Gianni Pettena is an architect and there is nothing to warrant us questioning the nature of his activity by trying to identify it with that of an artist. His interventions are unique, responding more often than not to a program of design that he has set himself and carefully preserving a heterogeneity that resists any uniformity of style or practice. Gianni Pettena has always worked with architecture and no one has done more, on the critical and pedagogical plane, to bring the discipline to life with publications and exhibitions. And yet, Gianni Pettena has always recoiled from architecture, has always rejected its use as an instrument, has refused to accept the fact that practicing it means being confined by the rigidities of a profession. He is more radical than anyone else, since he has turned aside from all the roads chosen by his comrades in the Radical movement, either in Italy or in Austria. He remains one of the few not to have fallen into the trap of postmodern neo-historicism, and to have fully accepted the implications of the confrontation that took place between the Radicals and the Neo-Rationalists in the Italy of the 1970s.
The “anarchitect,” as the title of his book-manifesto emphasizes, sets out to bring architecture back to the source of a direct action. He declares: “To be architecture, to be able to exist officially, to be ‘authorized,’ architecture has to fit into particular categories, it has to follow the rules, period.” In a Europe scarred by totalitarianism and the destruction of the war, the opposition to a rationalism that was perpetuated under the guise of a Marxist-oriented social discourse in which the authors were the same as those of the years of Fascism was a situation hard to accept for the generation of the sixties. Pettena accepted the effect of a liberation unconditionally, rejecting any reference to a modern architecture based on a logic of separation, separation of the city from architecture, of architecture from design. The negation of any principle of identity, of any rule, was to remain an immutable constant of Pettena’s work: he has sought without respite to bring architecture to its conclusion, to fulfill its destiny, to face up to its limitedness through the permanence of its objects. […]
Gianni Pettena has always presented his passage through Salt Lake City as the turning point in the whole of his research, the experience of a relationship with the territory where architecture always appears on the point of vanishing, where it is always supported by the awareness that gives it an up-to-dateness, a presence. While the affinity with the research into the territory carried out by many artists remains evident, this does not mean that he elevates the landscape to the status of a privileged spatial domain, a domain of extension, a last metaphor for pictorial or sculptural quality. An architect who walks, Pettena uses movement as a means of understanding permanence, localization. With the Already Seen Portable Landscapes (1973), his work as an architect was taken to a Duchampian level of efficacy. His architectural portfolio, his book of drawings, his surveys, harking back to the tradition of the architectural Bildung, were reduced to a set of readymade works of architecture, a typological group of natural monuments, isolated cliffs in the American desert that command attention as pre-historic events of the human consciousness of architecture. Architecture lies in our capacity to decide what is architecture, what determines a permanence and a universality of the landscape. With this boîte-en-valise, Pettena presented nature as architectural culture and by doing this distanced himself from the overly architectural heritage of an Italianism that had grown inert and cumbersome for him. He shared this attempt at “naturalization” with Gordon Matta-Clark who, in a similar action, was to define the built as the raw material of a sculptural intervention. Thus the architect’s activity is seen as a description, as the tuning of a qualitative determination proper to the site. In his conversation with Robert Smithson the notion of participation is evoked and, with reference to the landscapes of abandoned industrial architecture, both attribute to their destructured state a unique capacity to define the legibility of what makes an event in architecture, the dynamic source of a work that Robert Smithson re-proposed in his interventions. Speaking of entropy, of “entropology,” they cite Claude Levi-Strauss’s attempt to analyze the fascination of cultures with an aesthetics of the ruin. Wearing the hat of a geologist, Robert Smithson says that “you just go along with it, and there can be a kind of building that takes place this way..”
With Quarry (1970), Gianni Pettena discovered the initiating gestures in which architecture was an intervention of foundation in an old pit. It is an occupation of the land, marked and engraved in the territory; it holds a dialogue with the context and remains open to evolution, to change. This active memory of a naturalness in architecture guides the whole of the architect’s course, and reappears with another boîte, a suitcase made of plexiglass, a material that made it possible to compose a landscape of transparent silhouettes of mountains, a sort of immediate memory, of reactive museum, that mocked the monumental pretensions of architects (Paesaggi della memoria, 1987). The performance Paper (1971), which calls to mind a similar work by Hans Hollein, used wide strips of paper to restructure and recompose a space that was multiplied in an infinite, phenomenal complexity. The obstruction of the space, united with the simplicity and the uniqueness of the material, created in an immediate and spontaneous manner the sense of a participation in the architecture that led to play and destruction.
