Gianni Pettena. When we first met, at the beginning of 1972, in New York, we discovered that, while we came from different backgrounds (you had an education in art, I was an architect), we were beset by very similar doubts and questions. We hadn’t yet fully decided whether art or architecture was our great love. And then, influencing each other, we agreed that what we were aiming for was an “artfully” made architecture. But tell me, what can you trace your involvement with architecture back to?


James Wines. My story as an artist began with my studies and my degree in art history, and then with other studies, this time of sculpture, and like many artists in the sixties I felt profoundly limited by and unhappy with a definition of art within too narrow confines. So like many other artists in that period, including you, I started to carry out actions, performances, in the setting of the city. We owe a lot to Allan Kaprow for this. I found that the context of architecture was attractive. I saw the building as something public, of course, organically public, dedicated to the community, integrated into it. Even if the work was nothing special, it wasn’t so fundamental for it to be beautiful or ugly, a success or a failure. The very fact that it was “public,” integrated into the city, made it legitimate. So I found that working in the city was a way of freeing myself from the limitations produced by a space like that of a gallery or a museum.


G.P. What you say reflects the conditions of working in art in those years, but it introduces something more unusual. This observation you make on architecture as public art to some extent runs contrary to what artists thought of architecture at the time. Many expressed their disappointment with the low artistic quality of architectural production. Architecture for many meant bureaucracy. It was cold, killing off the expressive quality of the material. While for architecture, the official debate of the time was bogged down in questions over the legacy of the Modern Movement: architects were much more concerned with distinguishing legitimate heirs of this legacy from illegitimate ones. Much more concerned with looking back than with looking forward.


J.W. And so we, in those years, were not in any way recognized by architects as fellow travelers. On the contrary, they didn’t take us seriously, but in the end we didn’t look to them for approval, after all we had other intentions.


G.P I remember a question asked by an architect after a lecture I gave in the US about where I found the courage to appear so “unprofessional”! So I ended up choosing to show the documentation of the work I did in the deserts, at the John Weber Gallery, in New York, and getting flattering reviews in Artforum, three months prior to Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, in the spring of 1972, where Superstudio, Archizoom and Sottsass showed, the people who had been my more natural fellow travelers, the cofounders of “Radical Architecture.”


J.W. The fact is that we were building monuments of a sort that were connected not just with the context, whether urban or natural, but with other kinds of debate and intentions. What we were doing was an attempt to capture, to give expression to a broader vision, almost a new cosmology, a design of the world that would speak of its more secret, more unfamiliar aspects. And so it would happen that, going into deserts and into cities, we would come across unexpected things. Thus our work had the function of making insignificant places significant.


G.P. With Robert Smithson we often talked about how to raise the aesthetic and conceptual quality of places on the “fringe,” where the city was losing its identity and there was no more countryside because it was too close to the city. And while Smithson gave expression to his theoretical intentions in a poetic gesture, in a desert, in short by writing a poem, what I did in a way was to write a story about these fringes.


J.W. Where architecture begins, where art begins, where the past begins on the city. The investigation of these boundaries, of these no man’s lands, is an intriguing aspect of these researches.


G.P. The so artificial separation between the two fields, art and architecture, so widely accepted and unquestioned in these years, was constantly challenged in the seventies. And the challenges were not verbal, they were expressed visually, physically, in forms that were architecture and art at one and the same time.


J.W. Many artists we’re talking about the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies shared the desire to move their work outside, into the city, into open spaces. Thus the dialogue with the city, reclaimed as a natural setting for the work of art, overcame, in a natural way, the limiting definition of art suggested by the galleries. On the other hand the architecture produced in those years seemed to be snared in design. So that for us too, works like yours, or Archizoom and Superstudio’s, were an indication of possible roads to go down: an architecture that was interested in conceptual, linguistic redefinitions.


G.P. With the result that by creating installations in museums or on occasions like the Biennali the work of many artists remained confined to these occasions. Many artists did not have the success of others because they made little effort to produce something that could be sold in galleries... But toward the end of the seventies another phenomenon surprised and in a way infuriated me. The architecture magazines gradually expelled all this experimental work. Whereas in the sixties and seventies magazines like AD, Domus and Casabella regularly  published experimental work in art or architecture, as well as projects and examples of built architecture, from the end of the seventies onward the architecture magazines presented projects and realized projects, or if not realized, drawn and described, represented as if it were...


J.W. I hadn’t thought about it. It’s true, the definition of architecture today is extremely reductive, limited to public buildings, official versions, press releases, but the experimental work, everything that clashes with these definitions, can perhaps be found in museums or galleries, but not in architecture magazines. This is a rightwing, reductive, irritating vision of a reality that is much more diverse and complicated, much richer and harder-earned.


G.P. This idea of architecture standardizes a design of the world that is very realistic, practical, reduced to simplifications. It introduces reductive certainty and doesn’t even offer a glimpse of fascinating and liberating uncertainties, another vision of the world.


