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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. 

Leonardo vs. Coronavirus Renaissance Thinking to Rethink our Lifestyle


Raphael (1483-1520) was twenty-six years old when he started to paint The School of Athens at the Vatican. To represent Plato arguing with Aristotle at the center of the fresco, Raphael depicted him as Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), who, at the time, was fifty-seven years old.  He is making a gesture characteristic of Leonardo: his right index is pointing up to the heavens.

Five hundred and one years after Leonardo’s death, the heavens have fallen upon Planet Earth with a virus, COVID-19, commonly known as Coronavirus. What would Leonardo have done if he had to confront such a pandemic?

Leonardo’s areas of interest included drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science, engineering, literature, scenography, paegentry, astronomy, botany, paleontology and cartography. The meaningful importance of immersing himself into such a wide range of subjects is in bringing the experiences in one field into another.

His skills as an artist allowed him to draw the human anatomy that he learned through dissections, and his learning from anatomy allowed him to express muscles and gestures on the surface of his subjects. Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile could not have been painted without his understanding of how the lips muscles function. He designed flying machines after observing how birds fly. His observation of rivers helped him to conceive a new capital for France, Romorantin, which included two palaces and waterways for outdoor spectacles, irrigation, street cleaning, flushing out horse stables and carrying away rubbish.

Leonardo was a genius, but he was not the only one navigating multiple subjects. Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) studied and wrote about physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology and zoology. Renaissance men include Michelangelo (1475 – 1564,) Galileo (1564 – 1642,) Franklin (1706 – 1790,) Jefferson (1743 – 1826,), Goethe (1749-1832,) Einstein (1879 1955,) Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1955,) and more recently, Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983,) ( Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011) and Calatrava (1951.)

Learning from Leonardo include being relentlessly curious, seeking knowledge for its own sake, retain a childlike sense of wonder, observe details carefully, get distracted, find time to loaf, let the perfect be the enemy of the good, think visually, wander across all the disciplines of the arts, sciences, engineering and humanities, indulge fantasy, create for yourself, not just for patrons, collaborate, take notes, be open to mystery. Practicing mental mapping and lateral thinking may help.

There is some good news from having to get secluded in our home. We learn that much of the work we do can be done without having to spend hours driving and burning tons of carbon. We may learn from China’s capability of building two hospitals in two weeks by developing methods to accelerate the construction of housing.

Coronavirus won’t be the last cataclysm that humanity will have to confront. As the world population continues to grow towards 10-12 billion people by the end of the century. We are challenged by colossal problems such as sustainability, climate change and increasing urbanization. We must change our lifestyle, and to do that, we must change our way of thinking. The renaissance way of looking at reality offers us an important path.

 Despite all the fear that the Coronavirus is spreading in the world, perhaps there is also good that will come of this, perhaps this is the time to rethink our value systems, to reunite with family members and even wit ourselves.

 Maybe a little perspective of what really matters to us is a lesson that it takes a pandemic to teach. Maybe it takes an “excuse” like Covid-19 to create.

Last Supper, 1490

Connecting Edges Wake-up Calls from DocuDay to Jane Fonda


Connecting Edges is a film about five unrelated events that I experienced during the second week of February 2020: DocuDay, the Oscars, a pre-screening of the TV series HuntersFrieze Los Angeles, and a presentation by Jane Fonda of the restored film F.T.A. from 1972.
I thought of connecting dots between subjects that they contained: war, the threat to democracy, inequality, art, and architecture-related contradictions. Putting them together attempts to sound a warning for the times we live.

