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Architecture Misfit #18: Ignazio Gardella

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Ignazio Gardella

(March 30, 1905 – March 16, 1999)

The following list of buildings isn’t comprehensive but it should provide a flavour.

  • 1934-38 Dispensario Antitubercolare, Alessandria
1934-38 Dispensario Antitubercolare, Alessandria
  • 1944 The Milano-Verde (Green Milan) Plan
  • 1944-47 Casa del Viticultore
  • 1946–1953 Casa Tognella, also known as Casa al Parco
Photo Stefano Topuntoli Archivio Nonis
1946–1953 Casa Tognella (park side)
(park side)
  • 1952 Casa Borsalino, Alessandria
  • 1953-58 Casa alle Zattere, Venice
  • 1958 Mensa Olivetti, Ivrea.
  • 1969 Alfa Romeo Offices, Arese
  • 1975-89 Faculty of Architecture, University of Genoa
  • faculty
    1981-90 Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa (with Aldo Rossi, Bruno Reichlin and Angelo Sibilla).
  • 1983 Milano Lambrate Station

• • •

If one looks for Ignazio Gardella’s style, one is likely to be disoriented. His projects, over the years, changed according to changing architectural tendencies, often anticipating them, but always containing elements that diverged from the current with which they might be associated.

In other words, Gardella is a serial misfit. 

  • In the 1930s, he was a Rationalist, up there with Terragni, but “his use of local construction techniques, like the famous brick screen of the Dispensario in Alessandria, makes him in some ways a heretic.
  • In the 1950s he would have been a proto-critical regionalist but for an intellectual abstraction that doesn’t seem to have been gritty enough to make him a Neorealist.
  • In the 1960s and 1970s, his buildings such as the Alfa Romeo offices seemed International Style but eschewed industrial materials and a complex program in favour of symmetry.
  • In the 1980s, his buildings seemed PostModern but lacked its essential uncouthness.

I agree with The Big W that some aspects of Gardella’s work  remain the same throughout his long career but don’t think they condense into the following two points:

Gardella’s architecture always maintains a composure that could be called ‘classic’. This can be deduced from the extreme refinement of his details, which are comparable to those of his contemporary and friend Franco Albini, whether by control of the complete design of a building or because of the design of architectural spaces. In his architecture there is a preoccupation with and emphasis on the immediate, on the style of the moment, and a research for a kind of timelessness.

Complementing this aspect is his capacity to change registers, to adapt himself to the genius loci (the spirit of a place), as few other architects have succeeded to do. If the almost contemporary Casa Borsalino in Alessandria is compared with the Casa alle Zattere in Venice, one realizes that there is a great difference. The materials have changed, as have the decorative elements and the conception of volume. This is clearly owed to his will to take up influences from the built environment or context.

My reason for thinking this is that the two points are really the same thing – an ability to recognise and do what the situation calls for. It’s Esistenzialismo and nothing as frivolous as a ‘preoccupation with the style of the moment’. “Once a Rationalist, always a Rationalist.” Wiki’s confusion comes from seeing Rationalism as a visual style rather than as a way of creating buildings. I’d already made up my mind to give those same two buildings a closer look. Though different in style, materials and context (and, as is the way of architecture, probably budget, deliverables and schedule as well), they both do the best they can in the circumstances under which they have to be built.

 • • •

This is Casa Borsolino from 1952. It’s looking pretty good on Streetview but then Italian buildings and cities do age well. They’re built to last.

casa borsolino
44°54’26.14″N 8°36’55.35″E

 It’s not the context but the plan I want to talk about here.

