The utopia of a normal country

Massimiliano Fuksas, the last maestro of a lost generation of Italian architecture, ponders the country Italy once was and the country it would like to be, on site at his congress centre in the EUR area of Rome.

Stefano Casciani: Here we are, Massimiliano, together for my last interview for Domus; we're friends, so I saved you for last. Let's start way back in the prehistoric times of democracy in this country, when Italy was still normal, with international prestige and aspirations. What was Bruno Zevi like with you? Did he behave well or badly? Was he a tyrant or a maestro? What influence did he have on your generation?
Massimiliano Fuksas: Zevi was one of the most important parts of my training, along with Giorgio Castelfranco, Giorgio DeChirico and Asor Rosa (my Italian teacher in high school). When I enrolled at the university, Zevi had just arrived, called in by the students there in Rome, along with Quaroni and Piccinato. He taught History of Architecture and gave wonderful lessons right from the start. The first thing he said was, "Look, I have no desire to give you an exam every three months – there were exams in February, June and October – Send me your thesis by mail and I'll look at it and send you a grade." Immediately, right-wing newspapers rose up: "A madman has arrived; he wants to destroy the Italian educational system!"

It's true that normalcy was never his cup of tea, but he was a genius.
Then he said, "Why hold the first lessons here at the faculty, which is so sad? Let's hold them in a theatre or a cinema: the Roxy, close the university." It held 300 people and Zevi called in Paolo Portoghesi and Giulio Carlo Argan. So we spent the first week of the semester at the movie house, having big discussions. He really was a genius. He and Portoghesi organised an exhibition on Michelangelo at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. It was made up of study models that he called "modelli critici". He took a building, say the staircase of the Laurenziana Library, and with a model he explained its concept. He saw himself as the spiritual heir of Benedetto Croce, only more advanced. "If you can't read the crucial points of a piece of architecture, you will never be able to become an architect," he said. He introduced contemporary architecture in Italy, especially Frank Lloyd Wright, his personal favourite, and passed somewhat arbitrary judgement on Le Corbusier or Louis Kahn, whom he detested most cordially. For him there was Wright above all, the quintessential avant-gardist, inventive and brave.

After him, I have never read anyone who was able to explain so well – just with words, a few drawings in plan and sometimes a handful of black-and-white photos – how architecture was basically space. The problem of visual language comes afterward.
Speaking of language, in 1966, one night we were in someone's studio (groups of students used to rent a house in the centre for little money and each would take a room) and we see two gentlemen – Zevi and Quaroni – walking by. So I lean out of the window and say to Zevi: "Professor! What are you doing around here at this hour?" "What are we doing? We're taking a walk! We're peripatetics! We're prostitutes, right Lodovico? (he turns to Quaroni) We're streetwalkers!" There was a culture of self-mockery, provocative and futurist language, in the way he'd declare every sentence, every word. But for me his world was already incomprehensible back then, let alone today. Zevi felt part of the avant-garde in architecture, but by the time 1968 rolled around, he suddenly realised he was an old man.

That's right, he always refused to acknowledge the changing world around him. In 1975 he was addressing us students as if we were nursery-school children.
His daughter became engaged to a militant member of the Lotta Continua movement. He, being a Jew and a radical, could not imagine anything of the sort. When he understood that the world had become a different place, a form of decline set in, in his ideas, his articles, magazines and projects.

You have had an architecture column in L'Espresso for ten years now, the one that used to belong to Zevi. Compared to all the slapdash writing in Italian journals, it is an oasis of useful thought. How did you rise to the challenge of taking it over?
It's been 11 years and I've written several hundred articles for it. Another little trick that Zevi played on me is that he died on my birthday, January 9, 2000. L'Espresso called me the same day. The editor-in-chief said that they didn't want the column to fall into the hands of someone unsympathetic to Zevi. They implied that he would have been happy if I continued it. I said, "Look, I am not a writer and I'm not a journalist either. This is a really difficult thing." He said: "I'll give you 15 minutes to think it over, after that it's mayhem." Zevi's body was still warm and many were already stepping forward. 15 minutes later, I called back to say I'd do it. My first article was on Gehry and his new design for the New York Guggenheim, which was never built. Gehry was the right choice, because he represents Zevi's dream. He was the first to make me understand that architecture is made of contemporary times, not history. He hated the deception of post-modernism.

What does it mean to not be deceitful?
To create a language. Think of Italian movies from the 1960's, the biting humour, like in Il sorpasso when Gassman looks at the fuzzy photo of the girl who Trintignant, the shy student who took her picture from the window, has a crush on. Smiling, he says in Roman dialect: "Couldn't you have gotten a little closer?" It's not true that they adopted a language, they invented one. Alberto Sordi and Gassman invented a very rapid language that is associated with a picture. Pasolini never liked that kind of language.

