An impossible conversation between two main players of 20th-century architecture, Gio Ponti and Alvar Aalto, about their last projects, contrasting ideologies and designs
Gio Ponti: My dear Alvar, our paths never crossed when we were alive. Lisa, my daughter, came to Helsinki in 1950 armed with her Hasselblad to interview the designer Tapio Wirkkala, another Finn who had connections with Italy. Her real purpose: she wanted to meet you, even if she knew that you were a lone wolf. They came to your immense studio, where city urban planning was underway. You weren’t there and they were met by your assistant who stuttered in almost incomprehensible English. Wirkkala apparently laughingly said I bet Alvar did this on purpose so that people get fed up and leave.
Alvar Aalto: Let’s try to be less Milanese. We should be friendlier between colleagues. What are you trying to say with this anecdote? There are so many about me and not all of them flattering. I am said to have been a drinker, whiskey mainly. As if that were a secret. I enjoyed life to the fullest. I loved, suffered, drank — especially since Aino, my partner in life and work, died prematurely in 1949. The truth about me in Italy was known only to my old friend Paolo Venini, whom I met at the time of Villa Mairea, 1938, and his son-in-law Ludovico Diaz de Santillana, who in the Fifties was also my assistant. I am too human and passionate, a simple guy who liked to laugh. I had great faith in human beings. I am anchored to the earth: my strong build says it all; I looked like a Scandinavian lumberjack. We share an innate love of Italy.
GP: Italy, Tuscany, the equilibrium between geometric landscape and architecture, fueled your imagination since your honeymoon with Aino, your first wife, in 1924. I couldn’t say if you were really the simple man you claim to have been. I sense a certain criticism regarding my approach to life and my middle class Lombardy education. The imprinting that enabled me to mediate with my client, that indulged continual style metamorphosis. You can tell me the truth. You were pleased to be consecrated during your lifetime by the retrospective at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, in 1965, with choruses of praise from the Italian progressives. The MoMa had already been there, done that in 1938, and in the USA you suddenly became a superstar at the age of forty. So there you were in London and Milan, receiving your honorary degree from the Politecnico. You were never lacking in vanity, admit it. You rose to become a shaman of rationalism, on the level of Gropius, Mies, and Le Corbusier. That same generation of Italian intellectuals who sang your praises declared a fatwa on my work, on my aesthetics and my method.
It was in autumn of 1965 that Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, one of the main players of the Second Vatican Council reforms whom you met in Florence, decided to call on you to design a church that embodied the spiritual, liturgical, social and political revolution underway at the time. It was for Emilia, the communist region par excellence. The climate was heating up, 1968 was just around the corner. That same year, the cardinal extreme views led to him having to step down from his position as Archbishop of Bologna. Not even Pope Paul VI was able to defend him. You wanted to jump on that era’s bandwagon and follow the ongoing trends. Easy for you to go with the flow and look like a revolutionary. I was accused of exaggerated decorativism, a mortal sin for certain forerunners of extreme modernity. I was an old-timer, a reactionary for the Milanese gauche caviar captained by the BBPR and, even worse, I had a wife from an aristocratic family. I would remind you that you built a museum dedicated to yourself, Alvar, in Jyväskilä, where you opened your first studio. Difficult to define and ascribe a current to your style code. Bruno Zevi considered you to be the greatest maestro of the organic school in Europe, Gideon, your biographer and cohort, sees you more like an exponent of the neo-gothic line. I came back into fashion only after my death, becoming too popular even. I had always been of moderate temperament. Let’s talk about the dormitories in Baker House that the MIT commissioned you with, in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1946. Do you honestly think I never realized how much you borrowed from my residential architecture, reusing so many references, just making them a little more sinuous? Whether you admit it or not, we share certain affinities.
AA: Your problem, even on a communication level, is that you are still stuck in the nineteenth century. There are just seven years between us, I was born in 1898, you in 1891. I belong to the twentieth century. All we need now is for you to tell me how much you admired Le Corbusier. It was you who suggested to him to go to Capri for your Domus, to draw the plans for Villa Vismara, overlooking the Faraglioni in Tragara. Santa Maria Assunta is all about the late ancient and early Christian caves, a return to the legendary Mediterranean cavern. It’s like a cupola sitting on the ground, condensed and molded, chastised and lent dynamism by strips of light. I put large indented windows between the arches on the upper roof that capture and diffuse the sunlight inside the building envelope. Light that reverberates on the bright white plaster on the perimeter walls, spreading everywhere, through all the liturgical spaces. It then converges towards the altar, the formal luminous crux of entire interior. Archaic and timeless. An internal volume that fluctuates, a Mediterranean archetype. Symbiosis between man and nature, one of the founding themes of my conception of architecture. Even you were inspired by the theme of Mediterranean architecture, which becomes central in your projects through to the thirties, thanks to Bernard Rudofsky. You yourself said so: the Mediterranean taught Rudofsky, Rudofsky taught me.
