( in De-Architecture, Rizzoli International, New York 1987)

"Pettena's artistic incursions were not completely appreciated by the two communities [Minneapolis and Salt lake City, n.d.r.]…The negative response seems to have stemmed from the artist's use of naturals elements that were perceived by the public to be antithetical to the notion of functionalism in architecture. As the atmospheric conditions prevailed that would freeze water and bake clay, the structures became uninhabitable by the standards of suburban American living. Ice and clay are the ecologically intelligent and natural choices for sheltering certain civilizations; yet, paradoxically, in the context of housing based on technological support systems and a profligate waste of resources, projects using these materials were met with apprehension and even hostility…

(in Green Architecture, Taschen, 2000)


Pettena sees his house on Elba as a “place to look at the stars”.

[…]The effect of the house is like a primordial collage….., isolated, unpretentious, and improvisational.

[..It] stands as an example of how more fortunate survivors may live after the impending environmental apocalypse has driven escapees into the wilderness…

In many ways this structure is a continuation of the philosophical direction established by Pettena’s early projects.  It is a concession that, in the final ecological scenario, nature consumes all.

[…..] the house on Elba is an architectural elegy for a more contemplative climate.  It strips away the excesses of consumer value and demonstrates the value of modesty, economy, and a primal sense of an art experience translated into the simplest form of architecture.

(…) Pettena's situation reminds me of a 1992 symposium in Cincinnati, dealing with the topic of "Deconstruction in Architecture," where I engaged in a defense of Gianni Pettena and Gordon Matta-Clark (who died of cancer in 1978), as a key deconstructivist pioneers, predicated on their use of existing buildings as foils for critical intervention. My presence on this panel - where I was pitted against decon enthusiast Mark Wigley - grew out of a controversial article on deconstruction, entitled "The Slippery Floor" which I had written for a 1990 Academy Editions book. In this essay, I challenged the conceptual premises of such architects as Eisenman, Koolhaas, Hadid, Gehry, Coop Himmelblau and a few others for being too restrained by the formalist concerns of structure and shape-making to qualify as deconstructivist architecture. My point during the conference was that Pettena's and Matta-Clark's works, at that time mostly ignored by the mainstream design world, were closer to the kind of critical context proposed by deconstruction guru, Jacques Derrida - certainly more so than all of the stylish neo-Constructivist efforts produced during the 1980's and 90's. I interpreted Derrida's theories (referring to their impact on literary criticism) "as an inversion of language - or language as the critique of language - used for questioning people's habitual acceptance of form, syntax, structure, and meaning in literature. It is a way of liberating the reader from traditional structuralist formula, interpretive bias and ritualized reading habits, which can inhibit a deeper understanding of written and verbal communications." My text continued; "The process of deconstruction usually starts out with the premise that most literature contains traditional narrative structure, prompting a reflex response to certain uses of language. What Derrida has called "archetexts" form a pattern of operative meanings to be deconstructed. It stands to reason that a similar type of reading applied to architecture would call for the identification of "archetypes" to serve as the equivalent of archetexts. In the absence of words as critical tools, a comparable means of access would have to be substituted to uncover an equivalent level of deeper meanings in architecture. In dealing with buildings, this language would most logically derive from conventional component parts and standard construction processes - or, in other words, a set of archetypal building profiles, methods, and materials that trigger reflexive associations in the mind of the viewer."

In my advocacy of Pettena's and Matta-Clark's work of the 1970's I demonstrated how their ideas were consistent with a deconstructivist sensibility. Since both artist/architects frequently used archetypal buildings for their interventions - in Matta-Clark's case, a series of dissected, stripped and excavated suburban houses and, in Pettena's work, a phenomenological repossession of architecture by encasing generic structures in mud, ice and foliage. When buildings were invaded by a methodology they called "anarchitecture," the conventional design parameters of form and function were abandoned and edifices of no particular distinction were suddenly converted into a new category of art experience. For me, this use of the processes of "un-building" to invert, transform and comment on the nature of habitable spaces is the essence of deconstruction in architecture.

