Architecture between heteronomy and self-generation
Copyright (c) 2021 Luigi Alini
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
«I have never worked in the technocratic exaltation, solving a constructive problem and that’s it. I’ve always tried to interpret the space of human life» (Vittorio Garatti).
Vittorio Garatti (Milan, April 6, 1927) is certainly one of the last witnesses of one “heroic” season of Italian architecture. In 1957 he graduated in architecture from the Polytechnic of Milan with a thesis proposing the redesign of a portion of the historic centre of Milan: the area between “piazza della Scala”, “via Broletto”, “via Filodrammatici” and the gardens of the former Olivetti building in via Clerici. These are the years in which Ernesto Nathan Rogers established himself as one of the main personalities of Milanese culture. Garatti endorses the criticism expressed by Rogers to the approval of the Rationalist “language” in favour of an architecture that recovers the implications of the place and of material culture. The social responsibility of architecture and connections between architecture and other forms of artistic expression are the invariants of all the activity of the architect, artist and graphic designer of Garatti. It will be Ernesto Nathan Rogers who will offer him the possibility of experiencing these “contaminations” early: in 1954, together with Giuliano Cesari, Raffaella Crespi, Giampiero Pallavicini and Ferruccio Rezzonico, he designs the preparation of the exhibition on musical instruments at the 10th Milan Triennale. The temporary installations will be a privileged area in which Garatti will continue to experiment and integrate the qualities of artist, graphic designer and architect with each other. Significant examples of this approach are the Art Schools in Cuba 1961-63, the residential complex of Cusano Milanino in 1973, the Attico Cosimo del Fante in 1980, the fittings for the Bubasty shops in 1984, the Camogli residence in 1986, his house atelier in Brera in 1988 and the interiors of the Hotel Gallia in 1989.
True architecture generates itself1: an approach that was consolidated over the years of collaboration with Raúl Villanueva in Venezuela and is fulfilled in Cuba in the project of the Art Schools, where Garatti makes use of a plurality of tools that cannot be rigidly confined to the world of architecture.
In 1957, in Caracas, he came into contact with Ricardo Porro and Roberto Gottardi. Ricardo Porro, who returned to Cuba in 1960, will be the one to involve Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi in the Escuelas Nacional de Arte project.
The three young architects will be the protagonists of a happy season of the architecture of the Revolution, they will be crossed by that “revolutionary” energy that Ricardo Porro has defined as “magical realism”.
As Garatti recalls: it was a special moment. We designed the Schools using a method developed in Venezuela. We started from an analysis of the context, understood not only as physical reality. We studied Cuban poets and painters. Wifredo Lam was a great reference. For example, Lezama Lima’s work is clearly recalled in the plan of the School of Ballet. We were pervaded by the spirit of the revolution.
The contamination between knowledge and disciplines, the belief that architecture is a “parasitic” discipline are some of the themes at the centre of the conversation that follows, from which a working method that recognizes architecture as a “social transformation” task emerges, more precisely an art with a social purpose. Garatti often cites Porro’s definition of architecture: architecture is the poetic frame within which human life takes place. To Garatti architecture is a self-generating process, and as such it cannot find fulfilment within its disciplinary specificity: the disciplinary autonomy is a contradiction in terms. Architecture cannot be self-referencing, it generates itself precisely because it finds the sense of its social responsibility outside of itself. No concession to trends, to self-referencing, to the “objectification of architecture”, to its spectacularization. Garatti as Eupalino Valery shuns “mute architectures” and instead prefers singing architectures.
A Dialogue of Luigi Alini with Vittorio Garatti
Luigi Alini. Let’s start with some personal data.
Vittorio Garatti. I was born in Milan on April 6, 1927.
My friend Emilio Vedova told me that life could be considered as a sequence of encounters with people, places and facts. My sculptor grandfather played an important role in my life. I inherited the ability to perceive the dimensional quality of space, its plasticity, spatial vision from him.
L.A. Your youth training took place in a dramatic phase of history of our country. Living in Milan during the war years must not have been easy.
