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icons and the city

photographic essay caterina maria carla bona mario genovesi




say I

'What say








should same


live'. thing"

a dialogue from Michelangelo Antonioni's "Red Desert"



Black-and-white photography and icons. They share a commitment to truth. It's nothing but the choice to use non-colours for interpreting non-images. Black-and-white is the ultimate search for the principle, for the meta-historical essence, capable of transforming the experience of architecture into eternal recurrence. It's at once celebration of the architectural ritual and experience of the permanence of the urban occurance. Points of view freeze, reality and representation are detached, objects are caught in their essence, their light and spatiality explored, and the shadows they cast and the matter they're made of investigated. Archetypes of the primeval act of inhabiting are sought.

glances Pictures can't be highly sophisticated: they're shot in accordance with human perspective, representing the iconic object through the filter of human immediacy. They depict iconic buildings stained through experience. They expose life, and life filters within the folds of architecture, transfers to the unaware matter the vital breath, and transforms buildings into icons, into significant objects. By means of lateral glances, the power of the icon becomes clear beyond the mere sight: non-visual images arise, in the form of perceptive texts unleashing the essence underneath.



Icons do not exist without their physical, mental and emotional context. And exactly through that context they manage to overcome the architectural dilemma between active and passive, between expression and representation. Shots frame peculiar objects and moments: they are icons making the city, since the space they produce both expresses life and is expressed through it. Drenched in this ambivalence, they constitute instants of urban poetry. The depicted buildings are collective icons, they do not relate to manifestoes but to fundamental questions of history of architecture, a history of masterpieces, borrowing Livio Vacchini's words. These oeuvres unhinge common thoughts, questioning the very primary roots of architecture.










Few iconic Italian buildings from the 20th century were selected, in the context of Roman and Milanese urbanity: they represent modern episodes on a canvas highly structured by icons from the past. What is striking about these building - nonetheless defined as iconic - is that they weren't born icons: they represent the Italian 20th century, when monumental lyricism was substituted by pragmatic, dignified, and sober modernity. Collective experience made them iconic, irreplaceable within the complex pentagram of the contemporary city. They deliver a valid message for contemporary times that, on the contrary, favour icons a priori, emptying them from their collective and empathic contents, turning them into blank advertising images, no longer iconic frames in the urban experience.





Flipping through S, M, L, XL - a visionary manifesto for the new century compiled by OMA - the word icon doesn't show up in the pages of this peculiar vocabulary, as if the term wasn't worth a meaning anymore, as if contemporary language couldn't provide a compelling definition. The same excision occurs in The Metapolis Dictionary of Advanced Architecture. It's symptomatic of a crisis of the iconic synthesis, replaced with false idols and visual over-stimulations. Idolised objects have left out the ethical dimension of architecture, drifting away from its basic aim, keeping the human subject as focal point for architecture.

milan "Up-to-date city, Milan is a great school Where all roads, windows, dustbins, teach lessons about things" A. Savinio, 'Listen to your heart, city', 1943


grattacielo pirelli gio' ponti

torre velasca bbpr


corso italia luigi moretti

torre velasca bbpr


corso italia luigi moretti

universita' bocconi grafton architects


chase manhattan bank bbpr

rome "Let's make a fantastic hypothesis, that Rome is not a human built-up area but a psychic entity with a similarly long and rich past an entity in which nothing of what once acquired existence there has disappeared, in which next to the latest stage of development, all the previous phases continue to exist"

S. Freud, 'Civilization and Its Discontents', 1929


eur | palazzo dei congressi adalberto libera

eur | palazzo della civilta' italiana guerrini | la padula | romano


la rinascente franco albini

palazzetto dello sport pierluigi nervi


auditorium parco della musica renzo piano

museo dell'ara pacis augustae richard meier


casa girasole luigi moretti

Icons And The City  

Photographic essay submitted for Studio Magazine #03, in partnership with Mario Genovesi