Together with Archizoom, Superstudio and UFO, Gianni Pettena belongs to the original nucleus of the Radical Architecture movement in Italy. Born in 1940, he studied architecture at the University of Florence. In the ‘60s, with other students such as Paolo Deganello, Andrea Branzi, Massimo Morozzi and Adolfo Natalini, he helped to create the climate that produced the “Radical” movement, which was the origin of much contemporary experimentation in the field of Italian architecture and design. An atypical student, he spent more time in art galleries than in the university lecture halls. He maintained a personal, autonomous position, convinced of the necessity to re-think the meaning of architecture as a discipline, working from parallel fields and sectors, cultivating his own contacts with the world of visual arts more than with academic debates, to which he did, however, take part. Since, he sustains, “artists build and architects draw,” that is, artists take the place of architects in proposing visual languages directed at the transformation of physical space, it seemed to him that a revision was necessary for the theoretical and operative origins of architecture, a discipline that already in those years was for him closer to the language of conceptual art than to the realization of technical projects. Even before his degree (1968) he started on the route of “alternative design” and began an experimental activity that is rooted in personal experience, often without regard to the necessities of professional practice. There are many examples: furniture for his studio in Florence, designed to the scale of the place and not to human scale (Rumble sofa, 1967); installations dialoguing with significant places within the urban context, such as the giant word-objects built out of corrugated cardboard on the occasion of artistic events and abandoned to the wear and tear of time and weather (Carabinieri, Milite Ignoto, Grazia & Giustizia, 1968); or clothes hung out to dry on clotheslines that cross the entire Piazza del Duomo (Laundry, 1969), contrasting the activity of everyday life to the static condition of the places of politics and power; or setting up a painting exhibition (Dialogue Pettena-Arnolfo, 1968) as “a lesson in architecture,” a temporary distortion of the Renaissance purity of a fiftenteenth-century building that, once removed, might provoke a more conscious perception of the building and the surrounding spaces.
Following the publication in Domus of these first works, in 1971 Gianni Pettena was invited to the United States as an artist-in residence at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in Minneapolis and the following year at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He begins his education and critical roles this way and apart from building a constant and reciprocally gratifying dialogue with various generations of students (of whom we remember Nigel Coates and Peter Wilson at the A.A. in London, Marco Zanini and Michele De Lucchi at the University of Florence, Tim Power, Mike Ryan and Johanna Grawunder at California State University), Pettena held conferences and seminars in numerous schools of architecture in the USA, UK, and in Europe and especially Italy in the course of the following years. These were occasions for critical debates that were often “interdisciplinary,” as for example, the musical accompaniment of Brian Eno at one of his lectures at the Architectural Association in London in 1974. It was an episode that confirms his constant relationship with the field of experimental music. This had already been expressed through the ‘60s and ‘70s in the collaboration with Giuseppe Chiari (Trigon ’71 Competition), Vittorio Gelmetti (Applausi, 1968) and the musicians of the MEV, Musica Elettronica Viva (Live Electronic Music)(Grazia&Giustizia, 1968). Subsequently, he also collaborated with Davide Mosconi in a performance at the Triennale (Progetto d’Architettura n.5, 1973).
The first stay in the United States was to be fundamental for him, even if he initially faced the new context, both social and environmental, in a manner that was tied to the type of research carried out in Italy. The choice of work places in fact, in the first “American” works, was still dictated by the wish to provoke, by a type of “violence” towards cultural and institutional symbols. A university conference was thus transformed into a happening, because the public was forced to carve out a niche for itself in a room densely filled with vertical stripes of paper (Paper, 1971). It was similar to what happened with a walk towards the center of the city with students who “wore” chairs and used them on the bus and to rest in the main square of a shopping center (Wearable Chairs, 1971). The intentional controversies remain explicit in his successive works, which are presented, however, as extremely disturbing actions. Progressively, the observation concentrates on different processes of reading the environment, in which nature and architecture are drawn together and contaminated, in this way to “re-naturalise denatured places and materials” completing at the same time research, a metaphorical interpretation of the contradictions and the beauties of the contemporary city.
