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Academic Painter: Scolari & Representation

The trajectory of the non-building architect Massimo Scolari

As the great tide of Modernism receded in the late 1960s and ’70s there was discovered, wandering among the debris on the shore, a mutant generation of architect-seers. They were to make their reputations (and careers, indeed) in architecture by the energy with which they resisted actually building anything very much.

The list could be a long one, and always disparate. Among the architects who did fundamentally change the idea of architecture − by preaching where they (often aggressively) refused to practise − are Aldo Rossi, Colin Rowe, John Hejduk, Cedric Price and Manfredo Tafuri. It was left to the luckier inheritors of this territory −Eisenman, Prix and Koolhaas among them − to discover that the market would allow real buildings to be made out of a strong theoretical antipathy to built form.

The question is where to place Massimo Scolari in this short history of the central architectural discourse of the period? For a start, if the history told above is not so much glib as wrong, then the fat new volume of his own miscellaneous writings, and of appreciations by his friends, seems frankly superfluous. We can hope that the immense body of watercolours, each obscurely titled and dense with abstract meaning, may yet have some cultish afterlife; they could at least be by nobody else.

But the book makes a larger claim, of the artist-architect as an agent in a history-that-really-matters. It carefully fosters an image of Scolari as the last true voice of the unhappy band of non-builders: stern, rigorous, incorruptible by the market. Again and again, this is presented as the only possible position for the architect in an age where active practice is impossible. And yet − and this might be the crux − there seems to be no consensus in what is said here about either the meanings to be attached to individual works, or about the nature of Scolari’s critique of the profession or of its intellectual problems. We understand just that he is awfully critical.

The impression is that the watercolours are something onto which the commentator can at will project any personal polemic position. So Leon Krier understands him as protesting against a time in which it is impossible to build, and Peter Eisenman as engaged in an enquiry into the stability of geometric forms.


A development model for Scolari’s Wings project, 1991

It is hard to see how both could be right − it is more as though each had gratefully left his theoretical conscience in Scolari’s safe-keeping while they engaged with the world in more practical ways. Other observers read the architecture as incidental to the existential questions raised in the paintings; some interpret what they understand as a tragic appreciation of the failure of the Modernist project as a nostalgia for Classical forms; others again deny all nostalgias.

Most define Scolari by listing what he is not but might-be-confused-with being. Scolari himself seems at times comfortable with having casually assumed Aldo Rossi’s cloak, and then anxious to put distance between himself and the Master. Rossi is, of course, the inescapable point of comparison − but if Scolari is indeed covering the same ground, then his imagery is very much less plangent; if the enquiry is different, or has moved on, then in which direction? Nobody quite says what seems after all the most likely, that Scolari’s work in watercolour is very precisely, even exclusively, self-referential. Or that it comes served-up without irony; so that the more ‘finished’ the sheet, the more impenetrable its meaning.

The most useful clue comes in a strange unsigned document at the end of the book. It may be by the architect himself − although we have to hope it is not − and it takes the form of an extended curriculum vitae, complete with photographs of him in the best company and the record of his achievements as skier, fencing champion and aviator. An astonishing, masonic roll-call of friends and teaching engagements reassures us that from about 1968 he was just about everywhere, and ‘frequented’ (an odd usage) just about everybody. Plenty of nostalgia here, of its kind.

Perhaps then the best way of understanding the watercolours is as his way of getting us all to go on guessing; Massimo Scolari, international architect of mystery.

The Representation of Architecture

Author: Massimo Scolari

Publisher: Skira, Milan

Price: £42

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