HANS URLICH OBRIST
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I’ve never really understood how this Italian miracle of Radical Architecture came about.
Gianni Pettena: This Italian miracle has a very simple explanation. For one thing it did not have a political character, unlike for example the architecture of the hippies, so-called funk architecture, which was made by those who objected to the Vietnam War [...].A counterculture that was a culture of nonviolence, in open disagreement with the older generation, which was waging violent war against the different, just as it was violent in its treatment of nature, going on polluting it without any feeling of remorse, using the planet, as Buckminster Fuller put it, as a great garbage can. All this arrived in Italy, but without the political connotations. On the other hand Andrea Branzi, Massimo Morozzi of Archizoom and myself had been politically active as students, challenging the conceptual formulation of the courses, and we were, of course, highly critical of the establishment, the political as well as the cultural one. [...] [...] It was, in a nutshell, our way of criticizing the Modernist legacy, especially but not exclusively that of Italian Modernism, in other words a time when reality was solely rational, and we fought for a greater balance, because reality is a daily struggle between the rational and the emotional
HUO: And that was the beginning.
GP: Yes, and we were in Florence. My first work was in 1965, the conversion of a loft I had rented on Piazza Donatello. Those were also the years in which Archizoom and Superstudio got going, in the December of ’66, with the exhibition Superarchitettura. And then in ’68 the UFO too.
HUO: And when you started who were your, how can I put it, heroes? Because the interesting thing is that they were probably not just figures from the world of architecture.
GP: In fact my heroes were not architects. I loved architecture. I had enrolled in the department of architecture, but after the first year I realized that the idea of archi - tecture that was taught there was not the same as my idea. An idea that I found instead in art galleries, and so I was always at Fabio Sargentini’s Attico in Rome, at the Galleria Toselli in Milan and at Gian Enzo Sperone’s in Turin. [...]
HUO: In America there was no rigid subdivision of disciplines, between theater, art and architecture. But in general that was not a time when the disciplines were segregated. [...] At university though, there was segregation.
GP: Yes, there was.
HUO: And how did this influence your education?
GP: I remained an ordinary student of architecture. In other words I didn’t go to lectures anymore, except the ones which were strictly obligatory. But my school was the world of visual arts, as well as that of experimental drama. I was a friend, for example, of Carmelo Bene, whom I saw regularly. [...]
HUO: How did Carmelo inspire you? What exactly was his influence on you?
GP: In the axioms at the end of my book L’anarchitetto, I wrote “Say that you don’t like the work of Carmelo Bene!” Carmelo and the Living Theatre were a shocking and at the same time all-absorbing experience. The Living Theatre used urban space and Carmelo the space of the theater. In using it they revolutionized it and brought the emerging culture of the moment into it, at the most sophisticated levels of research. So a young man of 25 to 30, in those years, could not help but fall enthusiastically under their spell. I was the only architect who did these things at the time, and I did them, as I sometimes say, out of love of architecture. It was the milieu of architecture itself that forced me to leave, in order to go on practicing architecture without feeling guilty, without reducing it to a state of slavery to function and to the investment of money for the purpose of making a profit. In order to exist, architecture is always obliged to come to terms with an investment of capital, which has to return a profit, and above all to fit into in one of those five or ten categories into which architecture can be pigeonholed, the single-family house, the bank, the church, the museum, the stadium... Today, that’s what a work of architecture has to be. Over the course of the centuries, when architecture was the transcription of an idea, in every way and in every sense, and was sometimes functional too. [...] The history of architecture is filled with examples that do not fit very well into what it has become today because now there at most ten different types of architecture.
HUO: It’s the same with art, in a way. The Biennale, the solo exhibition, the gallery, the fair...
GP: In the sixties though, as there were no disciplinary boundaries in the field of research in the arts, and naturally not in that of means of communication, none of this existed. [...]
HUO: Can we talk a bit about of come how you came up with these inventions? Because the Ice House was a fantastic invention. The “cube house” and the Clay House, and especially Tumbleweeds Catcher, are an inspiration for many young artists today.
GP: I wanted to use nature, natural elements. I think that the architecture of today, but also of that time, of those years, uses materials after killing them, it uses bones. [...] I also wanted to use the natural material to the maximum of its expressive potential, and a material whose production would not cause further pollution, as those were the years in which I interviewed Richard Buckminster Fuller four times. In the early seventies, ’73, ’74. I interviewed him twice for Domus, once for Casabella and once for Modo.
HUO: Buckminster Fuller used to say that we should not belong to our houses because houses are a service.
GP: They are a service, certainly. They are machines for living, as Le Corbusier called them.
HUO: [...] But why Florence and why Minneapolis? And [why] these inventions in these unlikely cities.