Whether it be the buildings incorporated into the ice in Minneapolis (Ice n.1 and Ice n.2, 1971-1972), or the trilogy of Salt lake City
- a small middle-class house covered in hand-spread clay (Clay house, 1972), a skyscraper of “freed” bushes built in the center of the city (Tumbleweed catcher, 1972), and the polemic new reading of the city limits using a line of red paint that is passed along these boundaries and highlights their falseness (Red Line, 1972) – his works all contain the above mentioned components. There is also an attention to the use of natural materials which is generally foreign to the formation of the architect, and which, there, was for him perhaps a consequence of the experience of funk architecture of the hippie generation and the study of the relationship of the nomads to the apparently empty space of the deserts. This emptiness is in reality ‘full’ of architecture where shields between the inhabitant and nature do not exist, full of temples (the mountains of Monument Valley), dwellings (the caves), and spontaneous architectures because their shape is caused by man’s work (the open-air mines or salt mines on the banks of the Great Salt Lake). This observation of non-conscious architecture (About non-conscious architecture, 1972-73), was documented both in a film for the 1973 Triennal and, almost as a catalogue, in a series of photographs published in part in Casabella (n.392-393/1974) together with an ample text. A film was also made about the Trilogy of Salt Lake City, which was then presented at the John Weber Gallery in New York (1972) in an exhibition dedicated to the works that Pettena realized in the USA.
After his return to Italy, at the invitation of Eugenio Battisti and Giovanni Klaus Koenig to hold courses at the Department of Architecture in Florence, he dedicated himself to an intense activity as a critic, as well as an educational activity in which he tried to make known those contemporary experiences that introduced a different approach to the environmental context (from funk architecture to Buckminster Fuller, to the counter-culture of the North American beat generation). He sought to keep alive that cultural debate that seemed to weaken as the experience of the ‘radical’ was transformed and assumed less ‘aggressive’ and experimental characteristics. In 1973 he was among the founders of Global Tools, a school and laboratory system that represented the moment of maximum communal intensity for the movement of ‘Architettura Radicale’. Also on that occasion, with the explicit acknowledgement of his role as a ‘spy’ (Io sono la spia, 1973), he intended to confirm his own peculiarity, his individual role, and the characteristics of a personal research which is an expression of the most extreme positions of the radical area, of the refusal of every compromise towards traditional planning as an instrument and language of artistic expression.
His belief in the importance of new meanings in architecture and a more contemporary role of the architect, of a theoretical input that receives creative stimuli from the relationship among different disciplines and artistic events, and from the contact with more alternative or marginal social realities, had already been revealed, apart from the works of those first years, through the publication of L’Anarchitetto (Guaraldi, Firenze 1972), an atypical essay in the form of a story, of visual poetry and a photographic diary which also included the American experience. This book took on the meaning of a ‘work’, inasmuch as evidence of how the literary form, apart from being useful to describe it, can become itself part of architecture. As Pettena said about his Anarchitetto, “it talks about architecture as no other project can.”
Writing about architecture will always be important for him. It is part of that intense critical activity with which he will try to keep alive as a cultural debate that will not wear out with the end of the radical movement, but will even grow bigger through the comparison with other fundamental contemporary experiences and the proposal of new languages by the younger generations. His interventions in Domus, Casabella, In, Inpiù, and in Modo started in the early ‘70s: the conversation with Smithson (1972), the interviews with Buckminster Fuller (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979) and then, progressively, the exhibitions and publications on Robert Venturi and Richard Meier (1981), and on Superstudio (1982), and then also on the emerging London school: Zaha Hadid, Nigel Coates, Peter Wilson and Jenny Lowe (1981, 1982). In 1983 he published the final version of La città invisibile (the first version in 1976) in which the experiments of the ‘radicals’ between 1965 and 1975 are presented in an anthological-critical form for the first time, and this was another occasion of comparison for the protagonists of that season, but most of all it was an accurate analysis of that movement useful to the generations which, though they had not lived it, were subjected even indirectly to its influence.
