The shape of time*, the National Gallery of Modern Art extension in Rome by Luigi Cosenza.

Gennaro Di Costanzo

The National Gallery of Modern Art extension in Rome, wanted by director Palma Bucarelli as early as 1950, represents a story particularly interesting as regards the construction of modern museums in Italy. After the first consultations with Walter Gropius, the project was entrusted to Luigi Cosenza, the only Italian architect able to understand ‒like other Masters of the modern‒ the strong pedagogical component of the Rationalism and the social purpose to which a museum aspires1. This is followed by a slow evolution of the construction site that will condemn the “ala Cosenza” to premature obsolescence: the factory is unfinished and is the subject of a competition, won by the Diener & Diener studio with the only project that completely replaces the extension of Cosenza. After a controversy involving some of the most influential figures on the Italian architectural scene, including Paolo Portoghesi and Franco Purini, the felling of the “ala Cosenza” was averted. If we consider the genesis of the project, drafted in 1965, and its construction lasted until 1996, it is understandable the premature obsolescence of this work, in addition to friction with the economic and management difficulties are the changing cultural trends to change the statute, so as to make the Bazzani’s Gallery ‒posted by Bardi in the “Tavola degli Orrori”‒ subject of interest. Cosenza's work belongs to the experience of the modern while being situated in the period in which «a perfect equivalence of forms and meanings dominates, a cancellation of history thanks to its reduction to a field of visual raids, a shock technique informed to television media: in short, an architecture-fiction, which is installed at ease in the age of information technology» (Tafuri, 1986, p. 233). The architecture of Cosenza, whose gallery is final and mature expression, is deeply linked to the precepts of markedly European rationalism, in referring to the esprit systèmatique and methodology that can inform the architectural project, finds himself in' experience of reality those instances through which implement the critical overcoming the underlying contradictions, there where instead the hypermodern performs a substitution of the real with a simulacrum, virtual, statistical and isotropic2 in which fails the very possibility of experience.
Using a mathematical analogy, the concept of sequence makes explicit the gap between these two conceptions of the real: unlike a stylistic approach, dependent on a chronological consequentiality, the sequence has a greater temporal extension and allows us to trace the analysis the object under examination in the specific field of architectural composition, connect distant phenomena in time but held together by a common way of responding to a particular problem: «The limits of a sequence are marked by the concatenated solutions that define the first and the last stages of an effort for a certain problem solution. [...] Other new stadiums will be added in the future. The sequence can continue only when new requirements increase the size of the problem. While the problem widens, lengthen the sequence and its first portions» (Kubler, 1972, p. 46). If understood from the sequential point of view, the problem of the museum concerns the choice of the formal system able to provide a solution, the more it is able to extend the sequence, the more it establishes a continuity with history. Foreword that is put into indifference hypermodern crisis, since the specific qualities which are a form possesses absolutely substitutable by other with totally different characteristics. This decrees the end or suspension of a sequence, specifically the modern one, since the problems requiring a solution have been discarded. In the topology of modern museums, the one designed by Luigi Cosenza assumes a distinctly divergent to the implant monumental nineteenth-century tradition of the museum, «the setting of the compositional problem can be summarized as follows. We have monuments turned into museums, museums built as monuments, we want, at the service of modern art to create a museum without a monument» (Cosenza, 1965).
The volute modesty of its visual presence (Cosenza, 1965) shows the deep rationality that underlies the implant in relation to the complex urban condition: the extension is developed horizontally establishing a relationship with the shape of the ground rather than with the Bazzani’s Gallery, reaching as a podium open to the city. It is privileged the formation of a novel scheme, through which the building becomes conscious expression of part of the city, no longer confined to a limited space but rooted in nature, that beyond the architecture of Edoardo Persico that Bisogni (1994, p .15) identifies as «higher level of awareness of the transformation project, not only the transformation of architectural forms, but the thing itself architecture, in a total new conception of the city». The typological invention is defined starting from the syntax between the different types of space, necessarily defined in a structure coincident with the tectonic order of the building. The science of weight opens up portions of space: covering as well as separating constitute the essential grammar that gravity uses, in which man is the measure of all things3, «for these spaces we can conceive of moving, these masses are capable, as ourselves, pressure and resistance, and these lines, we were to follow them, we would open a path, we were to describe them, would identify with our gesture» (Scott, 2014, p.148).
Cosenza comes to the reduction of six spatial components can realize "the home of the free man" (Cosenza, 1974): the «tone scale ranging from the environment to unlimited closed and covered spaces, across the entire content of closed and open spaces, covered and uncovered» (Cosenza, 1955, p. 72) establishes that identity between material and spiritual needs able to build a deep human but also civil space. In the extension it is evident the distribution of the environments around an elongated central courtyard that organizes the three main bodies, articulated with different spatial gradations passing from the open condition of the outside to the north-west towards the opening covered by the "short arm" and in part in the auditorium. The innermost degree is characterized by a type of closed-uncovered space of the main court and of the impliuvium, the "long arm" is the closed-covered space, articulated on two levels with the top one that presents zenithal openings arranged according in a tight rhythm. The sequence is completed with an additional closed-uncovered space interposed between the "long arm" and the Bazzani’s Gallery to which it is punctually connected on two levels.
The variety of spaces that articulate the museum can offer two parallel and coexistent considerations that concern on the one hand the afference to the domus as a point in the history of architecture in which a stable and summarized form of a culture of the ancient living, on the other hand the referent is a formal structure codified as modern based on a system of movement that is at once linear and centric, attributable to the echelon4, present in other works of the modern, including the project by Alvar Aalto for the Museum of Tallin but also present in the production of Luigi Cosenza, just think of the Villa Cernia that precedes the project for the Gallery by two years, but also of experiments of the first period relating to the 1930s with the Villa Oro or the Theater project for the Mostra d'Oltremare.
The museum simultaneously has two main typological assets based on the promenade: the gallery and the courtyard building, modulated starting from a basic grid that is offered as a repetition on which to insert the variation. In the "long arm" crossings transverse punctuate the journey time grafted beneath the continuous glass band which modulates the light, the paths of the interference allow access to the various external units and to always articulated spaces according to the tone scale. In an analogous way the "short arm" is composed, characterized by a different scan in which a vestibule is recognizable, followed by an open-covered part separated by an access. The courtyard building on the other hand has a spiral development, keeping the classic principle of defining the court with four corner elements, the lateral bodies have a different volumetric articulation, thus defining a rotary motion around the court that opens punctually towards the external. This articulation is also appreciable from the plane of the roof and shows the discontinuous trend of the three bodies, arranged as a succession of roof gardens at different altitudes.
The two formal structures collaborate to the realization of a very precise temporal idea that shapes the space, in which repetition and variation clarify the civil role that the form of the modern museum must assume for Cosenza, a house of the arts in which to celebrate a public rite, establishing an inextricable link between the form of the building and the public function. For Luigi Cosenza "function" assumes a cultural and non-biological meaning, a position similar to that expressed by Paul Frankl (1968, p. 157) in his vocabulary: «when I talk about the aims of architecture, I mean that architecture forms the fixed scene for actions of specific duration, which offers the way for a defined sequence of events». There, where the typological invention is autonomous, a corollary of the social function of architecture (Bonfanti, 1969), is understood as a solution to a problem. By radically re-discussing the elements that problem compose, it implements a "spatial pedagogy", where the work ‒through its form‒ is able to broaden the field of action of knowledge. In this case, the museum becomes a tool that tries a "figuration of time." The regularity of the linear movement with a series of changes and variations orients the space towards a principle of order which is at the same time the beginning (archè) and the end (telos): the domus as man free expression. As in Le Corbusier's Unlimited Growth Museum, is established an analogy with an unmistakable form of history, where, however, the metaphorical aspiration is counterpointed by a profoundly realistic construction, which does not establish figurative references to the forms of the past, but rather can be read as an attempt to define an original aesthetic principle for the modern museum. In this way the work over to reveal his spatial sequence declares the discontinuity of its presence in the historical process, which refers to the remembrance of a model unquestionably dignified dwelling and civil life, tracking those characters that can survive in the contemporary culture. Abstraction made by Cosenza concerns the recognition of those permanent characters from the domus and their reducibility, thus, their ability to accept a different culture from the one that generated the original model. He says, therefore, the continuous fulfillment of the Classic through translation, «it express no reference to the past, nor to the dead past, but the most proud contrast to the way, per hour. “Classic” is what currently is not “fashionable”, is not the time chorus; it carries in itself a battle stamp, a need for contra-diction» (Cacciari, 2014, p. 23). An idea of the museum can be still operating compared to other recent experiences that have shown rapid obsolescence, too tied to the a-critical representation of the globalized world, forcing the museum to the pure existence in this severing contacts with the past and precluding a critical vision of the future.  Cosenza reflects on the idea of a museum where it can live the memory without rhetoric, entrusting this task exclusively to content, with its documentary value and artistic, or container, with its function to sort and display the works, but is a precise idea of space to provide the canon through which accommodate the multiplicity and mutability of expressions, movements and actions that the secular rite of artistic fruition demands, not mere contemplation of the art, but close to it.
The Classic is outlined as an escape from the impasse in which culture risks homologation of thought, realizing that fertile dialectic with reality that allows us to grasp the shape of time.