V.G. In October 1942 in Milan there was one of the most tragic bombings that the city has suffered. A bomb exploded in front of the Brera Academy, where the Dalmine offices were located. With a group of boys we went to the rooftops. We saw the city from above, with the roofs partially destroyed. I still carry this image inside me, it is part of that museum of memory that Luciano Semerani often talks about. This image probably resurfaced when I designed the ballet school. The idea of a promenade on the roofs to observe the landscape came from this.
L.A. You joined the Faculty of Architecture at the Milan Polytechnic in May 1946-47.
V.G. Milan and Italy were like in those years. The impact with the University was not positive, I was disappointed with the quality of the studies.
L.A. You have had an intense relationship with the artists who gravitate around Brera, which you have always considered very important for your training.
V.G. In 1948 I met Ilio Negri, a graphic designer. Also at Brera there was a group of artists (Morlotti, Chighine, Dova, Crippa) who frequented the Caffè Brera, known as “Bar della Titta”. Thanks to these visits I had the opportunity to broaden my knowledge.
As you know, I maintain that there are life’s appointments and lightning strikes. The release of Dada magazine provided real enlightenment for me: I discovered the work of Kurt Schwitters, Theo Van Doesburg, the value of the image and three-dimensionality.
L.A. You collaborated on several projects with Ilio Negri.
V.G. In 1955 we created the graphics of the Lagostina brand, which was then also used for the preparation of the exhibition at the “Fiera Campionaria” in Milan.
We also worked together for the Lerici steel industry. There was an extraordinary interaction with Ilio.
L.A. The cultural influence of Ernesto Nathan Rogers was strong in the years you studied at the Milan Polytechnic. He influenced the cultural debate by establishing himself as one of the main personalities of the Milanese architectural scene through the activity of the BBPR studio but even more so through the direction of Domus (from ‘46 to ‘47) and Casabella Continuità (from ‘53 to ‘65).
V.G. When I enrolled at the university he was not yet a full professor and he was very opposed. As you know, he coined the phrase: God created the architect, the devil created the colleague. In some ways it is a phrase that makes me rethink the words of Ernesto Che Guevara: beware of bureaucrats, because they can delay a revolution for 50 years.
Rogers was the man of culture and the old “bureaucratic” apparatus feared that his entry into the University would sanction the end of their “domain”.
L.A. In 1954, together with Giuliano Cesari, Raffella Crespi, Giampiero Pallavicini and Ferruccio Rezzonico, all graduating students of the Milan Polytechnic, you designed the staging of the exhibition on musical instruments at the 10th Milan Triennale.
V.G. The project for the Exhibition of Musical Instruments at the Milan Triennale was commissioned by Rogers, with whom I subsequently collaborated for the preparation of the graphic part of the Castello Sforzesco Museum, together with Ilio Negri. We were given a very small budget for this project. We decided to prepare a sequence of horizontal planes hanging in a void. These tops also acted as spacers, preventing people from touching the tools. Among those exhibited there were some very valuable ones. We designed slender structures to be covered with rice paper. The solution pleased Rogers very much, who underlined the dialogue that was generated between the exhibited object and the display system.
L.A. You graduated on March 14, 1957.
V.G. The project theme that I developed for the thesis was the reconstruction of Piazza della Scala. While all the other classmates were doing “lecorbusierani” projects without paying much attention to the context, for my part I worked trying to have a vision of the city. I tried to bring out the specificities of that place with a vision that Ernesto Nathan Rogers had brought me to.
I then found this vision of the city in the work of Giuseppe De Finetti. I tried to re-propose a vision of space and its “atmospheres”, a theme that Alberto Savinio also refers to in Listen to your heart city, from 1944.
L.A. How was your work received by the thesis commission?
V.G. It was judged too “formal” by Emiliano Gandolfi, but Piero Portaluppi did not express himself positively either. The project did not please. Also consider the cultural climate of the University of those years, everyone followed the international style of the CIAM.
