“Italy, 1976.” PLAT 10 (2021): 106-112.
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I enrolled in the department of architecture of the University of Florence in September 1976, aged 18. Classes should have started on November 5. They did, but the school shut down a few days later, and it remained closed through the winter and spring. In fact, the school never shut down; it was open, nominally, and all faculty and staff kept receiving their regular salaries. But all the school’s buildings were occupied by a student movement, actually a movement of “autonomous” students; the Autonomous (in Italian, a noun: Gli Autonomi) held checkpoints at each entry; some students and staff were let in; some were not. Sometimes to get in one had to pay a fee (in the form of a donation, or buying a copy of one of the Autonomous’s tracts or handouts). Today, the Autonomous are categorized as a movement of the new left; at the time that was not so clear, insofar as the Autonomous’s prime enemy was the Italian Communist Party (on campus, and in general). The Autonomous rallying cry that fall was that the Movement (which meant them) should “organize itself on its needs,” i.e. the Autonomous should take what they needed.
What they needed that fall were the grades for some key exams in the civil engineering curriculum, which at the time in Italy were still—absurdly—required for professional licensure in architecture. The “need” hence was that a decent grade for those exams should be granted on demand to all students who needed one. Another student need was, it was claimed, books. So the books—not all, in truth—were taken from the University library. For a while their new location in town was widely known; then traces were lost.
The Autonomous movement would culminate with the “conference against repression” organized in Bologna in September 1977, under the auspices of a number of French scholars (from Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault to Roland Barthes, oddly); its main target was, once again, the Italian Communist Party, which had ruled the Municipality of Bologna from time immemorial. The conference also marked the beginning of the Italian fame of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and with them of a new brand of anti-modern philosophy of science, now known as complexity theory. The first general introduction to complexity theory in the world, I think, was published in Italy and in Italian soon thereafter by two Italian scholars, Mauro Ceruti and Gianluca Bocchi. Now we know—that was too soon; complexist ideas did not catch on in Italy back then. But they did in America as of the late 1990s, when complexity theory merged with the new science of computation and became, as we all know, extremely influential in general, and among designers in particular. This is how I ended up being a victim of the rise of complexism in Italy in the late 1970s, and then, thirty years later, a (somewhat critical) participant in the second coming of complexism in the English speaking world as of the early 2000s. I still think that complexism is, mostly, a very bad idea, but this is a story I shall tell another time.
The Autonomous’s nemesis, the good old communists, did not have much interest in architecture as such, either. The Marxian orthodoxy was that architecture, as a cultural form, is “superstructure,” determined by, and an expression of, its economic “base”; therefore, if you want to change architecture, you should change society first: you should stop making drawings, and start throwing Molotovs (or become an active member of the Party). After the Party has built a new society, you can go back to architecture. The revisionist (“revisionist” meant: bad) alternative, claiming that you can use architecture in a capitalist society to express anti-capitalist values, was seen as delusional at best, or just opportunistic: a fig leaf; window dressing; a trick so you can whitewash your image while you keep doing your dirty job and not give a damn.
Then there was another way—the Tafurian compromise, as muddled and ambiguous as Tafuri himself liked to be. If you want to be an architect, but don’t want to be complicit in the capitalist order of things, then you should not build—evidently—but also you should stop making drawings: you should study history instead, study Brunelleschi, for example, or Palladio, and wait for better times. How would those studies in particular prepare anyone to become a better architect was never explained. But the idea of taking shelter, temporarily, from an unsavory present had its charms. There was also the idea that the “organic intellectual” (the term “organic” came from Gramsci, no reference to food) would be more useful to society writing books than climbing on the barricades. That’s what Tafuri was doing at any rate, so why not. This is how, I regret to say, I soon became a considerable expert on the history, theory, and criticism of Doric and Ionic capitals.
We looked at the classical tradition not because we liked it particularly, but because at the time that was the only available alternative to the present. We did not know, in 1978, or 1979, that the post-modern leviathan was around the corner. Nobody had told us—perhaps nobody knew. When postmodernism came, around 1980, Greek and Roman capitals were suddenly in high demand. Not as chapters of history, the Tafuri way, but as actual design devices—the Charles Moore way, and soon Prince Charles’s way. That’s the time when many designers started to study architectural history so they could put some pieces of cheap architectural history in the cheap designs they made. And soon, many who had started to draw capitals to avoid designing in a capitalist world ended up designing classical ornaments for international hotel chains. I myself avoided that sorry lot, but it was a close call. Generally speaking, we were all—as a generation—cheated, snookered and bamboozled: in quick succession, by the perfidious Tafurian compromise first and by the neo-capitalist PoMo resurgence soon thereafter.