*From the title of the book: G. Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things Yale University Press, 1962.


1  «I posed myself the problem: which Italian architect could face a venture whose perspective had attracted, a few years before, one of the greatest masters of modern architecture? Having to make a choice, I wondered which of the Italian architects was closest to Gropius: by quality level, by architectural ideology, by design method, by interest in the specific theme». From Bucarelli P. (1988) ‒ Ampliamento della Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. Progetto di Luigi Cosenza. In: Cosenza G., Bazzarini V. (care of), Luigi Cosenza. Ampliamento della Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna ed altre architetture 1929/1975. Clean, Napoli, 14.
2  Cfr. Agamben G. (2016) ‒ Che cos’è reale? La scomparsa di Majorana. Neri Pozza, Vicenza.
3  Cfr. Protagora, fr.1, in Platone, Teeteto, 152a. 
4  «The echelon is essentially linear organization that in some situations can be defined as centric [...]. This progression generally refers to linear source, such as ribs that they depart from the spine; but for his perceptive defining the echelon is based on a continuous directional sorting and adjust», Eisenman P. (2009) ‒ La base formale dell’architettura moderna. Pendragon, Bologna, 103.


  • Non ci sono refbacks, per ora.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

FAMagazine. Scientific Open Access e-Journal - ISSN: 2039-0491 ©2010-redazione@famagazine.it