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Maintenance – July 19

July 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Tuesday 19th of July the blog will undergo some maintenance work in order to go self-hosted.

Part of the content might be temporarily not available, but from Wednesday 20 on everything should go back to normal.


Archetypes 2: the Cross

July 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

You can’t see the cross here, right?

Believe me, there is definitely a cross in this Black Painting by Ad Reinhardt (1960-1966). If you tilt your screen and squint a bit you will see it. Look around and you will notice that the cross, or the X, is one of the most pervasive spatial archetypes. Howard Hughes used it more than 30 times in Scarface (1932): x shaped shadows and visual compositions mark the movie echoing the scar of the protagonist and becoming the ominous sign of violence and death.

But crosses and Xs for me go well beyond symbolism: they are the most fundamental way to mark a territory, the root of the relationship between landscape and human presence – as in the Roman Cardo and Decumanus. The Cardo and the Decumanus formed a cross that projected on earth an imaginary heavenly order, as seen in this scheme that depicts the foundation ritual of Roman cities.

templum in terra
The Cross is a basic foundation element not only of the western city; most civilizations have produced cross-shaped configurations, and one of the most interesting for me is the city of Anjar (today in Lebanon), founded by Al-Walid I, an Umayyad caliph, in 714-15.

The plan features a central cross-shaped circulation space that we can imagine as an urban interior of sorts. This space manages the walled area by dividing it in four quarters, but it would have also have provided a shared, representative space for both commerce and rituals.

The idea of a space of passage that is both a connector and a symbolic element of sorts re-emerges also in Le Corbusier’s La Tourette Monastery (1956-1960). On the lowest level of the building, a cross of corridors links the four sides of the monastery. I stayed a while at La Tourette in 2003 and I remember ‘discovering’ this shortcut almost by mistake – it was a new way of experiencing the building and understanding the relationship between its parts, and while walking through it, I realized it was a cross and had a sort of ‘whoa’ moment. Cheesy, I know. And stupid, especially, as I should have known the plan of the building as every good architecture student… so, for those of you who have not seen it yet, here it goes.

Corbu of course just looooved his crosses… as his ville radieuse shows clearly (I won’t comment the obvious).

But there are less obvious aspects in this project – especially the monumentalization of car circulation that gave beautiful and scary results such as this one, where the cross becomes the ultimate embodiment of the very mechanical rationale of the city marrying again the symbolic with the prosaic:

Interestingly, Italian architect and critic Gabriele Mastrigli has suggested that Le Corbusier took inspiration for the layout of his City of one Million of Inhabitants from another paradigmatic cross-shaped project:

Bramante’s proposal for Saint Peter (a project on which he worked between 1500 and 1514). An interesting introverted cross, somewhat the opposite of the centrifugal Villa Capra by Palladio (ca. 1567), which becomes a fourfold viewing device open towards the surrounding landscape.

villa capraIf from the scale of the city we went down to the one of the building, we can take our catalogue of crosses even further down to the scale of the architectural element – with two of my all-time favourites: the very obvious miesian column of the Barcelona Pavilion (1929)

mies van der rohe barcelona pavilion column pillar
and the maybe not-so-obvious beam-pillar exposed cross of the House on a Curved Road by Kazuo Shinohara (1978).

This section for me is deeply moving – it seems like all the meaning of architecture is condensed in that one beam-pillar cross, the vertical loads and the horizontal ones, the thrust towards the sky and the need to bind all elements together. I always found this building a sort of existential statement on architecture that could belong equally to the Japanese tradition and to a classical genealogy: it is about weight, order, measure, and ultimately also about man – what else could the absurdity of the slanted roof cutting the structure be, if not the intervention of chance, hazard, and the twists and turns of human nature? Uhm, no, this is wrong, one should never write about architecture when architecture is that good. It simply speaks for itself and talking about it can only make it cheap. I feel like thrashing the last lines but I’ll leave them as a memento not to overanalyze again.

However, especially in the Christian West, the importance of the cross as a symbol cannot be overestimated. Even in the cases in which it is used simply as a formal device, as in this “Composition with Cross” by Suetin (1921-22)

the metaphorical charge is still very much present, inscribing even the most abstract canvas into the history of Crucifixion paintings to which this famous detail from Piero della Francesca’s Pala della Misericordia (1460) belongs.

