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La Tendenza: Italian Architecture on show

The Pompidou Centre mounts a wide-ranging survey of post-war ultramontane architecture and theory

Perhaps unexpectedly, the latest major architectural show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris is dedicated to the Italian movement Tendenza. Deputy Director and Architecture Main Curator Frédéric Migayrou’s reputation in directing the critical debate in architecture through his shows (for instance, Non-Standard Architecture in 2003) demands closer examination of his decision to return to a movement that ended three decades ago.

The challenge posed by this exhibition is of a different kind: if digital architecture is still very much in its youth, Tendenza is by now a historical movement which has been largely forgotten. When it is discussed, it has often been the object of overt criticism as its political underpinnings and belief in architectural autonomy are met with increasing scepticism. Its vast repertoire of concepts and proposals is now largely debased as no major architecture school seems to be influenced by it nor even proposes to discuss its legacy.

It is against this challenging background that Migayrou and his team embarked on a painstaking 10-year-long research project, revisiting all of the movement’s theoretical and design production to not only pay adequate homage to it, but, more importantly, to critically assess its ideas and results.

The show will disappoint those who are expecting an encyclopaedic account of Tendenza; its production is simply too vast and varied to be exhaustively collected in a single museum. The exhibition, however, succeeds in critically analysing the movement, its essential and unique aspects, its richness and impact on the architectural discourse of the 20th century. Astonishingly, the show relies almost entirely on the Pompidou’s own collection (one of the largest repositories of Italian architecture in the world), and very few pieces are loaned from other institutions.

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by Franco Purini and Laura Thermes in Foggia, Apulia, Italy (1976)

La Tendenza was the first − and remains the most important − truly Italian movement in architecture since the end of the Second World War. The first signs of dissatisfaction in the Italian architectural scene, and culture in general, emerged right at the end of the war when a large public reconstruction programme was undertaken and a series of architects started to look for new references in their work. However, it was not until the beginning of the ’60s that this new generation began to propose their fully-fledged visions for the city and its architecture, which Massimo Scolari then went on to gather under the term Tendenza.

Equally disillusioned by the shortcomings of Functionalism as well as by the degeneration of political ideologies into totalitarian regimes − particularly Fascism, of course − a group of architects and intellectuals all in their thirties looked back at the legacy of Modern Architecture, as well as the enormous catalogue of types provided by history, to give rise to a new kind of architecture that could reconnect to society by being socially and politically engaged, and had a operational relation with history which went well beyond the simple notion of nostalgia or pastiche.

Tendenza, which can be translated into English as trend, was never an avant-garde; taking inspiration from the Frankfurt School, it sought transformation in the present, within the confines of reality, avoiding the avant-garde’s classical inclination to locate its project within a utopian horizon. For the same reason, it never looked for inspiration beyond architecture itself: no interdisciplinary mantra or hybrids of sorts, architecture had to find the reasons of its re-foundation within its language whether present or past, thus asserting its fundamental autonomy. This very aspect was the result of the heavy influence that the international diffusion and acclamation of Structuralism had − clearly highlighted in Migayrou’s very persuasive and clinical introductory essay − which would then become one of the trademarks of Tendenza.

Its traces can also be observed, for instance, in the linguistic experiments of the New York Five, all the way to a recent revival by Pier Vittorio Aureli. During this process, which lasted for about 20 years, Tendenza gave rise to an incredible wealth of architectural production and theoretical discussions; and although these architects did not build as much as they had set out to do, they shaped the pedagogical discourse by occupying important positions in various academic institutions (the IUAV in Venice being the most important of all), and initiated dozens of publications, debates, and exhibitions.

By the end of Tendenza, which coincided with Postmodernism’s full maturation through Paolo Portoghesi’s Strada Novissima at the 1980 Venice Biennale, they had produced hundreds of publications which not only concerned themselves with architectural issues but also with philosophy and politics.

