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1961 May: Psychiatric Institute Milan by Vittorio Vigano

The term ‘Brutalist’ has been applied to only two Italian architects, Leonardo Ricci and Vittoriano Vigano. In the first case it is a loose usage applied casually to Ricci’s structure-cluttered interiors and almost cyclopean random-masonry walling, in default of some more accurate term, but in the case of Vigano it was applied to his Istituto Marchiondi by Bruno Zevi with full justificatory argument and -definitions.

Zevi’s justifications were substantial; an examination of the illustrations of the Istituto Marchiondi that appear on the AR’s pages show that it stands fairly close to the canonical definitions of Brutalism advanced by Reyner Banham (AR, December 1955). Some, at least, of its constituent buildings exhibit ‘memorability as an image’ (notably, the bathrooms elevation of the dormitory); the use of external concrete framing constitutes ‘clear exhibition of structure’ and the general employment of exposed concrete for most of the surfaces of the buildings bears witness to ‘valuation of materials as found.’

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But Vigano did not set out to design a Brutalist building. His aim, by his own testimony, was to provide a solution to an extremely difficult and responsible functional programme; his success is to have improved the programme in the process of serving the required functions, and to have provided better buildings than were indicated in his original brief.

If the result has turned out Brutalist it is because of a community of aims between Vigano and the Brutalists, more than any similarity of means. It could probably be equally well defined as Functionalist or Futurist, and flatter either category, simply because it displays-in common with all good modem architecture - a radical appraisal of function, realized in suitably radical forms.

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The Istituto Marchiondi is a secular organisation for the care and cure of psychologically maladjusted boys and youths. It has existed in Milan since the middle of the nineteenth century, and has made a valued contribution to the life of the city-among its alumni was the celebrated Milanese painter, Giovanni Segantini.

Until the beginning of 1959 it was housed in barrack-like buildings in a central area of Milan-the site lies opposite the present residence of the architect of the new structure. The buildings and the site had become obsolete, both physically and in terms of the psychiatric programme conducted in the Institute, but the site had also become sufficiently valuable to finance the move to a new location at Baggio, on the extreme western outskirts of Milan, and to cover in part the cost of erecting new buildings there.

These new buildings are not only a physical replacement of the old, but are also designed around a reformed programme of teaching and cure, and the architect collaborated with the Institute’s Governors and staff in working out a revised distribution of interior and exterior spaces adapted to the new programme, and intended to render more humane the relationship of boys to staff while reducing the psychological pressure on the staff themselves.

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The accommodation provided in the new buildings (not all of which have yet been built) includes-or will include-entrance and school-keeper’s facilities, together with the offices necessary for running an Institute of this kind; classroom blocks for elementary and some secondary education; a small ‘cloister’ of study-bedrooms for the staff with adjoining psychiatric consulting rooms, including some for group work; a large hall and common living-room, and a block of dormitory accommodation. A future church in one corner of the site and a gymnasium are also included in the project.

The construction is of exposed reinforced concrete throughout. This is normally of the post-and-beam type, much of the structure being revealed on the exterior of the blocks. The classrooms for elementary instruction, however, are roofed with concrete vaults resting on long horizontal beams, and a similar beamed construction is continued on the module of the living-room block (though unroofed) to give architectural order to the area of paving and grass which is to be used as an exterior living-space. Internally, plasterwork covering infill materials is normally painted in strong colours, selected to enhance the psychological effect of the rooms.

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The dormitory block is marked by an original type of double-height sleeping spaces which have been used in order to give the necessary volume of air required by the building bye-laws without creating an unduly wide open expanse of floor. Twelve boys sleep in each bay of the dormitory and ascend by a spiral staircase to bathroom and toilet facilities at the upper level.

From this point a concrete bridge extends to the opposite end of the bay through the upper space to give access to clothes-cupboards without the boys having to become involved with the circulation of the Institute’s servants: the cupboards are double-sided with servants’ access on one side, and the boys’ on the other.

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Separate circulations to the boys’ and servants’ levels are provided by a ‘two-start ’ wooden staircase, with a supervisor’s desk in the open stair-well. Thus, at night it is possible for one member of the staff to take care of all 300 boys, instead of a master having to sleep in every dormitory room as was the arrangement in the older buildings.

The new psychiatric programme of the school is based on concepts of free and active teaching, and the devolution of as much responsibility as possible to the boys themselves. Thus, in the dormitories every boy has a locker with a key which is his own responsibility, and the hall-living-room has been laid out in such a way as to provide a variety of interim spaces in which the boys can freely associate in spontaneous groups-a complete contrast to the rigid discipline of the older system and the older buildings.

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