Teaching Architecture in Rome: Part I

April 8th, 2014

It is good to be back in Rome showing our Notre Dame students the great lessons in architecture and urbanism that Italy in general, and Rome in particular, offers them. For 46 years, third-year undergraduate students have spent an academic year here and, since the early 1990s, when Thomas Gordon Smith brought a new Classical curriculum to the campus, our students in Rome have done something that other architecture students rarely do here: they study the Classical city and its buildings not simply as historical documents or abstract patterns and types, but as precedent and models to be emulated.

The new home of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture Rome Studies Program in the Celio neighborhood one block from the Colosseum. The newly renovated early-20th-century building includes studios, classrooms, library and other academic facilities, as well as a host of technological tools to facilitate learning.

The new home of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture Rome Studies Program in the Celio neighborhood one block from the Colosseum. The newly renovated early-20th-century building includes studios, classrooms, library and other academic facilities, as well as a host of technological tools to facilitate learning. All photos by the author.

Want to understand the Roman palazzo? Or the baroque church? Or a successful piazza? Design one, using the same theoretical premises, structural systems and decorative languages that the 16th- and 17th-century architects used. That way, you learn traditional architecture “from the inside,” and whether or not you decide to pursue this kind of design in your later career, there is no question that this preparation will set you apart from those whose course of study largely involves having all conventional notions of place-making or visual representation subverted.

I tell my students, “there are three primary gifts that Italian architecture has given to American design: the palazzo, the church and the villa with its garden. All three types have given birth to a wide variety of different expressions in the American landscape:

  • the palazzo was imported to serve its original purpose as a princely urban dwelling, as in the Villard Houses of McKim Mead & White in New York, but later was transformed to accommodate other uses, such as apartment houses, office buildings, department stores, private clubs and university buildings;
  • the Italian church in all its stylistic variation has continued to influence American religious building, either directly or filtered through the English experience of James Gibbs (whose Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in London is the direct model for many churches in the colonies);
  • and the villa, with its Renaissance garden, has been adapted directly for private residences – from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to Paul Chalfin, Burrall Hoffman and Diego Suarez’s great Vizcaya in Miami, to more recent versions in the work of contemporary classicists – but has also inspired public parks,  university campuses, and a range of institutional settings.
Villa Lante, Bagnia, Italy. The 16th-century villa and garden was designed by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola for Cardinal Gambara and later modifed by the next owner, Cardinal Montalto. One of the greatest Italian Renaissance gardens, it is the inspiration for the students’ design project for a hilltop in Rome.

Villa Lante, Bagnia, Italy. The 16th-century villa and garden was designed by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola for Cardinal Gambara and later modifed by the next owner, Cardinal Montalto. One of the greatest Italian Renaissance gardens, it is the inspiration for the students’ design project for a hilltop in Rome.

During their year in Rome, our students are asked to analyze a historical example and then design a new iteration of each of these three types.

A couple weeks ago, the students completed their Villa/Garden project, a master plan for a public park and a more specific design for an institutional building and private garden set within it, all sited on the hilltop of the Celio overlooking the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. It is a strange site, so well-located with such panoramic views of so many monuments and yet isolated and almost abandoned. The students proposed panoramic terraces, shady groves, formal parterres, fountains, nymphaea, and other elements of the Classical Italian garden. The villa building itself, intended to house an academy of archeology, took various forms, from relatively straight appropriation of historical models by Vignola or Palladio to place-specific configurations embracing a series of outdoor rooms, but all sought to shape exterior space and organize a formal landscape on a large scale.

Third-year design studio project for a villa and gardens on the Celio hill, Rome, watercolor rendering on paper, by Marc Gazda, 2014. The site is bisected longitudinally by an existing street and streetcar line, and affords panoramic views of the most historic monuments of the city. To the northwest (toward the left) is the Colosseum and a view to the Roman Forum, to the southwest is the Palatine, and to the northeast is the church of Saints Giovanni and Paolo. A public park surrounds an academy of archeology (with the ground floor plan indicated) with its private gardens.

Third-year design studio project for a villa and gardens on the Celio hill, Rome, watercolor rendering on paper, by Marc Gazda, 2014. The site is bisected longitudinally by an existing street and streetcar line, and affords panoramic views of the most historic monuments of the city. To the northwest (toward the left) is the Colosseum and a view to the Roman Forum, to the southwest is the Palatine, and to the northeast is the church of Saints Giovanni and Paolo. A public park surrounds an academy of archeology (with the ground floor plan indicated) with its private gardens.

The students’ investigations revealed how gardens are laid out very much like traditional cities – as a sequence of rooms connected by paths forming a network of varied places of diverse character. In the great Renaissance gardens of the 16th century, such as the Villa Lante, the Villa Farnese or the Villa d’Este, the sequence is typically organized by a narrative or some kind of iconographical journey.

The students took this idea as a starting point for schemes based on the movement between urban and natural environments, the history and evolution of the city, mythological stories and figures, etc. Finally, architectural elements were designed making use of the Classical language of orders and ornaments to root their conceptions in the building culture that has come to us from the Renaissance.

Among the issues that were discussed at the reviews (with guest critics Taeho Paik and Luigi Del Sordo) were questions of separating public and private areas, dealing with enclosed outdoor spaces at different scales and intended to be occupied by different numbers of people, the difference between “garden” and “landscape,” the difference between intimate and panoramic views, and the relationships between formal (i.e., geometrical) and informal (i.e., naturalistic) treatments of exterior spaces, and the relation of the outdoor rooms to those inside the buildings.

Third-year design studio project for a villa and gardens on the Celio hill, Rome, watercolor rendering on paper, by Secilia Jia, 2014. This site is developed as a series of diverse landscapes and a villa building that forms a series of outdoor rooms. Both formal geometry and picturesque composition are used to organize the site and provide changing views at different scales.

Third-year design studio project for a villa and gardens on the Celio hill, Rome, watercolor rendering on paper, by Secilia Jia, 2014. This site is developed as a series of diverse landscapes and a villa building that forms a series of outdoor rooms. Both formal geometry and picturesque composition are used to organize the site and provide changing views at different scales.

Presentations, in a variety of media but all completed by hand and many demonstrating skill in watercolor wash rendering, gave the students opportunities to represent landscape elements not often included in more strictly urban settings, so there was a great proliferation of umbrella pines, oaks, laurel, clipped hedges and olive groves. In addition to the customary plans, sections and elevations, students were asked to present their schemes in perspective and axonometric views that allowed more realism in the handling of slopes and level changes.

In follow-up conversations with the students, they confirmed that the experience gave them a new way of looking at gardens and landscape, as well as the relation between these and the buildings that, in part, enclose them. It is an important part of their education and one that, I believe, can be undertaken here in Italy better than anywhere else in the world.

The students have just begun work on their final project for the year: a replacement for an unfortunate Modernist structure that overlooks the Ludus Magnus (the ancient training camp for gladiators) and, a little farther away, the Coliseum. They will consider the role of this building site in the surrounding urban tissue, both ancient and modern, and develop schemes for an alternative to the existing building, so clearly out of place in that spot.

This new project site, like that for the villa, is just steps from our new home on Via Ostilia and represents an effort to explore the neighborhood and engage with it. Our old location, in a 15th-century palazzo redecorated in the 19th, was embedded in the historic center half-way between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.

Now, in a better-equipped but less endearing early 20th-century building, the ceilings are lower, there are no frescoes (at least, so far) and the details are standard contemporary. While the Coliseum and the entrance to the Roman Forum are just around the corner, and San Giovanni in Laterano a short walk away, opportunities for immediate engagement with the Renaissance and Baroque city are fewer or require travel time. So undertaking two projects of such different scope within a few blocks of our front door is a way of capitalizing on what the new location offers – in particular, greater access to the Classicism of antiquity and engagement with the early modern city, parts of which are worthy of study though not in any way a substitute for the masterworks of previous centuries. Still, Rome is Rome and teaching architecture here is often a matter of simply pointing in any direction and saying, “Look! Now draw.”



The Origins of Modern Conservation Theory in Fascist Italy: An Expanded Edition

August 22nd, 2013

This is an expanded version of the “Forum” essay published in the August 2013 issue of Clem Labine’s Traditional Building magazine.

Yes, that title is intentionally provocative and, admittedly, simplistic. But so are all attempts to associate architectural ideas or actual built forms with particular political programs. One often hears new traditional architecture dismissed because Classical forms were employed by the Nazis and Italian Fascists, even if historically various styles were used by various political movements, both democratic and authoritarian.

The Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, restored by Giuseppe Valadier, ca. 1820. The surviving marble fragments of the first-century Roman triumphal arch were restored and the missing parts rendered in a similar-looking but distinguishable travertine. The restorers only provided the basic architectural features but did not flute the columns or carve the moldings, and there is no sculptural decoration of the new parts. While this may have been a matter of economics, it has served as a model for restorations or new construction that is “differentiated” from historic fabric but also “compatible” with it. (Author photo).

The Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, restored by Giuseppe Valadier, ca. 1820. The surviving marble fragments of the first-century Roman triumphal arch were restored and the missing parts rendered in a similar-looking but distinguishable travertine. The restorers only provided the basic architectural features but did not flute the columns or carve the moldings, and there is no sculptural decoration of the new parts. While this may have been a matter of economics, it has served as a model for restorations or new construction that is “differentiated” from historic fabric but also “compatible” with it. (Author photo).

The relation between architectural style and politics has always been complicated, but post-war misconceptions involving the political use of traditional architecture are often simply false. For example, those who say that the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini supported Classical architecture and discouraged Modernism have to explain how in 1938 this same government officially banned architecture in historical styles, whether in additions to historic sites or in new construction, and how suppressing traditional design has continued to be part of preservation policy worldwide until today.

In 1931, the Italian Charter of Restoration was drafted by Gustavo Giovannoni, just returned from the conference that produced the Charter of Athens, the first international agreement on the conservation of monuments. Giovannoni’s charter, entirely consonant with international norms at the time, reflected the traditional idea that new construction in historic settings should be stylistically harmonious, though distinguishable from the historic monument. For additions:

The essential criterion to be followed should be that of limiting new elements to the minimum possible; such new elements should be given a character of nude simplicity in correspondence to the constructive scheme; and the continuation of the existing lines in a similar style can only be admitted when treated in geometric expressions without decorative individuality. Such additions should be carefully and evidently designated, either by the use of materials different from the originals or by the adoption of simple moldings without carving, or with marks or inscriptions, such that a restoration would never risk deceiving scholars or represent the falsification of an historical document. (Author’s translation.)

This approach, undoubtedly inspired by Valadier’s early 19th-century restoration of the Arch of Titus in Rome – in which the fragments of the ancient structure were reassembled and completed with infill pieces in similar-looking but distinguishable travertine – assumes that the new construction, like the old, will also have moldings and carving, though simplified. Giovannoni does not mention avoiding stylistic contrast because no one had yet imagined Liebskind-like glass shards erupting from the façade of a valued historic building.

Giovannoni’s ideas on restoration were part of an overall view of architecture and urbanism as a unity. His views are paraphrased by Paolo Nicoloso.

“(For) Giovannoni, the study of history, the recognition of vernacular architecture, and the restoration of monuments had assumed a central importance in the patient work of bringing a new style to birth. The study of history underscored the ‘continuity’ of the Italian architectural tradition, from the quattrocento to the beginning of the 19th century, and offered to the designer the lessons needed to realize that continuity in the present. Vernacular architecture was the expression of a tradition still alive, in which to seek models for an architecture of transition toward the new style. . . .The reconstruction of a monument. . .expressed in synthesis the lines along which to seek the new. Not by chance did Giovannoni, in presenting his theory, locate the problem of restoration at the center of a question of style and indicated in restorations of completion the example of that stylistic harmony required of the new architecture.”

Church of Sant’Andrea, Orvieto. An example of the restoration approach of Gustavo Giovannoni, who rebuilt the church and its campanile and added a new arcaded loggia on the left side 1928-30. Without documentation of the original design intent and with much of the original fabric in an advanced state of decay, Giovannoni stablilized what was sound and rebuilt what was missing or degraded, based on physical evidence when available and on his own knowledge of the style and practices of the period when necessary. The loggia, for example, is entirely his design, though “seamless” with the whole restored structure. It was this kind of “restoration of completion” that Argan and Brandi rejected as “false.” (Author photo)

Church of Sant’Andrea, Orvieto. An example of the restoration approach of Gustavo Giovannoni, who rebuilt the church and its campanile and added a new arcaded loggia on the left side 1928-30. Without documentation of the original design intent and with much of the original fabric in an advanced state of decay, Giovannoni stablilized what was sound and rebuilt what was missing or degraded, based on physical evidence when available and on his own knowledge of the style and practices of the period when necessary. The loggia, for example, is entirely his design, though “seamless” with the whole restored structure. It was this kind of “restoration of completion” that Argan and Brandi rejected as “false.” (Author photo)

This passage is rich in suggestions for the way in which restoration and new design can inform one another: Valadier’s work at the Arch of Titus reveals a “restoration of completion” aimed at wholeness and continuity without pretending that the structure we see today is identical to what existed in the first century. Continuity does not mean denying change but, rather, managing and integrating it. Imagine that concept applied not only to individual structures, but to city neighborhoods, in which infill buildings take as their first obligation maintaining the continuity of the streetscape, like the travertine bits used to re-compose the Roman arch. Giovannoni sums up this view in the sixth point of the Charter.

“That together with the respect of the monument and for its various phases there must be respect for the conditions of its setting, which should not be altered by inappropriate isolation or by the construction of new adjacent buildings incompatible in massing, color, or style.”

In the same year the Charleston Zoning Ordinance was passed, creating America’s first historic district, Giovannoni stipulates that the setting of the historic monument should not be invaded by inappropriate new construction, a point virtually repeated in the ordinance’s restriction against “incongruous” new building. This negative restriction does not mandate any style but puts the burden of proof on the designer to demonstrate the appropriateness of the proposed new work – although even in Charleston in recent decades the burden of proof has shifted to those who are critical of new work they find “incongruous.”

The Ponte Santa Trinità, Florence. The original 16th-century bridge, designed by Bartolomeo Ammanati and characterized by its especially elegant elliptical arches, was destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated from the city in 1944. Reconstructed in 1957, the new structure is composed largely from original material retrieved from the Arno River. Cesare Brandi famously denounced the new bridge as a “copy” and a “fake.” (Author photo)

The Ponte Santa Trinità, Florence. The original 16th-century bridge, designed by Bartolomeo Ammanati and characterized by its especially elegant elliptical arches, was destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated from the city in 1944. Reconstructed in 1957, the new structure is composed largely from original material retrieved from the Arno River. Cesare Brandi famously denounced the new bridge as a “copy” and a “fake.” (Author photo)

Despite the respect given him as a leading figure in the field over four decades, Giovannoni’s views were always a minority position and often at variance with official policy. The Fascist government was divided on architectural matters. From his rise to power in 1922, Mussolini refused to recognize a “Fascist style,” though both traditionalists and the Modernist Rationalists lobbied for this distinction.

Instead, he would support now one and now the other until, in the 1930s, a semi-official style emerged in the “stripped Classicism” promoted by Marcello Piacentini that sought to synthesize the Classical and Modern. Giovannoni remained a committed classicist throughout his career and led the traditionalist camp, but he was countered from within the government by the minister of public education, Giuseppe Bottai, a supporter the Modernist camp. Two young protégés of Bottai, Giulio Carlo Argan and Cesare Brandi, would play important roles in shaping Modernist conservation theory both before and after the war.

In 1938, Bottai appointed Giovannoni to chair a commission to study the 1931 charter but, seeing no reason to rewrite his own work of seven years before, he soon resigned. Bottai then formed another commission, with Argan and Brandi as members, to write a new charter based on a completely different conception of architecture and its relation to its own past. In contrast to Giovannoni’s vision of continuity, Argan wrote that “no stylistic category exists in the abstract and that every one of our experiences of ancient art is a finite historical judgment of finished and irreproducible artistic facts, and for that reason untranslatable in practical imitations.”

New exercises in the architectural styles of the past, even in simplified and non-matching ways, “always work against our historical consciousness, affecting equally judgments of ancient and more recent art.” The way to honor history is not to seek continuity with it, but to record in new buildings the progress of the historical narrative away from the forms of the past. Accordingly, he insisted that “every imitation [of historic architecture] is an outrage against rather than an homage to history.” In his charter, the eighth point reads:

“For obvious reasons of historical dignity and for the necessary clarity in current artistic consciousness, the construction of buildings in historic styles is absolutely to be avoided, even in areas not having monumental or landscape interest, since this represents a double falsification with respect to both the ancient and the recent history of art.

This notion of “double falsification” is significant. Argan is concerned with protecting current trends in modern art from the corrupting influence of historical imitation as much as protecting historic resources from the possibility of confusion with imitative new work. While Giovannoni emphasized the importance of maintaining a sense of continuity between past and present, Argan defends the historical narrative of rupture and revolution on which modern art is based. This requires that historical and contemporary arts be utterly distinct. Suggesting otherwise, he thought, was not just a difference in taste, it was false.

