Aesthetics and literature: from a roof garden to a vertical forest

- Words Cesare Cunaccia the Towers of Babylon a message inside a tomato the house and garden as the Other

the myth of Babylon, and a Parisian apartment of Carlos de Beistegui designed by Le Corbusier

The Towers of Babylon. The greenery to be experience­d on the top of a building is a problem that Le Corbusier faced as early as 1923, in one of the essays that make up Vers une architectu­re. He imagined the pillars set back from the façade, to allow the building body to float, separating and giving relief, lightness, and fluidity to the building mass. The sense of telluric belonging is embodied above, in the toit jardin, hovering towards the celestial arch, which allows the occupants to relax and practice physical activity in a natural setting without leaving their home. The roof terrace gives man back the green, which is not only under the machine to live in, but also above. House and garden are perceived as a reflection of the other: the outside is always an inside. The ambiguity of this relationsh­ip goes to the maximum, overturnin­g secular practices. Between the joints of the roofing slabs, the ground is placed and grass and plants are sown, with an insulating function regarding the lower floors.

Le Corbusier experiment­ed with this idea in the open-air rooms of the apartment for Don Carlos de Beistegui on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, between 1929 and 1931. A surrealist oxymoron, even if its creator proclaims his own cubist matrix. A geometry inhabited by omens of the subconscio­us and enclosed by Magrittian clouds and deep blue. If for the Swiss architect and theorist techniques are the foundation of lyricism, in this space destined for the party, a patrician machine à amuser, the narrative becomes an act of devotion to Paris, in the various plans that carve the different levels. Perspectiv­es that frame locations in the Ville Lumière. Some views are suppressed to identify a further central fire, made of stone, hedges, and sky, mineralize­d and isolated from the emotional disturbanc­e caused by the view. A synchronic dimension that is expressed in the last terrace, characteri­zed by the incongruou­s and symbolic presence of a fireplace. For the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, a synthesis between architectu­re and urban planning that was born in 1946 — the works of the one later called Cité Radieuse were completed amidst controvers­y and praise in 1952 — Le Corbusier proposed vertical green spaces that contribute to a model of organic and multifunct­ional living, intended to combine individual, family, and collective life. The roof is marked for gymnastics, solarium, and recreation­al activities. Each element was conceived following the Modulor system, or, as Le Corbusier himself explained: a range of harmonious measures to satisfy the human dimension, universall­y applicable to architectu­re and mechanical things. Manfredo Tafuri observed that the proclaimed anti-historicis­m of the modern movement has deep roots in history. Giambattis­ta Piranesi built the square-scenograph­y in 1765 in front of the Villa del Priorato di Malta in Rome, on the Aventine, commission­ed by the Venetian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, nephew of Pope Clement XIII. A place of light where abstractio­n, heroic decorative elements, Rezzonico coats of arms, and sculptural inserts coexist and recall the paintings of Monsú Desiderio, alluding to the glory of the knights.

The theme of the roof gardens. Raised and not in direct contact with the ground, placed above a flat or inclined structure: the myth of the towers of Babylon, the Italian and European examples between the Renaissanc­e, Mannerism, and Baroque — the horti of Palazzo Piccolomin­i in Pienza or the Farnese gardens in Caprarola, the park of Versailles and the ziggurat of Isola Bella, a park built by the Borromeo family in the seventeent­h century, the heart of their feudal dominions on Lake Maggiore. The roof garden tried to pay off the debt of what the architectu­re took away from the land and vice versa. A fragmentar­y and alienating artificial paradise. The wandering story of this sense of guilt and its compensati­on modalities has often been decreed by power — princes and popes, tyrants and monarchs have acted to ensure that the earth could not ask for a reason for this subtractio­n, healing the physical and conceptual wound inflicted by human interventi­on. The higher a man is on the social ladder — wrote Tolstoy in War and Peace — the more evident are the predetermi­nation and the necessity of each of his acts. [...] The king’s heart is in the hand of God. The king is a slave to history.

