La Rinascente [Franco Albini]

As promised, in the next series of posts, I’ll be covering modern architecture around Rome (and throughout Italy), and analyzing the “old stuff” when it seems relevant. I feel no need to cover the typical guidebook topics (though I’ve been through every page of Rick Steves’ Rome ’09 and have the photos to prove it…), but there does seem to be a lack of info out there on the best modern & contemporary sights.

So, without further ado, thus starts my own hastily-thrown-together Guide to Rome, highlighting what I believe are the best off-the-beaten path architectural sights.

First up: La Rinascente, Architect Franco Albini, 1957-1961

La Rinascente is an upscale Italian department store chain. The company had had a presence in Rome since 1887, when their impressive building on Via del Corso [map] became the first department store in the city, but 1950s Rome was considerably larger than 1880s Rome, and the location of Albini’s building at the northern border of the imperial town suggests an interest in re-centering, conceding to this sprawl.

[La Rinascente, 1887]

Albini’s work had always dealt with history and tradition (from exhibition designs inserted into existing spaces, or the adaptive reuse of existing structures), but here even with a tabula rasa he looked to the past, using varied historical references in concert to produce something contemporary. Perhaps taking the meaning of “la rinascente” – “the rebirth” – too literally, his design maintains the basic massing of the 1887 building (perhaps a functional requirement for the program, or perhaps predetermined by block size and required floor area), and incorporates the geometry of the cornice profiles, but transmutes the material into steel.

The expressed steel frame structure is complemented by red masonry infill panels whose material mirrors the immediate context. However, these are not simply flat infill panels, they are folded, and the subtle geometry suggests engaged columns: a renaissance facade redone with contemporary technology.

Really nice. To me the most interesting thing about the project (and about 20th century architecture in Italy in general) is how it deals with history. In Albini’s case, he’s managed to mobilize historical precedents without resorting to historicism. We’ll see later that this is not an unique achievement: Albini’s synthesis of the classical and the modern has a precedent in the work of earlier Italian architects, whose approach to Modernism was perhaps more restrained than in other countries, due in part to the rich architectural heritage of the country, and in part to the pre-war government’s demand for architecture that recreated the glory of Imperial Rome.

As a final note, it’s amazing how contemporary this still looks today. The connection between the department store and the adjacent apartments wouldn’t be out of place on Berlin’s P
otsdamer Platz. But maybe that’s simply because Renzo Piano knows his history….

In the next few weeks I hope to travel to Genoa, where there are four museums by Albini, at which point I can pick this thread back up… meanwhile, there are a few more photos here.

La Rinascente [1957-1961] Architects: Franco Albini & Franca Helg
Piazza Fiume, Rome, Italy [Map]

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