PELLEGRIN Buildings and Visions for Spaceship Earth

Luigi Pellegrin was a visionary architect way ahead of his time. He realized that the human settlement, as created 35,000 years ago, must be reset now at a geographic scale and become an integral part of the planet. I believe that bringing Pellegrin’s work to public awareness during a global illness and uncertainty is vital for the re-invention of a post-pandemic world. 

His vision transcended Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture both in scale and time. His fantasy was grounded on a prolific professional practice and experience in prefabricated technology. His territory was that of the Earth’s crust. His history was the history of the universe. 

Vision of integrated habitat

The 20th Century produced a large number of highly-skilled architects, yet few delivered a transformative message. Le Corbusier’s saw the detachment of buildings from the ground as a way of expanding green open spaces; Frank Lloyd Wright’s interpreted the laws of nature and translated them into Organic Architecture design principles; Buckminster Fuller transcended land use by proposing a planetary vision of geography; and Paolo Soleri attempted to demonstrate an alternative human habitat by creating a walkable, social city that could meet the needs of future societies. Pellegrin, the least known of this small group of visionary thinkers, believed in PROCESS, in open-minded architectural research based on trial and error, like in science.

 

WORK

 Pellegrin assumed his social commitment through the design of popular housing and schools. His first period, 1955-1965, is characterized by a poetically organic approach to low-budget design, using simple construction materials. His artistic creativity exploded in the design of the via Aurelia bi-family house in Rome (1964.) The traditional box is crushed. The round living room is suspended in space like a bridge that rests on two multi-functional pilasters. The bedrooms, enclosed within triangular prisms, are perforated by windows that direct views and light as needed. This is an organic architecture expression, not-mimetic of Wright’s style.

During the 1965-1976 period, Pellegrin focuses his social commitment on the design of prefabricated schools. From kindergartens to high schools, he laboriously invested most of his energy in the design of articulated interior spaces, even when, given limited budgets, he had to simplify the buildings’ exteriors.

The accumulation of knowledge and creativity in prefabricated technology generated a gigantic design-jump in 1969, with the International Competition for the Design of the New University of Barcelona. Pellegrin’s concept had no precedent. He designed the common areas, such as libraries, sports facilities, and cafeterias on the ground, and suspended from the top, above these, classrooms to be used by the students as a circuit. The project won second prize. The jurors were not ready for such an outbreak.

The spatial concept for the University of Barcelona leads to another revolutionary project in 1970. The subject was a design competition for the ZEN Cardillo neighborhood in Palermo. While the ground was dedicated to commercial, social and cultural activities intertwined with green areas, the housing for 17,000 inhabitants was suspended in the space 30 to 90 feet above it. The structure was defined by 30 hollow pylons supporting the housing above, and its total footprint was 35% of a conventional project for the same number of inhabitants.

The ideas for the Barcelona and Palermo projects found their way in a design competition of two unified schools in Pisa. The program was complex. His design concept included the roof as a ramp that would become an open space accessible to the neighborhood, flexible classrooms on the top, and at the ground floor all the common services that could be used by the neighborhood when the classrooms were closed. The design was way ahead of his time. It was misunderstood by its users. Conservative teachers and city authorities asked for its demolition which was fought by many committed architects.

During the twenty-five years that followed the Pisa school’s building, Pellegrin’s prolific production moved in three parallel directions:

1. He continued to design and build prefabricated schools. It is notable to observe that out of 300 built buildings he produced, 200 were schools, 72 of which were built in Saudi Arabia.

2. He focused his research on the industrialization and mobility of components (roofs, walls, column-beams, residential tubes, emergency housing units) in many materials (concrete, aluminum, steel, fiberglass, bamboo.)

3. He expanded his research on integral urbanization at a geographic scale (habitat, services, commerce, mobility) through multi-directional and multi-use “vectors.” These complex structures were elevated like freeways not only over country fields, mountains, and historic places without altering them but also over artificial islands in the sea.

 WHO WAS PELLEGRIN?

 Pellegrin’s architecture was an expression of his will to change the world from the bottom up throughout his professional life. His upbringing was modest. His father, Paolo Pellegrin, was a construction worker from Italy’s northern region of Friuli, which borders the Veneto region, Austria, and Slovenia. When Paolo got a building job in Courcellette, ninety miles northeast of Paris, he took his family with him for the duration of the project. Luigi Pellegrin was born there in 1925. Although technically he was French, he saw himself as a son of Friuli, an area with a strong sense of identity, where people speak a regional dialect, have a unique cuisine, and are proud of their way of life.

