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Tommaso Brighenti

Luciano Semerani: the lay religio in dealing with art

Kazimir Malevic, Scheme 1, illustration for the book On New Systems in Art, Vitebsk 1919

Kazimir Malevic, Scheme 1, illustration for the book On New Systems in Art, Vitebsk 1919

Through the PhD course in Architectural Composition at the IUAV of Venice, Luciano Semerani looked into architectural composition with an analysis of coherence in the process when a single creator designs a single work, in order to verify the authenticity of the language. Beginning from the impossibility of resolving the relationship between architectural theories and the process of invention by constructing a «universal treatise», Semerani carried out research that involved a thorough analysis of these mechanisms and the intentions that lie behind the compositional procedure characterizing each architectural work, to master the techniques linked to a specific language through analysis of individual poetics in the border area, with some real foundational and conceptual research.

«A composition operates in outdatedness. Outdatedness is a categorical imperative. It derives from the permanent obligation to venture within, towards the interior of architecture, not towards the future, and not towards its past»1

In 2002, Luciano Semerani became coordinator of the PhD course in Architectural Composition2 at the IUAV in Venice, a position he held until 2011. In a historical moment when a “loss of authority” of the notion of architectural composition was being tackled, in these years, Semerani promoted a type of work founded on a strongly defined cultural project that could be developed within this kind of composition, considering it as a different discipline from design, history or urban planning.
Starting again from Ernesto Nathan Rogers, of whom Semerani was one of the most direct students, inheriting, as Tafuri was to write, «the lay religio in dealing with art from his master»3, and continuing along that tradition of thinking which comes from Enzo Paci, Antonio Banfi, and Edmund Husserl, Semerani understood the term “composition” as an answer to the necessity to «reduce or abstract the essence of experience from the immediate data of experience»4, resulting in the finding of analytical categories that would define image, structure, and “symbol”5.
Hence a study of composition based on knowledge of the elements that enter its interior as a part, and combine to form the composition of a “unitary fact”6 through different procedures, while referring to different concepts. 
The plan, the type, the dividing elements, the harmonic rules, the number, the measures, the various tectonics are just some of the features that however need to be coded.
For this reason, on the PhD course, Semerani carried out a study “of the architectural art” through an analysis of the structure of the works, their internal structure, as a means to de-compose and re-compose the formal combinations of these elements, re-compositions he himself defined as a nub of that “theory of architecture without which, as Bernard Hoesli maintained, architecture does not exist”7 .
«We began from formative processes. We assigned to the term composition its own meaning, as the internal, essential, deep meaning of things»8.
But as much as these elements are common to those of the eclectic Neoclassical Academy or to those of the Avant-garde, since it is always the plan, type, and proportions but also the line, point and surface under discussion, it is the compositional procedures that change, and for this reason it is the “architectural practice” and its ultimate goal that are investigated on the PhD course. The humanistic foundation of the goal that changes the rules of its game, since the «quality of the text comes from its internal coherence»9 .
Semerani himself was to maintain that «the variety of the tendencies present in the panorama of 20th century architecture, which affords proof of the vitality of contemporary art, demands that the researcher has interests in tune with the process of forming the work and at the same time the capacity to perform a scientific analysis based on a rigorous reconstruction of the mechanisms and intentions that lie at the base of every construction»10.
However, it is not enough to state that there is an intention to investigate some compositional techniques, since this is common to universities like the Cooper Union of New York. In reality, Semerani expects to find the genesis of the form11 penetrating the raison d’ętre of the creative act, investigating the efficacy of a language in transmitting a vision of the world and its interpretation, a conviction that lies within determined experiences.
