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Parma, Italy: A Taste for the Past

Parma Cathedral "Duomo" and Baptistery, painted ca. 1820

Parma Cathedral "Duomo" and Baptistery, painted ca. 1820

A Taste for the Past:  Architect Pier Carlo Bontempi” premieres Thursday, March 27, at 8:00 PM on WTTW Channel 11.


The town of Parma is famous for its heckling. In 1816, an opera audience “whistled and booed” at tenor Alberico Curioni. He shouted obscenities back and was arrested.

Last year after a performance in nearby Milan, international opera goddess Anna Netrebko confessed to WFMT when singing Bohème at La Scala, “I was afraid I would be booed” (she wasn’t).

Assumption of the Virgin in the Duomo at Parma by Correggio

Assumption of the Virgin in the Duomo at Parma by Correggio

The carefree love of life and beauty in Italy belies the zeal with which the Italians regard their art—and thank goodness for that. Parma counts as its favorite sons Antonio da Correggio, Bernardo Bertolucci, Arturo Toscanini and Giuseppe Verdi.

If Giuseppe Verdi took his stroll to the Teatro Regio in Parma today, he would recognize the place because the historic section looks just like it did in the 19th century prints (compare the 19th century painting to the photo below). The buildings in this elegant cityscape, despite fleeting trends in architecture elsewhere, retain their beauty and function over hundreds of years.

Parma_Opera_e_Biciclette

Parma Opera advertisement.

They don’t make ’em like they used to—or do they?

If it were necessary to undertake new construction in Parma’s historic neighborhood, how would one approach such a challenge—in a way that wouldn’t be booed (think Soldier Field)? Parma has an architect who is in his element working on this sort of project, Pier Carlo Bontempi, the subject of an upcoming public TV documentary, “A Taste for the Past: Architect Pier Carlo Bontempi” hosted by Geoffrey Baer.

It was a happy coincidence, as WFMT’s sister station WTTW was putting the finishing touches on the show, that the Richard H. Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture was awarded to Bontempi. The $200,000 Prize is awarded annually by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. Mr. Driehaus is a Chicago fund manager, business man, and philanthropist.

“A Taste for the Past: Architect Pier Carlo Bontempi” has been all-consuming for program producer Daniel Andries. Dan answers some questions about the architect’s aesthetic:

Parma Cathedral and Baptistery

Parma Cathedral “Duomo” and Baptistery, 12th century

Bontempi's Place de Toscane

Bontempi’s Place de Toscane, completed 2006

 

 

What is traditional work? Would you call it “in the style of…” without having any contemporary elements (artistically) to it? In other words, how does it differ from simply being derivative?
Pier Carlo Bontempi’s work is probably the most intensely traditional architecture I have seen by a contemporary architect. The appearance of his work is consistently traditional. There isn’t a hybrid-like approach to the buildings—they look old. And if they are mistaken for something old, Bontempi is thrilled. As far as the work being derivative, I think the answer is that for Bontempi it is part of a continuum. Tradition is not derivation. It is the carrying forward of the best of a culture’s values.

Bontempi speaks of traditional construction methods. Are these being used, for example, plaster vs. drywall? Obviously they’ll use state of the art equipment, which is not the same thing as cutting corners and compromising quality.
Yes, Bontempi would plaster a wall before he’d bring in drywall, though I can’t speak to that particular point. He is an architect who is entirely contemporary in terms of being able to work with contemporary building practices and materials, as well as contemporary infrastructure. But he prefers to use older methods of building if at all possible—stone instead of concrete; internal structural solutions such as load bearing walls instead of structural steel. The reality is that every architect has to deal with building codes and safety standards that are often created by governments, and sometimes architects aren’t in the middle of that discussion. The biggest issue that faces an architect like Bontempi or someone working in the restoration of classical and traditional structures is the Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites. It seems to encourage the preservation of ruins rather than the restoration of older structures. While it doesn’t apply to new work Bontempi does, it does have an impact on what it means to do traditional work in Europe.

What was his assignment in Parma? Was it in the historic section and what was asked of him?
When Bontempi was a student of Adolfo Natalini, Natalini proposed the restoration of a rundown section of Parma.  The project would have preserved the appearance of the district but upgraded all its infrastructure—from plumbing to air conditioning.  Many students, including Bontempi, worked on the project.  It was approved, but never funded and never carried out. Architecture is full of these kinds of projects. Similarly Bontempi  worked with Leon Krier to propose new buildings for the old center of Modena. It remains unbuilt. Example of the designs for Modena are on our website wttw.com/bontempi. I haven’t seen detailed drawings and plans for the renovation of Parma’s neighborhood, but some of Natalini’s sketchbooks from the period of time are in our show.

“A Taste for the Past: Architect Pier Carlo Bontempi” premieres this Thursday, March 27, at 8:00 PM on WTTW Channel 11 in Chicago. The show will rebroadcast on WTTW on Friday, March 28, at 7:30 PM, and on WTTW Prime (11.2) on Friday, March 28 at 2:00 PM, and on Sunday, March 30 at 6:30 PM.

 

 

 

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