the compasses experience

The Compasses experience

Andrea Pane, Compasses Scientific Director, interviews Cherubino Gambardella and Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi, previous directors of the magazine.

[10] questions to Cherubino Gambardella


1) In 2008, exactly ten years ago, you gave life to “Compasses” first series, setting up the critical approach to the magazine and defining its layout, format and graphic design, all of which are still partially conserved in its third series. How did that experience start?


Two professors of engineering who were promoting projects for the diffusion of the Made in Italy in the countries of the Persian Gulf got in contact with me in order to found an architecture magazine. They asked me to imagine something that could have observed with special attention the building boom of that part of the planet where seemed to be concentrated, other than the full-blown economic energies given by the oil exploitation, also the singular and variegated experiences having to do with the construction of new urban assets.

In 2008 I was forty-six years old and by that time I had already reached the role of full professor at the Italian academia. I had written several books and was carrying out projects in my country. In that same year I had just won the contest for the redesign of the station of Piazzale Loreto in Milan and I was facing the no small responsibility of having to reinterpret one of Franco Albini’s and Bob Noorda’s most beautiful works which was in a really downgraded situation.

I had never directed nor, above all, had I ever thought of founding an international architecture magazine and this occasion seemed to me very stimulating, precisely because it would have let me confront a new role, find new stimuli and energies which would have surely enriched me culturally, by making me face the new bet of imagining an instrument which would have illustrated not only a new world, but also new ways of interpreting architecture.

I didn’t want to arrange a magazine addressed only to Arab countries, but a magazine that starting from the Middle East would have looked for subtly heretic ways and worlds, in order to be able to think of man’s vital space free from any kind of standard, except from that, very powerful, of imagination, of the reinvention of places’ memory, of the imperfection as a positive value, of the spreading and secondary beauty that already then I had been theorizing as democratic beauty, as a universal right.

I agreed with enthusiasm and so a beautiful adventure started, together with a young enthusiastic editorial staff.


2) At the time of Compasses’ foundation, the architecture scenario in the Middle East, and specifically in the UAE, appeared very promising. There they built at a high rate, with a very strong thrust toward verticalization, to the point that you decided to devote Compasses very first issue to the topic of Sky Architecture, meant both as the ascent to the sky and as the relationship between a building and the vault of heaven. In those months the Burj Khalifa was being completed, still today being the world’s highest skyscraper, with its 830 meters height. What’s left today of the spirit of those days, somehow convulsive yet at the same time stimulating?


In the two issues I had directed before the terrible financial crisis of 2009, which stopped my brief, yet intense adventure, the aim wasn’t that of illustrating projects, but rather of founding an ambitious cultural communication strategy, which while looking for something that the general public could like, didn’t force me at all costs to identify with a predictable and obvious imagery.

Therefore I thought – possibly with a slight vein of wild ambition I don’t regret though – to close the game in two moves: I chose to take care of the sky in the first issue and of the Earth in the second. Thus the spheres of existence of this new way to architecture seemed to me concluded and settled.

The other issues would have only deepened and specified this clear route, drawn between the two poles of existence of the design phenomenon.

The sky wasn’t just the quite vulgar thrust to the rhetoric of skyscrapers, however the Burj Khalifa’s vaguely pop and imperfect beauty already denied the predictable gigantism and offered itself as a second inhabited mountain, something indefinable and very dense in memories.

I just loved MVRDV’s Didden Village, Tadao Ando’s pierced skyscraper in Manhattan, OMA’s inhabited bridges and multicolored dams. I adjusted them on the imperfect steel forest I had designed for the glorious Italian magazine “Domus” when the issue of reinterpreting the Pyramid in the Pacific Ocean left to Pyongyang raised.

After all I decided to narrate that conceptual interstice evoking the segret energies of a shelter-terrace, of a vaulted chapel and of a strange and ungraceful floating trellis.

There was much more in the «Sky Architecture» and above all there was the opening to an art/science which put on the same level artisans, Calvinist intellectuals, capricious stars, architecture collectives.

All of this still lingers ten years from that issue, even if today the international architecture is transforming into a rhetoric and non-toxic form of expression that, sic stantibus rebus, I think I will become less and less interested in.


3) Beyond the topic of verticalization, in the first issue were shown futuristic projects for the UAE, among which OMA’s for Jebel al Jais Mountain Resort, which are somehow near to your designing approach. In your opinion, is there still space for these kinds of offers in those contexts?


There is an enormous space for courage in those powerful areas, which are imagined putting to react simple, common forms and camps pushing until they reach the crystal-shaped heroism of new habitats.


