the complexity of living and of everyday needs generates quality.

P.P.: As I already said, I am afraid of those who think that the proposals of Giorgio Grassi represent the path, the aim for changing architecture. To change architecture, and thus the city, we must look precisely to the favelas. In the final analysis it is fortunately not true that the rich are happy, the statistics tell us that those who say they are happy live in places we would consider uninhabitable due to their misery. The favela is a formidable subject of reflection. Analogously, I believe that food is, in a certain sense, the place that is closest to justice: it is not true that those who eat most enjoy it most, and it is anything but true that the things that the rich eat, which are becoming more and more artificial, are better than the pizza with hot peppers that people eat in Mexico or the Tuscan Acquacotta. Tuscany teaches us that the best dishes are those of the popular tradition. We should look to the world of food and meditate on this: deluding themselves that they are eating better, the rich are eating worse than the poor and often have to imitate them in order to enjoy these dishes, which we consider exceptional. We must look to the future without heeding what is predictable. I am convinced that we can change the future if we stop working on statistics, which tell us about a predictable world, and we are perfectly aware that such forecasts are systematically disproven by history. Every individual must at some point feel and follow his or her own destiny; and the destiny of the European city today calls for a radical change.