Dialogues: Emanuele Piccardo & Gianni Pettena


EP: In your Italian works – the so-called ‘trylogy’, Carabinieri, Milite Ignoto, Grazia&Giustizia – the action takes place in the public space, like an Italian piazza, but when you go to the US your approach changes. Why?

GP: When I went to the States my idea was that of finding a location, a place, where my work could be made without the heavy presence of the past, like in Europe. In fact, in Europe you can’t drive or walk, you can’t go around without being forced to confront yourself with the traces of the past. Europe is a fabric made up by different layers of previous conceptual, political and theoretical strategies which has formed itself throughout centuries, throughout thousands of years. So, what remains for you to do is acting somehow in a physical context, like a town, working in the holes this fabric has. Where the fabric seems to have a problem, a hole, then your role becomes that of making a mending in the urban fabric, something like that. You always have to draw on a sheet of paper where there are already traces of previous interventions. The meaning of going to the States, and wondering through deserts, was for me like working on a blank sheet of paper, finding at last a context that didn’t have any human trace, no previous intervention physically appearing, thus conditioning your freedom.

However, dealing with what appeared to be an untouched context like the desert, I discovered that it also contained traces, even if not physical, of previous uses. The deserts of the South West were the living context of the American natives that had, and still have in certain places, a nomadic condition. They recognized architecture in nature, while for us Monument Valley is for instance only the background of John Ford’s movies…

EP: Is it true that you translated that experience in your photographic work About non conscious architecture?

GP: Yes. Monument Valley is not a valley of monuments. For the Navajos living there also today it is the valley of their temples. And also the villages and pueblos that you find all around the South West…there are villages inside these enormous caves. That is, they somehow furnish a cavern that they then adopt as a house during their migrations. When you are in a nomadic condition you are part of nature, you have an osmotic relationship with nature. The moment you build a wall, this is the signal that you abandon your nomadic condition, and you become fixed in a place, so you aren’t integrated with nature anymore but nature becomes your counterpart. Through that wall you go, you see and control nature. If nature is properly acting your cultivations are safe, the animals that your raising are safe, etc…

EP: In 1971, in Minneapolis you explored the concept of nature into the city…

GP: Both in Minneapolis and in Salt Lake City. By adopting nature as the director of the game I also tried to make a statement: that nature and not man is the director of all strategies. Man can only make gestures of violence against nature. Those were the years in which also there were different points of view, in my generation of the sixties-seventies, on this issue…I emphasize the use of nature. Architecture has to be back to those kinds of attitudes, architecture has to respect nature.

EP: Was the contributions of the students important In the projects that you realized in America? Can you tell me something about this experience?

GP: In Minneapolis I was invited as an artist in residence at the School of Arts, while in Salt lake City I was a teacher of the fourth year at the Department of Architecture of the University of Utah. There, in both the two cities, being a young teacher (I was thirty one years old) I was assigning a project to my students and I was working in those project too, and this was not (and is not) usual for a teacher. Generally the teacher gives aassignment to the students and does not confront himself to with that, but just controls what the students do. But also, sometimes, with some students we had a similar age because I also had veterans as students. So, the students were also helping me in making my own installations, in realizing, making my projects visible.

EP: I think that your American work is the real Pettena’s work, more than the Italian work of those years that was often influenced by the political context…

GP: Sure, because those works are finally dealing with a context, a term that didn’t mean something as complicated as what you could find in Europe. When I was studying architecture – I started at the beginning of the Sixties, I graduated in March 1968 – my artistic activity in Italy (and Europe) was conditioned by the very heavy presence of the past, in any kind of condition. In America I could at last deal with a context much less heavy than in Europe, with much more freedom, till the point that, when I was in Salt Lake City, I also realized that the best way to make architecture is to recognize it in nature. I found out that the architecture of the native Americans was the conceptually highest level you could make architecture, by not making it but discovering it in nature.

EP: In 1972 you met Robert Smithson and you had with him a conversation about his works that was published in the architecture magazine Domus.

