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Renato Nicolini

Polis and architecture

R. Nicolini (capogruppo) con G. Accasto, U. Colombo, G. De Boni, M. De Marinis, Concorso di idee per la riqualificazione di Piazza S. Cosimato, Roma 2002

R. Nicolini (capogruppo) con G. Accasto, U. Colombo, G. De Boni, M. De Marinis, Concorso di idee per la riqualificazione di Piazza S. Cosimato, Roma 2002


The author weaves a thesis that overturns the usual way of viewing the relationship between architecture and city. He wonders, not what architecture can do for the city, but: what can the city, in the sense of a set of citizens and institutions, do for architecture in the era of globalization and mass communication? Recalling on the way the exceptional experience of the Estati Romane.

What can the polis do for architecture? A good question, that turns the old habit of wondering what architecture might do for the polis on its head. In fact, amongst architecture's tasks, reading Vitruvius with astuteness, we can already find that of making the principles of the polis visible, of representing it.

Evidently, something became complicated with the eclipse of the principles and the establishment of democracy. It is precisely in the link between architecture and democracy that Giulio Carlo Argan identifies the essence of Walter Gropius’ new conception, forming (no less than the distinction between type and model and of the relationship between typology-morphology) the mentality of the generation of architects I belong to. Reasoning on the modern movement, more than one person has theorized as an element of democracy – and of an implicit refusal of totalitarianism – the rejection of the formal codes of historical architecture to pursue a correct expression of the sole functions of dwelling. Equally remaining a prisoner of an idea – tendentially totalizing – of a bi-univocal correspondence between the form of society and its cultural and linguistic expressions. Finding oneself heavily forced, of late, into unsustainable discussions without time limit on the morality of symmetry (something that could only be forgiven Bruno Zevi) – on the correctness of high-density housing estates like the Zen in Palermo, the Gallaratese in Milan or the Corviale in Rome – on the validity of shopping malls and new museums, summoned by hyper-consumerism, and so forth.

The architecture of the last ten years, fertilized by other linguistic codes – design, advertising, fashion, show-business (the confines between disciplines are increasingly uncertain…) – visibly pursue the objective of being eloquent, of communicating. However, unlike the speaking architecture of Boullée and Ledoux, or Russian Constructivism, it does not wish to speak of the universal, but of the particular. Gehry's Guggenheim is not only the manifesto of a museum idea, in which the image of the container communicates the content; but (like the new layout of the Louvre by I. M. Pei, and even earlier the Pompidou Centre by Piano and Rogers) is also an icon through which the city is communicated to the global world, be it Bilbao or Paris. Will they stand up to ageing, unlike what has happened to another singular effort to express novelty, namely, Sacconi's Monument to Vittorio Emanuele?

Were it not for the fact of abandoning too many aporias, it is legitimate to overturn the terms of the question. It is an idle notarial occupation to wonder what architecture might do for the polis, it has already done it. Instead it is useful to question what democratic institutions and citizens can do for architecture. Because it is precisely this desire of architecture to speak of the present, to be able to be ductile like fashion or fine art, that reveals a profound uncertainty regarding its own condition. It is the desire to be useless (a title chosen by Hugo Pratt for a conversation-autobiography) that demonstrates the condition of good health, not the contrary. It is necessary to add the outcome, to say the least, doubtful, of cases – such as the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome – in which the designer was turned to (in this case Richard Meier), like some kind of griffe that could in itself add value to a city.

Consequently, not "what can a new work of architecture do for the city", but the contrary.

I will distinguish the things that political institutions can do from those that citizens can do directly. Direct democracy was the greatest ambition of my generation, something that held together the “Communist Freedom” of Galvano della Volpe, Raniero Panzieri and Quaderni Rossi, the criticism of delegation and the myth of Pericles' Athens. It would be odd to forget this, especially in this case.

Three questions of great importance relate to political institutions: protection (in particular, protection of the modern); the practice of competitions; town-planning decisions. I will not add quality to this list: because by now this no longer depends, at least not exclusively, on public intervention – and also because of the ambiguity of the term. In his The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil denies the “qualities” of his main character, Ulrich, and instead concedes it to cities – which, he writes, “can be recognized by their pace”. But Musil's quality is objective, scientific, and statistically measurable. Quite different from the ashes of Mitterrand – who took upon himself the ultimate decision on the grands travaux of Paris – that is to say, the creativity of mayors and councillors who from time to time identify it with “tall slim skyscrapers”, Fuksas' cloud, the firmament of the archistars. Instead, when it comes to protecting the modern, there is much to do. The centenaries of Libera and Ridolfi are bitter occasions to take stock of. In Rome the Diners credit card (as the height of irony, qualified as “culture”) devastated the façade of Mario De Renzi’s Furmanik building by brutally superimposing its griffe on it in blue neon – as well as demolishing its interiors, which had been miraculously preserved intact, right down to the cupboards. It did not go any better for Luigi Moretti, whose Fencing Academy at the Foro Italico still has to re-emerge from the high-security courtroom it was transformed into, while the GIL in Trastevere is being threatened by growing deterioration. Praisers of Renzo Piano's new Auditorium ignore the Olympic Village by Libera and Moretti… It is impossible to remain happy with what is happening through competitions, which, if generalized, run the simultaneous risk of voiding themselves to competitions for façades between curriculum or archistar and, above all, to see put up for grabs even the idea based on which competitions and delegations should be banned, also in their town-planning and economic implications, to competitors themselves (unless I have misunderstood, this is the case of the former Ostiense General Markets in Rome).

