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4. The Sacred City


Genesis of the Chiesa dell'Autostrada (81)

In September of 1960 the Autostrade organisation commissioned Michelucci to design a church (on the strength of his experience in that field)82 to celebrate the completion of the "motorway to the sun"83. Dedicated to the workers who had died during the motorway's construction, the church was to be located half-way between Milan and Rome, in amongst the motorway interchange outside of Florence; an eccentric location that has undoubtedly contributed to the church's fame.

Such a location would seem to contradict Michelucci's aspirations for an architecture "measured with a sense of the city, thought of as an organic unity",84 but as he explained the church was also to serve the surrounding populace "something therefore not self-sufficient or without purpose".85

Nevertheless the church was designed with the Autostrada foremost in mind, forming a continuum with the road network so as to suggest the need for a natural break. As a result it led Michelucci to conceive of a building without an end that would form a meeting place for travellers, so that the building's conformation would allow, suggest and be the cause of the opportunity for meeting: this was important for Michelucci in stimulating introspection and an understanding of man's place in society. In this sense it could be argued that Michelucci's idea of the church was not exactly the house of God's people but rather the house of all men, irrespective of their religion.

Michelucci argued that it is "not the church that is sacred, it is the city… and the church should fundamentally represent the spiritual values of the city"86 which was happily for Michelucci in accord with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (begun in 1962) which acknowledged that the Catholic church could no longer define itself as remote but must relate to and be understood by the people.87 This therefore enabled him to question traditionally held views on the relationship of forms to functional and liturgical requirements.

The idea of the church as a city extended to the design of the spaces, piazzas for community meetings, streets for contemplative walks, alleyways for solitude and domestic nooks where refuge can be sought.88 As Michelucci claimed the "church is a little town, modulated space in which, if the architectural language has achieved its purpose, when people meet they will recognise that they have a common interest and an expectation of meeting. Such at least has been my hope and great ambition."89 Most importantly these spaces were designed with a view to providing many different sized and conditioned spaces measured according to the scale of the human, or humans.90

At the Chiesa dell'Autostrada the idea of the thoroughfare (percorso) was integral to the design. First used to good effect at the Cassa di Risparmio in Florence, this idea is one of the passage of people in motion, even if without purpose. Pathways encircle and draw in towards the main church hall, and passageways, resting places and balconies exist in a context of frozen movement (at times disquieting),91 with a continuity between adjacent environments unified by the exchange and distribution of light and shadow. There is a will to penetrate the church from all points, to experience it from all its possible angles which was intended to be extended to the design of a rising walkway along the roof (but which was unfortunately never built) (diagram by Michelucci pictured above).

Michelucci's intention to arrest the "flux of life" (described by Tafuri as "improbable"),92 and mix language with "life", found its greatest formulation in his churches. This extended to an obsessive play of materials over building surfaces demonstrated initially with the Larderello church (1950-57) and particularly visible at the Chiesa dell'Autostrada with the banded copper roofing and undulating walls (pictured above right).

The Master Mason

When first published in Domus in 1964 the church was heralded by Gio Ponti as a roadside monument in the traditional manner.93 Michelucci however had not intended to create a monument, he did not claim to invent a form, an organism, or even to create a work of art: especially not "one of the countless masterpieces or monuments constructed for the admiration of aesthetes and regarded with the utmost indifference by ordinary people (who accustomed to being considered incompetent to judge, have ended by becoming almost deliberately indifferent)." Instead he attempted to create something "whose language could be understood by everybody, and in which everybody would feel at ease, and not obliged to have understood what the architect was aiming [for]."94

A work of art for Michelucci only came to life when it was born from the multitudinous interests of a community, and their needs (spiritual, moral or practical) were realised by one (or a hundred) individuals, and translated into a tangible expression. For the first time at the Chiesa dell'Autostrada Michelucci was able to co-operate fully with the planners, surveyor, works manager, and down to the stone-cutters, masons and labourers in a spirit of teamwork not unlike the one that the ancient cathedral builders had enjoyed.

Michelucci took delight in the fact that many of the stonecutters and masons (encouraged by him) had signed the stone blocks that they had selected, roughened and tapped. In this way they marked how they had felt artificer of that part of the wall, had understood the beauty of that stone and expressed the nature of the material: an expression of how they felt an integral part of the harmonious team of builders. In this fashion Michelucci aspired to operate as a "master mason", as Renaissance figures such as Brunelleschi (whom he particularly admired) had done, and as he had said he had wished to do in "The Happiness of an Architect" in 1948.

Before embarking on clay models and finally "cold" technical drawings, Michelucci developed hundreds of what he termed "living sketches". These sketches sum up all the stages of his ceaseless exploration of forms of space "which gradually become concrete, more precise, show the space of the interior, which avoids a geometrical representation".95 They expose his sense of the social functions described earlier, but also raise questions about the possibility of transposing the imaginary forms unleashed in these designs into concrete reality. These sketches also served as a dialogue with collaborators such as Fedele Cova, Michelucci's faithful engineer and in fact very few working drawings were ever carried for the Chiesa dell'Autostrada.

