Interview: Franco Purini (Winter 2007/2008)

Student Dormitory, Universita La Sapienza, Rome – Competition (2004)

ritratto purini



COMPETITIONS: Since you are interested in planning and ‘The City of the Future,’ one might imagine that someplace like the United States, where a building is here today and gone tomorrow, orr entire districts for that matter, would be more fertile ground for you, rather than Italy, where city cores are eternally preserved. How can one understand the ‘City of the Future’ here, against the background of Italian urban tradition?


Franco Purini: In Italy many think that the problems of the future in our country can be resolved only within the framework of preservation and restoration. Therefore, many think that we have enough (large) cities, where it is only necessary for them to deal with their own evolutionary process, taking into consideration their own history. As a result, the ‘Italian culture,’ not the ‘architectural culture,’ the culture that expresses the essence of the country, has a tendency to belive that something new is in someway an accessory, a corrective or an improvement, something marginal. To them, what is important is the presence of antiquity.

I have found this vision very limiting and restrictive, because even if Italy has a great presence of historical evidence, it also has a great need to have a strong tie with contemporary thought. Therefor it is necessary to add to the framework of that patrimonial conservation the politics and the implementation of new available knowledge, new strategies where needed. That should provide a relationship between our country’s ideas and contemporary global development.

What is the effect of the current politics of preservation? The core or center of the historical city, like Sienna, is perfectly preserved as well as can be expected; and granting that such a thing is possible, this city expands without any planning, creating a suburban area. Therefore cities like Sienna, Pisa, and Venice just to name a few, have horrendous suburbs. it would be much more interesting to preserve the historical centers for what they are, and then the new districts which are needed should be built according to a well coordinated design, just as if they were new cities or neighborhoods as part of that existing city.

In Italy today, especially in the north, the diffused city prevails, a variety of the American sprawl, so that in the end there is no more an identity to these places. There aren’t any places, there is nothing!


COMPETITIONS: In China, for instance, they are building many cities next to old ones, for as many as 50,000 inhabitants.

FP: Yes, they are building many cities and this is because there is an enormous growth and an enormous shift of demographics from the country to the city. That is slightly different from Italy, because here the process really happened in the 50s. Today we need small cities, where the creative class can live and work (according to the American sociologist Richard Florida), a class that is characterized by talent, technical knowledge and tolerance, while it is globally connected.

This class of citizens is able to make connections that are cognitive and existential, which was not possible earlier. For instance, people who work in the economy but also in communications have very strong cultural needs, such as museums. They also have physical and spiritual needs, so they require spirtiual places or something analogous that have great relationship to the body – health, fitness, nature, which are to be accompanied by a sustainable environment; and therefore ecology comes as a natural preoccupation – it is not a 9/11 emergency call to the immediate needs of people, but a new way of conceptualizing a new, profound and deep rapport with the world. This new reality has been accepted in Italy as well, where new ways of expressing these ideals should be met.

The old cities cannot provide much help, because they speak of other values, having been created in a very different time. For that reason they are based on another type of existence.


San Giovanni Battista, Lecce, Italy – 2004
San Giovanni Battista, Lecce, Italy – 2004

COMPETITIONS: In the U.S., in places like Naples, Florida, we are being forced to build affordable housing for school teachers, who otherwise could not afford to move to those cities because of the cost of living.


FP: In Italy things are a bit different. Things in the workplace are more traditional as opposed to America where continuous changes in the workplace and social mobility are the norm. So in America you have a situation which doesn’t exist here. But in Italy, especially in the north, there are cities capable of doing similar experiments to the U.S. and can support these changes or adjustments almost without any government support. This class is accustomed to live in very modern homes and they have a high level of consumerism. They are very mobile and dominate their territory. They hold tickets to the global economy; but unfortunately don’t have the wherewithal to realize their full potential since the town environment that could support these possibilities and ideas is missing.


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Casa Pirello a Gibellina – 1990

COMPETITIONS: A number of Italian architects have influenced 20th century architecture in America, such as Scarpa and Aldo Rossi. The postmodern movement in America can hardly be imagined without the Italians. Still, that proved to be a short episode in architectural history. Is there a discernable trend towards a modern vernacular now? When students come back from there travels, what are they talking about?


FP: Let us say that foreign students coming here are not very interested in modern Italian architecture. It’s very rare that they look up Moretti and others, unless they are truly well prepared in advance.

Meanwhile the historical Itailian architecture is of interest to all foreign students. Modern contemporary Italian architecture, because of its strong political implications attached to architectural ideology, is of interest only to the more sophisticated; it is almost for experts. Unless you talk about Scarpa or Rossi.

