Franco Albini

Born 17 October 1905 in the countryside north of to a well-to-do bourgeois family, Franco Albini always preserved fond memories of Brianza, of its gentle landscape, its traditions, and the lessons learned from its peasant and domestic culture: the passage of time emphasized by the changing seasons, the forces tide to the principles of rationality and economy of rural work, the dictates of art apllied to every occupation, the precise beauty of agricultural and domestic tools.
Franco Albini always held the poetry and the power of such a tradition in his memory, just as he always felt the reverberations of a childhood amid a happy family and long conversations with his sisters.

After high school he attended architecture school in Milan, applying him self with great discipline to the eclectic course of academic studies than in favor.
He graduated in 1929 and served his apprenticeship with the Milanese Architects Gio Ponti and Emilio Lancia, in which time he had direct contact with talented cabinet-makers and craftsmen, from whom he sought to discover the potential of every craft and the range of freedom each would allow. Then Franco Albini discovered the Modern Movement.

His early travels took him to Barcelona and to the German Pavillion by Mies Van der Rohe; to Paris where he made a revential visit to the studio of Le Corbusier; then encounters with Edoardo Persico, raffaello Giolli, Giuseppe Pagano Pogatschnig, and his contemporaries Giancarlo Palanti and Renato Camus.

During the 1930’s, “Progressive” architects and intellectuals where exasperated with the establishment and with Academia. Polemics betwin the “Modernist” and the “ Moderns” (the Progressives) used to be attributed to motives of style. Clearly, young architects where interested in the risk, in the desire to substantially modify formal language.
During these years the most pertinent group of Milanese Rationalists gathered around Pagano, persico, Giolli, and the magazine Casabella.
They probed beyond questions of form and architectural language, delving into social issues and problems of production.
Casbella ventured to introduce criteria of modularity and seriality into architectural practice, in order to successfully industrialize the building industry.

At the 1936 Milan Triennale, while Ponti proposed “luxurious art for the elegant house” and” luxurious handycrafts for the Italian house” within the Palazzo dell’Arte, Pagano and his group presented their case in the external pavilions for indistrialized building that would allow “a house for everyone”.
The young architects were conscious that the important large commissions were going to architects of the regime, they focussed on minor themes, often ephemeral in duration. These activities, important in the way they helped to communicate new issues, were the focal point of intense personal research.

Collaboration was a frequent condition for young architects. Franco Albini gave his full commitment to significant projects and presentations (Milano Verde, 1938, in collaboration with Camus, Mazzoleni, Pagano, Palanti; Mostra dell’abitazione, at the VI Triennale, 1936, with Camus, Clausetti, Gardella, Minoletti, Mazzoleni, Mucchi, Palanti, Romano). But he most freely developed his own poetics when he collaborated in small groups (the Mostra dell’Oreficeria at the VI Triennale, 1936, with Giovanni Romano) and especially when he was able to work alone.

Whether working alone (Room for a Man, VI Triennale, 1936; Living Room for a Villa, VII Triennale, 1940; INA Pavilion, Fiera di Milano, 1935) or in collaboration, he always adhered resolutely to the principles and examples of the Modem Movement, as expressed by the Casabella/ Pagano group in Milan. Following Persico’s standard, he always sought “the coherence between conscience and language,” but in this regard he embellished his expression with his personal interests and great sensitivity in originai solutions that sometimes border on paradox.

Franco Albini turned his attention to many fronts. First, there was his respect for the “mie of art.” The analysis of the intrinsic reasons and conditions of the theme, of the technical possibilities of realization, could enrich one’s sense of invention and poetics but, at the same time, could be arbitrary obstacles.

He believed in studying models of centrai European Rationalism that proposed exemplary contemporary solutions in modem terms and in reflecting upon works from ali eras, realized by others, in order to grasp the value and the interactions of proportions, measures, volumes, and transparencies, and to understand the substance of the architectural language in question.
His penetration of the problem at hand was both profoundly reasoned and originai. For example, in 1941, on the occasion of the Scipione exhibition in the Napoleonic rooms of the Brera, he used expanses of paper along the perimeter of the rooms and detached from the walls, imbuing the spaces with a sense of depth and indicating the ephemeral duration of the intervention through the impermanent and spare material.
Evenearlier, in 1938, he carne up with the unusual solution of a completely exposed radio, mounted within a supporting system of glass panes. In 1940, for the Villa Neuffer in Ispra, he designed a staircase as a spatial object hung by slender tierods that occupied the volume of the entrance atrium. His sensitive solutions were always rigorously verifiable, subject to tests of feasibility and usability.