The Events

  1. DocuDay is a yearly event organized by the International Documentary Association. The day preceding the Oscars, ten nominated documentaries – five features and five shorts – are shown from 8:30 AM to midnight. Q&As follows each screening.
  2.  Watching the Oscars, together with another 23 million people. I correctly predicted two winners: the Korean Parasite and Joaquin Phoenix acting in Joker.
  3. Pre-screening of a pilot for a television series, Hunters. The message: fighting anti-Semitism. 
  4. Frieze Los Angeles, an international contemporary art fair showing emerging and established artists alongside a program of talks, films, and artists’ projects. The three-day event happens at the backlot movieset of Paramount Pictures Studios. 
  5. A presentation by Jane Fonda of the film F.T.A. from 1972, restored by HFPA (Hollywood Foreign Press Association,) at the American Cinematheque. 

Connecting Dots

War. The two Oscar-nominated documentaries, The Cave and For Sama, both showing the crude realities of Syria’s civil population being bombarded daily by President Bashar Hafez al-Assad forces and by Russians’ airplanes. It has been realized by extraordinarily courageous filmmakers (four crew members lost their lives during the filming of The Cave.) Listening live to surviving witnesses – the main characters of both films – was heartbreaking. And listening to Jane Fonda presenting the anti-war film F.T.A. almost half a century after is was done raises the question: will we ever learn?

The threat to democracy. The Brazilian documentary The Edge of Democracy shows a reality that could spread to other democratic countries, including the United States. The resemblance between far-right President Jair Bolsonaro (“Well, the pope may be Argentinian, but God is Brazilian”) and President Trump (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”) is amazing. The dots also connect to Joaquin Phoenix’s speech at the Oscars and to some aspects of Joker’s message. Warnings about the dangers of resurrecting Fascism are also present in the TV-series Hunters.

Inequality. Director Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite is more than just Oscar’s big winner. It is a film that also sends a warning about inequality and what it may lead to. A new French Revolution?

Art. The film Honeyland is one of the most poetic documentaries I have seen. Some of the scenes seem to be painted by Caravaggio. It also brings us to see a hidden world in a remote land, where resilience is key to survival. Its authenticity is in plain contrast to much of the artworks that I have seen at Frieze.  

Architecture-related contradictions. Putting together images of Paramount’s backlot fake New York facades, of Brasilia’s out-of-human-scale formalisms, of Honeyland’s main character house and of the caravan in which her new neighbors reside open serious questions about the future of architecture as expressed by Frank Lloyd Wright: “The future of architecture is the future of humanity; if humanity has a future, so will architecture.”

Filmmaking Resume Segments of Documentaries Shot over the Course of Several Years

This documentary is titled Filmmaking Resume as a reference to short bits of architectural footage shot over the course of several years, and published in Architecture Awareness, Cultural Weekly and in this website.

 

Although I have also created short films on art, politics, and cultural events, my focus here is on architecture-as-space, the essential language of architecture. This short documentary illustrates fragments on the works of twenty recognized contemporary architects. As such, it expresses how good design can resonate on a much deeper level and lead to a higher quality of life.

 

In dealing with the human condition in the 2020 decade, some of my future films are likely to focus on topics such as housing, sustainability, and open urban spaces.

12/12 in L.A. & 3 Pianists A link between long-term thinking and what is doable today through architecture and the arts

This short documentary tries to connect dots between three disparate experiences that happened in a single day, 12/12/2019. The dots are a brainstorming session with old friends, a visit to a new working environment in Hollywood, the discovery of an art studio by the Los Angeles River dedicated to environmental art, and three piano performers.

It all started with a scheduled breakfast at Coffee Cup, a reunion of four former members of a group known as “Rethinking Greater Long Beach.” At the table were Professors Alex Norman (UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs,) Jack Humphrey (Demography) Bill Crampton (Education) and myself.

After ordering sunny side up eggs for breakfast – out of the ordinary for me – and updating ourselves – we had not seen each other several years – we started our brainstorming session. This time, instead of rethinking Long Beach, we posed several questions at a global level. China thinks and plans long term, why can’t the US? Is Singapore urbanity number one, as Jack thinks after his recent visit? How many people can planet Earth take sustainably? What revolution is needed in education to face the future’s challenges? What are the dangers generated by Trumpism beyond Trump? Summarizing the results of our discussion, we voted. “Optimistic vs. Pessimistic.” The result: 1 to 3, respectively.