There are three instances of this modern relationship between today’s American architects and Italian architecture. We have Robert Venturi, who wrtoe Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. He was strongly influenced by the perception of Rome’s traditional architecture and its baroque period – and by relatively unknown architects like Armando Brassini.

Then there is Peter Eisenman, who studied extensively the work of Giussepe Terragni, which was fundamental to his formative years. He considers himself very Terragnian.

There is also Steven Holl, for whom the experience of contemporary Italian architecture was veyr important. His first projects were influenced very much by the Italian Rationalism, above all by the projects built in Italy in the early 70s. His projects were published in pamphlet architecture. Let us say, that for the educated, sophisticated architect of the present, modern architecture is very important.

For the everyday architect, contemporary Italian architecture is not interesting, just the historical genre. The contrary is true for Italian architects, who are very interested in contemporary American architecture; but they are less knowledgable about Richardson, Olmsted, or Sullivan.


Kubo Building, Ravenna, Italy – 1997-2005
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Kubo Building, Ravenna, Italy – 1997-2005
COMPETITIONS: Where does Frank Lloyd Wright fit in?
FP: The knowledge of Frank Lloyd Wright we have here in Italy was strongly influenced by Bruno Zevi during the postwar period, whose interpretation is viable, but in a sense distorted. The originality of Wright, which is the result of American traditions and culture, is expressed in a totally different way, whatever that is. Wright was considered by Zevi a prophet of that utopian rural culture which would later have been developed in Europe. In that sense, I find Zevi’s approach more than questionable.
COMPETITIONS: As a student, you were exposed to some powerful influences. How did this shape your approach to the profession?
FP: Young people are always strongly influenced by the people they meet. I recall as a student I was influenced very much by my teacher, Maurizio Sacripanti, a great italian architect, a visionary, who has dealt a lot with utopian ideas. I worked for him for seven years. Ever since I was young, I was close to the world of Piranese. For a short period we were very familiar with the work of Louis Kahn, who has had a very strong, longlasting influence in Italy. Finally, we were very much influenced by out own Italian rationalism, especially by Terragni and Libera. So what I have in common with Eisenman is based on our common interest in Terragni.
Concorso (1995) – Competition for the redesign of the Agustus Mausoleum and plaza, Rome

COMPETITIONS: You are part of the neo-rationalist movemnet in Italy. Some foreign architects, such as Kleihues used that term to describe their approach to design. What do Italians understand “rationalism” to mean, and how did aesthetics fit into this?

FP: I knew Kleihues well and also Ungers. Rationalism or neo-rationalism is essentially a sort of temporal transformation of classicism. Its foundation is classical, meaning that classicism is that system of rules capable through compositional means of extracting order from chaos. Rationalism is to an extent a new manifestation of classicism. A system that can unite in a made-up combination, order and chaos. Italian classicism has always had some nuances, where some traces of the chaotic state that preceded the final stages of that new order are visible. It is different from English classicism in that it is more mechanical and repetitive. For us, it is very important that the form be clear, but also mysterious. In this, we are followers of Tafuri.

According to Kenneth Frampton’s book Studies in Tectonic Culture, the way of thinking architecturally for us Italians is tectonic, that is, construction and the logic that guides the making of a building. But the constructive logic, at a certain point of the design process, has to be thrown into a crisis. This is the difference between us and Frampton. For him the logic is the logic; for us, there is no logic if there is not a moment where this logic is not contradicted.
For us the form is simple, but in its simplicity, it is loaded with contradictions. It is like a person, like a body recognizable in its symmetry, in its form or silhouette but inside it’s full of contradictions which cannot be seen.
Laura Thermes: We follow a logical path but we create some dissonant notes, some discrepencies in the composition, because by introducing these exceptions we help understand the rules.
FP: Talking about order, in doing drawings I do experimental research on architecture. To me drawings are a form of research, logical, theoretical and conceptual. For me, all that is problematic in architecture, I tend to investigate while drawing.
Drawings by Purini

COMPETITIONS: In Italy, there is a lot of what we call paper architecture, simply because many competition-winning designs are never built. On the other hand, there are a number of excellent publications in this country which can bring these designs to the light of day. In the U.S. it’s very important to be published – it can mean jobs. How important can winning a competition be here, even if it isn’t built?