As an historian committed to a particular outcome (i.e., with a particular ax to grind in the present), his argument had the virtue of being simple, revolutionary and untroubled by the actual historical record, which, as we know now, was considerably more complex and nuanced than the categorical theories of Argan and other Modernist historians (Pevsner, Giedion, others) allowed.

The new charter was not immediately enacted, however, probably because a ban on new construction alluding to historic styles would have set one ministry of the government against another. At the very moment Argan was writing, Piacentini and his colleagues were building EUR, the ill-fated world’s fair showcasing the “official” style of abstracted Classicism with columns and arches galore. The war brought construction to a halt in 1942, and in that same year, as Allied bombs were falling on Italian cities and the regime itself was crumbling, Argan’s charter was issued as an “Instruction” with the force of law to conservation and building officials throughout the country. While the war and the end of the regime prevented its enforcement, the “Instruction” remained the last word of the Fascist government on architectural and conservation matters.

The post-war government canceled the 1942 law and reinstated Giovannoni’s 1931 charter, under which post-war reconstruction was completed to popular acclaim. In accordance with Giovannoni’s ideas, dozens of important landmarks destroyed by bombs were reconstructed following the motto that had inspired the rebuilding of the Campanile in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice after its collapse in 1902 – dov’era, com’era (“where it was, as it was”).

But Brandi, who, like Argan, was forgiven for his participation in the Fascist government – they declared themselves leftists after the war, Argan going on to be the first elected Communist mayor of Rome in the 1970s – remained head of the national institute for restoration in Rome. He protested against the reconstruction of the Trinita’ Bridge in Florence, blown up by the retreating Nazis, calling the new structure a “fake,” that is, tantamount to a forgery. In 1963, he published his Theory of Restoration, in which he attacked reconstructions or restorations that sought to recapture the historic form, or additions in forms or materials not plainly modern, because they violated the narrative of modern art history. Like Argan, he insisted that works of art and architecture were unrepeatable historical events rather than works of human skill that could be rebuilt as needed. The legitimacy of modern art rested on its break with the past, so to blur the distinction between new and original construction was “false” with respect to the progress of history.

While his arguments might seem highly theoretical, they had striking concrete effects. Brandi’s book was the basis for the 1964 Charter of Venice, which required that additions to historic sites “bear a contemporary stamp.” Brandi was an author of the 1972 Italian Charter of Restoration, still in effect, which definitively replaced the 1931 standards with a Modernist approach. Similar thinking, albeit in a more moderate form, inspired the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation of 1977, which requires additions to be both “differentiated” from and “compatible” with historic fabric, a provision often interpreted as banning new traditional work for the same reasons cited by Argan and Brandi, though the wording is actually more in line with Giovannoni’s style-neutral approach.

Giovannoni died in 1947, and his views were quickly dismissed by the leading figures in the field, many of whom had been his students. Ironically, his reputation was destroyed because of his seeming adherence to the regime, though he was never officially part of it, while Argan and Brandi, who were employees of a government ministry and formulated Fascist policy, were immediately rehabilitated. In all these cases, it was the stylistic commitment, not the political one, that determined who was denounced as a Fascist and who was cheered as a democrat by post-war critics like Bruno Zevi.

The next time you hear that new traditional design is “false history” or “diminishes authentic historic fabric,” you can point out that this same view was, between 1938 and 1942, the official policy of the Italian Fascist dictatorship. That means that either the view itself is suspect for that reason or the political context of architectural ideas is not a decisive factor in determining their validity. In either case, contemporary preservation philosophy, which has yet to shake off the theories of Argan and Brandi, has some explaining to do.

Author’s note: All translations from the original Italian texts are by the author. Background for this discussion and the texts of the relevant documents may be found in the essay by Paolo Nicoloso, “La ‘Carta del restauro’ di Giulio Carlo Argan,” Annali d’architettura, Rivista del Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, no. 6, Milan: Electa, 1994, pp. 101-115.


Changing Perspectives in Architectural Conservation

June 5th, 2013

While teaching in Rome this semester, it was a pleasure to meet one of the fellows in residence this season at the American Academy in Rome, Randall Mason from the graduate program in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. Randy was here doing research on one of my favorite figures from early 20th-century Rome, the multi-faceted Gustavo Giovannoni, about whom I have written numerous times in this blog.

Corso del Rinascimento, Rome. This is a 20th-century street in the heart of Rome, constructed 1934-36 to provide a more efficient north-south traffic connection between the Prati district and the center. In the early 20th century, a proposal was studied to run the traffic artery down the middle of Piazza Navona, half a block to the west, but Gustavo Giovannoni and others fought this and counter-proposed a more surgical street widening that bypassed the Piazza. Arnaldo Foschini designed new facades that harmonized with the historical ones that remained. (Steven Semes photo)

Among his many accomplishments, Giovannoni was one of the fathers of modern conservation theory, not only in Italy, but worldwide, through his many writings, his role in the drafting of the 1931 Athens Charter on conservation, his authorship of the 1931 Italian Charter of Restoration and in his own architectural and urban design work. He is a fascinating, if also at times puzzling, figure who is currently being rediscovered by Italian historians and critics after almost 50 years of neglect. He is also starting to be noticed by non-Italian audiences, who will find much in his writing (so far almost none of it translated) to inspire a reform of present-day historic preservation thinking.

One of the most important things we can learn from Giovannoni is also the subject of Mason’s book, The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). Mason, by telling the story of the beginnings of preservation activity in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is recovering a cultural movement that has been too often forgotten or ignored in more recent times. Preservation in New York and throughout the United States did not begin with the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1963, as is often assumed, but has a longer and more varied history.


Washington Square Park, New York. One of New York preservation’s success stories, though not without some losses around the edges. The north side of the park is almost intact, and Stanford White’s Judson Church remains as the anchor of the south side. Places like this are central to the “memory infrastructure” that any city needs along with change and growth. Balancing these needs is what the preservationists of the progressive movement tried to achieve in the decades before 1920. (Steven Semes photo)

Preservation efforts prior to the Second World War had a different focus and political orientation than they took on afterward; early preservation was not opposed to growth and change in the modern city but was part of bringing it about. The creation and preservation of what Mason calls a “memory infrastructure” was seen as a necessary counterbalance to the market-driven development of the fast-growing metropolis without being ideologically resistant to it. Finally, early preservation was not primarily focused on individual buildings but involved a broad range of buildings, memorials, parks, transportation systems, landscapes and natural resources.

Today, one of the great challenges for the preservation movement is to create closer relationships with sympathetic constituencies in movements such as traditional architecture, New Urbanism and environmentalism – three movements sharing similar objectives that have nevertheless followed divergent paths over the last several decades. This isolation of different aspects of conservation was not evident in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, as clearly seen in the name of one of the leading organizations, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, founded in 1895 by Andrew Haswell Green, one of the heroes of Mason’s story.

Giovannoni, too, advocated for individual architectural landmarks, but, more importantly, he also argued for preserving the settings in which the monuments are placed, the “minor architecture” that provides the physical, historical and cultural context in which the monuments must be understood. He was an urbanist who championed the historical center of Rome along the lines of the great theorist Camillo Sitte, seeing urban design and conservation as two aspects of a single enterprise. He also fought for the conservation of natural resources, including what are now called “cultural landscapes,” in which the physical setting is given greater significance by the historical presence of a distinctive way of life.


Peroni Brewery, Rome, designed by Gustavo Giovannoni, 1901-22. Breweries are not usually this attractive and most zoning ordinances were designed to keep such facilities out of “nice” neighborhoods, but Giovannoni designed one that created an urban neighborhood of diverse and architecturally distinguished buildings. Here is an example of “modernity” (an industrial complex) happily reconciled with the traditional city. (Steven Semes photo)

After the Second World War, historic preservation – in Europe as well as in the United States – became separated from architecture, city planning and natural resource conservation, as each of these fields pursued different and sometimes conflicting agendas. Architects wanted to rebuild everything according to the Modernist vision, and preservation became identified (rightly or wrongly) with an uncritical resistance to change, while environmentalism, seeing the built environment as a threat to the natural one, parted company with the other two groups.

Mason’s book argues for a return to the earlier model, in which the preservation of historic and artistically or culturally valuable built environments and landscapes is part and parcel of a wise environmental policy and good urban and regional planning. None of these fields needs to adopt an ideologically anti-growth or anti-market posture but can try to direct growth and inform the markets following the example of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century.

Architects, landscape architects, historians, conservationists, civic activists, business leaders and politicians aligned with the Progressive cause – pre-eminently President Theodore Roosevelt – saw the forces of modernity and the need to preserve “memory infrastructure,” as well as natural resources, as factors to be balanced and reconciled. The architects of the period often incorporated both restoration work and new design in their practices, and these two aspects informed one another in productive ways – as in the career of Grosvenor Atterbury, designer of Forest Hills Gardens and restorer of New York’s City Hall in the years before World War I.