In the afternoon, Ruth and I made an unplanned visit to Second Home Hollywood. I only knew that it had been designed by the same architects that designed the Serpentine Pavilion near LACMA, Jose Selgas, and Lucia Cano, from Madrid. They had recently completed this new kind of working environment in London and in Lisbon.

We found Second Home Hollywood’s design impressive. Built with low-cost materials, and making intensive use of planting, the place is full of light, spatially vibrant and stimulates socialization. It is out-of-the-box thinking. Its success with young people is evident.

In the evening, we went for a first visit to Metabolic Studio, by the Los Angeles River, close to downtown L.A. Once again, we were surprised to discover a stimulant space to produce arts and crafts within an existing industrial warehouse.

Inspired by these three events in a single day, I decided to produce a short documentary, included here. While watching the Kennedy Center Awards 2019, I discovered Yuja Wang. Immediately it triggered the idea of bringing into the film the piece that she performed, “You Come Here Often?” by Michael Tilson Thomas. While researching for another two piano pieces, I first discovered Marco Mezquida, from Barcelona. He has played in many international jazz festivals. Then I discovered Joanna MacGregor. She is a British concert pianist, conductor and composer, who is also Head of Piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music. I found her playing of a Piazzolla arrangement fantastic! I couldn’t resist connecting the dots through a film collage.

End of an Era Ray Kappe and Dion Neutra: Close of a 100-year Time in Architecture

With the passing of Ray Kappe and Dion Neutra in Los Angeles, a heroic era of architecture has come to an end. The tributary sources were two: Organic Architecture in the United States, envisioned by Frank Lloyd Wright and, in Europe, Rationalism / International Style, headed by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Pieter Oud, and Erich Mendelsohn.  These two tributaries bifurcated into many streams, becoming a present-day “delta,” mislabeled as “Modernism.” Both sources wanted to change the world. The first one, by changing people’s mindsets. The second one, by providing how-to solutions easy to apply.

Sources: Wright, Gropius, Neutra, Mendelsohn, Schindler

Ray Kappe’s most creative segment of his productivity belonged to the first source. His houses in Pacific Palisades’ Rustic Canyon remain excellent examples of an indoor-outdoor architecture conceived as a whole. Yet, in spite of this Wright-influenced architecture, Kappe continued to evolve, both as an educator and as an architect. In the last two decades, he embarked on the challenge of creating quality prefabricated homes.

Dion Neutra’s father, Richard Neutra, although aware of the difference between the two currents from having spent some time working for Wright, belonged to the European source. Later called “therapeutic architecture” adapted to California’s weather, it remained linked to the International Style.

Milton Goldman Residence, Encino, 1951

Dion Neutra and Eric Lloyd Wright in Malibu, 2017

Kaufmann Desert House, Palm Springs, 1946

When I read that Kappe didn’t like the term ‘modernist,’ I was not surprised. “He embraced the term ‘modern’ because it represented to be current with the latest ideas, technologies, and materials.” In that sense, as stated by Bruno Zevi, both Michelangelo and Borromini were, in the 16th and 17th centuries, modern to their times.

My first encounter with Ray and Shelly Kappe, Ray’s partner in work and life and an educator in her own right, was during the mid-1980s when they invited Luigi Pellegrin to give a lecture at SCI-Arc in Santa Monica. I was then asked to be the Italian-to-English translator. During Pellegrini’s visit, the Kappes invited us for dinner at their residence in Rustic Canyon. The conversation was definitely “organic.” Following that visit, Ruth and I met the Kappes several times. We sympathized with them. We felt that we had many ideas in common.

My encounters with Dion Neutra were more recent, at Carol King’s Salon, in Pasadena. Dion, who had worked with his father on many projects was, in the last few years, embarked on a one-man crusade to save some of the Neutra buildings from demolition.

