Lessons From Northern Italian Cities: Part II

Part two from yesterday.

Continuing my tour of several northern Italian cities, I next visited Bergamo — a very pleasant surprise. It, like Brescia, is a city of two worlds, but in this case the contrast between old and new is much subdued, the general atmosphere is more lively and the city is a model of care and citizen engagement.

The place is visually impressive, divided into an Upper City — a lovely town on an imposing hill, surrounded by Venetian walls and punctuated by domes and towers — and a Lower City, where two medieval-Renaissance districts were joined by a new modern civic center. Marcello Piacentini once again supplied the master plan, but his work here is vastly more successful than in Brescia.

The new center’s buildings were designed by different architects and demonstrate varying styles, from the severe “stripped Classical” former Fascist Party headquarters (after World War II, it served as the first seat of Italy’s democratic government) to the charming Renaissance-style arcades along the Sentierone, a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard and still the city’s principal public promenade. These arcades reminded me of the “Mediterranean” style buildings built in the same decade in my hometown, Coral Gables, Florida. The Lower City is visually dominated by the older center on the hilltop, always rising above the lower skyline like a vision out of a romantic painting.

In the Upper City, little has changed — architecturally, at least — since the end of the 17th century. The main piazza is a model civic square, complete with massive bell tower and exterior stairway, ground-floor restaurants, a lovely fountain (not in the center!) and the “broletto” or medieval municipal hall perched on top of an open loggia — a common feature of medieval northern Italian towns.

At one end is a note of contrast: a white-stone Palladian palazzo designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi that houses the public library. In an adjacent piazza the cathedral and neighboring church of Santa Maria Maggiore are lavishly decorated and, characteristically, display virtually all the architectural styles from Romanesque through the Neo-Classicism of the early 19th century. All these layers of styles are so intimately interwoven that it is impossible to disentangle them without unraveling the entire ensemble.

Bergamo. A view of the Sentierone, the broad, tree-lined pedestrian boulevard at the center of the Lower Town. The mixed-use buildings flanking the open space on the right are part of the new town center constructed 1914-1934 and master-planned in by Marcello Piacentini. Bergamo. A view of the Sentierone, the broad, tree-lined pedestrian boulevard at the center of the Lower Town. The mixed-use buildings flanking the open space on the right are part of the new town center constructed between 1914 and 1934 and master planned in by Marcello Piacentini.

The Lower City has numerous modern buildings, but they fit within the fabric, maintaining consistent volume, massing and materials. The main boulevards are tree lined, and there are flowers everywhere — a sure sign of civic care. There are no glass towers visible, and the view from the Upper City above is also pleasant. The city is very well maintained without looking “twee” or touristy. In fact, there are few tourists, and the attractiveness of the place seems more a product of local pride than a marketing ploy to attract visitors.

I see two lessons here. First, modern and historic cities and buildings can co-exist in harmony if the architects of the new make continuity, rather than contrast, their highest priority. Second, a historic city can be prosperous, well cared for and pleasant without being gentrified or turned into a museum city for the amusement of tourists. Bergamo proves that it’s possible.

Finally, I arrived in Como, famous for two things: its setting at the southern end of the beautiful alpine lake (called Lario in Roman times) and buildings built in the Fascist period by the architect Giuseppe Terragni. The influence of the first is magnificent; the second has almost ruined the city. Terragni, a principal member of the Rationalist movement in Italian Modernist architecture, is almost universally worshipped by Modernist architects for his detached formal abstraction, but few of his admirers look closely at the consequences of his interventions. Like many Modernist architects, he himself lived and had his office in a traditional building, still seat of a foundation that promotes his work and ideas.

Como. The Novocomum apartment building of 1929 by Giuseppe Terragni was supposed to be a traditional addition to the slightly older building next to it, but when the scaffolding came down the ruse was revealed. Radical contrast between new and old became the default setting of Modernist architecture, too often embraced by preservationists, to disastrous effect. Como. The Novocomum apartment building of 1929 by Giuseppe Terragni was supposed to be a traditional addition to the slightly older building next to it, but when the scaffolding came down, the ruse was revealed. Radical contrast between new and old became the default setting of Modernist architecture, too often embraced by preservationists, to disastrous effect.

Terragni’s first important work in Como is the Novocomum of 1929, a five-story apartment building of stark white geometrical volumes overlooking the lake. This was initially announced as an addition to the adjacent eclectic-Classical apartment house. Renderings showing traditional facades were approved by the authorities, but, when the scaffolding came down, Terragni’s Modernist design was revealed, to the horror of many. Terragni’s bait-and-switch routine proved successful because the architect was protected by his brother, the Fascist mayor of Como. Calls for the structure’s demolition were ignored. But there is some justice: Today the building faces not the intended lake view but a particularly unattractive post-war soccer stadium.

Across town, just behind the beautiful Gothic-Renaissance-Baroque cathedral, is the Casa del Fascio, built as the Fascist party headquarters in 1936. The white stone-veneered façade is a mechanical rectangular grid behind which lurks an arrangement of asymmetrical windows and transparent glass screens. Nothing could be more abstract or minimalist, and this is the building’s appeal for connoisseurs of Modernist architecture. But it is a guilty pleasure for them because of the building’s unambiguous connection with the Fascist movement.

Today we see the building differently. What in the 1930s might have represented “the shock of the new” today seems merely trite. It no longer faces a large public square (intended for mass demonstrations and political rallies) but a busy highway and a rail line. It now houses an office of the Financial Police and is visually dwarfed by the magnificent apse and dome of the cathedral opposite and its largely Classical neighbors, which represent a far more humane vision of the city.

Terragni’s work clearly set the tone for the subsequent Modernist interventions, whose rigid geometries and industrial materials diminish — indeed, nearly ruin — what was undoubtedly an attractive walled medieval town on Roman foundations. Aside from the cathedral, the adjacent “broletto” and campanile and a handful of handsome streets and squares, the main attraction of Como today is once again its setting on the lake, on the shore of which one finds another interesting monument — that to the inventor Alessandro Volta.

Como. Tempio Voltiano, the memorial to the inventor Alessandro Volta, rises on the shores of Lake Como in a public park. Exquisitely designed and detailed, Federico Frigerio’s building, completed in 1927, shows a humanist alternative to the mechanical abstraction of the contemporaneous Modernist structures around it that have nearly ruined the city.Como. Tempio Voltiano, the memorial to the inventor Alessandro Volta, rises on the shores of Lake Como in a public park. Exquisitely designed and detailed, Federico Frigerio’s building, completed in 1927, shows a humanist alternative to the mechanical abstraction of the contemporaneous Modernist structures around it that have nearly ruined the city.

Federico Frigerio’s Neo-Classical temple, approached by an allee of trees and looking like the casino of a Renaissance villa, was built in 1927 and is therefore contemporaneous with Terragni’s dull boxes. (Now which of these architects was registering the “architecture of our time”?) But how much more beautiful Como would be today had the city’s historic fabric remained intact, with modest and sympathetic additions like those in Bergamo! Instead of protecting them, current preservation orthodoxy leaves our historic centers exposed and vulnerable to the same threat that spoiled Como. This is a lesson we Americans would do well to take to heart.

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This entry was published on September 15, 2010 at 5:18 am. It’s filed under Historic Building, Sustainable Building and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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