J.W. Architecture, like the other arts, should introduce and speak of the big doubts, of the cultural debate underway, present a vision of the world in all its contradictions, exhilarating paths toward visions of the future. A more responsible future than the one suggested by enormous buildings of steel and glass that burn an absurd quantity of energy. Compatible architecture on the other hand, the kind that interprets the environment and utilizes it, that doesn’t consume but produces, that recounts and doesn’t deny, seems to me the only way to go.


Conversation between Gianni Pettena and James Wines, The Design of the World.The Culture of Uncertainty and Doubt, from Risk no. 20, 1995


J.W. Dove comincia l'architettura, dove comincia l'arte, dove comincia il passato sulla città. L'indagine su questi confini, su queste terre di nessuno è un aspetto intrigante di queste ricerche.


G.P. La separazione così artificiale tra i due campi, arte e architettura, così accettata, non messa in discussione in questi anni, era negli anni settanta costantemente contestata, e le contestazioni non erano verbali, erano visualizzate, fisicizzate in forme che erano architettura ed erano arte contemporaneamente.


J.W. Si, il nostro lavoro passeggiava in questa terra di nessuno, ridicolizzava l'artificialità di certi confini, ma non era questa la nostra intenzione mentre sia tu che io facevamo il nostro lavoro. Ne era la semplice conseguenza. Guardavamo semplicemente a un allargamento dell'idea dell'arte, e dell'architettura come forma d'arte pubblica.


G.P. L'artista reclamava il diritto di lavorare nella città e di lavorare l'architettura usando concetti, linguaggi e materiali provenienti dalle arti visive, reclamando il diritto all'architettura, chiamando queste opere "architettura". E' qualcosa che avviene con sempre maggiore forza nel dopoguerra. Dopo Allan Kaprow, la Land Art esprime il desiderio di confrontarsi con uno spazio ancora meno limitante di quello della città, lo spazio dei deserti. L'artista lascia la città, il tutto costruito, per costruirsi, nell'antitesi di questa, nel deserto, un alfabeto, un linguaggio. I gesti poetici di un land artist come Heizer o Smithson rimanevano però gesti poetici, non pensi che il tuo lavoro fosse un po' più articolato, tessuto ormai dentro il linguaggio della città?


J.W. Molti artisti, si parla della fine degli anni sessanta e l'inizio degli anni settanta, erano coinvolti nel desiderio di trasferire il proprio lavoro all'esterno, nella città, negli spazi aperti. Il dialogo con la città, reclamata come contesto naturale per l'opera d'arte, superava così, naturalmente, la limitante definizione dell'arte suggerita dalle gallerie. Dall'altro lato l'architettura prodotta in quegli anni era come intrappolata nel design. Così che anche per noi, lavori come i tuoi, degli Archizoom e Superstudio, indicavano invece le strade possibili da percorrere: un'architettura che si occupasse di ridefinizioni concettuali, linguistiche.


G.P. Così successe che facendo installazioni in musei o in occasioni come le Biennali il lavoro di molti artisti rimase confinato a queste occasioni. Molti artisti non ebbero il successo di altri perché si occupavano poco di produrre qualcosa di vendibile nelle gallerie... Ma verso la fine degli anni settanta un altro fenomeno mi sorprese e in qualche modo mi rese furioso. Piano piano le riviste di architettura espulsero tutto questo lavoro di ricerca. Se negli anni sessanta-settanta riviste come AD, Domus, Casabella ospitavano regolarmente lavoro sperimentale d'arte o d'architettura e anche progetto e anche architettura costruita, verso la fine degli anni settanta e da allora in poi le riviste di architettura raccontano progetto e progetto costruito, o se non costruito, disegnato e raccontato, rappresentato come se lo fosse...


J.W. Non ci avevo pensato. E' vero, la definizione odierna di architettura è estremamente riduttiva, limitata a soli edifici pubblici, a versioni ufficiali, a comunicati stampa, ma il lavo-ro di ricerca, tutto ciò che entra in contraddizione con queste definizioni, si trova magari in musei o in gallerie, ma non nelle riviste di architettura. Questa è una visione di destra, riduttiva, indisponente, di una realtà molto più articolata, più complicata, più ricca, più sudata.


G.P. Quest'idea di architettura omologa un disegno del mondo molto realistico, pratico, ridotto a semplificazioni, introduce riduttiva sicurezza e non fa neppure intravedere fascinose e liberatorie insicurezze, un'altra visione del mondo.


J.W. L'architettura, come le altre arti, deve introdurre e parlare dei grandi dubbi, del dibattito culturale in atto, comporre la visione del mondo nelle sue contraddizioni, esaltanti strade verso visioni di futuro. Un futuro più responsabile di quello suggerito dagli enormi edifici di ferro e vetro che bruciano un'assurda quantità di energia. L'architettura compatibile invece, che interpreta l'ambiente e lo utilizza, che non brucia ma produce, che racconta e non nega, mi sembra l'unica strada percorribile.



Conversazione tra Gianni Pettena e James Wines, Il disegno del mondo.

La cultura dell'insicurezza e del dubbio. da Risk n°20 1995