The activities of critic and lecturer, however, are carried out in parallel with work and realizations that never give up their ‘radicality’, and even today underline the characteristics of an operative choice that does not accept the rigidness of the confines between the different artistic disciplines but rather intends to explore the ‘trespassing’ zones. He proceeds in his respectful observation of the physicality of nature both when it prevents (Marea/Thames tide, 1974) and when it backs man’s needs, and when, with its transformation from matter to material, it turns into potential architecture (Complementi di architettura, Venice Biennal 1978). The consideration of nature and of the environmental context are Pettena’s base for built architecture as well: examples can be found in his works showing how this belief and his coherent adherence to this concept do not inhibit realization. So, he will confront himself, for example, with the natural context in the construction of his house on the island of Elba (La mia casa all’Elba, 1978--), a work-in-progress that even if acquiring new definitions and characteristics in time, has always found reason and form on the basis of the place and the materials that are found on the site, those of the Mediterranean scrub and the sea that the building faces. This is the translation into the form of a building of all that he had observed and theorized in the North American deserts about the shelters of the Nomads, in which what nature offers is used, and one intervenes with minimal gestures. But also when the relationship with the context is different, when it is necessary to consider other social and historical elements, the attention, respect, and ‘lightness’ of the intervention remain fundamental. The New Town Hall of Canazei (1990-97, with O. Zoeggeler) is emblematic of this contextual dialogue, in this case of the historical building of the old Town Hall by Ettore Sottsass, Sr., dated 1929. Instead of demolishing it as the administration intended, the project not only envisions restoration but ‘honours’ it by constructing a new almost symmetrical building next to it that, even if respecting the formal sobriety of the rationalist imprint, does not stop using a language of its own time.
The choice to dedicate himself to a limited number of ‘real’ projects demonstrates how, for Pettena, architecture is not restricted to the event of construction but is part of a greater research, centered on the relationship with the environmental context, with space and with the quality and nature of the materials, a means to verify continually the multiplicity of possible meanings that the architectonic discipline can assume. One can also easily understand in this perspective his subsequent activity as a critic, who on the one hand analyses the work of Hans Hollein (1988), still considered emblematic of the ‘everything is architecture’ theorized in the early ‘60s by the Austrian architect, while on the other hand progressively reworks this theory through the memories of his New York conversations with Robert Smithson, of one who studies the architecture of landscape in both a historical-projectual perspective and through the increasing value of the environmental art. So, he presented for the first time in Europe, in a great exhibition at the Uffizi (1996) the figure and the work of F.L.Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York, considered the forerunner of every modern concept of an urban, natural park. He then proceeded in the analysis of ‘natural’ environments, concentrating the investigation on Tuscany, from historical gardens to “non-conscious landscapes” created by the works and necessities of man, to contemporary sculpture gardens, which was presented once again at the Uffizi in 1998. Even his deep historical-philological analysis of the conceptual and projectual origin of the house of Malaparte on the island of Capri demonstrates, in the way he reconstructed in the book published in 1999 after many years of study, that one of the most admired buildings of the century, attributed by critics to Adalberto Libera is in reality a ‘stone portrait’, the work of a writer. And this further confirms how the boundaries of architecture are vague and how architecture doesn’t follow only the architect’s idea but also depends on the features of the environmental context and the orographic configuration of the site.