But what Mason does not discuss is the post-World War II rejection by the architects of their own heritage. The progressives in early 20th-century New York were not opposed to new construction because, by and large, new architecture continued in the design traditions of the old. “Compatibility” was not an issue, except in terms of massing and scale. Today, contemporary architecture defines itself in opposition to historic architecture, making attempts to reconcile new and old construction difficult.


Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Home and Shrine, Lower Manhattan, New York. Another segment of New York’s “memory infrastructure” was the home in the early 19th century of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American to be named a saint. The adjacent chapel from the 1950s is a supportive neighbor, as the two structures huddle together surrounded by skyscrapers. Preservationists increasingly became reactive against change, as modern architects all too often showed no respect for the past. Can the historic and the modern co-exist? (Steven Semes photo)

Giovannoni opposed the visions of Modernist urbanism but he was not opposed to modernity per se. He believed new buildings should be sympathetic to their historical neighbors, avoiding contrast while inevitably being identifiable as new. The 1930s project for the Corso del Rinascimento in Rome, while not designed by him or entirely realized according to his wishes, represents the influence of his thought.

But his views did not prevail. Among the final acts of the Fascist government in Italy was the promulgation in 1942 of a new Charter of Restoration, replacing that written by Giovannoni in 1931. The new law banned the use of historical styles in both restoration and new construction as a “double falsification of history” – continuing a traditional building culture was believed to diminish the value of both the new and the old – a principle later enshrined in the Venice Charter of 1964, as well as in the current Italian charter of 1972, and still applied almost universally around the world today.

In the United States, preservation became, on one hand, an effort to limit the potential impact of invasive Modernist projects and, on the other, a way of enforcing the rupture between the architecture of the present and that of the past as mandated by international norms.

The destruction of Pennsylvania Station and the subsequent battle for Grand Central Terminal brought these issues into sharp focus, and preservation became increasingly reactive. But as Mason argues, the result has been to isolate preservation and reduce its power to shape the way cities change and grow. Hence, the relevance of both his history of preservation in New York and his current research on Giovannoni’s Rome.

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Remembering Henry Hope Reed, 1915-2013

May 6th, 2013

Henry Hope Reed loved Rome. Years ago, I asked him where as a young architect I should go to study “the Classical,” as he always called the kind of architecture we both loved. “Rome,” he answered unhesitatingly. “Rome is the place.” It was good advice, though it took me a couple of decades before I was able to follow it.

The obituary in the New York Times reporting Henry’s death on May 1, 2013, at age 97 refers to him as an historian who railed against Modernism, but this very inadequate description utterly fails to do justice to his contribution. He was not so much an historian as a public advocate for the Classical spirit in all the arts – from painting and sculpture to architecture and city planning, from decorative arts to gardens, from lampposts to Central Park.

Piazza Navona, Rome, with Borromini’s façade of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone rising behind Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. The synthesis of architecture and sculpture in baroque Rome was one of the great themes of Henry Hope Reed’s teaching and writing about Classical design. (Author photo)

He was a tireless campaigner for beauty in the built environment, issuing such declarations as “a room without ornament is like a sky without stars” and “there is nothing sadder than a blank pediment.” A native New Yorker, he advocated for public art everywhere in his many books, essays, lectures and his famous walking tours. But whenever he paused for a moment of reflection and inspiration, he would talk about Rome.

Those of us privileged to know him were keenly aware of his sometimes irascible spirit and totally unsentimental view of the prevailing realities. His standard response to my youthful enthusiasms about some new evidence for the revival of Classical design was a curt, “Don’t get your hopes up!” If I suggested a subject for a book, exhibition or some other event, he would roll his eyes, wave his hand back and forth and say, “It’s work. It’s work.”

And yet no one worked harder to instill knowledge and appreciation of Classical art and design or give more generous support and encouragement to those of us who tried to follow his prompts. Henry introduced me to my first client for an independent architectural commission, a private house in California, in 1988, and many of my friends and colleagues similarly benefited from his active encouragement. He was a one-man social network decades before Facebook.

Central motif, Grand Central Terminal, New York, by Warren & Wetmore with Reed & Stem. Henry Hope Reed’s great passion was the American contribution to the Classical tradition, and this is undoubtedly among the best examples. The façade designed by Whitney Warren culminates in Jacques Coutan’s sculptural group of Mercury – the spirit of travel and communication – surmounting the clock, a great instance of the Baroque Flourish in the New World. (Author photo)

Acting on his own frequent advice to spend less time arguing with Modernists and instead show people what you are in favor of, he and a handful of sympathetic friends formed The Society for a Classical America (CA) in 1968. Perhaps the organization’s greatest service was to publish the Classical America Series in Art and Architecture, featuring inexpensive editions of such seminal but long out-of-print texts as William R. Ware’s The American Vignola, Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism, Kenyon Cox’s The Classic Point of View and student editions of Paul Letarouilly’s Buildings of Modern Rome (for which CA co-founder and Classical architect John Barrington Bayley provided marvelously insightful texts) and the monograph of the works of McKim Mead & White.

Henry provided insightful introductions to most of these publications, to which were soon added Pierce Rice’s wonderful Man as Hero: The Human Figure in Western Art and a new edition of Henry’s own The Golden City, as well as his volumes on The New York Public Library, The Library of Congress, and The United States Capitol. These last three are unmatched for their comprehensive treatment of Classical design at all scales, from urban design to decorative detail. There is no better library on the subject of Classical art than the CA Series, and I am proud that it continues today and includes two of my own volumes, neither of which would have been possible apart from the longtime influence of Henry’s thought.

Indeed, he was the first to invite me to publish my writing, first for the CA newsletter in the 1980s and then two essays for his edition of Georges Gromort’s Elements of Classical Architecture, before encouraging me to go it alone. He was also the impetus for my taking up teaching when, in 1997, he invited me to offer a course on the Classical interior at the National Academy of Design to mark the centennial of Ogden Codman and Edith Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses, which was reprinted that year in the CA Series. That course was the seed for my The Architecture of the Classical Interior, a book largely inspired by Henry’s insights.

Entrance archway, Municipal Building, New York, by McKim Mead & White. Among the buildings most admired by Henry Hope Reed was William Mitchell Kendall’s design for the greatest Classical skyscraper. At its base, we find this extraordinary entrance allowing the building to straddle Chambers Street by means of a grand screen of Corinthian columns and a triumphal arch. The architectural language of empire and papacy is here transformed into the shared patrimony of a democratic society.

In addition to lectures and events, the society sponsored evening classes at the National Academy of Design, pre-eminently those in Classical drawing and design taught by the late painter Pierce Rice and those in Classical architecture taught by Philadelphia architect Alvin Holm. I studied with both of these masters in 1983-84, and the experience was formative for all of my subsequent creative work. Last December I invited Alvin Holm back to Notre Dame to sit on the final review panel for my students’ design studio projects. I told them, “Your teacher’s teacher is teaching you.” And yet, behind both of us stood an unseen but still present figure who had been our common mentor.

Henry understood that in addition to informing the public about historical Classicism, it was necessary to recognize and promote new efforts, and so with the support of the society’s principal patron, he created the Arthur Ross Awards in 1981. I attended the first ceremony, where Brooke Astor (herself a generous patron) presented the honors and gave the first award in architecture to Philip Trammell Shutze of Atlanta, one of the last practicing American architects of the pre-war generation whose work was profoundly shaped by the experience of Rome.

Uniquely among the awards programs that have proliferated since, the Ross Awards continue to recognize craftsmanship, stewardship and patronage, in addition to artists and architects. This year’s prize for architecture goes to my friends Anne Fairfax and Richard Sammons, leaders among the younger generation of architects who have not only revived but contributed to the Classical tradition in their work. They were faithful pillars of Classical America, even hosting Henry in their office for several years, and have continued their involvement since the merger of Classical America and the Institute of Classical Architecture in 2002. I know Henry would be especially proud of these two, among his many protégés.

While Henry had his curmudgeonly side, he could also express pure joy at the sight of a sculpted frieze of putti or a garden full of flowers. He never tired of praising the great artists and architects who created the American Renaissance, reserving a special admiration for San Francisco architect Arthur Brown. But it was to Rome that he turned his attention time and again.

An austere Classicism was not for Henry. He wanted The Grand Manner and extolled the Baroque Flourish, with Rome always the standard. Classical architecture, he wrote in an essay published in the first volume of Yale’s Perspecta in 1953, is “the Art of Pleasing,” and Rome is the city that pleased him most. I regret that for the last five years my teaching in Rome limited my direct contacts with Henry, though I hope and trust that he would say I did the right thing by coming here.

Thank you, Henry, for all your many gifts, and I hope you will find your new accommodations in the truly Eternal City to your liking.