Of course, back then, we had no way to know. At the time, places—i.e. physical proximity to people and events—mattered way more than now: communications were slow, travel difficult and expensive. Like everyone else back then, I only knew what happened next to me. Often, unfortunately, things happened next to me that I should have noticed, but I didn’t—because I had no clue of where things came from, nor, evidently, of how they would unfold. For example, one would imagine that the now celebrated “radical” avant-garde which had flourished in Florence, and at the school of architecture in particular, only a few years earlier, should still have been around when I started my studies there. Not so. In that fall of 1976, the “radicals” of 1971 were nowhere to be seen; it was as if they had disappeared from the face of the earth. Gianni Pettena, who has just obtained a post as a lecturer (in English Language, of all things), showed us some of those works: Superstudio, Archizoom, etc. But in the context I just described, they simply didn’t register. They looked utterly irrelevant, and as tacky as the flared jeans of their protagonists: old-fashioned, but not enough to be museum pieces—yet.
Other protagonists of the late 1960s had equally disappeared from the design landscape of the mid 70s. I do not think I ever heard the term “Artificial Intelligence” during all my time as an architectural student in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One professor, I remember, who once mentioned “cybernetics” was thrown out of the windows by a group of Autonomous students. As it was only a first floor window, the hapless teacher scraped through with only a broken arm and a minor speech impediment. As far as I remember, he was not defenestrated due to his reference to cybernetics; at any rate, whatever the cause, he never mentioned “cybernetics” again.
Other things were unfolding of which we were only vaguely aware. We knew that something new and strange was happening in Milan, due to a certain Aldo Rossi (but nobody was reading L’architettura della città). Rossi’s school of Fagnano Olona, just finished, must have been published in late 1976 or early 1977 (in Casabella? or in Lotus International? I forgot). I do remember that we tried to go see it. But we lost our way in the fog short north of Novara, and we never made it—we ended up three times at the Malpensa airport instead, and then we gave up. Who knows, perhaps if we had ever reached Fagnano Olona on that fateful afternoon of February 1977 my life would have been different.
A very young Umberto Eco had taught at the school of architecture of Florence, briefly, in 1968. He left a legacy of semiotic studies, taken over by our history professor, Giovanni Klaus Koenig, a Waldensian of solid Piedmontese stock who, in spite of his name, and of a German wife, did not speak a word of German. Was semiotics left-wing? Was it a good thing? Could one study archi- tecture as… communication? Assuredly, Umberto Eco must have been a left-winger. In 1968 he even sided with the students. But in the context I described the political credentials of semiotics were doubtful, too. Koenig, in private, dabbled in dangerous waters. Around that time, he mentored—or was mentored by—Alessandro Mendini, and Koenig’s ejection from Casabella was the subject of a famous pamphlet. But at school he was a hard-core mod- ernist, and in his hugely popular history classes he still preached the modernist gospel with the zeal of a convert. For him, modernism was still a moral imperative. He never said it in so many words, but this is what his teaching implied: in 1976 in Italy we still needed schools, hospitals, and social housing—and the best way to build them was still by and large the Corb, Mies, and Gropius way of the 1920 and 1930s—steel, glass, and reinforced concrete; sun, space, and greenery. I wish I had listened to him; he was right.
Most facts and persons I mentioned are still well known—and if not, Wikipedia can always offer immediate succor to today’s alert students. That’s an asset we did not have in 1976. For some more outlandish references: Bocchi and Ceruti’s book, La Sfida della Complessità, was first published by Feltrinelli in Milan in 1985. I do not think it was ever translated, but it was often reprinted and revised in later Italian editions. For the English reading audience, several books by Melanie Mitchell offer an up-to-date primer to the science of complexity; my favorite non-specialist book on the subject is Per Bak’s How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality (1996). Ideas of complexity were introduced into architectural theory in the 1990s by Sanford Kwinter, Manuel deLanda, and others; see in particular Charles Jencks, The Architecture of the Jumping Universe: A Polemic (subtitle: How complexity science is changing architecture and culture; first ed. 1995, revised edition 1997).
“Italy, 1976.” PLAT 10 (2021): 106-112.