In Architecture, there is no other word as Brutalism that divides the expert: What is it? What defines it? Is something Brutalist because of its form? Or is it its material? Or perhaps is the function that makes it Brutalist? And when does it start? Is late Modernism already a proto-Brutalism? And what about the contemporary revival? Is it neo-brutalism? What about the Italian Brutalism? Is it a different take? These and other questions were a matter of debate on a warm Friday in July between me, a simple Brutalist-aficionado, and Dr. Anna Positano, an architect and architectural photographer based in Genoa, whose works on the man-altered landscapes are pivotal and renowned. I approached Dr. Positano to find out how and why Brutalism reached the sunny Italian peninsula, and why there are so many Brutalist buildings specifically in Liguria.
When we think of Brutalism, we think of concrete buildings silhouetted over some dramatic nordic landscapes, conveying the idea of a muscular architecture that flirt with East European/USSR monumentality in the quest for eternity and severity. Since the early 1940s, when French-Swiss architect superstar Le Corbusier began to design raw concrete – or Beton brut in French, hence the name Brutalism – buildings across the world, this architectural style has imposed its solid and utilitarian vision of the world, thanks to bold, industrial materials used for the masses. The idea that concrete buildings were offering concrete solutions for citizens was highly fascinating, especially in the UK where it became very popular, so much so that the country hosts the Barbican Estate, one of the most famous examples of Brutalism in the Western world.
My 1991 Fiat Punto is roaring under a scorching sun over the Autostrada Dei Fiori, one of the prettiest highways of Italy, with its colourful bushes of Mediterranean flora, brushing picturesque paintings at every corner. Lines of white, purple, pink and yellow oleander gently accompany our gaze in the centre of Varazze, in the province of Savona, while a delicate perfume of marine saltiness, maritime pines and sun-creams inebriates our senses.
Before jumping around between brutalist structures I visit Vino & Farinata, an old-school restaurant in the historical centre of Savona, where tiny alleys are filled with charming shops, ancient bars, and museums – classic Liguria in a nutshell. Charming fire-ovens filled with tasty farinata – chickpea flour pancakes – served hot, with a fresh salad, scrumptious goat cheese, and a handful of local super juicy taggiasche Olives – tiny but delicious. Some restaurants in Liguria have the magic of stopping the world from spinning, freezing time, and providing excellent, humble food, perfect to create unique memories.
Liguria is typically linked to postcard-like beaches, a turquoise sea and diverse tourist attractions, such as its capital, Genoa, the famous Cinque Terre and the dreamy Portofino; I am surprised to discover that Liguria also hosts a fair amount of Brutalist buildings, which, arguably, create a curious juxtaposition between its facade and its core.
Given its high population density, Liguria always had to find solutions and design new spaces for its inhabitants, generating remarkable architectural achievements. Brutalism, thanks to its functionality, was positively received in Liguria as evidenced in the many buildings across the region.
Palazzo Di Giustizia
Our journey into Brutalist Liguria starts in the small village of Varazze, with the Municipio di Varazze Building (built between 1967 and 1971by Architect Nino Gaggero), a perfect example for our research. The building has concrete, bold forms, with sharp angles and modular patterns, and stands out in a square that links the Med to the Appennini Liguri in a game of colours, concrete and bright reflections. Brutalist architecture transmits a sense of efficiency, perhaps due to its sharp lines and forms. Precisely for this reason several brutalist buildings in the world were government buildings. The city of Savona, together with Genoa, offers several examples of Mediterranean Brutalism; Palazzo di Giustizia is our second visit after a very important pit stop for a cappuccino and focaccia (Liguria’s finest). The Palazzo is a monumental construction, with a right-angled triangular shape, the longest side formed by windows and concrete intersections. The acclaimed architect Leonardo Ricci designed it in 1987, and since then, this Brutalist treasure has divided the citizens of Savona, between supporters and detractors. The building rises at the edge of the 19th century old town, by a former river, now exhausted and empty, conveying a sense of climactic gravity, exasperating through its geometrical rigour and the sharp angles. Facing the Palazzo, we see the Le Ammiraglie project of Architect Marco Dasso in Largo Folconi formed between 1977 and 1980, another example of the rigour and efficiency of Brutalist buildings.
One of the core elements of Brutalism is its functionality: buildings for the masses in economically depressed areas of Northern England or Eastern Europe. In Italy, it added another layer, as it seemed to have had success as a form to express spirituality. Savona and its nearby town of Vado Ligure host two important, yet different, buildings: concrete churches. The Savona-based Chiesa di San Paolo shares a triangular shape similar to Palazzo di Giustizia, with windows illuminating the central nave designed in 1972 by architects Martinengo and Campora. The Chiesa di Nostra Regina Della Pace in Vado, built in 1973-1978 by Architect Luciano Limonta, is formed by a circular construction with concrete spires and a big, iron cross.
Chiesta Nostra Regina della Pace
Lacking clear postulates, Brutalism has taken several directions depending on the region and, therefore, brutalist buildings can function in different ways. For instance, the Alexandra Estate in London, albeit ascribable to the same architectural movement of the Buffalo City Court Building, has a completely different function than the latter. In Italy, this direction is spirituality. Both the Genoese churches managed to represent the spirit of Brutalism towards the cleanliness of the shapes, well matching with the intent of the church, creating a winning combination of concrete and spirituality.
An essential step in our quest for the perfect Ligurian Brutalist building is the Centro Dei Liguri in Genoa, an impressive complex constructed between 1972 and 1980 by Marco Dasso. This maze-like area, filled with offices, rises in the austerity of concrete right angles, minimalist stairs, with that 70s dystopian allure that the Millennials find very attractive. Genoa is a bouquet of Brutalism, and many buildings were developed by the local architect Aldo Luigi Rizzo, whose capability is still undisputed. Perhaps the most famous work is Pegli 3, also known in Italy as Le Lavatrici (the washing machines), a residential complex on the hills of Genoa; a project which, again, has divided the citizens between lovers and haters. The last building of our Brutalist journey is peculiar as it is the only one that is private: it is a residential home in Via Sapeto: with concrete stairs, modular shapes and empty spaces.
At the end of our short excursus on Ligurian Brutalism one more experience has to be lived. We drove my 1991 FIAT Punto to Bergeggi, a hidden, secret, corner of paradise on Earth, a place where the spirit of Liguria is deeply rooted. It is there that Dr. Positano and I climb down a tortuous path, amongst lush vegetation, to reach crystal clear green water and white beaches. Above our head, the Ligurian highway is held by enormous concrete pillars, on which cars speed full throttle. There, in that combination of human-built elements and natural environments, we are finally resting after the long journey.
Photographs by Anna Positano a photographer and independent researcher with a background in Architecture and Photography. Her work explores the relationship amongst landscape, architecture and society. Her projects have been exhibited internationally including La Triennale di Milano, La Biennale di Architettura di Venezia, Unseen Photo Fair, Camera Torino, and MAO Ljubljana. In 2019 she is recipient of the production grant of Graham Foundation. Alongside her artistic and research practice, she works on commission for architects and magazines, and teaches Photography at IED Florence.