Dessert for the Eyes: Sicilian Baroque

April 1st, 2013

Americans’ ideas about Sicily have been mostly shaped by a few well-known films depicting a certain criminal society whose reach now extends around the world. While the island has its difficulties, Sicily today is among the most progressive and culturally engaged regions in Italy, and the island is enjoying a rebirth of prosperity and cultural prominence. From the large cities to the smaller towns, there is a wave of restoration and rejuvenation that is making the beauty of the place even more apparent.

The Oratorio of Santa Cita, Palermo. The stucco sculptural decoration by Serpotta fills the walls with figures and scenes at various scales but is unified by its consistent whiteness. Color is introduced only in the sanctuary, with the painting of the altarpiece. (Photo by author)

Blessed by a superb climate, some of the most appetizing produce and foods in the world, a dramatic and varied landscape and extraordinarily friendly and welcoming people, Sicily is a wonderful place to study architecture, and my students, colleagues and I have the pleasure of doing this for a week every spring. While all the great periods and styles are represented, from the ancient Greek to the modern, what stands out for me is the marvelous Sicilian Baroque. For those more familiar with the grandeur of the Baroque in Rome, the Sicilian variety offers a more intimate and playful variation on the main themes of the style.

Here there are no mile-long axes or ponderous elevations stretching for hundreds of feet. There are no piazzas with acres of stone paving without a tree in sight. Rather, there is always the sense of being in a very well-appointed garden, brimming with orange trees, cypresses and olives. Fountains are frequent, and nature always seems near. Important buildings seem to be sprouting balconies supported on humorously sculpted brackets, while pilasters and entablatures twist and bend as if starting to dance.

In Sicily, the Baroque is not so much about the representation of power, but more about local pride, exuberant craftsmanship and an approach to decorative detail that is simply dessert for the eyes. Those who know Sicilian confections like canoli, cassata, sfince and other pastries stuffed with candied fruit, ricotta cheese, chocolate, pistachios or almonds can make the requisite translation to the visual field.

Cathedral of Modica, view of the nave with original Baroque interior decoration and a late 19th-century organ case designed to harmonize with the pre-existing setting. The limited color palette and geometric rigor of the ornament give the interior a lace-like lightness, in contrast with the more robust quality of the Roman Baroque. (Author photo)

There is a tragic side to this picture, too, reflecting the frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other disasters that have struck the region. The towns of southeastern Sicily were all rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1693, and Catania has been destroyed and rebuilt at least seven times in its long history. Surprisingly, this series of catastrophes has not led to widespread fatalism but seems only to make the beauty of the place and the life within it even sweeter because of its vulnerability.

Not only is the Sicilian Baroque different from the Roman Baroque, but the Sicilian version differs among the various cities and designers on the island; one must travel around to see the different characters the style takes on. The historic center of Palermo retains the exotic charm of the several different civilizations that built it and left their distinctive mark on it: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Spanish and Italian.

At the church of La Martorana, several of these layers are visible simultaneously, with Ravenna-like mosaics vying for our attention, along with Baroque sculpture and mural painting beneath an Arabic dome. The Oratorio of Santa Cita, however, is pure Baroque theater and surprising in its intimate scale: The early 18th-century sculptures in stucco by Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732) covering the walls are marvelous in their number and complexity yet all perfectly composed with the architectural lines and unified by their consistent whiteness.

The Cathedral of Noto. Part of the early 18th-century reconstruction of the city after its destruction in 1693, the cathedral is built of the local golden stone as the centerpiece of the city’s orthogonal street grid and is flanked by squares enclosed by ficus trees trimmed to create green walls. The dome has just been reconstructed after another collapse in 1996.

The city’s elegant squares are unusual in Italy for their landscaping, brimming with oranges, palms, olives and, at the Piazza Marina, giant Banyan trees like those I climbed growing up in Florida. Throughout the historic center, many buildings still show the damage caused by Allied bombing in 1943, though the extensive and continuing restorations are a sign of hope. Happily, the Palermitani are not slaves to the Venice Charter, and so their very capable restorations and reconstructions are returning the city as it was.

In the southeastern corner of the island is a trio of wonderful cities, all rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and all monuments of Baroque architecture and town making. Modica and Ragusa Ibla were rebuilt where and as they had been before, with their winding streets following the hilly topography, while Noto and Ragusa were rebuilt on new sites according to new, geometrically formalized plans.

I find Modica and Noto the most satisfying, reflecting the best of what we might call the “topologic” and the “geometric” approaches to city building, respectively. The first has become an international hot spot, with a particular focus on gastronomy, while the second, with a stronger local flavor, is made more magical by the golden stone of which most of it is built. Noto’s cathedral – designed, like all the principal buildings of the town, by Rosario Gagliardi (1698-1762) – suffered another loss in 1996 when its grand early 18th-century dome suddenly collapsed. Now completely restored “where it was, as it was” under the guidance of Paolo Marconi, the interior is currently being decorated in classical style by a team of Russian painters. Another setback for the Venice Charter crowd but absolutely right in this case.

Cathedral of Siracusa, the heart of the city’s historic center on the island of Ortigia. The Baroque façade masks the Norman cathedral, which remodeled a Byzantine refashioning into a Christian church of the fifth-century B.C. Greek Temple of Athena. The bold Doric peristyle of the ancient temple is partially visible both inside and outside the cathedral. (Photo by author)

At the cathedral of Siracusa on the island of Ortigia, the nave and aisles occupy the former cella and peristyles of the fifth-century B.C. Greek Temple of Athena – perhaps the only place in the world where one can see the Italian Baroque and the ancient Greek Doric in almost inconceivable juxtaposition; the temple-cathedral is also a remarkable example of continuity of form, materials and use over the course of many centuries. Outside is one of the most beautiful piazze in the world – the facades opposite the cathedral bending in a long, graceful arc.

The Baroque is again different in Catania. The lava from Mount Etna that has several times buried the city has also produced one of its main building materials, and the buildings around the main piazza are banded in volcanic gray pumice and creamy limestone. This gray and white palette might be dreary were it not for the abundant sunshine, palm trees, orange trees and bright flowers that are equally characteristic of the place.

While the facades of the churches in Ragusa Ibla, Modica and Noto tend to bow in and out in a dance of complex concave and convex curves, the facades of Catania, like those in Palermo, are more planar, with gently twisting columns and pilasters and lace-like ornamental patterns in the flat surfaces.

Wherever you go in Sicily, the Baroque architecture is food for the eyes and the soul, and the sweets just make the experience even more satisfying.


I Would Prefer Formaldehyde to This!

February 8th, 2013

In case you missed it, here’s the latest declaration from Daniel Libeskind on the future of architecture.

It sometimes feels as if cities like Paris and Venice have been coated with formaldehyde and turned into museums. The old formulas of ‘respecting context’ won’t work. We must create a new context and puncture past beauty with raw, powerful contemporary architecture—buildings that shock and amaze and bring out the romance of relics of Victorian and ancient times. It was once true that the palace, Palladian villas, and churches were architectural, while the other structures in a city were just buildings. But I think the art of architecture is ready to come out in every single structure we erect.” Conde Nast Traveler web page

Because Libeskind has a significant following among the avant-garde (especially among architecture professors and the directors of art museums), it is worth taking a moment to understand what he is saying and why everyone with an interest in historic preservation or artistic culture in general should be appalled.

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

First, the reason many historic cities feel like museums is because that’s what many of them have become – historic environments hosed down in formaldehyde, segregated from everyday life and with high admission fees. But why? The “museumification” of cities like Paris and Venice is precisely the consequence of Libeskind’s modernist predecessors, who made an irreparable rupture between past and present the foundation of their practice.

Since the adoption of the Venice Charter nearly 50 years ago (1964), there has been a strict prohibition against additions to historic environments that might have the effect of keeping them alive: instead, new work must “be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.” Modernist architects, in the spirit of the charter, refused to integrate new construction into the historic fabric except on the basis of conspicuous aesthetic opposition. This spurred many preservationists to oppose all change and relegate new development outside the historic centers, which soon became the exclusive province of tourists and residents affluent enough to pay higher rents. The blatant visual contrast and physical separation between the historic and the new have, indeed, preserved the old centers but at the cost of their economies and authenticity.

The current state of many of our historic places illustrates the difference between preservation and conservation (at least in American usage): The first preserves something that is dead, like a mummy’s corpse, and the second conserves something that is alive, like an ecosystem or a garden. Some historic centers have indeed become dead places, to be visited after buying a ticket, but others show how it is possible for them to remain alive. They do this by allowing growth and change so long as it is consistent with the historic character of the place. But this limitation is unacceptable to the architects, who are not content with the freedom they have to build as they please outside the historic places; they see those historic centers – indeed the continued existence of any traditional architecture – as an affront to their creative freedom.

