Unidentified Modern City

Gabriele Basilico & Dan Graham

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As we all know Gabrielo Basilico left us the last 13th of february, provocating a big lack in photographs and architects’ world (see here). Throwing an eye in bookshop to find something for an homage, I found a small book about a discussion between him and Dan Graham in Brescia.
Brescia is the second largest city, after Milan, it’s a typical italian city of the Lombardia’s industrial region, with an historic hearth and a peripheral postwar development area.
Gabriele Basilico appears to observe the town, creating relation bewteen a building and the rest of the urban setting to which it belongs. Dan Graham focuses more on details, parts of the town, as if his observation identified with the state of flux of those accustomed to living in it. Both were especially more interested on the new part of the city, the one related to the economy development with typical high rise and mass-housing building, shopping mall and branded-shops links to this way of living. They have analyzed aspects Brescia has in common with numerous towns in other countries with the same architectural characteristics, regardless of the size : Lyon or Nice in France, Manchester or Liverpool in England, San Francisco in USA and Gwangju in Korea. The reflection on the urban space revealing its apparent anomie the identity of a middle class common to many town eslewhere in the world.  Photographs of Dan Graham are emblematic representation of modular, common place architecture that are infinitely replicated in Modern Towns, in the East and the West, in Europe, United States and Asia alike. And this possibility of repetition contains the seed of a new lifestyle identity. The repetitivness of the architecture holds a new identity – or absence of it – that represents a new community style.

The following conversation, in which the city of Brescia is a pretext,  explains their vision, culture and the most influenced references, from Walker Evans to Aldo Rossi, with a large tribute to Venturi. This dialogue helps to understand what motivations they have for taking photographs, and why their gaze are so different, but also so common.

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GB  Dear Dan, first of all I would like to thank you for accepting Minini Gallery’s exhibition in Brescia curated by Maurizio Bortolotti. They have asked us to conduct a written dialogue to bear witness to our work in Brescia, which will be published in a book.

