[…]In Gianni Pettena, the abandonment of the institutional sphere of architecture does not correspond to an immersion in the social and a transformation of his role into that of an activist or 'cultural operator', as per the fashionable labels of the time. Pettena preferred the archetypal (and less populated) image of the desert to the full-on of the public sphere, not because it is a place of exodus or escape but as the symbolic zero degrees of artifice, as a space with an absence of persistent traces as a land, therefore, uncolonized, unplanned, unworked "other than by the sun, the rain and the wind"4. It is precisely the desert (or the geological memory it embodies) that be-comes the object of a profound reflection on time, where this is removed from finalized activity, from the banality and seriality of production. Living time (without being alienated from it) is a bit like living in the desert, "without having to think immediately of a use, immediate or future, useful to its mechanism and integration"5. In this sense, idleness can be lived just like the desert, but at the cost of a suspension of norms and habits, allowing things to happen, opportunities to open up and become events. But this should not be confused with inertia or forced inactivity. Idleness can occur, on the contrary, only when beginning with a profound work on oneself, by a radical change of perspective on the world, by a battle with time against the homogeneous and 'regulated' time of production and in support of a qualitative, unproductive, potential time.
[…]To what time is Pettena referring? And what is the method used when trying to access an uncontrolled, unpredictable and plural temporality? As a consequence, as a part of this concept, what can be the ways of frequenting this space, of experiencing it? Revealing the spatial practices already in act becomes, for Pettena, the starting point for every possible intervention on reality, in such a way as to contravene the very forms of the design. If it is true that the planning phase always precedes technical production and that architecture does not have any other execution strategy than this, it is equally true that Pettena overturns the paradigm. In his work, no conclusion is already apparent in a design and waiting to be pursued or translated in the space. There is rather a sort of direct action, a 'downstream' intervention on the building, on the historicized urban context, by means of which the artist does not want to remove himself from the real times of the territory and its inhabitants. He intervenes on a 1:1 scale, directly "in reality and not on paper helped by airbrushing"6. Not on abstract and unqualified space but on the physical and material space of the landscape (whether it be constructed or natural). In this sense, Pettena replaces the inert protocol of the design with the dynamic opening up of the event. All his performative actions at the end of the sixties and early seventies are aimed at focalizing attention, at integrating his actions with the existential flow of things. They aim, above all, for a calculated abstention from leaving those indelible signs that every recourse to architecture implies. Pettena steps back from the strong and definitive gesture as a mark of the supremacy of the architect's professional practice on the world. On the contrary, he works within immanent, temporal fragments, in which every one of his physical effects on space manifests itself in a determinate (finite and present) moment to then dissolve and return to a state of pure potency. The immanent event is actualized in a state of things that make it happen. The sound space of Progetto di architettura N.5 (1973), where the boundaries of the walled box are beaten with vibraphone mallets, is a prime example. It is as if, every time, there is the actualization of something pre-existent (and conserved forever) in a virtual state. However, what is in question here is not the anteriority/posterity relationship which belongs to linear time but the actual/virtual relationship that implies, rather, the state of co-existence that is typical of memory. If potential is that which is not yet in act (but can become so), the actual is in contrast that which is no longer potential (but has been). Pettena uses various strategies to make present this implicit condition of latency. One uses the process of surrealist based `estrangement' and compares the semiotic production of the design (and, therefore, its forms of representation) with the irrepressible vitality of the place and the moment, here and now. In the in situ work at San Giovanni Valdarno, Dialogo Pettena-Arnolfo (1968), the artist introduces into the open volumes of the medieval building's fagade, an abstract screen, with stripes, real scale, that contrasts and highlights the sequence of the original double portico, transforming the absence of the voids into a material presence, negative into positive. Just as, in Red Line (1972), he traced on the ground of Salt Lake City, a red line around forty kilo-meters long that reproduced the administrative confines of the city, revealing the gaps between the representation on maps and the actual spaces (with its absences, heterogeneity, urban voids and fullness). In his three semiotic interventions on an urban scale in 1968, Carabinieri, Milite ignoto and Grazia & Giustizia, Pettena disassociated the letters from the original field of abstraction to replace them in the physical environments of the squares, courtyards and streets where they appeared as temporary monuments and political slogans at one and the same time. By means of the dimensional materiality of graphic signs, just as through the performative and situational play of their mobility and perishability, Pettena makes the prescriptive subtitle that usually disappears behind daily life both visible and tangible. In so doing, he denounces the controlled and protected nature of the public space where civic uses and ways of life are revealed for what they are: tolerated, regulated and subjugated activities. If in these examples, Pettena's interventions work mainly as visual indicators, there are another two strategies, matured during his American stay, that rather than demonstrating the limits of architecture or the design, offer new ways of thinking about housing settlements, opening up to the field of possibilities. On the one hand, there is the assimilation of the architectural object with the organic conditions of the natural landscape and, on the other, the definitive acknowledgement that our physicality is nothing more than the first architecture. Both strategies move in the direction of the `spontaneous renaturalization' of architecture that was pursued, in the same period, by Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark. In fact, /Ice House II, Clay House and Tumbleweeds Catcher, all from 1972, appear rather as the effects of thermal excursions that go from freezing to drying through to the movement of the wind. Encasing a middle-class American (anonymous and serial) home in a block of ice, or covering another completely with hand-applied clay, or leaving the wind to dress a tower shaped wooden structure with tumble-weed, means standing at a distance from an architecture that definitively fixes itself in an object, in order to transform it into an evolutionary process, open to chance and the unknown. The momentous nature of this radical proposal dismantles the idea of space as representation and extreme formalization (the isotropic and abstract geometric grid) to set in its place a management of physical reality which, each separate time, supports and does not hinder the movements and energies at play. It is there that the design (or its paradigm) is turned on its head: starting with something physical in order to generate ideas and not, vice versa, from an intention that is then made physical reiterating Smithson's words in his conversation with Pettena. Just as the Palazzo di Arnolfo takes us back to a state of design, so the house in Minneapolis or the other in Salt Lake City, leads us to the archetype of the ice cube and that block of clay, immediately ready, however, to lose their characteristics as a model due to the effects of time and change, according to a collection of links that develop only to be dissolved.[…]
4 G.Pettena, “dal deserto rivisitato e dalla città invisibile”, in G.Pettena(ed.) Radicals. Architecture e design 1960/1975, Il Ventilabro, Florence, 1996
5 G.Pettena “ fisicizzazioni non consapevoli”, Casabella n° 392-393, 1974
6 G.Pettena, “Autorecensione di L’Anarchitetto” Casabella n°394, 1974
2018, M. Scotini (ed.), Non-conscious architecture. Gianni Pettena, Sternberg Press