On 16 October 2012 the jury, which included among others Massimiliano Fuksas, Fulvio Irace and Luca Molinari, unanimously awarded the Gold Medal Prize in Architecture 2012 to Vincenzo Latina for the access Pavilion to the Artemision excavations in Syracuse (2007-2011).
With great kindness and courtesy the architect Vincenzo Latina accepted to be interviewed by Inner Design on a rainy October day and therefore I headed for Catania airport.
As I arrived in the city I found waiting for me the 'gold-medal architect’ with a pair of colorful galoshes at his feet plus a couple more for the unfortunate visitor. Armed with determination and energy we began our visit to the historic part of Syracuse, the beautiful island of Ortigia, where the pavilion is built.
It rains incessantly, and it seems almost impossible to find shelter from the gushing water, so we decided to proceed with the interview inside the majestic Cathedral of St. Sebastianello, rare and precious example of layered architecture that preserves in its appearance the traces of a thousand years of history and architectural styles. I am amazed by the beautiful facade of the most typical Sicilian Baroque, and stunned by the impressive Doric columns visible in the side elevation of the basilica.
Sicily is basically this: a union of people and vibrant mix of cultures.
Inspired by the sacred, historically rather then the religious and spiritual, the architect Latina began a detailed narration of his architecture, speaking of "hunger" and passions, but also of concreteness and civic duties to the community.
The Pavilion design was admired "for its ability to intervene towards the regeneration of the ruins of old buildings, thus restoring life to a memory that would otherwise be destined to an end. The choice of this project was intended to demonstrate the great capacity of Italian architecture to intervene using the resources available despite the difficult environment. The project tells a story: the Italian history. It is in this way that modern and contemporary architecture becomes part of history".
But personally what struck me the most is the ability of this complex project, designed 23 years ago, to still be relevant today.
Tell me about the competition and the 'Gold Medal Prize' in Architecture 2012 celebrated ar the Triennale Milano.
I think this year’s prize giving has changed direction probably due to the economic crisis, to signal a different type of architecture that is more rooted to the land, an expression of vitality within a national territory. As I always say, Italy is full of capital cities.
What do you mean.
Syracuse 2600 years ago was the capital of the Mediterranean. Turin, Florence, Palermo, Ferrara, Naples, Mantova are all very large cities with unique characteristics: the wish to reward a project in a marginal context but with an extraordinary historical and architectural value. We are in fact in front of the Syracuse cathedral, a Doric temple converted into a Christian basilica, a sign that gives me great pride to think about what I should do next. I have to reinvent myself giving continuity to my hunger for architecture. I do not believe in temperamental architecture: often you encounter a whimsical client with a capricious architect who then creates fanciful buildings of which the area is full of. But this is not the right time: now is the time to deliver a service, returning architecture to its function as civic art. So to be able to structure a non-whimsical design, I wanted to remain subdued and neutral, providing a real service to the community by structuring a contemporary building. It was a challenging exercise because it is very easy to fall into narcissism and try to design a piece of art in a place where there is already many works of art.
So you have maintained an attitude of respect towards historical seniority.
My weapon is creative ignorance, which allows you to learn as much as possible from the context without being an archaeologist. These are two different professions but they are similar. Being far from archeology, while remaining sensitive to it, allowed me to work with my own tools and not with those of an archaeologist. Only in this way you don’t get overwhelmed by an overly historicist approach.
The pavilion was your graduation thesis 24 years ago: how was this born and what process did it go through to be completed?
This project is a torment and a fixation. When you leave and come back after so many years you understand what you have left, because you see everything through different eyes. When I was studying at the Art Institute I used to pass in front of this place all the time. Then I went to study at the IUAV in Venice (University of Architecture) and during the fourth year of study there was a lecture by Prof. Venice, where I was literally overwhelmed: I went to him, introduced myself and asked him to follow my graduation thesis. He knew Syracuse very well but did not know the existence of this void, an area that was "bombed" in the heart of the city, and became curious.
From that meeting began my thesis and the idea for the pavilion we see today.
Later, during my career, I received major architectural awards for the Court of Bottari project in Syracuse, which gave me visibility and an opportunity to present to the directors my ideas.
From that moment onwards began a real and true adventure.
An adventure that had been accomplished after 24 years!
At the beginning the superintendence (to the Cultural Heritage) saw me as a young and presumptuous architect that intended to intervene in a context that was too valuable and important for the city, but in the end, after the needs and wishes of all were included in the project it finally came to a conclusion.
How long does it takes for a project in Italy to be built?
Time is variable for both approval and execution and often building companies are not prepared. It really was an adventure that went beyond architecture. I've aged a hundred years, especially for the human experience, having to deal with a multitude of people. I felt a like an orchestra conductor who had to remedy all the errors made by players. The work of an architect is not a picture!
Maybe even the client sometimes gets involved asking for changes?
Of course! But architecture without constraints creates monsters! That 's why architecture is often strategy.
Even Alvar Aalto said that to realize his works he dealt with "military strategy"!
Art finalized as itself can be dangerous and devastating.
There are various languages that should be used depending on the context, customer or client. The architect must sharpen his wits and fight to see his work realized. To build a project is complex! No coincidence that the municipalities do nothing but pave! The outcome reflected in the community is immediate! A building requires a very complex social and civic approach. It’s a true contemporary problem.
Where does this contemporary problem come from?
From the lack of resources and long-term strategy. Once, cathedrals used to be built in decades. Today, however, architecture must be consumed like a pair of shoes, and architects must now find advantages while the public administration seek political feedback. But architecture should not only produce and build objects for easy consumption, it should develop important buildings with civil and civic value. Very often the realization of a work is impeded only because it is desired and initiated by a previous administration.
But history is full of great adventures where differing interests meet and sometimes collide.
In what way can architecture meet the current shortage in resources caused by the economic crisis, and how can an architect then continue to propose new projects without having to give up quality?
All the greatest architects have done work in the poorest countries; Le Corbusier, Louis Kahnn and others have made some real pieces of art in Chandigarh, Bangladesh, places where concrete was not even known as a material. This is because it is not the availability of cash that gives the quality to the work. It comes from understanding the available resources, and in times of crisis one finds new devices. We are in a time when architecture must be "added", not restored, but transformed. It must be renewed. Bureaucracy does not help, but architecture must find other values: it is no longer needed to be vocal. Souto de Moura was awarded the Pritzker Prize (2011 edition) with an architecture that is not only superficially great, but that also has a profound civil aspect. It is in this way that architecture must regain its dignity and its space, not as a romantic aspect of the Vitruvian triad.
In your architecture there is always a comparison with the preexisting. What is the weight given to history in contemporary architectural proposal in Italy?
Let me give you an example: we participated and won a competition for Palermo’s harbor. (Competition: artistic and architectural design of two new unloading cranes in the port of Palermo, 2010). Our idea was based on the concept of additional transformation of the contaminated environment dating back to the '70s. Architecture, in this case, has given a new scenario to the city, showing that it is possible and necessary for contemporary architecture to work on the pre-existing, and not only in historical centers.
I'm not an architect for historic centers; I am an architect full of contradictions and complexities.
Photo and images: Vincenzo Latina