I was not very satisfied with the evaluation expressed by the commissioners, they said that the project was “Piranesian”, too baroque. The critique of culture rationalist was not appreciated. Only at IUAV was there any great cultural ferment thanks to Bruno Zevi.
L.A. After graduation, you left for Venezuela.
V.G. With my wife Wanda, in 1957 I joined my parents in Caracas. In Venezuela I got in touch with Paolo Gasparini, an extraordinary Italian photographer, Ricardo Porro and Roberto Gottardi, who came from Venice and had worked in Ernesto Nathan Rogers’ studio in Milan. Ricardo Porro worked in the office of Carlos Raúl Villanueva. The Cuban writer and literary critic Alejo Carpentier also lived in Caracas at that time.
L.A. Carlos Raul Villanueva was one of the protagonists of Venezuelan architecture. His critical position in relation to the Modern Movement and the belief that it was necessary to find an “adaptation” to the specificities of local traditions, the characteristics of the places and the Venezuelan environment, I believe, marked your subsequent Cuban experience with the creative recovery of some elements of traditional architecture such as the portico, the patio, but also the use of traditional materials and technologies that you have masterfully reinterpreted. I think we can also add to these “themes” the connections between architecture and plastic arts. You also become a professor of Architectural Design at the Escuela de Arquitectura of the Central University of Caracas.
V.G. On this academic experience I will tell you a statement by Porro that struck me very much: The important thing was not what I knew, I did not have sufficient knowledge and experience. What I could pass on to the students was above all a passion. In two years of teaching I was able to deepen, understand things better and understand how to pass them on to students. The Faculty of Architecture had recently been established and this I believe contributed to fuel the great enthusiasm that emerges from the words by Porro. Porro favoured mine and Gottardi’s entry as teachers. Keep in mind that in those years Villanueva was one of the most influential Venezuelan intellectuals and had played a leading role in the transformation of the University. Villanueva was very attentive to the involvement of art in architecture, just think of the magnificent project for the Universidad Central in Caracas, where he worked together with artists such as the sculptor Calder.
I had recently graduated and found myself catapulted into academic activity. It was a strange feeling for a young architect who graduated with a minimum grade. At the University I was entrusted with the Architectural Design course. The relationships with the context, the recovery of some elements of tradition were at the centre of the interests developed with the students. Among these students I got to know the one who in the future became my chosen “brother”: Sergio Baroni. Together we designed all the services for the 23rd district that Carlos Raúl Villanueva had planned to solve the favelas problem. In these years of Venezuelan frequentation, Porro also opened the doors of Cuba to me. Through Porro I got to know the work of Josè Martì, who claimed: cult para eser libre. I also approached the work of Josè Lezama Lima, in my opinion one of the most interesting Cuban intellectuals, and the painting of Wilfredo Lam.
L.A. In December 1959 the Revolution triumphed in Cuba. Ricardo Porro returned to Cuba in August 1960. You and Gottardi would join him in December and begin teaching at the Facultad de Arcuitectura.
Your contribution to the training of young students took place in a moment of radical cultural change within which the task of designing the Schools was also inserted: the “new” architecture had to give concrete answers but also give “shape” to a new model of society.
V.G. After the triumph of the Revolution, acts of terrorism began. At that time in the morning, I checked that they hadn’t placed a bomb under my car.
Eisenhower was preparing the invasion. Life published an article on preparing for the invasion of the counterrevolutionary brigades.
With Eisenhower dead, Kennedy activated the programme by imposing one condition: in conjunction with the invasion, the Cuban people would have to rise up. Shortly before the attempted invasion, the emigration, deemed temporary, of doctors, architects, university teachers etc. began. They were all convinced they would return to “liberated Cuba” a few weeks later. Their motto was: it is impossible for Americans to accept the triumph of the rebel army. As is well known, the Cuban people did not rise up. The revolutionary process continued and had no more obstacles.
The fact that the bourgeois class and almost all the professionals had left Cuba put the country in a state of extreme weakness.
