Friday, July 3, 2009

Italian Guys

Architecture has held a higher profile in Italy than probably any country. Italy has been producing architects for at least a couple of thousand years. Bookending this post, Filippo Brunelleschi and Renzo Piano.

Brunelleschi was an early Renaissance influence. He actually invented the art of linear perspective, in the early 15th century, designed extensively in Florence, including the signature Duomo of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. The commision for the Duomo was awarded to the winner of a competition - no one had previously been able to figure out how to construct the dome for its intended location at its intended size. He was considered a structural and mathmatical genius.

Duomo, Florence

Andrea Palladio started as a stonecutter. He learned the craft of building from literally the ground up. It's been about 500 years, and it's highly unlikely anyone has come along since with a better or surer gift for proportion. More about that later. He designed buildings at a time that an architect would for better or worse be a kind of dilettante, typically a wealthy individual who had studied the classics and used the means afforded by wealth to determine how a work of architecture would be carried out. Palladio was given his start by a patron, Gian Giorgio Trissino, and the rest is history.

In design, proportion is more an art than a science. Proportions can be analyzed mathematically, and can be quite consciously designed within mathematical parameters. On the other hand, to reach the level of executing exquisite proportion, to truly cast an arrangement of elements in the way of Palladio, seamlessly analogous to a symphonic composition by Mozart, is far beyond metrics. Even to consciously understand proportional composition in a way that can be described as analytical requires a level of study and perceptiveness that can be rightly called a fine art. Those who choose elements and cast proportions in ways that are recognizably so perfect as to stir the soul are exceedingly rare and remarkable.

Above, Villa Rotonda, Vicenza. Palladio.

Above, Basilica, Vicenza. Palladio

Palladio worked in what seems a decidedly hybrid process. He studied proportion, and devised his own knowledge and preferences in ways that he clearly described as straightforward mathmatical arrangements. In general terms, these parameters governed the actual sizes of elements of construction in his buildings.

Palladio wasn't overly intellectual, I think, in his design approach, and didn't even employ highly elaborate drawings to test and refine his design. In other words, he would envision the three-dimensional implications of each element, a wall and its openings, a column, a pediment by means of memory and intuition, along with whatever mockup or other tools of refinement were at hand. Intuition. This was the means by which his composition took flight, casting a kind of magic in the arrangement of form, space and the materials of their definition. It is essentially this same intuition that is shared by all who have an exceptional gift of proportion.
Recommended, a beautiful and accessible series of essays on ten villas of Palladio, Withold Rybczynski's The Perfect House.

Pope Pius II decided to attempt a definitive expression of the Renaissance in his home town of Pienza. Photos of Pienza show a charming hill town similar to many, except the church center buildings and square designed by Bernado Rossellino. The remarkable piazza in front of the church is carefully laid out as a trapezoid rather than a rectangle, in the manner of a stage set. The piazza paving pattern is completely rectilinear, visually underscoring the trapezoidal shape.

About a hundred years after the palazzo at Pirenza was completed, Michelangelo employed the same trapezoidal spatial scheme for the Campodoglio in Rome.

Romaldo Giurgola is a highly accomplished American architect who immigrated from Italy in the 1950's. He shared many beliefs and approaches of Louis Khan and, I think, Aalto. His buildings eschewed the Miesian approach to design, which Giurgola called "imposition of abstract" form.
His best-known project is the Federal Parliament in Australia, but the overall body of his work, particularly projects without such requirements of monumental imagery, show a thoughtful and original approach to design.
Like Palladio, Renzo Piano learned about building with a common-sense backbone underlying the evolution and refinement of his work as an architect. His father was a general contractor, and he has the advantage of acquiring early on a viewpoint in design that respected and understood the nature of the trades and materials that go into construction of a specific design. His buildings employ a range of imagery, appropriately varying with program requirement and location, high tech often blended with natural wood and lighting.
In an Architectural Record interview, Piano explained his design approach. "I came to architecture as the son of a builder, so when I was a young architect I was devoted to developing objects. I was attracted to the physicality. The piece-by-piece approach was essential to me. Then I began to understand that this is not enough. Architecture is more than just putting things together. It’s about the organic, about illusions, a sense of memory, and a textural approach. I must admit, though, that I still love the idea of putting parts together. That is why my office is called the Building Workshop. I love the idea that you go from the general to the detail and then from the detail to the general. It’s a double process. You cannot think about the presence of the building in the city without thinking about materiality. And when you think about materiality, you start to think about detail."

Below, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. Renzo Piano

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