GP: [...] Why was Radical Architecture born in Florence? Perhaps because the department of architecture at Florence University was not of great quality and the brighter and more attentive students couldn’t stand it. That was one thing, and the other was that we had a couple of professors like Savioli and Ricci who gave us space: two pupils of Michelucci’s, who was no longer teaching in Florence although he was still alive. Perhaps that’s the reason why, but it should also be said, above all, that Archizoom, Superstudio and I were not stuck in Florence, we were always on the move.
HUO: All these experiences of wide-open space, of the great open spaces of nature, of the tabula rasa, from ’72 onward, for example About Non Conscious Architecture or the Red Line, although it seems to me that it had already started in ’71 with the Ice House, Clay House and Tumbleweeds Catcher, which were already architecture of the landscape...
GP: And my trips to the deserts of the United States where I discovered that deserts are not empty space [...]. I saw instead that all these spaces were already works of architecture, not mine but the architecture of the people who had lived in those spaces. Monument Valley is not a series of monumental rocks, but the valley of the temples of the Navajo who still live there. Mesa Verde, Taos in New Mexico, as well as a lot of other villages constructed inside enormous caverns. The hogan of the Navajo is a bubble of earth, a hut, an Existenzminimum, a shelter that has always existed. So these places are not deserts at all, in springtime everything flowers just like anywhere else, and then there is a second spring in late fall, just as there is in the countries of the Mediterranean. But above all they are inhabited places, already assumed as architecture because it is only when he can’t find a natural work of architecture that the nomad builds one for himself, that he constructs the cave. Otherwise he always recognizes architecture in what nature provides him. A large cave becomes the village. Like animals, nomads move with the seasons and in each of them finds out how to grow crops, how to find shelter and how to celebrate rituals in honor of their gods or their memories, in other words their dead. So those places are not natural, they are already works of architecture.
HUO: They are already places in which there is culture.
GP: They are already places of culture because even if there is no visible trace of humanity, it is there conceptually. I start from there, from the highest level, on the conceptual plane, on which to do architecture, recognizing that it is already there in nature.
HUO: And has the book Architecture without Architects by the Czech Bernard Rudofsky been important for you?
GP: It was the catalogue of an exhibition at the MoMA. It was a fabled book of that time, one that we all loved.
HUO: In your work there are references, in fact there are citations. Yours is evidently an architecture without architects.?
GP: An architecture without architects was also practiced by the hippies, by dropouts from official culture, the people who gave up their studies at university to create a pacifist counterculture of their own. They practiced it with works of architecture that were self-built out of material salvaged from scrapped cars or demolished buildings and showed that there is an architect inside each of us, that we have the capacity to construct our own space. Only that we, as members of sedentary populations, do not exercise this capacity but delegate the architect to make for us the space that we would be able, if we looked deep inside, to make ourselves.
HUO: Very interesting. Before moving on to your epiphany of the tabula rasa I’d like to hear a bit more about the Tumbleweeds Catcher, a structure that you have described as “an unusual skyscraper, a place of ambiguity and of physical and conceptual clarities.” [...]
GP: It was a metaphor too, because those bushes that are always rolling in the wind, that John Ford used to emphasize the dramatic scenes in his movies, are in effect caught [...] on the outskirts of the city. When they are alive, they stay there in the middle of the desert, and then at a certain point, at the end of their lives, the wind uproots them and it is then that they start to have a real life. That they start to roll and travel thousands of miles.
HUO: Life begins again...
GP: After death. [...]
HUO: And how did you get from this story of tumbleweeds to the epiphany of the landscape, the one of About Non Conscious Architecture, a work documented in a film made for the Triennale in ’73 and by a whole series of photographs and which is much closer to Land Art than to architecture. How did you arrive at the epiphany of the tabula rasa, at these vast landscapes?
GP: Because I found that those were the real types of which to speak in architecture. They are works of architecture where the human hand makes poetic gestures, such as, for instance, Land Art had done with Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson. After all, they made poetic signs: coming from the city they traced the elements of a new alphabet with which to hold a dialogue with the natural setting, but they always lost out in the comparison, for nature is gigantic, it is enormous. Whatever you do nature always comes out on top, on the spatial scale. That’s why I photographed the Kennecott Copper Mine, for example, a huge open-pit mine in Utah, a monumental quarry that is a mile and a half in diameter and just under a mile deep. That is a human creation, and not for aesthetic reasons, exclusively for practical ones, for the extraction of ore and its processing to yield copper. It is a monument to human labor because for eighty years there have been 200 people excavating the interior of a mountain in shifts, right around the clock. Only in this case has the work of man succeeded in vying with nature. [...] And this is true for many of the works I have made too. Many of my works are observations on other things, for example on what is found in nature. And the only case in which the work of man has been able to compete with nature is this enormous hole dug over the course of eighty years, which for me has aesthetic consequences, but was not made to have them.[…]
Interview with Gianni Pettena, Hans Hurlich Obrist, Londra 18-10-2009