Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Stacks & Slices

“We want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.

Italy has been too long the great second-hand market. We want to get rid of the innumerable museums which cover it with innumerable cemeteries.

To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?”

Taken from ‘The Futurist Manifesto’ 1909, F.T Marinetti

"For me 'the past' does not exist, because I consider that everything is simultaneous in our culture and similarly in judging architecture I do not see any fracture between ancient & modern."

Gio Ponti, Amate l'architettura, 1957

^Universita degli Studi di Roma Tor Vergata Administrative Centre, the totemic Stack project, together with Calatrava's pools dominating the city's eastern suburbs 

The past is no longer a burden. It is no longer an immense archive of untouchable and superior achievement that presses down on an unworthy present. It isn’t the dead weight of millennia that must be cast-off before anyone can be free enough to do anything. We no longer need to unburden ourselves of the knowledge that nothing we will ever do will ever compare to anything in the countless multitudes of past perfections.

Historians no longer have a monopoly on our history, they cannot continue to tell us where we come from, who we were and therefore what we are. They are not the guardians of a one and only unitary truth, or of sterile debates about fine distinctions in polite disagreements. They have lost their gatekeeper status, they were caught unawares, asleep on the job, their chickens have flown the coop.

Their libraries and primary sources and secondary sources and boxes of files, and opinions and finely framed debates have escaped, they have dispersed on the wind for any of us to catch. The old wise men are just old men now that anyone can share what they had always before kept locked up for themselves. Like the shrivelled and tiny Wizard of Oz behind his screen and the magician without his secrets, they are revealed to be the terrified little humans that they are once stripped of their magical hoard.

History is not in Museums any more either. The carefully crafted didactic order, the geographic hierarchies, the chronological sequencing, the derisory narrative summaries, it is all over. It has all run into the streets. It has all escaped into the ether, onto the internet, for our delectation, for our use, for our own ideas and madcap creations, it has run away from the convent and is discovering the joys of the world.

History is a lithe, liberated, vivacious young woman who is free to mingle with whomever she so wishes, is free to sleep with whoever tickles her fancy. She is lush and fertile and whimsical and serious and silly and capricious and profound and in turns she pirouettes between wanting to go to the Opera House, the Gallery and the Library, and other times the fetish club, the protest and the beach.

The entirety of the past is now as light as a smartphone, and as fun as a theatre’s wardrobe.

History belongs to us. Each of us. We can cut it up and put it back together in whatever manner we choose. It doesn’t belong to those who made it: they bequeathed it to us in the very act of dying. It definitely doesn’t belong to an Oxford Don, or in an ivory tower. It is our gift, it is our head start, it is what makes us uniquely twenty first century human, it means we do not need to begin each time from scratch, it means we have material with which to build our future.

History is our quarry. History is an ancient monument on our doorstep that is ripe for plunder. It is our Colosseum from which we get bricks and blocks and metal to put together our own churches. Only in this case the Colosseum isn’t diminished by our rapaciousness, it is nourished by it, it gets bigger every time something new is formed from its bones, it grows and fattens. Every stone we remove sows the seed for three more in its place.

Our acts of creation with the stuff of the past transforms the whole of history. We keep it alive. We keep it growing.  We save it from the Historians and the Museums. It is us who make sure that the most obscure medieval painter is as much a part of our lives as the latest dancing puppy video.

The past is out. The bible has been translated, published and distributed and we can all interpret it however we like. The priests be damned.

The past is now, and it is ours.

Taken from ‘The Doge-storia Manifesto’, 2014 or ‘15, un-attributable collective

^detail of the stack in the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies Tower

As a designer, artist or architect in Rome, positioning oneself in relation to the past has always been of primary importance, its all-pervasive everywhereness sort of forcing the issue. Each successive generation hosts its own debate with its own set of positions expounded throughout the period in texts, works, academic positions and public commissions.

There are always the progressives and the reactionaries. Or as some would rather say there are the philistines and the civilised. Or perhaps it is always just a divide between those who are eager for dramatic change and those who favour continuity. Then again, maybe it’s the aesthetic manifestation of a perennial tension between those who have vested interests in keeping things as they are and those who don’t.

A consensus of sorts is normally achieved, a status quo, an equilibrium of mutual disagreements in which either party agrees to look the other way so long as any territory they have staked out is not infringed upon, clients are not stolen, sectors not entered into.