The “architectural delta” of the early 21st century is melting into the ocean of the world’s challenges: climate change, sustainability, affordable housing, infrastructure, food production, universal health and education, preservation of nature, and much more. In spite of notable self-expressions by some architects, a meaningful new direction in architecture demands now an urgently needed change of mindsets, beyond that of architectural design language, towards a new meaning of what represents life quality today.

U.N. Sustainable Development Goals for 2030

Doc Snippets Selected Documentary Segments

On a recent event at U.C.L.A., the 43rd Congress of the Romanian Academy of Arts and Science, I was invited by its Interim President, Prof. Ileana Costea, about what I do as an architect-filmmaker. I decided to edit “an extended trailer” of selected segments from my films. I called it “Doc Snippets.”

Beyond some short notes on my architectural practice and of my passion for film since I was a student, I saw the question “Why are architectural documentaries important?” as the most relevant. Why?

The transformation of the planet to accommodate 10 billion people by 2050 will demand the active input of all its inhabitants, which would include self-help. Architecture awareness is critical to confront planetary challenges such as climate change, sustainability, population growth, mobility, food production, conservation of natural spaces, visual pollution, and over-crowding.

My films, most of them on architecture-related subjects, try to inform the viewer about the relationship between quality-space and human scale, and about meaning in the configuration of spaces.

Architecture + People in San Diego Architecture 2019 in San Diego: Downtown, the Central Library, the Salk Institute

San Diego’s downtown transformation conveys an important message to many cities’ challenges. It is possible to increase density while maintaining high standards of design quality. It is possible to mitigate traffic by bringing efficient public transportation. It is possible to build high-quality public buildings within the budget.

It was late May when we first considered the possibility of registering for a Brendon Burchard “Influencer” seminar in San Diego in October. “We haven’t been there for about a decade. It sounds like a good excuse,” I said. We signed up. It was a good decision. What we saw and learned in a few days well exceeded our expectations.

“What’s new to see in architecture?” I asked Google while doing basic research.  A small, five-story, zero energy mixed-use building, Torr Kaelan, caught my attention. It had been designed by Rob Quigley, an architect unknown to me. Some of the building’s details reminded Carlo Scarpa’s design.  Googling more on Rob Quigley, I reached the San Diego Central Library project. I couldn’t tell much by looking at the photographs that I found online, but I marked it as a place to visit.

Torr Kaelan

We decided to set our base in Little Italy. I found a lovely small hotel, Urban Boutique, next to a European-style piazza known at Piazza della Famiglia.  It was located a mile-plus from the event we planned to attend. “We could do some exercise by walking the distance in less than a half-hour,” I said to Ruth. Once we arrived at the hotel, we parked the car and didn’t move it until we left.

We found the downtown area transformation, since the last time we had been there, very impressive.  It had become a thriving center easily accessible by foot, bike, car, or public transportation. Its urban scale was right, the traffic was moderate, and we noticed a number of new, well-designed condominiums.

Yet the biggest surprise was the central library. According to the architect, it had been conceived as “a 9-story archive of flexible space, sandwiched at the top and ground floors, with diverse and accessible public amenities.”  The library opened in 2013, following a protracted 17-year period of design and construction. This may explain the 1970s–1980s flavor. The material of choice was concrete, for both cost and maintenance.

A spacious atrium and a roof garden, accented by a symbolic dome, provided an urban identity to the building. We found the different areas well crafted, with some of the spaces quite spectacular.

The “Influencer” event, structured as good content (psychology, physiology, productivity, persuasion) wrapped with entertainment, was remarkable for the diversity of over two thousand participants. There were people from all over the United States and also from many other countries. Our new chanceful acquaintances included a woman from Soroka, in the Republic of Moldova, an actress from Istanbul, a French couple from Montpellier and other people ranging in age from teenagers to adults in their seventy’s.

