Contemporary Monuments, an Architecture of Frugality
Prof, Fabrizio Gallanti @ McGill University
*This post is part of a collaboration with McGill Univeristy where we will be sharing a selection of unrealized student projects.
A bare-bones reclamation of three derelict International Style buildings, this project offers a timely architectural appendage which uses twenty-first-century thinking on urbanism, sustainability, and architecture’s social role to reinvigorate a failed utopia from the past.
Located a short metro ride from Rome’s historic center, the city’s famed EUR district developed in stages. At its core is a 1940s fascist ideal city. Subsequent eras have grafted new interventions onto this underlying framework of broad boulevards and overbearing axiality as if it were wholly neutral. Riding a tide of optimism amidst Italy’s postwar economic miracle, the state invested heavily in EUR as a paragon of technocratic modernism. In the following decades, Rome, and especially EUR, underwent additional cycles of suburbanization, but this time without the necessary public investment in infrastructure. Now that the EUR’s grid is almost entirely built out, densification and reconfiguration remain the only applicable options for EUR to grow and maintain its socioeconomic viability as it moves from a stale business district to a mixed-use satellite urban community.
The iconic yet enigmatic expansion proposed by this project claims the third dimension by means of a secondary graft, infilled within EUR’s formally and stylistically diverse environment, heavily charged with historical, cultural, and political implications. Favoring clear expression and strict, functionalist geometry, a new public program has been stacked to fit a vertical urban landscape. Comprised of a sports precinct, an exhibition hall, and a botanical garden, the added civic program sits atop the former towers of the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance, which have in turn been reconfigured for residential accommodation. Starting from a simple set of typological rules, floor plan variations were devised to allow for the utmost level of flexibility within the existing towers’ reclaimed floors. The three high-rise mixed-use buildings and two programmatic components are joined by a structural viewing platform which echoes the sprawling new open-air public market colonnade added to the perimeter of the block. Just as the former acts as a mixing chamber for the public-collective activities, the latter provides an interface between the project and the surrounding urban space.
Standing proudly as a monument to reuse, the project takes on the task of transforming what could have easily been dismissed as obsolete utilitarian amenities into its primary means of vertical circulation, serving both the housing units and the public areas located on the upper levels of the buildings. Entirely clad with masonry, all six then deteriorated flanking shafts perform as backbone-like stiffening devices and are intended to operate as strong unifying elements in the composition of the facades.
The project’s iconic qualities arise through sheer scale and visibility within the largely mid-rise environs of EUR, but also through its preservation of historical structures—remnants of a monumental past with strong aesthetic merit. The proposed rehabilitation plan advocates on behalf of the former HQ’s cultural relevance and strives to reassess its aesthetic value through the formulation and usage of a frugal architectural grammar, largely based on an economy of means. Beneath this towering assemblage of concrete structural elements and floor-to-ceiling glass panes lurks an unremitting sequence of raw and unembellished spaces. The architecture is pragmatic in its approach, parsimonious in its features, and yet its bigness makes it ultimately unavoidable, unrivaled in the city’s skyline.
Who influences you graphically / What defined the graphic language of the project?
I’ve always felt the compulsive urge to break away from design approaches informed by an exaggerated emphasis on ‘real-life’ economical, technical, and contextual expectations. I instead choose to embrace a creative process charged with utopian potential and speculative appeal.
While my project was ‘realistic’ in its effort to root itself in its physical milieu, it was undertaken as an artistic venture, which shamelessly fetishized its central medium of communication: the image.
From the onset, I wanted to delve further into the idea of representation as a finality. My goal was to produce work that would be pictorial rather than technical in character and as such, more artifactual than actual. I like to think of Contemporary Monuments as a simple collection of mise-en-scènes echoing Giorgio de Chirico’s architecturally inflected metaphysical landscapes.
It was conceived as a vehicle to demonstrate that through its own means, the architectural drawing finds its relevance in its power to enthrall and instantiate the forces of architectural seduction.
My influences have come mostly from creative authorities as artistically diverse as J. M. W. Turner (The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire), Urs Fischer (You), Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Journey to the End of the Night illustrated by Jacques Tardi), and Marcus Keef (cover of Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album). As compelled as I am by the work of practicing architects who resort to drawing as primary tool for critical thought in the process of exploration and production (from Rossi to Hejduk, Dogma to fala etc.) I tend to source my inspiration from outside the realm of architecture.
What is your take on color?
Of my influences, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal are among few who serve as a valued voice speaking uncompromisingly of an architecture without emblems, an architecture reduced to the bare necessities. It was under their tutelage that I began to develop my own graphic language, one of frugality and strict honesty. I became obsessed with ‘stripping down’ all notions of the project’s development—from conception to production—to a functional structural skeleton.
In order to honor function and denounce mechanical glamour, color was regarded as a luxury that this project did not care to indulge in. I was committed to using the most rudimentary tools and processes in my reach. By following the character of my project this meant using techniques which visual constrained just as the project itself was subject to stringent limitations.
How relevant is the term and notion of monument in contemporary society?
Typically, a monument refers to a constructed piece of architecture, an esthetically resonant physical presence meant to communicate and remind the enduring significance of a meaningful history.
While it is monumental in nature, my project was not conceived in commemorative terms. It rather embodies both a streamlined simplification and reinterpretation of traditional elements, carefully woven into a dry and severe architectural investigation, flirting with the crude confines of monumental academism. Here, the monumentality lies in the buildings’ unembellished essence and pure lines, which accentuate the craftsmanship of each and every detail.
My project aims to denounce and subvert the tradition of the monument feeding the commissioner’s ego and suppressing the voice of the people who live in its company. As people are more aware of their personal agency and strive to gain autonomy from their confined reality, they have a more global outlook on politics, and increasingly identify with diffuse historical narratives. Monuments thus have the responsibility and capability of being mixed-use. They should serve a greater purpose to foster societal progress.
How important was the representation of context within the images?
The representation of the context was paramount to the understanding of the project’s intentions to overcome and rehabilitate an area scarred by a dubious political past. However, in the character of the project, I have limited my visual engagement with the surroundings to avoid a misinterpreted commemoration. It is important to acknowledge the past, but in order to do it responsibly, I would rather develop a refined discourse than present another glorified image.