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An elegant fetish: Asnago and Vender and the construction of Modern Milan

If Rossi’s reading of Milan was rather defeatist, this publication claims that the Italian city has successfully embodied history within its modernity. Its attempt to assess Asnago and Vender’s work however remains unsatisfactory

This is the second in a series of books that, according to the publisher, aim to shed light on the ‘forgotten generation of European architects’.

The first in this series was a book on the architect Fernand Pouillon, whose work remains largely unknown outside France − partly due to a scandal leading to his imprisonment, escape and a long exile in Algeria before Georges Pompidou granted him a pardon. Unlike Pouillon, who wrote extensively about his life and work, Asnago and Vender almost never wrote about their work. Indeed, with the exception of a small book in 1998 (edited by Cino Zucchi), there have been no other monographs on their work until now.

The first section of the book, ‘Milan Ambiente’, articulates the historical scenario in which the projects were designed, featuring essays by Aldo Rossi, Giò Ponti, Ernesto Nathan Rogers and Angelo Lunati. These texts appear for the first time in English, and while they are all essential reads to grasp the cultural landscape surrounding the work of the Milanese duo, their translation is not perfectly accurate, and they contain a number of quite evident mistakes.

Aldo Rossi’s essay critiques Milan’s urban condition, decrying excessive property speculation and poor city regulations. These observations are still valid today, as Milan attempts to refashion itself as a global financial capital by erecting odd-shaped skyscrapers and an array of purposeless luxury housing. Milan aspires to lead the path into the future for Italian cities, by hosting outdated events like the upcoming Universal Expo − but as Rossi noted as long ago as the 1970s ‘[Milanese building culture is] anonymous, provincial, always based on the latest innovations in technology and taste, rendering them outdated before they are even completed’.

It is interesting to note that in their introduction to the book, editors Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas paint a different picture, claiming that unlike other major European metropolises Milan ‘has successfully embodied history within its modernity’, claiming the legacy of Asnago Vender as the testament to such success. The discrepancy with Rossi’s reading of Milan could be due to an (awkward?) nostalgia towards the sober industrial bourgeoisie that shaped the modern evolution of Milan, vis-à-vis the unruly fiscal dynamics responsible for the evolution of cities like London.

Following the essays is a sequence of photographs by Hélène Binet with site plans that aim to demonstrate the ambiguous relationship between the context of the city and the subtle contextualism of Asnago Vender. But while the photographs succeed in making visible the abstract vernacular and dialectical approach elsewhere recognised as the archetypal language of Asnago Vender, the site drawings fail to capture the nuances and tactics used to address the traditional architecture of the city. Furthermore, failure to include the ground plans of buildings surrounding the works makes it hard to establish and assess critically whether the long-standing criticism of AV as architects of facades is justified or not.
While we can recognise that facades are highly political manufactured products, the book seems to reinforce the suspicion that in AV’s work only the facades are of interest, repeated at the end of the book in a long section dedicated to incredibly detailed drawings of facade details (described by Raffaello Giolli in 1942 as confined to a ‘Flatland’).

This conflict, of the essays repositioning the legacy of AV within the political and social climate of postwar Milan while there is an absence of supporting material, is highly problematic. On the one hand, there is a claim to locate AV with the protagonists of early Italian Modernism − a period Manfredo Tafuri described as ‘refined asceticism’. On the other hand, most of the book tries to make the case for historical continuity, taking the work of AV as a pretext to argue for contextualism.

One important issue raised by the essays of Helen Thomas and Cino Zucchi − the latter written for the Italian monograph mentioned earlier, and here reworked − is that of AV’s relationship to ‘professionalism’. In the words of Massimo Scolari (quoted in Helen Thomas’s essay) this concept represents the ‘commodification of culture and establishes its objectives in the area of professional profit within a traditional bourgeois society’. Zucchi cites Albert Kahn, who famously described architecture as 90 per cent business and 10 per cent art: this seems to be a perfectly appropriate angle to approach AV’s practice, evident in the fact that they worked mostly on private commissions and participated in competitions only very early on in their career. This critique of professionalism resonates today; it is easy to draw parallels between a position like that of AV, which was unusual at the time but is the norm in today’s architectural landscape.

In the ’60s a rejection of professionalism gave rise to the Tendenza, a ‘movement’ defined by Aldo Rossi at the Fifteenth Milan Architecture Triennale. As Thomas notes, this prompted architecture to ‘return to pure form’ and ‘sublime uselessness’, as a way to distance architecture from capitalist ideology. The failure of Tendenza, and its evolution into Postmodern architecture (which definitely ended up supporting the capitalist ideology) supports a thesis that sees the silent work of Asnago Vender, and their professionalism, as better suited to contemporary professionalism. Maybe the strategy of composed facades is better able to deal with the economic forces at play in the city than the retreat, and ultimately, dismissal of the harsh financial realities of building?

One might wish this volume tried to take a definite direction one way or another: making the case for professionalism and historical continuity today, or scientifically assess with more precision the work of Asnago Vender as historical figures (beyond the fetishism of their elegant building solutions). That said, the book is exquisitely produced, and deserves praise for bringing the great work of these lesser-known architects to an international audience.

Asnago Vender and the Construction of Modern Milan

Editors: Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas
Publishers: GTA Verlag
Price: €65

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