Against Inauthentic European Architecture 1929

Carlo Enrico Rava's 1929 article on Tripoli, "We Must Respect the Character of Tripoli's Architecture" (Dobbiamo rispettare il carattere dell'edilizia tripolina), in contrast, not only voiced an appreciation for local buildings; it also expressed a holistic view of the city and its parts, placing unprecedented emphasis on the colony's landscape and its role in generating appropriate architecture.18 By the mid-1920s "archaeologists of art" had already set a pattern of negating local architecture's local-ness, breaking it down into vestiges of Roman antiquity or more recent imports. Rava, who with his colleague Sebastiano Larco had begun his colonial career by designing a hotel built at Khums in 1928 (Figure 5.3), departed from this pattern by describing what he called "Arab architecture."

Sventramento Roma

Figure 5.3

Albergo agli scavi di Leptis Magna (hotel near excavations of Leptis Magna), Khums, Libya (1928-1929, Architects Carlo Enrico Rava and Sebastiano Larco).

Figure 5.3

Albergo agli scavi di Leptis Magna (hotel near excavations of Leptis Magna), Khums, Libya (1928-1929, Architects Carlo Enrico Rava and Sebastiano Larco).

In his terms, the local vernacular (architettura minore locale) "represented] the true Arab style of Tripolitania ."19

His piece was as polemical towards Italians' architectural tastes as it was appreciative of the local vernacular. To begin with, he condemned all instances of what he called an "imaginary Moorish style."20 Unlike Cardella, who had seen the use of Moorish elements as inappropriate because it was borrowed from natives, Rava explained that "the abuse of a 'Moorish' style" was inappropriate because it was European above all else, having no roots in Libya (which had never been under Moorish rule).21

The true Moorish [style] only exists in Morocco and in the traces of Moorish rule left behind in Spain; but ... in Libya there was never even the shadow of it ... [this Moorish style] is not even really Moorish ... instead, it is that style in which once upon a time hotels and seaside establishments were built on fashionable beaches, with an additional touch (as if that were not enough!) of reminiscences of Turkish and Persian architectures, of no particular authenticity.22

He was equally contemptuous of pure historicism, namely, Accademico repetitions of time-honored styles. But he reserved his most biting comments for European styles transplanted to the colony without any modification. Describing the European city outside the walls as "pleasing" in appearance, he voiced distaste nonetheless for the "little bourgeois residences in ... that Art Nouveau that was abandoned, thank God, almost thirty years ago even in the most provincial small European towns" and Italian buildings "in a fantasized Medieval" vein.23

In contrast to all such erroneous architectural approaches, to Rava's eyes "the Libyan Arab style" was instead "naturally in tune with the climate and the country's characteristics," and for this reason it offered "clues" toward the creation of a "colonial yet European architecture."24 The architect admired native houses' simplicity and equilibrium: in their "general building mass, Arab houses are almost always extremely balanced."25 Furthermore, he vouched for their comfort: "the Arab "patio" surrounded by doorways and terraces is the ideal, most logical solution."26 Yet architects, he claimed, should strive for "freely understanding and interpreting" rather than direct imitation.27 But on the other hand, while he further described his quest as one for a "fusion" of modernist sensibilities with local patterns - "Italian colonial architecture will be born of the felicitous fusion of environmental characteristics with taste and modern requirements"28 - in practice, he appeared to advocate incorporating all the key aspects of local architectural tradition:

For instance, it will not really be necessary for patio porticoes to have arches, just because arches are generally built in Arab ones; nor will doorways and windows with pointed arches always be adopted, just because they sometimes are in Arab houses; and so on ... it will be understood how appropriate those large, flat, naked planes on the external walls are, because the house ... will have few windows, as it faces the sun. Finally, useless decorations of cement and stucco will be abandoned ... and if one wants to decorate the exterior of the house, one will resort to coloring the large smooth surfaces ... with colors in which Arab houses are masterful, and which give the native quarters under the beautiful African sun a special charm.29

In 1929, Rationalists had not yet come under attack for excessive "internationalism," and here Rava made no attempt to justify drawing inspiration from local models. As a result, unlike articles from 1931 on, this piece did not rely on especially historicist or essentialist tropes, whereas later writers would lean heavily on claims that local vernacular architecture in Libya was "really" Roman or Italian, in form or in "spirit." Rava did comment casually in this article that the Arab patio was "intimately our own, since it goes back to the classical house of ancient Rome,"30 but this was not the main concern of the piece, and the argument was not crucial to his general claims.

One respect in which the piece forecast many later ones, in contrast, was its invidious comparisons between Italian Tripoli and other European powers' colonial cities. Rava wished for a distinctive Italian and Libya-appropriate "architecture that would be to Tripolitania, or Libya in general, what the bungalow is to the British colonies."31 His praise for the deliberately syncretistic neo-Moorish work in Lyautey's Morocco was more tacit, consisting in an admission that Moorish architecture was indeed indigenous there (as it was not in Libya). Rava's appraisals of French and British buildings in colonial settings were partly colored by his wish for Tripoli to become a world-famous resort. He felt that Tripoli "still today has the potential of . . . becoming the most beautiful city of Mediterranean Africa,"32 but naming "Pasadena and other California cities" along with Caribbean and Hawaiian locales,33 he regretted that it did not match:

what others have been able to create, with miracles of attention and artifice, in the most celebrated resort cities - nowadays much in vogue - of California and the West Indies, creating in such cities an exotic and colonial feel that is typical of the nature of these locations.34

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