The fascination exercised on Gianni Pettena by Salt Lake City, founded in 1847 by the Mormons, is on a par with the feeling of “petrifaction” produced in him by the historic cities of Europe. Such a short history has left the city in a state of indecision in which its boundary is still active, open, in which a state of sedimentation has not yet been attained: an almost organic energy that Gianni Pettena celebrates with jubilation. With Red Line (1972), the architect took possession of the map of the city, playing with the geometrical representation of the territory, which to him appears very unlikely in relation to an exceptional natural environment that in his view is the very source of an urban understanding of the city. By physically marking the administrative boundary of the city on the ground, he traced an indeterminate line, “figuring” the urban agglomeration and representing what is living and open in it. His great interest in Olmsted (F.L. Olmsted. L’origine del parco urbano e del parco naturale contemporaneo, Centro Di, Florence 1996), the famous American city planner and landscape architect whose distinctly social approach was based on an idea of “open” territory, reflects this obsession with a space that eludes objectification, the desire for a permanent naturalization of everything that could become permanent, monumental, and in the end negate a strictly human temporality.[…]
Architecture is already there, it has always been present. It has accompanied every stage in the construction of what is human. What Pettena points out forcefully is that architecture has no objectivity, and that it does not reside in the endless stratifications of material and know-how that make up our urban spaces. His photographs of deserts, roads, mountains and disused industrial plant are all documents in which we see no architecture, but in which architecture is revealed with force and determination by states of organization, by complex compositions that go far beyond the giddiest constructions of the discipline (About Non-Conscious Architecture, 1972-73). Constructing means understanding, it means first of all tracing the sources of the architectural gesture, disencumbering the conception of its history, stripping it of a burden that has turned it into the art of reference. By holding a conference on the edge of a beach where the tide is rising rapidly, Pettena forces us to take notice of his mockery of references to authority (Thames Tide, 1974). And this is not the only paradox on the route followed by Gianni Pettena, who has carried the dynamic banner of a conceptual architecture at arm’s length, only to see the illusory triumph of a postmodern historicism transmuted into commercial aesthetic. From a performance in which he sought to define space in terms of the resonance of sound (Progetto d’architecture N°5, 1973) to Itaglio (1987), he has redeployed the sphere in which architects exercise their discipline, notably expanding and opening up the field of our understanding of what pertains to architecture. And he has shown that this continuous conceptual practice is not irreconcilable with the sphere of the professional exercise of architecture. The path taken by Gianni Pettena is dotted with numerous realizations that indicate the way in which an architectural intervention can be carried out. For example, Grass Architecture (1971), a programmatic set of three drawings, defined the criterion of a relationship with the ground in which the architectural object did not arise from an act of foundation or construction, but from a simple morphological game played with liftings and detachments. Noticing that the rolling plants of the desert were halted in their course by the fences put up by farmers, Pettena built the Tumbleweeds Catcher (1972), a large tower on which the bushes assembled themselves into an accidental monument. This architecture of “assemblage,” constantly changing and formally conditioned by the elements of its context, capable of reproducing and renewing itself continually at minimal cost and with the maximum of flexibility, has remerged today. We find it in the intentions of all those young architects who are seeking a real alternative to the hardware of the buildings that surround us. So a work like the New Canazei Town Hall (1990-97), which reorganizes the functions of two buildings by means of a light and discreet connection covered with plants, and of course the famous House on the Island of Elba (1978-) have the significance of a manifesto today. Minor architecture determines with force what could be an economy of building: the idea of a gentle architecture, close to human beings, undergoing perpetual physical and morphological change, a construction forever escaping architecture and its history. That man clinging to a rock face, clinging to a building, is the architect. He has no pretension to build a mountain, he is moving around, he is looking for holds. That’s Gianni Pettena.
ANTHROPIC ARCHITECTURE , Frédéric Migayrou, 2002, AAVV, Gianni Pettena. Le métier de l’architecte, Editions HYX, Orléans