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So Rich in Beauty

The Italian studio of Pier Carlo Bontempi brings traditional building to places where it has been forgotten and others where it is celebrated anew.
By Kim A. O'Connell

For Pier Carlo Bontempi, architecture has always had a magical quality. As a boy, he was enthralled by a local architect who had the mystical talent, according to Bontempi, of growing several varieties of fruit on a single tree bough. A colleague of Bontempi's father, the elderly architect once gave a mason a memorable dressing down. After the mason had scoffed that a particular plan was not constructible, Bontempi recalls, "this elderly man of failing health took off the black jacket he wore all year-round, rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, took the trowel in hand, and executed perfectly what the mason had said was impossible." He then said to the builder, "Remember that an architect is a mason who has studied Latin." Bontempi was awed.

Only later, after Bontempi had studied both Latin and architecture, did he learn that the architect's quote was attributed to Adolf Loos. Still, the spell had been cast, and Bontempi embarked on an architectural career whose projects often evoke the magical feeling of his Italian upbringing. From a Classical villa near Parma in northern Italy to a town center in northern France, Bontempi brings the spirit of Italian and European tradition to a continent that has often moved away from it. His firm has designed traditional public buildings, undertaken urban-planning efforts and feasibility studies, collaborated with renowned traditional architects, and even crafted spare, elegant furniture as a side effort.

Bontempi was born in Fornovo Taro, a picturesque town not far from Parma, and much of his work focuses on this region. He studied architecture at the University of Florence at a time when the faculty was far outnumbered by the students, which was exhilarating but made individual instruction nearly impossible. "At Florence University I didn't learn much architecture, but with this number of people I learned to get along in life," Bontempi says. "What architecture I did learn was from Adolfo Natalini [a traditional architect based in Florence] and, above all, from the extraordinary experience of my father, who knew the techniques of traditional construction better than any university professor."

Not surprisingly, Bontempi's work is inspired by the beauty of his surroundings, but he is also driven by what he sees as the "desolation of much Modernist architecture." At the 1980 Venice Biennale, Bontempi was impressed by the work of traditionalists Léon Krier and Maurice Culot, but at the time they were focused only on theoretical discussions and hypothetical drawings, in his view. A 1987 visit to Quinlan Terry's then-nearly-completed Richmond Riverside scheme in London, however, convinced Bontempi that neo-traditional architecture was achievable, even in a modern society.

"In Italy, for 3,000 years we continued to build a fantastic masterpiece formed of the fusion of architecture and landscape," he says. "In the 60 years following World War II, we have done everything to destroy that masterpiece with the aid of buildings alien to tradition. Unfortunately we still live in a post-war atmosphere, both of widespread desire for obligatory novelty at all costs and of amnesia with regards to our great qualities in the field of urbanism and architecture."

Concrete Experience
After serving on several faculties – at the University of Florence, the École Speciale d'Architecture in Paris, the Syracuse University of New York in Florence, the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart, and the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture in London – Bontempi has turned his attention to his own private practice, which he founded in 1988. Early projects focused on historic restoration, which Bontempi says helped him to learn to build correctly (the studio still takes preservation projects on an occasional basis). "Although I no longer teach, it is an activity that fascinates me greatly because it gives me a sense of continuity," Bontempi says. "I experience this with my young assistants to whom I endeavor to transmit my experience. I find that teaching must always be linked to aspects of concrete experience. One thing I often say when correcting an assistant is that the best way to correct is to start over."

Only in the last ten years has his small studio, located in the town of Gaiano in the hills near Parma, honed its current focus on traditional new construction. The studio has garnered several awards, including an Italian national award for Bontempi's plan for the restoration of Parma's historic center in the 1980s – which was never built, to his consternation – and the second-place prize in the Marsham Street Urban Design Competition in London in 1996. In 1998 Bontempi received the European Prize for the Reconstruction of the City in Brussels and two years later delivered the prestigious John Burgee Annual Lecture at the University of Notre Dame.

In 2001, Bontempi received a Charter Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) for a new spa town in northern Italy, and his ideals remain closely tied to the New Urbanist philosophy. "Pier Carlo Bontempi is one of the few European architects whose body of work conforms seamlessly with the principles of New Urbanism," says Dhiru A. Thadani, AIA, a CNU board member and principal at Ayers/Saint/Gross Architects + Planners. "The work is contextual, inventive, and respectful of time-honored urban design ideology."

Although Bontempi has found much success in his native Italy, he is chagrined at what he sees as a widespread repudiation of tradition. "The fact that almost all of Italy's cities and towns possess intact historic centers represents both an advantage and a disadvantage," he says. "While they provide excellent models for traditional urbanism, they also mitigate the ugliness of the suburbs, thus reducing the potential motivation for architects and planners to compensate for that ugliness."