Brendon Burchard “Influencer” Seminar

We couldn’t leave San Diego without revisiting Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla. It triggered memories. When we were in our late twenty’s, we worked in Tel Aviv for Ram Karmi. When Kahn visited Israel, Karmi invited him and his wife for dinner at his condo, and asked us to join them. At the end of the evening, he said “pick up Kahn at his hotel tomorrow morning and take him to see the Central Bus Station,” of which I had been working on its details for several months. The gargantuan building, then under construction, was mostly done in exposed concrete.

Until a scheduled late-lunch, at 3:00 PM, to be joined by Carmela, Karmi’s his first wife, we spent five hours with Louis Kahn all for ourselves! During the three-hour-long lunchtime, Louis Kahn talked most of the time. It was like listening to Socrates. Kahn’s intellect was very high, and his language was, at times, incomprehensible to us.

Back in 1971, we had made our first visit to the Salk Institute at the end of our “Frank Lloyd Wright’s pilgrimage,” during which we visited and photographed over one hundred of Wright’s works across twenty-five states.  At the time, the Salk Institute was one of the most famous buildings in the world. Seeing it again forty-five years later was less impacting, although now I could read that, while its work in concrete remained impeccable, its greatness was in its scale and in the way the large court opens to the ocean. 

The link between the architecture we discovered and the people we met produced a highly productive and rewarding weekend!

Architecture and the Politics of Ideas Bernie Sanders Ideas Illustrated and its Meaning for Architecture

The world is at a critical moment. Architecture by itself can not generate the many solutions that is able to offer without a politically supported global plan. Enlighted and moral leadership are badly needed.

Thomas Jefferson’s Checkboard Towns

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, 1935

 

“The only safeguard Democracy can have is a free, morally enlightened fearless minority. Fear is the real danger in any democracy.”

                                                                                          Frank Lloyd Wright

“Change does not depend on us (architects;) change depends on you (the people.)”

                                                                                         Luigi Pellegrin

Luigi Pellegrin’s ZEN Neighborhood, Palermo, 1970

Why “Architecture and the Politics of Ideas?”

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that architecture was a crusade on behalf of human civilization rather than a mere profession. In this sense, Thomas Jefferson was an architect, and so were Mahatma Gandhi and David Ben-Gurion.

Bruno Zevi thought that architecture and political ideas are indivisible, so much so that, at one point, he became a member of the Italian Parliament (Radical Party, 1987-1992) and a co-founder of the Liberal-Socialist Action Party in 1998.

Donald Trump’s ascension to power sounded a screeching alarm. It echoed the rise of Fascism with Mussolini, the ascent of Nazism in the early 1930s, and Fascist-Communism as led by Stalin in the Soviet Union and by Mao Tze-Tung in China. It echoed George Orwell’s 1984: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. Big Brother is Watching You.”

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren bring leadership qualities that could help to invent the future with a wide vision and with greater optimism. Their cabinet may include people like Kamala Harris as Attorney General, John Biden as Secretary of State, and other intelligent politicians, such as Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, Marianne Williamson, Pete Buttigieg…It could include a still-to-be-found “new Daniel Patrick Moynihan.” It may also include a Republican such as John Kasich.

Why Bernie as number one? Because he thinks like a statesman. His broad agenda fits not only America’s long list of needs but also a world starving for leadership and direction. Climate change, sustainability, inequality, the arms race are not just American issues; they are global. If approaching them creatively, the planet could be transformed positively beyond anything we can think of today. Architecture could then play a pivotal role.

Serpentine L.A. and Beyond

The playful Serpentine L.A. Pavilion, erected in-between the La Brea Tar Pits and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, brings a smile to an area characterized by an eclectic architectural mix.  Designed by Spanish architects José Selgas and Lucía Cano, a design partnership known as SelgasCano and based in Madrid, was initially commissioned by the Serpentine Galleries in London and installed at the Gallery’s site in London’s Hyde Park back in 2015. Thanks to a partnership between creative workspace Second Home and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, the 866-square-foot area in an X-shaped plan is wrapped with fluorine-based plastic in multiple colors.