GP: Yes, but I had met him before that, in 1969 in Rome when he made Asphalt Rundown for the gallery L’Attico directed by Fabio Sargentini, and I found him by chance in Salt Lake City while walking along Main street. He was walking on the same side in the opposite direction. We recognized each other and at the same time we said “What are you doing here?” I invited him to drink a beer in my rented apartment that was nearby.

EP: This is very funny! But you and Smithson have a different perception of nature and of the relationship between architecture and nature, another kind of approach…

GP: We were both in love with the discovery of the conical copper mine, near Salt Lake City, an incredible open pit. He made a small sketch of that mine, with an intervention by him just at the bottom of it. This is the difference between him and me, for example. What I had done instead was to fly over it just to take a picture of the inside of the mine without having to do anything more, because for me that was the most important environment man had built in history, excavating an entire mountain as a reverse cone just for practical reasons. I was able to read in that mine the incredible visual quality of the result of man’s work, of that unbelievable environment that was done in that manner not to have any visual or conceptual consequence. This was a monument to work. About two hundred people had worked with machines for eighty years and that was what could be seen. For me it was enough just recording it. I didn’t need to make a sign to emphasize the fact that I was ‘reading’ it. Like many other times in the deserts, where I also only took pictures, and I collected and organized them as About non conscious architecture , thus speaking about nature used as architecture by the native Americans.

EP: In 1972 Emilio Ambasz organized Italy: the new domestic landscape at the MoMA. That exhibition featured traditional Italian designers, such as Marco Zanuso, Mario Bellini, Gae Aulenti, together with superarchitetti such as Archizoom, Superstudio, La Pietra, 9999, Gruppo Strum. You refused Ambasz’ invitation and instead chose to exhibit at the famous John Weber Gallery. Why this choice?

GP: Yes, I refused to participate to the exhibition at the MoMA and instead three or four months before I had an exhibition at the John Weber Gallery, in the same building where also the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery, and the Leo Castelli one were located. At John Weber I showed my American works, to point out that I was part of a debate about environment and space performed by artists and not by architects. I think that the most important contribution to the architectural debate in the last forty years has been done and performed by artists. There are many architects that have debts towards the work of artists, starting from John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, and many others. Architects that never recognized these debts. I was feeling different from a professional architect. I did not want to use my idea of architecture for a personal profit. I wanted to make architecture with the tools of arts or the artist, not with the tools of the architect even if I was a licensed architect. I was in the same condition, in those years, as Gordon Matta Clark, that had also had very regular studies and had graduated as an architect. I was somehow more attracted by Robert Smithson because his theories were in some ways more similar to mine. I wanted to emphasize the rule that nature had in our conceptual strategies, but I didn’t want to make violence to architecture like Gordon Matta was making.

My approach was a little bit softer. It’s true that I was using abandoned buildings and covered them with ice, or I was making architecture like the Tumbleweeds Catcher, in Salt Lake City, just for hosting ideas. For hosting your own ideas not functions, even if one morning going there to take pictures when it was still dark I discovered that my work had been totally occupied by birds that apparently were finding that that multistoried-high building was the proper one for them. Also the Clay House was a house inhabited by the family of a colleague of mine at the University, to whom I had asked if it was possible to cover its house in clay. So we did it, and at the end we recorded everything, not only the Clay House, but then also the Tumbleweeds Catcher and the Red Line, this one even flying over it with his small plane…

EP: All of those works are in the city not in a natural context.

GP: Yes, it is nature that claims its rule in an urban context and also the Red Line, that was a line physically painted of the actual city limit, was meant to emphasize the fact that the city limit is just a line designed on a map and does not work as a real border. It’s only a bureaucratic border…

EP: In 1972 you wrote the book L’anarchitetto that was published in 1973, the same year in which Gordon Matta-Clark founded the Anarchitecture group. Is there a relationship between these two facts?

GP: No, there is not a relationship. I was making performances and installations of a different kind in those years, and we did not know each other. I wrote L’anarchitetto in November through December , 1972, the book came out in March 1973 and Matta-Clark founded the group in June. Things went that way around, we didn’t debate this. We met and we confronted each other…I had a lot of respect for his work but we didn’t have a chance to work together.