  • The building is on the north side of the block to allow better winter sun penetration on the south.
  • All habitable rooms face south.
  • One two-bedroom plan is mirrored to form half the building, and that same plan mirrored once again to form half the other half of the building. Repetition is rational.
  • Even though they’re not the same size, the elevator and stairwell are mirrored in their respective halves. The depth difference creates the entrance recesses on the facade so you can enter the building from under the stairs. The ground floor thus has the same plan as the floors above.
  • The plan wobbles aren’t gratuitous. On the street side, that slight angle makes the entrance approach wider – more “welcoming”, some might say. The obtuse angle formed (by sensibly not having a trapezoidal staircase) is absorbed at the corner of the elevator shaft where it doesn’t matter.
  • The streetside wall of the three-bedroom apartment is parallel to the street in order to secure a living room of similar area. The wall on the other side does too, with a knock-on effect for the same purpose.
  • The straight wall in the corridor bends once inside the apartments to have three beneficial effects. 1) the entrance hallway becomes wider at the end it needs to be wider 2) the entrance hall becomes narrower at the end it doesn’t need to be wide and 3) the bedrooms can all be rectangular.
  • The kitchens are rectangular.
  • On the south side, the angular difference is absorbed by the bathroom that becomes wider at the end it needs to be wider. The depth difference with the rest of the facade create recesses for the bathroom windows – it’s beautiful thinking!
  • All rooms are naturally ventilated.
  • The corner balcony structures are unclad.
  • Bathroom windows are all in shadow and won’t appear as features but the shadow will.

In Italy, windows have shutters and these shutters produce that shuffly window effect contemporary architects have been repeating all over southern Europe for some time now, calling it a ‘dynamic façade’ or something.

The closest I’ve ever come to seeing a doubly mirrored configuration is Foster+Partners’ Albion Riverside development in London where the two central segments are mostly identical and mirrored.

There’s a 1953 film Position of Architecture by Angelo Mangiarotti in which the Borsolino apartments feature significantly. I want to see it.


The other building I want to single out for special attention is Gardella’s Casa alle Zattere in Venice. Casa alle Zattere was designed and constructed between 1952 and 1958 and is therefore of the same era as the Borsolino apartments. The first proposal recalls the park side of the five storey Casa Tognella of the same 1953, but this time with the two uppermost floors lining through with its neighbour, the Church of the Spi­rito Santo.

This seems to imply that Rationalism is a good starting point for a design. The final design isn’t all that different. It’s still a five storey house. It still has offset windows in a strict grid. It still has balconies on all levels.

  • The offset balcony on the fourth floor invites our eyes to the pediment of the neighbouring building.
  • The front boundary of the site is not a single line. In the first proposal, this would have been disguised by the line of the stacked balconies, but would have been obvious at the roof if Gardella had applied a strict Rationalist formalism. To ignore that slight corner would not have been rational.
  • The vertex of the front angle splits the front facade in two but to the right is a recess adjacent to the church that (a) allows the corner of the church to be seen and ‘stands free’, (b) mirror the pathway running alongside the building and allow his own building to stand equally proud yet at the same time (c) disrupt the symmetry set up in the first place. It’s complex and contradictory.
  • The typical floor plans are pure Gardella. One main entrance accesses two stairwells accessing two adjacent buildings, the split necessitated by the rear one being on higher ground.
  • On the left side in the plan below, there’s a vertical line of small balconies where the two buildings meet, forming a shadow gap once again.
  • Kitchens and bathrooms are naturally lit and ventilated (except for two on the party wall with the church).
  • Stairwells are naturally lit and ventilated.
  • The front angle of the site generates an angled wall in plan. Again, these angles are used to make the shared lobby larger. The (left, front) apartment lobby is angled and made larger, as is the corridor running the length of the apartment. The living room and the corner bedroom still have two right-angled corners. Planning to give advantages such as these seems like second nature to Gardella.
  • The other angled wall (at right angles) behind the stairs make the bedroom larger towards the window, whilst a small dressing area serves as an ante-room to both bedroom and bathroom.
  • The larger apartments also have separate entrances to the kitchens. These entrances open off the stairwell and are thus separated from the entrances next to the elevator that owners and visitors would be expected to use.