A born lover of simple materials, Michelucci transformed the raw material (often forcefully) into the finished artefact, which became an elemental constituent of the form, without ever betraying the naturalness of its origins to which it constantly referred. As Michelucci said in "The Happiness of an Architect", for him the "unity of the organism is reached using common base elements".96 Despite twentieth century advances in materials Michelucci stuck to the materials he understood, with years of experimentation a departure from his repertoire would have seemed unethical to him. This of course, did not however preclude him from experimenting further with those materials he understood.

For instance, early in the project Michelucci called various masons to the quarry and asked them to construct a wall one metre high. He recounted "some of them failed, in the sense that they didn't know the material and they didn't know how to interpret it... They didn't know that it was possible to break that stone with a hammer and that the most wonderful forms would emerge from that split. It was the live wall that came out".97 In opting for an animated wall (reinforced with steel bars) with experimentation in the use of stone Michelucci was criticised by many for attempting the unachievable.98

All of Michelucci's architecture, dating back to his youthful experiments must be interpreted in the light of this special respect for materials. Compare for example the Royal Pavilion at Florence station (1935) (pictured below left) and the Chiesa dell'Autostrada (particularly the flooring inside the building). Each displays a remarkable mastery of composition and original experiment in the use of marble. Despite a constant battle between the aesthetic value of the architectural material and the ethical truth of form and space, Michelucci's work is evidence of an obvious sensitivity towards the expressive power of marble, an important feature characterising the style of his buildings.

At the Chiesa dell'Autostrada there is a clear distinction between the materials: S. Giuliano stone for internal and external "rubble" walls, white Sardinian cement for the fluid, sculptural and undulating in-situ concrete structure, copper for the roofs, and marble for floors and altars. But it is stone that Michelucci used so masterfully. The evocative exposure of the intrinsic nature of the stone achieved a synthesis between the form and material. For example the use of marble in the flooring was developed with the close collaboration of Anonima Henaux, who developed innovative grouting methods. This was especially for the project, in order to accomodate Michelucci's ideas for rendering as visible as possible the joints between the stones whilst also maintaining a perfectly smooth floor surface (pictured above right). 99

Michelucci, in designing the floor pattern in the main hall used marble not so much for its aesthetic qualities, but with the desire to render tangible the expressive force innate in the stone. The choice of one type of stone over another in the building was not guided by rarity or preciousness, but by the appropriate presence of the material within the architectural space and its capacity to become integral to the composition.

Revolutionary Forms

As soon as the Chiesa dell'Autostrada was completed associations were made by critics with Le Corbusier's Ronchamp chapel (pictured right) (1950-55).100 This was of course primarily due to a common use inside both churches of "bowing" curved concrete ceilings. There was also an overall similarity between their respective architectural languages in the use of curvilinear, often inclined walls with irregularly shaped and spaced openings. Michelucci however refuted any association with Ronchamp101 and viewed Le Corbusier as an aspirant to a stylised aesthetic architecture, "an intellectual that proposed very clever solutions, the fruits of a mental construction, that later peeled off".102 Ronchamp, Michelucci argued, was still based on the traditional conception of a church, with an interior "sacred space" divorced from the outside world, whereas his own church was a succession of spaces relating ultimately to that outside world.103

After its completion, the Chiesa dell'Autostrada did however provoke a negative reaction among Neo-Rationalist school admirers (who had considered Michelucci one of them), similar to the one that Ronchamp had received nine years earlier; when architects and critics returned muttering about "a new Baroque" or "a descent into irrationality".104 These reactions probably tell us more about the preoccupations of that period than they do about the churches. Ronchamp, for example, was hardly a clean break for Le Corbusier with its roots in earlier paintings, sculptures, and buildings. Likewise many of the innovations employed by Michelucci had been developed in buildings and particularly sketches and drawings of the post war period (as described earlier).

The "tent" as an explicit form was first developed fully by Michelucci at the Chiesa dell'Autostrada. However it was anticipated in at least two preceding projects, the Osteria del Gambero Rosso and the church in Belvedere (1959-61) near to Pistoia,105 where veil-like roofs covered spatial structures. It was the Osteria in particular that anticipated innovations that gave rise to the Chiesa dell'Autostrada, with the tree-like internal structures employed to control the space in a plastic manner.106 And it is interesting to note that in common with the Chiesa dell'Autostrada, the Osteria was set within a landscaped park, a natural context that encouraged the plan to become more fluid, despite the overall simplicity of a longitudinal space with regular structural bays.

