[…]Body and Behavior Gianni Pettena’s work is permeated by a sense of inescapable physicality. A large number of his creations spring from an activation of the body, from the confrontation between it, the materials utilized, and the spatial constructs that are outlined or investigated, with the aim of fostering its interaction with nature and the environment. A “behavioral” propensity, a performative attitude pervades much of his work, not just when the body becomes its subject, but also when it is the materials (mostly natural) that are transformed as we will see further on in situations that have more the character of an installation. The body, presented and represented right from his earliest works of 1966–67, not only does not inhabit the futuristic dream of technological prostheses and spaces reaching out toward a utopian tomorrow, but is liberated in its physical, not to say “animal”, functions. His extremely rare flirtations with design have, in fact, a strongly exemplary value in defining the object, not as form, however nonfunctional (and thus not even in the totemic and symbolic senses explored by Ettore Sottsass Jr.), but as, precisely, physical experience. Thus the Rumble couch (1967) fostered a proximity and a physical sharing between its users8, while the chair was conceived as a potential that could only be activated by the body of the person who carried it, bestowing even more directly performative characteristics on it (Wearable Chairs, 1971). No longer an object but an experience, the chair too was adapted to those forms of nomadism that Pettena saw as a decisive factor in American life and its idea of architecture and society. Besides, the body had already been directly involved in the (never realized) project for a Tunnel sonoro (Sound Tunnel, 1966), where a performer, dressed in a metallic body stocking, was supposed to pass through a tunnel also made of metal, trying to re-create the sound of the wind.9 If in this very early project Pettena already showed interest in a body that became nature, that activated with its movement an architectural “cage,” a geometric module similar to a minimalist sculpture, with Paper/Midwestern Ocean (1971) a poor and obsolescent material like paper was placed at the service of another spatial experience. The lecture that Pettena had been invited to give as part of his activity at the college in Minneapolis was turned into an installation: the audience had to use scissors to cut its way through a forest of paper strips in order to attend the lecture. If the strips served to make the space visible (a “visualization of the air,” to use the words of Bruno Munari10), the act of cutting them to clear a path encouraged the spectator to play an active role in traversing and inhabiting the space. The spectators/students were first of all individuals, Pettena seemed to be saying: they were bodies that made their own way by carving out a space of possibility in the material. In this action the movement of the body creates a place, understood as “what the living body produces by moving,” and at the same time reminds us that the place “is not something given a priori.”11 In breaking down the frontality of the relationship with his students/audience to instigate a physical participation in the event, the artist/professor approached the act of teaching in an antiauthoritarian and performative way. Paper was, in fact, the first in a series of lectures-performances which can also be seen as anticipations of a form frequently adopted by artists in recent years given during Pettena’s long activity as teacher, communicator, writer, and curator.12 Invited to give a lecture at the Architectural Association in London (1972), Pettena decided to have his voice processed, adding sound effects produced by the new synthesizer belonging to his roommate in London, the young Brian Eno. Two years later he took the students of the Architectural Association to the shore of the Thames estuary: while giving his talk on architecture Pettena had to retreat before the implacable advance of the water behind him (Marea/Thames Tide, 1974, London). This retrocession of the logo V before nature returned on subsequent occasions when Pettena renounced satisfying the expectations of the public, refraining from giving his position as architect-teacher a “cultural” status to foster a physical relationship with nature through a vitalism that was not devoid of an ironic view of the role of the artist and the architect which has remained a constant right up to the present day. In this way, the artist’s body, covered in phosphorescent paint, dived into the Grand Canal as if it were a fish leaving the place designated for culture in order to return to the depths of the sea (Performance fosforescente [Phosphorescent Performance], Palazzo Grassi, Venice 1977); or was hauled up into the darkness of the museum by a cable (Le isole abbandonate dalla laguna [The Abandoned Islands of the Lagoon], Palazzo Grassi, Venice 1979); or climbed a rock face near his home in Fiesole (Il mestiere dell’architetto [The Craft of the Architect], 2002), an action and choice of location of high symbolic value in relation to the role of the architect/ artist/intellectual (the same rock from which a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci’s had made a disastrous attempt to fly). Finally, in a lecture/performance on the Radical Architecture movement, his body, framed exactly by the window of the Base exhibition space in Florence as if he were the Vitruvian Man, faced onto the street in order to continue with words the opening up to public space that pervades many of his works (La mia idea di architettura [My Idea of Architecture], 2014). Nor is it an accident that his actions have often been carried out solo. Pettena has never looked at the macro-contexts of urbanistic visions of the future, at the planning of new cities and territories frequently indulged in by architectural avant-gardes, including that of his own generation. His practice speaks and we will continue to see this in subsequent examples above all of a single, stubbornly “a-social” individual. It shows us a body, often in isolation; hypotheses of new forms of habitability in close connection with the natural element, in a kind of regression to a pre-technological state. Right from the beginning and up until the most recent years, the body that of the artist as performer and of the performer as spectator has been seen as a sensor that measures our relationship with the space in which we live and the space of discourse, and again as we will see he has also entrusted to it the direct, tactile, organic relationship with materials (for the most part natural) with which further works of “performed architecture” have taken shape. Analytical Architecture After having shown some of the ways in which Pettena has directly involved the body in the space of the exhibition, of nature, and of the word, it might seem odd to talk about the “analytical” character of his work. And yet this line of conceptual, even metalinguistic inclination is another of the different forms of expression that the artist has adopted with extreme assurance to avoid the risk of stylism and to adapt more precisely to the context in which he found himself operating. More specifically, it became a means of tackling the linguistic foundations of architecture, the role and the functions of architects from the moment in which they renounce or are prevented from following the orthodox manner of operation (construction). An analytical approach is also needed to understand the setting in which they work or that they observe, in order to question not just architectural language at its roots, the limits and potentialities of its vocabulary, but also the dynamics of power that pervade the territory.[…]