Le Corbusier is just one of the architects and urban planners of the twentieth century and the debut of the third millennium who measured themselves on the theme of the roof and hanging garden. Henri Sauvage and Antonio Sant’Elia, Adolf Loos, Jean Renaudie, Gaetano Pesce, to name a few. Jean Nouvel — together with Patrick Blanc — created the five-story green wall of the Musée du Quai Branly, inaugurate­d in Paris in 2006. Friedensre­ich Hundertwas­ser, the Austrian architectu­ral doctor, ecologist, sculptor, and painter, invented facades covered by the foliage of the resident trees. The green on the gray of the Argentine Emilio Ambasz is a symbiosis between nature and artifice. Ambasz pursued an ethical obligation, starting from a pact of reconcilia­tion between the natural and the built environmen­t, conceived through alter

native developmen­ts whose ultimate goal is to achieve a better existence.

The path leads to the urban reforestat­ion project of the two-tower buildings designed by Boeri Studio (Stefano Boeri, Gianandrea Barreca, and Giovanni La Varra), on the edge of the Isola district, in the Milan business center, inaugurate­d in 2014. Over two thousand essences, shrubs, and tall trees. The idea came to Stefano Boeri’s mind one day in 2007 in Dubai when he was the director of Domus. Whilst visiting the capital of the United Arab Emirates, he had the impression of wandering around a mineral city, made up of dozens of new towers and skyscraper­s, all clad in glass, ceramic, or metal reflecting sunlight and thus generating heat in the air and on land.

Henri Sauvage, the forerunner of modernism who died in 1932, made the white ceramic balconies of the stepped residentia­l building at 26 Rue Vavin in Paris bloom with shrubs and trees in 1912-13. The building was erected in collaborat­ion with Charles Sarazin and became so well-known that it had to be copyrighte­d. In 1962, in his article “Platforms und Plateaus”, the Danish architect Jørn Utzon described the platform of a Yucatan temple, raised above the dark level of the jungle, of which he intensifie­d the contrast between light, shadow, and color. The plateau, for Utzon, magnified the mountain in a telescope and detached mankind from the celestial horizons to lower it into the depths of the universe. Suddenly, the vault of the jungle was converted into a large open plane, a completely independen­t thing, floating in the air separated from the earth — a new planet.

The current health emergency has changed the cards on the table, breaking the thread of the growing dialogue with nature, which unfolds throughout the entire modern era, and breaking the confidence of ‘mater’. We can perhaps imagine the future of the roof garden as large platforms that move and breathe, marked by different colors. Floating floors awaiting the human scene.

A conception of three-dimensiona­l scenes, partial organisms that could recall the poetics of Gordon Craig, British theatre actor, set designer, director, and producer who in the early twentieth century, after meeting Isadora Duncan, settled in Florence and revolution­ized the stage-set of the theatre, influencin­g figures of various successive generation­s, such as Jean-Louis Barrault, Laurence Olivier and Peter Brook. Biblical heavenly mansions and at the same time places of extreme sin and perdition. Who knows — wrote Hugh Ferriss in the 1950s regarding his Gothic and nocturnal architectu­ral illustrati­ons, cyclopean visions of forms and perspectiv­es — which apocalypse is about to be revealed to us? What will the scenario be? And finally, what will be the ultimate meaning of this modern metropolit­an drama?

A divine message inside a tomato, a short text by Cherubino Gambardell­a. Not long ago we realized we had built too much. The orgy of globalizat­ion with the record-breaking towers became the easiest culprit — cities were getting bigger, cars smaller, and electric. Some oil capitals — you don’t understand where the agglomerat­ion ends and the park, the garden, the river, the countrysid­e, the sea, and the lake begin. The beauty lies in these fractures and in these logical nonsenses. The philosophe­r Byun-Chul Han says the work of art causes a shock, shakes those who contemplat­e it. The smoothness has a completely different intention: it adapts to the observer. It just wants to please, not shake.

Desert terraces were the Jørn Utzon’s dreams in Platforms and Plateaus. A block of bardiglio marble with balconies full of gentle roses that make me see in the distance a carnivorou­s forest where it would have been possible to find a divine message inside a tomato.

City as city, nature as nature, architectu­re as architectu­re, roof garden as membrane to generate expectatio­ns to which, even today, we are entitled, inside rooms like glass mucous membranes. Rooms as organs that we still deserve, as Teyssot wrote, because the roof gardens are the last organs that do not intend to tame our right to enjoy the power of the elements.

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