Architectural Crossover: Q&A with Architect Franco Purini

by Ludovica Rossi PURINI

LUDOVICA ROSSI PURINI: In what way can we talk about the contribution of Italian architects to the culture of architecture in the United States?

FRANCO PURINI: Italian architecture has profoundly influenced the development of American architecture, whether it’s in a direct or an indirect way. It’s a testimony of the works of many of the great American architects of the past century. Only one example is really necessary: the strong analogy between the Guggenheim of New York, by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the stairs of the Vatican Museums, by Giuseppe Momo, who the American architect visited in 1939.

LRP: What exactly do you mean when you refer to the indirect contribution Italian architecture made to the development of the architectural aesthetic of the United States?

FP: At the end of the 1800s the celebrated American studio Mc- Kim, Mead, and White– who signed dozens of important projects, notably the American Academy in Rome– imposed a stylistic cipher that clearly is inspired by the grand Greco-Roman classical models and that is based upon a revaluing of the Vitruvian principles and on the deep understanding of the works of Italian architects of the 1500s. Throughout the 1900s this relationship between studios and the profound analyses of Italian classical architecture is brought before numerous great American architects, of whom I primarily cite Robert Venturi– whose fundamental 1966 text Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture– perhaps would never have been written if the author had not produced important studies on Italian architecture from the 1500s to the 1900s. Another scion of great Italian tradition is also Peter Eisenmann, who recognizes in Giuseppe Terragni his inspiration. Eisenmann particularly was the principal animator of the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies of New York, a tried and true laboratory of the architectural aesthetics on contemporary urban studies, in which other famous architects and Italian architecture theorists, such as Manfredo Tafuri, were very active. Another American architect who owes much to Italian architecture is Steven Holl. At the beginning of his activity, he was very influenced by his stay in Rome, where he gained his understanding of Classical and Baroque architecture of the capital beyond the studies conducted and discovered by Italian architects.

LRP: What exactly do you mean by the expression ‘consider themselves heirs to the huge Italian tradition of architecture’?

FP: First off I refer to the degree to which some of the greatest American architects of this past century have used Italian architecture and its masters as essential models of architectural aesthetics whilst imagining contemporary architectural scenarios. It’s enough only to think of Charles Moore, whose Piazza di Italia in New Orleans celebrates that same myth of classical architecture, and who, together with Robert Venturi, is rightly considered one of the great innovators of postmodernism. Secondly, it’s important to figure in the value of Italian tradition in architecture the fact that many important architectural faculties in American universities have had and continue to have a seat in Rome, therefore contributing to the creation of a sort of osmotic relationship between the different cultures of the projects.

LRP: Can this instead serve to sketch direct lines where the direct contribution of Italian architecture in the United States is defined?

FP: The work of Pietro Belluschi is very important in this sense. He transferred to study in the United States one year after his high school graduation in Rome. As an architect he signed numerous projects, among which are the Pan- Am Building in New York (now called the MetLife Building), designed together with Walter Gropius and Emery Roth & Sons, and the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. Another Americanized architect is Romaldo Giurgola, who in the 1970s (before transferring to Australia to design the amplification of the Capital of the country, Canberra) was the author of very advanced projects. The same goes for Bruno Zevi, one of the most important and influential historians of architecture on a world scale in the second half of the 20th century, who graduated from Harvard with Walter Gropius. More recently Gino Valle, who designed the seat of the Banca Commerciale Italiana in New York at the beginning of the 1980s, inspired through his great attention to contexts. Among the most direct contributors we remember Paolo Soleri, an Italian architect that studied in Turin, and later worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. With his interventions to the Arcosanti in Arizona, he gave life to a utopian city, where the ideal of a life in harmony with nature is united with the willingness to create spaces that are complex and innovative. In the 1970s Vittorio Giorgini, Lauretta Vinciarelli, Paola Iacucci, and Alessandra Latour were important Italian educators at the Facoltà di Architettura of New York. These personalities acted to transmit the Italian subject matter, but also the American one. In current history, the contribution given by Renzo Piano to American architecture is surely more significant. Effectively, American projects such as the buildings of the New York Times and Morgan Library are highly visible reaffirmations of the Genovese architect’s synthetic and elegant signs inspired by his great attention to the context. His formal measure, strongly conceptual, that does not concede at all to fashion or media spectacles, is a durable emblem of the most authentic character of Italian architecture.

Ludovica Rossi Purini is a Columnist for the Italian Journal.