In an interview that aired on Italian public television in 1976, the architect and designer Gio Ponti was asked about his Superleggera chair (1955). ‘It’s such a very simple chair [that] I had to tell people: I spoke to a psychologist and an orthopaedist and, together, we thought this 12-degree angle would be perfect,’ he chuckles. ‘But you don’t need any great skill: just common sense!’ The chair, which was produced by Cassina, has been deemed one of the most important industrial design products of the 20th century. Peppered throughout this current retrospective of Ponti’s work at MAXXI, such archival footage brings to life his wit, intellect and erudition.
Ponti, whose six-decade career spanned most of the 20th century, was multi-talented and prolific, creating everything from lighting, furniture and tiles – he famously modernized one of Italy’s leading porcelain firms, Richard Ginori – to buildings, including Milan’s Pirelli Tower (1958), the tallest skyscraper in Europe at the time, as well as founding Domus magazine in 1928. Faced with such a legacy as a curator, do you go macro – like the major Ponti retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris last year – or micro? As its title suggests, MAXXI’s ‘Gio Ponti: Loving Architecture’ focuses squarely on a single discipline and, like any architecture show, presents something of a curatorial challenge: finding the most effective way to exhibit something that cannot be uprooted and squeezed through the doors of a museum.
Acting as a prelude to the show, the sloping walkway that leads to the fifth-floor gallery reprints excerpts from ‘Fifty Questions, Fifty Answers’, which appeared in Ponti’s seminal 1957 book In Praise of Architecture. (‘What is the longest-lasting material? Art. Is urban planning a matter of imagination? Yes. When it is only a technical matter, it is a fault.’). Within the exhibition itself, a vast array of models, drawings, blueprints and letters are divided into nine sections including ‘Towards the Exact House’, ‘Light Facades’ and ‘The Spectacle of Cities’.
Nature is central to Ponti’s work and his Villa Planchart in Caracas (1953–57) is a stunning case in point. Plants and trees are omnipresent throughout the plans and sketches of the villa, culminating in a luxurious patio where ceramic tiles by Fausto Melotti emulate abstract climbing vegetation. His push for skyscrapers was yet another example of this commitment: in an interview, he explains his intention for each skyscraper to be surrounded by a green area equivalent to the space the building would have taken up had it been horizontal.
Several issues of Domus are on display. Inevitably, Ponti’s work features predominantly – he remained editor until his death in 1979, save for a short period during the 1940s when he launched Stile magazine – and, at times, it can feel like the magazine’s identity was so tied up with Ponti that its content was, in essence, uncritical self-promotion. Still, it is fascinating to see examples of his affordable homes with flexible interiors, such as Casa Adatta (Adapted House, 1970).
Further on, a series of meticulously shot commissioned photographs of Ponti’s most famous buildings show the works as they exist today. Amongst the highlights is Delfino Sisto Legnani’s photo of the lesser-known Co-Cathedral of Taranto. Completed in 1970, the building is distinctive for its facade featuring hexagonal, cusped and rectangular openings. In a video interview, Ponti explains: ‘It’s all perforated and full of sky. Light shines through. It’s not a dome; I call it a sail,’ alluding to the nautical history of Taranto. The Co-Cathedral most successfully achieves the ‘lightness’ Ponti was seeking, wherein facades of buildings were two-dimensional surfaces, like sheets of paper, to be punctured and folded.
Gio Ponit, 'Loving Architecture' runs at MAXXI, Rome, until 13 April 2020.
Main Image: Gio Ponti, Denver Art Museum, Denver, 1965 –71. Courtesy: the artist © Gio Ponti Archives
First published in Issue 210