Lynch Architects

'Moretti' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch

05 May 2008

One of my favourite architects is Luigi Moretti, who along with Lino Bo Bardi, Terragni and Gio Ponti, began his career in 1930s Italy working for some pretty dubious clients. Moretti’s buildings are clearly influenced by their historic settings, and they retain some of the characteristics of ancient architecture that Gropius and co. took a chain saw to at Weimar. Moretti is one of the few architectural writers of the twentieth century actually interested in how we make architecture as architecture. In his essay ‘The Value of Mouldings’ published in the magazine Spazio in 1951, Moretti laments the lack of cornices in modern architecture, and he constructs an argument for their value that is based upon a capacity to ‘condense to the utmost the sense of the concrete, of existence, of objective reality.’ ‘Cornices’, he declares, ‘explode where wall material or structure seem most compressed… the way the sea breaks and fragments against rocks or exhausts itself at last on the shore’. Underlying his thinking are concerns with ‘Structure as Form’ and ‘Form as Structure’, the titles of some other essays that he wrote as editor of Spazio along with serious studies of light in Renaissance painting and eulogies to Borromini and Michelangelo. For Moretti mouldings are not simply spectacle, since ‘mouldings quieten or exalt single elements in service of the ideal structure governing the entire architectural representation’.

Moretti suggests in his analogy of the sea and the shore that mouldings are the least organic parts of architecture, and that this artifice is what makes them essential to the art of architecture. Stating that ‘A work of art is such inasmuch as it conveys and condenses within itself a sense of reality, of concreteness, so acute that no element in the realm of nature can possess it’. Art is artifice in other words, and its synthetic and thus objective character is what makes it distinct from natural things. This leads him to construct a historical justification for mouldings that emphasizes their role in distinguishing human artefacts from their settings, even if these settings are the ‘other’ of the architectural ensemble. He cites megalithic and Doric examples to support this; the Proleek Dolmen in Ireland, and ‘the corner of the west front of the Temple of Poseidon in Paestum’ on Sicily as evidence that ‘architecture arises as a terrible act of existence’. Moretti argues against the romantic ideas that functionalism or tectonics can somehow make architecture meaningful, or that complexity can be achieved through imitating natural processes, claiming that the ‘will to exist beyond the natural and the useful is a fundamental quality, distinct from the simple fact of construction.’ Architecture is thus not a process since it is not natural, nor is it simply well made shelter. Rather, architecture is a temporal foil to nature: ‘The variations of light on a cornice reveal the reveal the palpitating reality of ancient facades, different at every hour, shaped by the sun's course and in harmony with the world.’ 

Il Girasole apartment building in Rome (1947-50) illustrates Moretti’s argument well, and yet isn’t simply an illustrating of a theoretical position. The article was written after the completion of the building, and Moretti’s urgent tone has something of the surprise that we encounter when our work has turned out better than we knew. There is a certain amount of over-egging in the text that is quite absent in the cool refinement of the design; even though the Baroque tropes of rusticated base and inverted asymmetrical arch linger in the façade like shadows.