Revisiting the Void: An Interview with Enrico Taglietti
Note from the Editor
This issue of fusion, edited by two architects who are academics at the University of Canberra, explores the rise and fall and possible future directions of social housing. The following interview included in this issue of Fusion sheds some light on Enrico Taglietti’s unique contribution to the architecture of Canberra; itself an ideal city in which public housing at the time of its design was integral to its social utopia.
This conversation between Enrico Taglietti, Gevork Hartoonian, and Patrick Stein took place on 16 December 2014 at Enrico’s house and office in Canberra.  The 2007 RAIA Gold medallist, Enrico Taglietti left Italy for Australia, and since 1955 has chosen to live and practice architecture in Canberra. He is known for numerous award-winning projects, writings and drawings, and importantly also for his passion for architectural education.
The conversation covers some of Enrico’s thoughts on the architectural tendencies in Italy at the time of his education and subsequently how he sees his own architecture. We explore his notions of organic and baroque, voids and wonder, as well as his idea of Canberra as a unique city.
Thank you for giving us this opportunity to talk about your work, life, and other aspirations you have. Let’s start with Milan. You received your architectural education at Milan Polytechnic between 1947 and 1952. What was the core of architectural education at that time?
When I arrived back from Africa and joined the Politecnico I found that it was following the direction of the Bauhaus, which at that time I considered to almost be a bit Fascist. Everyone was screaming at me, but I was saying if one has to follow a rule because everything is codified like in the Bauhaus then it is no use for an architect to be there because he has no freedom.
I had quite a lot of discussion with Pier Luigi Nervi, the engineer. His idea was that if one gives to ten people the same problem to solve, and they would solve that problem properly, everyone should arrive at the same result. I was totally against that and said I wanted to be slightly freer.
So that was the education that I had, until the last couple of years when I discovered Bruno Zevi. I found that finally I had a possibility of choice between codification, or scientific rationalism, and poetry – and I said that is what I want to know: I want to become a poet and not a scientist.
So we have Bruno Zevi who came back from America and published his book in 1945 on organic architecture influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. There was also the movement of Realismo. What do you recall about these two tendencies?
I interpreted Realismo like rationalism. It’s real; something is real so it is Realismo. While something that is not real, one might call that organic. The word organic is not something I prefer to use. Why not call it new baroque?
Was not Realismo alluding to vernacular traditions of Italy (I am thinking of Rifugio Pirovano, built around 1949-51, for example)? It seems that vernacular was seen as an alternative for architects who wanted neither to follow the orthodoxies of modernism, nor the classical. Do you see a crossover between Zevi’s organic architecture and vernacular?
I don’t think that. I feel that there is no real relationship. You know I would refer back to Zevi just to say that the difference is not within architecture, vernacular or organic, but it is the difference between the language that architecture speaks.
In my opinion, from ancient architecture until the seventeenth century the language of architecture was really talking about alters, and sacrifice, gods, fate and heroes. That language was trying to reach perfection.
Our language, the modern language of architecture, and I follow Zevi now or Sigfried Giedion, is space and time – or space and motion.
I am glad you brought up the notion of language in architecture. I can see in your Dickson Library columns that hold the roof that are neither a modern column nor a classical column. In this project, the column is part of the wall, I would say .
I never thought about “columns”. It is a wall. The language of built forms in that specific building is not there to serve a physical purpose only, it is purely there for enjoyment.
Are you suggesting that in Dickson your architectural language is mannerist, something like baroque?
No no, ok. No. It’s baroque, but not like mannerism. The mannerism of baroque is something I never agreed with. If you are looking at those vaults where light is coming through in different ways, it is not mannerism – it is the beginning of saying architecture should create wonder. That is what I am saying when I say I feel closer to baroque.
Baroque was operating within a coded Renaissance language of architecture. Are you using the same strategy in reference to Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture?
Look, that is not for me to say. Yes, Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the sort of modernist in architecture, or vernacular, I would almost say. His forms are organic, but what is the organic? It is really the roofs of a certain power, which I follow but for a different reason. Frank Lloyd Wright is a difficult fellow to define really.
