UC Berkeley (Nick)



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    Bella, Bellicosa Italia

    Nick Sowers
    Nov 10, '09 9:19 PM EST

    I spend a lot of time looking at ugly buildings. You could say I'm addicted to them. US military bases are not pretty things. One base planner put it to me this way: "We build 'em like jeeps, simple and functional." And there's a certain logic to jeep aesthetics: because it looks cheap and functional, then it probably is. The same goes for a lot of military architecture. It's basic, modular, cheap (in terms of finishes), and pretty damn ugly.


    Well you can't quite build like that in Italy. I toured Aviano Air Base, northeast of Venice. It was a weird "architectural pilgrimage" being that one of the key books I read putting together this proposal was Mark Gillem's America Town. As a reserve Air-Force planner, he details the mocking of Palladian style: faux loggias and other such gestures at cultural assimilation. The book is more about land use and less about architecture. That's one thing that interests me in military bases (when my eyes get tired) is to think about the land use issues: who owns it, how does the treaty allow for its continued use, what happens when the land goes back to civilian use, etc.


    In Italy I also met with some planners at Camp Ederle in Vicenza, where there's been a heap of protest over the new Dal Molin development. That's a whole 'nother story. But one of the planners gave me a .pdf of design guidelines for the army post derived from Palladian style. It's gold. You can just imagine the architecture being used as a beard for the military, saying "hey, this barracks has A-B-A-B proportions and square windows, see how it fits?" or "look at those doric columns at the headquarters; that means we belong here." .


    Right, so this post is really not about the attempt to make the ugly beautiful, but it's simply about two really, really beautiful buildings that I had the pleasure to explore. One is famous, and the other is relatively newly restored. Check 'em out:


    Castelvecchio was one of the first things I remember in architecture school. Someone at USC showed it in the intro to architecture lectures and it struck a deep chord. I feel like it came right when we were all neck-deep in Corb's five points, Itten's color theory, and the oppression of Mies's free plan. I thought, hey architecture isn't all about construction from a blank slate. You can do beautiful things with reworking an existing palette. So it's a bonus that I got to do this pilgrimage and chalk it up as a post-military site visit.


    The "old castle" became a museum in the early 20th century but was in tatters after WWII. Enter Carlo Scarpa. The dude was obsessive, constantly working over drawings, washing them in white tempura and scribbling on them anew. His hand is in every corner of the building and, yet, it as though no hand has touched it but rather the natural, sublime forces of erosion have just shifted some planes, left some corners gaping, some stones stepping.

    It's an amazing feeling when you get to walk through the building of an architect you've always admired in slides and in books. That's the real Grand Tour, and the only proper way to learn architecture, I think.

    The other building not to be excluded from a set of the post-military beautiful in Italy is the restoration of a tower in San Erasmo in the Venetian lagoon. The architects are Carlo Cappai and Maria Alessandra Segantini. If you can find the book Infrastrutture dello Sguardo (I bought it on the site) I recommend getting it; it's a beautiful book as well as a beautiful building.



    There was an art installation as part of the Venice Biennale of Art and uncannily, one of the video works was about bunker towers in the lagoon built during WWII.


    That's all I have time for, I'm jumping on a plane from SFO to Manila in six hours. The last leg of the trip starts tonight!

    • 1 Comment

    • mantaray
      It's an amazing feeling when you get to walk through the building of an architect you've always admired in slides and in books.

      Too true. I long for that, in a few key places. Notre Dame du Ronchamps, essentially any Zumthor, essentially any Siza, Kimball museum, Basel Central Switching Station... oh so many, now that I come to actually think about it.
      Nov 16, 09 11:29 pm  · 

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