The Destiny of a Visionary

Written by  Carlo Bassi
A tribute to Bruno Zevi, a fundamental presence in the contemporary debate on the arts and architecture.
My tribute to Bruno Zevi follows three moments in his career, trying to grasp his moral strength and his inimitable capacity to be at the centre of the contemporary debate on the arts and architecture.

First moment. Verso un'architettura organica, 1945, is the text with which Bruno Zevi began his teaching career. Three years later he published Sapere vedere l'architettura. These were two milestones in the history of Italian architecture.

I had the privilege of observing these events from a particular vantage point: the Faculty of Architecture in Milan, at that time a stronghold of rationalism. Zevi's position was a polemical one with respect to rationalism and the new organic gospel was greeted with reservations and protests.

"Modern social requirements find their concrete expression IN architecture through spatial inventiveness, IN drawing attention TO the content rather than TO the container AND IN fashioning the building IN the NAME OF human utilization". But the important thing that was taking shape in those texts was an awareness of the concept of space that was to inform, from then on, all of the most culturally sensitive work by Italian architects.

In other words Zevi had the extraordinary idea of giving a real sense to the work of architects, even if this meant forcing a way into those restricted cultural areas that had hitherto seemed impermeable to any criticism or debate.

This poetics of space was a fundamental merit of Zevi's work, as was his emphatic support of this need and this structure of thought in architectonic research. This was his destiny: the noble destiny of the visionary.
Second moment. Among the vast number of articles he produced, there is a little known yet important work that encapsulates the thinking that underpinned his work as a critic and interpreter of the values of architecture as a prophetic mission: Ebraismo e concezione spazio-temporale dell'arte.

The basic premise was to make a survey with a view to understanding how architecture might find in Judaism those values and contents that properly speaking go beyond the province of the Jewish people, but draw their truest significance from the Jewish tradition.

Zevi came to this identification of the authentic values of architecture through an interpretation of the divine act of Creation: an act that is not really an act as such because in reality it is a process in time (the six days required to create the world).

This process could have led to "a perfect world, clean, uncorrupted AND incorruptible" where man was "condemned TO ecstasy". But God did not want this, "He painted half a picture... leaving the USER the task OF finishing his WORK, OF co-operating WITH Him...", "...involved IN a creative responsibility, NOT IN the mere contemplation OF creation, the tradition OF the Jews was beaten out TO the rhythms OF TIME".
In the last part of this work he mentions the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect, whose work was, in Zevi's view, the paradigm of modern architecture and represents the victory of time, that is to say the incarnation of Jewish thought. "Wright's architecture ... is multidimensional, it celebrates space by demolishing its fetishistic, taboo aspects, in other words by making it more fluid, by articulating it according to human paths, weaving a continuum between edifice and landscape...".

Third moment. The capacity to interpret events in the world of architecture between 1945 and 2000 is demonstrated by Bruno Zevi's immense critical production. One distinguishing characteristic OF this commitment IS the continuity OF thought he managed TO CREATE, over a span OF almost fifty years, BETWEEN his Storia dell'archittetura moderna, which was already in its fifth edition in 1950, and his Controstoria (Counter History) of architecture, published in paperback from 1994 to 1998.

Why continuity? Because one of the principles of the Controstoria lies in its inverted "from modern to ancient" perspective, which Zevi described like this: "We cannot become the men of the 4th century BC or of the Baroque period in order to interpret things through their eyes... We must accept the joyous challenge to use our eyes and free them of anachronistic blinkers. The result would be a more focussed critical standpoint..."