The sensation was of great transformation taking place, it was evident. In that “revolutionary” push there was nothing celebratory. All available energies were invested in the culture. There were extraordinary initiatives, from the literacy campaign to the founding of international schools of medicine and of cinema. In Cuba it was decided to close schools for a year and to entrust elementary school children with the task of travelling around the country and teaching illiterate adults. In the morning they worked in the fields and in the evening they taught the peasants to read and write. In order to try to block this project, the counter-revolutionaries killed two children in an attempt to scare the population and the families of the literate children. There was a wave of popular indignation and the programme continued.
L.A. Ricardo Porro was commissioned to design the Art Schools. Roberto Gottardi recalls that: «the wife of the Minister of Public Works, Selma Diaz, asked Porro to build the national art schools. The architecture had to be completely new and the schools, in Fidel’s words, the most beautiful in the world. All accomplished in six months. Take it or leave it! [...] it was days of rage and enthusiasm in which all areas of public life was run by an agile and imaginative spirit of warfare»2. You too remembered several times that: that architecture was born from a life experience, it incorporated enthusiasm for life and optimism for the future.
V.G. The idea that generated them was to foster the cultural encounter between Africa, Asia and Latin America. A “place” for meeting and exchanging. A place where artists from all over the third world could interact freely. The realisation of the Schools was like receiving a “war assignment”. Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara selected the Country Club as the place to build a large training centre for all of Latin America. They understood that it was important to foster the Latin American union, a theme that Simón Bolivar had previously wanted to pursue. Il Ché and Fidel, returning from the Country Club, along the road leading to the centre of Havana, met Selma Diaz, architect and wife of Osmany Cienfuegos, the Cuban Construction Minister.
Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara entrusted Selma Diaz with the task of designing this centre. She replied: I had just graduated, how could I deal with it? Then she adds: Riccardo Porro returned to Cuba with two Italian architects. Just think, three young architects without much experience catapulted into an assignment of this size. The choice of the place where to build the schools was a happy intuition of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara.
L.A. How did the confrontation develop?
V.G. We had total freedom, but we had to respond to a functional programme defined with the heads of the schools. Five directors were appointed, one for each school. We initially thought of a citadel. A proposal that did not find acceptance among the Directors, who suggest thinking of five autonomous schools. We therefore decide to place the schools on the edge of the large park and to reuse all the pre-existing buildings. We imagined schools as “stations” to cross. The aim was to promote integration with the environment in which they were “immersed”. Schools are not closed spaces. We established, for example, that there would be no doors: when “everything was ours” there could not be a public and a private space, only the living space existed.
L.A. Ricardo Porro recalled: I organised our study in the chapel of the former residence of the Serrà family in Vadado. It was a wonderful place [...]. A series of young people from the school of architecture came to help us […]. Working in that atmosphere, all night and all day was a poetic experience (Loomis , 1999).
V.G. We felt like Renaissance architects. We walked around the park and discussed where to locate the schools. Imagine three young people discussing with total, unthinkable freedom.
We decided that each of us would deal with one or more schools, within a global vision that was born from the comparison. I chose the Ballet School. Ivan Espin had to design the music school but in the end I did it because Ivan had health problems. Porro decided to take care of the School of Plastic Arts to support his nature as a sculptor. Gottardi had problems with the actors and directors, who could not produce a shared functional programme, which with the dancers was quite simple to produce. The reasons that led us to choose the different project themes were very simple and uncomplicated, as were those for identifying the areas. I liked hidden lands, I was interested in developing a building “embedded” in the ground. Ricardo, on the other hand, chose a hill on which arrange the school of Modern Art. Each of us chose the site almost instinctively. For the Classical Dance School, the functional programme that was provided to me was very meagre: a library, a deanery, an infirmary, three ballet classrooms, theoretical classrooms and one of choreography.