During the ‘70s Pettena actively participated in the debate between the ‘radicals’ and the ‘rationals’, and was also present on the official occasion of the Biennals and Triennals with works, writings and didactic activity within the panorama of international critics. Nevertheless, he was little involved (except for the analysis of the contributions of the young generation) in the evolution of the ‘radical’ towards the design, more free and aware of its social implications, of ‘Alchymia’ and ‘Memphis’. Faced with the diffusion of eclecticism, and therefore tolerance of every research language, released from the necessity of theoretical ‘demonstrations’, as opposed to other companions on the road of the early ‘radical’, Pettena continued his artistic activity by widening his field of research without creating fractures with respect to the ideological conditions of his previous work. Rather, he emphasized the conceptual elements most specific to the interdisciplinary ‘no-boundaries’ process. Installations, performance, design pieces realized in the form of a prototype only for their capacity of expressing an idea: at the end of the ‘70s and then through the following ten years these were his instruments in expressing himself and in communicating concepts through languages that belong to different disciplinary sectors. He used the word, or the artistic and architectonic object to investigate space in its most evanescent components, those of a relationship between reality and representation that does not exclude an intimist meaning, bound to images and objects fixed in the mind during the course of one’s own existential journey. Memories and realities sometimes exorcised (often without success) because “they occupy a space in the mind that could be used for more interesting things” (Atta Unsar, 1973), sometimes shared with others in their essentiality, in their schematism of mental baggage that will however accompany us, also in different contexts and situations (Paesaggi della memoria, 1987). In particular in the works produced for the ‘Speciale’ and ‘Megalopoli’ galleries, Pettena studies ‘simulated’ space, the deceptive reality created in artistic representation by reflection, visual postponement, willfully distorted perception; he investigates the subject of the false perspective using both atypical design objects, of which the physical appearance goes beyond the border with the imaginary, and the creation of spaces of which the use is ambiguous, because of their uncertain reality, deceptive and at the limits of impossibility. However, this “wearing down of the boundaries between reality and imaginary,” - a stone table that ends in its representation as a painting and is reflected as ‘whole’ in the surface that mirrors it (Sovrapposizioni, 1984), a square framed space on the inside of which the apparent bi-dimensionality of the objects really hides their three-dimensionality (Integrazioni, 1985), an armchair to which one gives (or takes away) his bodily shape (Ombra, 1986) - doesn’t only have for Pettena the meaning of ‘artistic pretence’, that is the potentially infinite possibilities of representation of reality, now made legitimate by the acceptance of every form of artistic operation. Rather, here the capacity and the wish to put a bridge between the worlds of intuition and rationality are investigated, that is the possibility to cross a boundary towards the imaginary that does not exclude a return to reality, and may even make it more pleasing for the stimuli and mental curiosity that the discovery of this eternal game of cross-references has triggered. Therefore, the stone table and its painted double are not as important as their reflected image. The bi-three-dimensionality of the square room acquires meaning only from the decision of the user-spectator to enter it or leave it, or the armchair-overcoat from the awareness that this is a shadow of which you can be master but that still has life in our absence. The artistic works of these years reflect a parallel dimension, the expression of a personal research and of a conceptual in-depth analysis that matured at the same time as the critical and educational activities but not with them. That is, Pettena continues to teach at the University of Florence, at the Domus Academy in Milan and at the California State University. He holds seminars and conferences in the most famous schools of architecture in Italy and abroad, writes about architecture and design (Hans Hollein/1988, Rodolfo Bonetto. Trent’anni di design 1992, Il linguaggio dell’acciaio 1992), mounts exhibitions (Architectural Teaching USA/1985, Il Polo espositivo/1988, Hans Hollein, Opere 1960-1988/1988, Visioni d’ambiente/1988, Ettore Sottsass sr Architetto/1991, Casa Malaparte/1992) and publishes articles and essays in art, contributing to keep alive the debate on the relationship between the two disciplines and on the role of the ‘radical’. He also interviews or presents in Florence great personages of architecture, from Isozaki to Hollein, from Wines to Mario Botta: he takes places, that is, as a critic in the international debate and reflects these experiences in his educational activity. Parallel to this, he follows a pathway of artistic maturation that progressively sees him integrate themes already confronted in the past with new proposals, more connected to the subject of the city, both concerning the safeguarding of the pre-existing historical buildings and the introduction of contemporary art works in an urban context. If, for example, on the one hand he intensifies the theme of mental vertigo and disequilibrium created by the uncertainty of the boundaries between reality and imagination with the carpets designed for the Speciale Gallery (Sprofondo and Compenetrazione, 1987), on the other hand he reproduces the spaces of both inside and outside the walls of the city, of a building and its interiors intended as places for the rituality of living (Itinerari, territori, mappe, recinti, 1987), a subject interpreted on other occasions also in terms of design (Buon Compleanno, bed,1985).
