by Zohra KhanFeb 03, 2022
Gio Ponti was an architect, designer, art director, writer, poet, critic, and an all-round artist based in Italy who traversed much of the 20th century, profoundly influencing the taste of his time. Forty years on from his passing, MAXXI, the National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome, Italy, held a major retrospective to this exceptional figure. The exhibition examined and presented his multi-faceted career, starting with an account of his architecture, a unique and original synthesis of tradition and modernity, history and progress, elite culture and quotidian existence.
The exhibition, titled GIO PONTI. Amare l’architettura (Loving architecture) echoes much from his best-known book, Amate l’architettura (In praise of architecture). Curated by Maristella Casciato (Senior curator of Archi-tectural Collections at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Fulvio Irace (architecture critic and historian) with Margherita Guccione (Director, MAXXI Architettura), Salvatore Licitra (Gio Ponti Archives, Director) and Francesca Zanella (CSAC, President), the show was hosted in MAXXI’s Gallery 5 from November 2019 until September 2020 and had been produced by MAXXI in collaboration with CSAC, which conserves the Gio Ponti Archives.
Margherita Guccione, Director of MAXXI Architettura, says, “The lesson of the masters must be recognised and transmitted but also rethought as part of a precise strategy to be implemented by the museum. Examples presented by the museum are the major retrospectives on the work of Luigi Moretti, Pier Luigi Nervi, Gerrit Rietveld, Le Corbusier, today Gio Ponti, tomorrow Aldo Rossi, masters of the past that we believe to be important in telling the present in order to continue to convey the lesson of the Museum of 21st Century Arts”.
The in-depth research carried out for the exhibition aimed to update the understanding of the figure of Ponti the architect, his aspiration towards verticality and lightness through the dematerialisation of façades. His conception of a green city where nature plays a key role in the agenda of planning and architecture, as well as designing flexible domestic spaces, capable of adapting to the demands of their users, were discussed in the exhibition and are themes that anticipated with unique clarity the concerns of the present-day.
For Giovanna Melandri, President of the Fondazione MAXXI, “Celebrating the greatness of Gio Ponti signifies immersing ourselves in a legacy that is peerless in terms of versatility, talent and application,” while Guccione added, “Neither classical nor modern, the work of Gio Ponti was unique in the history of Italian 20th century architecture. A century the architect spanned almost in its entirety, ranging from the design of objects of everyday use to the invention of spatial configurations for the modern home and the creation of complex projects embedded within the urban context, maintaining architecture, setting and saving grace of our lives, as the fixed core of his research”.
On display at the late Zaha Hadid-designed museum, were archive materials, original models, photographs, books, magazines and design classics closely associated with his works and organised into eight sections evoking key concepts expressed by Ponti himself. The exhibition layout was immersive and spectacular, suggesting the master’s own idea of space: fluid, dynamic and colourful.
In the museum lobby, visitors were welcomed by a powerful installation of monumental Alcantara banners, hanging the full height of Zaha Hadid’s spaces which reproduce the stylised façades of skyscrapers, evoking the skyline of an imaginary Pontian city. The section ‘Towards the exact house’ traces the theme of the house that was central to Ponti’s research into defining a space congruent with modern life: here the first typical Milanese Domus, the designs for the La Casa Adatta and the synthesis of much of the architect’s thinking over the years: his apartment in Via Dezza, Milan had been presented.
The exhibition further focused on Ponti’s ‘Classicisms’ from the 1930s, when major commissions led to imposing projects on the urban scale, such as the Scuola di Matematica in Rome, 1934, and the two Montecatini buildings in Milan, from 1936 and 1951. The osmotic relationship between architecture and nature was explored in the section Living nature, featuring the projects realised along the Mediterranean coastline (Villa Marchesano in Bordighera, 1938 and the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento, 1959).
His best-known buildings, documented in the section Architecture of the surface, are the ultimate expression of a design philosophy based on surfaces rather than volumes, in which the façades became two-dimensional planes to be pierced and folded like sheets of paper (the renowned Villa Planchart in Caracas, 1953-57, and the Istituto italiano di cultura in Stockholm, 1958, both testifying the international standing of Ponti’s work).
Architecture as crystal celebrated Ponti's most telling and well-known aphorism that expresses the idea that the "finished form" is a guarantee of a correct architecture: It is not volume that makes architecture, but its closed, finished, immutable form. It also featured some of his major works such as the Denver Art Museum (1971) and the church of San Carlo Borromeo in Milan, along with projects on a smaller scale. Lightness and the dematerialisation of the vertical characterise the section Light façades with the Concattedrale in Taranto (1970), the Grande magazzino de Bijenkorf in Eindhoven and the Ministerial Buildings in Islamabad.
The exhibition concluded with the same evocative setting with which it opened, the Pontian city, composed of skyscrapers developing vertically, reducing their footprint and leaving space for green areas. A vertical development in fact allowed a limited footprint and let Ponti foretell the appearance of skyscrapers in the skyline of modern cities. Ponti’s vision for the future cities emerged strongly in the sections Appearance of skyscrapers and The spectacle of cities, housed at the point where the Zaha Hadid designed MAXXI is closest to its city: next to the great glass wall that opens Gallery 5 to the panorama of 20th century Rome.