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Rome, Italy – Why do Italy's many architects make so little architecture

Elusive resolutions in a symposium exploring the crisis in Italian architecture

Whatever the ills of architecture in Italy, there is no lack of talent. Eighty thousand students are enrolled in architecture schools - 10 times as many as in Britain - and graduates will join the country’s 150,000 registered practitioners. They will teach, edit publications, design products, advise corporations and run for political office, but few will create buildings. The imbalance of supply and demand is one problem among many. A recent symposium, co-sponsored by the Depart Foundation for art and the Swiss Institute in Rome, posed the question: ‘Whatever Happened to Italian Architecture?’

For two days in October a dozen architects, academics and editors confronted this challenge, asking questions, issuing declarations and occasionally offering answers. It would be easy to dismiss much of the talk as irrelevant - the contemporary equivalent of medieval scholastics debating how many angels could occupy the head of a pin while the barbarians advanced on every side - but the participants were grappling with issues that have no easy resolution. Many of the papers provided clues, to be discussed and pasted together as a collage of partial explanations.

Paolo Scrivano contrasted the Fascists’ embrace of modernity and the bold social programme of electronics manufacturer Olivetti with the loss of vision and values after the 1960s. Ivrea, Olivetti’s model town (pictured) near Turin, now evokes Pompeii as a monument to a lost civilisation, frozen in time. Francesco Garofalo identified a decline in all the Italian arts, due to a lack of optimism and the politicisation of all decisions. In Rome, the bold initiatives of a progressive mayor, Walter Veltroni, were cancelled by the reactionary incumbent, Gianni Alemanno, who even promised to demolish Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Museum building.

There was a sharp divide at the symposium between the ideologues and the pragmatists. Fabrizio Gallanti, a Milanese architect-editor-professor, declared that ‘architecture is a political activity’ and projected an iconic image of protesters confronting the curator of the 1968 Milan Triennale, before invading the galleries and smashing the exhibits. In Italy, nostalgia for revolution still inspires lefty intellectuals and Marxism retains its grip even as the rest of the world has abandoned the faith.

Sandy Attia and Matteo Scagnol, partners in the north Italian firm of Modus, showed how they are quietly abstracting the rural vernacular in subtly angled houses, adding to the rich diversity of new work in the Alto Adige province. Alberto Alessi, who now practices in Zurich, questioned the whole idea of an Italian identity in architecture, which was entirely regional in the centuries before unification, and is now increasingly shaped by global forces.

The name of Aldo Rossi was repeatedly cited in reverential tones. ‘After Rossi, nothing for 30 years,’ declared Pierpaolo Tamburelli. Curiously, no mention was made of architects such as Renzo Piano and Mario Cucinella, who have achieved critical success and built on a large scale in Italy and abroad. In just a few years, Massimiliano Fuksas has completed the vast Fiera di Milano exhibition centre, the Nardini distillery ‘bubbles’, a church in Foligno (AR May 2009), and is well along with the Palazzo dei Congressi in Rome.

You could agree with the participants that a corrupt bureaucracy, onerous regulations and rigged competitions are major hurdles, but still find plenty to admire. Italians love to protest noisily and then find ingenious ways around every obstacle, and architects have plenty of practice in doing this. The golden age of the post-war era looks rather thin in retrospect, and there may be a lot more going on in out-of-the-way places than appears on the radar in Milan.

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