Things can however sometimes get a bit vicious. Occasionally civility and decorum break down, descending into petty recriminations, and a truce needs to be enforced.

As was well documented at the time in the pages of the quarterly journal “Estetica Epiche” (whose online archive I have been delving into), the controversy between the popularly labelled ‘Stacks’ & ‘Slices’ was not an amicable affair of respectfully disagreeing parties. It was more a playground turf war dressed up as academic debate, a mud-slinging affair in which both sides repeatedly accused each other of being the perfect embodiments of everything they considered wrong with society at large.

The whole drama was perhaps quite so nasty because the camps happened to be much closer to each other than had any previously arguing oppositional pair. The proximity made them mad. Although they would never admit it, they felt tarnished by association.

Both accepted the primacy of history. Both rejected abstraction. Both believed in continuity. Both used collage. They simply defined it differently. Very, very differently. In their texts anyway. To the amateur bystander the results were often interchangeable, the disagreements comic.

The ‘Stacks’ (known to themselves as “I Conservazionisti Ricostruttivi”) liked the history books, the museums, the grand narratives. Continuity for them was the reiteration of an epochal historic sequence, the elaboration through design of a series of sacred chronologies in which one thing led to another, which gave birth to the next thing and so on in a scientific enumeration of civilization’s progress through time.

They saw their job as the perpetual reiteration of moments within that great story, the re-construction in miniature of sections from within the eternal sequence which would function as didactic displays, educational reminders to the rushing commuter of our place in a formidable history, our rootedness in a proud past.

Each project became an opportunity to construct the layered historical strata of Rome anew, but this time more clearly, not just an incomprehensible crush of rubble, but a legible text in architecture, clearly legible to the average passer-by. Hence the stacking. Each project was to have a sequence, a set of styles, was to represent the progress from one period to the next. But clearly, with each era in its carefully allocated place, discrete and beautifully complete, with the relationships between these separate but neighbouring parts absolutely determined, absolutely set. Like in a Museum. Only stacked one on top of each other in piles, like layers of uncovered ruins.

^detail of the slice in the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies Tower

The ‘Slices’ (known amongst themselves as the “History Whores”) were directly inspired by the Doge-storia movimento, the manifesto of which I have partially appended above, and which sought to radically alter the way in which the past was dealt with by the progressive sector.

They were firmly in the camp of creatives who were of the belief that to not acknowledge the past, to reject it and attempt to start again each time with a clean slate, was only to be unwittingly ruled by unquestioned beliefs, habits and assumptions from that very past itself. To truly break free of the hegemony of history required a new kind of ownership of history itself.

Doge-storia were particularly influential and eloquent, but they were just one of many contemporary groups calling for history, for heritage, for the past to be disrupted, democratised, blown apart and reborn in the same way so many other sectors had been rendered completely unrecognisable since the advent of the digital era.

So the History Whores sliced, they diced, they wilfully upended, mirrored, flipped upside down, monstrously recombined at entirely incongruous scales the elements, the facades, the materials and languages of every single architectural style that could be found through a google image search. Sequence meant nothing, the overall effect, the juxtaposition of parts, the dynamism of contrasting and contradicting elements meant everything.

The Stacks were the Museum, the academy, row after row of orderly cabinets, while the Slices were the wild illogic and pure joy of a private collection, the plastic pig next to the roman fragment, they were the profuse abundance of over-stacked living room cabinets.

^elevation of the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies Tower

Both became highly successful. And they despised each other. To the point at which public competitions became unmanageable, or rather unbearable, for those organising them. Every decision was either overturned or disputed, endlessly, and if a commission was awarded, slander, personal denouncements, lies, sympathetic newspaper editors commandeered to discredit the individual members of each and every management committee, their names dragged through the mud.

There were two deaths in rapid succession. the murder of a prominent Slice and of a young Stack. They most probably had nothing to do with the controversy, and nothing was ever proven, but the atmosphere was so poisonous that everyone involved believed foul play.


^Aerial view from the South of the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies tower on Piazza Venezia

As the general chaos began also to negatively affect a host of public procurement projects, from the new City Subway line to the new school program, the Mayor stepped in to force a resolution to what he saw as an utterly ludicrous situation. Their buildings looked so similar anyway, it was an absurdity that they could not work together.

