From Post-War Reconstruction to Techno-Utopia:
The Politics of Organicism in Architecture
Instructor: Martha Justo Caldeira
In 1953, the sound of bulldozers heralded the beginning of construction at Lignano Pineta, a seaside holiday resort designed by the Italian architect Marcello D’Olivo. Located on Italy’s North-Eastern Adriatic coast, D’Olivo’s vision transformed a scenic coastline of pine forest and sandy beaches into one of Italy’s most popular - and unique - holiday resorts (Fig.1). Fewer than twenty years later, that same sound accompanied a markedly different affair; the demolition of Paris’ Les Halles market and the construction of an equally unique vision - the Pompidou Center - by the Anglo-Italian team of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano (Fig.2). An icon of High-Tech architecture, the Pompidou Center’s bristling metal facade initially appears to have little in common with the sensuous curved forms of D’Olivo’s designs for Lignano. However, embedded within the radical forms of the Pompidou and Lignano Pineta can be found a political agenda informed by architectural organicism, providing a common theoretical framework for evaluating both projects despite their evident formal and geographic difference.
An interpretation of the political ambitions of architectural organicism can also be informed by Jacques Rancière’s theory of the distribution of the sensible, which provides a broader critical frame for considering the political consequences of artistic practice. In ‘The Politics of Aesthetics,’ Rancière describes the ‘delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience.’ 1 For Rancière, aesthetics lie at the core of politics, since ‘politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.’ 2 Throughout Rancière’s work, there is a resistance to the concept of disciplinary autonomy, and though most of the examples considered in ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’ are works of art or literature, architecture can also be evaluated as an artistic practice that is fundamentally political.
The pristine coastline of the Lignano peninsula belies the underlying political agenda embedded within D’Olivo’s project. Lignano Pineta emerged from a charged discourse centered on the question of what constituted a truly Italian architecture. The rationalist language prevalent in Italy in the immediate post-war period had been challenged by the necessity of national reconstruction and a resistance to adapting that language to the demands of social projects such as public housing and large-scale urban design. 3 Ernesto Rogers, whose practice, BBPR, designed one of the most important works of the rationalist movement - the monument to the victims of concentration camps - was a key figure during this period (Fig.3). Through his architectural work and editorship of the influential Casabella Continuita, he was instrumental in establishing Milan as the center of neoliberty, and in promoting the acceptance of historical context in architectural design, in opposition to the organicist discourse centered on Rome and the influential figure of Bruno Zevi. The spiral layout of Lignano Pineta was informed by this discourse, its sinuous form clearly aligning the scheme with Zevi’s organicist project. D’Olivo’s social agenda is reflected in the range of buildings he planned for the town; in addition to luxurious single family villas, high-rise apartment buildings and campsites were designed in order to provide accommodation appropriate to all social classes. D’Olivo’s early drawings for the project show a new road linking Lignano Pineta to the nearby town of Latisana (Fig.4) as well as connections to the region’s numerous agricultural towns, ensuring Lignano Pineta’s accessibility to a broad public. In his aspiration to make the Italian coastline a resource available to all, D’Olivo’s design can be read as an attempt to provoke a redistribution of the sensible. As a physical manifestation of an implicit social agenda, Lignano Pineta challenges the established delineations between various social groups and their associated spaces of pleasure. Rancière terms the power structure calibrating these delineations the ‘police order,’ which establishes the communal distribution of the sensible. The degree to which Lignano Pineta is aligned to the emancipatory rhetoric of Zevi’s organicism must therefore be considered not only in a superficial formal evaluation, but more critically, relative to the project’s ability to create a space in which the order established by a particular distribution of the sensible may be challenged - a space in which politics can emerge. 4
Echoing the charged climate surrounding the design of Lignano Pineta, the Pompidou Center emerged at a time of widespread civil unrest, exemplified by the student riots of 1968. Intended to serve as a public arts venue as well as a monument to the French president Georges Pompidou, the building’s commission can be interpreted relative to Rancière’s philosophy as an example of a police order’s intention to reinforce a particular distribution of the sensible. Paradoxically, the design sought to promote a concept of anti-monumentality and impermanence, drawing inspiration from the work of Cedric Price (Fig.5) and Archigram to suggest an open and flexible cultural center, able to accommodate continual reconfiguration and adaptation. The Pompidou Center emphatically rejects the formal characteristics of its context, opting instead for an architectural language of technological exuberance that embodies an ambition comparable to D’Olivo’s at Lignano Pineta - a redistribution of the sensible through artistic practice.
