Gillo Dorfles

STORY Aldo Colonetti and Luca Molinari
PHOTO Gianluca Di Ioia

Gillo Dorfles visiting the “Vitriol, drawings by Gillo Dorfles” exhibition held at the Milan Triennale until 5th February 2017

We arrive chez Dorfles late one afternoon. The house is full of books, papers, paintings, sculptures and exhibition catalogues; it is a real laboratory-study in which it’s clear that the domestic landscape never stops moving.
Around a large table in the living room, there are four friends, two beautiful chocolate cakes and a bottle of brandy whose label proclaims “Grappa Dorfles” together with a line drawing. We are greeted by laughter and the impression that a discussion is going on that has lasted for some time. One of those present is Gillo Dorfles, born in 1910 and whose life has been spent in the worlds of art, philosophy, architecture and music in Italy and the rest of the world and who possesses a firm lightness of touch that surprises constantly on account of his ability to anticipate the times and raise the level of the discussion. Together with his friend Aldo Colonetti we starting talking about architecture and its future.

LM
I’d like to start with Ernesto Rogers, your friend, a fellow son of Trieste and one of the people to whom post-war Italian architecture owes a huge debt.
GD
Aside from all his merits Rogers had the undoubted distinction of being from a family with English origins which he never forgot. Although a native of Trieste and Italian to all intents and purposes, his Englishness was always very important and for this reason it’s impossible to understand Rogers without taking two sources into account: Trieste, the old Austrian Empire and London, England.

LM
I remember that when Rogers edited Casabella he had the great gift of being able to summon a number of young people to take part in creating the magazine such as Rossi, Canella, Grassi and Gregotti. He had the ability to create a training ground for young people.
GD
For those young people then, Rogers was a kind of teacher or master and he had great power.

LM
But it was a carefully controlled form of power which he used to develop people who were very different.
GD
Yes, don’t let’s forget that Rogers wasn’t on his own; there were also Peressutti, Belgaum and Giulia Banfi through which he came into contact with some of the best students. You have to recognize that Rogers had a very important educational role, I would say more didactic than design-based. Rogers meant a bond with avant-garde Europe even before others in Italy were aware of it.

LM
Let’s talk about the future and tomorrow. In your opinion, what are the themes that architecture should now be working on?
GD
Perhaps I’m a little set in my ways, but I can’t see anything that compares with back then. Once I used to always get the latest stuff from the Salto bookshop, it was brand new and at that time was crucially important.

AC
Can cities in the future survive without quality architecture?
GD
I believe it is essential that a city lives through architecture. Take a look at what happened in Brasilia from both a positive and negative side, or to put it another way, the importance of the imposition of modern architecture was the baptism of the new city, followed by the loss of this baptism for any and every building because the guide Oscar Niemeyer was no longer there. I was in Brasilia for the inauguration and so I was able to see some of the buildings that had already been built before the inauguration, then I was there for the official opening and I went back a couple of years later to see what had happened in the meantime.
The final impression was less than overwhelming because in the face of perfection, or at least, the newly founded Brasilia’s desire for perfection, we were faced with a modern city so to speak that was cluttered up with very few items of interest.

AC
You mentioned Brasilia as a part of this important issue of the relationship between the quality of urban living and architecture. With regard to Luca’s question on how architecture can or can not qualify or describe a city, you’re a friend of the great urban planner Oriol Bohigas and among other things it was you who advised the mayor of Salerno Vincenzo De Luca to call Bohigas first and then the architects. Now, is the issue of town planning, of giving order to a city still relevant? That is, which comes first, architecture or a plan for a city?
GD
I believe it is increasingly relevant and important. Three-quarters of architectural horrors are due to a lack of planning from the start; very often and notwithstanding planning, disasters still appear, so urban planning by a serious architect is a critical premise for a city.

LM
Although today we are moving from the idea of a simple city to that of a landscape.
GD
Of course, today the concept of the little city centre no longer exists and a broader perspective is what is needed, however I still believe even today that those areas of the world in which there has been a solid planning base have managed to survive better.

AC
In terms of the Italian experience, you took Oriol Bohigas to Salerno. Was that useful for the renewal of the city?
GD
I think it was because Bohigas understood the situation in Salerno very well and gave indications that were followed in part. But Salerno was a particularly sensitive area: on the one hand there were the remains of what was the old town and on the other hand the need to create new areas. I believe that Bohigas managed to do something although maybe not much. He opened it up to the sea and therefore modernized it because Salerno was an inward-facing city. In the end Salerno, like Napoli meant a large bay that was not at all inhabited.