Which meant that the Slices and Stacks were forced to work together. Always. On every single new public project in the City of Rome. Forced to work together, with neither running the show, instead with an engineer in charge making all the final calls. There was a rigidly imposed new code of conduct and set of procedures and criteria to follow for every stage in every project.

That was it. Controversy over. The fights could continue on the pages of ‘Estetica Epiche’ if they so desperately wanted to vent their accumulated bile, but not in the professional sphere.

The new protocols were worked out on the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies Tower that replaced the Palazzo in front of Piazza Venezia which was heavily damaged in the Latina earthquake and the subsequent tremors.

The tower effectively marked the end of both movements, with the explosive passions that had propelled an exciting period of formal innovation, rapidly simmering into a tepid bureaucratic approach in which the fundamental formal approaches were maintained, and half-heartedly incorporated into each project, but all the vivacity was lost, all the ideological fervour was extinguished. No more towering columns of historical literacy, nor vast, coruscating slabs of dynamically intersecting architectural epochs. Just a couple of things on top of each other here, a diagonal slice there. The exhausted iterations of mutual failure. The tower on Piazza Venezia, the token slice, the sad stack, whilst still not entirely devoid of interest, absolutely embodied all the failings of the generation of projects that were to follow.

^Aerial view from closer

The topping-out ceremony for the new Ministry building marked the resolution of a controversy (which had lasted little more than five years), the death of two ideologies, and the birth of an undead official style that dominated the city for the next decade and a half.


N,B. In case you hadn't realised this is a post based in Fiction.

References: Text of translation taken from James Joll, Three Intellectuals in Politics

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Freud's Roman Slip

“Now, let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist beside the most recent.”

Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents”

^Roman Rorschach 01

Rome is an artificial intelligence of the highest order, an ancient mind so vast no one writer or researcher has been able to comprehend any but the tiniest manifestation of its intelligence, anything but the most circumscribed, delimited moment in the awe inspiring depths of its oceanic memory.

It is a fathomless and traumatised intellect that has suffered at various moments in its life haemorrhage, stroke, dementia, concussion, it has had the most brutal and retrograde forms of surgery enacted upon it, trepanning and lobotomy, electro-shock and torture, but it has always recovered, rebuilt itself, re-connected whatever dots were left to hold on to a sense of self, radically altered as that may have been, again, and again, and again.

^Roman Rotate 01

Rome suffers the terrifying fate of the immortal who is destined to repeatedly outlive every individual and every era that he loves, who is doomed to remember even if only partially things he is desperate to forget, a consciousness fated to forever exist in a present that is only half as real as moments that burned themselves into its mind a thousand years ago.

It has seen, understood, experienced, lost, achieved and attempted so much that there isn’t the slightest trace of cynicism in its gaze. Everything is equal and not good nor bad, it all just is. Rome is tender towards the frivolous, fleeting, involved passions it is always encompassing. It can no longer judge anything or anyone, after having seen the failure and the success, the condemnation and celebration of each and every kind of whim imaginable. One moment an idea is lauded, the next it is deplored.

But the mind in its own way is also forever young. It cleans itself out occasionally. It sometimes forgets, briefly. It looks in envy at those whom it encloses with their beautiful illusions, their lightness, beliefs and certainties. There are moments at any age when each of us is swept up in some excitement and looks again to be in the full blush of youth.

^Roman Rotate 02

Rome is sometimes as delighted by new things as a child. It is sometimes as taken with new notions as a teenager who has been swept up in a holiday romance, falling in love like it has never happened before with temples, tombs, forums, basilicas, catacombs, monasteries, pilgrims, churches, villas, axes, factories, trains, ministries and parliaments, monuments, motorways, museums, tourists, subways, suburbs, airports, shopping centres, office parks…

It has a deep memory, yes, but its extraordinary capacity for reordering itself, for learning, for comprehending, digesting and even constructing the present is directly proportional to the depth of its past. Rome’s physical memory is also its processing power.

St Peter’s, the Vittoriano, Termini, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Aurelian walls, EUR, the villa Albani, these are all not only vast databanks of information-storage in stone and steel, they are also macro-processors, huge, unwieldy, but incomparably reliable machines that turn the past into pure computing power with which to manage the present. Rome brings to bear the entire vigour of its singular history, with all its accumulated knowledge and sensibilities, on every contemporary situation it faces. The past here is the antithesis of heritage; it is the very substance, the very means, the base material and energy of change itself.

