Interview with Alessandro Libera
by Francesco Andreani and Paolo Mattei
In the life of his father Adalberto, Alessandro Libera can pinpoint a crucial moment, and a difficult passage, that led the famous architect to completely revise the foundations and purpose of his work. Although initially his style had been deeply inspired by an idealist view of the world, after the Second World War his ‘modus operandi’ was completely shaped around the word “correct”. He went through a sort of “conversion to reality”, which clearly showed its effects on his work after the war.
We met with Alessandro to talk about his father, world-famous architect Adalberto Libera, in his home in Rome. The conversation was studded with surprises. The first one: he won’t let his love for his father interfere in any way with his unquestionable critical judgment as engineer and architect.
When did you realize who Adalberto Libera was to the rest of the world?
When I was a child I didn’t really know who he was… I started to understand when I started to work with him. I was good at making scale models, so my father got me to participate in the project for the seat of the Regional Council in Trento. He asked me to make a plastic model of two large “hands” – two articulated hand-shaped structures – meant to hold up the 80-meter-long building. I had the opportunity to see the difficult evolution of these shapes, which were like sculptures that couldn’t be controlled with geometry… they troubled my father because he realized he was not a sculptor and couldn’t govern them. At one point, something “clicked” in his brain, and he switched to the ellipsoid structure with two side beams that we see today: perfectly geometrical, exemplary, but very different from the solution he had first envisioned. Not to mention, the whole Trento City Council had been so enthusiastic about the original “hands” design that the news that Libera had officially decided to change it caused great disappointment. Deciding between different solutions is always difficult for an architect.
So by working on those models you got to know your father better…
Yes, but as soon as I realized what his professional stature was I drew back – as the children of great personalities almost invariably do. When I graduated from high school, my father asked me what I wanted to study in university. When I replied “Engineering!” he approved of my choice, but with the hint of a slightly sad smile. He probably had hoped to hear me say “Architecture!”, longing for some father-son continuity. Actually, after my degree in engineering, I graduated in architecture as well… but he had past away by then.
Your words suggest he was a family man…
He definitely was grounded, and heavily inclined to common sense. He aspired to doing things the “right” way. He used the word “correct” a lot. Speaking of which, we should note a substantial difference between Adalberto Libera’s work before and after the war. It is as if though two very different people lived in his body, before and after the five years of the Second World War deeply changed his personality.
In what way?
During the war he was stuck in Trentino, in the family home of Villa Lagarina. He could do nothing but focus on himself and think. Among his drawings from that time, a few really reflect the change he was going through. Some of them represent a person moving around a kitchen: he was tackling issues such as the relationship between people and their homes, and that between people and their city. He was starting to understand how architecture’s need for rationality could hardly come down to pure ideal or theoretical terms. The German idealism that permeated the culture of that time could not meet the urgent need to square with a reality that was never made up of preconceived ideas, but instead depends on territory, real structures, people with their own requirements. All of this became clear in Adalberto Libera’s head, during that terrible time.
Would it be appropriate to talk about some kind of new realism?
Yes, perhaps… but as I said, Libera often used the adjective “correct”. He had put architecture’s idealistic vision aside for good, because he had understood it was not a dream. Architecture was not supposed to be implemented in an “idealistic” way, but in a “correct” way. There were only a few cases in which great architects were able to add “something special” to that, and they were only rare exceptions.
This change of perspective probably stemmed from the tragedy of the war. Like all wars, the Second World War ended up exposing the monstrosities of those same absolute values it had glorified in the beginning…
Certainly. Absolute values are a kind of religion. Shifting from a structurally religious world – which had had its theoretical definition in German idealism – to a world without any certainties was difficult. It made it hard to go on. In that period of seclusion in Villa Lagarina, Libera went through a tormented passage from “enthusiasm” to “rationality”. His first years of work – the decade between the mid-1930s and the mid-1940s – had been marked by idealistic enthusiasm. But the awareness of what happened during war made his enthusiasm fade away, and changed his approach to social issues as well as to his work completely.
In that decade, Marcello Piacentini was the star of architecture in Italy…
Yes, and he personally entrusted some jobs to the architects in his school that he considered the most capable: Libera, Mario Ridolfi and others. Libera achieved incredible success with the evocative, dream-like vision of the “Sacrarium of the Martyrs” that he contributed to the 1932 Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution. It was his pass to enter Mussolini’s circle, but he never really was a fascist architect… in truth, he was always essentially a social democrat.