4) In the second issue of the magazine you dealt with the Morphing topic, recognizing in the traces impressed on the Earth’s crust one of the most ancient forms of architecture. It came out a very rich issue, ranging from the «google Earth urbanism», at that time in vogue with the construction of The Palm in Dubai, to architectures where the matter of shape had a leading role, up to its extreme consequences. I am thinking of Peter Eisenman’s City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, to Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House, but above all, to the hyper-plastic shape of Zaha Hadid’s Nuragic Museum. Would you like to tell us something more about this second issue’s concept?


The sky is pure and limpid, the Earth is impure and confused: this was its democratic beauty and the leading idea of that second issue. The imperfections of the Earth’s crust as the reason of an informal and heuristic architecture were at the basis of that way of giving spaces for a new narrative which didn’t come to an end with the canonical relationship, almost an archeological one, between soil and subsoil, but rather looked for other expressions.

The mystery of the Egyptian museum, the power of the Oslo Opera House, but above all Jorn Utzon’s studies in 1962 on the platforms and altiplanes intensely dialogued with Peter Eisenmann’s conceptual swellings. The issue was a disciplinary earthquake which helped us reinterpreting the possibilities expressed by the basement dimension of architecture.


5) In this same issue, a long reportage by Carmine Piscopo illustrated different projects for the Gulf by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, some of which were not constructed, while others have become icons of two capitals, Doha and Abu Dhabi. I am obviously referring to the Doha Tower and the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, both based on the advanced use of innovative brise-soleil, capable of filtering sunlight, while recalling the Arab tradition. After a lengthy construction time, slowed down by the financial crisis of the 2008-2012, the Louvre in Abu Dhabi was finally inaugurated in November 2017. With the 25th issue of Compasses new series we wanted to go back to this project. What do you think of these projects now built, ten years after their conception? Do you think they are a clear proof of the braking of the building boom, which is now also reaching the Gulf countries?


Nouvel is at the same time an ungrammatical and neoclassical genius, perhaps the greatest project funambulist of this new century, even more intense in this moment than in his works dating back to the last years of the 20th century. These buildings are a magic of shadows and reflections, which is impossible not to love.

Today Abu Dhabi’s space defines the action time lag between a city shaped as a museum and a dome, just as the shield that attracts sunrays defining the mechanism of the fragmentation designed by light. I would say that in «Morphing» the basis for the overcome of the crisis had already been outlined. That crisis, if well interpreted through non-additive formulas, can lead us to the observation and aware enhancement of that inexhaustible resource represented by the land line as line of human control.


6) Starting from the previous question, I would like to ask you what do you think about today’s hot topics discussed in the world’s architecture agenda: reduction of the soil consumption, sustainability, zero-energy, recycling. Do you believe these topics are really changing the scenarios and the architecture style, or it is rather a matter of ephemeral trends, which only superficially touch the building process?


In Middle East, just as elsewhere, the real challenge will be that of rethinking what has already been done in order to make it become stratified, financially sustainable, reinterpretable into a new urban system, opening to the possibility of being delivered in a decorous way to the future with a shape resembling that marvelous urban invention, which has really ennobled man, without any code words, but, let me put it in this way, following the provident practice of the lysergic preservation.


7) Your whole career has been marked by a close relationship between research and operability in the project. Do you believe that being a professor and a scholar helps or else obstacles your creative process? Which are the most significant projects in which this relationship is present? And which current challenges are you taking on?


I spent my life as an adult studying, drawing, teaching and constructing. Now I have to learn how to forget, in order to be able to assure new beginnings which may encourage my enthusiasm. In all the over a hundred projects I have built in more than thirty-two years of activity – from settings to buildings, from conservation projects to interiors – there are, for better or worse, the shadows of my books, of my anarchy, of my love for the Mediterranean Sea and for Eclecticism. I don’t intimately like the works I have carried out. If there were even one which really and fully satisfied me, I would immediately stop.

Now with Simona Ottieri, who has always shared the intellectual paternity of every work I have done and who in these last ten years has actively worked in our studio far more than me, I am dealing with re-converting old buildings minimizing the transport of waste. We are just about to start the work on a big university campus in Italy, in front of the Royal Palace in Caserta, which I believe will take a few years and a villa in the southern Lazio, the third of a series of neighboring buildings created by completing the preexisting skeletons in reinforced concrete. Then I am finishing a library obtained inside and outside of an antique Benedictine monastery for the Department of Architecture and Industrial Design of the Università della Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli” where I teach.


