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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bruno Zevi: Rome's Architectural Theorist

Bruno Zevi is widely regarded as one of great architectural theorists of the 20th century.  Writing in The Guardian on the occasion of Zevi's death in 2000, Thomas Muirhead opined that Zevi's two early books on architectural theory, Vero l'architettura organica/Towards Organic Architecture (1935) and
Sapere Vedere la Citta/How to Understand the City (1948) "alone place Zevi among the greatest historians and theoreticians."

Bruno Zevi
Born to an elite Jewish family in Rome in 1918, Zevi studied architecture at the University of Rome,  served in the Italian military, and engaged in clandestine anti-Fascist activities.  Forced to leave the country in 1939 by the new racial laws, he made his way to England and then the United States, earning a graduate degree at Harvard's School of Design, then led by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus.  He returned to Italy in 1944, quickly emerging as a prominent figure in Italy's architectural circles while teaching architecture at the University of Venice, and later, after 1963, at the University of Rome. 

Zevi's major contribution to architectural theory was what he called "organic architecture," a term apparently coined by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908. "Organic architecture" has more definitions than the Eskimos have words for snow (yes, we know, a myth), but it's safe to say that for Zevi it meant a democratic, humanistic architecture centered around people and linked to nature and its surroundings.  Zevi was deeply opposed to both the cold, ahuman modernism of Gropius and the abstract principles of order, proportion and symmetry that governed classical forms.  "When Gropius, Mies [van der Rohe] and [Alvar] Aalto produced [symmetrical buildings]," he wrote, "it was an act of surrender.  Lacking a modern code, they weakened and regressed to the familiar womb of classicism."  Identifying classical symmetry with power and dominance--and with the Mussolini Fascism that he detested--Zevi advocated an organic architecture grounded in asymmetry, rupture, dissonance and fragmentation.

That's clear enough (or it isn't), but it can be difficult to visualize Zevi's philosophy.  He didn't design much of anything, in Rome or elsewhere.  So how can the Rome tourist, or for that matter anyone, get a visual handle on Zevi's ideas? 

EUR/architecture of symmetry and power

We can begin with what he detested: the pompous, symmetrical, monumental buildings of Marcello Piacentini, the chief architect of EUR.  No rupture, no dissonance, no fragmention.  This architecture was all about power--power over Italy's colonies, Fascism's power over its subjects.  For similar (tho distinct) reasons--again, the issue of power was in play for him--he was critical of Bernini's St. Peter's Square. 

Studio Passarelli

And then there are the Rome buildings, and their Rome architects, that Zevi admired.  One such building, completed in 1964, just as Zevi was taking up his position at the University of Rome, was the Studio Passarelli, on via Campania.  Designed by Lucio Passarelli, it's a curious combination of modernist box and building-blocks top, just the sort of rupture that Zevi encouraged and applauded. 
Studio Passarelli, upper floors

Zevi was particularly fond of another building, this one in the suburban Piazza Bologna neighborhood, and of its architect, Piero Sartogo.  The two men met for the first time in 1971 when the building, the headquarters of the Rome Medical Association, was under construction, "a few yards" from where Zevi lived.  Zevi demanded that Sartogo appear at the site, immediately, and when he did, "I found the great critic stopping passersby, grabbing them by the arm, pointing up to the building, and asking them, 'Isn't it beautiful?'" recalled Sartogo.  A tour of the building followed and, shortly thereafter,
Piero Sartogo's Medical Office Building
a Zevi column in L'Espresso in which the building was compared to a "tree with exposed roots" and its architect praised for an unconventional structure that stood against cold rationalism and confused postmodernism.

In  1973, Zevi described the Medical Office Building in the Chronache di Architettura, emphasizing how the structure's distinctive exterior elements reflected the various activities to be accomplished inside.  "The principle of contamination [of these activities] "is organically achieved.  This is not an anonymous container with a regular structural framework into which rooms fit like drawers in a
Medical Office Building
chest.  The pilasters are coupled, and when required, they slide into a horizontal position expanding into beam-walls to envelope the auditorium, the cantilevered seminar rooms, the double-height foyers, and the periodical library.  The result is an organism structurally engaged in modulating the interlocking continuity of the spaces and displaying their spatial volumes both inside and outside." 

Zevi explained, too, that the building had been controversial, not the least for those who were to occupy it.  In 1966, Italian physicians gasped at the design, comparing it to London's elegant Royal College of Physicians.  "Why," they asked, "can't we have a minimum of charm, elegance and refinement like our British colleagues?"  Sartogo and his collaborators had their answer:  "For the simple reason [as Zevi reports] that your Medical Association is not an ancient institution like the Royal College.  It neither possesses a previous art gallery or a series of extremely rare medical treatises.  We lack a cultural tradition in the professions, and those seemingly odd but prestigious rituals that establish status do not exist.  Furthermore, you have chosen a suburban location for your headquarters in a neighborhood full of apartment buildings: Do you want to erect a monument or a bogus Guild Hall?"  The Medical Office Building, Zevi concluded, was "one of the most interesting and provocative buildings in the city of Rome."

We discovered the building while plotting one of two Piazza Bologna itineraries for Rome the Second Time.  The Medical Office Building that Bruno Zevi found so distinctive and important appears in Itinerary 8, "In the Parks, on the Streets, and in the Homes of the Famous, If Not Rich."  It is on via
Giovanni Battista de Rossi.  When we met architect Piero Sartogo in 2008, he told us the structure had been placed on the historic structures registry and was in line for a facelift. 

On our first sighting of the building,  we recognized its distinctiveness but were not so fond of the exposed concrete, which we identified with a brutalist aesthetic that we disliked.  Today, we bow to modern Rome's outstanding architectural theorist, Bruno Zevi.



dlapp said...

Are there no examples of Zevi's work? He is an amazingly articulate champion of organic architecture. I will be traveling to Rome and Sicily soon, and I had hoped to see some of Zevi's work, or examples of Italian organic architecture.
Deborah Lencioni Lapp

dlapp said...

Are there no examples of Zevi's work? He is an amazingly articulate champion of organic architecture. I will be traveling to Rome and Sicily soon, and I had hoped to see some of Zevi's work, or examples of Italian organic architecture.
Deborah Lencioni Lapp

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Hi Deborah,
Sorry to be late in posting your comment, but we were away from the RST desk (whatever that means). Anyway, I must now admit that when I wrote the Zevi piece it was not clear to me that he was ever a practicing architect, a designer of buildings, in Rome or elsewhere. I would assume (though I still don't KNOW) that there are no Zevi buildings. If you find some, please let us know! Also, we would love to hear about your quest for organic architecture in Italy. Bill