An Interview with Giorgio Grassi

In January 2007, Lucia Tozzi visited Giorgio Grassi's office in Milan. Their conversation touched on Grassi's recent work on Leon Battista Alberti, which is examined here in the context of Grassi's obliquely expressed views on contemporary architecture and the cult of personality. As perhaps the most intellectually rigorous and formally consistent Rationalist architect of his generation, Grassi's work and thinking retain a hermetic aspect, but one notable for its philosophical self-questioning and underlying political commitment.

Netherlands Giorgio Grassi

For an architect as I am (limited, because I have imposed myself strict boundaries since the beginning, and irreparably deformed, because I have now taken the shape of those boundaries), talking about Leon Battista Alberti, his thought and his works, means talking beyond my own inclination, even, about what relates me to his work - that is, what relates my work to his work. And this is certainly neither the best nor the most objective way to treat somebody like Alberti. Yet, it is the only way I can do it.

Giorgio Grassi, Leon Battista Alberti e l'architettura romana1

Giorgio Grassi's recent book, from which this quotation is taken, provides a key to understanding his relationship with Alberti's work, while also alluding to his own contemporary predicament. Today Grassi confronts a culture (or worldview) that has removed, one by one, all the basic elements of Alberti's thought, and first and foremost his conception of architecture itself. In the age that has sanctioned, for better or worse, the triumph of interdisciplinary approaches, Grassi has underlined ever more strongly the principle of autonomy, claiming the extraordinary consistency of his work as the consequence of an absolute 'need'. At the same time, his writing clearly demonstrates that he is well aware of the insistently subjective nature of this 'need' and of the obsessive character and inhibiting power of his theory of architecture -at least as it impacts on his practice.

The comparison with Alberti does not stem from a pure passion for his architecture:

'There's nothing of Alberti's architecture that really touches me, that can actually transform sincere enthusiasm into emotion, unlike, for instance, Sant'Ambrogio in Milan.'2

It comes instead from identifying with Alberti's intellectual rigour:

'I like doing things after speaking, because it is the way I work, clarifying in the same way in writing the procedures required to define a formal choice in design.'

He elaborated on the psychology of this methodology: 'In a certain sense, it is also a form of self-defence, which comes from a general sense of insecurity that I have engendered for myself. I am conscious I have built a very restricted and limited world: it is the one that suited Alberti, too, who speculated about only three topics and worked on them alone.'

Researching Alberti's exemplary architectural persona enables Grassi to overcome historical contingencies in bringing our view back to a perspective free from the 'creative' imperatives of Postmodernism and contemporary notions of hybridity.

The element of Neorationalism likely to remain obscure to those more familiar with Rem Koolhaas' Junkspace is the political meaning of self-referentiality in architecture. Today, this term has acquired a very negative connotation. It is now viewed as synonymous with formal discretion (formalism) and an indifference to the social and urban context of architecture and the needs of its inhabitants (and clients). A current preoccupation with self-referentiality is associated, instead, with the architecture of celebrity, the habit of branding different buildings under a single label (logo), and an exaggerated concern with symbolism and icons. This paradoxically alludes to a situation where the imperative of 'communication' prevails against the specifics of formal architectural character, in assuming the empty shape of marketing. A new meaning has literally clouded the previous one.

Consequently, social controversy, such as that generated by the ferocious political attack on the 1950s real-estate economy or on the class of professionals 'who used to follow the rules without a murmur', scarcely deserves a mention in the writing and theories of Grassi, or the other protagonists of Neorationalism. Their strong roots in the culture of academe were epitomised by two seminal experiences, that of the IUAV (University Institute of Architecture Venice) associated with Guiseppe Samona and of the University of Pescara, during the 1960s and 1970s. Given the relatively few projects they actually managed to complete and the international impact of a supposedly 'scientific' production of architecture, the Italian Neorationalists gradually developed the reputation of a galaxy of refined intellectuals. Indeed they came on occasion to represent an overtly reactionary position, a perception strengthened by the contrasting mythology of activism surrounding the violent protests by radical students in 1968.

The attempt to define architecture as an 'autonomous' phenomenon - the expression of immutable principles and rules, susceptible to 'scientific' analysis - has been, in certain respects correctly, understood in relation to Structuralism: to Heidegger's techne, and to the Rationalist heritage. On the other hand, the political challenge it used to embody has been progressively losing its relevance, and it is no longer an active ingredient in Italian architecture.

In Grassi's view, removing the licence of individual 'creativity' and the distraction of contingent aspects from the practice of the architect requires the application of a scientific rigour (or a surrogate scientific methodology) to design practice. This is intended to preclude any falsification of the ethical or qualitative limitations of the work in hand. If the architect is free to appeal to the imponderable nature of artistic gestures, or to be distracted by negotiating countless external issues, he or she is no longer able to defer the questions proper to architecture, and is forced to assume individual responsibility for his or her work.

Giorgio Grassi, Roman Theatre, Sagunto, Valencia, Spain, 1994

A reconstituted Roman column at Sagunto juxtaposed with Grassi's brick piers - a standoff between the archaic and contemporary.