Tells us about your understanding of organic architecture.
My understanding of organic architecture: if my architecture is organic architecture, it is organic only in the sense that it is looking for emotion and not detail or structure. The structure is relatively unimportant.
I believe you have to know what can be achieved with structure. At the Politecnico you had all structure, structure, structure, and nothing was architecture for the first two years. By the third, fourth and fifth year you start having a feeling of what architecture should be. This is something that doesn’t exist in our schools today.
So my organic architecture is in search of wonder, but for the people. I’m always saying that architecture does not exist, or exists like a living form, and if people using that architecture are unhappy my architecture is dead.
I had experience of this with the Giralang School. After fantastic Principals, there was a period of a few years when the Principal could not cope and blamed the built forms. At that time my worst building was Giralang, it was dead. It’s alright for an architect to go there and say they like it, but if people in it are happy, that is what is important.
Part of these tendencies, if we remain in Italy, and Milan, and the related debates on architecture were also motivated by the post-war idea of reconstruction, and the issue of identity. It seems the options were either to re-think modernism (like Giorgio Grassi’s take on Gropius), or to follow Zevi’s Organic Architecture. But wasn’t the tendency of Realimso to use vernacular motifs a viable alternative?
Torre Velasca designed by BBPR – Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Enrico Peressutti and Ernesto Rogers – could become an odd vernacular. Rogers was one of my teachers but I never accepted that architecture should be like that. I am not saying that it is not valid, but if I had to refer back to an Italian architecture then I would say that Sant’Elia as Futurist was what I thought was the real movement of Italy. Not necessarily the Bauhaus, because really Italians are not scientists – they are dreamers.
It is interesting you bring Futurism to our discussion. Manfredo Tafuri tried to map the discussion of Italian architecture of the post-war era between two conflicting paradigms. On the one hand, we have the conflict between Realismo and avant-garde Futurism. On the other, we have Wright and International Style Architecture. To me, when you talk about organic architecture, it sounds a little bit like a universal idea. Maybe we should to go back to your aspiration for baroque?
Most probably that would be the point. Remember I was in Italy for only a few years after my degree and the discussion between Realismo and avant-garde Futurism never touched me. Let me then mention the works of Le Corbusier. He changed his language from Marseille (L’Unité d’Habitation) to Ronchamp. I will say he was starting as a rationalist and finished up in organic. That’s my opinion.
Are you saying that Ronchamp is an organic architecture from your point of view?
Yes, I would say that, and it is a bit baroque.
There should be differences between baroque and organic, I guess!
Oh, yes, there is a big difference for me. When I say baroque it means that it is an architecture that has been designed or the language of the architect was directed not to a theory but to an emotion, not by him, but an emotion for people going into that architecture.
Again you are emphasising “emotion”.
You mention Dickson Library, which has now been destroyed. I had a series of interlocking voids, a moment of wonder when you went up one and a half metres to the study level, you had the height of the ceiling and the light coming through, and then a moment of discovery of things to come – the emotion of the unknown. Now you can see everything from everywhere. They reduced my architecture to rationalism. Making architecture readable in one go, is not baroque but classic. Purely classic. I am talking about late Baroque not Bernini, I am talking about Borromini who had shapes that were obscuring something.
I have always been bewitched by the poet Giacomo Leopardi and his notion of the infinite. He said that he was happy because where he lived he could not see the total horizon – he had something blocking it, allowing him to imagine. There was mystery. It was the infinite that was existing in wonder. I think I follow that quite often.
Besides Zevi and the baroque, let me ask you this: was there any other thinker or architect during your education, and before you left Italy, that influenced your vision of architecture?
My education definitely influenced me, the Greek tragedies and Chinese philosophers taught me a lot of things.
Also in Africa, without knowing it really, I learned from seeing things like Lalibela, a church totally excavated underground with fantastic light – as good as Le Corbusier’s La Tourette, which is a bit different.
