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Lesson(s) of Rome

The Lesson of Rome is for wise men, for those who know and can appreciate, who can resist and can verify. Rome is the damnation of the half-educated. To send architecture students to Rome is to cripple them for life. The Grand Prix de Rome and the Villa Medici are the cancer of French Architecture.

 -Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture, 1923. 1

There is no such thing as criticism, there is only history. What is usually passed off as criticism, the things you find in architecture magazines, is produced by architects, who frankly are bad historians. As for your concern for what should be the subject of criticism, let me propose that history is not about objects, but instead about… human civilization. 

- Manfredo Tafuri, “There is no criticism, only history.” 2

As I prepare to take an enthusiastic and highly motivated group of architecture students to Rome this coming fall, I have been thinking about the role of history relative to contemporary design in the quite different thoughts of two influential figures in 20th century architecture, the first an architect—Le Corbusier—and the second a historian—Manfredo Tafuri. In the case of Le Corbusier, his lesson is a thinly veiled criticism of the French academic tradition and its scrutinizing of taste in architecture. While typical of the rhetorical assertions of European modernist architects in the 1920s and 30s, it is not, as it might seem, a rejection of history—an argument that belies any careful examination of the work of Le Corbusier and many others of his time. This is a declarative statement made as much for its shock value as for its accuracy, and without question made in open contradiction with many other similarly strong views espoused by this architect. Even within the pages of Vers une architecture, it would be hard to reconcile this seeming disapprobation of history with Le Corbusier’s affectionately rendered descriptions of the experience of the Parthenon and other well-known historical sites. Based upon this conflicted message, what approach should an architecture student take when traveling to Rome? And what is the nature of a contemporary response to such a deeply layered historical context?

The words of Manfredo Tafuri allude to a more clear statement concerning the relationship between history and contemporary design. Architects should just build and let historians write about it after they are done (and that means many years after). When considering Tafuri’s legacy as a historian and critic, the story is understandably somewhat more complicated.3 With the publication of his most influential book Progetto e utopia: Architettura e sviluppo capitalistico (1973) he contended that given the advanced capitalist system of the time it was not possible for architecture to revolutionize society by standing outside of the economic systems that produced it—an assertion that inadvertently created the impression that architects were left with the empty task of creating form. This interpretation of Tafuri’s position largely ignores the arguments of his slightly earlier Teoria e storia dell’architectura (1968). Rejecting what he called operative criticism—which was invested in projecting historical solutions into the future—Tafuri maintained that history is a critical practice of disassembling the architectural object in relationship to its socio-historical context. According to this view, any movement into the future, must come, though indirectly, from the fragmentary insights gained from a broad understanding of architecture in history.

01_ardeatine_monumentMario Fiorentino, et.al., Monumento ai martiri delle Fosse Ardeatine, Rome 1944-49. General view. Photo by author.

While there are a number of buildings and sites in Rome whose historical understanding could provoke this kind of deep response, the one that I have always found very powerful to visit with students is the Monument to the Martyrs of the Fosse Ardeatine, located just outside the Aurelian walls near the Catacombs of St. Callisto. The project, which was designed by a collaborative team of architects, landscape architects and artists headed by Mario Fiorentino, was the result of a two stage competition that began soon after the end of the German occupation in Rome in June of 1944. The story that this monument commemorates is a harrowing one that speaks to the desperate conditions of Rome under German occupation. In an almost immediate response to an Italian partisan attack on a column of German soldiers marching in Via Rasella—which resulted in 33 deaths—335 Italians who were already in custody as either resistance fighters, political dissidents, Jews or common criminals were rounded up, brought to the Ardeatine caves, shot and left to die. In an effort to cover up their acts and seal the caves, the German authorities set off a series of explosions, which did nothing other than add to the ignominy of these tragic events. The design of the memorial project—which includes a sanctuary, open space and a gallery of the caves where the victims were found—began in the immediate aftermath of the war and reflects a Rome brought to its knees in a chaos of conflict and despair. The site captures this particular moment of history in all of its power, but in a subtle way also reflects the introspective nature of Italian culture after World War II—as the country and its people had been both victims and protagonists of some of the most dehumanizing events of the Fascist period. One cannot visit this site without asking: Why did this happen? Or perhaps more pertinently: What will keep this from happening again?

02_ardeatine_caveMario Fiorentino, et.al., Monumento ai martiri delle Fosse Ardeatine, Rome 1944-49. View of cave. Photo by author.

In the face of sites in Rome that offer such powerful experiences of the past—and a city that largely refuses to erase the built traces of even its most abysmal moments—how is it possible to think of a contemporary architecture? And how can the lessons of that history possibly inform any new work? Until recently this task has not only been daunting for visiting architecture students, it has been much the same for Italian and foreign architects—who were all left to propose unrealized (and unrealizable) projects. With the new millennium, however, Rome boasts some compelling works of contemporary architecture, including Zaha Hadid’s Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo (MAXXI), completed in 2009. As much as it is the product of a global architectural culture, this project embraces the densely layered quality of its immediate site—a former automobile factory turned into a military barracks—and proposes a sinuous though heroic expression of concrete walls whose painstaking construction process alone seems to recall Rome’s past. A second and equally important set of questions are related to how history will judge this contemporary work. In writing this history, it will be important to acknowledge the impact of progressive civic politics, the gradual opening of Italian culture to the kind of European (and global) influences envisioned by Rationalist architects in the 1930s and the massive rush to create a contemporary appearance for Rome for the year 2000 Jubilee. And yet, the question remains whether these contemporary works embody a new phase in Rome’s urban and architectural history or rather represent a frenetic moment in the otherwise languid and inexorable transformation of the city. On that judgment, our students will speculate but history (and historians) will need to wait.

03_maxxi_exterior
Zaha Hadid, Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Rome, 1998-2009. Exterior view near entry. Photo by author.

Written by Brian L. McLaren, Associate Professor
Seattle, Washington, March 26, 2013 

Notes

1.   Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture (Paris: Éditions Crès, Collection de “L’Esprit Nouveau”, 1923), 161.
2.   Manfredo Tafuri, “There is no criticism, only history.” Design Book Review 9 (Spring 1986): 8.
3.   See Carla Keyvanian, “Manfredo Tafuri: From the Critique of Ideology to Microhistories.” Design Issues 16, 1 (Spring 2000): 3-15.

 

 

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