Italia si, Italia no / Italia si, Italia no

1998-99. Several major competitions for projects in major Italian cities were staged and brought to a conclusion: Rome, with the project for the Centre for the Contemporary Arts, won by Zaha Hadid; Venice, the enlargement of the cemetery of San Michele, won by David Chipperfield; Venice, the new seat for the University College of Architecture, won by Eric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue; Florence, the new entrance to the Uffizi, won by Arata Isozaki; and Salerno, the reclamation of the historic centre, won by Manuel de las Casas, Antonio Monestiroli and Kazuo Sejima.

Over the last two or three years the newspapers and weeklies have been devoting more and more space to new projects and to debate and controversies connected with architecture in Italy. Vittorio Gregotti has been making increasingly frequent appearances in La Repubblica, as have Marco De Michelis in Corriere della Sera, Pippo Ciorra in Il Manifesto and Bruno Zevi in L’Espresso. Architecture is in the news again.

Progressively, the nineties are proving to be a hazy but significant horizon for Italian architecture, laying the foundations for what could lead within a few years to important changes or to terminal decline. We now find ourselves in the middle of the ford, with a political and economic situation that is slowly changing and improving and an architectural culture that is showing some signs of awakening from the decade-long torpor into which it has fallen. The following elements need to be taken into consideration.

The political situation is stabilizing, especially at the local level thanks to an important reform of the municipal administrations carried out in 1994. Italy has a fundamentally polycentric structure whose vitality and resources have always contrasted with the lack of farsighted policy at the national level.

The reform of the municipal authorities has brought local governments and the figure of the mayor back to the forefront. The architecture of public spaces quickly became one of the principal means of making a political impact, and competitions a way of achieving this. Under these circumstances the effect of the ‘Bilbao syndrome’, whereby every administrator wants his or her own little Guggenheim, is even more apparent. This is a dangerous form of voluntarism that will soon have to be replaced by a new approach to management in which long-term planning takes precedence over attention-grabbing, one-off events. Nevertheless, this is a new and fertile terrain in which Italian architecture is going to have to operate and where it will be able to compare its results with those of foreign architectural cultures.

The market is slowly emerging from a slump that has had Italy in its grip for over a decade, with new investments being made in the territory and construction. Above all, mixed forms of public and private participation are being developed and it is hoped that these will make it possible to actually realize many of the works that are in the pipeline. Here too the polycentric dimension is proving its value. New economic basins are showing a high degree of technological advance, aiming directly at the global market and at the same time maintaining deep roots at the local level. This is a curious mix of ‘local dialect’ and ‘international English’ that seems to demonstrate how large areas of the country have leapfrogged the first level of modernization and moved on to deal with unprecedented forms of modernity.

Over the last few decades Italian architecture seems to have been incapable of interpreting and handling the changes that are under way. In this sense, Italy is caught in a curious paradox. It is the country with the highest number of architects and architecture students in Europe; at the same time the professional associations and to some extent the academic circles are displaying an unpalatable siege mentality, clinging to self-referential and shortsighted positions.

There is little serious reflection on the roles and different social and political slants that Italian architecture could assume. There are few attempts to develop a managerial approach that is aware of the new cultural and disciplinary instruments available. And little self-criticism or openness toward the possibilities of working across disciplinary boundaries.

The upshot of all this in recent years has been a hazardous updating of language, a sort of provincial transposition of the forms of international architecture without any serious thought having been given to the overall state and the prospects of Italian architecture. In such a context it would seem to be worth taking a look at just what that state is and asking ourselves whether it is possible to recognize a new identity or not, if of course it makes any sense to talk about this from a European perspective.

Italy today seems to be a laboratory in which the new generation of architects is trying to give form to new experiences of design and new approaches to investigation of the city and the territory, mixed up with a few major urban operations carried out by the odd surviving master of the older generation. This issue of Archis sets out to offer some tips on how to pick your way through this Italian quagmire and dares to suggest a few paths that might be followed.

Verhalende ruimte / Narrativized space