During the War in Eritrea, occupied by the British, high school teachers where dismissed and in their place we had engineers and university philosophers. I had an education that was outside the normal, a fantastic education I believe.
Let’s explore your concept of void. Even in our previous conversations, you always mention void. Once even you told me that when you and your wife, Francesca, landed in Australia you visited different cities and spent some time in Sydney, but both of you liked Canberra. I asked why, and you told me because it was just void! What do you truly mean by void?
I refer to two voids. The void in Canberra is the void mentioned by Le Corbusier, tombe dans le vide. I believe that this is the principle of modernism. In Rogers’ office, when we were visiting, they were saying that to start designing you have to try to fall into a void – tombe dans le vide. Nothing was done before you. Forget everything. Don’t follow history. Don’t follow shapes. Don’t follow rationalismo, whatever… You are alone in the middle of nothing, and you start designing. Then the other void, that is the internal or spatial void: Zevi, said when you start designing you design the void.
As a young architect in Italy I felt the heavy burden of history. It was an enormous burden. In Italy, everything that you do they referred back to what has been done before or said you cannot do that because of something and the burden is getting heavier and heavier and heavier. Finally you feel suffocated.
Arriving in Canberra I said finally a city without history, a city without golden domes. I said this is a proper void. Remembering Rogers saying you have to fall into the void and start designing, I said this is the place – I won’t have difficulty to go into the void, because it was practically empty, but empty in a pleasant way. You have the Brindabella Mountains out there. When I arrived they were covered in snow. You had silence, that you could not have anywhere else in the world. You had sky that was visible practically all of the time, and that was sort of a revelation. So instead of staying for six weeks we stayed for sixty years. That was my void.
Did your experience of void in Canberra change your way of thinking about organic architecture? I raise this question because we are talking about two things. On the one hand, we have your poetic interpretation of the situation of Canberra as void. On the other hand, we are talking about architecture, and how this notion of void might relate to your experience or understanding of organic architecture and your aspiration for baroque. In this transaction, what happens to architectonic elements such as walls, columns, roof, light, and void, if you wish?
When I started designing architecture, in Milano, the first project that I had, not alone but with Carlo De Carli, was designing a theatre in the round. A stage without walls, in the void. A void to envelop the stage, this was my beginning. The second issue is that we as humans are subject to the force of gravity. We need to use a flat surface to live in, let’s say generally
When I design I follow the principle that we as humans are subject to the force of gravity. So you have a flat surface to live in and let’s say generally a vertical wall and a roof. The roof was disregarded by the rationalists who have a flat roof and that’s it. The roof to me is the most important part of any building. The roof can echo mountains and create fantastic voids in architecture.
What do you think of Le Corbusier’s idea of roof garden?
It is a different approach. You have a roof garden, fantastic, you can have good views and so on, but you don’t have that wonder. At Marseille you rely on the sea and mountains at the back, the distant view to create the wonder but you could be anywhere else because the mountains are still there, the sea is still there.
So you are talking about a void or a space that is covered by roof rather than put at the top of the roof?
We are looking at a picture from 1985, Enrico sitting in his office. Is it the same room that we are in now?
Oh yes yes. That is actually taken at my old office at 75 Flinders Way. That photo is at the National Portrait Gallery.
You look young and handsome. In addition to your picture, on the wall I see a famous statement of Le Corbusier which I personally admire and quote to my students. It goes like this: you employ stone, wood and concrete and with this material you build houses and palaces, this is construction. Then he says that you do something that touches my heart, that is architecture. How do you reconcile this statement of Le Corbusier with your organic architecture?
He said that in 1923, but then look what he came out with. We are talking about probably the most fascinating and important modern architect. Would you agree?
If you have to compare the various modern architects, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and you ask yourself who was the greatest one in relation to everything they have done, it must be Le Corbusier.
I had the summer school with him at the L’Unité d’Habitation, Marseille. That was the period of the poem to the right angle and the modular. This really was what I had as the first impression of Le Corbusier. Totally classic. So that was the Le Corbusier that I was looking at. In the Unité he had the high space with the centre corridor every three floors and every apartment had total cross ventilation, which I think is a fantastic idea, but it is not really a poetic architecture.