Italian Vernacular
In Fornovo Taro, a large white villa rises dramatically from the surrounding grape vineyards, notable for its large loggia topped with a classical Greek pediment. Although it looks like it has stood for centuries, the villa is the centerpiece of a new winery, complete with guest quarters, designed by Studio Bontempi. The building is carefully situated to maximize views of the surrounding fields and a winding country road. The formality of the main villa is tempered by the rustic guest quarters and support buildings made of brick and stone, which capture the local Italian vernacular.

"Maybe in the United States it is quite usual to build such a villa in the middle of the vines with pleasant hill views, but in Italy not at all," Bontempi says. "In the Italian landscape those kinds of large, traditional new buildings are out of the ordinary, while they should be the most natural thing, nearly a must. Unfortunately we've gotten used to building materials such as iron, glass, and cement."

Traditional materials form the basis of Bontempi's plan for Fonti di Matilde, the spa town that won the CNU Charter Award (in collaboration with alumni from the Prince of Wales's Institute). Bontempi garnered the prize based on his watercolor drawings, but his plans are now being executed in the hills above Reggio Emilia, a northern Italian city known for its sulfur springs. The design calls for a small town consisting of about 30 houses, a modest church and a central piazza with a hotel and spa. The town is bisected by a bending road that breaks the wind rolling off the surrounding hills. In Bontempi's design, the slope of the site is exploited to conceal parking behind the retaining wall that marks the town's edge.

"I believe the CNU appreciated this for its successful integration with the surrounding landscape and the topography of the site, and because it does not mar the landscape but embellishes it," Bontempi states. "I am hugely fascinated by the phenomenon of New Urbanism because, growing day by day, it has been able to successfully re-propose authoritative models of the historic town without being accused of backtracking. This is a sign of great freedom, which, in constrained Europe, has difficulty existing." At the same time, Bontempi finds that some New Urbanist projects focus solely on plan design and overlook "the quality and the atmosphere" of the architecture. "For me, urban planning and architecture are profoundly linked with one another," he says. "The beauty of a place is born of the fusion of these two aspects."

In the historic center of Fornovo Taro, near the town's Romanesque cathedral, Studio Bontempi sought to reconstruct a section of the Via Collegati, a primary thoroughfare that was damaged during World War II and whose buildings were reconstructed in a postwar pastiche. The studio has designed a new block that contains a large interior courtyard, with facades, stairwells, volumes and windows more closely mimicking the town's modest and traditional Italianate building style. The firm, working with Maurice Culot, has also replaced an abandoned school in Fornovo Taro with a new block of three mixed-used buildings, extending an existing garden to help define the space.

"This project not only addressed the problem of 1950s design flaws but also the fact that sections of the town were missing [as a result of World War II]," Bontempi says. "I reconstructed an entire block, eliminating the 1950s patchwork and restoring the coherence between the buildings and their architectural character."

Studies Abroad
Although Pier Carlo Bontempi primarily works in his native land, he has increasingly brought his traditional sensibilities to urban-planning projects in other parts of Europe as well as North America. In a central-city district of Val d'Europe in northern France, for example, Bontempi collaborated with Dominique Hertenberger to create a plan for the Place de Toscane, a mixed-use block of buildings around an elliptical piazza, complete with an obelisk and fountain, which he says is reminiscent of a Roman amphitheatre. Today, the project is completely built, and Bontempi expresses deep satisfaction with it.

"A few days ago I was there in the evening to carry out trials of the street lighting," he says. "As the sun went down, the lights in the windows of the houses came on one by one. I could glimpse the occupants going about their business and from time to time they went to the windows to look out onto the piazza. In that instant I immodestly considered that the beauty of this urban space was able to offer the inhabitants a moment of peace and tranquility, and this gave me great pleasure."

 In Florida, Bontempi is currently working on a small piazza – or piazzetta, as he calls it – at Seaside, the renowned New Urbanist community. Designed in concert with architect Victor Deupi, the beachfront space is defined by the arcades of two new public buildings, through which one can glimpse the sea. The inspiration, Bontempi says, was the piazzetta that connects St. Mark's Square in Venice to the water's edge. Farther north in Alberta, Canada, Bontempi has joined several architecture firms – including Léon Krier, Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, PA, and a Canadian firm called Civic Design – to design a large group of buildings in the city of Canmore, high in the Canadian Rockies.

Yet Bontempi is happiest when he is back in the hills of northern Italy, drawing inspiration from the crowded streets and modest rooflines of the region's historic cities. As a youth, he had sat enthralled at the knee of an elderly architect who inspired good design, hard work and perseverance. As an adult, he bows to the masters of Italy's exquisite architecture, whose work he celebrates, emulates and preserves. "Looking ahead," says Bontempi, "I want to undertake a new project – who knows where except that it must be in Italy – in which I wish to intervene in total harmony with this surrounding environment, so rich in natural and man-made beauty." TB

 

 

 
 

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