Both projects are therefore implicitly political, seeking to create spaces in which the conflict between a natural state of equality and the forces which serve to delineate a particular distribution of the sensible are confronted. In their temporal, formal and geographic difference, the projects can serve as valuable case studies for evaluating the role of the political in architectural organicism and its diverse influence as an architectural discourse evolving from its emergence in the post-war Italian context, to informing the futuristic visions of Hi-Tech architects in Britain. Influenced by the writings and architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright in particular, Bruno Zevi sought to define the terms constituting an organic architecture in his book,‘Verso Un Architettura Organica”, published in 1945. From the outset, Zevi envisioned organic architecture as an emancipatory project, a ‘rhetoric of democracy [that] had a potent, if still artificial, ring in a country recently liberated from authoritarianism and trying to grasp the complexities of transforming a fascist bureaucracy into the liberal administrative structures of modern planning.’ 5 Zevi championed organicism through the Association for Organic Architecture (Associazione per Architettura Organica or APAO), which he founded in 1944, to stand in opposition to the continuity of the rationalist movement in Milan and northern Italy. For Zevi, rationalism had come to stand for Fascist repression during the war, and was unable to cope with the demands of post-war Italian society. APAO’s manifesto states,
‘Organic architecture is at once a social, technical, and artistic activity, directed toward creating the climate for a new democratic civilization. Organic architecture means architecture for man, modeled according to the human scale, according to the spiritual, psychological, and material necessities associated with man. Organic architecture is thus the antithesis of the monumental architecture that serves myths of state’. 6
Zevi’s assertion that organic architecture should stand in opposition to the ‘myths of the state’ echoes Rancière’s description of the political potential of the aesthetic act in its recognition of architecture’s potential to serve in the redistribution of the sensible. This conception of organicism draws a great deal from the writing of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose declaration that, ‘an organic architecture means more or less an organic society’ 7 suggests a direct relationship between architecture and politics. For Rancière however, this correlation is a problematic one, since, ‘politics has its aesthetics and aesthetics has its politics. But there is no formula for an appropriate correlation.’ 8 Artistic acts emerge from within a particular police order and their visibility is therefore tied to that order’s distribution of the sensible. Both Lignano Pineta and the Pompidou Center must therefore be considered not only relative to their social or cultural agendas, but also according to the degree to which they are capable of encouraging political subjectivization and of creating the conditions necessary for ‘the encounter between [their] particular form of politics and its supposed audience.’ 9
D’Olivo designed Lignano Pineta as a spiral as in response to the resort’s limited coastline and to address the fact that not all of the town’s houses could have views of the sea. Choosing instead to arrange them in a manner that would ensure each plot a view towards the region’s dense pine forest, the town’s spiral form radiates from its center, completing three scrolls before turning inland and meeting the road to Latisana. D’Olivo envisioned the Lignano Pineta’s organic form as capable of growing naturally along the coast; in addition to the main circulation route of the spiral, secondary roads thread outwards, creating a wooded residential band that runs south until it meets the mouth of the Torre river (Fig.6). Though D’Olivo strives to resist an urban form generated by proximity to the sea and resultant land values, the spiral form of Lignano Pineta and the arrangement of its lots serves to promote the notion of a center and a periphery. This is emphasized by the zoning of the roads leading outwards from the center; each band of the spiral including the coils themselves has a width of 100 meters, containing two lots 50 meters deep (Fig.7).
The buildings in these bands may not exceed two storeys with the building footprint totaling a maximum of 20% of the lot coverage. The villas D’Olivo designed for these lots display a remarkable formal diversity, ranging from hard angular forms of the Villa Andretta, to the circular plan of the Villa Mainardis (Figs 8&9). The latter of these features three large bedrooms as well as a generous space for entertaining with an outdoor terrace that leads onto the villa’s wooded garden. D’Olivo’s perspective shows the villa secluded, embedded within a forested copse and positioned to ensure a view across the landscape. Numerous other villas were designed by D’Olivo; varying in scale, they largely share a formal language of fluid, open plan living spaces framed by gently curving brick or concrete walls that spread out into the landscape beyond. The plan of the villa Spezzotti (Fig.11) exemplifies this approach, but as the largest and most formally exuberant of all the villas, its design makes clear the disconnect between the social agenda of Zevi’s architectural organicism and D’Olivo’s appropriation of a formal language inspired by natural forms as a formal inspiration for the construction of luxurious villas for the wealthiest residents of Lignano Pineta.
