Luca Cerizza: Beyond your encounters and frequentation of key figures, I can imagine that there was a whole more ‘anonymous’ dimension in the human and architectural landscape of America that you were already interested in, or that you encountered there. In the photographs that you brought together under the title The Curious Mr. Pettena, there is in fact a recurrent attention to the various forms of American nomadism: from the caravans to the boathouses, from prefab houses to the communities of Native Americans, etc… On the other hand, the title which is a reference to Ettore Sottsass Jr. harks back to this very attitude of curious wandering that takes place most of all through the use of the car. Indeed, correct me if I’m wrong, but many of the photos are taken straight from inside the car.
Gianni Pettena:Yes, of course, nomadism, along with the disciplinary ‘short circuits’ triggered by habits, then transformed and utilised (by those capable of doing so) as a conceptual, strategic and philosophical critique. The origins of a dissent which uses tools which have become inscribed in the DNA. I feel it to be only fitting to acknowledge in the Americans this natural, creative freedom, the ability to invent themselves without reading apparent contradictions or deformations: there is perhaps in all of them a little of Steve Jobs. Following dreams by travelling, moving around by car. In train or on a plane you’re inside a tube… In the car you can explore both physical and mental territories. You might have a route, but you never know where you’re coming from or where you’re going, and the turbulences that you come across attract you and lead you to develop ways of dealing with them, focusing on this event… Parking in front of a bar… Alongside the only car out front… You read that it’s the sheriff’s car… You peek inside… The sheriff’s jacket… At the bar… The sheriff! It’s already the story of an exploration. And the dragsters… Normal cars transformed in order to reach the highest possible speed… On a racetrack… That’s alright… It doesn’t matter! All this using the height of technology that had been developed at the time. Nomadism is in the mind… While driving, you see a house drawing up to you. What is it? You need to understand everything in a matter of seconds, stop by the side of the road and tell the story…
[…] L.C. And so you were a nomad observing other nomads… Mobility and nomadism are a key theme for the generation of architects and theorists who, from the mid-1950s onwards, first in Europe and then in the United States, tried to break the schematism and the planning of the home and of the rationalist city, the functionalism of the Bauhaus. From the Imaginist Bauhaus to Situationism, from Yona Friedman’s manifesto for mobile architecture to the cities imagined by Archigram, from the myth of nomadism stretching right down to your generation of Radicals, both Italian and abroad. In your American journeys you came face to face with the everyday reality of that condition, embedded in American culture. Tell me about the nomadic America that you saw.
G.P. To tell you the truth, even in this case I feel somewhat detached from the Radicals. The migrations were ones of ideas… The real ones, those that made you cross whole territories, were to meet those whose ideas seemed similar to your own. For example, London was the centre of it all in 1960s Europe, of the ferment of our generation at the time, concerning behaviour, music, literature and thought. The United States was even more strongly a place of deep-seated contrast between generations: that of the fathers who declared war and sent their sons to kill and get killed… It grew there most of all, on an ideological level, for the first time after the Korean war, into which young Americans went without a structured form of dissent, a dissent which was articulated only in theoretically broader terms. European dissent was ‘intellectual’, while the Americans sent off our generation to kill and get killed: the music, the literature, the poetry and the theorists that supported this generation, like Marcuse, Reich and Fuller, sang of deep-rooted dissent: the generation of the fathers related to the ‘different’ with violence… And with the same violence, this generation related to the environment… Fuller would say the planet was being treated like a giant garbage can. It was only natural to want to seek out ideological and philosophical bases for a different attitude. Going to India meant a quest for philosophies that were at the heart of the pacifist movement. Relating to the culture of the Native Americans meant building a relationship with the environment with the respect that the environment called for. While the Radicals, from the Situationism of Constant to Yona Friedman, from Archigram to the Absolute Architecture of Hollein and Pichler, to the Monumento Continuo and Non Stop City of Superstudio and Archizoom, are the transcription of the dissent of these new generations towards the inherited ‘rationalist prison’. Having already been down these paths, I already found myself elsewhere: more attracted by the architec - ture recognised in nature of the Natives, by the ‘self-construction’ of the hippies and by the new linguistic and conceptual alphabet of the Land Art of Long, Smithson, De Maria, Christo, etc… The migration of the Radicals was towards other directions: imagining ‘another’ city, but always in line with the architecture they had inherited. The diversity of the Natives, of the hippies and of the artists who imagined ‘another’ architecture altogether was that of self-construction, living physically and conceptually in keeping with the evolution of independent thought, then one of dissent towards the previous generations. The Radicals would draw, make models and photomontages; instead, the ones I was interested in already implemented their ideas, making them physical inhabitations, common spaces and villages, their own existence; they were transcribing their ideology into architecture and behaviour. There were various notions of architecture here, more than in all the proposals offered by ‘official’ architecture right up to the present day. There was even a hippie commune that moved around on disused school buses, turned into mobile homes, of which the motto was: “When in doubt, move it out”. Hippie nomadism was just a natural evolution of the deep-seated habits of a more anonymous and popular side of America.
L.C. How did this experience influence your work from the early 1970s onwards?
G.P. In my work, the use of materials recouped from old homes and cars, the desire to renaturalise construction materials, the analysis of the short circuits between nature and architecture are a direct consequence of the deliberate nomadic encounters with the hippie communities, the villages and reserves of the Native Americans of the South West, the constructions of the environmental artists of the day, of their ‘archi - tectures for the mind’. Instead, I preferred to situate my works on the urban fringes, where the architecture had lost its identity and begun to come undone at the seams, and where nature had been contaminated by urban expansion.[…]
WHERE I CAN GET RID OF THESE THINGS, Gianni Pettena interviewed by Luca Cerizza, 6 / 7 /2017, The curious mr Pettena, Humboldt Books, 2017