The spearhead of the movement was undoubtedly Aldo Rossi, whose originality both as a theoretician and designer made him stand out among his peers. Alongside him, Manfredo Tafuri fuelled the debate through his theoretical provocations, while other figures, most notably Carlo Aymonino, Giorgio Grassi, and Vittorio Gregotti, contributed more than is usually acknowledged to the development of Tendenza. Migayrou’s long research succeeds in shining new light on this movement and bringing to the foreground a number of personalities whose contributions had been somehow forgotten: Uberto Siola’s urban plans, Gianni Braghieri’s (Rossi’s closest collaborator) theatrical drawings, Edoardo Guazzoni’s and Daniele Vitali’s purist schemes, and, most importantly, Arduino Cantàfora, who, despite being trained as an architect, attained a central role in the movement due to his painting ‘La Cittá Analoga’ in 1973.

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The show is divided into four large rooms unravelling Tendenza’s relation with history; critical discussions through publications; methods; and built successes which culminated in Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo in 1979. Alongside some stunning drawings and models by the likes of GRAU or BBPR, the show cleverly also displays some of the key publications of the time: Op Cit, Quaderni Rossi, Aut Aut (founded by the influential philosopher Enzo Paci) and Contropiano, a key magazine which brought together philosophers, politicians, historians and architects.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the term ‘paper architecture’ first emerged with Tendenza. Architecture here is not just understood as construction, but rather as ideology, as an embodiment of a larger set of values which are encoded through architecture’s own vocabulary. It is on this ground that these magazines could establish a conversation among different disciplines: from Mario Tronti (who was also an MP) and Alberto Asor Rosa’s artistic inputs, to Antonio Negri’s radical positions, and Massimo Cacciari (who later combined his activity as a philosopher with that of mayor of Venice), they all contributed to the development of Tendenza. It is almost embarrassing to compare the intensity and depth of critical debate that architecture was able to generate at the time with the current state of architectural discourse. These publications were not branding devices or narcissistic accounts of the group’s achievements, but forums for genuine discussions, and often disputes, underpinned by the belief that architecture had a political role to improve and shape society.

Perhaps the more critical and provocative part of the show is represented by a large photograph of the group posing on the eve of the 1973 Triennale in Milan. Arrayed like a football team getting ready for a pre-match photo, we can recognise some of the well-known members. At the centre of the image, kneeling below Rossi, Michael Graves and Richard Meier appear to be part of the movement, too; marking the beginning of the group’s international recognition (shortly afterwards, Rossi’s books started being translated into English).

As with the Modern Movement in the ’20s or French Post-Structuralism in the ’90s, Tendenza’s ideas morphed as they travelled the world and crossed the Atlantic. Colin Rowe used to say that of Modernism’s holy pair, form and ideology, only the former made it to the new continent to then be re-labelled as the ‘International Style’; a description that somehow also fits Tendenza. The group’s critical position lightened up as it got exported and mixed with other conflicting agendas; a thinner version of Tendenza became its, perhaps misunderstood, legacy. The Postmodern turn in architecture imposed a reduction of the concept of type (as persistent architectural form derived from history that must be continuously re-translated in the present, in Rossi’s view) into the skin-deep notion of sign (a ‘simpler’ semantic reference). This in turn provided an easier and less problematic ‘architectural cloak’ for the rise of global capitalism as Tendenza’s complex and uncompromising ideological agenda got dropped (many of the members of the group occupied universities or were temporarily suspended from teaching in 1969).

On the other hand, the methodological repertoire developed to analyse and evolve typological figures still represents one of the lasting and least acknowledged contributions of the movement. Even after Postmodernism and Deconstruction, even if inspired by mathematics of chaos and designed by digital tools promising endless variation, the typo-morphological studies of Tendenza still resonate with the early experiments in digital architecture; a testament to the complexity and richness of 1960s and ’70s Italian culture.

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