Nowadays, architecture very often starts from the end rather than from the start. In other words, the architect thinks about the already constructed building, and construction takes place without taking into consideration the idea and the starting point which will then become the outline for the final project. This results in a lack of precisely that part of the architectonic act which exists beyond the construction, in the world that we can call the world ‘of ideas’. Now I believe that both in the past and in the present architecture must first of all take into account those spatial and spatial-temporal, materic and dimensional coordinates which form the kernel of a building, and in my opinion, if this does not occur, the construction ends up being simply a ‘machine à habiter’, or a heap of steel, glass and other building materials.
In the case of Gianni Pettena it frequently happens that his architectures – because we can give them this name – are primarily the restatement of a building idea, an idea that may not even be realised, if not ideally or ideologically, but which always underlies his concept of designing. Thus, many of his buildings, such as the ice house, the clay house or the tumbleweed tower, have their own vitality and their own survival even beyond the fact that the executive moment has been lost.
One example, which in my opinion is very significant, not least because it demonstrates that these observations are valid not only for the current situation but also for the past, is that of Pettena’s intervention on the Palazzo di Arnolfo in San Giovanni Valdarno, in which the eurhythmy and the extraordinary linearity and symmetry typical of Renaissance architecture are in a certain sense transformed by slanting lozenges which overlap the spaces in the open arcades and porticoes so as to provide, through the inclusion of a contemporary language, a perception that is different and yet still integrated into the language of the past. The result of this intervention is the attainment of a very interesting phenomenon particularly from the perceptive point of view, because after the building has been observed with the masking of the slanted bands and is then seen again once it has been restored to its original condition, one immediately becomes aware of the existence of a specific perceptive quality which was lost without the ‘overlapping’ which we have mentioned: one demonstration among many of how very often great buildings of the past are not perfectly recognised in terms of their different coordinates precisely on account of the insufficiency of our perceptive attitude.
Furthermore, a building such as the ‘Tumbleweeds catcher’ constructed by Pettena in Salt Lake City in 1972, covered with vegetation in such a way as to mask almost completely the structures beneath (as is also the case with the school incorporated into ice or the Clay House, also constructed in ’72 in Salt Lake City), shows how at times the masking which is laid over the latter makes it possible later on to consider it as ‘renewed’ owing to the fall of these screens. In the same way that a snake is renewed when it sheds its skin, similarly these buildings acquire their primitive vitality precisely because they have abandoned the ‘slough’ of an overlaid element.
Furthermore, the ‘Grass Architectures’, a work presented by Pettena as early as 1971 at the Trigon in Graz, could be compared (or opposed) to certain operations carried out in subsequent years by Emilio Ambasz, those in which he ‘masks’ some of his traditional constructions by covering them with grass: in Pettena’s designs, on the other hand, we have the creation of a spatiality achieved through the raising of a grass carpet, a design which naturally comes to constitute a vacuous, entirely virtual spatiality, but which makes possible the idea of a construction whose articulation and structures are completely natural.
Although in terms of education, generation and contiguity of experiences, Pettena belongs to the world of ‘radical’ research, he constitutes the most conceptually rigorous aspect of it. He almost seems not to care about realisation, but is instead preoccupied with the conceptual and analytical process and, when he communicates with a pre-existence, he establishes with the latter a relationship of continuity and innovation.
Unlike Archigram, Superstudio and Ufo, his architectures are not influenced by the language of time but remain absolute, precisely because the ‘natural’ languages adopted are without time. He prefers to work these ‘dialogues’ and these architectures with simple materials: with the ice school and house for example, the tool of his work is the temperature which turns the water into ice, with the clay house it is the natural drying process which completes the work and reveals afresh the original aspect of the building, with the ‘grass architectures’ it is once again nature, with slight tamperings, which is the creator of the final result.
Gianni Pettena’s thoughts and studies always deal with a context and take concrete form in a building which is realised and arranged, as in the recent Archipensieri realised in Cassino, to be perceived and understood also in the references of continuity with its origins, from Greece to the Renaissance to Mannerism.
Furthermore, the perspective corrections, the anamorphoses, the interventions on space which produce a more equilibrated and harmonious perception, as used to happen in the past partly through the dimensional control of the golden section, are communication tools of a thought which, albeit using contemporary languages, builds that kind of continuity which reassembles and revitalises history’s teachings, conceptual references and moments of high propositional quality.
PRELIMINARIES FOR A CONCEPTUAL ARCHITECTURE - G. Dorfles, 2002, AAVV, Gianni Pettena. Le métier de l’architecte, Editions HYX, Orléans