Over the last thirty years Pettena has with great consistency carried on with the repeated reflection on the relations between architecture and nature that he commenced in the early 1970s.32 Through a series of almost demonstrative interventions, Pettena has suggested “contaminations” through which nature can pervade the built, in ways that are not necessarily as invasive as in the American interventions. Paradigmatic of this, in part for its date and its symbolic potential, is the photographic image Un’idea di bellezza (An Idea of Beauty, 1979). The archetypal element of the pyramid built during the neoclassical period in Florence’s Parco delle Cascine for use as an icehouse suggests an interpretation on more than one level: if the idealism of that form contrasts with the functional nature of its use, so that the architecture serves to “contain” the nature, it is symptomatic that Pettena chose to draw attention to this contrast at the height of the debate over the postmodern in architecture. Showing this structure overgrown with grass and immersed in nature in what is a sort of essay on architecture in photographic form, Pettena proclaimed his idea of beauty suggesting a bond between architecture and nature that overcame the rigidity of all idealism of design. In short, architecture is in need of the continual action of nature is what Pettena seemed to be saying in a series of later installations as well. It needs to breathe (Stanza [Room], 1987; Branchia, 1999; Breathing Architecture, 2012), to be enlivened with movement through a new skin that delivered a late-modernist building in a degraded district of Athens from its immobility (Forgiving Architecture, 2009). If the use of strips of paper in Paper/Midwestern Ocean (1971) served to visualize the body’s relationship with space, in the installation in Athens and other variants of that project (Architecture Ondoyante: FRAC Lorraine, Metz 2014; Galleria Bonelli, Milan 2017; Kunst Meran, Merano 2017), the same element was used to impart a new dynamism to different parts of a building, freeing the architecture from its fixity. However, it also functioned as a “low-tech” sensor that detected the presence of an invisible element like the wind and of nature in general, around and inside the building itself. In some recent works, the artist has returned to the idea of a nature that overcomes architecture and the built which we have often encountered in his work since as far back as the early 1970s. The city itself, or at least a stylization of it in the form of a large environmental installation, could become nothing but nature (Brano di città [Portion of a City], 2009), turning into another sensory experience in this case an olfactory one; a tower on a hill could become a bush on a gigantic scale, changing color with the seasons (Torre di Brufa [Tower in Brufa], 2017); an intervention of landscape architecture could celebrate the mutability of nature by turning into wall/protection/architecture (Montagne naturali [Natural Mountains] 2017). Finally, with the installation Levitazione (Levitation, 2017) Pettena seems to be again proposing the dialectic between nature and design, and between nature and habitability, that has permeated his work since the time of his stay in America. If in the interventions of that period the use of natural materials appeared to speed up the passage of time and its impact on the residential conventions of the American middle class, here the final image seems to be literally suspended in an ambiguous relationship between nature and artifice. The wooden posts that end in roots poised in midair are perhaps intended to symbolize a form of violence done to nature in order to tame it and turn it into construction material; they seem to be reminding us that the columns which support the building used to be trees, forms of life sacrificed to the needs of the project, to the functionality of dwelling. With these most recent works, in consistent continuity with his early work, Pettena has once again given substance to what is basically a pessimistic view of the possibilities of progress, of the ability of architecture, and the culture of design to change and improve the world through orderly and rational control of nature. Since at least the period of his American works, Pettena’s work has been teaching us that the time of nature wins out over the hopes of progress cherished by humanity, which can also be embodied in an object, in a building, in a city. The only “school of architecture” worth attending, nature alone can teach us a possible vocabulary of habitation. In an environmentally dramatic situation like the one in which we find ourselves today, in a political and economic context in which it is only the factors of progress, development and growth that set the agenda, Pettena seems to be suggesting that the sole happy growth is that of the plants and flowers which cover his works.
8. In this sense, the difference between Archizoom’s Dream Beds (from 1967 onward) and Pettena’s couch is exemplary. The former was conceived as image, the latter as experience.
9. A later work (Progetto d’architettura n. 5, 1973) would go in a similar direction. In the context of a sound performance in which Davide Mosconi and Marino Vismara also took part, Pettena turned part of the Triennale di Milano into a musical instrument striking the ceramic tiles of the entrance hall and grand staircase of the building in Milan with vibraphone mallets.
10. Title of a contribution by Bruno Munari to the exhibition-event Campo Urbano. Interventi estetici nella dimensione collettiva urbana, curated by Luciano Caramel (Como, September 21, 1969).
11. Massimo Cacciari, paper given at the 21st National Congress of the Società Italiana di Psicopatologia (SOPSI), Rome, February 22–25, 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tYak_tTytQ
12 For a closer look at this area of Pettena’s activity see in this publication: Elisabetta Trincherini, “Gianni Pettena, in Theory,” XXX.
32. Some of his design projects dating from 1966, when he was still a student, already made references to the natural world.
For a Sustainable Degrowth, Luca Cerizza, Gianni Pettena 1966-2021, Mousse Publishing, 2020