Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Book Review: Italo Calvino's Architecture of Lightness

Italo Calvino's Architecture of Lightness: The Utopian Imagination in an Age of Crisis by Letizia Modena
Routledge, 2011
Hardcover, 284 pages

Like many architects, I first encountered Italo Calvino's 1972 book Invisible Cities in undergraduate architecture school. Not surprisingly, it was assigned reading for a semester spent in Italy, alongside titles like Aldo Rossi's A Scientific Autobiography that can be said to be more architecturally relevant. Calvino's book is a fictional discussion between emperor Kubla Khan and Venetian traveler Marco Polo, in which the latter describes 55 cities that he has apparently visited within the former's domain. The cities -- falling into categories like "cities and memory", "thin cities", and "hidden cities" -- are highly fantastical, defying logic, sometimes gravity, and the "rules" that determined traditional cities. One conclusion determines that each city was in fact Venice, that Polo's cities are just different ways of describing the city, different ways of seeing.

Yet of course this is only one interpretation among many, as Letizia Modena points out in her thorough study of Calvino's classic text and its inspirations. Many interpretations of Invisible Cities focus on the author's use of language. But, as Modena convincingly argues in her book, postmodern literary criticism was not the main impetus for Calvino's book, nor the most accurate lens for reading it; the contemporary crisis of cities in the late 1960s and the avant-garde visions of the city offer a more thorough and rewarding interpretation. Modena traces a lot of Calvino's actions up to the publication of the book, be it correspondences, articles, lectures; she sees how they fit into his desire to create a text that helps people envision new urban realities. Most influential, and found throughout Modena's book, were the ideas of the Roman thinker Lucretius, who informed Calvino's theory of lightness, which he later described in Six Memos for the Next Millennium; to a lesser extent other writers tackling the urban crisis: Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Francoise Choay, Kevin Lynch, and Giorgio Simoncini; and the art and visionary urbanism of Fausto Melotti, Guy Rottier, Yona Friedman, and others.

To be sure, Modena's book is an academic study that can be a challenge at times. For those interested in Calvino's most celebrated book, like me, it is still a pleasurable read, mainly for the well honed argument. While the notes are long and works cited even longer, Modena is careful to focus her references (such as in the names listed above) and reiterate her main thesis (Calvino was searching for formal utopias by opening the imagination to potential forms of the city), so that one registers how a detail she is discussing, whatever it may be, relates to this larger idea. Four chapters follow her introduction: "The Inner City of the Imagination," on language and image making; "Retroterra," the urbanistic backdrop of crisis in the late 1960s; "Memos for the City of the Next Millennium," on Calvino's book as a tangible means of influencing cities; and "Architectures of Lightness," in which particular "cities" in his book are analyzed relative to artists, architects, and others outside literature. Just as the futuristic architecture (well, futuristic then, but fairly tame now) of the last chapter has found a resurgence in recent years, paralleling today's urban crises, Calvino's book continues its popularity in architectural circles. Painting a connection between the two realms, as Modena does, helps to strengthen the link between human imagination and urban form, fostering a desire to creatively battle the status quo.

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