biennale postscript: conversations with an architect

I just want to hug this building!

After the biennale we spend a week in the countryside north of Rome, where we have the chance to talk architecture with R, who has been designing and building for decades. R has completed a number of wonderful houses among the olive groves of Sabina, and has intriguing plans for more. He tells us about them, he tells us Australians of his admiration for the work of Glenn Murcutt. R has a passion for sustainability and a powerful understanding of architectural history and philosophy. Much of the discussion is on the philosophical level. R talks of creativity, of how barely having enough, but never more than that, is the source of innovation: making do, finding ways to live well with whatever is at hand. A creative way of living, it is poor, he says, but ‘poor’ is not ‘misery’, it is not the desperation of the war-dispossessed, the misery of the refugee; poor is the necessary condition for innovation.

There is a specific Italian flavour to this discussion. In Italy, says R, there is a landscape of mountains and valleys and rivers, there are seasons, there are birds and animals. This makes people ‘sing’; it produces ‘multiple ways of thinking’… This insight is spiced by the knowledge that R is both Italian and a migrant; he does not arrive in Italy until he is in his thirties, already a practising architect. Italy teaches him something about himself.

‘I just want to hug this building!’ was his response when he first saw the house we were staying in. And it is an extraordinary house, built probably in the late middle ages, built probably as a convent, built predominately on and from the ruins of an ancient Roman town, and restored from its dilapidated state in the nineteen fifties by someone who obviously understood architecture. And, yes, it is undoubtedly the most wondrous house we have stayed in.

‘Why didn’t we just stop there?’, R says to me. Modern architecture keeps striving and striving to be new, but it can’t create anything as wonderful as this house… The idea gets teased out over lunch with the story of the building of a church in a remote community in South America. There are no modern buildings in this community, nor in the neighbouring ones, yet the church has to be built from scratch. Drawing sustenance from the knowledge that, historically, buildings were built in the same style and manner over a period of centuries, R designs a church in keeping with the historical churches of the area. In order to build it the villagers have to develop a range of traditional building skills, thus making it their church in more ways than one.

Although we don’t talk about this specifically, there are numerous connections in our conversations, and in this story particularly, to Mario Cucinella’s journey of discovery in L’altro Spazio and to Bogdan Bogdanović’ passionate laments over the destruction of the traditional city.

Another phone call, another project; this time, it’s lunch…

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