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Luigi Moretti: From Rationalism to Informalism, Rome, Italy

Ambiguity was an essential characteristic of Moretti’s architecture

Luigi Moretti was a wonderfully skilful architect, adept in plan and section, attuned to material and detail, fluent in structure and form. He could be daring and fantastical, but was also measured and balanced. He was also a genius of nuance, of the in-between, of the undefined.

His buildings are like sophisticated food,with tastes and flavours evoking and alluding to something: you don’t always know what. If his preferred style can be called, approximately, modernist or rationalist, he was also a passionate student of the baroque and of Michelangelo.

He rarely quotes these precedents directly, but they inform his sequences of spaces, his complex structural rhythms, and his conception of buildings as things that can only be experienced by moving through them. Like baroque architects, he was concerned with the representational qualities of built space, with the ways in which it situates you and forms relationships with things beyond itself.

Thus Casa Il Girasole, an apartment block in Rome, reprises a baroque sequence from urban to natural, from a delicate facade that is both theatrical and abstract to a more cave-like entrance and stair. This is done with the subtlest inflections - the roughening of a surface here, the darkening of a shadow there - and with an ambiguous poise between inside and out.

It also has some of the shifts of scale and dislocations - symmetries that aren’t quite symmetrical, for example, or juxtapositions of different window types - which Moretti subsumed within his overall elegance.

His ambiguity enabled Moretti to do beautiful work for the un-beautiful regime of Benito Mussolini, including Il Duce’s gym, and then move into a successful post-war practice. Towards the end of his career he had another - accidental - brush with notorious politics, when his Watergate complex in Washington DC was burgled by President Nixon’s underlings.

But his ambiguity was also an essential characteristic of his architecture. It led to the inclusion of the Casa il Girasole in Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (Museum of Modern Art, 1966), making Moretti a precursor of postmodernism. Except that postmodern architects were usually more clumsy.

The same ambiguity has probably prevented him from being as famous as he should be outside Italy. He doesn’t belong to a movement and you can’t, despite his influence on Venturi, place him on a grand historical arc. Perhaps the current exhibition of his work, one of the opening shows at Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI in Rome (AR July 2010), will help to change this.

’Although they share an interest in dynamic urbanism, Hadid and Moretti have very different sensibilities. However, the installation of sometimes fragile exhibits in MAXXI’s tough spaces is surprisingly successful’

The exhibition design, by Seste Engineering, uses the height, breadth and 3D curve of Hadid’s architecture to create a rich spatial experience. The Thermae-like scale of the building is taken down to the intimacy of the exhibits. Photos are on sloping panels overhead, paintings from Moretti’s collection are on the wall, models are on podia, and drawings are in cabinets. Like many architecture exhibitions, this show uses many media to conjure the absent buildings - but it does so more successfully than most.

The selection and presentation of material is intelligent, and benefits from good access to the archives. It takes in Moretti’s interest in art and design as well as architecture, and his short-lived but striking magazine Spazio. It is accessible (albeit more for an architectural than a general audience) but not over-simplified. The main frustration is that material from a given project is not always shown together, which makes it hard fully to understand them.

It is, in short, a smart and well-made exhibition, to an extent that few have matched in recent years.

Luigi Moretti: From Rationalism to Informalism

Where: MAXXI, Rome, Italy

When: Until 28 November

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