Minneapolis and Salt Lake City were to be the setting for Gianni Pettena’s most radical experiences, at the beginning of the seventies. At the time of his arrival in the United States, he had already realized, among his more important works, such urban performances as the trilogy Carabinieri, Milite Ignoto and Grazia & Giustizia in 1968. These interventions took words as their starting point, as in the case of Grazia & Giustizia, whose letters were cut out of cardboard and carried around the city. The anthropomorphic scale of these letters made their status ambiguous. Destined for destruction, the letters were presented at once as concretizations of language and as temporary “monuments”: hypertrophied if related to their semantic origin and miniaturized if seen in terms of their urban setting. Whether too large or too small, they certainly raised the problem of scale, that of the object and that of its context. Thus two basic aspects of Pettena’s work were already apparent here: the importance of scale and of language, both present in a new interpretation of the concept of “landscape.” In fact, moving the letters around the city constructed another, fragmentary and mobile landscape. For Pettena the landscape depends above all on linguistic coordinates, and remains on the line of demarcation between the irreducible physicality of matter and action understood as construction of space.

In his photographs of the American desert he was to present the landscape as “construction” of nature, as “non-conscious architecture,” endogenous to matter. The scale of the landscape will never be objectifiable as such, as it is always pervaded by residues that refer to other places and other times.

Movement and action on space, as constituent acts of the “landscape,” can define the two performances that Gianni Pettena staged at Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1971. In both works, Paper and Wearable Chairs, the “performative” character that he assigns to language in the construction of the space is evident. Paper/Midwestern Ocean, at the College of Art and Design where Pettena was teaching at the time, consisted in completely filling the space of the room in which he was to give a lecture with strips of paper. Hung from the ceiling, these strips of paper, like lianas in the virgin forest, obstructed the view and movement in the space, presenting themselves as a sort of “soft,” repetitive, filamentous architecture. These strips produced “interference,” without reaching the level of language. Using scissors, the students had to clear a way through this dense jungle of paper, which then formed the “furniture” as, in the absence of chairs, they sat on it to listen to Pettena’s lecture on the “construction” of space.  Once again Pettena was playing at one and the same time with material as architecture and with language as material, telling us: this is how you can construct space, creating architecture by inscribing it in a temporal dimension that is typical of the rules of action. The strips of paper re-created a landscape, physical as well as mental, whose peculiarity was that it could be shaped by those who occupied it. That it was created through the scale of the body.

Again in Minneapolis, Pettena’s students went around the city for a day dressed in Wearable Chairs, objects that they wore as an additional garment, but to be utilized as pieces of “turncoat” furniture that once again brought us back to our construction of space. “It was a question of creating architecture by using intuitive methods... there is no need to speak of chair or house to describe what we are doing; we will be able to speak of chair or house to describe what we are doing only if we want to speak of these things, and not of anything else [...].”1

Gianni Pettena put forward the idea that the important thing, in our relationship with the objects, is not so much the “nominative” action as the “performative” one. How to Do Things with Words was the way John Austin put it at the beginning of the sixties: “when saying is doing.” The chair, for Pettena, is a potential performative uttering, that needs to be reactivated.

In Wearable Chairs, the chair became a “link” within a syntax, implicated in a semantic train connecting the body and its environment, and simultaneously created the language and the landscape. Here Pettena has inverted the relationship between human being and chair: it is no longer the chair that supports the human being, but the human being that carries the chair. The portable chair allows its wearer to rest whenever desired and appears to adhere absolutely to the body: it adheres instantly as soon as one wants to sit down. A diminutive of the house, the “portable chair” constitutes a mobile way of living, without architecture.

Both these performances refer us to the same thing: the wandering of a body in space, which instantly “constructs” the architecture. A decidedly nomadic architecture, with no anchorage. Comprehension of these works is fundamental on the one hand to the analysis of the ones that make up the Salt Lake City trilogy, interventions directly in touch with the phenomena of nature, and on the other to an understanding of “non-conscious architecture,” the physical interpretation of the landscape through photography.[…]

In Pettena it is not the territory that is codified in the map, but the map that is materialized in the territory. The architecture has to recover its physicality, it is a mixture of territory and landscape, of construction-material and of map-nature. The scale of Gianni Pettena’s interventions is also of a narrative order: it fabricates ties between the realm of the real and that of imagination. In fact what are the Ice Houses, one wrapped in a veil of ice that fuddles our view of reality, the other in which the preexisting building is completely concealed, if not visual objects that blur the borderline between the real and the imaginary? (It is easy to understand why much later, in the eighties, Gianni Pettena would continue this investigation of representation in the field of painting, through “living pictures”). What counts here is the modality of the transposition, from architecture into image, in which it seems to lose the sense of its phenomenality through the vector of nature. The paradoxical result of the addition of material is to remove the architectural object. Equally paradoxically, what is more temporal seems more eternal. The architecture, articulation between the whole and the parts, has become a sort of “gestalt,” of global form, that oscillates between cognitive and imaginary perception, visual and haptic dimension.

