[...]  In one of its first appearances, the Continuous Monument is superimposed on an Earthwork by Walter de Maria, Mile Long Drawing (1968). The confrontation with American Land Art is affirmed - and it is the desert that constitutes the link.

But it is above all Gianni Pettena who takes the path, establishing a close dialogue with American artists, in particular with Robert Smithson, whom he meets in Rome in 1969, then in Minneapolis, with whom he visits Spiral Jetty in 1972 and with whom he dialogues on Domus. If Smithson is interested in ruins, in traces of human settlements subjected to the erosion of nature, Pettena is interested in natural formations as traces (sometimes invisible) of human settlements. If for Smithson - whom Pettena insists on considering as an architect - architecture reveals itself as nature, for Pettena nature reveals itself as architecture - as he explains in his little-known book La città invisibile (1983) and in the introductory essay (Dal deserto rivisitato alla città invisibile) of the catalog of the exhibition he organized at the Venice Biennale in 1996. In this last text, which is a milestone in the historiography of the Radicals, Pettena starts, once again, from the desert, analyzing the works of Heizer, Smithson, Oppenheim, and describing the arid plains of the American Southwest that he visited in 1972. During this trip, conceived as a pilgrimage "in escape from the city, place of artifice" towards "territories not worked except by the sun, the rain, the wind", Pettena discovers "that the deserts are not the void":


[...], on the contrary, all these spaces are already architectures, not mine, but those of those who lived there. Monument Valley is not a sequence of monumental rocks, it is the valley of the time of the Navajos who still live there. [...] These spaces are already inhabited, already acquired as architectures, because it is only when the nomad does not find a natural architecture that he builds it himself, he builds the cave, otherwise he always recognizes the architecture in what nature provides him[1].


For Pettena, it is the epiphany the goal of the journey, the inner transformation. It is enough to observe, to analyze, to understand and, eventually, to document with photographs (About Non-conscious Architecture, 1971). It is not necessary to leave a trace, as did the artists of Land Art or Gordon Matta-Clark (with whom Pettena shares the almost simultaneous invention of the term anarchitecture). For Pettena, architecture (like art) is not an extroverted activity, but an introverted one[2], that does not proceed by an extrusion, as Superstudio wanted, but by an inclusion, an implication: architecture is to live differently. But above all, it is a mental process, a conceptual performance, which, in order to happen, needs emptiness, silence, a "refusal". The gaze riveted on the desert which seems uninhabited and is not, no gesture is necessary if not to be silent, to abstain, to absorb, to let go:


Even if visibly there is no sign of man, conceptually there is. I start from there, from the highest level that one can have in making architecture, at the conceptual level, that is to say simply by recognizing it already in nature[3].


To get to the heart of architecture, Pettena explains, you have to stop doing it: this is the teaching of the desert.

And this is precisely the path that Pettena, the anarchitect, "the architect actively on strike[4]”, "the architect without projects[5], whose intransigence, which brings him closer to the rigor of the most demanding American conceptual artists, does not dry up in the arid exercise of the observation or the analytical proposal, but remains always inhabited by enthusiasm and a very Latin vitality. His works are light but incisive actions, ephemeral but timeless, performative interventions that leave room for the action of the natural elements - like Tumbleweeds Catcher (1972), a tower built with wooden planks on the outskirts of a city, on which the twirlers pushed by the desert wind stumble and cling - an ephemeral architecture that speaks of dissolution, flux, interdependence

This same intransigence keeps him at a distance from design - the few objects he designs - like the Rumble sofa (1967) - can be interpreted as early examples of "critical design". Invited to the great exhibition on Italian design at MoMA in New York in 1972, he refused to participate and a few months before the opening, he retaliated by exhibiting his photos of deserts at the John Weber Gallery. In the same way, when he took part in the founding meeting of Global Tools, at the Casabella editorial office, at the time of the souvenir photo, he displayed a sign that read Io sono la spia (I am the spy, 1973).

In Pettena's journey, the desert - but also the mountains, the Dolomites where, like Sottsass before him, Pettena was born, and which he considers his "school of architecture" - is the basis for removing architecture from the functionalist mechanics, the banality and seriality of production, the slavery of consumption, the drift of design, and, on the contrary, to reconnect it to its matrix, which is not only space but above all time: "to inhabit time (without being alienated from it) is a bit like inhabiting the emptiness of the desert"[6], "without having to think immediately of a use, immediate or future, useful to the mechanism and to the integration of it by freeing itself from habits”[7]. In the void, architecture becomes an event, a behavior, an experience - in a word: life


Emanuele Quinz, “Relire Les Radicaux Italiens – à partir du desert”, Critique, n.889-890, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, Septembre 2021, p. 649-652.


[1] Gianni Pettena, interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, in Gianni Pettena 1966-2021, Luca Cerizza (éd.), Milan, Mousse Publishing, 2020, p. 13.

[2] Cf. Marco Scotini, Gianni Pettena, il rifiuto del lavoro, in Pettena, Non-Conscious Architecture, op. cit., p. 56.

[3] Pettena, interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, op. cit., p. 13.

[4]Joseph Masheck, 1972, in Scotini, op. cit., p. 23.

[5] Andrea Branzi, « Differenze radicali » (2003), cit. in Ibid., p. 22.

[6] Scotini, op. cit., p. 23.

[7] Gianni Pettena, « Fisicizzazioni non consapevoli », Casabella, n.392-393, 1974, in Radicals, op. cit., p. 115.