That's easy to understand – he was from Friuli, an immigrant to Rome. From the north, but still an immigrant.
He liked people who were not from Rome, like Franco Citti and his brother. They were from the south and spoke a Roman dialect from the periphery that was entirely adulterated by southern dialect. Many immigrants came up from the south and stopped outside the historical part of the city, along the roads of Prenestina and Casilina.

There were shacks there until the 1970's. I remember them well, they were slums, shantytowns, I mean actual cities, not just four shacks. There were interminable discussions at the architecture faculty about the issue. Solidarity visits, studies, research – it was all useless. The city of Rome marched onward of its own accord, obviously toward increasing degradation.
The immigrants brought with them, very close to the centre, the dream of the country house, a low building with a semblance of a yard or vegetable patch. Then speculation arrived even there, and those same immigrants started building small housing blocks to rent out, or else to live in them with their extended family.

Some sad movies from the 1970's, especially by Ettore Scola, were set in those parts. One was terrible, with Manfredi as a "rich" shantytown dweller. Do you remember the one by Scola with Gassman as a former partisan who became a building speculator, or rather the attorney of his building speculator father-in-law?
C'eravamo tanto amati, of course I remember. Gassman and I even tried to work together, later on. He had grown old however and was suffering from depression. One day, the mayor of Rome, Rutelli, calls me and says: "I'm here with Vittorio Gassman and we wanted to ask you something. He wants to open the Gassman Foundation for youths and students in the old Aquarium." So we get together, start designing a project and discussing it. Gassman was personable, he used to show up at my studio with a doctor's bag, no a school bag, a kind of satchel. Then we ate in a Roman trattoria, where he explained to me what depression is. It's something awful: you get up on the wrong side of the bed one day, and that feeling never goes away.

Yet he was very active, he made experimental theatre and put on shows with Renzo Piano.
Well, he would let down his guard with me. I would go over to his house and his wife Diletta would be in the kitchen or out somewhere, and he would gesture toward the liquor cabinet and say, "open it, open it." There were two glasses and a bottle of whisky. He would say: "Famo presto" (Just a quickie). We sat down to talk by a Charles Eames table from which he had sawed off the legs – he couldn't stand them. Marcello D'Olivo, a great friend and a wonderful person, a good Italian architect in the 1960's, would come over and drink wine and whisky. He used to cook with a cigar and the bottle of whisky. Drinking for him was a full glass before dinner. At Harry's Bar he had met Hemingway, who had explained how to make a martini cocktail. It was a different world, a different Italy, where the strangest things could happen.

Getting back to today, when will your "Nuvola" congress building be finished?
In one year and eight months, by the end of 2012.

If it doesn't happen, you can always build it in Milan. (smiles)
Good idea, we could split it up – put part in Milan, say close to the Nuova Fiera in Rho-Pero, and part at the Palazzo dei Congressi.

Joking aside, what do you think the problem is with large public works in Italy?
There are a zillion problems. First of all, the country lost its habit of designing and building on a large scale long ago. The Italian government has no ideas, no infrastructure to design large projects, so it takes decades. It's not even a financial problem. To con- struct a school costs between 10 and 30 million euros, but 4 billion euros have been allocated to build a bridge across the Strait of Messina without there even being a final project. You see, it's not difficult to find money. Then there is the terrible problem of the laws that push contractors to lower their bids in an absurd way in order to win the tender. The very next day, they start asking for more money in order to start construction. It is impossible to carry out any kind of project with a 20 or 30 percent discount. These laws seem European, but there is always some Italian gimmick to them. There is also a great lack of management schools where public administrators can receive training.

There isn't much tradition in that type of school in Italy, and if it ever existed it is now lost. So what do young architects do in this situation? They emigrate, they look for possibilities outside Italy. That's what you did, if I'm correct, when you went to France.
If an architect doesn't get to build something, however small, before she or he turns 30, to gain experience, it could be too late. With the international competitors already having experience with building their first projects, Italians are just bench- warmers, they don't get to participate. I must say that I have been very fortunate: I began building at a very young age. At 26 I did my first job, the Palazzetto dello Sport in Sassocorvaro. I always had in mind that it was necessary to build, so I was lucky and far-sighted too, as much as we can tell. Even though I'm not part of any political or parapolitical organisations, my lucky star has been there for me, making me win competitions and giving me work despite my partial move to France.