8) In recent times you paid great attention to one of the 20th century architecture icons, so famous that it may become almost a timeless myth: villa Malaparte in Capri, to which you dedicated a whole book which I would define, at the same time, a historical research, a design experience and a hymn to freedom in creativity. Would you like to tell us something more about this research project which marked a good part of your life?


I think it is nice to construct books where, starting from a masterpiece “wisely” studied in youth, you arrive to a point, later in life, when you want to tell an imaginary story of it.

I was not afraid to observe and to ask other colleagues to transform this monument, to teach students and PhDs how to desecrate it (only on paper of course) to really understand it and finally make it explode substituting it with a new image which floats, unconfessed, in my brain. Today that I am nearly fifty-six years old, I think that the truth does never say much, and that verisimilitude adds the preciousness of the imagination to a research project in designing architecture.


9) In this era of big engineering societies and corporate architectural firms, which seems to have passed even the archistars’ time, do you reckon there is still space for the architect as a single figure, capable of coordinating the entire complexity of building and urban processes? Or are we at the sunset of that demiurgic figure, imagined by our masters and founding fathers over a century ago? Who are in your opinion the architects who still embody this figure? Which are, on the contrary, the firms that, overcoming the cult of personality, have taken other paths, equally promising?


Luckily on different levels there is room for everyone. We shouldn’t confuse the size of an architecture with its beauty. The studiolo of the Ducal Palace in Urbino strikes me every time with a different beauty. I am at the beginning of an experience with SOM based on respect and admiration for their extraordinary “corporate” skill and I think that from their side there is curiosity about my “Neapolitan tailor” imperfect architecture.


10) Lastly a very direct question, which requires an also direct, informal and sincere answer: what do you think of «Compasses» third series?


I like it because it is lay and mighty, it always touches the strings of sensibility and – perhaps – it is the only series that, for balance and originality of the themes addressed, of the beautiful essays and of the designs, may truly aspire to be (with an Italian and English edition) a magazine which looks at the Middle East without geographical boundaries, but as a spirit condition open to a new season of architectural research.


Translation by Giovanna Russo Krauss and Damiana Treccozzi



[10] questions to Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi


1. In 2008, exactly ten years ago, you picked up the baton of Compasses, taking over the direction since its third issue and giving life to the second series of the magazine, a direction that you then held for a long time, approximately six years, until the 20th issue. How did that experience start?


By chance. I had written some books for DEI, a Roman publishing house, which was entrusted with the task of taking care of the technical part of Compasses by the publishers of the magazine. The director of DEI mentioned my name. We met with the publishers, I proposed an editorial project and we took off. 


2. With the first issue of the series directed by you, dedicated to the theme of «Nature Architecture», you introduced some important innovations in the contents and sequence of the columns, while keeping the graphic layout of great impact that had marked the birth of the magazine. In particular, the Experiences section, entirely dedicated to the Middle East, was created with the aim of discussing the projects underway in the area at the time. The architecture scenario appeared very promising and buildings were designed and built at a high rate, often without the possibility to critically reflect on what was happening. What do you remember of that moment?


The Experiences section was born because I thought it was important for a magazine created for the Gulf markets to describe what was being done there. The flaw I had noticed in the issues of the previous direction was that too much attention was paid to Europe and Italy. Experiences did not have the purpose of making value judgments on the languages adopted, but simply of informing on the most important projects underway.


3. Since the 3rd and 4th issues you dedicated the Focus of the magazine to important works completed in the Gulf, such as the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the latter based on a design by Ieoh Ming Pei. At the same time, however, the contents opened up to more distant experiences, thanks to a network of correspondents that you put together since the first issue of the series directed by you. How was this specific attention to the Gulf, the area where the magazine was most popular, reconciled with the projection towards the rest of the world and what stimulating contaminations did they develop?


Most of the architecture built in the Gulf Countries is designed in Europe and the United States or by firms that have their headquarters in Europe and the United States. All the more reason to show these interrelations, these exchanges between cultures.


4. After the start-up phase of the first two issues, you realized one, the 5th, which to some extent represents a product on its own compared to both the previous and the following ones. Dedicated to the theme of «Fluid Energy», the issue dealt with the relationship between water and architecture, both through projects that explained this relationship (such as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by Frank Gehry or the Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando), and through a Focus dedicated to boat design, where you published elegant and futuristic projects by Norman Foster and Odile Decq, together with the Italians Dante Benini and Lazzarini Pickering. How do you remember the genesis of that issue?