GP: I admit that I made the Mediterranean style my own. I felt free in Taranto, in the light of a rundown suburb in Puglia. Aided by the huge distance, the blinding zenith and an urban utopia tasked with changing the appearance of a city that was difficult and damaged even then. Those diamond-shaped cuts in the facade of the church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Fopponi- no became a window onto the sky. In Taranto, I created lace flying free in the wind. I built the facades last, at the end of the job, like they did in medieval times, when holy buildings often remained without a front. A cut-out facade, a perforated building steeped in local Romanesque and Angevin gothic references. If you are referring to the building’s current condition, I will reply that today’s Taranto is afflicted by other problems — the ILVA crisis is affecting thousands of people and is the cause of an environmental emergency.
Like it or not, the Great Mother of God stands out from my best-known architectural works. An icon, they tell me, even more than the Pirellone — accused of being like a macroscopic bar unit — boring references to middle class furnishings. Urban development that was supposed to complete the temple, built between 1967 and 1970, coincided with the new axis of expansion in Taranto and was to include a school, an auditorium and homes. They never happened. I tried to achieve modern monumentality while however maintaining links to local tradition. Isn’t using exposed white reinforced concrete modern? White to reconnect with the denominator common to architecture in Puglia. Its monumental soul is defined by the size of this church, preceded by a flight of steps and three pools of water — now empty — that were supposed to reflect and amplify its image. Guglielmo Motolese, the archbishop of Taranto buried in the crypt here, imagined it as the symbolic outpost of another city, that of the future. The project was entrusted to me in 1964. It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Great Mother of God, together with Saint Cataldus, the patron saint of Taranto, who according to popular belief saved the city from an earthquake in 1710. The first stone was laid in 1967. On December 6, 1970, Monsignor Motolese inaugurated it before a crowd filled with hope.
AA: Santa Maria Assunta also has a tormented history. It is the result of a long design process that started on January 10, 1966, the day I went to Riola di Vergato for the first inspection of the site, on the banks of the river Reno. My idea came in response to the new liturgy promoted by the Second Vatican Council, as promoted by Lercaro. There was no money available to build it and ten years passed before construction started. In 1978 the church was finally ready to open with various parts still incomplete and no bell tower, later added in 1994. Meanwhile both Lercaro and I had left this world. A shame not to see it finished and not to have taken part in the construction genesis. If I had been able to personally supervise the work, the final result would have been different from the original plans. Luckily that country parish priest, don Luigi Borri, took care of the plan as if it were a personal mission, a crusade. At his side, Mario Tamburini, director of the company Grandi Lavori, a stubborn businessman born in Riola who was afraid of nothing and immune to the political and economic adversity that arose every day. It is a miracle that this church even exists. It went against so many prejudices. It jeopardized a wall of firm convictions. They turned it into an ideological trench. That was not what I wanted.
Today this affair sounds very old fashioned. Right and left are harder to tell apart than in the modern and Manichean era you and I lived in. Riola was the final test of my architectonic career. It came thanks to the liturgical field, a church that summarized some of my most successful creative experiences: Imatra, the follow-on from Wolfsburg, elements borrowed from the Helsinki congress and event venue and from the polytechnic high school in Otaniemi. The complex includes a pedestrian churchyard and a bell tower, rectory and parish buildings. The church stands in the center of all this, in a multitude of materials and with a facade finished in sandstone, structured on a single nave and with an asymmetric layout. The construction system rests on six load-bearing arches of different sizes. The largest weighs sixty tons, the smallest forty-one. In the presbytery, with its white Carrara marble floor, I put the altar, the ambo for holy readings and the wooden cross. The baptistery is slightly sunken and, appended to the main body of the church, it is illuminated by an overhead skylight projecting inwards thanks to windows that look directly onto the Reno. This alludes to the link with water and symbolizes purification by baptism and flowing of the river. The schola cantorum, with its organ, is raised up higher than the congregation pews. Light is the dynamic factor that brings alive this building. I always really enjoyed modulating its effects, manipulating it like a solid material to be sculpted —suffice to think of the library in Vipuri. Santa Maria Assunta- ta is simple, essential, restrained. It connects to the origins of the Christian doctrine. Here I emphasized the canon of the Vitruvian utilitas, refuted exaggeration and any of the make-believe in our craft. I played with as much sincerity as possible, like the good old man I was. I felt that the church in that tiny town in the Apennines, in that Italy I have always loved, would become a kind of legacy.