FP: Until a few years ago, it was difficult to build in Italy, but today, things are changing. Even so, an enormous number of architects are entering competitions in Italy. Many architects never build anything, because as a profession in Italy, we lack power. For instance, architects are limited, subject to intimidation: “If you don’t do it this way for me, I’ll get somebody else to do it.” Government officials here don’t consider architecture to be an intellectual pursuit. Architects are regarded almost as a blue collar worker that provides a service. Architecture is not regarded as a product of the mind. At the core of all this, there is a deep devaluation of the idea of architecture.

COMPETITIONS: Like in the U.S.A.?

FP: No, I don’t agree. I wouldn’t say so. In the United States a personality like Frank Gehry is encouraged to do his own architecture. He is sustained and supported. He is regarded as an important artist and the country is happy to have him as a citizen. In Italy a personality like Frank Gehry, who is into research, is culturally opposed in every way. Here he wouldn’t be considered reliable and trustworthy. In America he is entrusted with extraordinary jobs. This is unique!

LT: I see those as different approaches by different cultures.
COMPETITIONS: Of all the competitions you have entered, which was the most satisfying in terms of your solution?
FP: We have participated for almost 30 years in competitions. Now it is almost part of a daily routine.
COMPETITIONS: Any one in particular?
FP: Some competitions we entered when we were young. We had an ability to anticipate the future, which is difficult to find in somebody at 30. Therefore, the Government Center of Latina (Centro Direzionale di Latina). This was an important planning competition of 1972, which anticipated the future through a project in the form of land art or ecological architecture. Gregotti and I entered some competitions together. Recently we have entered competitions for two train stations: Tuburtina, here in Rome, and Porta Nova in Turin. We didn’t win, but we got second place in both. Those have very powerful images.
Porta Susa rail station competition, Turin, Italy (2001) – Second Place
Porta Susa rail station competition, Turin, Italy (2001) – Second Place

COMPETITIONS: Many of your drawings are in collectins around the world. With the advent of computer-aided design, how important is the hand rendering now? Doesn’t it still reveal a personality that a computer cannot replicate?

FP: Manual and hand drafting will never be replaced by the computer. One thousand years from now, there will be artists who will draw designs with their own hands.
LT: But it isn’t true that computer-generated design does not have a personal quality.
FP: It is very well possible to work with the computer, creating the presentation with a very strong artistic value. For example, some project renderings of Eisenman or Tschumi or some of the young American designers are works of art.
LT: Franco is convinced that everything begins with drawing, that is, at a certain moment in the process of drawing is idea, and everything returns to drawing. This is so much so, that some images of our work, especially some interiors take on the aura of a photo, and they seem (at least to us) to look like an abstract drawing. When that happens we feel like we have come full circle.
FP: To be clear, it is not so much about tools, drawing is always a spiritual manifestation.
Drawing by Purini
COMPETITIONS: Just imagine you were Oriol Bohigas, and, as was the case with Barcelona, the Mayor of Rome said to you, pick a district and do a plan. Where would you start?
FP: Assuming that I would be conciencious, and that usch a part of the city has to last through the ages, then I would begin by working on those elements that will last, the permanent ones. What are those elements? That is the main characteristic of the tracciatto that can be translated into English as the urban fabric of the city. In the case of Rome, the tracciatto is the way in which streets and public spaces – especially plazas – are interwoven. This is the base for Rome but each city has a different structure. We have to keep in mind that most urban patterns are representations of a cosmic idea. Each of them has some meaning. The Greeks and the Romans used to think there was something sacred in those manifestations. They were seen as cosmic representations on earth. It is a beautiful and poetic way of understanding the making of a city.
LT: In Barcelona the interventions were limited to some problem areas. I think we all agree on the difficulties of designing a city all at once. Nowadays, it is very unusual to have a commission of that extent and complexity.
FP: Again, when one designs a city, one should be aware that it is about producing a design which will last forever.
LT: In Barcelona, those are urban renewals and they worked with different strategies than those that should be applied to the making of a new city. The approach to those interventions in a large existing city is different because the historic gothic center or the Cerda ensanche are not to be affected or touched except for small interventions.
Barcelona was resolved case by case, without a new general idea for the city, because it is felt that the city cannot be managed with just one design. Then, going back to the core of your question even in those small interventions we need to have a way of identifying and reflect on the future traciatta, the DNA of that city whose parts we want to redesign. We would be satisfied if that process of analysis and discovery should be translated into the end result.
Concorso (1995) – Competition for the redesign of the Agustus Mausoleum and plaza, Rome
 Note: The translation of this text was by Board Member, Graziella Bush, and facilitated by Carlos Casuscelli. It also includes comments by Laura Thermes, Franco Purini’s long-time partner and collaborator.