A similar criticism can be leveled at Lignano Pineta’s urban plan. The spiral is surrounded by campsites located on the town’s periphery. Although the campsites provide a low-cost alternative for visitors, they nevertheless remain invisible from the town’s center. From these peripheral areas, access to the beach is provided by a series of smaller roads, secondary to the large service spine that cuts through the main spiral, providing a direct route from the town’s spiral to its center and the beach. The service spine (which D’Olivo referred to as ‘il treno’ or, the ‘train’) 10 is composed of a series of undulating thin concrete roofs, evoking a series of overlapping shells, beneath which, a two-storey construction houses shops and apartment units with generous balconies overlooking the street (Fig.12). Flanking the spine, D’Olivo envisioned six-storey residential buildings that would benefit from the presence of the commercial units and the proximity of the ocean. In one of D’Olivo’s characteristic sectional perspectives, many of the themes explored in the larger villas can be seen in the design for the service spine (Fig.13). In the apartments above the shops, he shows a couple dining beneath fully-stocked shelves, enjoying a panoramic view of the ocean. On the other side of a thin concrete dividing wall, their neighbor is to be found in a similar state of luxurious relaxation; wearing nothing but bathing shorts, he lounges in his living room with only a newspaper to obstruct his view. Above the neighbors, a sweltering sun is shown in the clear sky, its presence emphasizing the shade and protection provided by the gently curving roofs of the apartments. It is certainly an appealing vision of life, yet the design also serves to give architectural form to an existing distinction between social classes. As well as sheltering from the sun, the concrete canopies serve as icons that highlight the service spine’s role in providing housing for lower-income families unable to afford lots in the spiral. It is also important to note the location of the service spine. By cutting through the spiral, it provides direct access for its residents to shops and the beach, yet it is located at some distance for those living in the campsites on the town’s periphery, further emphasizing their isolation.
Rancière describes aesthetic acts as ‘configurations of experience that create new modes of sense perception and induce novel forms of political subjectivity.’ 11The spiral of Lignano Pineta certainly expresses D’Olivo’s ambition for a new relationship between architecture, nature and its inhabitants, yet the town still functions largely according to established social hierarchies. D’Olivo creates the infrastructure to bring various social classes to the waterfront, yet the architecture of Lignano Pineta serves also to emphasize three zones - centre, spiral and periphery - corresponding almost directly to three distinct social classes. For Rancière, ‘politics exists when the figure of a specific subject is constituted, a supernumerary subject in relation to the calculated number of groups, places, and functions in a society,’ 12 yet at Lignano Pineta, the possibility of an emancipation - understood in Rancière’s philosophy as the ‘polemical verification of equality’ and not ‘a state of social liberation’ 13 - through the redistribution of the sensible is severely limited by the paradoxical rigidity of its apparently organic natural forms.
Where D’Olivo drew inspiration from nature, Piano and Rogers turned instead to technology. The Pompidou emphatically rejected the formal characteristics of its context, opting instead for an architectural language of technological exuberance. In his review of the building for the Architectural Review, the outspoken British architectural critic Reyner Banham described the Pompidou as a reflection of, ‘the supreme moment of technological euphoria in Western society, the moment when we genuinely believed that freedom was to be got by providing ourselves with an endless power supply facility. With servicing, which would be so elaborate and so heavily duplicated that you could do anything you want, anywhere at any time.’ 14
The Pompidou’s design was promoted as the result of purely functional and technological considerations, such as the need to provide a stack of clear floors adaptable to a variety of cultural events and conditions required for the display of a diverse range of art (Fig.15). The building is located at the eastern edge of its site, leaving roughly half the site free to serve as an open public plaza (Fig.16). The architects’ original intent was that the facade be covered with video screens projecting artworks, videos and messages outwards to the plaza as a means of subverting the notion of the rarefied cultural institution by dematerializing the building’s facade and project the private space of the galleries into the public realm (Fig.17). By expanding the notion of the building’s public to include even those who would not otherwise enter an art gallery, Piano and Rogers undertake a process of ‘decoupage’ (cutting) that Rancière sees as a central mechanism in the distribution of the sensible,