We went to see the dancers while they were training and dancing with Porro. The perception was immediate that we had to think of concave and convex spaces that would welcome their movements in space. For a more organic integration with the landscape and to accommodate the orography of the area, we also decided to place the buildings in a “peripheral” position with respect to the park, a choice that allowed us not to alter the nature of the park too much but also to limit the distances to be covered from schools to homes. Selma Diaz added others to the first indications: remember that we have no iron, we have little of everything, but we have many bricks. These were the indications that came to us from the Ministry of Construction. We were also asked to design some large spaces, such as gyms. Consequently, we found ourselves faced with the need to cover large spans without being able to resort to an extensive use of reinforced concrete or wood.
L.A. How was the comparison between you designers?
V.G. The exchange of ideas was constant, the experiences flowed naturally from one work group to another, but each operated in total autonomy. Each design group had 5-6 students in it. In my case I was lucky enough to have Josè Mosquera among my collaborators, a brilliant modest student, a true revolutionary.
The offices where we worked on the project were organised in the Club, which became our “headquarters”. We worked all night and in the morning we went to the construction site.
For the solution of logistical problems and the management of the building site of the Ballet School, I was entrusted with an extraordinary bricklayer, a Maestro de Obra named Bacallao. During one of the meetings that took place daily at the construction site, Bacallao told me that in Batista’s time the architects arrived in the morning at the workplace all dressed in white and, keeping away from the construction site to avoid getting dusty, they transferred orders on what to do. In this description by we marvelled at the fact that we were in the construction site together with him to face and discuss how to solve the different problems.
In this construction site the carpenters did an extraordinary job, they had considerable experience. Bacallao was fantastic, he could read the drawings and he managed the construction site in an impeccable way. We faced and solved problems and needs that the yard inevitably posed on a daily basis. One morning, for example, arriving at the construction site, I realised the impact that the building would have as a result of its total mono-materiality. I was “scared” by this effect. My eye fell on an old bathtub, inside which there were pieces of 10x10 tiles, then I said to Bacallao: we will cover the wedges between the ribs of the bovedas covering the Ballet and Choreography Theatre classrooms with the tiles. The yard also lived on decisions made directly on site.
Also keep in mind that the mason teams assigned to each construction site were independent. However the experience between the groups of masons engaged in the different activities circulated, flowed. There was a constant confrontation. For the workers the involvement was total, they were building for their children. A worker who told me: I’m building the school where my son will come to study. Ricardo Porro was responsible for the whole project, he was a very cultured man.
In the start-up phase of the project he took us to Trinidad, the old Spanish capital. He wanted to show us the roots of Cuban architectural culture. On this journey I was struck by the solution of fan windows, by the use of verandas, all passive devices which were entrusted with the control and optimisation of the comfort of the rooms.
Porro accompanied us to those places precisely because he wanted to put the value of tradition at the centre of the discussion, he immersed us in colonial culture.
L.A. It is to that “mechanism” of self-generation of the project that you have referred to on several occasions?
V.G. Yes, just that. When I design, I certainly draw from that stratified “grammar of memory”, to quote Luciano Semerani, which lives within me. The project generates itself, is born and then begins to live a life of its own. A writer traces the profile and character of his characters, who gradually come to life with a life of their own. In the same way the creative process in architecture is self-generated.
L.A. Some problems were solved directly on site, dialoguing with the workers.
V.G. He went just like that. Many decisions were made on site as construction progressed. Design and construction proceeded contextually. The dialogue with the workers was fundamental.
The creative act was self-generated and lived a life of its own, we did nothing but “accompany” a process. The construction site had a speed of execution that required the same planning speed. In the evening we worked to solve problems that the construction site posed. The drawings “aged” rapidly with respect to the speed of decisions and the progress of the work. The incredible thing about this experience is that three architects with different backgrounds come to a “unitary” project. All this was possible because we used the same materials, the same construction technique, but even more so because there was a similar interpretation of the place and its possibilities.
L.A. The project of the Music School also included the construction of 96 cubicles, individual study rooms, a theatre for symphonic music and one for chamber music and Italian opera. You “articulated” the 96 cubicles along a 360-metre-long path that unfolds in the landscape providing a “dynamic” view to those who cross it. A choice consistent with the vision of the School as an open place integrated with the environment.
