artbeat (2007-04)

Cue the Time Machine

Franco Albini spans 50 years with the help of a few photographs

by Lisa Slade

Art is best viewed through the fine lens of context. Unlike literature classes, which often take novels from various time periods, mix them up, and then spit them out to students who won’t read them anyway, freshman art history classes begin, logically, at the beginning.

Drawings scribbled on cave walls and Egyptian paintings lacking perspective come before Renaissance sculptures. A basic understanding of art simply does not work without a timeline, and without its own particular cultural context. Architecture works the same way.

This necessary contextual connection means that it is impossible to evaluate anything art-related in a vacuum. Franco Albini was one of Italy’s most influential architects. Meaning: Even if you don’t know much about architecture, you’ve heard his name. However, while you may know his name, an actual understanding of his work is much harder to grasp.

That understanding becomes even more complicated when there are multiple layers, and in this case there are. Albini’s buildings are in Italy, and I am not. Instead, I am standing in the Ewing Gallery on the UT campus, looking at pictures of his buildings, museum structures, arches, and furniture. The context is blurred. Do I evaluate Albini’s works from where I stand, or do I evaluate them from a place I could never stand, 1950s Italy?

From where I stand, in Knoxville, Albini’s pieces appear modern only in the academic form of the word. They look dated, and almost antiquated. But it may not be the structures themselves that speak to age as much as the pictures of the structures. The photos are black and white, with a slightly yellow hue. The lone picture of Albini himself might as well be of my grandfather when he was younger, dressed in a sweater and pleated trousers. The buildings and structures themselves are stunning, but inexplicable. I’m an American, accustomed to Wal-Marts, convenience stores, and only occasional trips to far away places. In my world, buildings scarcely last longer than 20 years, and the word architect is usually synonymous with developer or contractor. My personal context is not the best, apparently. Albini makes much more sense when placed among his colleagues and personal history, not among UT students and basketball season.

Born in 1905 and educated at the Milan Polytechnic, Albini is often considered one of the most important Neo-Rationalists. Neo-Rationalism, as most movements are, was a reaction to something else. That something was traditional modernism. Traditional modernism, in an architectural sense of the term, focused on function alone. It sought deviation from natural forms and aesthetics, and an emphasis on simplicity, sharp corners and geometric angles. For modernists, form was function, and they strove to unite the two completely.

Albini was forced to focus on simplicity as well, because in post World War II Italy, building materials were scarce. But what Albini sought overall was different, not a total deviation from nature, but a more harmonious connection with it. Albini’s works often used translucent materials like glass, both to emphasize this harmony, and because glass was a readily available material in Italy at the time. In many of his structures, jutting panels of wood and glass reach up and out, leading toward the horizon and the sky. The style is simplistic, but elegant; new and traditional all at once, full of Cartesian forms, but never too pretentious. The pieces are stark in contrast to the excessively ornate buildings that preceded modernism, and they’re a little softer than modernist buildings. On their own, they’re beautiful.

Albini’s pieces also had an important impact on museums. He used his understanding of simplicity to create structures that allowed the real artwork—sculptures or paintings—to shine through. In one museum, a semi-circular stone wall exposes one painting while simply hung frames draw attention to another. Albini’s museums are varied and interesting, yet simple enough to expose the true artwork inside.

Returning to present time after a visit to the past is illuminating. Now it is possible to look at Albini through a few different shades of glasses, and to examine the multiple layers of art simultaneously, as well as separately. As Albini himself said: “For us, didactic value exists in our built works, and it’s through our works rather than through ourselves that we spread our ideas.”

What: The Museums and Installations of Franco Albini: I Musei e gli Allestimienti de Franco Albini