This conviction about anonymity and the everyday ordinariness of the buildings 'designed' by like-minded Neorationalist architects had a moral and social connotation that clearly distinguished it from artistic and literary theories of the 'death of the author'. Very likely, this intransigence was in fact one of the fundamental restraints on the diffusion of Neorationalist thinking. Grassi remains determined to emphasise the engagé motivation of his thought:

'We addressed the social issue in the "INA Casa" quarters that were built in the most rigorous and somehow the most squalid way not to hide the underlying problems. Since that time, I have always defended architecture produced by anybody, from architects, first of all, and then from less self-conscious builders or designers, which increasingly plays down the question of the author's signature. The situation has reached the point now where even not being recognisable is an element of distinction: if everybody makes odd things, then even a normal house with two windows and a door is a signature. As for myself, I don't even know whether my architecture is good quality, but certainly in places like Potsdamer Platz, where anything goes, my line of normal houses offers a degree of stasis, of visual relief.'

The event that marked Grassi's highest level of political engagement was, curiously enough, the reconstruction of the theatre of Sagunto in Spain. This is a work that, 20 years after its inception, is still, ironically, under the threat of demolition. The idea of reconstructing a Roman building as if it were an 'artificial ruin', without propagating the idea of a Romantic renovation or proposing the juxtaposition of a contemporary structure completely alien to the architecture of antiquity, fed a debate that was, Grassi argues, not theoretical at all. The ups and downs of his construction project, currently sentenced to demolition, have produced a heated confrontation, not only among local political interests, but between the politicians and their citizens .

The theatre at Sagunto is, however, an isolated case. What followed more generally was the marginalisation, within and without the profession, of the Neorationalist phenomenon.

Giorgio Grassi

Giorgio Grassi, Roman Theatre, Sagunto, 1994

Stage front elevation. Grassi posits an unstable equilibrium between the evidence of destruction and the impossibility of reconstruction.

Giorgio Grassi, Roman Theatre, Sagunto, 1994

Stage front elevation. Grassi posits an unstable equilibrium between the evidence of destruction and the impossibility of reconstruction.

Giorgio Grassi
Giorgio Grassi, Student Hostel, Chieti, Abruzzo, 1976 Rendered Elevations. The application of a 'scientific' objectivity to the practice of design.
Hostel Building Plans Shaped
Giorgio Grassi, University Library, Valencia, 1998 Typical floor plan. The epitome of formal clarity.

thinking - we cannot help but think that the primary cause of this rejection is an excess of Puritanism. Not only formally but also culturally, this pervades the work identified with Neorationalism in architecture. It presents a characteristic severity difficult to accept in any circumstances. And, associated with a didactic (if not doctrinaire) process of self-criticism pursued to its logical conclusion, this inevitably produces a general sense of personal and social paralysis.

Manfredo Tafuri's writing was prescient in this respect. In his History of Italian Architecture 1944-1985, in the chapter entitled 'Rigourism and Abstinence', he wrote: 'It is significant that ideas like Grassi's can be evaluated in contrast with the evil contemporary city. Silence can, of course, be resounding when surrounded by noise; it remains to be seen whether that silence can really express something besides the simple will to know, and whether the testimony it offers can have more than the mere value of a symptom.'3

As Tafuri suggests, confronting the question of the 'contemporary city' is to experience the widest schism between Neorationalist theory and its applicability (then or now) in real terms. The claim to solve the complexity of the urban metropolis through purely architectural solutions - in analysing urban typology and the grain of the city to produce a rational and (supposedly) consensual framework that should be consistently followed as a model - is today unthinkable. It is out of key with the fluctuations of contemporary politics, whatever the political perspective adopted.

Grassi is perfectly conscious of this fact. Confronting the familiar apocalyptic vision of mass urbanisation - the explosion of cities and geopolitical imbalances in the era of globalisation - he serenely confirms that, from his point of view, the only solution is to defer experience, to imagine that all this does not exist:

'The modernity of Alberti's choice is then also its amazing, invincible, almost palpable 'out-datedness' despite everything, despite the novelty of what he says and what he does, well, just for that, actually. Its "out-datedness" has nothing to do with the passing of time. It is rather an attitude, a trend to clear-headedly and bravely face one's fate; which is exactly the opposite of longing for different conditions for the world, oneself or one's work. In fact, it is just thanks to this trend, as much insuperable as ante litteram quixotic, that one can face the conditions of our work overcoming them, safe despite everything.4 4

Translated by Livia Grasselli

This began to erode, albeit more slowly, a hegemony in Italian schools of architecture that aspired to transmit an objective and universal knowledge able to transcend the workshop mentality in the studio.

Extrapolating from the architectural trends that have gained the upper hand in the last decades - where the increasingly sophisticated technologies of surface wrapping affect a sensory reflexivity clearly at odds with Grassi's


1. Giorgio Grassi, Leon Battista Alberti e l'architettura romana, Franco Angeli (Milan), 2007, p 13.

3. Manfredo Tafuri, History of Italian Architecture 1944-1985, MIT Press (Cambridge and London), 1989, p 142.

Text © 2007 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Giorgio Grassi Associati


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