Starting from an iconological interpretation of architecture, as Erwin Panofsky did12,and proceeding along distinct planes beyond the confines of the abstract world of numbers, geometry, and proportions, entering the territories of syntax and rhetoric, during these working years Semerani broadened the horizon of compositional analysis extending it to the need to seek in the symbolic dimension, images of a past that is conscious and unconscious at the same time, favouring the abandonment of design practice, to develop an analysis of the coherence within the process of designing a single work by a single architect in order to verify an “absolute value”, which he defined as the authenticity of language. 
This research led him to take into consideration those architects who have most epitomized this behaviour, as for example in the works of Bogdan Bogdanovic, so abounding in references to surrealist culture, the world of the archetype and the rediscovery of the Slavs and their ethnic roots, which are different from those of neo-Latin and European cultural areas. «Memorials guarantee access to ‘another’ dimension, trace a threshold between what can be memorable (hence representable) and unforgettable. It is the organizational choice, the language adopted, the skilfully underlined rhythm at key points (door, threshold, final conclusion) that lead to an interpretation of the architectural tale without predetermining its outcome. The gradual initial immersion, the envelopment-containment inside an enclosure and the final ascesis obtained using different compositional systems, therefore become the operations-perceptions founding the work»13.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jože Plečnik, Gunnar Asplund, Hans Scharoun, Kostantin Melnikov, and Paulo Mendes da Rocha, are all marginal figures, extraneous to the centre, the nub of architecture, in which it is possible however to find the reasons for the “compositional process, that procedural approach, which you can call ‘becoming’ or ‘life’ through which one form is born from another and from which, as Wright said, one form precedes another, but also contradicts, cancels or encounters it»14. 
For this reason, the intentions of Plečnik or Bogdanovic are not so far from those of the Nordic Lewerenz or the Greek Pikionis, since all of them “investigated in dissonance the symbolic properties of an archetypical figurativeness”15 ,or John Soane, Saverio Muratori, and Gunnar Asplund, architects who created profoundly different architectural works but shared a “thought that always has the city as a broader dimension of reflection”16.
For example, Lina Bo Bardi herself, a revolutionary, not so much for her political position, but because the most illuminating lessons of philosophy, cultural anthropology, and sociology can all be found in her work which features the necessity to “understand the emotions, passions, dreams, and, ultimately, the unconscious within the world project”17.
Hence, the approach comes through the architectural construction with the aim of rebuilding the project approach, the “mechanics of the process”, the techniques to construct the architectural object and find in its depths that correlation between the choice of tools (intentions) and the effects, what Semerani called “communicative intentionality and results”, an intentionality that has usually always been excluded in some way from purely analytical investigations, which have preferred analysis of forms and formal combinations showing a relationship between the internal structure of the works and their geometry.
This must be the turning point, since the sense of this analysis therefore becomes the understanding, work by work, context by context, author by author, which methods were chosen to achieve the result, the expressive modes and the subjective poetic motivations or the relationships between works of architecture and the social practices that lie at the origin of the works, a structuralist investigation, conceivably, but aimed at recognizing not only “the grammar but also the syntax of the compositional forms”, their anatomy, able to better express, “case by case”, a communicative value «of an intention upstream».
«What I understood from this PhD experience is that effectively it was possible to delve deeply into the objects in an almost unlimited way, and naturally from this analysis of the structure of the object you can then also find the reasons for this type of structure. Bogdanovic works the earth rather than lifting it or raising stones, in line with an idea he has of the way to have people meet, or how today, at that moment he can in those political and social conditions have people meet. However, this then leads you to understand all the relationships he has established through his readings and how he has built his own way of thinking. […]Architecture can be explained starting from its interior, he did not make this architecture because he was communist, however, from his architecture you can understand that he was communist»18.