The first question does not come easily. You are universally recognized in the world of art as an artist who has worked conceptually on various topics, with projects linked to intersubjectivity and relationships with space and places, using diverse languages ranging from video to performance to installation.
I photograph buildings and urban landscapes and for over 30 years I have been obessessed with recording the things I want to capture. At times I fell rather like a collector of pictures of towns who wants to complete his series but never manages to stop taking photographs…Could architecture be the subject that allows an exchange between us, and an interaction ?
I, with my obessively repetitive method, you, with your speculative and philosophical approach and the development of a theoretical way of thinking that continues to renew itself.
A person who has played a key role in terms of the quality of his work and its ethical dimension becomes a necessary reference at this point in the subject, which can occupy the entire life of an artist or a man. I am talking about Walker Evans, with his extraordinary ability to discover and recount people and places in a rigoursly aesthetic and highly respectful way. I would call him a man with a vision that is straightforward, fair, and refined at the same time.
There was an exhibition in Rotterdam in 1992 that showed your work in relation to that of Walker Evans. I have seen the catalogue unfortunately, so I am not in a position to make any comments. But I do want to ask you simply and directly : What effect did Evan’s personality have on you, and how do you relate it in your work as an artist and researcher ?
DG You ask me about my relation to Walker Evans.
Although I am not directly infleunced by his work, I feel an affinity in that his work makes use of the magazine page and is in the genre of photojournalism. We noth relate te seriality as a Minimal art and billboard images as in Pop art. I think we were both fascinated by the petit bourgeois on the edge of industrial slums. In other words, the edge of the city’s urbanism.
Your work seems to be involved with the postwar Italian city in terms of the new urban plan. Have you been influenced by Aldo Rossi’s book The Architecture of the City ?
GB Aldo Rossi was a person of great importance to me, as he was for architectural culture as a whole and for the debate after 1968. I met him in the 1960s when he was teaching at the Milan Polytechnic’s Faculty of Architecture where I was student.
His book The Architecture of the City ( 1966 ) was – and still is – a fundamental text around which the architectural debate revolves. Rossi’s analytical method of comparing single buildings with the urban fabric, of giving depth to history in dialoguing with the modern, his respect and study of the locus are some of the stenghts of his untiring research.
The notion of « urban fact », the theme of the relationship with the history of the city and monuments ( theory of permanence ), and insistent analysis of types are some of the topics that have related architecture to philosophy and art, and have animated scholars and schools of architecture for decades.
As regards the identity of place, the main theme of photographic research in the 1970s, Aldo Rossi wrote : « Every place is undoubtedly singular to the extent to which it possesses endless affinities or analogies with other places. Even the concept of identity, and hence foreign-ness, is relative », « I’ve always claimed that places are stronger than happenings. « In my opinion place and time are the first condition of architecture, so the hardest […]«  After the 1980s, photography in Italy and the rest of Europe, commited to observing the new urban landscape, was influenced by American art and the theoretical debate that marked the previous decades. I remember Robert Venturi’s books Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), important volumes in the open discussions of the post modern era, not only for architecture, but for the art world in general.
I have a question for you now : how has Robert Venturi’s way of thinking influenced your life?
DG Robert Venturi’s way of thinking was very important to me. He truly love the same art I loved – Ed Ruscha and Claes Oldenburg. His understanding of upper-lower-class-suburban vernacular architecture was extremly important to me. I think that there is a real relation Aldo Rossi’s use of poetic vernacular and Venturi’s use of poetry and wit in his work. My favorite Venturi is his musem for Benjamin Franklin for the American Biennial in Philadelphia. I’ve met Venturi and h’s a very sweet person. In an Interview I did with him he mentionned that he would like to retire to Northen New Jersey – the italian upper-middle-class suburbs that also influenced me. It interests him to see the neighboring New York skyline from New Jersey. ( His wife Denise Scott Brown says, « this is a nightmare I hope will never happen »)
GB  I have never been lucky enough to meet Robert Venturi, but his two books Complexity and Contradiction and Learning from Las Vegas causes a great deal in Europe. They can be said to have caused a revolution in thinking, in the criticism of modernism, making a clean sweep of that reverential fear that was the ideological credo of so many generations after Bauhaus.
Venturi has taught us to look at the world around us with new, disenchanted eyes, to observe and accept the landscape and the town with curiosity, with attention – I would almost say democratically – finally putting on the same plane refined architecture, that by the great designers, and ordinary, commonplace architecture, where the ephemeral, superstructural language of advertising has been integrated with or replaced building construction, concealing it.
This visual and critical approach, which wa can ultimately define es « democratic » – without or without rhetoric – has been fundamental for architecture and for art. Even photography has embraced it fully, as in the case of Ed Ruscha’s fascinating research in his Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1963)
I have been working on towns and urban landscapes for 30 years or so. It all started in 1978 with a project on the industrial suburb of Milan, the town I was born and still live in. At that time there were already many abandoned areas next to factories still in operation. I was really fascinated by Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Anonyme Skulpture, the frontal rigor with which they photographed various types of industrial archeology in black and withe, their cataloguing, their taxonomic approach to the object, their maniacal, obsessive, and potentially infinite research.
My work on the outskirts of my town, which led a few years later to an exhibition and a book entitled Milano Rittrati di Fabbriche (1978-1980), never had the rigor or purity of the Becher’s work, not the equidistant viewpoint of Ed Ruscha. It is a work on spaces, streets, and places, and is undoubtedly influenced by the photographic style, which, from the 1930s onward, with the Farm Security Administration’s mission, had unequivocally conditionned the world of documentary photography. I ferer again here to the teachings of the Greater Walker Evans, with his comprehensive and rigorous approach, aestethic yet uncondescending, and to his definition/notion of « documentary style ». Walker Evans’ pictures are the expression of an ethical vision ; in the words of my friend Luigi Ghirri, they are like « caressing the world ».
Talking about these approaches and the influence of these important protagonists of culture and artistic research, it is evident that the field, the object of analyses and ideas, is stiil the town iself.
Seen the other way around, the town itself provides an opportunity for comparing only apparently diverging theories and thoughts, like those of Robert Ventury’s critical approach implies an ironic attitude, which is vital for a thorough, unprejudiced understanding of the identity of the new urban landscape.
The inventory of shpaes that Aldo Rossi rediscovered and relaunched as a fragment for a recomposition of the city – a Rossian Collage City as Colin Rowe calls it – does not appear to contain an ironic allusion, rather it is rooted in history, in the search for geometric rigor and essentially of architecture.
When I saw your photographs of Brescia, especially the objects you captured – shop windows, roads signs, parked cars, doors, windows, fences, bariers, fragment of a chaotic and confused urban landscape – my toughts inevitably went back to other pictures by Lee Friedlander came to mind, but they are obviously more constructed, more thoroughly « photographic » whereas yours are more like true documents, apparently less dependent on the construction of a style. Would you agree ? And What do you have to say about this ?
DG Venturi’s work didn’t directly influence my early photographs of New Jersey suburban houses, roadside factories, and signage, but after discovering his architetural work, such as the Guild House and the Lieb House on the New Jersey coast, two of my first architectural models, Alteration of a Suburban House and Video Projection Outside Home (1978) were in response to his work. Venturi’s Lieb House period work noted symbolism of the typical ornamental decoration outside Italian-American owned single-family houses, such as a plastic Madonna in the birdbath placed next door to the Lieb House.
My placement of a large videao projector on the front lawn of a house displaying whatever was on the family’s inside TV set was intented to create an emblem of the family’s lifestyle on the roadside for passing observers. It relates to the proposed « gold » painted TW antenna on the top of the Guild House for retired Quaker Families in Philadelphia, the intention of which was to symbolize the custom of retired residents watching television while resting in their rooms.
Venturi was directly influenced by Ed Ruscha’s photographs, as well as by Pop artist such Claes Oldenburg. I see a parallel between Rossi and Venturi’s work in that both deal with childhood memories of the vernacular suburban architectural landscape in a poetic (and in Rossi’s case, cinematic, phantasmagoric) manner. Rossi’s Modena Cemetery reminds me the interior of a suburban shopping mall. Venturi’s use of irony is more about  with than about being a caustic or critical. Finally, both architects are drawan to seaside houses or makeshift seasiders shelters.

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Source :
Garbielo Basilico, Dan Graham, Massimo Minimi, Lionel Bovier, Maurizio Bortolotti  Unidentified Modern City, Zurich, JRP Ringier, 2011