The pretext is offered here by an extraordinarily interesting series of images collected together in contemporary guise by Donata Pizzi on recent, at times bold, on-the-spot investigations which have allowed her to know and inform us (finally for the first time at first hand) the exact size, quality and consistence of the phenomenon just as it has been materially transmitted in different forms and conditions, form place to place, right up to our times.
So it is that the photograph exhibition and relative catalogue are dedicated to some of the more or less renowned works of Italian architects which were built on overseas territory in Africa over the period between the two wars. The intention is to document what still remains of an experience handed down to us just through documents and images going back to the time of their initial, oft precipitated and many a time interrupted construction.
As demonstrated by the success of the recent exhibitions "SABAUDIA 1934, il sogno di una città nuova e l'architettura razionalista " and "Angiolo Mazzoni, architetto futurista in agro pontin", the debate over recent years on Italian architecture in the twentieth century has also touched a non specialist public, demonstrating all the topicality and interest the theme holds.
Continuing on with these recent experiences, we would also like to tackle the chapter relative to the overseas Italian colonies which constitute, as is well-known, a further fundamental aspect of those events concerning which further non marginal, historiographic, critical and documental investigation would still seem opportune.
This exhibition aims to make, with regard to the themes cited in the up-to-date photographic documentation, an original, first-hand contribution through the series of current images of important works preserved up till now, and rendered in photographic form, in many cases for the very first time, from the viewpoint of today.
The territory of Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea has been covered and investigated by the author searching for a logical thread capable of connecting up, by means of photographic synthesis, the sense of their more vital and living cultural topicality.
Places central to the Italian experience in Africa such as Tripoli, Bengasi, Cyrene, Addis Abeba, Asmara, Gondar, and many other centres, have been cut down in size, but not for that are they any less interesting. They have, on this specific occasion, been looked over in detail in the search for traces still having marked connotations and significance for Italian architecture in the first half of the twentieth century. All such traces connect deep down both with the debate on contemporary Italian architecture and with the experience, analogous in some ways, of the "new cities" built in the same years in various regions throughout Italy.
Here is a heritage of experiences hardly known by specialists today, at the time already the object and instrument of heavy propaganda regarding their achievement, abounding with stimuli. Still now the intrinsic quality of quite a few exemplary artefacts is surprising; an articulated heritage dense with constructions: schools, markets, villages, sports buildings, blocks of flats and offices, banks, public edifices, churches, mosques, private houses and roads that have not only been preserved, happily withstanding times and events, but, in more than one instance, have also become the collective heritage of the local population, some of which still actively inhabited, often having been adapted to new functions. Here is a heritage which could and should find further ways to be exploited and a more suitable conservation. Today, in this exhibition, we can "see" them and therefore read, appreciate and consequently judge them, through fresh eyes, as has never before happened.
Research, in particular, has been concentrated on works carried out in Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea by Italian architects between the twenties and the beginning of the forties, investigating a very complex and articulated phase which saw intense constructive activity and vital experimentation in the planning, firmly attached to the specific debate of that very particular cultural climate.
The widespread quality of the works illustrated is confirmation of the value and usefulness of this research, suggesting the necessity of further reflection on one of the less contemplated aspects of twentieth-century Italian architecture in the Mediterranean and colonial provinces.
So it is that traces and symbols emerge in the monuments and ruins, icons and remains of a past which has recently been taken up in fresh exploration (suffice it, for example, to consider the recent remarkable essays by Antonio Pennacchi called "Città del Duce" and published by "Limes"), with different eyes not compromised, capable, therefore, of producing further critical, aesthetical and emotional development.
Particularly worth mention is the fact that the more general sense of an experience, extolled over time through evolutive stages of a development which is extremely diversified in situation and time, today is offered, in all its compound complexity, to perusal and a critical interpretation which could redefine the values and meanings so often dissimulated and just as often misinterpreted.
This is certainly not the moment to go through the complex of Italian experience in the various African regions, detailing the specific building works and the single architects. What we are interested in is rather a desire to underline the remarkable vitality of that experience, so often undertaken with genuine, vital enthusiasm towards the possibility of experimenting ways and idioms elsewhere which are otherwise difficult to find.
Futurism and the Novecento, regionalism, rationalism, exoticism and realism all contaminate and overlap each other several times, such as what happened and continued to occur in the "liberated" territories of Romagna and Puglia, Tavoliere and Nurra, Sulcis and Istria, and the large Sicilian estates and the Pontine marshes.