"It is clearly pointless to spin out this fantasy any further: the result would be unimaginable, indeed absurd. If we wish to represent a historical sequence in spatial terms, we can do so only by juxtaposition in space, for the same space cannot accommodate two different things. Our attempt to do otherwise seems like an idle game"

Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents”

Freud’s supposedly absurd metaphor was more apt than anyone might have ever imagined.

^Roman Rorschach 02

“Having overcome the error of thinking that our frequent forgetfulness amounts to the destruction of the trace left by memory and therefore to an act of annihilation, we now tend towards the opposite presumption -- that, in mental life, nothing that has once taken shape can be lost, that everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances -- for instance, through a sufficiently long regression. Let us try to understand, with the help of an analogy from another field, what this presumption implies. As an example let us take the development of the Eternal City. Historians tell us that in the earliest times Rome was Roma quadrata, an enclosed settlement on the Palatine Hill. The next phase was the Septimontium, a union of the settlements on the separate hills. After this it was the city bounded by the Servian Wall, and still later, after all the vicissitudes of the republican and the early imperial age, the city that the emperor Aurelian enclosed within his walls. We will not pursue the further transformations undergone by the city, but we cannot help wondering what traces of these early stages can still be found by a modern visitor to Rome -- whom we will credit with the best historical and topographical knowledge. He will see Aurelian's wall virtually unchanged, save for a few gaps. Here and there he will find stretches of the Servian wall that have been revealed by excavations. Because he commands enough knowledge -- more than today's archaeologists -- to be able to trace the whole course of this wall and enter the outlines of Roma quadrata in a modern city plan . Of the buildings that once occupied this ancient framework he will find nothing, or only scant remains, for they no longer exist. An extensive knowledge of the Roman republic might at most enable him to say where the temples and public buildings of that period once stood. Their sites are now occupied by ruins -- not of the original buildings, but of various buildings that replaced them after they burnt down or were destroyed. One need hardly add that all these remnants of ancient Rome appear as scattered fragments in the jumble of the great city that has grown up in recent centuries, since the Renaissance. True, much of the old is still there, but buried under modern buildings. This is how the past survives in historic places like Rome.

Now, let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist beside the most recent. For Rome this would mean that on the Palatine hill the imperial palaces and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus still rose to their original height, that the castle of San Angelo still bore on its battlements the fine statues that adorned it until the Gothic siege. Moreover, the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus would once more stand on the site of the Palazzo Caffarelli, without there being any need to dismantle the latter structure, and indeed the temple would be seen not only in its later form, which it assumed during the imperial age, but also in its earliest, when it still had Etruscan elements and was decorated with terracotta antefixes. And where the Coliseo now stands we could admire the vanished Domus Aurea of Nero; on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the present Pantheon, bequeathed by Hadrian, but the original structure of M. Agrippa; indeed, occupying the same ground would be the church of Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it is built. And the observer would perhaps need only to shift his gaze or his position in order to see the one or the other.”

Extract from Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents”



Civilisation and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, Kindle Edition

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

There's No Place Like Dome

The full height of both the outer and the inner domes of St Paul’s cathedral would fit neatly inside the interior of the dome of St Peter’s.

Begun by the larger-than-life Pope Julius II as a magnificent backdrop to his even more magnificent tomb by Michelangelo, St Peter’s was of such scale that its inception, design and realisation far outlived him. It became the cumulative work of countless craftsmen and the greatest architects of two ages, from Bramante, da Sangallo, Michelangelo, and Vignola, to Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno, Bernini and Borromini.

^The dome of St Peter's inside the dome of Yamoussoukro

One hundred and twenty years and twenty one popes later, the dome of St Peter’s rose over the city of Rome, finally supplanting the Pantheon as the summit of muscular enclosure, of the cutting-off and claiming of air, of space, of the ether from nature, by man.

Many had been involved, many left their mark, but the madness and folly of beginning such an impossibly gigantic enterprise was all Julius’

As the Pantheon was all Hadrian’s, and the Hagia Sophia was Justinian’s.

