Precision is a modern invention. It is an essential component of the machines that make our everyday life work: a grain of sand in the gears can, literally and not metaphorically, paralyze an entire continent for days. According to a famous (and controversial) thesis by the philosopher Alexandre Koyré, the history of modernity is the history of the transition from a traditional, artisan-based and archaic world of approximation to a scientific and technological universe of precision. If this is the case for all arts and crafts, then it stands to reason that it would be even more so for contemporary architecture. The modern architect is not an artisan who makes things, but an artist who designs them. The translation of drawings into buildings is the supreme test, and often the martyrdom of the modern architect: in some cases, this translation may be accurate, and in many others it is an approximation which most assuredly leads to catastrophe.
Some countries and cultures have adapted better than others to the world of mechanical and industrial precision. In some regions of Central Europe (Germany, Switzerland, or Austria for example) the cultural assimilation of industrial precision is no less evident in the forms of technical objects than in the social practices of daily life. The regular, mechanical and precise forms of the machine age manifest themselves in objects or entire industrial landscapes that are built happily, harmoniously, intelligently and almost effortlessly. Not so in Italy, where most technical objects — from everyday items to high-speed trains, highways or bridges — are battered, patched and rickety, and are painful to behold, regardless of whether they serve their purposes or not.
Italy is the only country in the world where entire works of great complexity (Milan's Malpensa airport, for example) seem to have been built without any forethought by roaming teams of incompetent and illiterate artisans. Philosophers and historians may ponder and argue as to why this wasn't the case in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s; but this is the very reason why a competent, intelligent and precise construct is seen in Italy today as a rarity, a masterpiece, and almost a miracle.
This is true for example in the case of a Ferrari car, a piece of fabric by Zegna, but also for some architectural objects, such as those of minimalist precision built by GEZA. Amongst all of today's styles, minimalism is one of the most difficult. It is the precision of the implementation, not of the design, that ultimately distinguishes authorial minimalism from the absence of form; and this is a form of precision over which the designer has by definition no control. Without the micrometric precision delivered by the Swiss construction industry, the works of Christian Kerez or Valerio Olgiati would be illegible — in fact, they would not even exist. Seen from afar, the Pratic Headquarters by Gri and Zucchi evoke the slick technological expression and the smooth appearance of the best works of the postwar international style. A deceptive easiness from the start, since the seemingly lightweight design expressed in the form of a curtainwall façade of the time was often the result of a titanic effort on the part of the architects, engineers, and builders — as well as of the clients and users, since the curtain walls of the 1950s and 1960s were expensive and malfunctioned easily. Nowadays such technical problems are no longer an issue: façades of any kind may be bought on the Internet, and may even be "nonstandard" pieces generated by digital technologies (such as those by Permasteelisa, a market leader in the field, and which was founded in Northern Italy, not far from where Pratic is). Today, the designer's intelligence can, and perhaps should, reveal itself elsewhere.
In fact, from up close, the complex for the Pratic Headquarters by GEZA is anything but easy and light. Anomalies and surprises appear, literally, at every corner. The suspended beam on the south façade of the office building looks like an out of scale band inscribed in a Richard Neutra-like curtainwall, but is in fact a giant cantilevered shelf. The solution is a response to the need for sunshade, but seen from the west side of the office wing the beam exhibits, almost brutally, the intricated building complexity of the roof and façade. Other views and glimpses of the outside as well as of the inside spaces of the building (see for example the complex and angular volumes of the staircase) highlight the same contrast between an apparent visual smothness and the irregular, almost brutalist geometries that are stark and dissonant and at times deconstructivist. Similarly, the angle in plan between the two main bodies of the project highlights the disjunctive and laboriously disconnected lines of the composition.
The image of precision may seem easy and light, but the quest for precision is always arduous: makers and artists often remind us that nothing is more difficult than the appearance of simplicity. But the restless precision of Gri and Zucchi is also, I believe, the sign of something else and more drastic. The world of mechanical precision is rapidly becoming the world of yesterday, and today's new digital technologies are not based on the mechanical precision of cause and effect, but on the uncertain (and, according to some, confused) logics of nonlinear science. Opinions diverge on how this new science can affect a new architecture. But it's the artist's duty to warn us that things are changing. And we must thank Gri and Zucchi for reminding us that the change of a centuries-old paradigm in architectural design cannot be tackled without intelligence, tradition and culture.
Text taken from: GEZA PRATIC, Silvana Editoriale, 2011 (with an essay by Mario Carpo and photos by Fernando Guerra)