Every issue was a new experience that resulted from an editorial meeting with Anna Baldini, Zaira Magliozzi and Giulia Mura, who helped me. The issue was born from the observation of how the metaphor of fluidity had marked such a large part of the construction of high quality buildings, being realized in those years. And not only that, after all, the theme of an architecture inspired by the shape of ocean liners, remained a constant throughout the 20th century. At this point we thought it could have been interesting to compare buildings conceived as fluid structures interacting with water, thanks to the design of boats, even large ones, where the theme of fluidity arises from functional reasons, and not only aesthetic and metaphorical ones.


5. In the following issues, from the 6th to the 11th, you firmly maintained the Focus on the Gulf, publishing individual projects (King Abdulaziz Center, National Museum of Qatar) but, above all, more general reviews on the rapidly changing urban realities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Together with this large-scale approach, there were also specific insights on interiors and design, which constituted a growing part of these issues, hosting proposals from both the Middle East and Europe, with names ranging from Karim Rashid to Italo Rota to Patricia Urquiola. How did you manage to keep all this wide set of proposals together?


Asking around and reading other magazines. I have never shared the idea that a magazine should at all costs publish projects never seen before. Every building, even if published several times, becomes new if included in a different context and if repackaged from an original angle and unpublished images.


6. In several issues you dealt with highly topical subjects, boldly raising complex questions – not always easy to be answered in a single issue of the magazine – but certainly burning. I am thinking of the issues dedicated to topics like «Ecologies», «Icons and Nature», «Archiscape». What do you remember about the development of those topics at the time and to what extent do you think they are still relevant today?


The topics are provided by everyday life. Some of them are short-lived, others are medium and long-term. I would say the ones you mentioned are long lasting topics. I believe the problem of ecology becomes more inescapable with every passing day, even if sometimes the solutions that are proposed, and are publicized as sustainable, are not entirely satisfying. The topic of icons is frequent in architecture and, today, it intersects with that of communication. Archiscape, or better still «Architectural Landscape», is one of the keywords to explain the construction process of contemporary cities.


7. Together with an international gaze you have always paid great attention to what was happening in Italy, both following the evolution of the (not many) new buildings constructed in our country (for example the MACRO by Odile Decq, to which you dedicated two articles in the 7th and 11th issues), and describing the work of Italian architects in the Middle East. At the same time, you have often been attentive to the theme of interventions within the already constructed buildings, even on a small scale, such as the «restorations» and installations by Michele De Lucchi in Berlin, Bologna, Venice. How did all this coexist with the often appalling scale of the projects in the Middle East? How much space is left, today, for Italian architecture, in many cases still marked by a positive craftsmanship, in those geographical contexts?


The buildings realized in Italy, even if they are small, or perhaps precisely because of that, focus on the themes that the designers of larger works are interested in. It is no coincidence that Italian architects, even if they do not build skyscrapers at the same rate as the British or the Americans, are sought after all over the world.


8. Starting from the 12th issue, Compasses changed format, adopting the 28x28 square that marks to this day the third series. This transition was marked by an issue dedicated to the theme «Colours», marked by the new airport of Lleida-Alguaire by Fermín Vásquez, and by the following one, addressed to «New Plasticity», where the Grand Theater of Rabat by Zaha Hadid, not yet constructed, stood out on the cover. From this moment on, the attention to the small scale grew, also describing interesting projects of parametric design, as well as glancing towards the «New Stars» and «Emerging Countries», in search of young talents. Was this also a reflection of the economic crisis, which by then, in 2010, began to be felt?


Yes, it was also a reflection of the economic crisis. Moreover it should be considered that European architecture has always shown its best achievements in buildings that are not gigantic, but where there is a strong attention to detail. Focusing on buildings, even of small size but of great interest, is in my opinion particularly important for an architecture magazine that intends to encourage the quality of construction. On the other hand, it is sufficient to think of the history of 20th century architecture to realize that important formal achievements were often possible thanks to their experimentation on small and medium-sized buildings: sometimes even a single-family houses, a fire station, a museum.


9. Your entire career has been marked by an assiduous critical militancy, developed through traditional tools such as books and articles, but above all through the Web, you being among the first to foresee its potentialities in the field of architectural criticism. To what extent has all of this flowed into the experience of the direction of Compasses between 2008 and 2014, and how has Compasses itself changed you and influenced your attitude towards architecture criticism?


Most people only see me as a Web author, forgetting that I have written at least thirty printed books and have published over a thousand articles in traditional magazines. In my opinion, there is not much difference between printed paper and an on-screen page. However I would say that the speed of communication on the Internet persuaded me to write more briefly on paper.


10. What do you think of Compasses third series inaugurated with the 23th issue of 2016?


I think you are a capable director and, like all those who persist in writing about architecture, a super hero.


Translation by Daria Verde