War Museum, Dresden

Their answer is to end the sequestration of the old and the new by “penetrating” the old with the new. Libeskind’s evisceration of the War Musuem in Dresden and the “lovely, light-filled” (as the interviewer describes it) addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto make clear he means this literally: The solution to museum cities is to penetrate them with glass shards and other architectural weapons of mass destruction.

Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris in 1925 would have torn down the historic center and built a grid of skyscrapers in its place; Libeskind’s, presumably, would leave it there but plunge a handful of skyscrapers into its heart. Perhaps nothing would please him more than to see Venice with one of his glass needles erupting from the side of the Basilica di San Marco to “shock and amaze” us and “create a new context.” It is as if the way to bring renewed youth and beauty to an aging former beauty queen were to have a big machete projecting from her cranium at a jaunty angle. Clem Labine’s recent post indicting architects like Libeskind and their adoring fans as “the New Taliban” is right on target.

As I suggested in my previous post, the answer to the problems of historic cities is neither sequestration nor “penetration” but integration on the basis of knowledge and respect. Those of us who love beautiful historic cities and monuments must insist that economic authenticity and vitality for historic places require an architectural culture in which new and old are partners instead of antagonists.

If the only way to prevent these places from being destroyed by the likes of Libeskind is to pour more formaldehyde on them, so be it. This is the mainstream preservation answer at the moment, and at least it keeps the old bits around long enough that a potentially more sensible future generation might do the right thing. In the meantime, we can only hope that a half century of preservation efforts will not be swept away by a short-lived fad.

But there is a still better way: Change contemporary architecture from being the enemy of beauty to being the agent of its loving care. Train young architects in knowledge and respect for what is beautiful, sustainable and just in the historic environment and equip them with the skills needed to make more of it. Then we can put away the formaldehyde and instead nurture our cities with an economy and a building culture that will keep them alive, not as museums but as living cities once again available to all.

Libeskind’s other error is the idea that the historic distinction between “monument” and “fabric” should be abandoned, that “architecture is ready to come out in every single structure we erect.” As is so often the case with Libeskind and his followers, the words are not the problem. Why shouldn’t every building represent an artistic response to its purpose and site? It is when we see his work that we realize what he means. In contrast with the decorum of traditional cities in which the city hall, the church, the public library are given more noble expression than the private house, office building or apartment block, he is suggesting that every building, regardless of purpose, ought to be an iconic object. But if every building is a unique gesture, an isolated specimen, a sculpture intended to “shock and amaze,” then there is no city at all, but only an architectural zoo. Libeskind would replace the “museum” of historic Venice with the museum of objects designed by himself. Which of those museums would you willingly pay to visit?

So “the old formulas of ‘respecting context’ won’t work.” Really? Those of us who can still tell the difference between an architectural culture of inestimable value and the marketing slogans of a hustling architectural firm need to tell Daniel Libeskind, “Keep your hands off our historic places. We don’t need your new context. We want respect rather than vandalism and character-preserving transformation rather than ‘penetration.’”


Italy Revisited

January 11th, 2013

Over a century ago, Henry James captured the mood that I feel now as I return to Italy, a country that both inspires and frustrates me, as it did James. Revisiting the country in 1877, just several years after Unification, he wrote:

The old has become more and more a museum, preserved and perpetuated in the midst of the new, but without any further relation to it. . .than that of the stock on his shelves to the shopkeeper. . .The Italy that we sentimentalise and romance about was an ardently mercantile country, though I suppose it loved not its ledgers less but its frescoes and altar-pieces more. Scattered through this paradise regained of trade. . .we see a large number of beautiful buildings in which an endless series of dusky pictures are darkening, dampening, fading, failing through the years. By the doors of the beautiful buildings are little turnstiles at which there sit a great many uniformed men to whom the visitor pays a fee. Inside, in the vaulted and frescoed chambers, the art of Italy lies buried as in a thousand mausoleums. It is well taken care of; it is constantly copied, sometimes it is ‘restored’. . .Like it or not, as we may, it is evidently destined to be; I see a new Italy in the future which in many important respects will equal, if not surpass, the most enterprising sections of our native land.” (From “Italy Revisited,” in Henry James’s Italian Hours, Ecco Press, 1987, pp. 112-113.)

The Piazza San Marco, Venice, seen from San Giorgio Maggiore. Restoration theorist Cesare Brandi wrote in 1963 that the Venetians should not have reconstructed the bell tower of San Marco after its 1902 collapse but replaced it by an abstract “vertical element.” Like Brandi, modern architects can rarely resist the impulse to dramatize the rupture between new and old, impoverishing new environments and driving a destructive mass tourism in historic places like Venice (with, thankfully, its campanile rebuilt). Photo: Steven W. Semes

The good news is that Italy has become a prosperous country, and the fading paintings and beautiful buildings are, for the most part, well preserved and maintained. Visitors to historic centers and restored sites, at first glance, see a world where the new and the old seem to have struck a truce; but a closer look reveals this is illusory: The old things constitute an immense museum collection that has even less relation to the contemporary life of most Italians than it did a century ago. As in most Western European countries, the modern Italian economy continues to depend on tourism for a significant percentage of its income, though this comes at a high price.

We can see the destructive effects of tourism on the social life of Italy’s historic centers, where even many churches charge admission. In Venice, of course, this transformation into a kind of amusement park has been going on for centuries, as James recognized, though it now seems to have reached a crisis point. The tourist economy inexorably displaces every other activity, so that the foreigners strolling through the Piazza San Marco see only one another and the few locals still visible all seem to wear uniforms or period costumes. The wear and tear on the buildings and artworks is obvious and costly to mitigate, and the balance between the costs and benefits of tourism becomes increasingly hard to sustain. Over the long term, unchecked tourism is self-destructive, ruining the very attractions that make places worth visiting, driving out the local population and crippling other parts of the economy. Our very presence as tourists has directly and indirectly contributed to the problem.

The Rome tourists don’t see: Condominiums and shopping center on Via Aurelia, M. Coronelli, architect 1971-76. This must be one of the ugliest buildings in Rome, though it is highly regarded by historians of Modernist design. The urbanism is that of suburban New Jersey, and the ubiquity of this kind of development has rendered the historic center unaffordable for most Italians. Photo: Steven W. Semes

The other side of this coin is the conspicuous contrast between the historic places we like to visit and the built world most Italians occupy today. We travel thousands of miles, only to find that some of the most beautiful places on earth are surrounded by some of the ugliest. Most of today’s Romans, Florentines and Venetians spend their lives in suburban sprawl, participating in a global culture little different from our own. Like us, they want a higher standard of living (at least in terms of modern conveniences) than the historic centers afforded before their restoration, but the ensuing environmental, cultural and spiritual losses are increasingly evident.

An enforced contrast between the historic and the modern built world (enshrined in the Venice Charter of 1964) impoverishes newer neighborhoods but also threatens historic areas. Mass tourism is driven by demand: The unrelieved ugliness of modern cities prompts millions of people to travel to environments that a century ago were accessible to nearly everyone but which can now only be enjoyed by those who can afford the entrance fees. If their own neighborhoods were more beautiful alternatives to suburban sprawl, perhaps they wouldn’t need to overrun Venice. In this sense, the harms done to historic sites by mass tourism are a consequence of the failures of Modernist architecture and urbanism to create a built world that satisfies human needs and allows architecture of different eras to coexist in harmony.

This problem is worsened by the intellectual and artistic elite who, like their counterparts in other Western European countries, have a love-hate relationship with their cultural heritage. On one hand, they revere it as an invaluable inheritance and a source of communal identity; on the other, they persistently mock it. The urge to subvert any traditional practice, belief or symbolism is nearly irresistible in contemporary “high culture.”

On New Year’s Eve, I attended the Ballet of Rome’s production of “The Nutcracker.” In it, Clara’s dream of a Kingdom of Sweets was rendered as a grunge-inspired nightmare in which the Sugar Plum Fairy – a male dancer in drag – appeared as a repulsive character reminiscent of the hippopotamus in a tutu in Disney’s “Fantasia.” Being Italian rather than, say, French, the ballet’s put-down of the traditional imagery of Tchaikovsky’s romantic ballet is played for laughs, but the artistic impulse is the same as Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 painting of a moustache on the Mona Lisa. The same reflex drives both the need to subvert the beauty of all traditional art and the refusal to build a contemporary urbanism in which the present and the past can live together in harmony.

Some Italian cultural officials believe the way to make places likeVenice more authentic is to install contemporary art around the city, making it a center for the “art of our time,” rather a museum of antiquities. However well intentioned, such initiatives inevitably fail for two reasons. First, the new art does not bear comparison with the artistic heritage but, on the contrary, only further dramatizes the rupture between the historic and the contemporary. Second, the problems of Venice are not going to be solved by competing with Basel or New York for the contemporary art market.