The feat of enclosing as much volume of space as possible with no supports under a perfectly centralised, symmetrical structure. The warm embrace of a vast and soothing authority into which our sense of self willingly dissolves. The uniting of a multiplicity of visitors under the awesome envelope of a unitary force. The power represented may be God. It might also be his self-appointed earthly proxy.

Height and girth. Pure height means nothing, it is the reserve of the look-out tower, the medieval fortress, a simple act of thoughtless, artless stacking. Every little town, every duke and village hall has its tower, it’s just a matter of how long they continue stacking. Pure girth also means nothing, it’s just basic extension, the addition of row after row of column and beam. By this logic three hundred huts side by side would qualify as a great space. Height and girth however, now that is a way to elevate yourself above comparison to all but the most select of other builders.

An interior so expansive that it is like an exterior enclosed only by the magnificent dome of the sky.

On the periphery of Yamoussoukro, population 200,659 and capital of Cote d’Ivoire, there is a Basilica called Our Lady of Peace. The dome of St Peter’s would fit neatly inside its dome.

In March 1983 President Félix Houphouët-Boigny relocated the country’s capital from the congested bustle of commercial Abidjan to the heartland rural plains of his home village. Cote D’ivoire was flush with cash after a decade-long economic miracle, and the new capital of course needed monuments. Houphouët-Boigny was Catholic. The country was not, but that didn’t matter. He had a European trained architect in one Pierre Fakhoury.

The highest point of the church’s structural dome could not be higher than the highest point of the cross on top of St Peter’s, out of symbolic deference. But the dome had to be bigger. So the church is really just an immense dome, which starts low, much lower than the Vatican, and wide, much wider, so that as it reaches the same height as Michelangelo’s dome, it has spanned a far, far great area.

The building complex had to clearly and unmistakably recall St Peter’s, but not be seen as just a copy. It should be seen as the continuation of a long tradition, the next step in a logical sequence stretching back to antiquity. And why not? Why should Rome and the West have any sort of ownership over architectural lineage when they have always claimed so strongly that it is universal heritage. Universal.

^The dome of St Peter's inside the dome of Yamoussoukro

It has Bernini’s colonnades, but only the oval piazza, and weirdly, what looks like church around the dome is all colonnade, empty, the shadow of a volume. It has the dome, but the proportions are much altered, all the elements hypertrophied, swollen. It has the giant orders, but they are abstracted, stripped, their entablature like a gargantuan, blown-up monochrome facsimile of a small Venturi Scott-Brown illustration. It has classical articulation on its surfaces, but it is all in low-resolution, panelised and precast concrete.

Commercial classicising post-modernism had come to Yamoussoukro, as it had to countless cities all over the globe, but instead of building another shopping mall or five star hotel, or conference centre, or airport, or theatre, it built a successor to the great apostolic Basilica in the Vatican.

In the description of the plan, Our Lady of Peace Foundation’s text (1990,19) began with the statement that the circle is an ideal figure that “reflects the divine nature,” and it is in this image Our Lady of Peace Basilica is crafted. Moreover, the interior architecture of Our Lady of Peace Basilica ‘wished to be associated with a tradition which dates back to the middle ages, continues throughout the renaissance and which links the central plan to Marian devotion.’ The text also confirms that the dome is a form of architecture that ‘dates to antiquity and reminds us of the Roman Pantheon,’ which was appropriated by Christian architecture from the ‘very beginning’ –first at ‘Saint Sophia in Constantinople from [A.D.] 532, and during the Renaissance at St Peter’s in Rome, and more recently at Yamoussoukro.’
Extract from “Architecture and Power in Africa”, p121, ‘Designing the Monuments and the Cities’ by Nnamdi Elleh

Construction began on 10 August 1985, just as an intractable economic crisis was becoming an irreparable descent. It was consecrated on 10 September 1990 by Pope John Paul II, ushering in a second decade in which its economy would shrink by over 20%*.

The Bulgars called Tarnovo the third Rome. The Russians called Moscow the third Rome. The Ottoman Turks called Istanbul the third Rome. The Austrian Empire claimed to be the third Rome, as did unified Germany. Mazzini called unified Italy the third Rome, as did Mussolini. Paris? Often.