V.G. The “Gusano” is a volume that follows the orography of the terrain. It was a common sense choice. By following the level lines I avoided digging and of course I quickly realized what was needed by distributing the volumes horizontally.
Disarticulation allows the changing vision of the landscape, which changes continuously according to the movement of the user. The movements do not take place along an axis, they follow a sinuous route, a connecting path between trees and nature. The cubicles lined up along the Gusano are individual study rooms above which there are the collective test rooms. On the back of the Gusano, in the highest part of the land, I placed the theatre for symphonic music, the one for chamber music, the library, the conference rooms, the choir and administration.
L.A. In 1962 the construction site stopped.
V.G. In 1962 Cuba fell into a serious political and economic crisis, which is what caused the slowdown and then the abandonment of the school site. Cuba was at “war” and the country’s resources were directed towards other needs. In this affair, the architect Quintana, one of the most powerful officials in Cuba, who had always expressed his opposition to the project, contributed to the decision to suspend the construction of the schools.
Here is an extract from a writing by Sergio Baroni, which I consider clarifying: «The denial of the Art Schools represented the consolidation of the new Cuban technocratic regime. The designers were accused of aristocracy and individualism and the rest of the technicians who collaborated on the project were transferred to other positions by the Ministry of Construction [...]. It was a serious mistake which one realises now, when it became evident that, with the Schools, a process of renewal of Cuban architecture was interrupted, which, with difficulty, had advanced from the years preceding the revolution and which they had extraordinarily accelerated and anchored to the new social project. On the other hand, and understandably, the adoption of easy pseudo-rationalist procedures prevailed to deal with the enormous demand for projects and constructions with the minimum of resources» (Baroni 1992).
L.A. You also experienced dramatic moments in Cuba. I’m referring in particular to the insane accusation of being a CIA spy and your arrest.
V.G. I wasn’t the only one arrested. The first was Jean Pierre Garnier, who remained in prison for seven days on charges of espionage. This was not a crazy accusation but one of the CIA’s plans to scare foreign technicians into leaving Cuba. Six months after Garnier, it was Heberto Padilla’s turn, an intellectual, who remained in prison for 15 days. After 6 months, it was my turn. I was arrested while leaving the Ministry of Construction, inside the bag I had the plans of the port. I told Corrieri, Baroni and Wanda not to notify the Italian Embassy, everything would be cleared up.
L.A. Dear Vittorio, I thank you for the willingness and generosity with which you shared your human and professional experience.
I am sure that many young students will find your “story” of great interest.
V.G. At the end of our dialogue, I would like to remember my teacher: Ernesto Nathan Rogers. I’ll tell you an anecdote: in 1956 I was working on the graphics for the Castello Sforzesco Museum set up by the BBPR. Leaving the museum with Rogers, in the Rocchetta courtyard the master stopped and gives me a questioning look. Looking at the Filarete tower, he told me: we have the task of designing a skyscraper in the centre. Usually skyscrapers going up they shrink. Instead this tower has a protruding crown, maybe we too could finish our skyscraper so what do you think? I replied: beautiful! Later I thought that what Rogers evoked was a distinctive feature of our city. The characters of the cities and the masters who have consolidated them are to be respected. If there is no awareness of dialectical continuity, the city loses and gets lost. It is necessary to reconstruct the figure of the architect artist who has full awareness of his role in society.
The work of architecture cannot be the result of a pure stylistic and functional choice, it must be the result of a method that takes various and multiple factors into analysis. In Cuba, for example, the musical tradition, the painting of Wilfredo Lam, whose pictorial lines are recognisable in the floor plan of the Ballet School, the literature of Lezama Lima and Alejo Carpentier and above all the Cuban Revolution were fundamental. We theorised this “total” method together with Ricardo Porro, remembering the lecture by Ernesto Nathan Rogers.