Luigi Moretti’s Architecture of La Bella Figura: The Anatomy of the Wall in Casa Cooperativa Astrea (1949) and Casa del Girasole (1950)

By Mark Blizard.

Published by The International Journal of the Constructed Environment

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Although Luigi Moretti is known for his overtly politicized works of the 1930s and for his expressionistic buildings of the late 1960s that culminated his career, it is the transition in the post-war period that compels me to examine his work. The buildings of this period – specifically Casa Cooperativa Astrea (figure 1) and Casa del Girasole (figure 2) – seem at once clear and rational as well as vague and indeterminate. It may be this ambiguity that suggests a deeper study. This paper proposes an investigation of the wall and its figure – of space and matter – that is illuminated by both Moretti’s theoretical writings and the Italian notion of la bella figura.

Moretti edited, wrote, designed, and published the architectural magazine Spazio – “Space” – between 1950 and 1953. Allusions and fragments, drawn from this theoretical well of musings and ruminations, provide insight into the plasticity of the wall and Moretti’s complex notion of transfiguration. The aim is to decipher the language of wall and its anatomy, and to grasp through its spatial and material complexity, an understanding of architecture that approaches, or seems to embrace, la bella figura. It is not accidental that the figure of the wall, informed by Moretti’s earlier study of Michelangelo’s vestibule of the Laurentian Library, and by his fascination with Roman Baroque space is at once a stable form and a dense amalgamation of seemingly contradictory conditions.

The wall both alludes to its deep past and abandons it. Depending on the scale of our inquiry into the architectural language – whether we examine the building as a whole or its details – material, element, and detail are both present and denied. Material is present as surface and as structure. Elements break apart, separating into differentiated pieces. The detail evades clear distinction in submission to the composition of the whole. The wall exerts itself as the primary element of this architectural language only to dissolve at its edges. The space that the wall defines is not Baroque space but a new sense of space that is both rational and enmeshed in its deep past. To grasp this definition of space, we must look closer at the figure of the building. We read the edges of the wall where it engages the space beyond, and where the building meets the street or the sky.

By examining the anatomy of the wall and the figure of the building, its vagueness is revealed as a tightly woven matrix of material and space. The edges are dense, taut choreographies that define matter and space in a single fabric. From a distance, the volumes and elements are delineated and precise – defined with deft lines. Then, drawing closer, examining the joint or the turning of a corner, clarity is dissolved. At these places, I believe that Moretti’s architectural language is condensed and rarified. The wall becomes indeterminate. Matter loses its weight. The building’s form is both challenged and defined at its edges. Space is perceived, not as a separate element, but as an emerging property of the wall. It is my intent that, as we look closer at the figure, the building will appear before us, not as an object set into a context, but as a stable and compelling argument for architecture as a profound search for a meaningful dialog with history and the anatomy of the wall.

Keywords: Luigi Moretti, La Bella Figura, Post-war Italian Architecture, Casa Cooperativa Astrea, il Girasole, Leon Battista Alberti

The International Journal of the Constructed Environment, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp.101-122. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.744MB).

Mark Blizard

Associate Professor, Department of Architecture, University of Texas, San Antonio, Texas, USA

I received both MARCH and BARCH degrees from Virginia Tech; practiced architecture in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Washington, DC; taught at Virginia Tech; and for the last fifteen years, I taught at UTSA, where I am currently an associate professor and former department chair. My scholarship includes the broad study of the relationship between culture and architecture, specifically addressing memory and the structure of place, and the artifact of the city as palimpsest. In addition, I examine the nature of the design process and the sketch as instrumental in the practice of design. I am a registered architect in the state of Maryland.