Following the pathbreaking study Storie di Case, which pioneered a new way of looking at ‘normal’
housing, planning, and architecture from post-war Italy, Filippo De Pieri has now published Tra
simili. Storie incrociate dei quartieri italiani del secondo dopoguerra. Here, he pushes the innovative
mix of methodologies even further, so much so that it is difficult to characterize exactly where this book
– which is a good thing.
The book is a mix of micro-studies from a series of points of view. It can also be read in various ways – not just cover to cover – making it methodologically radical in format as well as content. The themes are many, and the focus crosses periods and places. But De Pieri uses three cities for his main focus – a large industrial/post-industrial conurbation (Turin), a medium-sized provincial city (Reggio Emilia) and a small coastal largely tourist town (Pesaro). By arrowing in on streets, houses, and neighbourhoods in these three places (although other examples come from elsewhere), De Pieri tells us many stories about the city, architects, planners, and residents from post-war Italy, and they are often stories we have not heard before. A key focus for the author is the ordinary, and how it can be unpacked. He returns time and again to a specific street/area of Turin – fleshing out the different modes of housing and architecture and ways of living that can be found there – public housing, private housing, industry, transport, services, street life. In this way, these stories are always illuminating and interesting, and they build up to a organic understanding of post-war urban Italian construction – especially but certainly not only of housing. All of this is supported by wide and fascinating reading, in the notes – a stupendous series of indications for further research and investigation, which is worn lightly, and never over-burdens the text itself.
De Pieri is also interested in the stories of architects themselves, where they lived, and what communities they created. Thus, we hear the stories of Carimate in Brianza, and its golf course and surrounding housing, and the extraordinary work (including furniture design) of Vico Magistretti in the 1950s. There is also the ‘enclave’ of Arenzano, and in Reggio Emilia, the progressive-Catholic-Architectural and planning utopia of Nebbiara (in a city dominated at the time by the Communist Party), where the outside spaces were full of playing children. De Pieri underlines the importance of various pieces of legislation and how they were used to construct neighbourhoods and specific buildings in post war Italy – above all the 167 Law (1962) which, as he points out, has been relatively overlooked by historians and researchers (there is no overall history) but has inspired numerous micro and local studies. De Pieri shows how the law was implemented, its limits as well as its successes and failures. Much of this is also integrated with the forms of reception these projects received in architectural journals, and within architectural circles, and De Pieri is adept at unpicking debates, tendencies, ‘schools’, and personal connections which led to projects (often never realized, or constructed in a different way to the way they were intended) which transformed Italy – beyond some of the more famous mega-projects which are often cited when this period is discussed.
Some of the discussions of the coastal town of Pesaro are particularly original and interesting, with the key role of post-war Mayors and planners, but also the intervention of celebrated architects (for example Carlo Aymonino) in terms of laying out public services and experimentation. Here, De Pieri is able to tell us about politics as well, as well as the way that architecture could be promoted, discussed and debates at a local and national level. His micro-approach is crucial in arrowing into the local and the everyday – something which a more macro or top-down methodology would struggle to do. De Pieri explicitly underlines how ‘a plurality of sources … written, visual, oral’ 213, my translation) are necessary in order to understand housing and buildings in all their complexity – and these sources are often ‘not found in institutional archives (ibid.). The use of oral sources relating not just to residents, but to ‘architects, engineers, planners, surveyors, public employees, presidents of co-ops, business leaders’ (214) is central to this conception of urban and architectural history – in short, a story with ‘a series of voices’ (216).
Going further still, De Pieri suggests that to understand a building in full a researcher should, in some sense, ‘live in it’ (231). Here he underlines a need for flexibility and openness, for observation of details and contradictions. The life stories included by De Pieri take us into the lives of normal people and their living conditions, marked by external and internal factors – and in these discussions and analyses, he is attentive to the role of the imaginary, to memory and its tricks, and to a sense of place and ‘distinction’. In fact, the book is interested in various forms of buildings and houses – above all those constructed for, and inhabited by a growing ‘middle class’ in post-war Italy.
Finally, there is the insertion of the historian into the text – another radical level at which De Pieri is working. He breaks down ‘the fourth wall’, and tells the reader about his process, his experiences and the way he carries out his research. These details are illuminating (and rare in such a scholarly work). In the end, it is impossible ‘generalise’ about a book which is anti-generalization. This is a study which leads in a myriad of different directions and asks many more questions than it answers. But that is the point. As De Pieri argues, the history of architecture is particularly open – in theory – to this kind of approach. In the final part of the book, the meta-textual aspects of the book are brought out into the open, in a discussion of how De Pieri’s work has been understood and used by some residents living in a place he has studied and written about – in short, a collaborative (and non-finite) form of exploration, without a precise end in sight – a road, not to nowhere, but to somewhere – but without necessarily knowing where that place might be.