The war years, from 1940 to 1945, brought the fall of Fascism and the events of the Resistance. Persico died; Giolli died in a German concentration camp; Pagano, a veteran of the Albanian campaign, was active in the Resistance and was hidden in Albini’s house, but he too later died in a German concentration camp. Camus left the studio and collaborated with the Germans; Palanti, earlier active on the left, moved permanente to Sao Paolo, Brazil.
It was a time for doubt and reflection. While there was interest in looking to one’s own roots for ideas to enrich the language of the Modem Movement, there was also an awareness that the themes to be faced and the trials to be overcome were major in scale and rthat the structures, tools, and methods available were inadequate.
New dialogues emerged with the young Giancarlo De Carlo and the dynamic Giuseppe Samonà. Albini, silent but always attentively involved, if detached, acquired a clearer knowledge of social and politicai values and, at the same time, became very interested in looking back at vernacular architecture.
Even before the war, Pagano had begun a study of “rural architecture,” one of the first investigations into the values of vernacular architecture tied to primary functions. Along these lines Albini a mountain climber and expert on the Alpsbuiltthe “Casadei Ragazzi” inCerviniafor his friend Pirovano. He turned to certain typological elements and construction methods typical of shepherds’ huts in the Alps and in the summer pastures of the Valle d’Aosta.
Polemics and criticism of Albini’s project immediately ensued: was it a revival? A folkloric renewal? Where were the sacred principles of functionality and rationality?

This new interest in vernacular architecture, promoted by the 1951 Triennale exhibition organized by Albini with Samonà and De Carlo, clarified the causes and the significance of this renewal. The architects involved sought to insert their work within an ancient environment, clearly according to modem necessities but with great delicacy, without disturbing the older fabric with grand structures in reinforced concrete.
Albini’s Casa dei Ragazzi became an important point of reference.

During the same period, Albini approached an urban pian for Reggio Emilia (carried out in collaboration with Enea Manfredini, Luisa Castiglioni, and Giancarlo De Carlo) with a desire to find a complete and complex analytical method, capable of supporting decisions interrelated to many problems, not only spatial ones.

The creation of prewar working class quarters and urban plans, such as the one for the San Siro quarter of Milan or the one for Milano Verde, addressed simple sets of problems. They provided partial solutions, important in the way they broke with then current formalizations and in the attention they gave to issues of daylight ex-posure and distribution, but they were schematic in their approach.
The Reggio Emilia pian required a somewhat broader approach. Albini wanted to seek out certainties upon which he could base decisions and designs. The study for this pian is one of the first in Italy that focussed on the actual state and complex analyses of social problems and issues of development.
Albini’s urban planning work continued in Genoa, with a study of some important detailed plans. He developed working relationships and collaborations with old friends Giovanni Romano, Ignazio Gardella and with Genoese architects and enlightened public servants and administrators from the municipality of Genoa.

It was a period of new hope and enthusiasm. Indeed, it was in Genoa that Albini’s work achieved its highest degree of fulfillment. Genoa is a fascinating but difficult city, full of contradictions, rich in “monuments,” in highly suggestive architectural solutions, with an urban fabric that is very distinctive but in a state of decay. During the 1950s the city officials and administrators included numerous open minded figures who had foresight and the ability to see projects through to completion.
Under the aegis of mayors Adamoli and Pertusio and Counsellor Doria, Genoa called upon various architects from the Milan school to collaborate with locai professionals and with the municipal technical offices. Caterina Marcenaro (director of the Division of Fine Arts and History of the Municipality of Genoa from 1949 to 1971) proposed the renovation of the city’s museums, and she entrusted the Chiossone Museum to Mario Labò, Columbus’ house to Ignazio Gardella, and the Palazzo Bianco Museum to Franco Albini.

Working with Caterina Marcenaro, a woman of exceptional sensitivity, tenacity, and rigor, was often difficult on account of the severity of the demands she imposed, but Albini’s working methodology was characterized by a desire to understand to the greatest degree possible the problems at stake, delving into them thoroughly. He responded to her insightful criticisms, strengthening his work with new images and new suggestions. It is worth noting that in ali his museum projects Albini concerned himself above ali with how to display the exhibited work to best advantage, without ever expressing a judgment about the work itself.
At the beginning of my collaboration with Albini, at the time of the 1953 exhibition of Italian Decorative Art in Stockholm, one of the paradoxes that he frequently used to express himself succinctly was: “There are no ugly objects, one only has to display them well.