From a methodological point of view, Semerani, instead of creating a series of generalizations starting from a more abstract and theoretical approach, reaches a sort of generalization of the resolution of problems starting from the specific problem of an architectural object related to a precise context. This type of research and study constitutes non-inessential attempts to rationalize the tools, procedures and ideas which, «perhaps more than giving rise to techniques put us in the condition to understand the logic of what we  might call a poetic»19, dilating the architect’s experience and constantly focusing on the theme of the form and the space, while grasping the nature and deepest meaning that architecture embraces. For this reason, the compositional process is investigated through the recovery of laws and regulations which are not those of Alberti, Palladio or the 1700s, «guarantees of architecture’s quality, guarantees of beauty or even an answer to the foundations of the discipline»20,but studied through those figures of architecture who are extraneous to its centre, its nucleus21.
1 Semerani, L. (2010). Introduzione a Colin Rowe e all’architettura come testo, in a cura di Marzo, M., L’architettura come testo e la figura di Colin Rowe. Venezia: Marsilio.
2 «The PhD is a post lauream institution of the Italian university system that began in the  1983-84 academic year. The first PhD in Architectural Composition, set up thanks to a consortium of three Faculties of Architecture (Milan, Naples, and Venice), found a home at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice, coordinated by Francesco Tentori». Montuori, M. (1988). 10 maestri dell’architettura italiana. Lezioni di progettazione. Milano: Electa.
3 Tafuri, M. (1983). Epistula ad Lucianum architectum in a cura di Rosa, C., Semerani+Tamaro. La cittŕ e i progetti. Roma: Edizioni Kappa, 5-7.
4 Semerani, L. (2013). La composizione e la cultura del XX secolo, in Semerani, L., Incontri e Lezioni. Attrazione e contrasto tra le forme. Napoli: Clean Edizioni, 171.
5 Cfr Semerani, L. (2007). L’esperienza del simbolo. Lezioni di Teoria e Tecnica della Progettazione Architettonica. Napoli: Clean Edizioni. 
6 Rogers maintained that the word element possesses two meanings when speaking of the elements of the architectural phenomenon: «element means what enters, as a part, in the composition of a unitary fact and helps to form it; but element also means beginning, the foundation of the theory of a determined discipline». Rogers, E.N. (a cura di de Seta, C.), (2006). Gli elementi del fenomeno architettonico. Milano: Christian Marinotti Edizioni.
7 Semerani, L., Gallo, A., De Michelis, G. (2011). Tecniche di analisi e di composizione. Padova: Il Poligrafo.
8 Semerani, L. (2012). Il Circolo di Malevic. La scuola UNOVIS, 1919-1922. Il dipartimento di Ricerca Formale e Teorica del Museo di Cultura Artistica di San Pietroburgo, 1923-1926, in AA. VV. a cura di Gallo, A., The clinic of dissection of art. Venezia: Marsilio, 13.
9 Ibidem.
10 Semerani, L., Gallo, A., De Michelis, G. (2011). Tecniche di analisi e di composizione. Padova: Il Poligrafo.
11 Cfr. Semerani, L. (2013). Un’idea sulla genesi della forma, in Semerani, L., Incontri e Lezioni. Attrazione e contrasto tra le forme. Napoli: Clean, 100-109.
12 Panofsky, E. (1939). Study of Iconology. New York.
13 Re Dionigi, E. (2011). Bogdan Bogdanovic, Necropoli simbolica di Slobodište a Kruševac parco memoriale di Sremska Mitrovica, in Semerani, L., Gallo, A., De Michelis, G., Tecniche di analisi e di composizione. Padova: Il Poligrafo.
14 From the transcription of a conversation with Luciano Semerani on 25 October 2013 in Venice.
15 Semerani, L. (2013). La composizione e la cultura del XX secolo, in Semerani, L., Incontri e Lezioni. Attrazione e contrasto tra le forme. Napoli: Clean Edizioni, 173.
16 Mantese, E. (2008), Il valore urbano dell’architettura, in a cura di Mantese, E., Carattere Narrazione Variazione. Studi sul valore urbano dell’architettura. Venezia: Marsilio Editori, 9-41. 
17 Semerani, L. (2004). L’origine archetipica della modernitŕ, in a cura di Gallo A., Lina Bo Bardi architetto. Venezia: Marsilio Editori, 54-71.
18 From the transcription of a conversation with Luciano Semerani on 19 February 2013 in Venice.
19 From the transcription of a lesson by Luciano Semerani and Antonella Gallo as part of a course on "Teorie e Tecniche della Progettazione architettonica" by Enrico Bordogna and Daniele Vitale, a.y. 2011/2012 at the Politecnico di Milano.
20 From the transcription of a conversation with Luciano Semerani on 25 October 2013 in Venice.
21 Ibidem.

Tommaso Brighenti (b. Parma, 1985) architect, is a lecturer at the Politecnico of Milan. In 2015, he took his PhD in Architectural Composition at the Politecnico of Milan, with a thesis entitled: The Teaching of Architectural Composition. He has taken part in national and international competitions and research projects, collaborating with various firms and Italian universities including the Politecnico of Turin and the University of Parma.
James E. Miller, Peter Richard Saltini, Problem Analysis, 1968. Project analysis of Le Corbusier's church at Firminy - ZOOM

James E. Miller, Peter Richard Saltini, Problem Analysis, 1968. Project analysis of Le Corbusier's church at Firminy