Suspending Modernity

Suspending Modernity

Reviews: Books

Kay Bea Jones:

Suspending Modernity

The Architecture of Franco Albini

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The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence. —T. S. Eliot1

Like T. S. Eliot, Italian architect Franco Albini (1905–1977) contended that modernity is a product of tradition. Although Albini’s work aligned with international modernism, his craft-based sensibility, complex stylistic palette, deep sense of history and tradition, and professional modesty placed him for many years at the edge of modernism’s mainstream. Thus, whereas Giuseppe Terragni, Carlo Scarpa, Ernesto Rogers, Adalberto Libera, Pier Luigi Nervi, and Aldo Rossi are names familiar to architects and architectural historians interested in twentieth-century Italian architecture, the name and work of Franco Albini has not, until relatively recently, been well known beyond Italy. 
Despite his key role in the development of Italian Rationalism, whose members held him in great reverence, a period as editor of Casabella, and his technological inventiveness and attention to craft that paved the way for the next generation of Italian designers, including his former employee Renzo Piano, he produced little interpretative material about his work. Thus only recently, through efforts of a younger generation, have retrospective exhibitions of Albini’s work taken place in Italy, and the Fondazione Franco Albini has been created to preserve and disseminate information about his work. 

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In Franco Albini: Suspending Modernity, the first English book-length examination of Albini’s work (forthcoming, October 2014), Kay Bea Jones (professor of architecture at Ohio State University) presents a strong argument for Albini’s importance not only to Italian modernism but also to that of the Americas, including architects as different as Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, and Lina Bo Bardi. Richly illustrated and based on extensive archival research, original drawings, diagrams, and writings of key twentieth-century scholars, the book explores a broad range of buildings and projects by Studio Albini, proposing that Albini changed how modernist Italian architects and designers thought about space, technology, and tradition. 
The book is structured into ten chapters. In the introduction Jones argues that Albini was an important contributor to international modernism, yet with an Italian, even personal, sensibility that tried to reconcile tensions among Italian design tendencies. Chapter 2 lays out the cultural context of twentieth-century Italian architecture, noting the impact on Albini of Novecento, Futurism, and Rationalist ideas of historical continuity. Albini’s lifelong interest in European modernism is a link to the fifth chapter, establishing his interactions with CIAM. The third and fourth chapters relate Albini’s ideas about space and interiority to his transition from designer to architect, linking his ideas to those of Louis Kahn. Projects discussed in these two chapters include his Fabio Filzi Housing, Villa Neuffer, INA Pavillion, Milan Triennale exhibition proposal, the beautiful Veliero bookshelf, the Zanini Fur Showroom, Holz Dermatological Institute, Baldini and Castoldi Bookstore, Villetta Pestarini, Villa Allemandi, and the apartment for Caterina Marcenaro, as well as Kahn’s unrealized Fruchter House. In chapter 6, Jones examines Albini’s extraordinary museum spaces and displays of historical artifacts in Genoa—the Palazzo Bianco, Palazzo Rosso, and the Treasury of San Lorenzo—and their relationship to the work of Lina Bo Bardi and Philip Johnson as well as Scarpa and Kahn. In chapter 7, Albini’s Pirovano youth hostel and the Rinascente department store in Rome become vehicles for a discussion of historical continuity, with argued connections to Kahn’s British Art Center. In chapter 8, Jones examines Albini’s INA offices in Parma and municipal offices in Genoa (today Palazzo Albini). In chapter 9, Jones traces the evolution of Albini’s urban planning proposals, housing, and furniture.

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The projects range from the Fabio Filzi housing quarter of the 1930s to the Mangiagalli, Vialba, Piccapietra, and INA-Casa Cesate housing projects of the 1950s, as well as furniture designs—the Marcenaro bookshelf, Cicognino table, and Louisa and Gala chairs. The final chapter returns to two late museum projects—Sant’Agostino in Genoa and Eremitani in Padua, examining links to Scarpa and Kahn. The book ends with two appendices containing translations of one of Albini’s rare public statements and Piano’s reminiscences of his time in Albini’s studio. These two very personal texts vividly bring specific moments in Albini’s architecture and office to life. 

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Jones identifies a number of Albini’s contributions as particularly important—the recognition of the single room and its interior as architecture’s basic unit, historical continuity through reinterpretation of precedent, and the poetic assimilations of industrial and technical realities. Introspective and exacting, Albini’s approach flourished within the tight budgetary constraints of post–World War II Italian industrialization and urbanization but also reflected a deep-seated desire for continuity with pre-Fascist civic culture. Jones argues that Albini introduced new ways of seeing cultural artifacts, the social program, and fabrication. Formally, Jones sees Albini’s work as nuanced manipulation of tension and compression of space and materials, with an interest in transparency different from the tectonic approaches of Mies, Corb, or Gropius. Throughout the book Jones builds the case for the importance of Albini’s architecture by referring to its historical critical reception by Italian and international architectural historians and theorists. 

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An emphasis on relationships and influences, some poetic and personal, others scholarly and intellectual, and many connecting Albini’s ideas internationally, permeates the book. Recognizing the importance that Albini placed on working process, Jones notes the respect with which he held his collaborators, particularly—and unusually for the period—his longtime female professional partner, Franca Helg, who continued to run the office after his death. Jones also points out that Studio Albini worked closely with many women clients, architects, and researchers, including Caterina Marcenaro, who commissioned four of Albini’s museums, and Matilde Baffa, his research assistant at the IUAV in Venice and later colleague at Milan Polytechnic. Jones cites Helg frequently, as well as other twentieth-century women architects like Scott-Brown and Bo Bardi. The emphasis on Helg, and women architects in general, is an important contribution of this book to the history of architectural practice in twentieth-century Italy and beyond. 

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The book’s title, Suspending Modernity, carries a double meaning, both literal—Albini’s use of glass for structural solutions in staircases and bookshelves—and symbolic—his partial turning away from high modernism and toward neorealism, with its more solid interpretation of form and space, and subtle but powerful allusion to historical precedent. Jones describes Albini’s contribution as “withholding the certainty and ubiquity of the positivist modern project.” With many photographs taken by the author, the book is the result of nearly two decades of research in numerous archives in Italy, including the Fondazione Albini, personal interviews with Albini’s son Franco and other key figures in the Albini circle, as well as research into post-WWII Italian culture, design, and architecture. The only regretful aspect of the book is the very short conclusion that appears almost as an afterthought at the end of chapter 10. It is as if Albini’s own notable modesty has resurfaced, echoing the title of the book—it is a fleeting glance at the previous decades that leaves an evaluation of his work suspended, incomplete ...

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Jones describes the book as “a product of the methodology and eye of an architect.” A professional architectural appreciation for the physical presence and the cultural and practical processes of realizing buildings permeates every chapter. The book is also the product of a devoted advocate—for at least a decade before the book’s publication Jones’s research and curated exhibitions impacted Italian and international appreciation of Albini’s work, even perhaps as much as Piano’s efforts. The publication of this book will continue that process. Franco Albini: Suspending Modernity, visually compelling and written in accessible language, will be a valuable resource for scholars, students, architects, and others interested in Italian modernism. It will find an eager readership in Italy, Europe, and internationally and will add a perceptive voice not only to the study of twentieth-century Italian architecture but also to the ongoing task of revising the history of architectural modernism.

  1. T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1921), 807.
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