Instead, what the city needs desperately (apart from a solution to the ever-present danger of flooding) is an economy based on something other than tourism. It must become a real city again, a place where the residents make things and provide services that support human flourishing. Historic preservation, new architecture and new urbanism could work together to build an environment in which such a community could thrive – perhaps with appointments for visits by a limited number of tourists awarded by a lottery – but, more important, we need to make living in a place of beauty the birthright of those of us elsewhere who do not live in historic places.


It May Still Not Be Too Late to Save Paris

November 20th, 2012

The group SOS Paris has once again raised the alarm about skyscrapers proposed for this great city. The mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, backed by the city council, is pushing to allow the construction of a series of out-of-scale buildings within the historic center of the city that threaten to do to Paris what similar buildings over the last decades have done to London – turn it into a preposterous “wannabe” skyscraper city in competition with the likes of Shanghai and Abu Dhabi.

Here is how you can help: Read Mary Campbell Gallagher’s illustrated post on the Classicist blog and join the letter-writing campaign. You can also read her Forum in the June 2011 issue of Traditional Building magazine. I urge all the readers of this column to write to Mayor Delanoë letting him know that Paris doesn’t need towers.

The argument advanced by the champions of tall buildings is always the same, whether in Paris, London, New York or Rome: The city needs skyscrapers because it needs to increase densities, business corporations will move elsewhere if the office space isn’t provided, there is an urgent need for new housing in the city, the new buildings are going to be “green” and – hey – skyscrapers are cool and represent progress and modernity. It is abundantly clear to anyone without a vested interest in these boondoggles that none of these arguments makes any sense.

The best way to increase densities is to build sensibly, infilling already developed areas with new fabric that respects the historical patterns of the traditional city. Skyscrapers do not always increase density, and some of the densest neighborhoods in the world, like the center of Paris or Amsterdam, are no more than four or five stories tall. Most historic cities are already dense. If new towers are needed for some other reason, build them well outside historic districts.

It is unlikely that business corporations that have a real interest in being in Paris will move away because there are no skyscrapers ready to occupy, and if they are hungry for space, new buildings as tall as you like could be built in enclaves outside the center, continuing the pattern of such developments as La Défense and Paris Rive Gauche – those architectural zoos dedicated to exhibiting collections of aberrant towers utterly incapable of composing a city – where they will be in good company. They certainly do not have to build in areas that are essential components of the architectural patrimony of all humanity.

Tall buildings like London’s recently completed “Shard” were justified by their promoters as addressing the need to increase the supply of housing, but now we know that the expense of such buildings makes them out of reach for all but international jet-setting corporate executives and financiers whose top priority is ready access to spas and restaurants without having to leave the building. Not one skyscraper has been built anywhere to my knowledge to house people who were not prepared to pay millions of dollars for an apartment, so the housing issue is bogus.

Then there is the myth of the “green” skyscraper, a myth that has proved largely unsubstantiated by the actual performance of glass towers over a longer term. So far, most tall buildings have failed to sustain the energy consumption claims made for them by their designers. Given the new energy standards—always being raised inEurope—it will soon be very difficult to build new buildings with glass skins—however “hi-tech” they may be—that can compete with old-fashioned masonry. More important, those who tout the sustainability of skyscrapers never seem to include in their calculations the effects these buildings have on the cities where they are built, the impacts on transportation, land use and other resources beyond the building’s footprint.

Finally, there is the sentimental justification that skyscrapers are emblems of modernity. Nonsense. Skyscrapers are emblems of failure: environmental, imaginative, social, economic and cultural. As many of my New Urbanist colleagues have described them, they are high-rise gated communities and vertical cul-de-sacs.

Paris, like other places, wants to think it is in the center of innovative and creative new architecture – and indeed it should be – but why does that mean we have to confront projects whose design has nothing whatsoever to do with the character of the city for which they are proposed? What aspects of the tower designs proposed for Paris by Herzog & DeMeuron, Renzo Piano or Jean Nouvel would not be equally at home (or equally absurd) anywhere else? In what way will any of these preposterous objects contribute to the quality of city life? Have we learned nothing since Le Corbusier’s 1925 Plan Voisin that proposed demolishing all of central Paris(except for a handful of monuments like the Louvre and Notre-Dame) and replacing it with a gridded array of high-rise apartment blocks? That vision, now nearly a century old, seems still to have a grip on the brains of many people who should know better.

On the contrary, what is really cool and an emblem of modernity is real city life, the kind of urbanity and freedom that can only come from a city any pedestrian can comprehend and where strangers meet and interact in public space – in other words, in cities like the historic center of Paris. The most innovative and revolutionary thing the architects could do now would be to make more of Paris, not less.

Whoever would have imagined that Paris, of all places, would succumb to the kind of boosterism and provincialism that some second- or third-rate city might fall prey to? Paris doesn’t need to impress anyone with faceless, could-be-anywhere new architecture. Leave that to the upstart cities still trying to put themselves on the map. Paris was right to corral these feral buildings in clumps outside the center, and it should continue this policy, making new clumps if needed, but well outside the periphérique.

Here is the address to send your letter.
Mr. Bertrand Delanoë (Note the two dots over the “e”)
Mayor of Paris
Place de l’Hôtel de Ville
Paris, France

U.S.postage is $1.05 or three Forever stamps. Be sure to include your return address inside and on the envelope.

Here is a template letter you can use if you like.

Dear Mr. Delanoë,

There is no advantage in making Paris look like every other city in the world.
Paris is unique!
Paris is Paris!
Skyscrapers will diminish Paris in the eyes of the world.
Please let Paris be Paris!

Sincerely, (or, if you prefer, Sincerement)

Your name

Many thanks again to Mary Campbell Gallagher and bon chance!


A Tale of Two Piazze

September 10th, 2012

One of the essentials of all Italian cities and towns is the piazza, the public square or plaza that acts as an “outdoor living room” for the community. For example, most visitors to Rome are familiar with the monumental Piazza Navona that takes the oblong form of the ancient Stadium of Domitian and is graced by three marvelous fountains (the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers by Gianlorenzo Bernini at the center), as well as the great church of Sant’Agnese in Agone to which Carlo Rainaldi and Francesco Borromini contributed their baroque mastery.

Other piazze in Rome may have a less elevated or civic character; many are simply modest gathering places for the immediate neighborhood or an outdoor market. Its origins traceable to the ancient forum of Roman cities, the modern piazza is a node within the street network where various functions of daily life or public ceremony naturally take place.

Piazza Cavour

I am often asked which is my favorite. Among those whose primary importance is architectural, I would vote for Piazza Navona without hesitation, but the piazza I like most to hang out in is Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, which, though undistinguished architecturally, demonstrates the social function of this type of space. It is a long, narrow trapezoid, the wide end of which opens to the Via del Corso, Rome’s main north-south street; in turn, the narrow end links several smaller streets of shops and restaurants around the Palazzo di Montecitorio, home of the Italian Parliament.

The piazza is animated by three cafés whose tables and umbrellas spill into the space, a newsstand, some luxury stores, and a former cinema (designed by a young Marcello Piacentini) now in the process of being converted into a mini-mall. Both a destination and a passageway, the piazza is always animated and, unusually in the center of Rome, it’s typically full of Italians rather than tourists.

This summer saw the re-opening of two piazze that had been closed for construction projects. The first of these, named after one of the fathers of Italy’s unification, was laid out in the late 19th century as part of the development of the neighborhood north of the Castel Sant’Angelo, known as Prati. The focus of the new neighborhood was the gigantic building of the Palazzo di Giustizia, facing the Tiber, and on the other side of the building, the Piazza Cavour occupied the entire frontage of the building, giving it a landscaped forecourt to match its riverside vista on the other side.

Piazza Cavour

The Piazza Cavour is not, in fact, a piazza in the historic sense. It is more like an English square. It is a city block that was left unbuilt upon and has streets running all around it (the one between it and the Palazzo di Giustizia has now been closed), like a smaller version of New York’s Washington Square or the squares of Savannah, GA. It is landscaped in the style of a Romantic English garden, with grass lawns (rare in Italy), winding walks, benches (certainly rare in Rome) and clumps of palm trees. At the center is a monumental bronze statue of Camillo Cavour, looking indomitable, as a national hero should.

All of this was reinstated after a multi-year project to construct an underground parking garage below the park, but the re-opened square is far more attractive than it was formerly, when it was ringed by traffic and bus stops. It is also much livelier now, as Romans are also susceptible to the attractions of grass, trees and benches – features usually not found in traditional piazze, where paved surfaces predominate and one normally strolls or stands unless one is seated in a café.