TripAdvisor has some great non-architectural photographs of the building and the interiors of an apartment for vacation rental.

This house is usually discussed in terms of its external styling and, although there’s a lot to be said regarding that, we shouldn’t let that stop us appreciating the skill that’s gone into planning the inside of this building.

  • The balustrade detail seems to be for the sake of some small-scale detail equivalent to the dentils of the pediment next door. One guidebook says they reference 13th century architectural details. One more immediate thing they do is restate the different lintel heights of the windows and balcony doors. There is no attempt to make a door look like a window, or vice-versa.
  • The fourth floor terrace wraps around the top floor that’s set back. It’s balustrade appears as a cornice terminating the building and creating a roof which, as we know, is property that can be built on again. What we have up there looks like a little house with a fence around it. The ‘detached’ building on a rooftop is a trope architects more contemporary have taken and run with.)

But to have had to set back those walls off of structural lines must have hurt an architect who’s a Rationalist at heart. There must have been a very good reason to do so. In the image below, we can see how the building “turns the corner” whilst the uppermost storey can be more rationally roofed by not doing so.


The top floor now ‘follows through’ from the church for all its width (as there’s nothing on the other side) but whether this is planned or happy accident I can’t tell. In the first of the following images, it leads our eye to the church.

  • It’s very easy to forget the front of the building isn’t flat but there’s been no deception involved. There’s a vertical line all the way up the building, completed by that fourth floor middle balcony that’s also extended. That line was always there. Nicely done!
  • Let’s not forget to look at the buildings on the left as well. Gardella didn’t.
  • The space between the shuffly windows on the left is mirroring the space between the windows of the little yellow building, making it part of the composition as well.
  • The height difference between the windows of the little yellow building and its neighbour to the left is why there’s no glass above the doors to the balconies in Gardella’s building. And that’s the final mystery solved! It’s more about the buildings on the left than the one on the right. The leftmost building now makes sense. Everything is symmetrical about the curious low white building! Gardella’s quiet skill is truly awesome.

This isn’t Post-Modernism because post-modernism hadn’t been conjured up yet. And it’s not Critical Regionalism for the same reason, but also because it’s neither “critical” nor regional. It’s simply good manners that ought to be universal. Not many architects get to build in Venice. One doesn’t want to be the one that screws it up. It’s like Gardella understands this building is going to be a part of it for oh let’s say another couple of hundred years. It’s not the time or place to make some shallow statement. This is becoming more and more difficult for us to imagine.

• • •

These two buildings of Gardella’s show there are things more important than exterior styling. They also show that exterior styling can also be used for purposes that are completely rational. There’s more to buildings than exterior styling and context, it’s just that our idea of context has become extremely narrow.  To finish, Gardella’s page on Wikipedia contains this next sentence.

“The publications of Gardella, though they include many articles and projects published in all of the major international reviews, lack theoretical interest.”

We don’t care. Gardella is a hero. His buildings display the immensely skilful application of sensitivity, intelligence and craft and this is of great interest to us.   

• • •


Ignazio Gardella

For never belonging to any particular group or movement
For never writing anything of theoretical interest
For making buildings of astounding clarity

misfits salutes you!



    • Thanks Hawes, I see what you mean. It wouldn’t have hurt to have had an extra window – even a small one – in that eastern elevation. I don’t like to think Gardella was just doing a bit of blank elevation for compositional reasons like Le Corbusier had just done at Marseilles (and for east facing apartments that could otherwise have had a view to the south, not to mention better light). I think it’s more likely that, like in the other sunny European countries, daylight simply isn’t that valued –especially during summer. Houses and apartments are traditionally kept shuttered and dark during the day and so remain cool, although they do tend to be gloomy. Perhaps because of the hot summers, southern European houses also tend to be under-heated in winter. Not having excessive (single) glazing would be a good thing.

      • says:

        Thanks for the reply. Except for that one detail, this apartment building looks worthy of emulation and replication today (with double-paned windows, of course).