The first talks, by Paolo Scrivano and Elli Mosayebi, described the golden decades in Italy after World War II. Reconstruction with the INA-Casa initiative and a cultural approach promoted by such enlightened entrepreneurs as Adriano Olivetti tell the story of an Italy/laboratory that developed a home-spun modernism in which architecture's political and social role was reflected in buildings, texts and manuals that would stir the world's attention. The next talk, by Martin Stierli, focused, in fact, on "The transatlantic exchange" between Italy and the United States describing the experience of two prestigious Americans - Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi – at the American Academy in Rome during the 1950s.
But it was Filip Geerts and Mark Wasiuta who let the first "elephant" into the room. "Elephant in the room" is an Anglo-Saxon idiomatic expression, which is used to indicate a clear and obvious problem that you do not want to talk about because it considered taboo or embarrassing. Geerts, in fact, concentrated his remarks on Gregotti's theoretical work while Wasiuta re-interpreted radical experience through the description of the "Italy: The New Domestic Landscape" show. The reaction of Pippo Ciorra – discussant for the first day's sessions – was immediate; he pointed out that the symposium itself addressed the sensitive issue of a "battlefield" in which two different utopias clashed with no holds barred. The ideological "elephant" is a cumbersome one; between prejudices and suspicions, it still makes it impossible to conduct a peaceful and constructive confrontation with a fundamental part of our cultural history. Francesco Garofalo concluded the first day with a discussion that focused on four key ideas: culture, ideology, parable and the heritage of some important Italian designers. The theme of culture was structured in a visual account of all the exhibits hosted at the Venice Biennale and the Milan Triennale; while the ideological question was discussed in depth within a framework of the conflict between radicals and workerists, a theme that had already been evoked by Ciorra. He then described the "professional parables" of Gregotti, Aymonino, Portoghesi, Branzi and Natalini by comparing their earlier and later projects, stressing, in the end, the existence of the design "legacy" left by such architects as Carlo Scarpa and Ludovico Quaroni.
The second day was dedicated to the Present. Alberto Alessi addressed the issue of "Italian-ness" in a poignant speech regarding the clichés that characterize the perception of Italy abroad. His provocations cleared the field of the question of national identity and the meaning of the symposium's question was rendered clearer - but even more "brutal" – by Pierpaolo Tamburelli who proposed a serious and conscientious discussion of Rossi and Tafuri aimed at the selection of useful design tools, beyond mere fear and cunning. The Baukuh partner identified the source of the cultural decline of the "Belpaese" (beautiful country – Italy tr) in the decline of politics. In this way the second cumbersome elephant – two decades of Berlusconi-ism with its individualistic subculture – entered the room. He then tried to pierce the veil of pessimism – which had begun to pervade the room starting on the symposium's first day – with a personal guide to the future: more realism and more ambition, more pragmatism and less ideology, more sense of responsibility and more rejection of mediocrity and provincialism. Matteo Scagnol and Sandy Attia from Modus Architects [www.modusarchitects.com] later presented some architecture projects – absent until their parenthesis – reflecting upon how architectural dialects exist within an international language. But soon after, Fabrizio Gallanti talked about politics and how the relationship between architecture, urban planning and territorial governance is an Italian specificity. He started with 1968 and the famous picture of the occupation of the Milan Triennale, curated by De Carlo, to illustrate recent political/architecture history in nine points. Images of architect-commissioners such as Renato Nicolini and Pier Luigi Cervellati tell the story of an Italy in which political project and architectural image faced enormous social and cultural issues, launching a heroic season in planning as well as in public housing . Also present on the screen was a young Berlusconi standing in front of a model of Milano 2 in the early '80s heralding in an era in which the residence began to be considered a market item and not just a necessity and in which the construction was dramatically separated from architecture . The final point was dedicated to Gallanti's mentor as he himself defines him: Stefano Boeri's candidacy in Milan's mayoral primary. History repeats itself – architecture returns to politics and defines a strategy, paraphrasing De Carlo: "politics is too important to be left in the hands of politicians."
Finally Joseph Grima presented a numerical account of the Italian situation. Inverting the title of the famous exhibit by Bernard Rudofsky, "Architecture without architects," Grima described Italy as a country of "Architecture without Architects" – home to the largest number of architects and the least amount of built architecture in the world; Italy is, in fact, the mirror image of China. And when the data was referred to professional education, the third elephant entered the room: in Europe the greatest number of architecture schools and students is in Italy. Too many architects for a profession in difficulty with essentially no market and who, after ten years of hard work, earn an average monthly salary of € 1,200 according to Grima's data.
The final round table was held to address the issue of the Future, but unfortunately, although the chairs had been arranged democratically in a circle, the too-many-elephants-in-the-room entangled the debate with the usual topics: universities, political responsibility, ideological ghosts. And, gradually, some little "Dumbos" – the competitive system, the political collusion of architects, the distraction of specialized publications, the inaction of Italian cultural institutes abroad – joined the elephant party. The result is a disastrous picture that – not even on the grounds of the Swiss Institute, by definition "neutral," and despite the good intentions of the organizers – could not be overcome by identifying possible strategies for recovery.
One theme became clear: in the great cycle of history, the post-star-system international architectural culture faces a theoretical crisis which, by conditioned reflex, turns to Italy - which earlier had produced so much in theoretical and disciplinary terms – to seek new points of reference. Hence the difficulty for Italian architecture which, however, seems to have nothing to contribute.
As a young architect active in the field, I cannot identify with this scenario. Since I also did not identify with past ideologies, I think I have the right, and perhaps even the duty, to study and write – with intellectual honesty – about the history, the tradition and the theoretical work of our culture from Rossi to Tafuri and from Branzi to Gregotti without being accused of being neo-conservative or reactionary. Someone, at the time and with some reasoning, "killed the fathers" of our generation without worrying about the children who, through self-learning, have cut their teeth in a world that has changed rapidly into a globalized one. Italy is now home to many offices that can compete fully on the international scene with projects, initiatives, publications and exhibitions. This condition, however, will soon terminate, since thirty-five-year-old European architects are beginning to construct major projects while ours remain on paper. The country's current intellectual elite must bear this responsibility and propose a critical-theoretical discourse of continuity that can culturally and politically interpret, support and guide new generations of architects. Or they must step aside. Otherwise we will have to continue to hum obsessively the same old comforting nursery rhyme: three elephants swing on the thread of a spider's web... Gianfranco Bombaci