They all built accordingly, and wherever they were, be it on the Danube or the Neva or Spree, their buildings reflected a rootedness in a geography-defying, time-collapsing notion of continuity between the Italy of Empire, of concrete, vaults, arches and domes, the Italy of Catholicism, of colonnades and vistas and again, domes, and themselves, their ambitions, dreams and hopes of success, endurance and grandeur.

The greatest displays of power and wealth always come at the point of no return in which the ruling power has become too sure of itself, has too much control, has concentrated too much sovereignty in its own hands, has come to identify itself too greatly with omnipotence, with the oculus, with the centre of the vast dome that is the system it controls.

The year of the basilica’s inauguration Houphouët-Boigny was hospitalised in France and never recovered.

^Yamoussokro in the Vatican

There are many Romes around the world, there are countless inheritors of its image, always translated and understood through the eyes of the country whose heritage its leaders, its businessmen, its demagogues, its citizens want to deepen. There will always be multiple Romes, and they will continue to be brought forth, further and further afield as world culture bleeds into one swirling maelstrom whose immense complexity is only matched by the solidity of the traditional centres around which it turns, spreading the streets of the Seven Hills through Asia, Africa, the Americas, as fast as the internet and as solidly as the massive international contractors who throw up towns like blizzards.

And for each mirror image of one aspect of itself that is manifest, somewhere in the world, big or small, Rome itself changes. Every time a foreigner interprets the city in his own way, and builds a piece of this alternative Rome somewhere else, the city cannot see itself in the same way again. This St Peter’s cannot be seen without the knowledge of that other one, or two, or three, and the fact of knowing this in no way devalues the experience, or the building itself, rather it elevates it, proves its import, adds the gravitas of a thing that is worth copying, that it is worthy of the attempt to be superseded, repeatedly.

Rome has its suburbs. It has its hinterlands. It sprawls through what was once the countryside in endless marching rows of high density apartment blocks. But it also sprawls around the world, throughout civilisation, through time, through our imaginations, a reach which is just as physical as it is mental, leaving mammoth traces from Washington DC and Detroit, to Seoul and Tokyo, Sydney and Sao Paolo. A treasure hunt of huge Roman-inspired artefacts that can be traced around the globe like the archaeological ruins scattered along the Via Appia, only you have to take planes and trains to get there, or the internet, google street-view, Bing aerials…


Architecture and Power in Africa” by Nnamdi Elleh

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Palanti's Pride

This text is based on the story of Mario Palanti and the Mole Littoria, uncovered in Dietrich C Neumann’s essay “A Skyscraper for Mussolini,” in issue 68 of the AA Files. [1]

Dictators attract conceited architects. It is an affinity as basic as that between a baby and its mother’s teat.

The architects must however engage in elaborate mating rituals, and overcome numerous rivals, before they may couple with their man. A dictator must be expertly serenaded. One’s genius must be skilfully strutted. Visionary designs, grand ideas, glorious urban transformations must be paraded in competitions, pamphlets, publications, exhibitions.

Sycophantic descriptions are appended to utopian renderings. Unsolicited projects are designed and presented as votive offerings to the greatness of the tyrant’s might and ideology.

“When the fatherland called its children, I came to serve – From Argentina.”

Mario Palanti, a successful architect practicing in Buenos Aires, author of the two tallest buildings in the Southern Americas, an Italian expatriate, a dreamer and prolific producer of impossibly megalomaniacal schemes, a superhumanly confident character, spotted in Benito Mussonlini someone who could lift his phantasms off the page and onto the skyline.

In Rome. In the Eternal City. Not Buenos Aires, not Montevideo. No more would he slave over masterpieces in places no one would appreciate them but philistine farming magnates, vulgar copper mine owners, and the uncultured, teeming masses heaving off the boats into the empty new continent. He would take his rightful place beside Hadrian, Bramante and Bernini.

Arriving in Italy before him, with an Argentinian Greyhound as a gift to the dictator, was his proposed design for L’Eternale, a 330metre high, 70,000sqm skyscraper of epic proportions mooted for the centre of Rome, a tower which was to “Eternalise for the centuries the work of the fascist government in the Eternal City.”

The tallest building in the world, but one not at the service of commerce but of the citizen and the state, housing Italy’s new Parliament, lecture halls, meeting rooms, a hotel, library, enormous sports facilities, lighthouse, clock, astronomical observatory, telegraph and telephone stations. The blinding penumbra of the reflected sunlight off its acres and acres of white Carrara marble would be visible for miles out into the Lazian countryside.