Is that why you never entered the academic or political circles that others use to get ahead? They use their jobs at the university and at magazines to promote themselves and get work as consultants. We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy and 150 years of political patronage with a few little laws that pretend to curb cronyism at the universities.
If you're committed to the university, working day and night, and maybe even good at being a professor, you're not going to do a good job of being an architect. It's very difficult to juggle two different trades in life.

For years your buildings have been receiving mixed reviews. They are controversial and much debated. How do you react to criticism – just or unjust as it may be?
Obviously, I react well when I understand that the criticism points at a problem; and badly when it has no real content. For projects that are real- ly advanced there is always at least 50% naysay. Unanimity is reserved for marginal, familiar things, like catchy songs. But it happens that simple people without much knowledge of architecture are able to perceive the emotions of certain buildings. A French family, not particularly devoted to Christ and the Virgin Mary, wrote me an e-mail about the Foligno church. They had gone there, a mass was being held and they decided to listen to the whole thing because they felt the strong spirituality of the place. In another small project, the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa, the director told me practically on his first day in the building: "I'm sitting at my place, I'm looking at the sea, the light is beautiful and I am enjoying being here, I feel a sense of serenity."

In your project for the Congress Centre, I find a kind of modesty. You substantially made a great transparent mass, a display cabinet, and inside you placed a highly poetic and evocative architectural object. Why didn't you do like everyone else does nowadays and put the heroic form with all its impact on the outside, making a landmark to go down in architectural history (sup- posing that architecture will still have one)?
I am interested in the interstice. It's where I like to be. My architecture can be defined as interstitial, and there is something autobiographical in that. I have never belonged to big movements or alliances of thought. I have always lived in a form of space that was cut out for me, until it closes up and then I go find another one. I am far removed from the political system – contrary to what many people think, seeing the enormous difficulties to construct large projects in Italy. Whoever does succeed in doing so is thought to be connected to some mafia-like lobby. That's not my case.

Certainly you don't seem to have gone looking for consensus with your building for the Congress Centre, or for controversy either.
I want to tell you this: I was teaching at Columbia University in New York, but living in Paris. On the long trips I took in order to follow the work at my studio in Paris, my only panorama was the clouds, seen from above. They represented a secure object, tranquil as a bed where you can rest and land. The clouds gave me a sense of serenity and peace. And to see these geometric shapes with extremely complex (but existing) algorithms was fascinating. So I had one simple idea and one complex, baroque and renaissance, as happens to those who live in Rome or know the city well. I started to work on a model, a kind of sculpture that some people called Nuvola, the Cloud. The concept of the cloud was not something I said, but the people took it for a cloud, which of course was exactly what I was thinking. Then the display case concept came to me. The Nuvola occupies a space and expands inside a symbolic object.

So in the EUR area, all made up of large masses, you combine the gigantic but transparent volume with the symbolism of a cloud expanding inside?
Exactly. A kind of "cohabitation" between Roman rationalism and a, let's say, "Borrominian" spirit. The mass is proportioned to urban scale, a large monumental scale, but with an element of the city according to Borromini. Rome is made by an almost naturalistic development, meaning that it is always much more complicated than we think.

And underneath, in the belly of the megastructure, there's also a bit of Piranesi. The gigantic concrete underground spaces make me think of a film on ancient architecture, where you can read the layers of the centuries.
Yes, there is a stratification: underneath there is cement with enormous pillars. Their size is impressive to see, and the light that passes through the whole building at certain points, from the top to the underground spaces, makes them look like a giant Mithraeum with these flights of steps, this huge staircase, so ancient. You said it perfectly, it's a kind of contemporary ruin.

You might not be interested in doing design, but at the moment I am attracted to architecture that contains values connected to design. Do you think that there is an industrial component here in the glass "display case"?
I don't know if it's design, but the structure of the display case was worked out to a tenth of a millimetre. One error in the scale, and the whole thing is ruined. The wrong proportion, over a length of 198 metres, can destroy the project. If the cable holding the glass changes diameter by a tenth of a millimetre, you can really see it. So we studied everything on a wooden model 8 metres tall, on a 1:50 scale. As we progressed with the design, we consulted with the contractor on the different phases by using the control model.

You are doing projects that are a lot bigger than this – for example the Shenzhen airport. Does it ever happen that as you work on certain buildings, you change your mind about ones that you built before and you regret that you can't change them?
I believe that no architect can blame anything or anybody other than himself for what he builds. You'd be stupid to not understand that with a certain client, a certain project, the result fully depends on you. I love building so much because there is the experience on site, not just the final result. The site can be a source of inspiration for many other projects, but without second thoughts or regrets for anyone. I have no compassion for myself, let alone for others. You might be able to use some small tricks, for instance I sometimes add something to the project at the beginning that I end up taking away at the end. I do that to receive more funds to do other things that come to mind during the execution. However, I repeat, the per- son responsible for the project and the result is always me, with my decisions. Do you remember what Sartre says in The Devil and the Good Lord? I decide good and evil, God doesn't exist. You can't blame God and you can't blame the devil either.