Michelucci went to great pains to emphasise that the form of the roof as a "tent" was one derived during the design process, a result not an aim. As he said "I did not start off with the idea of a tent, and make the internal structure conform to it; but the shape began to take form as a result of the internal arrangement."107 A verse from St. Paul's epistle to the Corinthians, further added gravity to this idea for a form, which he then proceeded to develop more literally with confidence: "for we know that if the early house, this tent in which we dwell, be destroyed, we have a building from God, a house made by human hands, eternal in the heavens".108

The idea of the tent as a concept, although it may be understood analogically as a transit place, is potentially misleading. A concept is an aim not a result, whereas the "tent" is in a sense another of Michelucci's choices of a form, that speaks the desired architectural language. After all the structure does not behave as a tent and is certainly not a serene veil that permits the penetration of light, but a powerful and heavy form animated by regions of light and deep shadow.

The church has been described as Neo-Expressionist109 on account of its seemingly organic form. Deviation from the orthogonal had begun with projects such as the INA-Casa (1957-62)110 and the central Post Office (pictured below) in Florence (1959-67). However it is a wonder that Michelucci did not use more fluid forms earlier since he had already remarked in 1946 in La Nuova Cittą that those forms "want to respond to the deeply pondered demands of humanity with cordiality rather than concern... Natural building cannot be modelled on a "taste" created on the basis of [past and present] "examples" because it uses each new element [demanded] without any preconceptions."111

Michelucci's lessons from nature (as described in the previous chapter) were extended within the church where he considered the forms of the tree and the human body in exploring the nature of the pillars. As Michelucci put it "if I take into consideration the form of a tree, it might suggest to me an architectural form, as long as I see it only as a formative element of an idea and not as the tree in and of itself... When I begin to associate myself with the formal elements of nature, then I feel how I might enrich an otherwise regular form. Even if that enrichment is only in a small detail that in some way expresses movement. I feel that that movement is more congenial to the way I live."112 And this was also reflected in his appreciation of Gothic forms with the "immediate identification between static pattern and expressive requirement, which are not separate from each other."113

Generally, Michelucci resisted acknowledging the influence of others in his work (for example Le Corbusier). This should not however be mistaken as an eclectic approach, as Michelucci said in 1966114 "a project is not an abstract composition for me". Rather, it is a belief that each idea or form has a validity in its own space and time, outside of which it is potentially invalid: "You can understand it and you can admire it, but don't believe it. It might have been true at the moment that it was delivered but time changes our ideas of truth. That's freedom."115

Revisiting the Chiesa dell'Autostrada for the first time, twenty years after its completion, Michelucci was moved by it, on account of the risk and boldness that he had taken at the time "while the battle was raging to molest the work". He repeated his view that the building was of its time (not timeless, as many have believed). "For me there exists an architecture that actually expresses a precise, unequivocal time, and brings the desired result, offering a substitute for religiousness... that architecture came out at a time in which I had taken the liberty to sing a song, which I had improvised."116

This "improvisation", a linguistic pluralism that is often reductively misinterpreted as eclecticism, meant escaping architecture's limited inventory of forms almost completely. It was also the rejection of a structurally pure form, as Michelucci explained "I thought of the possibility that the structures did not have to justify themselves strictly from foundation to the top of the roof. It was something new for me. I thought that they could be born from the place where I deemed them to be more spatially useful. Hence I thought of making certain supporting elements of the tent spring from a bulk of brickwork which I needed to animate the space."117

The "improvisation" was also an acknowledgement by Michelucci of a freedom "from all the restrictions that laws, regulations and officialdom lay down for buildings in towns of historical interest." Under the poignant title "Justification of an Architectural Form" he wrote, "I was being given the opportunity to act with full freedom to find the means and forms which (I thought) would achieve an eloquence capable of being appreciated and understood without reference to aesthetic or technical prejudices."118

The significance of the church should be viewed in light of the events of 1959 when Reyner Banham sparked an international debate after publishing "Neo-Liberty, the Italian Retreat from Modern Architecture"; condemning as "infantile regression"119 an emerging tendency towards a historicism that referenced Art-Nouveau movements. It highlighted the uncertainty of Italian architects about the next permissible moves and the profound discomfort regarding the perceived limitations of architecture and the establishment of urban planning as an autonomous discipline. As Tafuri remarked, the church was one of the most famous "intolerant gestures"120 in this cultural climate of uncertainty.

Once again, Michelucci had managed to forge his own third path between Neo-Realism and Expressionism and with the Chiesa dell'Autostrada attempted to force an architectural logic of distorted forms, the outcome of a continued protest waged against the formal imperative since the days of Rationalism. In this sense it was a revolutionary building, but at the same time the most resolved of his buildings. A resolution of the choices he had made and designs he had tried during the previous decade, while remaining true to the poetics he had originally described in the "The Happiness of an Architect" in 1948.