This phenomenality was to be explored more radically in the Salt Lake Trilogy. The poet William Carlos Williams’s irrepressible flow of words in Paterson had made a great impression on Smithson, and Gianni Pettena too was to evoke Williams’s phrase “no ideas but in things,” again referring ideas to their concreteness, things to their physical materiality, and plunging us into the heart of this matter-landscape.[…]

“For true memories do not have so much to take account of the past as to describe precisely the place where the seeker took possession of it”: memory, endowed with the capacity of physical description of the place, in the form of an act of appropriation, would lead Pettena into a mineralized quest for his genealogy, through a geographical pilgrimage. Pettena became a nomad, heading for places like Monument Valley, the Rocky Mountains, the region of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, opencast copper mines, the dikes of salt pans. He photographed the roads that took him through the areas of wilderness and what he called “the architecture of wind.” He took pictures of the desert and its concretions of rock, of the mines and the “smelters” for processing the mineral, bringing to light the meanders of this arid material, the “non-conscious architectures.” These photos owed something not only to the “existential experimentalism” of funk architecture, but also to Absolute Architecture, written by Hans Hollein and Walter Pichler in 1963, which insisted on an “exploration of the symbolic, archaic values of architecture, of its emotional values and irrational meanings,” aimed at uncovering the “mythical past of the origins of architecture.” From that moment on Pettena was to share the conceptual view the architecture as a joint research into language and physical space: a research that he would commence by parodying the spirit of classification of an eighteenth-century traveler, in the manner of Alexander von Humboldt, in other words by regarding the physical adventure of architecture as a cosmogony. Out of this came the series of photographs entitled About Non-Conscious Architecture, which comprise frontal views of the rocky walls of the Monument Valley, with their hieratic symbolism; aerial photographs, of a cartographic character; the dikes of salt pans; roads that seem to come from nowhere and lead nowhere, crossing the line of the horizon. Or, again, hypertrophied details of mineral substances in which the reference implodes. As the series of Hogans and Dwellings testifies, nature and architecture are presented as inseparable. The whole of this work of Pettena’s is an attempt to show us that what we call “nature” is nothing but a construction. In these photographs, Pettena sets out to capture the traces of the passage of humanity, the scarifications that it has made on nature and that have gradually built up a deposit of “memories” of the place.[…]

Non-conscious works of architecture” can only be “visualized.” Gianni Pettena presents this photographic work as an “experience of critical interpretation and documentation of architecture,” given that the documents catalogued needed to be verified by interpretation. In the manner of the 16th century cosmographers, like Gemma Frisius or Abraham Ortelius, fascinated by the possibility of an encyclopedic coverage of the whole world through geographical maps, assembled in an atlas, Pettena collates his photographs in a resolute desire to catalogue, in which he seems to want to devote himself to a sort of descriptio, where the landscape “is understood as objective space of existence, rather than as a view embraced by the gaze of a subject.”19 seeks to turn this collection of landscapes into an experience that is at once visual and cognitive.

To do this, he mimics the position of a naturalist from the end of the 18th century, simultaneously a traveler, geographer and geologist, like Alexander von Humboldt, making use of a method of physical interpretation of the territory. He does it ironically in the guise of a “naturalist architect,” of a Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire of architecture, defending a “theory of analogues.” The views, resembling natural architectural concretions, are presented within a taxonomic procedure whose poetic principle is related to that of the tropes from which meaning never ceases to derive by homology. At the same time, Pettena underlines, in these photos, the inertia of every process of classification, the impossible globalization and cataloguing of knowledge. The physical interpretation of nature does not lead to any positivistic knowledge. However, if all these photographs seem, at first sight, to give nature the appearance of “a great, inert and immobile sediment,”20 these “documents,” which presume to objectify its phenomenality, infallibly bring us back to ourselves, to our “elaboration” of natural space.