 His humble origin and his contact with the proletariat of building sites molded his character and care for people’s needs, for excellent craftmanship, and for a sense of hard work to reach goals. Unlike many Italian architects and artists of his time, who manifested their concerns for social justice by joining the Communist Party, Pellegrin spent his mostly secluded life trying to elevate the people’s built environment with limited resources.

 He studied architecture at the University of Rome, but, fundamentally, he was a self-taught person, an acute observer of reality, visible or hidden, in the spirit of Leonardo Da Vinci.

 The one year he spent in New Orleans after graduation opened his horizons. He saw America as a land open to experimentation. When he visited Chicago and saw some of Sullivan and Wright’s works, he set his direction towards Organic Architecture. 

Back in Rome, he felt estranged from most architects but established an intellectual dialogue with Bruno Zevi, who had brought to Italy an awareness of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. This relationship developed into a not so easy 50-year long discussion. Zevi was Italy’s best historian and critic of architecture, the only one that Wright respected. Over the years he published most of Pellegrin’s works in L’Architettura. Yet, in 1974, he lamented: “Pellegrin was born to be a great architect, but he reduced himself to become a technician.”

 Although Pellegrin respected Zevi, he felt misunderstood by the master critic. For him, Wright was not only a genial architect but also as a thinker that transcended the Judeo-Christian and Greek philosophies that dominated Europe. Wright understood Buddhism and Taoism, Japanese art, and pre-Columbian civilizations. He believed in exploring the potential of materials and technologies and would have understood Pellegrin’s innovative productivity.

With Frank Lloyd Wright in Rome, 1956

MODUS OPERANDI

 Pellegrin’s studio was located at the heart of Rome’s historical center. The 18th Century building belonged to the Aldobrandini family. It was placed halfway between the Trevi Fountain and the Gregorian University, just across a small 17th Century church denominated Santa Croce e Santa Bonaventura de Lucchesi. The street was pebbled and had no sidewalks. The entrance to the building was through a large portal, sized to allow access to carriages. A smaller door was cut within it to allow people’s access. As in many old palaces, the ground floor was defined by a court decorated with marble busts and sculptures. A broad stairway led to the second floor, twenty feet above the ground floor.

 His work habits were unusual. He arrived at the office after errands in the city around noon, met with clients and consultants in the afternoon, left for dinner with his family, and returned to the studio at around 10:00 pm. That was when his design-time started. Surrounded by young architects, he worked until 4:00 am, seven days a week. 

Pellegrin spoke out aloud while designing so that everyone could follow his thinking process. We listened attentively, with music (Albinoni, Aretha Franklin) playing in the background.

 When he was relaxed, he spoke critically about many subjects: nature, science, history, art, politics, philosophy, literature, fashion, cinema, food, soccer. He could talk with the same ease about Michelangelo, Bernini, Borromini, Raphael, and Caravaggio on the one hand, and about Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Siqueiros on the other.

 His teaching method was indirect, not explicit. He gave clues to stimulate self-discovery through hard work. He thought that artists, mainly those of American Pop Art, understood the world better than architects. While New York’s artists adopted “the crude, the acid and the non-finished” for their artworks, most architects were busy creating monuments for posterity.

PELLEGRIN AND US

The students’ revolt of 1968 in Berkeley, Paris and Rome marked an era and defined a generation. It was punctuated by demonstrations, general strikes, and the occupation of universities and factories. The protests spurred movements worldwide, with songs, imaginative graffiti, posters, and slogans such as “Imagination to Power.”

The revolt was a protest against consumerism, American imperialism and traditional institutions. There were over half a million troops in Vietnam, who in less than a month had killed 37,000 of the ill-supported enemy. There were a counterculture and a revolution in social norms about clothing, music, drugs, and sexuality, all amplified by the lyrics of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon.

We were third-year students of architecture at the University of Rome. The school had been occupied. We were not part of the revolt, but we were actively becoming conscious of the times. The Club of Rome had been founded at the Academia dei Lincei by former heads of state, economists and business leaders from around the world. The world population, 3.6 billion at the time, was predicted to be 6 billion by the year 2000. It was 6.1 billion when the time came. Right on target.

 The view of the Earth from outer space generated a planetary self-consciousness. There was an acknowledgment of the world’s limited resources. Buckminster Fuller published a book under the title “Operating Manual of Spaceship Earth.” Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” predicted the internet 30 years before it was invented.  

In the summer of 1968 we made a two-month drive to Scandinavia, mainly to visit and photograph the works of Alvar Aalto in Finland. We had in mind to arrive to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) but we were in Stockholm when the Soviets invaded Prague and decided to change our plans. On our way back we visited Le Corbusier’s RonchampLa Tourette and the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles. The trip gave us a direct experience with great contemporary architecture, and we were eager to follow into the steps of masters.