The new Piazza Cavour also has a café inside it – a smart idea – and this stays open late, ensuring that there is a convivial, social atmosphere even after dark. Although the piazza is not particularly “Italian” in its origins and character, it certainly has been embraced by the Romans, proving that not all 19th-century innovations are to be looked down upon.

Piazza San Silvestro

Across town, the Piazza San Silvestro is another modern innovation. Like many places in Rome, the current space was formed as a result of the demolition of buildings that formerly separated two neighboring spaces. In the 20th century, the Piazza San Claudio was merged with the adjacent San Silvestro to allow a larger space for what became the turn-around for a number of bus lines. Until this summer, this was a piazza in name only: an expanse of asphalt with concrete islands where people waited in little shelters for the bus.

The bus stops have been relocated nearby and the piazza re-paved, and traffic has been diverted. Paolo Portoghesi, the architect known for his post-modernist designs and his valuable studies of baroque architecture, was brought in to “accessorize” the new space. Sadly, Portoghesi was given a shoestring budget and was hired after many of the technical decisions had already been made, so he had little to do but design the benches and choose the planters.

Piazza San Silvestro

Not surprisingly, there was controversy. Some wanted no change, some wanted change resembling historical forms and some wanted something “transgressive” and “of our time.” We should be grateful, I suppose, that a compromise was found: the new piazza is “clean” and abstract, but the forms are familiar ones.

The piazza is now paved in sanpietrini (the traditional cobblestones of Rome), and benches have been built, forming a large rectangle on the west side and a large oval on the east. These shapes respond to the entrances to the church of San Silvestro and the Central Post Office, respectively. The stone benches themselves are not unattractive, surprisingly comfortable and welcome in a city where there is almost no place to sit down without buying something.

La Repubblica, the center-left newspaper, criticized Portoghesi and attacked the new piazza because the benches got hot in the direct sun of an August afternoon – over 120 degrees was measured on the surface of one – and the new piazza seemed deserted. But this is unfair, as nearly all piazze are deserted in summer mid-afternoons, unless there is shade from trees or café umbrellas and the like. On the other hand, the new Piazza San Silvestro has been livelier in more moderate weather and in the evenings. Its position in the heart of the center will likely ensure its acceptance as a major gathering place. There is only one café on the piazza now; naturally, two or three more would only add to the sociability of the place.

While both of these “new” piazze are pleasant enough and will doubtless become part of the city’s physical and social network of spaces, neither is really a piazza like those from before the Modernist period. The traditional piazza does not have through streets on more than two sides and is completely enclosed by buildings with mixed uses. Have we lost the ability to design such places today? The formless, useless “open space” that accompanies most contemporary architecture would suggest that we have.


Zaha Hadid in Context

July 23rd, 2012

It seems that the currently fashionable architects are competing to plant their “contemporary stamp” on the historic face of the Eternal City. It all began with the completion in 2005 of Richard Meier’s Museum of the Ara Pacis, which seems to have opened the way for new Modernist architecture in the city. Upon its completion, the Meier building prompted protests even from the mayor of Rome, and now its entry plaza is to undergo a makeover in answer to some of the criticisms that met its debut, most notably the wall that blocks the view of two Neo-classical churches from the riverside boulevard of the Lungotevere.

As disturbing as the counter-contextual imposition of Meier’s building is, there is something worse afoot in Rome: the gutting of historic buildings of more recent vintage and their incorporation into crudely cannibalistic new construction. Modernist architects are becoming perversely parasitic in this way: They insist on using historic structures as a “foil” to their unprecedented forms and high-tech materials. Aggressive “shards” and “blobs” are suddenly exploding from the bellies of older buildings like the creature in the movie “Alien” that burst out of the abdomen of an ill-fated earthling. Daniel Liebskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and War Museum in Dresden are the best known examples of this approach.

MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, Zaha Hadid, 2010. View from Via Guido Reni, showing existing and new buildings. Photo by the author.

Designed by Zaha Hadid and holding forth as the latest new building in Rome by a leading contemporary architect, the MAXXI gallery of contemporary art was received with worshipful praise by the establishment, including the 2010 Stirling Prize of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The architecture critic of the Guardian described it as “Hadid’s finest built work to date. . .and a masterpiece fit to sit alongside Rome’s ancient wonders.”

So far as I am aware, there have been no official calls for its demolition, to date, although the future of the building is clouded. It seems the 150 million euros spent on constructing the new museum were invested without providing for operating funds, building maintenance or much of a permanent collection. Recently, the government announced that the building may soon close, a casualty of the economic crisis and government belt tightening.

The Hadid proposal, winner of a 1998 design competition and completed finally in 2010, “convinced the jury by its capacity to integrate itself in the urban fabric and for its innovative architectural solution” proclaims the museum’s website. In what way the new MAXXI can be said to have any relation to its physical context other than brute aggression is puzzling, as it makes no concession whatsoever to anything around it.

Across the street is a 1920s public housing project that, like many from that time in Rome, combines humane urbanism and exemplary traditional architecture. In other words, it creates the benign urban fabric that Hadid willfully ignores. But what many people who have not seen the MAXXI in person may not realize is that Hadid makes use of two existing buildings from an entire district of turn-of-the-20th-century military barracks. These buildings, in contrast to Hadid’s, are very simple and dignified structures, and one of them forms the southern flank of the MAXXI, facing the street.

The new structure, engulfing and extending north from the older one, is entered from a new garden and courtyard, the older building acting as a kind of impenetrable mask behind which the bulk of the new building pokes out at each end. Another of the old buildings, set perpendicular to the street, encloses the new garden on the east and houses additional bookshop and café spaces.

Hadid uses the existing building simply as a shell, hollows it out, paints it white and makes it all but disappear, nearly overwhelmed by the onslaught of the new structure that seems to be attacking it like some colossal monster in a science-fiction film. But, unexpectedly, the old structure’s dignity of composition, satisfying proportions and human scale resist the architect’s act of appropriation. It stands its ground, still recognizable as architecture, refusing to be destroyed. This persistence must keep Hadid awake at night. Not allowed to demolish the buildings, she is powerless to rob them of their meaning, despite the considerable effort she gives to the task.

Maxxi Museum, Rome. View of new museum building from northwest. Photo by the author.

On the other side of the city, another out-of-town. avant-garde architect has attacked and gutted an older building but more ineptly and with a sorrier fate for the “host” structure. The former Peroni Brewery, designed by the Roman architect, restorer and scholar Gustavo Giovannoni and constructed between 1908 and 1912, is a multi-block complex regarded as a landmark of early 20th-century industrial architecture.

Remodeling part of it between 2004 and 2010 for yet another museum of contemporary art – this one called the MACRO – Paris architect Odlie Decq asserted that “it was necessary to maintain both of the existing facades, so we removed a little piece at the corner to show that we existed.” In an egregious instance of “facadism,” the old street walls were isolated and left as mere screens unrelated to the reconfigured spaces behind them. At the corner, the walls are interrupted and penetrated by glass volumes that seem to be breaking them apart.

Projects more respectful of Giovannoni’s buildings and the surrounding context were submitted in the competition won by Decq, but these were set aside for “the lack of risk, novelty and rupture in the schemes, attributes which instead fully characterized that of the winner,” according to the official jury report. Now we know that Ms. Decq exists, but she need not have bothered. An architect who must ruin a historic structure in order to prove her existence has proved what, exactly?

MACRO Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, Odile Decq, 2010. Photo by the author.

Demonstrating that the hometown architects are just as capable of contempt for their cultural inheritance as their foreign colleagues, Massimiliano Fuksas has designed a radical alteration to the former Unione Militare building on Via del Corso, right in the heart of the historic center. Among the few examples of turn-of-the-20th-century Classical commercial architecture in the center of Rome, the temptation to mess with its Classical symmetries was irresistible.

Taking a cue from Decq, Fuksas blows open a corner to prove he exists, and a flood of his signature glassy shapes spills out of the breach. Now under construction, this transgressive treatment of the existing building was likely approved by the authorities because the older building, as in the previous two cases, was not considered “historic.” In Italy, the boundary of what usually qualifies for preservation is drawn at the start of the 19th century, which leaves nearly all the excellent architecture of the city from the last 200 years vulnerable to the parasitical appetites of the Modernist architects.

In Italy, as elsewhere, the historic patrimony, viewed by most of us as an evolving tradition to be sympathetically adapted to new conditions, is seen by many architects as material to be “mined” or used as a pretext for dramatizing “rupture” and “transgression.” With the value of 19th- and 20th-century architecture only now beginning to be recognized, this leaves an important part of the European heritage under threat – a loophole architects like Hadid, Decq and Fuksas are only too eager to exploit.