‘I understand by this phrase [the distribution of the sensible], the cutting up of the perceptual world that anticipates, through its sensible evidence, the distribution of shares and social parties…and the relation between the personal and the common, the private and the public, in which these are inscribed...This redistribution itself presupposes a cutting up of what is visible and what is not, of what can be heard and what cannot, of what is noise and what is speech.’ 15
Thus, by creating a public space outside the building, and projecting into that space that which is private according to the police order in which it was constructed, Piano and Rogers’ design seeks to enact a redistribution of the sensible by questioning precisely the notions of public and private that Rancière refers to. This relationship between inside and outside, and public and private can be understood as an organic one, an interplay between the spontaneous and the arranged which Zevi describes as fundamental to organic architecture,
‘The “melting and fusing by creative heat”...an essential phase of creation, is by itself only one of the phases of creation. The choosing, directing, “arranging” (intellectual) is another phase equally essential to creation. And the work of art - or architecture - is perfect only when...the two have both fully contributed their respective parts.’ 16
As well as the large screens that the architects planned for the facade (which were unfortunately excluded from the final design), they sought to avoid the possibility of monumentality by exposing the building’s circulation, structure and mechanical services (Fig.18). The Pompidou therefore challenges the accepted relationship between a public building and the urban context within which it sits - typically mediated by the facade as a clearly defined formal element. The Pompidou stands as ‘equally opposed to the theoretic and the geometrical, to the artificial standards, the white boxes and the cylinders which distinguish so much of the first modern architecture,’ 17 and in doing so creates the conditions for a potential reconfiguration of the police order’s distribution of the sensible and thus a condition in which politics may emerge. However, it is important to note that the technological sophistication comes at the cost of ‘an expenditure only thinkable in privileged commission of this kind,’ 18 and that the architects’ ability to innovate was a direct result of governmental patronage embedded within a broader tradition of state-funded cultural initiatives dependent on the government’s success as a police order. For Banham, this represents a fundamental limitation,
‘Even if our resources allow this sort of indulgence, the political machinery we would have to forge to operate it would be so offensive, that it would remove true freedom from the face of the earth. This is why there is no reason to expect a multiplicity of Pompidou -like buildings, and why there is no call to agonize too much about the political implications of such a structure.’ 19
However, the Pompidou Center is more broadly located in what Rancière terms the ‘aesthetic regime of art,’ whose beginning was marked by a move away from representation towards a,
‘Regime that strictly identifies art in the singular and frees it from any specific rule, from any hierarchy of the arts, subject matter and genres...The aesthetic regime asserts the absolute singularity of art and, at the same time, destroys any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity.’ 20
It is useful at this point to consider once again the Pompidou’s industrial inspiration. Piano and Rogers chose not to look for precedents in the Parisian cultural institutions in their immediate urban context, but rather, in the industrial landscape of America and the utopian space-age imagery that so captivated their peers at Archigram. Unlike Lignano Pineta though, the formal resolution of the building is not primarily the result of aesthetic considerations. The tapering profiles of the Pompidou’s floors stretch to meet an expressive pin-joint and gerberette bracket in what has become an iconic piece of engineering, yet they also serve to ensure column-free spans for the building’s galleries (fig.19). By avoiding columns and structural walls, Piano and Rogers were also able to avoid any discrete delineation of space within the building, and resist the architectural conventions and didacticism associated with the public gallery. Zevi defines the organic architect as one who, ‘concentrates upon the structure, [regarding] it not merely from a technical point of view but as the complex of all the human activities and feelings of the people who will use it,’ 21 a view that supports a reading of the the Pompidou as an organic construction, whose structure and formal resolution is in service to a broader cultural and social agenda. Relative to a Rancièreian historiography of the arts, the Pompidou can be situated within the aesthetic regime, for in its ambiguity, the building allows ‘various forms of politics to appropriate, for their own proper use, the modes of presentation or the means of establishing explanatory sequences produced by artistic practices rather than the other way around.’ 22 Conceiving of the Pompidou Center as revolutionary architectural act that can directly result in subjectivization is - as Banham states - problematic, however, it can be understood as an artistic work that encourages a redistribution of the sensible through its disruption of the anticipated correlation between form and function, and through a resistance to the formal rhetoric of the monumental cultural institution.
