December 17th. Candidate mmm2401. Word count: 3474

Architectural translation, from text to form

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3.2. Architectural translation, from text to form.

The amalgamation of linguistics and craftsmanship resulted in thoughts of this kind for Terragni : “Gli elementi costruttivi sono la base, l’alfabeto col quale un architetto può comporre più o meno armonicamente. L’architettura non è costruzione e neppure soddisfazione di bisogni di ordine materiale; è qualcosa di più; è la forza che disciplina queste doti costruttive ed utilitarie ad un fine di valore estetico ben più alto.”21

Terragni’s stance towards creating an architecture enrooted in text is explicated in his “Relazione sul Danteum”. In the document, it becomes evident that Benedetto Croce’s views influenced Terragni insofar as the architect became attracted to the idea that “one’s response to conventional elements within abstract compositions comes from the intuitive activity of the mind”22 - this intuition being the recognition of symbols and meaning in a not-so-explicit composition.
Let us then move on to the design of the Danteum to understand it’s relation to the text of the Divina Commedia. The building is broadly separated into four distinct areas. First, one enters a court which is open to the sky and features an adjacent enclosed area with 100 marble columns that symbolise the “selva oscura”23i of the Inferno’s second verse. The following steps are the large halls of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise through which one wanders consecutively. There is a rigorous observation of numerical symbolism throughout the project and at various scales as well as a consistent use of the golden ratio for the geometry of rooms and overall floorplan. The use of the golden ratio [see Fig.2] is justified as follows in the Relazione : “In our case the architecture could adhere to the literary work only through an examination of the admirable structure of the Divine Poem, itself faithful to the criterion of division and interpretation through certain symbolic numbers: 1,3,7, 10 and their combinations which can happily be synthesized into one and three (unity and trinity). Now there is only one rectangle that clearly expresses the harmonic law of unity and trinity, and this is the rectangle known historically as the 'golden'; the rectangle, that is; whose sides are in the golden ration...24 The rooms of Inferno and Purgatory are virtually equal opposites, they are derived from a rectangle divided according “to a rigorous application of the harmonic rule contained in the golden-section rectangle ; this results in a series of squares which are disposed in descending spiral and which are theoretically infinite in number.”25 [see Fig.3] The Purgatorio is effectively the same except for its lack of columns, a ceiling open to the sky and a miniature mount (made out of the ascending golden rectangles) [see Fig.4] that echoes the Commedia : “between the void of the infernal chasm and the solid of the mystical mountain of Purgatory”26
A certain obsession with numbers and the consistency between the number of any particular architectural element and the text of the Divina Commedia would undoubtedly produce some overlap between Islamic heritage of the text and architecture. An instance of this attention to numbers would be the free-standing wall, the preamble to the entrance, where a frieze of relief sculptures by Sironi would have been located. [see Fig.5] In the Relazione, Terragni describes it as a “monumental tablet filled with 100 marble blocks (equivalent to the cantos of the Commedy), each in size proportional to its place and length in the […] canto.”27 This strict abidance to the numbers of the Commedia becomes problematic at points, with for instance one of the 33 glass columns in the Paradiso room located where a piece of wall would intuitively go. [see Fig.6]
In order to “materialise” the Divina Commedia, architecture inevitably had to become, on one level, metaphorical (such that the text could be immediately found and read in the architecture). This translation however has not let any of the multiple Islamic influences permeate through the architecture. It could easily have been the case that the 9 heavens of Ibn Rushd were somehow incorporated in the metaphorical design, but it isn’t the case. Along with this interrogation comes another whole set of questions regarding Terragni’s architectural translation : If we are to be architecturally metaphorical, in the architect’s slightly literal manner, why choosing rectangles and not circles as geometrical forms (the Dantesque universe is elliptic, not rectilinear) ? Why choosing to be truthful to the numbers and proportions of the Commedia, but not the geometries?
And the answer to such questions lies perhaps in Terragni’s truthfulness to modernity. Indeed, his architectural metaphor of the text operates in a modern Rationalist context. That is, in a form of abstraction that monumentalises the metaphor. Being entirely literal in an architectural metaphor is impossible for Terragni – it would have been what Piacentini had a tendency to do. Terragni is true to his architecture and he reads the Commedia just like Giuseppe Ungharetti’s absolute and modern filtered poetry.28 i Thus, the exclusion of explicit references to the text is used to bring forward the most essential traits of the Commedia (ie. a somewhat early version of “Less is more”).

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