ITALY Architecture at is best
Having just returned from a trip around Italy, initially courtesy of RAC Insurance and Trafalgar Travel from a competition for the first 8 days, then hiring a car and driving great distances, experiencing the AutoStrada and SuperStrada, the latter being not maintained by government and no tolls, the former being heavily tolled but in condition equal to that of Perth, I felt to include in my blog my observations in Architecture around the country.
They say there is nothing new under the sun and for me I found that to be very true. In the early 1990’s I built a home with my family in New Zealand on the Coromandel Peninsula. It was timber construction on a step South West facing sight that bounded a 6m high bank before emptying out onto a country road and the other side of the road was a view to the racecourse. the Kauaeranga River and the Hauraki Gulf beyond. You couldn’t want for a better view except that the Northern sun was difficult to get into the home, but I managed. My then wife had chosen the colours for the house which I didn’t like but as ever dutiful husband does accepted and compromised by painting my office a different colour. I then proceeded to rag walls internally and a whole palette of colours was introduced making it a house of real interest and even to the point I wanted to include a mural on the end wall of the lounge to capture the South facing view looking down the valley. It was never completed and neither was the house unfortunately although we lived in it for 5 years.
In Italy I was surprised because I saw the exact same thing design concept, although from thousands of years ago and the mix of colours on the outside matched exactly the colour my wife had chosen and I saw the matching colours of my office occasionally. Neither of us had been to Italy but I had a penchant for lean too roofs, I guess from the NZ bach era but the finishes and colours we used have not been used in NZ in my experience and here it was all over Italy. We think we can be inventive but maybe we have lived another life sometime. Another story.
My trip began in Rome for 3 days where we saw the sites of Roma, the usual, the Vatican, the crypt as I refer to it now as the Sistine Chapel as it felt like I was in a mausoleum or Sepulchre. Not a pleasant feeling at all and when you consider all of those people exploited by the Catholic church to build that and many other churches around the nation I didn’t feel awe but sadness and even more so because we were prevented to take pictures, something about copyright. I digress. The Colosseum was much larger than I had thought as was most of the churches with their proportions of grandeur we were dwarfed but didn’t feel so inside these magnificent buildings. The fact the Colosseum was clad with white and pink Marble was astounding to me, what a magnificent picture that would have been when new.
When we began our own journey with our hire car the Fiat 500, I had to do it, we were in Italy after all said and done. We drove to a place called Verona. This place was set apart from every other city or town in Italy because of its Architecture. It was a small town in the Northern part of Italy and wonder of wonders had an arena smaller than that of the Colosseum but same design. We watched an Opera by night there, the first of the season but saw first hand the white and pink marble as the Arena was in much better condition than the Colosseum.
Just imagine that Marble in its original condition, not weathered and worn as it is now and glistening in the sun. What a fantastic building it was and this Arena was built before the Colosseum. It has lost some of the exterior perimeter walls but not from marauding armies and looters who changed the Colosseum in Roma but from and earthquake. Verona holds greater importance than Roma in some ways in that is was the main connection to the North from the South and also East to West. She was at the crossroads and was vital in the 700 years of war that Italy encountered. The river surrounding it became the demarcation at one time between the Austrians living on the outside of the river and the Italians living on the inside. Napoleon set his headquarters at the Castlevecchio a Castle on the opposite side of the road to where we stayed at a medieval B&B San Reno Residence. This was an amazing residence as each room was still maintained in its heritage decorating with furniture to match, well worth even one night for the experience.
Because of Verona’s strategic placement in the North of Italy any controlling government or army would maintain its headquarters here to keep the rest of Italy safe. Consequently the people were much more affluent and in fact even today they have the highest income per head of population. This in turn attracted the architects, artists, sculptures, writers, poets and painters. As a result the marry of Architecture and art over the life of this city are second to none anywhere I saw in Italy. Walking down the main retail street of Verona I was aghast with the detail and variety on each building. It was breathtaking and beautiful every building crafted but much different from its neighbour. It was a place we had planned to spend one night in and watch the Opera but we took another 2 nights and could have easily take another two to see everything they had to offer.
All the buildings built with stone and brick and marble did not lend themselves to comfortable homes. While the massive building of churches and arenas portrayed a world of affluence from a bygone era and excellence in Architecture. The houses were simple, multistory and small, with few windows because of the time they were built. I learned that the taxes of the day were levied against the size and number of windows you had which is why they had few windows and small.
I was impressed by the white and pink marble used to build the Arena in Verona, which was built before the Colosseum in Roma but we don’t build with marble today arena’s or churches. We don’t even design our stadiums in the same way with maintenance free stone steps doubled as seats. We don’t beat gold coins to create artisitic paintings and frescos either. We don’t copy any of the designs for public buildings and do not even use the buildings in the same way they were used back then so why do we insist on building our homes in the same way?
Every place we stayed at in Italy was hot because as we all know stone and brick and marble are excellent for storing heat and cold. They take a long time to heat up and a long time to cool down. They are excellent for thermal mass for both cold and heat. If you want to store heat build brick, if you want to keep things cold build brick. The trouble is summer comes when it is hot and so for 3 weeks you delay the heat but it catches up with you at the other end of the season as the heat is retained in the building while it cools down.
Today we have legislation that enforces certain design criteria from both developers who want to make a subdivision look a certain way and the council who are trying to legislate to make building simple and sift out the cowboys in the industry. The trouble is legislation and restrictions only frustrate excellence in Architecture and force the build of inadequate housing run by profit making group home builders.
Today we attempt to copy this centuries old Architecture in our modern houses using double brick, we fail because of the requirements we have to live in a comfortable home. We also fail because we have escalating utility costs which mean we can no longer afford to heat or cool those stone and brick Thermal Mass walls.
There were some interesting design ideas to provide adequate water for inhabitants and the design of steps was intriguing, especially those purported to have been designed by Michelangelo that provided ease when walking up or down them. When they were copied, however, I felt like a man with a limp. It interested me that new designers had copied the look of the step and not its functionality which was why I ended up limping up or down them.
The same is the case today where project or group home builders introduce a house that looks good but has no real function, they do not improve our standard of living or help to reduce utility costs, maximize privacy or elevate surrounding views. Good Architecture focuses on spaces and light and also acoustics.
The challenge is to not only design a home that meets the requirements of heat and cold through the seasons but to also convince the public in Perth that there are options to building materials which are proven in countries that have far greater extremes in temperature than Perth. Even those south of Perth and in the hills around Perth will build in different materials.
Italy was a place of marvel, the sheer size of public buildings and churches, the proportions within those spaces and the play of light all contributed to create an ethereal space where if you listened intently you could almost still hear choirs singing. The detail was in the structure sometimes with the use of marble but adornment by way of statues and artistic frescos and mosaics was breathtaking and seemed ostentatious to me. Ironically those statues were pillaged at the fall of the Roman Empire and many lost their heads, arms or legs to vandals looking for a memento to remind them of a bygone era. Marble columns were removed and transported to build new buildings miles away from Roma in Venice as marble could not be found in that region. Could it be that the state of the nation in fact is reflected in the ruins it maintains?
What of Perth, are we ever going to break free from the tyrannical business owners who have subjected us to build brick so they could get rich and in fact are or are we going to embrace the 21st century, design intelligently so our great grand children inherit homes that are comfortable and easy on the environment reducing pollution with no need for heating or cooling because we have adopted sound passive solar design principles?