The concept of identity in contemporary architecture | Federica Cristina

Testo inedito

The term ‘Identity’ emerges paradoxically when we experiment its loss, as Giovanni Corbellini recalls in his article about the Italian Pavilion of the 10th Biennale of Venezia(1). Is that why this term is so present in the contemporary architectural debate? Is that why architects are so willing to redefine what is the ‘new architecture’? Maybe is really because they are experimenting this loss, this lack in significance, this difficulty to ‘fit in’ correctly in our evolving society. The elaboration of a precise Italian architectural identity has been the aim of Claudio d’Amato and Franco Purini (as curators of the 2006 Italian pavilion of the Biennale). The first recognizes fascist architecture (and its nostalgic, totalitarian, academical use of stone) as the central key to understand Italian architecture, which, with these assumptions opposes international architecture tendency. The second proposed a new initiative, the VEMA project concerning the design of a new city between Verona and Mantova. It was supposed to open a sustainable (both economically and environmentally) and politically correct scenario, but it had many contradictory aspects. An interesting critic emerging from Purini’s initiative is the one against archistar’s approach, characterized by absence of memory and grounding, superficiality, and by breaking the link with the context; all things are openly in contrast with VEMA’s logic.
The relationship between architectures and context is one of the most problematic issues in the definition of architectural identity; there are mainly two currents: the one including most of the ‘iconic’ archistars for which a building reaches its complexity and fullness within itself, often regardless of the surroundings and the cultural, social, and political context; and the other (involving many other architects and historically very rooted in Italy) which believes that architecture will always care about building in different places, making these places themselves become continuously part of the architectural process and vice versa (as expressed by John Agrew(2)).
Contemporary architecture is much renowned (especially to the large public) by examples of the first kind, which are of course better recognisable and much more advertised since their purpose is to strike attention and emerge on everything else is around them. This is also a matter of scale as Enzo Eusebi believes(3): “in the city today, the principle of Koolhaas’ ‘Fuck the context’ must apply since in front of you there is so widespread iconography of architectural examples and of ‘non-architecture’ that the architect no longer seek any reference to the context. So Rem Koolhaas(4) statement describes the present situation very well, in particular in the metropolis. Society evolution and flexibility, information’s speed, multitasking approaches, consumer’s superficiality and the appearance logic are perfectly in mood with that type of architecture, the one that do not depends on the environment, that it is not rooted to any tradition but that is free to change and adapt. An architecture that sometimes is also at the same level of any other good, ready to be merchandise, perfect for the market and a convenient deal to make.
Analysing this kind of architecture Charles Jenks interrogation seems to be weather or not those are ‘good or bad’ buildings since this designing process may just affects the architectural quality or at least the architect creativity(5).
And Jenks again in his book ‘The new paradigm in architecture'(6) refers to postmodernist architects as those who “could see the urban cacophony that resulted when every architect followed his own style rather than work with the place and particular situation […] Form follows function, the war cry of Modernism, has become Form follows Brand”.
The other way of carrying out architectural practice shows at least some more sensitivity to what is our historic background and tradition; architecture is not there to ‘stand up’ by itself but to be put in service of the place to where it belongs. The place itself contribute to make the architect’s gesture meaningful and complete, while the environment receive new stimuli and gain in complexity. This approach is more silent, maybe somehow more elegant and probably is more appreciated in countries like Italy where architectural traditions are so rooted and where there is such a historical richness; this does not mean that contemporary architecture must give up to find its own path and meaning but still it cannot just forget about the pre-existing (especially in old cities). Since 1957 Rogers tries to find a mediation between the opposing terms of modernity and tradition (“retracing the historical tradition, in a critical and considered way, is useful for an architect when he refuses to accept a certain thematic mechanically”(7)), because he sees in this fusion the possible future of italian architecture that has been characterized by this contradictory relationship since ‘the Italian retreat from modern architecture’ declared by Reyner Banham (“the retreat harks back, consciously and avowedly, to what Aldo Rossi calls ‘the forms of a middle-class past’, to the Tempi Felici, to the good old days […] Neoliberty is infantile regression”)(8).
Answering to this provocative article, Rogers cites Ruskin(9) as a hint for a possible architecture revolution: “Let’s consider architecture of nations, both relating to the feelings and morals of each of them , and to the landscape, in which it is placed,and to the sky, under which it raises”. In another article, Rogers answering to a letter of Roberto Pane, says that the architectural opera can’t pretend to consist practically (in his utility’s concrete values) otherwise it would not be more than a mere symbol of its reality: it’d be an image, and not properly a historical emergency determined not only in time but also in the physical articulation of space(10).
Getting back to what is contemporary debate, Marina Bruzzone believes that there are external circumstances, such as place, culture, traditions, cultural background of the architect that gives to the opera that own specific identity which, in the luckiest cases, reveals its assonance with the identity of that single and specific place(11) ( ‘place’ here as an identified, relational and historical space, based on Marc Augé’s definition(12)).
Tiziana Proietti also shares this vision of the place as a space marked by the identity of who lives in it and also as a space able to detect reciprocal relationships between individuals in function of their common belongings(13). A place it’s also historical for its own capacity to remind the inhabitants their roots.
Maybe it is easier and less ‘irresponsible’ to ‘fuck the context’ in countries that have not architectural references yet and that are trying to build up now their identity (it sounds senseless to talk about the pre-existing in Las Vegas while it would be inconceivable to forget them in Florence, Venice or Rome, as well as many other European cities).
Relating to the contest or not it is a choice the architect will always have to make while approaching a new project. Some theories try to mediate this situation and that’s the case of critical regionalism, as described by Kenneth Frampton(14).
Another question now is weather it becomes possible to reach architectural identity, here meaning its full potentiality, both being iconic and still strictly linked to the place it belongs, both emotional yet understandable in its means. Maybe the answer to such a challenge lies not in words but realized buildings. Some plausible recent example could be the Thermal Baths in Vals by Peter Zumthor, which is the great result of a struggling process through environmental understanding, material research, emotional suggestions, all of this factors reunited in a building that look as it has always been there, on that mountain side, but yet iconic as it makes its clear statement and becomes a symbol for the town. Or an example from the recent past as the Guggenheim Museum by Wright that denying New York’s intimate essence has become such an intriguing part of it and one of those building that best embodies NY’s spirit.
For an architecture to reach a proper identity, typology is also essential: the identity of a residential house for instance is structured on certain fixed elements: the individual dimension, the recall to remembrance (as an association process that links memories and ideas), the notion of domesticity as converging of coziness, pleasantness, comfortableness(15).
In this identity definition, human perception is fundamental and Olivia Longo finds that light, both artificial and natural, materials choices, shapes and dimensions are the main elements that condition human feeling(16). Additionally external anthropogeographical space (recalling Gregotti(17)) perceived by the inside has big relevance on establish relationships between spaces, objects perception and human beings.
Architectural identity it is maybe reached, to say it in Kahn’s words, when the building itself is seen as inevitable, as how it was supposed to be: the nature of space reflects what space aspires to be(18). Zumthor remarks very often in his book ‘Thinking architecture'(19) the concept that some buildings seems to be simple ‘there’ and it is impossible to imagine the place in which they are sited without them. They integrate their context so perfectly that they seem to make a statement: we must be here. Zumthor perceive the architect’s aim as the revealing of what a building wants to be (“learn to understand what still is not, but is about to become”).