A form of cancerous, stage-set eclecticism congealed around the mighty armature of the American skyscraper typology. Or as a Palanti fan put it more generously, his works “surpass futurism, assimilate Indian art, Europeanise the east, aestheticize the American and regulate the Grotesque.”

As Neumann has explained, Palanti did not know Rome well. He liked the idea of Rome, not the actual city itself with its tiny, congested streets. He wasn’t too concerned with practical issues. He suggested the building be built somewhere between Palazzo Chigi, the seat of government, and the Tiber: one of the most densely populated urban areas in Europe. His tower would take up roughly half the district.

Mussolini loved the puppy gifted him by the architect. He went, puppy in tow, to an exhibition of the designs in the Salone della Vittoria at the Palazzo Chigi. Mussolini was impressed, it caught his imagination. It looked American, but bigger, much bigger. It was much taller than St Peter’s. It had more marble than the Vittoriano.

He signed the guestbook, “Per la Mole Littoria, Alala!”. The great man had christened the baby.

The Dictator and the conceited architect had coupled and the father had chosen the baby’s name.

“The President stayed for a long time in order to familiarise himself with all the details of the building and he discussed their technical, artistic and financial aspects, finally expressing his full approval.”

The New York Times ran the “Mole Littoria” as their front page story soon after the exhibition. It was an international sensation. Palanti became a talking point from London to Los Angeles. He rode the wave of fascination with Mussolini’s Italy, with its projection of can-do dynamism. He became a lightning rod for criticism of the regime’s hubris. Adolf Platz in the Deutsche Bauzeitung called it a “deadly sin, against which the world’s Christianity should revolt.” Stadtebau Magazine decried Rome’s “Rape”, the LA Time that it would be “chafing Rome”.

Italians were less theatrical, but according to Neumann the disdain beneath their careful and systematic criticisms was palpable. Death by a thousand reasonable objections. Where could it in actual fact realistically be built? Would it not strain the city’s infrastructure too much? How could something like it be financed? Is its mishmash of styles not out of keeping with the spirit of the era?

Marcello Piacentini, soon to become the regime’s preferred architect and planner, declared “The same sky into which Milan Cathedral reaches or Michelangelo’s dome at St Peter’s, cannot be shared with a skyscraper.” The conclusion: “no skyscrapers anywhere in Italy”.

The international headlines continued, but in Italy the debate had moved on. Palanti’s skyscraper looked like the answer to a question nobody was asking. Cremonesi told Mussolini -who was still keen on the idea- that the proposal would create “very harmful … aesthetic problems for the city,” suggesting the architect might try to achieve his goals with a different building.

The Dictator’s gaze drifted. It wasn’t important enough to push for. The experts were telling him otherwise anyway. He had other difficulties to attend to.

After the endorsement, after his international fame, the last thing Palanti had expected was a deathly wall of silence.

He returned to Italy. He redesigned the tower in several versions of descending height, 300m, 145m, 130m & 80m. Spreading his bets. Better a stump than nothing. He had another exhibition at the Salone Vittoria. Mussolini attended and politely complimented the new project. Like any delusional who will not read implicit signs of rejection, Palanti took this luke-warm nod as full re-endorsement. He published another glossy, expensive book for the new designs.

He returned to Buenos Aires to be greeted by Le Corbusier calling his recently completed Uruguayan tower an “unbearable hodgepodge … a monstrous copulation of American and Italian pastry … with delicatessen as ornament and fat dripping from its edges … a ‘public calamity’,” that was at the same time “very funny.”

Things were slipping through his fingers. Becoming desperate for his Italian dream he returned once again, this time entering the competition for a Palazzo Littorio opposite the Bailica of Maxentius.

He stole two prize racehorses that belonged to his wife and gifted them to Mussolini. They were returned.

He did not win. According to Neumann his designs were ridiculed. “Carnivalesque Cake.” “Shark-like South American snobbery.”

Palanti had missed his moment but his delusions only grew, precluding his acknowledgement of failure. He had a special relationship with the Dictator, Mussolini understood his genius even if no one else did. He gave up his lucrative but glory-less Argentine career, he moved permanently to Italy to chase prestige. He left his rich wife. He published more books, designed more grandiose projects. He proposed amongst other things a Torre Littorio in Milan based on the letter M.