It was not an ambivalent position, but it was his committed way of conveying his specific role, his professionalism. It was not in his nature to become enraptured before a piece or to assume a criticai stance; rather it was his role to make available his technical expertise and his abilities to understand the problem and to best resolve it.
The Palazzo Bianco was important both for the rigor of the museum design and for the flexible interpretation of the collections to be exhibited, for the building’s role as a historic container, and for its surrounding environment. In addition, Albini designed the Treasury Museum (a hypogeum in the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace, adjacent to the cathedral), and the Palazzo Rosso, on the via Garibaldi.
While Albini’s interventions were always measured and ratìonal, he succeeded in creating a particular “atmosphere.” Objects were exhibited to be best appreciated by the public, but the space, even if basic, had an emotional charge that heightened one’s perception of the values of the materials exhibited.

Around 1950-52, Franco Albini began his teach-ing career. I believe his interest in teaching was quite strong during the early years of his professional practice, but the politicai conditions and the hegemony of the academic establishment excluded figures like Albini, who were open minded and basically skeptical.

Only with the “opening” of the postwar period did Albini begin to teach, first, briefly, a course in “interior design” at the Polytechnic Institute in Turin, and then, more appropriately, in that extraordinary complex, the University Institute of Architecture in Venice, which, under the direction of Giuseppe Samonà, had assumed a leading role among architecture schools in Italy.

As I have already indicated, Albini’s commitment was intense, concentrated, tenacious, even relentless. This fundamental character informed his teaching, both at the university level and in the establishment of his own practice.

His was a linear but rigorous and Constant method, which demanded that every problem be faced without preconceptions and analyzed in depth and objectively. The parameters to which he referred were considered in their complexity and interrelationships; the method of analysis was approached with rigid logie and a sense of experimentation, especially in terms of the drawing, which is the specific tool for making architecture.

Initially the drawing expressed the first glimmer of an idea. Bit by bit the idea was clarified, defined, and refined through the drawing. It did not matter if one didn’t draw well; what counted was that the drawing was clear and useful for the development of the architectural idea, that it could be used with fluency, in various techniques, at various scales. The drawing was not an end in itself but was intended to serve a function as the drawing of an architect, not of an illustrator or a painter. The drawing would vary, whetherit was to communicate an idea or to specify the construction issues at hand. It was used to specify the idea itself, to communicate to others the intentions of the project, to control formai aspeets, and to ensure the project’s feasibility. A drawing, even a first sketch, had to be in scale; if it was not, even if it were a beautiful drawing, it failed to fulfill the requirements of making architecture.

Dimension is the basis of form, and the architect’s drawing must bear this in mind. As soon as the idea had to take shape and become something realizable, concerns for method and pos-sible alternative means of execution guided the design process. Along with the sheet containing the general design, numerous little sketches were produced for a joint, for a structural system, for openings, for door or window trame juncture to verify “How will this be built?” as well as innumerable orthogonal, axonometric, and perspective sketches to verify “How will this be seen?

This continuai concrete and pragmatic commit-ment was part of Franco Albini’s way of looking at things made by others, whether ancient or contemporary. Both the whole and the detail were invested with his lively and Constant curiosity in knowing how things were done, in understanding why, in evaluating the effect, and in understanding the elements that these effects generated. He had profound admiration for work well done, for the correct solution, and for work brought to resolution. The memory of things he had seen became part of his intellectual resources as an architect.
His attention to objects, to projects, to methods of execution, and to tools was in no way speculative or abstract, but was rather the attention of a craftsman who showed a broad interest in the everyday problems his work continually posed.

He wanted to demonstrate ali of this to his students, and he did convey these ideas to those who worked with him in his studio. At the same time, he became interested in the paradox of proposing solutions that were so unusual they would both renew interest in and be respectful of “tradition.”
As it was earlier for Giuseppe Pagano, tradition was charged for Franco Albini with values to be recaptured and handed down. The construction skills of the past; the wisdom and balance of the solutions of vernacular architecture; the complex values of spaces and their geometry, linked in their modifications to the unfolding of history, of custom, of technological possibilities; the perfor¬mance of materials over time; the expression and the creativity of successive cultures; the semantic value of determining elementsali of this is tradition, and ali of this must be present in the consciousness of a modem architect. This is a modem architect who will work in modem terms, according to the methods and the language of his time, without betraying the society in which he is a participant and a representative, always aware of the most complex contemporary examples, but mindful of the innumerable messages that tradition contains and watchful that the “rule of art,” heeded as law in the old traditions, is respected in contemporary works.

