Alberto Alessi on Architecture
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:: You run your own Atelier in Rome and recently also in Zurich, working as an architect, teacher, critic and curator. As an architect, you work on projects at different scales: exhibit design, residence, city projects.
European cities have a great history. Designing a modern building within this context is a complex procedure. Is critical regionalism an approach to your architecture?
If you look at the critical regionalism as a kind of method, I don’t think so. What is important is always to be open to the situations and to be also open to the history of the situations. That means, if you have to build in a context, for example if I build something here, in Thessaloniki, you have these Byzantine churches but you have also the new city. How do you decide what is more important and what is less important? It’s only because something is older, so it has much more importance than something new or it’s something new that is better than something old. It’s always a question of understanding where you are, in which situation you are, what the needs of the moment are, what the needs of the permanence of the culture are. It’s not always something old that is better than something new. It’s not always something new that is better than something old. To me, it’s every time other stuff.
The only commitment is that you are taking into account everything. Then you have to decide, and you do it on your own but also in exchanging and knowing what the point in this place is really. You need to be continuously open. Don’t go there and say: “I want to put my sign to it. I want to put there my kind of statement that it’s me against the world.” It’s more a kind of listening, but you have also to react. If you just listen it’s nice, but you are asked, as an architect to add something. What you add should be as far as possible, added still open. You must be aware that everything you do creates a new context.
There is a context before your intervention and there is context after your intervention. This context, after the intervention is a new one, somebody who will come later to build will take also your intervention into account. In this sense you are, at the same time, old and new.
You are responsible for the web platform Italian-architects.com. How would you characterize contemporary Italian architecture?
I wouldn’t speak about Italian architecture or about Greek architecture or about Swiss architecture. I would speak about architecture in Italy or architecture in Greece or architecture in Switzerland, for instance. What I mean is that it’s important to see that we are no more in a period where everything is quite clear and there is a direction, a society as a clear task, as a clear vision. There are many visions that are contemporarily, in the same time, possible. If I have a look on what is happening in Italy, I could say that there are different situations and every situation in every city or region of Italy drives us elsewhere. If I have to find out a kind of coherence between the different architectures that are realized in Italy, there is a kind of agreement that architecture is always something that has to do with the city.
I said it already before. In Italy, it’s very clear. The Italians are always thinking as citizens, even if they build outside of the country. So, the idea is to be a kind of city man, also outside. This is something that lies very deep inside in the Italians. I did also some exhibitions about Italian architects. One was in the States and the title was “Italy now”, for instance. It was a question point. What does it mean? To build now in Italy does it take some Italian architecture that exists? And the answer was quite known for all architects.
There is no Italian architecture, but there are possibilities. Sometimes, you are similar to somebody else because you cannot do something. You would like to build in wood, but there is no knowledge so nobody is building in wood, for instance here. But it’s not because you don’t want to, it’s just because you cannot. So, it’s a similarity because of the impossibility. Sometimes, it’s a problem of situation. Something that comes often to Italian architects, speaking about architecture, is that they use often the word beauty. That beauty we know now is not so easy to define, but they use beauty, not only interesting. Something you can say is that it is a kind of ground statement, basic statement.
Is the world financial crisis an opportunity for everyone to reconsider the ways that we design and construct the buildings and the urban environment?
Yes. Every crisis, every difficulty is a possibility to go further, because you have to think twice everything you do. It’s not just to copy-paste or to make a reaction that there is already. You have to find, you have to search. And searching means go deeper in the sense. Go deeper to form your questions. Now, about the crisis, could be questions that come about on sustainability. But sustainability is not only a question of using too much of few materials or using some good or wrong materials. Sustainability is also what can be afforded by a society. Is there some kind of form acceptable by a society? Can they sustain this also philosophically or not? It’s much more complex. In this crisis, in this moment, this possibility exactly comes out. Think different. But, think different because you need to think different, not because it’s trendy.
You have written several books on architecture .Can an architectural book influence ordinary people, non architects, to deal with architecture and demand better urban environment? How can this be done?
It depends. When you do a book and you want also a non architect to be interested in the book, in the themes and the texts that are in the book, then you have to project this. So, you have to deal with the question. I did some holography about some architects where I tried to figure out general themes that are not only important for architects. Maybe somebody can find it quite interesting, even if he’s not an architect. Some other books were dealing more with themes and there it’s easier because themes are not only a question about architecture.
We have general themes that are important for us as a society, architecture belongs to the society. This is a way that you can write or work out books that can also interest other people. You have to project this. You have to find out a way that a book is really readable from different points of view. Sometimes there are books that are not for architects, but they are very important for architects. I talked before about the “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino that for me is really an important book in this sense, because it opens visions. You can get this when you work out the possibility of having visions. That makes you take a desire to do this, to do something that can become architecture for non architects, also.
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He studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano, ETH Zürich, Ecole d’Architecture Paris-Villemin.
In 1994 he opens his Atelier in Rome (since 2004 in Zürich), working as architect, teacher, critic and curator.
As architect, he works on projects at different scales: exhibit design, residence, city projects.
As teacher, he taught at the ETH Zürich, IED Roma, Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio, Cornell University Ithaca.
Currently he teachs Theory of Architecture at the HSLU Luzern, History and Theory of Architecture at the HL Liechtenstein and Architecture Design at the Università di Ferrara.
He was invited as Visiting Critic and Lecturer at the Syracuse University, NJIT New York, TU Delft, TU Berlin, Tsinghua University Beijing.
His publications include the books Heinz Tesar, Shared Architecture (with Jo Coenen), Italy now? Country_Positions in Architecture, as well as many articles for international reviews such as Domus, Abitare, Der Architekt, WA.
Since 2009 he is director of the architectural review materialegno
As curator, in 2001 he initiated the international architecture dialogues Transalpinarchitettura between Switzerland and Italy, and in 2002 the event MittelArchitetture between Austria and Italy.
He is co-founder of IsAM Institute for the Mediterranean architecture.
In 2004 he realized the international event Costruire Identità?, and in 2005 the exhibition Italy now? Country_Positions in Architecture.
In 2006 he curated the international Colloquium Spaziarte on contemporary art and architecture, and the exhibition Architetture di Passaggio. Sguardi sull’architettura dal Ticino for the 10th Venice Architecture Biennale.
Since 2009 he is curator of the web-platform www.italian-architects.com
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