Jean-Louis Cohen, “The Italophiles at Work,” 1984.
This essay by Jean-Louis Cohen, the 42nd text in the Hays anthology, is a brilliant and beautifully concise history of the reciprocating intellectualism between French and Italian architectural circles. Much like Bernard Huet’s “Formalism-Realism,” it traces the evolution of ideas across individuals, groups, schools, publications, and exhibitions, across the alpine geography. In this case, French philosophy and theory—divorced from French architectural practice—was adopted and enriched by Italian architecture culture—where intellectualism and architecture were closely related—and then returned to France via various “Italophile” journals. Obviously the history is more complicated than that, and the concision of Cohen’s history is matched by its wealth of facts and references. Below are some extremely reductive historical notes for the sake of review, but the perspective gained from these ten pages is well worth the time it takes to read them. (Forgive the wealth of references and names; they are an effort for the efficiency of review rather than esotericism.)
In the late 1960s, various Italian architects looked to and incorporated the intellectual work of various French philosophers and theorists—work often completely extraneous to architecture—as part of their own developing understanding of architecture and the city. Prominent among these are Aldo Rossi and, unsurprisingly, Manfredo Tafuri. While Rossi looked to geography and social sciences to understand the city—in the figures of Marcel Poëte, Maurice Halbwachs, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Georges Chabot and Jean Tricart (morphology), Max Sorre (urban ecology)—Tafuri looked to philosophy—in the figures of Roland Barthes (“to help unravel the tangle of semiotic theories”), Michel Foucault, and eventually Deleuze (and probably Lacan). (On Rossi, see his Cemetery of San Cataldo and Scolari's 1973 essay
The enrichment of the intellectual-architectural dialogue by Italian architectural culture was recognized by the French—through”long-standing personal connections” and “new friendships”—and became the subject of various journals. Cohen specifically discusses the concept of cultural hegemony contributed by Antonio Gramsci (discussed previously in Fredric Jameson’s 1982 essay), whose discussion of the relationship between politics an culture mirrored waves made by Louis Althusser (who we’ve also encountered multiple times). There was also the case of the renovation of Bologna’s historic centro, achieved through a process that incorporated the opinions of inhabitants and seems to have embodied a case of Gramsci’s enclave theory. Bernard Huet, on Bologna: “After Bologna, it can be said that the problem of safeguarding historical centers is no longer an aesthetic problem but a social and political one.”
French journals and schools looked to these intellectual advances and incorporated them into pedagogy and practice, particularly the ideas of urban morphology and typology adapted by Rossi—yet more proof of the problems of the City and urban development in the 20th century. (Specifically: Christian Devillers and Henri Raymond, Ahmet Gülgönen and François Laisney.) But the two journals famously dedicated to Italian architectural culture were Architecture Mouvement Continuité and L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. The latter was begun in 1930 but it was under the editorial tenure of Bernard Huet that it’s most valuable work was conducted. Under Huet L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui led the French “reintellectualization of French architectural culture,” not least because of Huet’s own editorials and his “courage”:
“No doubt it is useful to stress why Huet’s position…was so courageous: it is because he considered, and rightly so, that the urban plans and buildings constructed in the name of socialist realism did not merit repression and exemption from any reflection on architecture and on the city, and that the relation between architecture and politics should be seriously analyzed.” Apparently this position cost Huet his career—as his time ended at L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui he was systematically attacked by critics in all directions.
From these two journals and the work of Huet on Realism and the Tendenza, Cohen moves on to Tafuri—or, more specifically, to French translations of Tafuri’s work. He argues that the translations of Tafuri’s work prove how problematic his dense theorizations of architecture, philosophy and culture were for the French to understand. Basically, Tafuri’s work (namely Architecture and Utopia and Theories and History of Architecture, 1976) was so complex and nuanced that the French, who had not naturally developed a culture of intellectualism and architecture together as the Italians had, had a hard time wrapping their heads around it.
By the 1980s, Italian architects were looking to the French response to Italian integration of French philosophy for material to be readdressed and reintellectualized again. Cohen discusses the 1980 biennale and Paolo Portoghese’s exhibition The Presence of the Past (which reminds me of Kanye lyrics, I admit), its harsh criticism by Vittorio Gregotti, and the influence of Auguste Perret and Jean Prouvé on Gregotti and Renzo Piano when they were in Paris planning the 1989 expo. “Thus one of the major directions in modern French architecture was reopened through the choice of these men, whose [Italian] culture helped them craft a highly specific ‘presence of the past.’”
Cohen does allow that not all the Italians had to offer was absorbed by French pedagogical, intellectual, and practical culture. The French particularly disregarded what Rossi and Tafuri had to say about the Metropolis in favor of 19th century nostalgic urban ideas, as well as the avant-garde. The French continued to see the avant-garde as heroic and positive (looking to limited and minute examples of avant-garde work on the neighborhood level) instead of the work done on the movement by the Italians who discovered the “Promethean and suicidal” nature of the avant-garde position.
List of journals that partook in this exchange: Communications, Casabella Continuità, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, Archithese, Architecture Mouvement Continuité, Controspazio, Das Andere (German), Oppositions, VH 101, Babylone.
List of architects: Carlo Aymonino, Aldo Rossi, Alvaro Siza, Oriol Bohigas, Vittorio Gregotti, New York Five (Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey, Hejduk, Meier), Renzo Piano, Antoine Grumbach, Gae Aulenti, Auguste Perret, Jean Prouvé.
In addition to its historical value, there is an overwhelming amount of historiographic and editorial wisdom that comes from this essay. In short, it provides an unsolicited (and, for my part, overlooked) explication for the prominence of Italian authors and subjects in the early part of this anthology and their slow replacement by French and German (and American) authors.
From Hays’s introduction also comes this valuable little tidbit regarding Cohen’s essay: “[It] is a reminder that, if theory’s real subject is history, theory must also constantly historicize itself. Theory, as much as architecture, has to be grasped in the place and time out of which it emerges; we must attend to the different reasons theory is begun and the unforeseen uses to which those beginnings can actually be put.”