You give an obvious signature to your buildings, but it is not a factory label like Koolhaas, Libeskind or Zaha Hadid might apply to their work. I am thinking of the high-rise hotel next to the Congress Centre. You created a complex of urban volumes, but you make no effort to have the high-rise match the Congress Centre. Why not?
Because it would be styling. I don't have a style, I don't want one. For my whole life, I have fought against it. However, in some way, people recognise my designs even though they are not similar. Why do they recognise them? I have asked myself many times, but I am unable to answer. Perhaps my buildings have their own continuity. If you look well, I always work on the same concepts. I use material as matter, not as material. I age my project before it ages itself: no covering up, falsifying, faking. I do my utmost to have the material expressed naturally, to have and give a simple reading of the construction. I use few materials: wood, travertine stone, steel and glass, cement for the foundations. I don't use cladding, very little paint, and try to let my thoughts speak for themselves, directly. The Rho-Pero fairgrounds are glass, aluminium, a bit of cement, stainless steel panels or coloured red, and natural stone flooring. That's it.

I'm curious: you haven't built many residential buildings, at least in Italy. In Lyon and Paris you did, but not here. Yet your housing seems very beautiful to me, like the two high-rises in the Via Spadolini quarter in Milan. I always pass by them, they're close to the Bocconi university. Also this 400-room hotel is a residential high-rise. If you're so good at it, why don't people ask you more often to design housing?
I can't answer you. It's true, I don't get requests for residential projects. Of course I would like to make an inhabited city. In Lyon, I possibly made the first residential quarter fully covered in stainless steel. It's very difficult to make housing. Research on housing would be the most important thing to do today, but you need illuminated clients who want to invest in a quality residential project.

Here is a question I asked Maldonado, the first person I interviewed. You're the last, so I'm asking you, too. You are always very clear about the problems there are in Italy for young architects. What should they do, besides work?
They should make a revolution, as Mario Monicelli would have said. We always think that things will get better, but he said: "No, no!" During one of the last lunches we had in a trattoria close to his house, he said: "Italy needs a revolution! The young people need to start a revolution, from all points of view." And indeed, now they're doing it in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, why not in Italy? We need a non- violent revolution where the last generations take to the streets and say: "Here we are, we're ready to change." Obviously, not only young architects! Maybe like in 2011. There is nothing to do or say, we cannot resist in this kind of situation. Sooner or later, it will happen in any case.

Let me ask you about technology. I saw you using an iPad before, to show me your latest building sites. Do you really use it as an instrument, or just as a chic photo album?
The iPad is a super important instrument. Its one fault is that it's only Apple. Were it universal, it would be the best invention of the world. It also needs to be turned into what it could really be, an actual computer. Of course Jobs needs to sell a Mac, an iPhone, an iPad, so they divided it into three, but it will become a formidable tool. You can collect everything you have in the way of pictures, videos and a bunch of applications. It just needs to be completed; it's an unfinished machine.

Is an iPad suitable for architecture? My friend Lissoni uses it to make design sketches.
I prefer paper for drawing and painting, there is always a roll of sketch paper on my desk. The iPad is suitable for giving you an overall picture of what you're doing. Do you want to know all the details of a project? Easy. You can summarise the projects that you've done and the ones you're still working on and would like to do more rapidly. They send you information from the studio and you can see it, in Shenzhen, Frankfurt, anywhere you happen to be. You study it, correct it. I am only waiting for it to be an actual small computer.

So you see it as an instrument for work, a small factory of architecture and projects?
Yes, a little factory of ideas that takes up minimal space. That's one of the things we need to work on – nanotechnology is the future of design, in all ways. That's the way we should work, naturally without forgetting the big picture, like how to improve people's lives. What else are design, architecture, cities and art for?
Of Lithuanian extraction, Massimiliano Fuksas was born in 1944 in Rome, where he graduated from the Università "La Sapienza" in 1969. In 1967, he established his own practice in Rome, which was followed by one in Paris in 1989 and one in Shenzhen, China, in 2008. He directed the 7th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice titled "Less Aesthetics, More Ethics". Since 2000 he has been responsible for the architectural column in the weekly magazine L'Espresso, a feature founded by Bruno Zevi.

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