Despite the ambiguity of Zevi’s definition of organicism, ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’ provides the critical frame necessary to consider the term’s relevance to architectural discourse beyond purely formal considerations. The poetic narrative accompanying Marcello D’Olivo’s designs for Lignano Pineta evokes a democratic architecture informed by nature, but approaching the project relative to its potential as a site for the redistribution of the sensible reveals its limited political ambition. Conversely, the Pompidou Center’s role as a state-funded memorial project disguises the potential of the architectural act to simultaneously expose and subvert the innate power structures that organize and maintain this distribution. Considered through the lens of Rancie?re’s philosophy, the potency of Zevi’s rhetoric can be understood as an important invocation to architects to recognize the full agency of their practice, and exercise it in all its social, cultural and political dimensions.
1 Jaques Ranciere. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. (London: Continuum, 2004), 13.
3 Vittorio Gregotti, “Architecture of the Postwar Reconstruction 1944-1950”, in New Directions in Italian Architecture (New York: George Braziller, 1968), 40
4 The ‘political’ refers specifically to Rancière’s use of the term as ‘the terrain upon which the verification of equality confronts the established order of identification and classification’. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, 13.
5 Joan Ockman, ed. Architecture Culture, 1943-1968: a documentary anthology. (New York: Rizzoli, 1993), 69. Originally published as “La Costituzione dell’Associazione per l’Architettura Organica a Roma.” Metron 2 (September 1945), 756
6 Ibid., 76 7 Bruno Zevi. Towards an Organic Architecture. (London: Faber & Faber, 1950), 66.
8 Jaques Ranciere. The Politics of Aesthetics, 62
9 Ibid., 63
10 Marcello D’Olivo and Guido Zucconi. Marcello D’Olivo: Architetture E Progetti, 1947-1991. (Milano: Electa, 1998), 39.
11 Jaques Ranciere. The Politics of Aesthetics, 21
12 Ibid., 51
13 Understood in Rancière’s philosophy as the ‘polemical verification of equality’ and not ‘a state of social liberation.’
14 Reyner Banham, “Criticism by Reyner Banham.” The Architectural Review, May 1977. (London: Architectural Press Ltd.), 276
15 Jacques Rancie?re and Andrew Parker. The Philosopher And His Poor. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 225
16 Bruno Zevi. Towards an Organic Architecture, 67
17 Ibid., 72
18 Reyner Banham, “Criticism by Reyner Banham,” 278
19 Ibid., 279
20 Jaques Rancie?re. The Politics of Aesthetics, 23
21 Bruno Zevi. Towards an Organic Architecture, 76
22 Jaques Ranciere. The Politics of Aesthetics, 25
Banham, Reyner. The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1969.
Banham, Reyner, and Mary Banham. A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Dean, Andrea Oppenheimer, and Bruno Zevi. Bruno Zevi On Modern Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 1983.
D’Olivo, Marcello, and Ferruccio Luppi. Marcello D’Olivo: Architetto. Milano: Mazzotta, 2002.
D’Olivo, Marcello, and Guido Zucconi. Marcello D’Olivo: Architetture E Progetti, 1947-1991. Milano: Electa, 1998.
Frampton, Kenneth. The Evolution of 20th Century Architecture: a Synoptic Account. Wien: Springer, 2007.
Gregotti, Vittorio. “Architecture of the Postwar Reconstruction 1944-1950”, in New Directions in Italian Architecture. New York: George Braziller, 1968. 39-46.
Ockman, Joan, ed. Architecture Culture, 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology. New York: Rizzoli, 1993
Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2004.
Rancière, Jacques, and Parker, Andrew. The Philosopher And His Poor. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
Rattenbury, Kester, and Richard George Rogers. Richard Rogers: the Pompidou Centre. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012.
Scott, Felicity Dale Elliston. Architecture Or Techno-utopia: Politics After Modernism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007.
Terragni, Giuseppe, and Bruno Zevi. Giuseppe Terragni. 1a ed. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1980.
Whiteley, Nigel. Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.
Zevi, Bruno. Towards an Organic Architecture. London: Faber & Faber, 1950.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Gregotti, Vittorio. “Architecture of the Postwar Reconstruction 1944-1950”, in New Directions in Italian Architecture. New York: George Braziller, 1968. 39
Figures 2-14. D’Olivo, Marcello, and Guido Zucconi. Marcello D’Olivo: Architetture E Progetti, 1947-1991. Milano: Electa, 1998. 33 - 43.
Figures 14 - 19. http://web.dcp.ufl.edu