1 Corbellini, Giovanni, “Siamo diversi…ma siamo uguali. Il padiglione Italiano alla 10. Biennale di Architettura di Venezia”, Arch’It, 2006.
2 Agrew, John, preface on Visentin Chiara, L’architettura dei luoghi,Il Poligrafo, 2008.
3 La Rocca, Greta, intervista a Enzo Eusebi su house, living and business, 2010.
4 Koolhaas, Rem, Bigness and the Problem of Large, in Id, Oma e Bruce Mau, S, M, L, XL, a cura di Jennifer Sigler, 010 Publishers, 1995.
5 Jenks, Charles, The iconic building. The power of enigma, Frances Lincoln, 2005.
6 Jenks, Charles, The new paradigm in architecture, Yale University Press, 2002.
7 Rogers, Ernesto Nathan, L’evoluzione dell’architettura. Risposta al custode dei frigidaires, in “Casabella-Continuità”, n. 228, 1958 and Rogers, Ernesto Nathan, La tradizione dell’architettura moderna in Italia, in “Casabella-Continuità”, n. 214, 1957.
8 Banham, Reyner, Neoliberty. The italian retreat from modern architecture, in “Architectural Review”, n.747, 1959 and Rossi, Aldo, Il passato e il presente nella nuova architettura, in Casabella continuità, n. 219, 1959.
9 Ruskin, John, Poetry of architecture. Seven lamps of architecture, Library edition,1892.
10 Rogers, Ernesto Nathan, Dibattito sugli inserimenti nelle preesistenze ambientali, in “Casabella-Continuità”, n. 214, 1957.
11 Bruzzone, Monica, Buona costruzione e piccola dimensione. L’identità dell’architettura nei segni del luogo,Il Poligrafo, 2008.
12 Augé, Marc, Nonluoghi, Elèuthera, 1993.
13 Proietti, Tiziana, Identità ai margini nell’anticittà contemporanea in (h)ortus, ottobre 2007.
14 Frampton, Kenneth, Anti-tabula rasa: verso un regionalismo critico, in “Casabella”, n.500, 1984
15 Sbacchi, M, Interpretazioni della domesticità in Alfano, F, “La casa dell’angelo. Nuovi spazi, dimensioni dell’abitare domestico”, Clean, 2001.
16 Longo, Olivia, Abitare la contemporaneità. Forma e identità nell’architettura, Ila Palma, 2004.
17 Gregotti, Vittorio, Il territorio dell’architettura, Feltrinelli, 1966
18 Kahn, Louis, Order is, in Perspecta n.3, 1955.
19 Zumthor, Peter, Pensare architettura, Electa, 1997


