International magazine of architecture and project design september / october 2017

How to listen to architecture
In Italy, an entire generation of architects, and perhaps a large part of the following ones too, were brought up reading Bruno Zevi’s invitation to find out “Saper vedere l’architettura“ (How to look at architecture); it was 1948 and the author, who founded the Associazione Per l’Architettura  Organica (APAO – Association for Organic Architecture) before the war had ended and the journal Metron in ’45, made a heartfelt appeal to everyone, not just those in the industry, to consider architectural works for their spatial contents regardless of any stylistic indication. It was not the form, the ornamental shape and therefore the image of a building that counted. Instead, what in Zevi’s mind defined the value of a piece of architecture was its capacity to contain life and consequently the activities whose actions are carried out within a space. His stance against the critics’ obsolete way of reading and interpreting architecture, regardless of the value of its internal space, led him to make some paradoxical considerations that involved architecture in its supreme form – the Greek architecture of temples, considered sculptures, beautiful works of art. He deemed them incapable of rising to the role of architecture because they were fundamentally lacking any internal space, excepting the minimal role of the cella (naos), moreover inaccessible to all but the priest. The famous critic – who died almost twenty years ago, whose stubborn intelligence is certainly missed by both Italian and international culture – must be acknowledged for having given central importance to the spatial interpretation of a work over the critical analysis that can be provided by simply observing the same building from the outside. This vision, which places the contents before the container, the space before the form, becomes extraordinarily important when considering particular types of buildings whose life and vitality necessarily depend on the “form of the space”, such as in the case of theatres, music halls and auditoriums. In effect, they are absolutely special places, whose priority, like musical instruments, must be to “sound good”, and invite the public to participate and listen, using the instruments of architecture and of the design to bring out the best of the spectacle taking place inside it. The history of the theatre building shows that the modern ideal according to which form comes after function is central to the evolution of this class of architecture. This can be seen starting from the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza designed by Andrea Palladio – concluded after his death in 1580 by Vincenzo Scamozzi from Vicenza – which established the typical Italian-style horseshoe shape. Achieving the ideal combination of Greek and Roman theatre, in particular it enabled spectators to be placed at a more or less radial distance, and hence at an equal distance from the stage, creating a bell-shaped cavea for optimum reverberation and acoustics. Since the war, different types of concert halls as well as theatres and music venues have been successfully tried and tested. Nevertheless, despite Zevi’s convictions, owing to the significance of these types of building in the urban setting, their success and therefore ultimately their value hinge on a balanced relationship between the interior and exterior, whose very image, to use Valéry’s words, has to transmit music. Witness Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie.

Marco Casamonti

Download cover
Download table of contents
Download introduction of Marco Casamonti