Despite his increasingly pathetic efforts Palanti only ever completed one project in Italy, a symbolically appropriate tomb in the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano. Palanti and his tomb.

No newspaper, international or Italian, would ever publish him again. He never again received so much as a word from the Dictator. He never built again. The coupling of the architect and the tyrant had in the end been sterile, mostly unrequited, and had driven the lover mad.

The architect half-lived for another thirty years in a small flat in Milan, broke, alone, silently surveying the rise of and burgeoning fame of other men in his generation, men he once looked down upon from the height of his Mole Littoria.

Surrounded by piles of his various visionary towers, and ancient articles on his once “recklessly extravagant and ingeniously eccentric” imaginary projects that had been discussed from Tokyo to Montreal, Palanti eventually died, another forgotten victim of the maddening allure that Rome exerts on men, dictators and architects alike, with the irresistible challenge it poses to each successive generation: to make your mark if you dare, to equal or surpass the impossible greatness of its past, if you can.


References:[1] Dietrich C Neumann, “A Skyscraper for Mussolini”AA Files 68 p.141

This post was amended on November 16th to more thoroughly attribute its source.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Bend It Like Bernini

In 1664 Gian Lorenzo Bernini finally traveled to Paris after having been goaded and flattered by the Sun King and his court into making the trip, what was to be his only extended stay outside of Rome.

The great artist. The world famous architect. The apogee of an Italian genius that started with Giotto and had reached its final, glittering consummation. A figure who wore his lineage lightly, like linen vests on young shoulders. Virile and easy.

Alberti, Brunelleschi, Bramante, Cellini, Reni, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Romano, and on and on and like all great family trees its results were manifest in the confidence of his every gesture, a certainty in the sweep of each façade, an assurance that each of the marks he made were of unimpeachable, incomparable extraction.

Marble statues as supple as a sleeping baby’s thighs. Altars over which the sun gently set all day. Crowds clogged the streets when it was rumoured he was to be passing through. Paris was electrified. France had taken receipt of the age’s greatest hands.

The sophistication of Rome was to grace the dishevelled and disorderly streets of a northern town. The new Roman architecture was to triumph in its crowning of the French royal palace.

Facades that curved in, bulged out, in great sweeping ranges of windows, columns, attics, and plinth. Powerfully energetic, sculpturally coherent, unified in the precise balance of opposing forces. Four designs and two masterpieces. A commission for the face of a great public building of a kind that had eluded him back in Rome.

But in squalid Paris. For nouveau-riche France. The great artist was faced with his greatest work being an orphan. Far away from civilisation, far from his peers, from his predecessors, from its heritage.

He was not happy.

The master architect’s millennial dilemma: to build compromises in your cherished home, or to build wonders for foreign dictators in places you hate.

He stumbled upon the work of a compatriot: “This Annunciation by Guido Reni is worth half of your Paris,” but he immediately corrected himself: “No, it’s worth more.”

Bernini’s sourness and disdain for his hosts soon preceded him as he moved around the city. The crowds thinned and then disappeared altogether. The court no longer courted him. The alien complexity of his designs for the Louvre lost their sheen of novelty and became simply strange, foreign, arrogant.

France was powerful, intellectual, austere and on the up. Bernini was too instinctive, too flamboyant, too multi-disciplinary, disordered. France could construct its own great lineage, construct its own architecture. An ordered architecture, an austere architecture.

To keep their guest sweet as his star faded, he was commissioned and completed a bust of the Sun King. It went down well. He returned to Rome a failed export. Genius is temperamental. It is not a reliable commodity. Despite their vigour and charm, Bernini’s great convex, concave, in and out and sweeping Louvre facades were infertile, they bore no fruit and sowed no French seeds.

They however found their way back to Rome. They made it home.

There they entered the city's blood stream and so remain, hidden in every building, carried dormant in the genes of every Roman Palazzina, each office tower, every petrol station. Bernini's Parisian dream shows itself partially realised everywhere in the city, in every period, it is continuously built in parts on almost every street, in the arc of a 1950s balcony, the tower of a 19th Century church, the entrance to an underground station, the counter of a bar, a collection of ceramics on sale in Porta Portese...