During the course of our fourth year of architecture, we started to think about our graduating theses. We asked Professor Bruno Zevi to be our tutor. He accepted but said that we should have a co-tutor, a practicing architect. “Chose anyone you want,” he said. Whom shall we choose? We wanted someone “organic,” with an affinity for Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas. After investigating the works of a dozen architects in Rome, we narrowed down our list to three: Lucio Pasarelli, Maurizio Sacripanti and Luigi Pellegrin. When we saw one of Pellegrin’s smallest projects in Rome, a pavilion for selling flowers, we chose Pellegrin.

Trying to reach him was another story. For two months, we called several times a week and we were always told: “the architect is not available.” Nobody would set an appointment for us, and he never returned our calls. One day, already frustrated, I made a call from a public phone at school. “Yes?” answered a grave voice. It was Pellegrin. I told him why I called, and of the strong impression, we had had visiting the flower pavilion that he had designed. “Come next Thursday at midnight,” he said, and without adding any comment, he switched the line to his secretary, who gave us directions on how to enter the studio.

Luigi Pellegrin’s studio was located at the very heart of Rome’s historic Center, in an 18th Century building belonging to Aldobrandini noble family, halfway between the Trevi Fountain and the Gregorian University, and just across a small 17th Century church denominated Santa Croce e Santa Bonaventura de Lucchesi . The street was pebbled and had no sidewalks. The entrance to the building was through a large portal sized to allow access to carriages, in which a smaller door was cut to allow for people’s entrance. As in many old palaces, the ground floor was defined by a court decorated with marble busts and larger sculptures. A beautiful stair led to the second floor, which was about twenty feet above the ground floor.

Pellegrin’s quarters were divided into two separate areas. On one were the drafting rooms. On the other, facing the floor lobby, was a private area that included a reception room, a conference room, and his office. That was where he met his clients and professional consultants.  

We arrived on time at midnight. His secretary received us, let us know that the architect had not returned yet and that he will be late. She invited us to wait. We started to explore walls and shelves, containing samples of his work.  

Pellegrin arrived at about 2:00 AM. His presence was powerful. He was thin, with deep green eyes, a chiseled face, and abundant hair, undulated and almost entirely white, despite being only forty-three years old. He was well dressed, wore a green jacket, dark brown pants, and a tie. We shook hands. He apologized for being late and asked us to follow him. We walked through a conference room filled with blueprints of works in progress and entered into his private room. There were books everywhere: on the walls, over his table, on the floor, resting on chairs. His desk was laid out diagonally, with his chair facing the entrance. The only source of light was that of a drafting lamp attached to his desk. He lowered it to one side below the desk’s surface and asked us to sit down. Then he remained silent, waiting for us to start. I felt like being in a psychologist’s room.

We told him about ourselves, about Zevi’s request. I had written a few pages about my goals and he read them. Ruth told him about her ideas. We showed him drawings of our first joint projects, a public library, and a condominium tower. He looked at them in silence. Taking a deep breath, he said: “They are extrusions, thought in plan only. The generator of architectural space is the section, and the section is not there. Organic architecture cannot be an extrusion nor an addition. The tower is both.” Then he continued: “I can read the inspiration from Wright but if you want to have and architectural education, you must study Wright for six months. Read him, analyze his work. Wright’s works are not extrusions or additions. They are spaces to be walked through, to be lived in.”

He asked some questions about our relationship to Israel. Why Israel? Although he never visited it, he spoke as if he knew everything about it. He then faced me and said: “You can write. Write an essay titled “California today and Israel in the year 2000.” To Ruth he said, “start drawing.” “How do you know I can draw?” Ruth said with a humorous tone. “It is written on you,” he answered without smiling. During the two hours we spent with him, he never smiled. By 4:00 AM we felt a deep sense of connection. He shook our hands once again, walked us to the floor’s lobby, and continued towards the drafting rooms’ area.

We started to go periodically to Pellegrin, to get reviews on our theses. He was a harsh critic. Ruth’s subject was an integrative center for the arts in Jerusalem. Mine was a university in Eilat, specialized in oceanology. Since he had decided to participate in an international competition for the design of the University of Barcelona’s new campus, a subject related to both our theses, he offered to both of us to come and work at his studio through the competition’s design process. We were thrilled.