– On VEMA:
La Varra, Giovanni, La prossima Italia. Note a partire da due sguardi sul futuro dell’architettura italiana on Arch’it, 24 Aprile 2011.
– On context debate:
Corbellini, Giovanni, Context in “Ex libris. Parole chiave dell’architettura contemporanea”, 22 Publishing, 2007.
– On relationship between cities and building typology:
Aymonino, Carlo, Il significato delle città, Laterza, 1975.
– On building’s adaptation to context:
Dethier, Jean, Architetture di terra, Electa, 1982.
– On city’s studies:
Hilberseimer, Ludwig, La natura delle città, il Saggiatore, 1969.
Koolhaas, Rem, Delirious New York. Un manifesto retroattivo per Manhattan, Electa, 2001.
– On Louis Kahn:
Brownlee, David B.and Long,David G., Louis I. Kahn, Rizzoli, 1991.
Norberg Shulz, Christian, Louis Kahn. Idea e immagine, Officina edizioni, 1980.
– On Peter Zumthor:
Peter Zumthor, a+u extra edition, February 1998.
– On Guggenheim Museum:
Zevi, Bruno, Frank Lloyd Wright, Zanichelli, 1979.
Tafuri, Manfredo e Dal Co, Francesco, Architettura contemporanea, Electa, 1976.
– On architecture and space:
La Cecla, Franco, Perdersi. L’uomo senza ambiente, Laterza 1988.
– On architect future prospectives and new architecture:
Pisani, Mario, Dove va l’architettura, Editori Riuniti, 1987.
Gregotti, Vittorio, Dentro l’architettura, Bollati Boringhieri, 1991.

Data dinascita:03/05/1989
Professione: ARCHITETTO

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