Gianni Pettena , like Matta-Clark, has understood the value of operating in the gaps between construction and demolition, between design and non-design, the habitable and the uninhabitable, the stationary and the nomadic, the static and the evolutionary. Although similarities of intent exist between these two artist/architects, there are great differences as well. Matta-Clark was physically engaged, aggressive, and primarily concerned with what he called "having a non-umental impact" on standard architectural situations. Pettena has been more intellectual and epicurean, focusing on environmental phenomena as it affects the built environment, engaging in the politics of the public domain and being concerned with the mental and prosthetic implications of objects as they function in daily life.[…]

My friendship with Gianni Pettena goes back to the early 1970's. During the intervening years we have shared endless dialogue, creative experiences, international travel, pleasurable vacations and the inevitable ups and downs that accompany a lifestyle of staking out claims in perilous artistic territories. The financial rewards are few; but the pleasures of the game make the adventure worthwhile. We both admire the same list of courageous pioneers in the arts and architecture - Marcel Duchamp, Andre Bréton, Antonin Artaud, Samuel Becket, Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Kurt Schwitters, Victor Tatlin, El Lissitsky, Iakov Chernikov, Frederick Kiesler, Antonio Sant'Elia and others - who pursued their missions, without succumbing to the temptations of compromise for economic gain. In every case, these artists lived up to my favorite quote from that high-risk Victorian genius, Oscar Wilde, (audacious in both literary content and lifestyle choices), who observed that; "An idea that isn't dangerous isn't worthy of being called an idea at all."

Gianni Pettena's work offers a rare combination of civilized rebellion, aesthetic danger, incisive wit, social critique and endless optimism. He has been intellectually driven by a compulsion to expand the definitions of building design - but always from the perspective of a profound and gentle humanism. In this regard, Gianni Pettena has helped remind the often aesthetically chilly, commerce-driven and ego-obsessed field of architecture that the flip side can be artistically passionate, liberated from economics and generously ecumenical. In this way it can also be a lot more fun.


James Wines “Gentle radical” 2002, AAVV, Gianni Pettena. Le métier de l’architecte, Editions HYX, Orléans


[…]Unlike Robert Smithson, who engaged geological and/or industrial sites’ physicality as an intrinsic component of his art, Pettena (in essence, an innovative urbanist) used the evolutionary impact of natural forces as his content. In the early development of his ideas, he explained: “Land Art is more recent and my break with it is clearer. First, the choice of dealing with either the urban environment in general, and building structures specifically, alters my whole realm of reference and shifts it away from the grand theme of vast natural emptiness which, for the Earth artist, was literally like drawing on a blank canvas.” Although both he and Smithson embraced the concept of entropy and the action of ‘nature’s revenge’ in determining the destiny of Environmental Art, Pettena’s transformations used architecture as a passive receptacle – invaded by heat, damp and wind – and as an evidentiary monitor for the effect of these forces on architecture’s ultimate dematerialisation. Although a vast range of influence from the Environmental Art movement still pre - vails internationally, the quality of dialogue and willingness to embark on new areas of investigation have declined through the prioritisation of style over substance. To reiterate the initial premises for this examination of Pettena’s work and that of his generation of artists, the loss of intellectual courage is a casualty of the culture market; in particular, its dangerously seductive promises of meteoric career ascension and attendant wealth. While justifiably crediting today’s socially conscious art as a commendable direction, it is still not on the same level of conceptual breakthrough as those ‘escape from the gallery into the streets’ motivations that triggered the 1970s and ’80s spirit of rebellion. Broadly influential and sustainable ideas in the arts are rarely associated with instant acceptance. On the contrary, they are usually greeted with barriers of resistance even mockery that have to be remedied by a climate of gradual enlightenment. Thoughtful assimilation often requires combative discourse and a consensus definition of epochal relevance. Neither is likely to emerge from the speedway-like corridors of a contemporary art fair. There is a prevailing assumption in the history of art evaluation that the critical tactic of harkening back to some ‘good old days’ of superior aesthetic values is evidence of reactionary nostalgia. Sometimes this is true, but often not. Surely the healthiest motivations in art confirmed by Gianni Pettena and his generation’s contributions were described by Richard Huelsenbeck in the Dadaist Manifesto of 1918: “Art, in its execution and direction, is dependent on the time in which it lives and artists are creatures of their epoch. The highest art is that which, in its conscious content, presents the problems of the day”.


PERIPATETIC PETTENA, Notes on a Wandering Visionary, James Wines , The curios mr Pettena, Humboldt Books, 2017