Italy’s New Wave

A cadre of young architects looks to shake up the country’s long-stagnant building culture.

Ten years ago, 15 Italian architecture students spent four days walking the periphery of Rome. The group, called Stalker, documented what they saw in writing and photos, capturing the suburban scenery: power plants, farmlands, squatter settlements, highway on-ramps, and the occasional ancient ruin. At night they camped. They followed a ring road that has surrounded the capital city since the 1950s. Their mission followed a movement from about the same time—Situationism, a quasi-Marxist artistic theory that scrutinized the banalities of the proletarian urban landscape. Traditionally girded within medieval city walls, Italian cities had spread rampantly in the postwar decades, and their edges were dissolving. Stalker examined that dissolution, methodically circumnavigating the scattered urban boundary. The students saw the drab places as laboratories to study human interactions with built space, and they saw that study as architecture.

The journey around Rome struck a chord with the 1990s generation of architecture students, then emerging from universities. “Stalker represented the tip of an iceberg, a new conceptual wave within Italian architecture turning architectural discourse away from semantics and toward investigating the actual city through art and photography,” says Luca Molinari, architect and former curator of Milan’s Triennale. Stalker’s wanderings have continued since then but have garnered less attention.

Three groups of young architects now changing Italy’s landscape embody different aspects of Stalker’s influence: Cliostraat, in Turin; IaN+, in Rome; and Metrogramma, in Milan. Founded in 1991, Cliostraat, whose architects are Stalker’s contemporaries, shares the principle that architecture begins with artistic urban exploration. IaN+, which formed a few years later, espouses Stalker’s feverish metropolitan wanderlust combined with other ideas. Like Stalker, Metrogramma conducts extensive urban research, borrowing methods from Rem Koolhaas and Massimiliano Fuksas, who worked with its founders.

The 1990s generation emerged from a relatively quiet period in Italian architecture. After decades of predominance, from the Fascist era through the postwar public-housing boom, the country’s architectural identity had dwindled. It did not lack movements so much as buildings. Those decades had seen Aldo Rossi and Giorgio Grassi’s Tendenza treatises, Superstudio’s and Archizoom’s radical collages, the Post-Modern theorizing of Paolo Portoghesi, Alessandro Mendini’s Studio Alchimia, Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis design movement, and Massimo Iosa Ghini’s Bolidism. But all of the aforementioned expressed themselves mostly with words, pictures, and design projects. “The eighties was a period of crisis in architectural production,” Molinari says, “which had been curtailed since the late sixties by a lack of public commissions.” When the 1990s rolled around, students in universities were usually taught by nonpracticing architects.

Several historical events helped precipitate what Molinari calls “the Italian renaissance of the late nineties.” Unrest in the Balkans brought unprecedented immigration, drawing increased attention to quality of life in urban peripheries. Internet and cellular-phone use became widespread, irreversibly altering people’s collective sense of place. And from 1989 to 1991 thousands of Italian students protested the semiprivatization of universities by organizing a three-month sit-in on campuses, all the while orchestrating cultural and political events—where, says Molinari, “all these guys met and worked together.”

Like Stalker (and the postwar generation that went into product design), Cliostraat took an interdisciplinary approach to architecture from the beginning. “There isn’t much need for buildings, so we do all kinds of things,” founding member Stefano Mirti says. “Italian culture and infrastructure are not particularly receptive to new architecture, and that actually helped us a lot. We had to find our own path because the existing ones were impossible to follow or boring.” A loose group of about 20 professionals, Cliostraat assembles occasionally without a regular schedule. In the mid-1990s they collaborated with Corrado Levi, an Arte Povera-inspired artist, on several projects, including Urban Kisses (an installation of giant hoop earrings on the corners of a historical palace) and The Tipped-Over Monument, a proposal to turn the cupola of a former synagogue on its side to make a “multifunctional public space” that resembles a big syringe.