His statement is perfectly valid and has always been used by me. I believe Le Corbusier’s later buildings, Ronchamp and others, became organic. There are spaces in them, that are fabulous as wonder.
A year ago, you heard maybe through Patrick, that my graduation studio at the University of Canberra was focused on mega-form. You sent me a message that you wanted to give a talk for students. The title of your talk was Cassandra. You showed us your beautiful drawings of your Canberra. What is so specific about your vision of Canberra?
Focussing on mega-form as a different concept from mega-structure is exactly what I believe should happen in Canberra. Mega-form should be in fact mega-void, where the inside of the building emphasises architecture and the external envelope responds to the proper concept of urban design.
The title of my talk Cassandra reflects a Greek myth. Cassandra was a beautiful woman and the god Apollo fell in love with her. Cassandra refused him and Apollo was offended. He gave her the power to predict the future together with a curse that no one would ever believe her. I use the title Cassandra because I believe in the power of architecture designed as a void and at the same time after a life of dreams it seems that no one is listening.
When you are talking about Canberra and architecture in itself, my idea is if you are looking at architecture during the ages, and what, even today everyone calls architecture, I believe it should be divided into two main areas both dealing with the void. But one is an internal void, that is created for the enjoyment or cover or whatever you want to call it of private users, doesn’t matter if it is a church or it is a library or if it is a house or school, you know it is private. You design the void, and then you cover it. That is architecture. The other one is urban design. Not planning, but urban
design, which is dealing with voids, but they are public.
Everywhere recently, and it is a trend in the world, architects seem to have lost the plot. They design only the external shape of a building. They are doing stupid things, silly things. Just because they want to be seen. You have confusion. So I am saying that urban design today cannot be designed by one architect in a democracy, because you always have 10 architects doing 10 parts of any urban design. So the rule should not be given by a planner, the rule should be created by the sun.
If you do that then the envelope of what you can build within is dictated by the sun, and it is totally related to the site, because if your site is north south or east west the shade will be different. If you are in Sydney or if you are in Darwin the angle of the sun will be different again. You know you will have a vernacular architecture, if you want to call it that. So that is my idea of Canberra.
You are familiar with the architecture program at University of Canberra and you go back occasionally to Milan and visit other parts of the world. How do you see architectural education today?
The base for architectural education should start with knowledge of structure. It should be emphasised that structure is the basic tool to be able to create building forms. Architecture is to design voids of wonder and translate this to forms. Don’t start with structures or materials – they will be chosen to reflect the forms.
The other paramount point in architectural education is to tell students that it is not the answer that is important but the questions. Your design never finishes, you have to finish it and reach a conclusion, but you are always learning, particularly from mistakes. Design is not a skill, it is neither a service nor theory – design is a way of life.
What do you think about Australian architecture today?
Ah, I guess that it is exactly the same as any other part of the world. I don’t think you could say something is Australian architecture, except if you say that vernacular is the attribute of architecture. Today’s world trend in architecture is not to be vernacular but to be international and therefore mediocre. It is becoming a question of money everywhere in the world. I hope not in Canberra, but it is here too. Canberra should maintain uniqueness.
I can see why you don’t want to address Australian architecture directly, and for good reason. But how does your work, your architecture, most of them magnificent projects, relate to Australia? Does your work relate at all?
It relates to Australia in relation to the uniqueness of Australian landscapes, they are unique. The sun is different, the light is different, the shadows are different, the land is different – totally different. Yes my work is Australian, because I deal with the light which is unique, especially in Canberra where it’s a lot sharper.
It has a lot less penombra and it doesn’t have the nuance of soft light. You have to deal with shade. In the end this is my perception of what Canberra architecture should be shaped by.
Your poetic sense of roof form or walls, can these architectonic elements be associated with “Australian” architecture in any way? Do these elements seek a response to the landscape and context?