Luckily today we are free from the prejudices that used to tie art and politics so tightly together…
That’s true. After all, that was only the starting point of his career. He and Mario De Renzi were selected for the Italian pavilions at the 1933 Chicago World Fair and at the 1935 Brussels World Fair, then there was the layout of the Exhibition of Summer and Children’s Camps at the Circus Maximus in Rome in 1937…
He won those jobs because he was talented and his work was successful. His career went on in the same way for a few years. He once wrote, speaking of himself and other young architects, “We spent a decade closed up into this package of exhibitions and competitions…”. They were not allowed to do much else. Before the war, his work progressed along two parallel lines: great exhibitions and fairs on one side, highlighting a certain type of presence and value; and real buildings on the other side, such as the primary school in Piazza Raffaello Sanzio, Trento (1931-1934), and the very interesting – and unfortunately little known – Casa del Balilla in Porto Civitanova Marche, built in 1935. And, of course, Palazzo dei Congressi in Rome…
You mentioned Ridolfi. Were he and Libera really friends?
I would definitely say so. I can tell you a story about his. My father was a little conceited as a young man… after all, he was the son of a marchioness, and had been raised in a certain type of world. He was always impeccable, perfectly well dressed… but once he arrived in Rome to attend University, he met people of all social backgrounds. In school – with his aristocratic inflection – he asked who the best student was. Once he was told it was Mario Ridolfi, he went to see him at his house near Via Appia Nuova – an apartment on the sixth floor, in a building with no elevator. He walked up the stairs and rang the bell. Ridolfi opened the door, and was surprised to see this elegant kid standing in front of him. My father asked him, point-blank, “Are you Mario Ridolfi?” “Yes, I am”, he said. “I’ve been told you are the best student in the class… I have to beat you!”
Ridolfi – who would tell this story many times in the following years, drawing great laughter every time – widened his eyes and replied, “And you climbed up six stories just to come tell me this nonsense?” That is how their relationship began. They respected each other, although from the first moment they had immediately understood they were extremely different.
Which other artists and personalities did your father associate with?
He was a close friend of Moretti, Montuori Monaco and Luccichenti. Moretti and Luccichenti were brilliant in how they managed relationships and social connections, and after the war helped him access circles that were completely foreign to him. It was thanks to them, for example, that he got to design the Eastern area of the Olympic Village for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Your father was not as good at professional and political relationships…
No, it was not his specialty. He was Secretary of the Italian Movement for Rational Architecture, and many considered him a point of reference. But he was far from presenting himself as a leader. Yet he was able to create great things, such as Rome’s Palazzo dei Congressi. When he came back from the capital, after the war, he was unemployed. It was a very difficult time for him. Marcello Piacentini and Arnaldo Foschini helped him: they were able to give him a position of responsibility in Ina-Casa’s design department. That allowed him to further the research on “correct” architecture he had started to explore during the war.
Which international masters did he admire?
He had total admiration for Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, whom he considered the absolute best. As early as 1927, my father had sent his project for a small hotel in the mountains to Stuttgart’s Werkbund. Van der Rohe liked it so much he put it on display.
The idea of “correctness” you mentioned before reminds us of Pier Luigi Nervi’s 1955 book, “Costruire correttamente”… what did Libera think of Nervi?
My father admired him very much: he said Nervi was an instinctual architect, who was capable of noteworthy endeavors. However, we must remember that Nervi is often mistaken for the author of others’ work… for example, he engineered part of Rome’s Palazzetto dello Sport, which however was not designed by him – as many say – but by architect Annibale Vitellozzi…
Speaking of the relationship between architect and client, can you tell us about Villa Malaparte?
I found Cesare De Seta surprisingly confident in his statement that, “Villa Malaparte in Capo Massullo, Capri, which opened in 1943 and is attributed to Adalberto Libera, was in reality designed by its owner, the Tuscan writer Curzio Malaparte…” I am not as certain as De Seta that I know the truth, but I cannot believe his version of the facts. There is no proof to support what he says.
One thing is for sure: the people in Capri hated Malaparte for what he had written about them and their island (he had described them as perverted and so on). In fact, when he decided to build his villa, they wouldn’t let him transport construction material across the island: he had to have everything delivered by sea, using boats. Anyway, my father and Malaparte often met in a trattoria in the center of Rome – one of those old fashioned restaurants with paper tablecloths – to talk about the project of this villa in Capri. They discussed at length, and drew sketches on the paper tablecloth. My mother kept three of those tablecloths for a while, but unfortunately they went lost in one of the moves after the war. They were obviously the fruit of the encounter of two great minds. But try to imagine this: Curzio Malaparte tells Adalberto Libera he would like a “staircase to infinity” for his villa. It is one thing to say it, and another to design a triangular staircase that can actually open to infinity… To each his own, I guess.
What is the most important thing to remember and pass on, from your father’s life and approach?
Without doubt, as I mentioned earlier: to teach architecture in a “correct” way, although he didn’t believe architecture could be taught in school. Of course, the world has changed a lot since his time… today there are so many architects who have nothing to do because there is nothing to do. The educational system should be completely overhauled: this is the current situation in Italy, and reality should still always be our starting point. The ideas we come up with may charm and inspire, but must also resonate with reality – or else we plunge again in mere formalism.