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Moving Lines. From Cannaregio to Castelvecchio

Antonino Saggio

[in italiano]  

The year 1978 was one of crisis both for architecture and for Peter Eisenman. The postmodern movement in architecture, based on a cultural approach that would soon become laden with historicism, was increasingly taking shape on the international scene. In Italy, where little architecture was being done, or had been done, a few post offices with arches and columns, and a Hollywood-style scenario with half-busts in plaster in an earthquake stricken town in the Valle del Belice, were built. But in America, where more architecture was being constructed, there emerged a generation of office buildings, university campuses, and even skyscrapers that are more reminiscent of neo-Gothic film sets than of a serious study of the environment and the city.

In the cultural environment generated by postmodernism there were not only formal veneers of kitsch but also serious questions, still unresolved 53 years after the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1925. There were two themes in particular: first, the need to go beyond the modernist taboo of "pure" formal research, and second, the awareness that architecture belongs to a specific place. The concept of context emerged as the fundamental theme of these years: on the one hand, because the Western city's period of expansion had historically ended, work was directed toward the spaces between existing buildings, and on the other, the idea of context developed an awareness in planning of relationships to an existing environment.

In 1978 Eisenman was in crisis because postmodernism was pushing in a direction stylistically opposed to the research he had carried out until that time. In addition, an absolutely key work in his development in the 1970s, House X, was not built, and instead became the subject of extensive graphic representation. This latter development was also due in part to an event in 1978. That year, Eisenman was asked to participate in "Ten Projects for Venice," a planning project organized by the Architecture Institute at the University of Venice. The area of study was the Cannaregio, at that time run down and unused after a formerly distinguished industrial life. Eisenman proposed an ingenious architectural process that contained and anticipated the main enzymes of the town plan as it was to develop over the two subsequent decades. He used the theme of place and context as the main thrust of his architectural reasoning but in a way that completely abandoned the postmodern clichés of adaptation and mimesis and moved in a more conceptual direction. Eisenman organized the Cannaregio with a series of grids and positions that he took from a close reading of the city and its stratifications, as well as from Le Corbusier's Venice Hospital project. On the basis of these force lines he formulated a grid that literally restitched the existing with the new project and organized the spaces and buildings as if they were regulated by a single force. Buildings (in this case, various scalings of House XI) were placed at strategic points inside this new campo, and a reasoning that contained the architectural idea of layering was triggered (that is, autonomous subsystems, each equipped with its own structure, function, and position, when laid one over the other defined the overall project).

Eisenman's Cannaregio employed an ingenious and revolutionary technique that used the theme of context as a catalyst of the crisis. Context here is no longer the inspiration for historicist settings in a postmodern style but is the source of intensive study. As was the case with old medieval maps, which were written on by partially erasing the older texts, Eisenman sought lost meanings and geometries that could be used to structure the new. The context was thus seen as a palimpsest, but it also carried a series of narrative, metaphorical messages. Architecture also tells a story and has a presence made up of multiple layers of meaning: past and future, geological and urban, abstract but also subtly narrative. Cannaregio was proposed, in short, as "boring into the future."

The strength of this approach was seen shortly after in Eisenman's residential building for the IBA in Berlin and gradually in his subsequent projects, as well as in the work of other architects who sensed its strength. For example, Bernard Tschumi's plan for La Villette in Paris combines his own research into the discontinuous movements and syncopated editing of cinema with Eisenman's reasoning on grids and layers.

Castelvecchio today is inconceivable without Cannaregio yesterday. In the operation Eisenman has proposed for Verona in 2004, some 26 years after the Venice project, many notable points develop this antique path of research. Primarily, the architect chose not to celebrate himself through an exhibition of his work but rather proposed something both more modest and more ambitious. He is not exhibiting himself, but his ideas. He has in fact many times said, "I want to be remembered for my ideas." Spaces, organizations, and fragments of projects that are indicative of his thinking (from Cannaregio to Santiago de Compostela) emerge in sections of the plan. In Verona, too, grids and close readings of the historic stratifications create the structure of the new plan, but a difficult vibration, a "pure" intuition, almost imperceptibly takes shape between the elements of that way of working.

On the one hand, the Castelvecchio installation shows one of Eisenman's most powerful convictions. For him, architecture is primarily a "critical practice." Indeed, the conceptual origin of the plan lies in an awareness of the "slightness" of the wall (decked out in false antique in the 1920s) that separates the sequence of Scarpa's big exhibition rooms on the ground floor from the garden. This wall was seen by Eisenman as if it were an immaterial diaphragm, which allows him to bring the internal rooms into contact with the same number of external piazze-rooms he set in the garden. In this way the five big exhibition rooms and the same number of external piazze establish a dialogue between positive and negative. Furthermore, a second set of piazze are oriented on the axis of the tower and Scarpa's famous pivoted bridge, so that the two systems intersect. A grid "found" in this suite of piazze then appears in fragments, or spirit-sculptures, that emerge in the thin gap between the floors and walls in Scarpa's exhibition rooms.

In this dialogue between Eisenman and Scarpa, a well-rooted "critical architecture" is overlaid by the thin, light, but very important network of a "poetic architecture." Eisenman chose an apparently secondary and trivial element of Scarpa's plan: the striped lines on the floor drawn by the Venetian architect across the visitor's route, give a dynamic, almost syncopated rhythm to the succession of museum events. Eisenman "felt" the essence of these white lines on the floor: they are the idea, implicit in Scarpa, that the museum does not finish there, enclosed in those walls, but that it extends outside its shell, into the city, into the atmosphere, into history. Eisenman's intelligently critical and, above all, poetically inspired operation was to understand the profound significance of these marks and to use them to organize the structure of his plan in the courtyard. He uses those lines move on the plan and in the section in order to articulate the forms of the ground, the hillocks and the canyon that mark the thoroughfare, and at the same time to speak to us of Scarpa, of himself and of the great possibility of architecture in the world.


This text is kindly granted to ARCH'IT from Marsilio Spa. For a complete study of the project please refer to the catalogue Peter Eisenman. The Garden of Lost Footsteps, an installation at the Museo di Castelvecchio edited by Kurt Forster and Cynthia Davidson, Marsilio, Padova 2004.

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