St. Peter's Basilica, in Vatican City.
Bas Princen/courtesy MIT Press St. Peter's Basilica, in Vatican City.

After all the recent assaults on traditional ways of making and thinking about architecture; after the digital dreams, the worlds created by artificial intelligence, and “post-orthographic” theory postulating that we should be thinking in a fundamental manner beyond pencil and paper and perhaps bodies, the reaction is becoming visible. It is a call for a return to form: to solids, to space shaped by walls, to recognizable communal stage sets for important events, and for building on tradition. This conservative turn is, however, taking a new turn. Instead of reverting, as the right wing of architecture usually does, either to the latest revival of Classicism or Modernism, or to an even more primitive desire to connect to earth and sky through a magical form of assumed vernacular, it proposes the basic act of space making.

One of its most articulate proponents is my colleague at Virginia Tech, Markus Breitschmid. You can find his views intelligently condensed in the slim and very popular book he co-wrote with architect Valerio Ogliati, Non-Referential Architecture (University of Chicago Press, 2018). One of most poetic evocations of the reactionary tendencies, however, comes in the form of what purports to be an assessment of the work of Renaissance architect Donato Bramante, and ends up being an argument for a solid, simple, fundamental architecture that this architect’s work supposedly exemplified: On Bramante (MIT Press, 2022), written by Pier Paolo Tamburelli.

“Architecture is a technique for framing movement and for accumulating memories, starting from the experiences of the human body… Architecture does not say things; architecture, in a way, does things, or at least lets them be done. And everything that it does, it does through its immobility and its silence,” Tamburelli writes. “Buildings measure the events they host, and they measure them not just case by case, but in sequence: a sequence that unfolds precisely because buildings do not move, because they remain as fixed as scenery, with the rooms placed one next to the other, immobile and indifferent to the unfolding of the stories that play out in them. Architecture is immobility that produces action and memories, a non-narration that prepares the ground for memory and narration …”

The reductively titled text is both more and less than a monograph. Tamburelli—an Italian critic and architect who founded and edited the periodical San Rocco—gives some, but not all of the architect’s biographical details, and discusses a few of his buildings, but only in fragments. He concentrates on particular aspects that interest him, often by focusing on design sketches he has found in local archives. The photographs commissioned for the volume, by Bas Princen, similarly do not document the structures. Instead they both lovingly and without affect—no saturated colors, no delicious details, no long perspectives—present segments of walls and parts of façades.

Santa Maria della Pace, in Rome.
Bas Princen/courtesy MIT Press Santa Maria della Pace, in Rome.

The effect of the text and images together makes the argument that Bramante was interested in one thing, and one thing only: making spaces that were as simple and clear as possible. To do that, he manipulated structure and detail alike to create walls framing those shaped voids. The resulting rooms were connected and, Tamburelli claims, “…never conclude in a flat surface that defines their limit, but twist around in cavities that catch the movement of the eyes and turn them back towards the viewer. The routes do not come to an end; there is always something that refers to somewhere else, mirroring, distorting, deviating. The conclusion is always deferred, there is always a way to escape.” These containers shaped the rituals that took place within them (they are almost all ecclesiastical in nature) and were flexible enough to set the stage not only for their intended uses, but also for ones that might subsequently arise.

Unfortunately, Tamburelli does not show how they might adapt. Instead, he waxes eloquent about their grandeur and their silent, recessive quality. As he says: “Architecture gives visual presence to this hypothesis of coexistence without communicating it, outside of any symbolism, of any exchange of meanings, outside the hell of metaphors.” This approach stands, Tamburelli claims, in contrast to both Modernism, which he asserts is defined by a functionalism that reduces us humans to our needs, and Postmodernism, which only serves our desires. Instead, the Classicism of Bramante is “a way of representing (and thus altering) a set of rules that correspond to … society,” Tamburelli writes.

Do not expect buildings, in other words, to be active participants in contemporary culture. They stand for, and are built for, the ages. We are only temporary inhabitants. What the basic rules are, who sets them, how and why those then contain us, and how the building alters all of that is beyond the scope of his discussion. Tamburelli accepts that there is a shared set of beliefs and modes of behavior, as well as an unspoken set of power relations embodied by commissioning and defining a building, that is common to all people. It is up to architecture to give space to those conditions, no more and no less.

Piazza Ducale, in Vigevano, Italy.
Bas Princen/courtesy MIT Press Piazza Ducale, in Vigevano, Italy.

The basis for this universal architecture is twofold: a classicism mined from the Romans, and the context of the city. “The architecture of antiquity was at once clarity and fright,” Tamburelli says, noting the terror as well as the beauty Classical architecture both evoked and housed, “a limpid catalogue of architectural knowledge and a deposit of desires that were no longer identifiable, but none the less violent for this.” That knowledge and desire, however, was subsumed into the buildings Bramante made (remember, buildings, according to the author, neither speak nor satisfy needs or desires), leading him to a simple approach. “Bramante reduced to a means what for all of his contemporaries was an end: He used the ruins with the pragmatism of someone repairing a tractor with parts from Ferrari,” Tamburelli states.

How appropriate such a use was, and how good the tractor wound up being (very good, if you can believe Princen’s photographs) is beside the point; grounding the shaping of space in something so old it was not open to question or interpretation was. The violence and beauty had to be far in the rearview mirror of this vehicle for it to be a supposedly neutral (and as politically, economically, and culturally defined, I would contend) as possible.

Those spaces appeared in one particular kind of setting: the Italian city, or “the city,” as Tamburelli generalizes. “… Every building refers to the city, not to nature, not to paradise, not to history, not to science,” he writes. “Buildings prefigure the city … It follows that the city is the precondition for architecture.” Where this leaves any site that does not conform to the collage of structures and walls built up over the ages in compact configurations and organized around institutions such as churches remains a mystery. Perhaps Tamburelli believes that anything built outside of the urban ramparts is not architecture.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.
Bas Princen/courtesy MIT Press Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.

However much I enjoy both Bramante’s designs and the evocative and fluent manner in which Tamburelli writes, I find his thesis frightening. To conclude that the discipline of architecture has only one task—to use resources we can no longer replenish only on the making of spaces in inner (traditional) city settings devoted to communal rituals governed by some unquestioned rules, regulations, and power relations literally set in stone—is not only limiting, it is exclusionary, wasteful, and even faintly ridiculous. Our lives are so much more complex and demanding than that, and the demands on architecture need to be that much greater.

As a tonic after drinking the expensive, heavy, and aged (Italian) wine that On Bramante resembles, I would recommend my former colleagues Nathalie Frankowski’s and Cruz Garcia’s A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education (Loudreaders Publishers, 2020). Although it is unfortunately drowning in so much jargon and a screamed reiteration of its points that is almost as unreadable as Tamburelli’s text is a pleasure to wallow in, it makes the point that “the injustices of our time are byproducts of design, and must be addressed as deliberate and instrumental in order to be corrected with the consideration with which they were made.” “History doesn’t exist,” the manual proclaims. “Historical narratives do really exist, like propaganda …” Figuring out a different narrative about the uses of history in buildings—telling stories that open up the hidden meanings buildings contain and the social orders they fix in place—is a task that, the authors say, starts with architecture education. They question the economic and social assumptions implicit and often explicit in who gets to study, make, and use architecture. I would enjoy a reexamination of heroes such as Bramante in a way that similarly digs deep into the walls Tamburelli so loves.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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