Between 1950 and 1970 Albini’s professional commitments grew. The most ambitious themes and most of his collaborative projects led to new solutions. One element that was often present was the integration between traditional values and new technological research. I remember how it was working with Albini, and how with continuai, tireless rigor he put together a school. In the midst of ali the new academic movements, for the most part revivalist, amid the confusion of languages, Albini and his studio and school continued to be not only rational, but also reasonable. The tie with the Modem Movement is a conceptual one, but it functions to overcome schematicisms and to elaborate upon language while renewing it. The future of culture demands a renewal of expression, not a withdrawal into already resolved formai experiences (even if they can be marvelous and fascinating). What Albini put together was not a movement, but a school, founded on principles, criteria, and rich but not arbitrary methods.

After 1950 I was a continuai participant in the work of the studio, and I was later joined by Antonio Piva and his son, Marco. Giuseppe Rizzo, Luigi Mereghetti, and Ambrogio Giani have worked in the office for more than thirty years, and their contributions, guided by Albini’s example, have always been of the highest quality. It is more an association than an office, interwoven with esteem and reciprocai affection.
Clients change, the size of projects grow, but the work always is marked by a respectful continuity with twenty years of Franco Albini’s solitary professional lite.

The Rinascente department store in Piazza Fiume in Rome, which utilizes the channeling of services to punctuate and characterize the volume (prescribed by the preexisting pian), is also an investigation into new construction tech-niques. The prefabricated exterior wall is mounted on site, like a curtain wall, but it is by no means rigid, mechanical, or colorless, like the curtain walls in most commercial buildings. The same is true of the Baths of Salsomaggiore and with the third SNAM office building in San Donato Milanese, where services are placed at the very end of the building, giving a distinctive cast to the volume as well as being extremely efficient. In this latter case too, the investigation of new materials is accompanied by a research into new forms, strictly interrelated with the necessities of function.

The M.M. project is rich in implications. It was not only a question of turning casual, non organized spaces into homogeneous ones, analogous in their distributive qualities and in their image; this underground project that energizes the urban fabric also had to be a sign that invested the entire city. It had to be created with particular means: on the one hand, it needed to have the robustness of railroad installations, on the other, the constructive independence of a concrete shell “finish.”
Along with these important commissions there were many other ventures buildings of various sizes, exhibition and trade show installations, design projects. Whatever the requirements, each one was approached through the most appropriate means, without making allowances for the minor scope of a job, and always enriching the environment.

In conclusioni Franco Albini had naturai gifts of fantasy. The invention of new forms, the control of proportions, the richness of composition these carne easily to him. His work, however, was not facile; thoughtful deliberation went into every project.
(Albini used to say that an entire life was needed to design a chair. For example, the “Luisa” model, which first carne out in 1949, reached its definitive solution in a version produced by Poggi in 1955.)
Albini did not let himself get carried away by his own optimistic nature, but sought to delve thor oughly into every idea, analyzing its motives, verifying its validity, foreseeing its consequences. At the same time, he attempted to endow each project with the greatest possible individuality, enhancing the dominant formai and con¬structive idea. What was difficult was the fact that choosing a particular design path meant rejecting ali others; it required an effort of continuai restraint, Constant self control. His innate shyness and reserve could perhaps be daunting to those who did not trouble to examine and follow his work in depth.
I worked by him, for him, with him, for over thirty years, and I don’t think there has ever been an artist who has been more generous in transmitting his knowledge, more open to a democratic exchange and to an equal collaboration with ali who were willing, as he was, to believe in and to labor toward intelligent work.

Franco Albini died in November of 1977. Certain ventures that he had begun, such as the designs and built projects in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and the SantAgostino Museum in Genoa, were continued and brought to conclusion by his colleagues. Other projects (the M.M. station in Molino Dorino, the AGIP branch headquarters in Ortona, restorations and renovations of monu¬mentai buildings in Genoa and Milan, temporary exhibitions such as the Pitocchetto and Moretto shows at Santa Giulia in Brescia, and permanent installations, like the Marino Marini Museum in the Villa Reale, on the via Palestra in Milan) were designed and carried out by his studio, which continues as a close knit unit in the school of Franco Albini.

Franca Helg May 1989
(Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.)

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