Here is the third episode in Francesco Andreani’s story of Italian 20th-century architecture through AGIP gas stations.
by Francesco Andreani
Works of art are never the isolated fruit of one person’s imagination. They are the unpredictable product yielded by people – or often artists, and generations of artists and their real or figurative disciples – exchanging legacies, pouring out their ideas and feelings.
Thus, Enrico Mattei did not choose Mario Bacciocchi da Fiorenzuola d’Adda, the son of a printmaker, for any of the obscure and casual reasons that some biographies hint at.
He chose him because Bacciocchi was one of the best, during an outstanding period in Lombard architecture led by the interesting and talented Piero Portaluppi. Bacciocchi was close to him, as emerges clearly from the numerous friendly postcards now in the Portaluppi archive, as well as from a series of traces revealed by recent biographies. In the years of renewal sparked by the Mussolini regime’s interest in public buildings, Bacciocchi ranked close to the more famous Terragni, Ponti, and Del Debbio – for example in the important competition for Rome’s Palazzo Littorio – as noted with praise by Giuseppe Pagano on “Architettura”. He was the author of “noucentista”, solid and innovative urban works such as the first 19-story tower in Milan, in Piazza della Repubblica (1).
After the war, he proved his worth experimenting with 20th-century architecture. His designs for the church in Piacenza and later for the Church of Saint Barbara – in 1955, ten years before Gio’ Ponti’s Taranto Cathedral – are proof of his clear understanding of the decorative value of pure structure, and even of a higher quality than later models (2). Sensitivity and casualness were two important themes in Bacciocchi’s architectural language, from urban planning to residential and monumental architecture, all the way to ENI’s commercial endeavors and to the invention of the so-called “bacciocca” – the magical overhang that embodied a playful, poetic kind of advertisement (3,4).
Playfulness and irony were the tools Portaluppi used to confront the aesthetic turmoil of his time: against the ethical expectations of the modern movement, which strived to change the world through a new architecture and a new type of city, he consistently brought architecture back within its boundaries and qualities, sometimes endowing it with the ironic touch that modernist ethics refused.
In the 1920s – when he won Milan’s town plan and was involved in a number of valuable works, including the restoration of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Planetarium, the building in Corso Venezia and the RAS building (5,6) – he challenged the paradoxes of his time with irony: the colossal SKNE skyscraper (7) (pronounced “scappane” in Italian, meaning “run from it”), the town plans for Hellytown (8) and Allabanuel (which reads “l’è una balla” backwards, meaning “it’s bull” in Milanese dialect); the playful projects such as the surprising Wagristoratore (9), which was built in the Ossola Valley, with two wagons stuck in a brick building. He “spoke” architecture with sensitivity for its meaning, and knew its most varied, monumental, civil, serious, and light nuances.
We can almost hear Portaluppi, Marco Semenza, and Benedetto Croce – real friends and partners in their irony and deeply positive skepticism – chat about the paradoxical innovations brought about by new schools. We can almost hear their sense of fun, their cheerful Lombard irony… which Bacciocchi – and perhaps Gio’ Ponti – listened to carefully.
So if there is no doubt that Portaluppi was a master of his language, we can certainly say that Mario Bacciocchi was the fortunate pupil who learned to speak it with his own inflection.
Fondazione Piero Portaluppi, www.portaluppi.org;
G. Bilancioni, “Fortuna umana e sfortuna critica di Piero Portaluppi”, in “L’architettura nelle città italiane del XX secolo”, Jaca Book, Milan 2003;
R.S. Tironi, “‘Egregio Architetto Piero Portaluppi…’ Cartoline di architetti e di architettura”, architecture thesis, Milan Polytechnic, 2011.)
Photos via: ©Archivio fotografico Eni