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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gio Ponti's Rome Building: the Scuola di Matematica

Ponti's La Pavoni espresso machine, 1948
Architect and designer Gio (pronounced "Joe," as in Giovanni) Ponti is little known in Rome.  He was a child of Milan, born (1891) and raised there, and at a certain point plugged into Milan's fashion and design community.  He designed stage sets and costumes for Milan's La Scala; the curvaceous La Pavoni espresso machine (1948), an icon of Italy's postwar boom and coffee-bar culture; and--perhaps his best known design effort--the Superleggera (superlight) chair [1957] for Cassina, so light that it is said that a child could lift it with one finger--though how many were given the opportunity, we don't know.

Pirelli Tower, 1956
Milan can also claim Ponti's first house (1926) and his best known building--the Pirelli Tower (1956), tall and sleek and, for a mid-century skyscraper, unusual in its diamond-referencing form. 

Ponti's relationship with Fascism and the Mussolini regime are less than clear, but worth brief treatment.  Postponing his architectural studies, he served in the Italian military on the Austrian front, emerging with the rank of Captain and as an admirer of Mussolini.  

A Richard-Ginori dessert plate, ca. 1925
Degree in hand (1921), he turned not to architecture but to design, working as art director of the ceramics firm Richard-Ginori to produce a variety of consumer products that eschewed the avant-garde's commitment to pure rationalism in favor of mixing modernist ideas with neo-classical motifs. 

Rotunda, Italia Pavilion, 1932
In the late 1920s, and especially through his magazine, Domus, Ponti became identified with the Novecento, an artistic movement increasingly favored by Facism for its advocacy of a "hybrid modernity" (see Marla Stone, The Patron State) that used traditional Italian folks motifs and subject matter, including women and landscapes.  Ponti's design for the interior rotunda of the Italia pavilion at the 1932 Venice Biennale shows the architect linking modernism with classicism (here, referencing the Pantheon ceiling). 
Mathematics Department Building, University of Rome, 1934
Ponti's only Rome building emerged at this juncture, just as the Mussolini regime was disengaging from Novecento aesthetics, embracing rationalism more fully, and before the regime's colonial ventures and burgeoning confidence fostered an architecture of monumentalism. 

Completed in 1934, the Scuola di Matematica (Mathematics Department) building on the campus of the University of Rome is more in the rationalist mode than any of his previous structures.  Today, the approach to the building is lined with dense banks of trees, square-trimmed in harmony with Ponti's modernist facade, which features thin marble facing and the standard high Fascist-like entryway, though the actual doors are modest and plain.  A side view (above right) reveals the building's dynamic interior structure. 

The immediate interior hall is also humble rather than extravagant, a sign, perhaps, that function is important; this is a working building, not a spectacle.  Off to the left, a small, arched doorway, lined with aluminum (left), again plays down the grand. 

Courtyard, Mathematics Building
Just ahead, we can see that the building has a round interior courtyard, and that the business of the Mathematics Department will take place in the curved spaces around it: offices on the inside of two long, curved hallways, classrooms on the outside.  Natural light from the courtyard spills into the offices and, through glass partitions, on through onto the curving walkways. 

A sign warns that the courtyard is not to be entered; another that loud talking in that space will disturb the learning process.  Hundreds of cigarette butts between its stones reveal one of the courtyard's current functions.  Two curving stairways in the courtyard seem to be there should a fire break out; we wonder if they're original. 

The building's core rationalist aesthetic is everywhere tempered, by huge round windows in the stairwells, by the imperfect stones of the courtyard, by those playful arches in the entryway, and by small details of fittings and materials: brass handles here and there, wood trim around what would otherwise be an ordinary door (left). 

Writing in Amate L'Architettura (1957), Ponti wrote:  "Love architecture, be it ancient or modern.   Love it for its fantastic, adventurous and solemn creations, for its inventions; for the abstract, allusive and figureative forms that enchant our spirit and enrapture our thoughts.  Love architecture, the stage and support of our lives."  Ponti's Mathematics Building--a graceful, functional stage.


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