AC
I’d like to ask you something about Trieste which has a high quality urban centre but also an old port and railway which act as buffers. You have been involved in several meetings to break down this hypothetical wall. If you had urban planning power over this city, what would you do to allow Trieste to re-acquire the sea that is already there, but going beyond the railway tracks and the old docks etc.
GD
I remember talking about it at the time, perhaps now the time has passed. Trieste is a city that has lost its potential because of local myopia from the urban point of view. In short, it was a well-sited and established city with the hill, with the sea, with the large area around the port and they didn’t make the best of it and the new port is dead while the old port didn’t have enough strength to renew itself.
So from having two ports Trieste ended up having none at all. Trieste is an example of poor implementation of urban thinking. Trieste was already quite harmonious as the mediaeval city San Giusto, with its great square and the sea-front Riviera and on this basis you could have expanded as desired and instead they have created several peripheral areas with no links between them at all.

LM
I would like to return to the question of architecture because recently two words have come back into vogue that you used well in advance: taste and beauty.
GD
In my opinion architecture is the leading art form above all today, and therefore it should be used to its best but it isn’t. On the one hand buildings have been left to collapse, on the other there’s a lack of restoration and above all the failure of town planning. There are plenty of examples in Milan alone.

AC
In your books and essays, Artificio e Natura, L’intervallo perduto, you have dealt with all the disciplines and architecture in a particular way: do you have a particular template for judging? How do you make a judgement on architecture? You taught us to express aesthetic judgements but a picture is one thing, judging architecture is another. How do you manage to find your way? Because we learnt to find our way from your books.
GD
There’s no single answer to the question because it depends on the area, then on the humanity present there, so there are two indisputable phenomena. And then of course there’s the economic issue. If there’s a large port to the rear or a South American prairie that changes everything completely.

AC
You’ve recently come back from Berlin, a city you’re very fond of. From the point of view of architectural and urbanistic transformation Berlin is a good example.
GD
I could say that Berlin is one of the best new cities in Europe. I said new city because effectively nineteenth-century Berlin has some outstanding qualities, but they are very minor and limited while the new Berlin has been able to create structures in the suburban outskirts that are now part of the city, very well chosen. So despite everything I think Berlin is a positive example because it has been able to exploit a number of architects in an extraordinary way, for example, in the heart of the city they have managed today to put up entirely modern buildings that harmonize with the old structures.

LM
And Milan on the other hand?
GD
Compared to urban transformation and in relation to a coherent and long-lasting plan, just think of the metropolitan city – Milan does not exist!

AC
But when Porta Nuova began to develop architectures that were so particular, so to say, when the work finished you told me “compared to the tremendous void that’s been there for several years this is a return to the contemporary city in Milan. Milan needs some very strong vertical elements in order to find its way”: is your statement valid?
GD
I continue to agree with this, the same problem is that skyscrapers in Milan are used badly apart from the Galfa Tower and the Pirelli Tower. Instead, Milan should have taken advantage of the vertical element of skyscrapers to create nuclei and urban signs throughout the city, not just in the central area where it simply looks great. Milan has failed in its interpretation of the skyscraper. Milan should already have started, in recent years naturally, to have decided on some places for skyscrapers, such as the new gateways into the city.

AC
Would you have liked to be an architect?
GD
That’s a tough question to answer. In actual fact I had thought about studying architecture but then I thought that it would have been difficult to be a good architect, especially then.

AC
And so you chose to do medicine and psychiatry and art criticism at the same time…
GD
I did psychiatry for general culture, not to be a psychiatrist.

AC
If you had had the chance to design a house, I think it would have been unique, certainly not run of the mill. A mix of UnterWasser, Frank Gehry and the legendary Wright in the background. Using lots of colours and materials.
GD
It would probably have been a load of rubbish!

AC
But you’ve always told me that you’ve met some of the great architects: when you were in the United States you met Frank Lloyd Wright and stayed at his house. Why do you consider him an absolute genius even if he had one or two rather human characteristics?
GD
I believe that his works, right up to the last of his houses in California, have their own unique imprint.

AC
And what was he like as a person?
GD
When I was a guest at his house for a few days I admired his wife’s horrible cushions and I found that his domestic tastes were deplorable, something that no one has ever talked about. However, there is no doubt about the fact that he was the greatest architect of his time.

LM
More interesting than Le Corbusier?
GD
Absolutely. For my money Le Corbusier was a typical elegant French intellectual but no creator of new shapes while thanks to his absurdity Lloyd Wright possessed an extraordinary creative power.

LM
Who are the architects today who have this extraordinary creative power?
GD
I wouldn’t know. I don’t think that today there is either a Wright or a Mies Van Der Rohe, also because the economic obstacles are different. These are different times.