Exhibition - At Home - Projects for contemporary housing - August 2019



At Home
Projects for contemporaray housing
Maxxi Museo nazionale delle arti de XXI secolo

Via Guido Reni, Rome
Until 22 March 2020

When Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi Gallery in Rome opened in 2010 it caused quite a stir. It was in the vanguard of a growing wave of projects which challenged the white box minimalist tyranny that dominated art gallery design, and it received many plaudits, including WAF’s very own World Building of the Year.

So this exhibition of drawings from its growing collection related to housing schemes promises much. It also provides a reality check on Maxxi’s progress as a cultural institution – both building and collecting strategy, at this early stage in its history and the century whose art it seeks to collect and present to the public. Sadly the exhibition does not live up to the hype.

It consists of 12 pairings of housing schemes by different architects, plus a small section on la palazzina, a ‘specifically Roman typology with which many important architects and firms confronted themselves [sic] during the post-war period’, as the hand out puts it. The problems start right here at the conceptual level.

Pairing or comparison of projects is one of the oldest methods of presenting architecture, certainly dating back to Banister Fletcher’s ‘History of Architecture on the Comparative Method’. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, but it does need recognition that there are numerous points of possible comparison, not just function, and so this method demands sensitivity to form, time, place, purpose and scale as well as function.

Indeed function – housing – becomes rather a secondary consideration when looking at some of the pairs, each of which takes a 20th century Italian example alongside a 21st century international one. Take for instance the project for a Presidential Villa in Tuscany by Monaco Luccichenti of 1955-60 with Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s far more modest Casa Guna in southern Chile of 2010-2014. The contexts of landscape, purpose – as opposed to the narrower term function – and date rather defeat any possible comparison of the architecture, and put a straightjacket on how visitors might interpret what are both interesting projects in their own right.

This points to a deeper curatorial problem. If all the chosen examples have to come from the institution’s collection, many of the pairings will necessarily be artificial, even from a collection the size and age of MoMA’s. It is tempting to trawl one’s own collection, of course, but not when it undermines the premise, which is here to explore propositions for housing. It is possible do some research and select or commission a dozen really apposite pairs, which might be more demanding of intellectual and financial resource, but would give greater curatorial satisfaction and better value for money.

So even the most intriguing pairings – and there are some – feel rather compromised. Perhaps the most fecund is Aldo Rossi’s residential and office building on Berlin’s Schutzenstrasse of 1992-5, matched with Chinese architects Urbanus’ Vanke Tulou Housing in Guangzhou, just over a decade later. Rossi’s rigorous fragmentation of the façade speaks of the need to merge with Berlin’s urban grain, whereas Urbanus had to generate that character for themselves. There are all sorts of almost insurmountable differences between them, but this pair does at least offer some insight into two different cities and cultures.

But what conclusion are we to draw from the comparison between Adalberto Libera’s Casa Malaparte on Capri with Demogo’s Bivouac in the high Dolomites of 2016? Quite apart from being one of the oldest projects represented in the exhibition, dating from 1937, the Casa Malaparte was conceived to provide somewhere for Signor Malaparte (a name he invented for himself meaning ‘bad’ or ‘wrong side’) to live under house arrest after he fell out with the Fascists. That is why it is so isolated, not for the bourgeois desire for Alpine scenery, air and privacy. It may be a wonderful work of architecture, but the Malaparte can hardly be considered a model. Neither, really, can the bivouac.

Pairings which could be seen as exemplars are David Adjaye’s clever Sugar Hill housing in New York (2015), and Giancarlo de Carlo’s old warhorse of a residential project, the Urbino University dormitories from the 1960s; my friend Jo Noero’s project proposing a new typology for high-rise urban living in downtown Johannesburg is contrasted with Francesco Beraducci’s ‘villino’, a typology the curators consider to be ‘a true expression of the history of architecture and urban planning in the post-war period’.

The section on the palazzina – it is not clear what the difference is between a villino and palazzina, but they both seem to do the same thing – is the most interesting. It plays to the strengths of the collection, and speaks about something of which the curators clearly have experience. It also has some of the most interesting designs, including Moretti’s Palazzina il Girasole of 1948, which attracted Venturi’s approval in ‘Complexity and Contradiction’, for its slightly asymmetrical pediment and split between its two halves, which leads to a wonderful staircase.

This is a splendid work of architecture but is more than 70 years old and belongs to a type which the curators explain has its roots in a 1907 city plan and various regulatory changes over the following 25 years. It can hardly be said to meet the exhibition title’s description of projects for contemporary housing.

Much the same could be said of other projects, including Pier Luigi Nervi’s Italian ambassador residence in Brasilia. So what the exhibition amounts to is a series of interesting projects, impeded by curatorial failings and, one has to add, the building’s difficult exhibition spaces.

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