The attention to the context and the dialogue with the environment, always present in his previous works, now reveal themselves in a form in which the technique and the language of the visual arts are accentuated so as to overcome without apology the ‘no-trespassing’ line that leads from architecture towards other artistic disciplines. Therefore, the function of the objects designed is meant more to back than to exploit the re-use of natural materials, assuming that their return to nature will give them a new life (Poltramaca, 1985), and a room, an artificial environment par excellence, is ‘re-naturalized’ by stressing the rituality components and making the structure fade until it nearly disappears (Stanza, 1987). As for the historical context, in the projects for Canazei as well as in the proposals for upgrading and restoration of the historical buildings on Elba (Forte Inglese/1992, Tonnara dell’Enfola, 1990-97), the original characteristics are always respected or even highlighted, while a few “compromises” with the present times are hinted at only in view of the functionality of the possible re-use of the building and therefore of its renewed value. But in the face of a degraded environment, whether an anonymous urban residential fringe or a fragment of nature unsettled by the invasion of industrialisation, by re-proposing in contemporary keys the lessons of the great masters of environmental architecture, Pettena seems to entrust the duty of upgrading to environmental art, once again delegating to other disciplines the function of integrating with the specific field of architecture.
In reality, his belief, long since matured, that boundaries do not exist between the sensitivity of the architect and today’s environmental artist in regard to themes of physical space – a conviction metaphorically illustrated also in his most recent work (Archipensieri, 2001/Archipensieri2/Cubo, 2002) – does nothing but confirm the line of coherence that runs through his whole work, that is the necessity of a more careful reading of space, a mental journey that leads to a perception that perhaps only through the apparent disorder of doubts and experimentation can one find an order, a structure, a memory and a greater understanding.
Pettena re-proposes the themes of the ‘radicals’ at the 1996 Venice Architecture Biennal (exhibition and book Radicals) as a historical introduction to the modern figure of the architect as a ‘seismograph’ suggested by Hans Hollein, as well as in the following exhibition Archipelago (1999) in which this interpretation of ‘radicality’ expands to the contemporary, and integrates architectural drawings with art installations and pieces of design with visions of environments by both masters and the young students taking part in the exhibition. For him these exhibitions have most of all, apart from the wish of the historian to introduce and study these phenomenologies, the significance of illustrating the beliefs matured during the course of his work as an architect, artist, teacher and critic. That is, to cite his own words: “The necessary condition for innovation and for conceptual and linguistic updating is still that of a continual process of research, of awareness, of the construction and definition of languages that--as the recent past has shown mainly in the world of visual arts and design, and sometimes, as a consequence, also in architecture--enrich each other only when, accepting integration, at the same time agree to question their own certainties, in the attempt to recognize, if not resolve, doubts and weaknesses”. Continuing down the road he had chosen and taken earlier, Pettena would conceive and stage another major exhibition in which the concept of “radicalism” applied to design (Radical Design, 2004) was illustrated, in part through an ample catalogue, from the perspective of its history and of the connections between the proposals of the younger generations and the legacy of the experimentation begun in the 1960s. In those years, however, the “radical,” thanks in part to his activity as a critic, started to be investigated and presented in numerous exhibitions held by centers and museums of contemporary art, in parallel, comparison and dialogue with the other arts, and in particular with the more compatible expressions of the visual arts, the ones attentive to the environmental and social context. Among the first of these exhibitions, in the years between 2000 and 2003, were the ones at the Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena, promoted by the FRAC Centre of Orléans, at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Cologne, at the Institut d’Art Contemporaine in Villeurbanne, at the Künstlerhaus in Vienna, at the MUVIM in Valencia, at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville and at the MAMCO in Geneva: exhibitions in which Gianni Pettena participated both with his works and with critical essays in the catalogues. He was the first “radical” architect to whom the FRAC Centre in Orléans devoted a major anthological exhibition (Gianni Pettena. Le métier de l’architect, 2002), accompanied by a complete and accurate monograph that was also published in a bilingual Italian/English edition the following year by Silvana Editoriale (Gianni Pettena, 