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Allocutio presented to Zheng Shiling Laurea Honoris Causa


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Allocutio presented to Zheng Shiling

Laurea Honoris Causa


of Prof. Lucio Valerio Barbera

Dean of the ‘Ludovico Quaroni’ First Faculty of Architecture



Sapienza University of Rome

In 1954 Luchino Visconti completed and presented at the Venice Film Festival his new film, Senso, which shocked the majority of the critics, didn’t win the Leone d’Oro and signalled the end of the Neorealist period – not only in the cinema. In 1955 in the pages of the magazine Cinema Nuovo, the magazine’s founder, Guido Aristarco, and Luigi Chiarini, the two most respected cinema critics of the day, faced each other down over Visconti’s new work with two articles, even the titles of which were in opposition: ‘Betrayal’ roared Chiarini, with the support of Cesare Zavattini, ‘Tradition’ replied Aristarco, by which he meant: finally, here is the passage from Neorealism to realism, from news stories to history, and thus from emotion over the ruins of a now vanished society to the courage to compare our difficult present with our country’s grand history. Finally, here was the passage from the poetry of the craftsman, of the cinema of the street actor, to the fullness of a demanding production on an international level, which could allow new auteurs to experiment fully with these new languages. In the Autumn of that year a small group of students, all certainly readers of Cinema Nuovo, signed up at the Architecture faculty, with a few confused ideas about cinema and even fewer about modern architecture. I thus found myself sharing a desk with Sandro Anselmi and Walter Bordini, received by tiny groups of older students who wished to appear cultivated, and were certainly more cultivated than us: Manfredo Tafuri, Paolo Marconi, Paolo Portoghesi and others I do not have space to list here. We soon realised – and I personally was initially surprised – that even in our faculty, Neorealism, realism, tradition and innovation formed the daily bread and the constant subject of our youthful debates and the debate between the students and the old and new academics. In all this intense and youthful debate and in the comparisons which we were at the same time carrying out between the architecture which was being taught us and that which we thought we understood when leafing through the international journals (very few at the time), we soon understood, or at least I felt that I had understood, that the Italian architectural condition was marked by the strain of being modern. Of course, those were times when architecture had not yet set sail towards the twin islands of visual communication and pure art; in fact all of us, old and young – students, progressive assistant lecturers and pompous academics – were certainly convinced of the direct social utility of our calling, and proud, deep down, that architecture was an applied art, applied profoundly to the needs of society. For this reason I can say today that the heart of the debate was not in the identification of the relationship between architecture and society, despite the many articles, essays and entire books and projects produced on the theme: the heart of the debate, the basic question, was and remains today the relationship between Italian culture and modernity, between the linguistic heritage of our cities and our history and the liquid, mobile, unstoppable modern architectural expression which is transmitted and imposed by the instruments of technology, by industrial multiplication and by the market just as the facile and diffuse new spoken ‘media’ languages are imposed upon our children and ourselves by the new technologies of visual and electronic communication. Fundamentally, in those years we perhaps unconsciously had grafted our progressive young antifascists’ theses onto the plan of the vigorous pre-war debate between rationalists and Italianists, let us say metaphorically between Pagano and Piacentini. A debate which, under examination, reveals deep if somewhat contorted roots in the more ancient debate between Camillo Boito and the group of eclectics of academy and ministry. The essence and form of modern Italian architecture, this is the real heart of the debate. Terragni seemed to us to have held the essence firm, the absolute classical equilibrium of volumes, proportions and rhythms in a modern form – which is also technology and the construction process. Ridolfi, in his post-war works, seemed to us, instead, to affirm the inalienable unity of essence – which is also body and conceptual structure – and form, which would in any case have to assume technology suited to the essence of the Italian condition: simple materials, a craftsmanship-like application. Manfredo Tafuri, with the arrogance of young critics, wrote: “…the architect’s manual edited by Ridolfi,” - but he really meant Ridolfi’s entire language, - “is the mirror of the cultural backwardness of Italian technology”. I have always been convinced that this would have pleased Ridolfi. The essence and form of Italian architecture were recognised as being perfectly balanced in the Ciclo delle Marmore, the architectural miracle which is his country houses near those famous waterfalls. The relationship between essence and form, between the spirit of history and the plan of modernity, so difficult to in Italy decline on the scale of architecture, has revealed itself impossible on the scale of the city in which, fundamentally, the separation between essence and form was dramatically sanctioned in the division of roles and of government. The expression of essence was attributed to the historical city, governed by specialised institutions, the superintendence organised in a suitable ministry. The expression of the forms of modernity was left to the contemporary construction industry, and every linguistic, not to mention social, responsibility abandoned. Today, in the voluntarily unresolved tensions between the two terms, the identity of Italian architecture seems to have been mislaid, and occasionally we might even think it no longer a problem, might think that perhaps it never was, were we not so often surprised by the flowering of an array of precious works by little-known young architects. In any case, as is innate in our culture and all historical cultures, just at the moment in which the fog is thickest and the footing most uncertain we are aided by the urgency of a journey to another place which is distant and yet resembles us and which in the unimaginable dimensions of its problems reflects, on an enlarged and thus more visible scale, our own problems, inspiring us to new ideas, new commitments and new hopes. China, therefore, for we architects is not only a privileged field of cultural work and knowledge. It is also, and perhaps above all, that distant other place which somehow resembles us, furrowed by those great rivers of water and culture which cannot be lacking in that elsewhere in which we hope to find answers to our questions. Essence and form, therefore, ti and yong as they are called in Chinese, are the first individual concepts which one meets upon undertaking that journey. Essence and form in China as here, in our cultural spaces, speak to us of the labour of architecture, the effort of being modern and ancient at the same time, of those strong generations of architects which have followed one upon another from the beginning of modernity, each with their own way of joining or dividing essence and form, Ti and Yong. They accompany you in the ancient debate which still moves consciences, cultures, projects and which intersects with politics and fights with the market and with bureaucracy. As always in any such profound journey, one cannot be courageous enough not to entrust oneself to a guide, if indeed one alone will suffice. Zhen Shiling, the designer of Shanghai’s first modern development – which would be enough in itself – was and is our first guide, and I turn to him with the words with which Peter Rowe and Seng Kuan thanked him at the end of their fundamental study of architecture in China from 1840 to the present day. I thank Zhen Shiling personally and in the name of my faculty “…for his prodigious knowledge and for the patience with which he guided us to understand what was happening around us.”
Lucio Valerio Barbera

24 October 2007


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