So frequently has the para-colonial dimension of reclamation and colonisation in metropolitan territories been emphasised that we are not surprised to find an aero futuristic picture by Tato immortalising the inauguration of the most Piacentini-inspired, rational-futurist whole of the new cities: Sabaudia and, shortly afterwards, the marvellous archaeological-constructivist cover of the first number of "Libia" by the same author. Just as though the description by the anonymous journalist could be part of any visit to any family on a Venetian or Ferrara estate in any Italian region whatever. In the September of 1937 the afore-mentioned journalist remembered on those same pages how reminiscent of Italy certain villages in Africa were: "A cento chilometri da ... e a dieci da ... sta sorgendo, e di giorno in giorno ampliandosi il villaggio agricolo di ... .Il villaggio ha già le scuole, le abitazioni per gli insegnanti, l'ambulatorio e la chiesa in costruzione, e presto avrà tutti gli altri edifici pubblici. ... Siamo entrati in una di quelle nuovisssime casette coloniche e, nell'entrare, abbiamo dimenticato di essere in Africa, perché dentro vi si respirava un'aria delle nostre terre, quell'aria composta dell'odor di madia, e di frutta appese, attorno alla tavola ampia e solida, la famiglia del colono stava mangiando. Lui è un giovane bruciato dal sole e la sua donna è alta, ben tagliata, dal viso intelligente. ... I figli ci guardano un po' meravigliati, son tre maschietti e una bimbetta bionda, la più piccola ... Mi venne fatto di pensare a quando quella bimbetta sarà una ragazza da marito ... e come allora il villaggio sarà fiorente, pieno di vita e di mercati. Le case avranno assorbito dal tempo quella tinta particolare, che fa le cose inanimate partecipi della nostra vita e della nostra piccola storia. E gli anni della fondazione sembreranno lontani come un bel ricordo".
Far off are those years when the village was founded, both in time and especially in history, that "piccola" and the "grande", that "bimbetta" will have grown up and if, by a fortunate chance that we would like to imagine, she has the chance to leaf through the pages of this catalogue, she will find her home there, and past decades will flash past under her eye. She will see her home practically intact and recognisable, a crystal of sand in the desert, a precocious ruin from a mad dream, a petrified relic of an adventure that held together fragments of modernity and nostalgia, of avant-garde and of tradition, of cynicalness and enthusiasm, of commitment and business, of risk and opportunism, of adventure and disillusionment, of heroism and desperation.
Leafing through these images, we come across the infinite and scattered places of an argument regarding architecture which some of the most significative architects of their time gave meaning and substance to. We come across and recognise (though not always without difficulty) the features and fragments of the idea that we have of architecture, representing lines differently woven for us, superimposed and interrupted, of a dialogue between history and places, between meanings and values which may even be opposite, but which join together in defining an often agonising albeit fascinating cultural landscape.
A journey down memory lane where, beside the names of those known as academics, we find those termed as modernists, where beside the most experienced and self-possessed professionals, we discover the very young at their debut, for whom each project becomes an experiment and a challenge. Alberto Alpago Novello, Ottavio Cabiati, Cesare Bazzani, Armando Brasini, Florestano Di Fausto, Guido Ferrazza, Plinio Marconi, Cesare Valle, Gerardo Bosio, Alessandro Limongelli, Giovanni Pellegrini, Luigi Piccinato, Umberto Di Segni, Carlo Enrico Rava - these are the names that one hears the most often and that have given shape and substance to an architecture which can be exceptional where their relative marginality respects the central places of the school, and the profession permits them, on more than one occasion, to adhere without simulation and mediation to meanings of a variegated modernity where the idea of the design is followed with natural immediateness by the ensuing, concrete building. A plurality of images and building events is the result, where the continual experimentation of types, models and idioms allows us, here much more than elsewhere in the mother country, to appreciate the difference in vitality of several generations of architects, dialectically committed to giving substance to an idea of the institutional modernisation of building enterprise. The traces we display confirm the sense and value.
Marcello Piacentini's dream seems to materialise when in "Architettura d'oggi" he prophesised: "I see our contemporary architecture set in great composure in perfect measure. It will accept the new proportions which the new materials consent, always subordinating them, however, to the divine harmony that is the essence of all our arts and spirit. It will, more and more, come to accept to give up empty formulae and colourless repetition, the absolute simplicity and sincerity of shape, but it will not always be able to deliberately reject the caress of opportune decoration. The efforts of the various regions must be channelled in just one direction, and architects must adapt more in order to attain the creation of a national modern art. Secluded forces are disclosed everywhere and the day of the great revelation, already considerably prepared, does not seem far off. Indeed, I think that this labour of ours should not cease with the creation of a national architecture"
Wandering around the not long uncovered ruins of an ancient Roman outpost, or venturing into territory more recently colonised in villages scattered along the "Balbia", we glimpse, from time to time, fragments of that dream of Piacentini's and we reconstruct, by means of the debris, the wreckage and the actual ruins of that modern Italian Utopia, the familiar, essential features that make it the logical, material prolonging of an architectural idea long cultivated on the drawing table by several generations of young promising students in the recently reformed schools of architecture. From the hotel at Cyrene, by now a classical modern ruin among ancient ones, where Alessandro Limongelli has left us his final, so sophisticated intellectual message, perhaps one of the most exemplary designs of an exceptional architect still to be reinterpreted, to the houses in Tripoli and the villages in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica by Pellegrini, Di Fausto and Di Segni, the images flash by and take form again, giving us back the profile of a compound panorama extensively Mediterranean which has the faculty of dipping into both the profound history of the places and the contemporaneity of aesthetical meanings.