But just to end, here is the cross-based painting that for me remains the most stunning. Naive at first – after all, it’s just a lamb – the canvas is probably one of the most thought-provoking ones I have personally ever seen. There is just no stopping the chain of associations that will burst in the mind of the viewer once the cross formed by the legs of the lamb has been noticed: crucifixion, Jesus, martyrdom, meaning and value of life, this image can start infinite reflections. Francisco Zurbarán takes us on a real tour de-force of formal and conceptual metaphors with his “Agnus Dei” (1635-1640) – see below.

Places you see in your dreams

July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

I chanced upon this drawing and I swear I could not believe this thing really existed:

Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily – IV century.

It is the plan of a late Roman villa that is very famous because of its amazing mosaic decoration (exceptional both in terms of quality, and of quantity). I knew very well the mosaics but I had never seen the plan of the complex. And maybe it’s just me (sue me, I’m an architect…), but I find the plan even more incredible than the decorations. The way the central courtyard becomes the hinge of a dazzling array of secondary spaces, each more flamboyantly shaped than the previous, is just stunning. It is a textbook Roman-villa-solution and at the same time it is interpreted in such an exuberant fashion that the whole thing looks made of the stuff of dreams: it seems a capriccio, a fantasy building, an analogical architecture à la Piranesi (see below).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Ichnographia of the Campo Marzio, 1762

I am an ‘elevation-minimalist’: few materials, no colors, horror of surplus decorations. I’m a die-hard miesian with a dash of loosian angst, all shaken, not stirred, in the shaker of Swiss rationalism. But I totally love these plans. I love them because although they are complex, they also have a logic of their own, and altough they create messy spaces, there is always a hierarchy, and although they seem the epitome of camp, it does not take much to understand that in 3-d they could actually give rise both to crazy palaces and to spaces that are actually manageable for everyday use – as the villa of Piazza Armerina was.

And, however, I do like a dash of camp. As Susan Sontag wrote:

Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.

Paradise found: Hamed Khosravi

July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

The beginning of an essay on the concept of paradise by my friend and collague Hamed Khosravi (

The word Paradise, as the very image of a celestial garden, ultimately entered most European languages (cf. French paradis, German Paradies, Italian paradiso, Latin paradisus) via Greek παραδεισος  [paradeisos]. However, its Persian origin is more of a political concept rather  than its later (religious) derivations. Etymologically, the very root of the word can be traced in the Old Persian term pairi-daêzã. It is combined of two parts: ‘pairi’ (cf. Sanskrit pįri, Greek περι), which literally means ‘around’, and ‘daêzã’ as ‘pile or heap’. The second part, however, is the origin of the words ‘دژ’ [dezh] or ‘diza’, in modern Persian all stand for ‘fort’ or ‘enclosure’. ‘Daeza’ also has another root in the Indo-Iranian verb ‘dhaizh’ that originally means ‘to construct out of earth’, and the noun ‘dhaizha’, ‘that which has been built out of earth’.

This definition implies on the presence of the ‘wall’ constructed out of earth; a fortified space surrounded by formidable walls. It exactly matches the Persian translation of the Avestan word ‘pairi-daêzã’ (in Vendidad, Fargard 3 sec. 18) as ‘چينه’ [chineh], which literally means ‘clay wall’– used to mark a territory or land belonging to someone, like the wall of a garden, village or a city. It implicitly indicates the non-defensive characteristics of this wall; it separates to define it. However there is an historical and archaeological evidence of topological differences between this kind of border and the defensive wall. This ‘enclosed estate’ occurs only once in the entire Avesta, but that occurrence is an extremely significant one. It is where Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord/ God) describes an earthly place:

There, on that place, shall the worshippers of Mazda erect an enclosure, and therein shall they establish him with food, therein shall they establish him with clothes, with the coarsest food and with the most worn-out clothes. That food he shall live on, those clothes he shall wear, and thus shall they let him live, until he has grown to the age of a Hana, or of a Zaurura, or of a Pairishta-khshudra.

Hana means, literally, ‘an old man;’ Zaurura, ‘a man broken down by age;’ Pairishta-khshudra, ‘one whose seed is dried up.’ These words have acquired the technical meanings of ‘fifty, sixty, and seventy years old.’ can be summarised in three points: paradise literally (and originally) means ‘walled (enclosed) estate;’ it insists on the idea of the wall as the ‘divider of space’ when it defines what does and what does not belong to the dominant power (the owner). The wall here is not a defensive wall; the word ‘daeza’ is literally rooted in a verb that means ‘to construct from the earth’ or ‘to be made of clay’.

It divides and separates therefore it produces space. The original description of paradise in the Avesta explicitly illustrates an image of an earthly place. “It signifies and has the sense of a dwelling place, earthen enclosure, of those intimately associated with death”: the place where you should eat and wear clothes, the place that you should live in: the city.