The poetry is mine, my architecture, and the people that are in there either they understand my poetry or not, and if they don’t they should not be in my building, put it that way. I design my poetry, which is finally my language, I cannot change it as the poetry is part of me.
You have mentioned to me before that your interest in the roof may come, in part, subconsciously from an African vernacular. What do you do with the roof in an Australian context?
Everything is related to its’ context. It is not for me to say that my work is Australian or not.
You have a language. I make mistakes speaking in English, and now even speaking in Italian, or French, but the point is that I express myself in a certain way. I resent when they say I have a style, but most probably they are quite right. I have a language but I also have a calligraphy and so I write the T in a certain way and the X in a certain way and that, call it in relation to architecture, is my calligraphy.
Do you think if you had stayed in Italy your architectural language and calligraphy would have developed differently?
Most probably, yes. In reality you are whatever your background is. When it is a sunny day you feel a lot different to when it is rainy. Have you ever considered what you do when you have no sun, no light, for 6 months of the year… you must get drunk sometimes!
I am sure that the future generation of architects, and people will remember you in a very interesting way; coming from Milan and choosing to settle here, live and work in Canberra. I think it has more of a philosophical dimension, rather than having any materialistic aspect to it. That is a marvel to me.
Thank you, but that is really, you know when I am talking about my invisible city. I keep saying Canberra is my invisible city. Everyone says it was invisible because it was not built and you stayed here so you could build things. It is not true. What I am saying is that it is invisible, it is purely emotional. It is something like, and I mention this always somewhat wrongly, the prisoners of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave who see shadows of things but cannot not see the invisible until they go out under the sun. The invisible being the ideal, the poetry. That is what I am saying.
In the case of Canberra does the invisible, the ideal, relate to it as a modern city, or does it relate to a project, Canberra as a National Capital city?
The invisible means to see the light. To see the invisible means to see something that is not physical. It is not simply a question of not being there. If you are to see the invisible it is to see the other side of your answers. You’re partly physical, partly rational, partly emotional. The emotion is invisible. The reality of building form is visible, so it is not invisible.
Do you know Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino? Marco Polo after travelling was trying to explain to Kahn the invisible city. One of those cities, Zobeide, seems to me is exactly Canberra. He said it is a city that is very exposed to the moon, alright instead of the sun, and it has streets that are all going around and winding, and you never know where you are etc etc. It happened because a lot of people had the same dream. The dream was that they were in a city and they had a magnificent girl, naked and they were trying to follow her, and that girl kept going around and around, and finally they lost her. So they decided to go together and build the city of their dreams, with the exception that they would block the exit so when she will appear again they will catch her. So that is the invisible part of Canberra. It’s a dream. It’s a dream city.
Can the Canberra you are talking about be thought of as an incomplete project?
Obviously it is incomplete, in the sense of voids creation. You cannot destroy the dream, I hope nobody will be able to destroy the dream, but it can be ruined. . Everyone now they ruin things with highways, bridges, underpasses and overpasses. They want to have people be able to move from one place to another fast with cars and so on, and they forget that that is purely transport, it is not living. Instead eliminate all the cars in Canberra.
When we talk about the incomplete project, we are not talking about negativity, but that which could be inspirational.
Yes, yes yes. I am talking about keeping that inspiration. Keeping that, not forgetting.
Let’s finish on that note. Thank you very much for your time. It was great. And hopefully, sometime in the near future we will have the opportunity to continue this discussion.
Thank you. I still hope that I will come and tell a few things to your students!
Gevork Hartoonian is Professor of Architecture and teaches architectural history and design at the University of Canberra.
Patrick Stein is a graduate architect and sessional teacher at the University of Canberra. He has worked for and is mentored by Enrico Taglietti.
 An extract of the conversation was commissioned for Architecture Australia and has been published in the July/August 2015 issue (Vol 104 No 4).
 Enrico Taglietti was born in Milan, Italy, in 1926. In 1938 his family moved to Asmara in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and they returned to Milan in 1947.