In 1993 Cliostraat won a competition to turn a former furniture factory into a city center for Quarrata, a Tuscan town that hit hard times when the facility shut down. Quarrata became a career-defining project when it was built seven years later. Cliostraat embarked on a plan using, in Molinari’s words, “artistic process as architectural discourse.” The group inhabited the town for several months, observing and documenting quotidian activities in notebooks.

The architecture that followed Cliostraat’s voyeurism was also voyeuristic—an unabashedly zoomorphic cultural center shaped like an owl, with giant abstract eyes that nocturnally light up. The Quarrata scene plays off the idea of architects’ observing human interaction with space; the building in turn becomes a mock observer. This reciprocity traces back to Stalker’s walk, in which the suburban landscape bore witness to human settlement and vice versa. “It’s interactive architecture—a kind of architettura participata,” Molinari says. After Quarrata’s completion, some citizens of the town petitioned against the owl, objecting to its “disquieting presence.”

In a 2000 issue of Abitare, critic Stefano Boeri, a friend of the group, described Cliostraat’s generation of architects as born out of rebellion against university departments “that preached the technical autonomy of architecture without ever clearly saying who architects should be and what they should do.” Professors, who were often second-generation nonbuilders, were inherently deficient definers of their occupation. Boeri continued: “It was probably in response to this latter failing that their special notion of group work was born, a way of doing things that contaminates the observational methods and procedures of architecture and urban planning with those of anthropology and public art. This was a simultaneously ironic and desperate attempt to melt the frozen staleness of Italy’s official architectural culture with real live social concerns.”

According to Emanuele Piccardo, the 33-year-old editor of the webzine, the desperate atmosphere of “frozen staleness,” stemming mostly from lack of realized buildings, had another effect. “You can’t overestimate the lack of public funding for commissions and the frequency of projects stalling or getting canned,” he says. “So everyone’s focus turned to foreign schools such as the Dutch and Portuguese—children of our own modern tradition. This has led to a kind of anti-Italian provincialism; foreign architects win the majority of commissions here.”

Facilitating work outside of Italy, the Web has thus been a boon for those of the 1990s generation who, starting with their studio’s names, dismiss nationality: Cliostraat is named for a street in Amsterdam; Metrogramma sounds deliberately generic; and IaN+, founded in 1997 by Luca Galofaro, Carmelo Baglivo, and Stefania Manna, has no interest in the Italian designation. “IaN+ stands for ‘International Architectural Network Plus,’” Galofaro explains. “Our most important influences are peers from around the world whom we’ve met through exhibits and conferences. We thrive on collaborations with foreign architects.”

Last year IaN+ traveled all the way to Taipei, a horn of plenty for architecture jobs, and won the competition for the new Tittot Glass Museum. It will be the group’s most ambitious project to date—a 129,000-square-foot U-shaped structure with a tower at one end clad entirely in glass.

Galofaro stresses that in every project IaN+ is extremely sensitive to site—and he links some of this attitude to Stalker. “In a certain sense, where their work finished, ours began: studying the dynamics of a project’s territory,” he says. The results are visible in the parking lot’s plan, which anticipates use of the surrounding space. Sandwiched between a train station and a grassy park, the lot is an open honeycomb structure that narrowly abuts the tracks, housing cars vertically and leaving the park alone.

“These guys are really ‘glo-cal,’ paying close attention to context while working all over the world,” Molinari says of the new generation. Metrogramma might be readiest to jump into the global arena. Spearheaded by Alberto Francini and Andrea Boschetti, with 20 employees, half-a-dozen built works, and a swank office space in Milan’s industrial periphery, they generate occasional envy among contemporaries, encouraged by what some call their superior attitude.

“After studying with Koolhaas, Fuksas, and Bernardo Secchi, an urbanist in Venice,” Piccardo says, “Metrogramma really specializes in complex infrastructural studies.” One of their pet concepts is what they call a “superinfrastructure,” an energy-efficient building that compresses a multiplicity of functions, from commercial to residential to outdoor, into a high-density vertical space. They arrived at the idea in answer to years of studying sprawl patterns in Bolzano, the alpine city of 100,000 where Boschetti grew up. In 2002 Metrogramma won prizes for “Four Hypotheses for Urban Densification in Bolzano,” an exploratory text enriched with Tufte-esque infographics. Superinfrastructures offer density in peripheral areas, where buildings are too often spread apart by their functional differences. A 54,000-square-foot superinfrastructure—a conversion of a former Iveco truck factory—is now under construction in Bolzano.