The photographs of “non-conscious architecture” are presented as an “epistemology of visual knowledge.”21 They raise questions about the “nature” of the place, blurring the boundaries between the notions of landscape and geography. Here Pettena carries out a geographical “elaboration” of the landscape, at once view and territory, “substratum” marked by impressions and traces that are physical as well as mnemonic. Pettena goes back to the archaic dimension of the landscape that had, in the 16th century, both a territorial and a geographic significance (Landschaft, paysage).[i]

The majority of the photographs can be connected with the tradition of chorographic views, which stress the phusis, the physical nature of places, the proximity of elements. Even though he amuses himself by adopting the spirit of classification of an enlightened scientist of the 19th century, Gianni Pettena more closely resembles a Humanist of the Renaissance who discovers, enchanted, a landscape always “worked” by human beings, which lies somewhere between nature and territory. While the landscape achieved autonomy in the 16th century and attained the status of “representation,” Pettena “reads” even the most uninhabited landscape – the desert – as a human geography that falls within the scope of anthropology. “The visible recounts something, a story; it is the manifestation of a reality of which it is, in a manner of speaking, the surface. The landscape is a sign, a set of signs that we have to learn how to decipher, to decode, in an effort of interpretation that is an effort of understanding [...]. So the idea is that we have to read the landscape.”23 But Gianni Pettena is not content with reading an object: the landscape is apprehended in its phenomenality; it also has a physiognomy that can be likened to that of our “body,” which carries a memory of its own. If, for Erwin Straus, “the landscape is invisible because the more we conquer it the more we lose ourselves in it,”24 Pettena bestows on the landscape the capacity to resist the impact of memories, transforming it into a “corpus” of individual projections and materials. The persistence of memory will come to shape the folds of the landscape. Memory will have a heuristic value because it will be the instrument of the visual archeology of the landscape. These memories are a bit like Abschattungen, those images produced by phenomenological intuition that can be linked together to arrive at a synthetic description of the object. Contrary to the modernist positions that only perceive the epiphany of the “beautiful,” Pettena insists on a “physicalist” approach to the landscape, even while donning the guise of an archeologist who brings layers of memory to the surface. The reading of the landscape can only be an ambulatory exercise, between perceptual, cognitive “knowledge,” and emotional, individual “remembrance,” onto which is projected our physical interpretation, as evolutionary in nature as the slow structuring of the forms of the landscape.

The topomorphic experience of the landscape to which Pettena surrenders refers us to perceptions that are always fragmentary, incapable of reconstituting a unitary meaning. The landscape is presented as flow, fluctuation, change. It is decisively a “non-ontology” that opens us up to movement, to nomadism. This landscape, in its non-permanence, is uninhabitable. All it will accept are nomads passing through. So the “non-conscious works of architecture” are uninhabitable landscapes, works of architecture that we can only travel through, without ever stopping. It is for this reason that they can only be captured through photography, in which one instant chases after another: it will never be possible to settle there, or pause for a rest. The Spinozistic conception of nature to be found in Pettena’s work, combining thought and matter, might evoke the cenesthetic unfurling of a literary text, another parodic attempt at “encyclopedization” of the world, place of heterotopia in Michel Foucault’s analysis: Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine, in which the saint’s delirious imagination is cloaked in the pantheistic assumption of the place, concluding with Anthony’s exclamation: “be matter!” Antonio “walks in the ring of rocks, slowly,”25 understanding that the world is traversed only by flows and that it is difficult to discern in it the impression of things, of the things themselves.26 Similarly, for Pettena, the landscape is reversible: place of impressions and itself the last impression. The landscape is only “visualized” in the process of movement, physical movement in space-time or metonymic movement, with the meaning always differing. “Non-conscious architecture” is wrapped up in a time without beginning or end. The reading of the landscape, for Pettena, “is the world that opens its roads, that becomes road, on which somebody is already walking or will walk.”27


[1] Gianni Pettena, Radicals. Architettura e design 1960/75, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice 1996.

[1]9 Jean-Marc Besse, Voir la terre. Six essais sur le paysage et la géographie, Actes Sud, ENSP/Centre du paysage, Arles 2000, p. 4.

20 Mlle de l’Espinasse in Denis Diderot, Le rêve de d’Alembert, Gallimard, Paris 1972, p. 188.

21Jean-Marc Besse, op. cit., p. 114.

22 Ibid., p. 39.

23 Ibid., p. 98.

24 Erwin Straus, Du Sens des sens, Jérôme Million, Grenoble 1989, p. 519.

25  Gustave Flaubert, La tentation de Saint-Antoine, Garnier-Flammarion, Paris 1967, p. 32.

26  Ibid., p. 151.

27 Julien Gracq, En lisant, en écrivant, José Corti, Paris 1980, pp. 87-8. Quoted in Philippe Hamon, La Description littéraire.  Anthologie de textes théoriques et critiques, Macula, Paris 1991.



INTERPRETATION OF THE LANDSCAPE IN THE WORK OF GIANNI PETTENA, Marie-Ange Brayer, 2002, AAVV, Gianni Pettena. Le métier de l’architecte, Editions HYX, Orléans