With town-planning decisions, the role that citizens can play directly appears. I am not thinking of the former Cooperative Design, but of the chink that has opened up in the process that leads to these choices. In Italy, from the era of architecture as a State art – something that did not begin only from Bottai, but from Quadrante’s young rationalists – the role of public intervention in choices concerning the city has been considered decisive. The town-planning law of ’42 responds to this philosophy, but its main tool, a preventive and generalized expropriation by Municipalities of areas in new expansion, immediately turned out to be inapplicable. Hence the growth in complexity of the decisional processes that now appear irreducible to a mere public intervention. Excluding the restrictions and the definition of a maximum for sustainable transformation, we need tools that can also keep the discussion and comparison of ideas outstanding and open (I am thinking of the exemplary case of the central archaeological area in Rome, where by now the formal layout given by Munoz appears untenable, however, a fully convincing alternative project has not yet emerged), a sort of waiting project, rather then risking closing it prematurely.

In the waiting project, citizens can directly play a role to define the sense of the works of architecture. I will begin from afar. An intimate relationship binds theatre and city together, right from the Vitruvian scene. Pericles' Athenian theatre performed an assembly function, representation was offered to the assembly of citizens. Inversely, the city was used as a scene for the ritual representations of power. I have in mind the urban routes for coronations of a King, or for the accession of Pontiffs; of the Holy Years; the Bourbons’ Feste, Farina e Forca (Feste=celebrations; Farina=flour; Forca=gallows, the proverbial "Three F's," said to keep the masses in line) and liberty poles; of public demonstrations. The ephemera of the urban spectacle, through its repetition, defines and consolidates the symbolic value, hence the meaning, of an urban place. From the Sixties onwards, both on the part of the theatre (The Third Theatre of Barba and Grotowski, the Living Theatre and the involvement of the audience in the scenic action) and on the part of the urban spectacle (the ephemera of the Roman Summer compared to the ephemerae of the Twenties and Thirties, instead marked by the stamp of power), defines itself as a new relationship between architecture, representation, formation and recognition of the meaning of a place. The renunciation of communicating precise ideological meanings does not lead to the disappearance of sense, but to a multiplication of possible meanings.

Attending a performance of Oedipus at Colono staged by Mario Martone (and defined by him as an assembly theatre), in the spaces of the Teatro India which he commissioned and which opened in the era of artistic direction by the Teatro di Roma (India is nothing other than a series of derelict industrial sheds, in a place where one can feel the presence of the Tiber and that can appear as a surviving fragment of countryside, but in which together one perceives, with the Gasometer, the decisive presence of the city), I had the clear sensation that the architectural value of those buildings now depends mainly on the use made of them. The beauty of the place depends on the beauty of the performance, and the presence of the audience. I cannot see the question of the use of Rome's central archaeological area much differently. I believe it was the relationship between architecture and city that gave unitary sense to an experience, my own, otherwise dispersed among politics, institutional representation, curiosity for the spectacle and various forms of culture. The Roman Summer was the re-composition, in those years of terrorism, through the affirmation of a new mentality, of a fracture among citizens, between the privilege of the historic centre and the alienation of the suburbs. The architecture of its ephemeral layouts (entrusted to Franco Purini and Laura Thermes, Ugo Colombari and Giuseppe De Boni, amongst others) never had that pretension, common to Via dell’Impero and the exhibitions of the Thirties at the Circus Maximus, of asserting a continuity between the many historical epochs of Rome; quite the contrary. The formulations that the architectural project proposes with the ruthlessness of a premature anastylosis, or with the ambitions of a griffe in itself resolutive, would therefore counter the possibility of experiments, entrusted instead to the ephemera, collective use, spectacle. It is possible to venture beyond the Roman Summer, to re-affirm in a non-rhetorical way the value of the city of Rome as a communis patria, a city that belongs not only to Italian culture. Perhaps not merely with grand concerts at the Circus Maximus or in front of the Colosseum – or with the Festival of Literature that has newly restored the Basilica of Maxentius for public use, after two decades of interruption – but with experiments in the field of visual arts and temporary arrangements of spaces. I feel irritated when energies are absorbed by experiments in which the decorum of the city is seen with the same eyes with which the petit bourgeois look at their own fine salon (new paving for the roads, the same umbrellas and tables in every bar, billboard scandals). The city, in the era of global communication and unprecedented diffusion of images, can play another role. Instead of taking the direction of banal order, or forcing its communication capacity towards the advertising icon and the instant message, it can push itself in the direction of the deferred and multi-sense message, in the creation of places to linger in, live in, new public spaces. The classic meeting places of Italian cities (the street, the piazzas) are affected by the general crisis that is impacting meeting places in all cities. New public spaces have formed, as museums have become, and also (even more so) shopping malls. It is in the active definition of further possibilities for meeting, exchange and dwelling, through the free expression of their own desires and tastes, that citizens can now make their best contribution to architecture.

Renato Nicolini (1942-2012) was an Italian architect, politician and playwright, the inventor of the Estate Romana, a cultural festival held annually in Rome. He was Professor of Architectural Composition at the "Mediterranea" University in Reggio Calabria.

R. Nicolini (capogruppo) con G. Accasto, U. Colombo, G. De Boni, M. De Marinis, Concorso di idee per la riqualificazione di Piazza S. Cosimato, Roma 2002. Perspective

R. Nicolini (capogruppo) con G. Accasto, U. Colombo, G. De Boni, M. De Marinis, Concorso di idee per la riqualificazione di Piazza S. Cosimato, Roma 2002. Perspective