Creating temporary pavillions a subject suitable for experimentation. Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller, Frei Otto, Carlo Scarpa and hundreds of architects designing for world fairs took their commissions as an opportunity to experiment. The SalgasCano team methodology echoes Gehry’s playful studies of space. And yet, unlike Gehry’s costly end-products, the Serpentine Pavilion gives the feeling that everyone could do it, even children. And why not?

What is this work’s main message? First and foremost, it is experimental. “Architecture as an isolated episode, a gesture, doesn’t interest us. We believe in total freedom to try and respond to concrete needs, which we express via play and the use of color,” says Salgas. “We have no set forms, styles, or concepts; our architecture is generated by reading the places and the lives of those who will live there. We have worked to free ourselves of all the clichés absorbed during our university education, dogmas that have blocked us without us knowing why. Designing is spontaneous and natural. Rejecting stereotypes allowed us to grow and become what we are today.”

Black Power Art From "Soul of a Nation" to African American Art Now

Black Power Art was inspired by The Broad’s new exhibition in Los Angeles, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983.” It is intended to be an eye-opener, not just to the work of African-American artists during a crucial period of self-assertion, but also to echo African American art today. The timing is right. When bigotry is, once again, raising its head, consciousness of who we are as humans are critical.

The exhibition includes paintings, sculptures, murals, and photography of 60 artists. It proclaims intellectual power vis-à-vis a little-aware public. However, the implication of the show is much broader. It brings the past as shown in the National Museum of African American History and Culture,  the eloquence of James Baldwin, and the biting humor of Spike Lee.

Good art is good art, or it is not good art, whether the artist is African-American, Latino, Asian or white. Many of the themes in the exhibition are thematic, expressing the black condition at the time. However, abstract examples such as Jack Whitten’s fierce, frontal black triangle, “Homage to Martin,” and William T. Williams’ homage to John Coltrane, “Trane,” with its slashing spectrum of diagonal bands of color intersecting and overlaying each other, join the work of great artists, irrespectively of their ethnical background.

Marcello Guido: Architecture in Motion Poetic Perception of Space in Movement

From Calabria, in the southern tip of Italy, architect Marcello Guido sends a powerful message of “architecture in motion” expressed in concrete, steel, and glass. His poetry generates continuously changing perceptions of space.

Born in Acri, Cosenza, in 1953, he studied architecture in Rome and graduated in 1977 cum laude under the tutorship of historian and critic of architecture, Bruno Zevi. In four decades he built projects and participated in design competitions that brought him recognition in Italy. This presentation is intended to bring to the attention of the general public the remarkable work of Marcello Guido.

At first sight, his work could be mistakenly classified under Deconstructivism, a movement which appeared in the 1980s under the influence of French philosopher Jacques Derida. Architects frequently associated with Deconstructivism includes Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, and Bernard Tschumi.  But unlike these, Guido’s architecture is deeply rooted in history.

Borromini is clearly present in the fluidity of Guido’s lines, as in Wright’s philosophy of Organic Architecture, that anticipated the Netherlands-based De Stijl movement.

Guido reinterprets history in the spirit of Bruno Zevi’s Modern Language of Architecture, which advocates asymmetry and dissonance, antiperspective three-dimensionality, the use of space in time as perceived in movement, and the reintegration between building, city, and territory.

My discovery of Guido’s architecture occurred last summer in Rome while visiting the exhibition celebrating Zevi’s 100 birthday, focused on Zevi’s influence on many important Italian architects. My late “discovery” reminded me when, as a student of architecture in Rome, I encounter the work of Luigi Pellegrin. Then as now, my reaction was instantaneous, non-intellectual: this is an Architect with the capital A.