He gave Ruth a small room adjacent to his office. Handing her a rough schematic of “dwelling units suspended in space” drawn with thick colored markers (the genesis of many future projects,) he asked her to put it to scale. Then he took me to his conference room and, pointing at a mountain of books piled over the table, he said: “All these are related to the design of campuses and university buildings. Read them, and when you are done, summarize for me what you learned and what is relevant for the competition.” When I did, a month later, he said: “you have not understood a thing.” In his eyes, the old concept of campus with separate buildings for each faculty had become obsolete.

His submission to the competition was revolutionary. The classrooms were suspended in space, with all the common facilities on the ground. He won the second prize. The jurors were not ready for such an innovative project.

In 1972, when we returned from our Wright pilgrimage and stopped in Rome on our way to Israel, we went to visit him. He proposed for us to stay “for a while” and join him. There were many projects going on: a dozen prefabricated schools, a development for the island of Goree in Senegal and the country’s presidential residence, studies for prefabricated hotels, and continuous research on habitats. Our “shortstop” lasted for sixteen months. A lifelong impacting experience. 

One day he convened some consultants and the office’s architects at 10:00 PM. We all sat in the conference room. He said: “During the last year I lost several design competitions for schools. The deadline for the competition on the design of two unified schools in Pisa is in ten days. I decided to submit an entry.”

 It seemed “mission impossible.” The project was large, and the program complex. He presented his concept: The roof as a ramp that would become an open space accessible to the neighborhood; the flexible classrooms on the top, and the servicing areas on the ground floor, so that all common services could be used by the neighborhood when the classrooms were closed.

 Discussions followed until 6:00 AM. When the meeting was over, he called Ruth and me, handed us a set of keys and a big bag containing an expensive Hasselblad camera with interchangeable lenses, and said: “Take my car, photograph the site in Pisa (220 miles away,) come back and leave the negatives for development at the photography laboratory. I’ll see you tonight.”

 Twelve hours later we were back in Rome, took a nap (after 32 sleepless hours,) and returned to the studio at 10:00 PM. During the following days, two shifts of architects and drafting technicians worked 24 hours a day to prepare drawings for the competition. A month later, we found a handwritten paper stuck at the entrance of the studio that read: “This studio of incompetent designers won the First Price at the Pisa Competition.”

We went back to Israel in April 1973 and started our own practice in September, one month before the Yom Kippur War. In December of 1974 we won a conceptual competition for a 5,000 dwelling-unit neighborhood influenced by Pellegrin’s ideas.

During the years that followed, we maintained periodic contacts by phone, and during our visits to Rome. Our last encounter was in August of 1998. He made arrangments to have lunch together for five consecutive days. We were in California when we got notice of his death, on September 15, 2001. His ashes rest in Domanins, San Giorgio in Richinvelda, Friuli, at his father’s grave.

It took me almost twenty years to decide to make this documentary, during the Convid-19 pandemic. Pellegrin’s message for the re-design of the world has become more tangible now than ever before. We have all to contemplate a radical transformation of life on Earth. The young generation of architects and those following them will benefit from studying Pellegrin’s work, not as a template to copy but as a way of thinking. 

Principles: Time. Copyright Rick Meghiddo. All Rights Reserved.

Architecture in a Nutshell The Times, Principles and Process of Architecture

We live within architectural spaces throughout our lives, 24/7. From the moment we open our eyes until we close them, the spaces we live in affect our lives and contribute to shaping who we are. They impact us physically, psychologically and monetarily. They contribute to our happiness or unhappiness.

While we can choose to eat healthily or to eat junk food, choose to listen to music we like, go to a museum or read a book, the spaces we live in – dwelling, work, streets – feed our subconscious at all times. Why is it that few people, besides professionals, “can see” architecture? The following video is a nine-minute jumpstart to better understand architecture.

There may be as many definitions of “What is Architecture?” as they are architects. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the art or practice of designing and building structures and especially habitable ones.” Are the millions of dwellings around the world “architecture?”

The problem is not a semantic one. The point of “Architecture in a Nutshell” and of www.architectureawareness.com is to help more people to see. In a world where at least half of its population lacks essentials such as decent housing, schools, hospitals, open public spaces and institutions, architecture awareness can be a matter of survival. Even if all the world’s architects would be working 60–hour weeks, even if we would be using the best available technology at 100% efficiency, there’s no way we will be able to catch up in fixing the existing urban chaos while absorbing a population growth of about 80 million people per year. By or around 2050 we will be ten billion.  And then?

It is a key issue today not just to inform people, but to change mindsets, so that many may learn how to help themselves and to contribute to the building of better environments. By combining architecture awareness with filmmaking knowledge, it is possible to help not only the consumers of architecture but also its generators – architects, institutions, government, educators – who are instrumental in the world’s betterment.