The Uffizi exit

Debate continues over the Loggia Isozaki

Andrea Ponsi
February 10, 2011

Almost  six years ago, TF went to press for the first time; the cover story for that first issue was on the Loggia Isozaki project. Part of an ambitious 60-million-euro renovation and development project called Grandi Uffizi, the controversial loggia was designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki for the new Uffizi exit in Piazza del Grano. Isozaki won the international competition to redesign the new eastern exit in 1998. Although it was scheduled for completion in 2003, the project has been on the back burner for years and its future remains unknown today. In January 2011, Florence mayor Matteo Renzi gave his support to the Isozaki project: ‘The city of Florence is in favour of the project designed by Arata Isozaki for the new Uffizi exit; we will, however, deal with the issue only after the work to enlarge the museum's exhibition space is completed ... Isozaki won the competition, the problem is that a part of ministerial officials want the loggia, while another part does not. Our position, in general, is to forge ahead with the decisions that have already been made. What's important is to make sure the Isozaki issue doesn't hamper the completion of the Grandi Uffizi project, because I'm interested in finishing what's been started.' Here, Florence-born architect Andrea Ponsi gives us an architect's take on the Isozaki issue and speaks of the precarious state of public works projects in Italy, where it is difficult to forge a link between tradition and modernity.

 

The loggias of Florence have never found peace. For the past two centuries, historical and contemporary loggias, known in local shorthand as ‘bus shelters,' have been the subject of heated discussion over their use, aesthetic appeal, construction or demolition.

 

For example, Vasari's Loggia del Pesce (1567) was, despite the objections of many, disassembled piece by piece by the architect Poggi during the ‘gutting' of the medieval centre in 1870. The main archway in piazza della Repubblica describes the period as a move ‘from secular squalor to renewed life.' Vasari's loggia would, however, be resurrected four centuries later, in 1956, when it was reassembled in piazza dei Ciompi, near Sant'Ambrogio.

 

Even the Loggia dei Lanzi, in piazza Signoria, has been the subject of heated debate. For decades, the city argued over whether it should remain open to the public, and it was reopened only a few years ago.

 

The case of the bus terminal next to the station, designed by Toraldo di Francia in 1990, has recently gained attention. The media endlessly criticized the project because it was considered ‘dysfunctional' and ‘excessively modern' or, to some, not modern enough. Last summer ‘Toraldo's shelter' was dismantled without considering the more civilized alternative of keeping the parts in order to rebuild it in another location.

 

However, the 10-year debate about the Loggia di Isozaki, which is to cover the public exit of the Uffizi gallery, shows no sign of resolution. The loggia is supposed to fill the ‘urban void' behind the gallery, for years in a state of abandon. A commission for the project had been granted to Giovanni Michelucci in the 1980s. Today, the only relic of his project is the sinuous ramp that extends out of the building. In 1998, candidates in competition to complete the project included a long list of famed architects, among them Mario Botta, Vittorio Gregotti, Gae Aulenti, Norman Foster, Hans Hollein and Arata Isozaki. After much discussion, an influential panel of judges chose the Japanese architect's design because of its functionality and its fusion of tradition and modernity.

Isozaki proposed a tall yet simple loggia-just big enough to cover the existing space. The structure would have created a small, shaded piazza that would provide relief from the hot summer sun and protection from the elements in winter.

 

Isozaki's reference was the Loggia dei Lanzi, from which he borrowed dimensions and envisioned an ample space enclosed by slender metal columns vested in pietra serena, and an overhead, trapezoidal covering made from large glass panels. Echoing the Loggia dei Lanzi, Isozaki proposed that the new loggia house four marble statues from the Uffizi collection. The project demonstrated great attention to the spirit of Florentine architecture, while at the same time recalling the simple grandness of Brunelleschi's work.

 

At the time of the public competition, the projects competing for the prestigious commission were described and analyzed in local, national and international media outlets. Everything seemed to proceed smoothly until a couple of years later, when work on the loggia was about to begin: critics began to voice concern, arguing it was ‘too modern.'  They also declared that it was too tall and that it clashed with its more traditional surroundings. Since then, the city has been divided in two factions, just like in the Middle Ages when it was the Guelphs against the Ghibellines.

 

The debate over the loggia thus quickly became a political feud. While the national centre-left government at the time backed the Florentine municipal administration and prepared to go ahead with the executive design of the project, various local organizations and experts were strongly against it. Then, as Rome began a transition towards a centre-right government, work on the Loggia Isozaki came to a halt. Funds were frozen and redirected towards an anti-loggia campaign, which advanced various concerns, among them the need to study further the implications of its construction and make sure that it would not destroy any underlying archeological treasures. In the meantime, art historians and experts-turned-politicians also began to voice concern, among them Vittorio Sgarbi, who called the Loggia Isozaki a ‘bed frame.'

 

Today, the pro-loggia faction defends the design's beauty and poetry, and the fact that its position, partially hidden by surrounding monuments, allows for a bold, elegant work of contemporary art. They highlight the fact that plans for the loggia won a public contest, and that the winning project thus merits the public funding it was originally granted. They rely on a moral argument: to the winner go the spoils, and changing the rules now would simply be unfair. However, as fair as that argument may seem, in Italy, on average, only one or two winning projects out of every 10 architectural competitions are eventually constructed. The rest? Either forgotten or rejected in favor of another bid by someone better acquainted with the politics of urban architecture. It is also common to see a change of plans when the municipal administration changes and the newcomers seek to annul the initiatives of those previously in power.

 

A new loggia is more than welcome in this city. It is time to show the world that Florence is a vital center, where contemporary art and architecture can have a space of their own, albeit residual. The Loggia Isozaki is a valuable and intelligent design that is dense with poetry. Burying the plan would only reaffirm the lack of responsibility for decisions taken and further dishonour a long-abandoned space that, to this day, remains in a state of disrepair.

 

For more on the Grandi Uffizi, see www.nuoviuffizi.it, in Italian and English. (Note that the site was last updated in 2009.)

 

 

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