This idea of city for the Persians was firmly bound to the ultimate goal of creation, which according to Mazdaean-Zoroastrian ideology is ‘happiness for mankind’ (cf. Old Persian šiyãti martyahyã); the word šiyãti (happiness) appears in Modern Persian as شادی ‭[šãdi‭]‬.‭ ‬It is the divine power‭ (‬the sovereign state, the ‬emperor‭)‬,‭ ‬which should re-establish this happiness throughout the empire by literally constructing the‭ ‬perfect‭ ‬model.‭ ‬This‭ ‘‬ideal state of peace‭”‬,’‭ ‬appears in the form of the walled estate,‭ ‬by preventing the main three evil forces:‭ ‬enemy,‭ ‬lie and famine.‭ ‬It is in a way the restoration of the ideal moment of creation.‭ ‬Therefore, Paradise is‭ “‬a space of re-creation in the most precise and most profound sense.‭ ‬The surviving descriptions of‭ ‬paradeisos‭ ‬consistently emphasize their exquisite beauty,‭ ‬their abundance of water,‭ ‬and the profusion of plants and/or animals with which they were filled:‭ ‬that is,‭ ‬the elements which constitute the sustenance—and,‭ ‬more important—the happiness of mankind.‭”

Consequently, Paradise becomes an apparatus to divide the evil form the good, enemy from friend and the city from the rest of the territory, to fundamentally build the state of well-being. Thus, it becomes the archetype of power to expand the empire, to expand peace and happiness in such an extent that “the earth would become part of the empire, the empire would become paradise.”


Painting with the left (hand)

July 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Cy Twombly died yesterday at 83. I don’t know whether this Bacchus series, that I first saw last year at the Tate, is a good work or not: I don’t really know anything about painting. But I can say that I kept thinking about it for months afterwards. It’s not about the colour, it’s not even about the gesture, it’s about the canvas as the surface upon which time itself is recorded.

Donald Judd famously called a 1964 exhibition of Twombly’s a “fiasco”, saying that “there is nothing to the paintings”. Judd has written some of the sharpest, most brilliant art reviews ever. In Twombly’s case he might, or might not have been wrong: in any case, I wish I had the privilege to see that fiasco firsthand. Sometimes Twombly is so effortless he seems facile. Sometimes you feel he’s just a clever intellectual tricking you into believing there is some hidden depth you can’t quite grasp (I mean, painting with the left hand to be more detached? totally feels like a trick). But sometimes there is something to his canvases, a presence, a vibration, that redeems it all. He is in the canvases somehow. And will be for many years to come. Arrivederci, Mr. Twombly.

Archetypes 1: the Open

July 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have been trying for a while now to build up a catalogue of spatial archetypes – not necessarily architectural archetypes, just archetypes of organization of space. Formal archetypes, if you like. In the studio I’m co-tutoring at the Berlage Institute with Pier Vittorio Aureli, Platon Issaias and Elia Zenghelis, we have been working on the idea of constructing the city through architectural archetypes – a very fascinating attempt indeed, but one that, weirdly enough, is not directly related with this catalogue of ‘not-necessarily-architectural’ formal archetypes.

Actually, my interest in formal archetypes came from a completely different source: a book on Robert Motherwell’s Open series > Robert Motherwell, Open (21 Publishing Ltd, 2010).

Motherwell started working on this series around 1967 and developed it for more than 20 years (he died in 1991). I won’t discuss the book – or the paintings per se (by the way, both are amazing), but just the idea of the Open: because it suddenly hit me when I leafed through the book the first time that Motherwell ‘discovered’ an archetype that is at the same time an incredibly simple concept (as an archetype should be) but also, amazingly, one that has never been really discussed – not that I know of. What is the Open? I think it is self-explanatory…

(Robert Motherwell, Beige Open, 1981)

The Open is a rectangle that is, well, open. As in not closed, missing one side, or pushed to the edge of the canvas so that the imaginary fourth side disappears.

(Robert Motherwell, Red Open with White line, 1979)

We see Open(s) in our everyday life almost everywhere. Open fences, unfinished frames, three-sided piazzas. The section of a glass is an Open. Any room is an Open (provided that it has a door, clearly…). Space is made up of sequences of ‘Opens’ and we hardly ever realize it – hardly ever realize the power of the missing side, of the gap that lets stuff into a space.

These paintings have an astonishing sensual and technical quality but for me they transcend their physical datum because they are the means through which Motherwell exposes, discovers, establishes a whole spatial and formal category.