2003) to coincide with the anthological exhibition presented at the museum of the Fondazione Piaggio. From these years onward, Gianni Pettena’s works became increasingly sought after and appreciated, and were acquired by museums and public collections, from the FRAC Centre in Orléans to the FNAC in Paris, from the permanent collection of the Banca della Svizzera Italiana to that of the FRAC Centre in the Ile de France and private collections in Italy, Europe and the United States. In particular, the works of the so-called “American” period, from the Salt Lake Trilogy to the wide-ranging investigation of the relationship between nature and architecture of About Non Conscious Architecture and the many drawings of Trigon ’71, whose visionary character has often turned into prophetic reality, have taken on what is now considered a historic value, both for the specific and unique role they played in the radical experimentation of the sixties and seventies and for influence they have had on the world of architecture, design and contemporary art. Major international events traditionally devoted to the more experimental and thoughtful lines of research in the field of the contemporary arts have now also found room for Pettena’s works (Manifesta 7, 2008; The Death of the Audience, 2009), which are taking on the significance of points of reference and comparison, both through his production in the past and through new works that update, while reasserting, the guidelines of his artistic research. In fact it is the constant attention paid to the environment that marks the continuation of a speculative course which in recent years has assumed a dual expressive guise in Pettena: on the one hand more rigorously abstract, on the other more estranging and “contaminated” by various materials. The latter aspect sets out to destabilize the usual perception of the city through an approach in which nature represents a support for and at the same time an implicit criticism of architecture. In the former, the ironic intransigence that in Archipensieri invited, in provocative fashion, people to look at architecture in its simplest and at the same time most perfect forms, again took shape in the two “cubes” proposed in virtual guise for the Valencia Biennial (2003) and for the exterior of the Galleria Enrico Fornello in Prato (2009); the same was true at Manifesta 7 in Rovereto (2008), with his reinterpretation of the façade of the nondescript industrial building that housed the exhibition. However (and here the second aspect would become increasingly evident), nature was becoming conceptually decisive in Pettena’s continual observation of physical space and its perception within the urban space: climbing plants firmly anchored to the ground that are interwoven with elements of architecture (Archipensieri 4, 2008; Archipensieri 5, 2009), and real pieces of city that are presented in imprecise forms, large dimensions, colors dictated by nature itself or by materials that are inspired by it (Architettura, Forgiving Architecture, Archipensieri 6, 2009). In the solo exhibition at the Galleria Enrico Fornello in Prato, as well as in the installations for the 2009 Athens Biennale and for FIAC 2009, nature or a material that is at any rate extraneous to architecture were used to mask it, implicitly negating it, but at the same time supporting it since they mitigate any harshness, errors or too superficial interpretations of the urban fabric. In 2008 Gianni Pettena interrupted his teaching of the History of Contemporary Architecture at the University of Florence ahead of time, partly as a mark of his disapproval of the way the Italian system of universities is currently run, but continued with his courses of Architectural Design at California State University. Thus he has chosen to carry on his activity as a teacher attentive to the new lines of creative development of the young generations with a smaller number of students who have a quite different grounding and motivation. Moreover, it is chiefly to these generations that he addresses his activity as a critic, through numerous lectures held at prestigious schools or cultural centers, which have recently included Columbia University and Princeton University in the United States and the Architekturzentrum in Vienna, or his frequent interviews and articles in the press. Often laying claim to his own role in the experimental direction taken in the sixties and seventies, he invites his audience and readers to consider whether and to what extent the younger generations have succeeded, in the wake of that example, in acquiring more suitable means of tackling the task of design with greater awareness and maturity. His works are in the permanent collections of such galleries and institutions as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the historical archives of the Venice Biennale,and were exhibited, among many others, at the Tokyo Mori Museum, the PAC in Milan, the Venice Biennale, the London Barbican Center, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Secession in Wien, the Berlin Biennial, the FIAC in Paris, The FRAC Centre in Orléans and FRAC Lorraine in Metz, the Yinchan Biennial, the Luigi Pecci Art Center in Prato, Palazzo Strozzi and the Marino Marini Museum in Florence.