GP: Creating my church in Taranto I ran a greater risk than you did. I distanced myself from contemporary debate. It was a kind of prayer that ran through some cornerstones of my poetry. At the time they accused me of anachronism, of not being abstract enough in my language of composition and not relating to society. I followed through my ideas — loaned ancestral shapes that I reworked, cut out, laid out and mixed. The body of the building is divided into two parts, similar to ancient architecture. The nave is housed in a low section, while the bell tower stands out against the sky, rising up to seek it. Made up of two slender parallel concrete walls placed a meter apart, forty-one meters tall and twenty-two wide, it is perforated by eighty hexagonal and rectangular openings, with the two belfries set into the sides. The lateral facades are perforated by small square holes. I designed two facades. The minor one, rising up the steps with the doors giving access to the church. The major one is only accessible to the eyes and the wind: a facade for air and yet tangible, which merges cement and clouds, solar and wind power. A veil instead of a cupola or towers. A tall signal and an announcement, an external chant that does not communicate directly with the church. You reach the body of the church through a compressed space, which copies the Paleochristian and Byzantine narthex, a filter between the city and the faithful. Inside, the choir is housed over the narthex.
The interiors are characterized by an alternation of white plastered elements and others in green plaster. I know what you are thinking — this color combination and the hexagons remind you too much of a hotel, the Parco dei Principi in Rome, which I designed in the early sixties. I will pretend I didn’t realize. The sidewalls, roof beams, flooring and decoration of the pews and the loggia are also green, to increase the depth and articulation of the scale. This rhythm is highlighted by dialogue between the parts in the shade and those steeped in light. The nave starts out eight meters in height, gradually rising to eleven over the lantern, broken up by glorious light. I put the altar two-thirds of the way down the nave, almost to embrace the worshippers. On the left are seats for the canons and the bishop’s pulpit, to the right those for the prelates. The wall behind the altar is a polyphonic score defined by a double row of openings. In the center, two panels depict the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. Each work belongs to me, is uniquely of my hand. Motolese understood me and protected me at each of the design and building stages.
AA: Italian cities are a harmonious compromise of man and nature. It was during my first trip to Italy that I perfected that humanization of rationalism that then permeated my mode of designing as I matured. Italy is the birthplace of a sunny origin of architecture that has brought about a solid truth of absolute tone and impeccable metaphysical density. After the Mediterranean style I then put myself to the test with religious buildings. Santa Maria Assunta in Riola di Vergato, in the Bologna Apennines, was my first real church. Catholic, by a protestant. Cardinal Lercaro was a militant mystic, a supporter of progressive social petitions. He was criticized for having chosen a non-Catholic architect and for its niche morphology, restrained, abstract and not very celebrative of my plans. He took a strong stance against the American presence in Vietnam, against the bombing of civilians in a war that he considered unfair. He did it on the Day of Peace instituted by Pope Paul VI, on January 1, 1968, from the pulpit in Bologna cathedral. The homily had been written by Giuseppe Dossetti, the then deputy of the Bologna diocese. This J’accuse reached Washington. Soon after, Giacomo Lercaro was forced to hand his resignation in to the Pope. My church, playing with fluid, curving ribs and careful use of light, is still loved by the inhabitants of Riola. It is perfectly maintained. It does not seem to me that your cathedral is as integrated in a natural setting, that it is a symbol of cohesion and the identity of a community. It is a cathedral in the desert.
GP: What fails gloriously is the Mediterranean style. You with your antireform section, me with my perforated structure — we tried to crystallize that heure bleue in the silence. We both fooled ourselves into believing we had found the exactness and the reverberation of reflections off the sea. You from the North and me thanks to the inclusiveness I learned from Berni Rudofsky, we have always represented in our architec- ture, above all in these two churches, which could be placed one over the other like a crypt the other like a cymatium, the apparition and the decline of the sun that is still, in the end, the great mystery of architecture.
AA: You are right Gio. I’m tired now, let’s have a drink and enjoy our penumbra for a while.