“We think studying the city is part of our DNA as Italian architects,” Francini says, “but our generation found a completely new position toward the city. In fact, we think we’ve been able to break free of the modus operandi of prior generations of Italian architects. The compulsion to plan spaces with reassuring recipes, which was prevalent until several years ago, is gone. We look at the emotional phenomena of a place.” Last year Metrogramma lost a competition for a new Milan government building to Pei, Cobb, and Fried Partners. “We were proud of that design,” Francini says. “To us it represented Italian architects’ readiness to return to the international scene without any inhibitions.”

For this to happen, the Italian government may need to counterbalance globalization with a dose of architectural nationalism. Domus—the country’s foremost architecture magazine since its 1928 founding by architect Gio Ponti—hired its first foreign editor, François Burkhardt, in 1996. English critic Deyan Sudjic presided from 2000 until Boeri took over last year. Sudjic has almost nothing good to say about post-1960s Italian architecture. “Italy has failed to produce a single architectural force, barring the semidetached Renzo Piano,” Sudjic writes in an e-mail. “Italy is now an architectural backwater, with people like Fuksas struggling to get noticed, and the wholesale importation of foreign names—Chipperfield, Hadid—to build more interesting projects that somehow never get finished. So architecture from the young has become a kind of doomed performance work.”

Sudjic’s indictment rings somewhat true of Stalker’s walk. But performance is doomed only if it’s not noticed—and Stalker was. More importantly it was ten years ago. “The situation for architects is getting better,” says Galofaro, who even sees a benefit in internationally awarded commissions. “In Rome important projects like Hadid’s art museum and Piano’s auditorium are educating the public about the intrinsic power of architecture, after years of torpor.” Molinari adds, “The nineties generation is galvanized by new ideas, and they are realistic. They’ve determined that architecture is expressed by works built and processes related.” If they manage to solidify their message in more buildings, perhaps Italy will again find a distinct place in the architecture world. “We’re still at the start of a long road,” Galofaro says, “but the change is beginning to show.”

About the firms:

IaN+ / Rome
Founded in 1997 by Carmelo Baglivo, Luca Galofaro, and Stefania Manna—the firm’s three core members—the International Architectural Network Plus is a multidisciplinary firm that aspires to merge architectural theory with the more practical demands of building. Each project they take on is conceived as an intervention, an opportunity to question and explore existing paradigms and urban conditions. IaN+, which at the moment totals 11 people, is working on a handful of commissions won through local and international competitions.

Cliostraat / Turin
In 1993 a team of students at the school of architecture in Turin entered a competition, and Cliostraat—the nebulously structured design firm—was born. Twelve years later, the collaborative continues to flourish, though many faces have changed. At the moment, nine members pride themselves on keeping the group “free of internal hierarchies.” (Translation: there are no principals.) Only a handful of its founders remain, and several of Cliostraat’s members teach, including Stefano Mirti, who is a professor at the Interaction Design Institute, an experimental research lab run by Italy’s mobile-phone carrier.

Metrogramma / Milan
Andrea Boschetti and Alberto Francini founded the Metrogramma Studio of Architecture and Urban Planning in Milan seven years ago. Francini had been working at the office of Massimiliano Fuksas in Rome, and Boschetti had been in Rotterdam working at OMA. For the past four years the two have developed a relationship with the city of Bolzano, where Francini was born and raised, examining its current condition and envisioning future growth patterns. A total of 20 architects and planners comprise the Milan-based office, which frequently collaborates with firms such as Foreign Office Architects, coauthors of Metrogramma’s proposal for the Lombardy government headquarters in Milan.

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