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Can a Service Station be a Work of Art?

Can a Service Station be a Work of Art?

In 2019, Bianca Felicori began Forgotten Architecture, a Facebook group archiving Italy’s lesser-known architectural gems. Here, she discusses the process of collating her research into a sprawling tome, the importance of ephemeral structures, and how architecture can be a socio-political act.


Words: Charlie Robin Jones

Images: Mattia Greghi

Can a Service Station be a Work of Art?

A building is never only a building.


It’s the story of its materials, where they came from, and how they were used. It’s a trace of the relationships between the people who designed the building and those who paid for it; those who physically built it, and those who inhabit it. Inscribed within a building are all the ways that it has existed, since being built, in culture and mythology — the tourists that have taken pictures of it, the rap videos that have been shot in front of it, its critics and its fans. This isn’t the same as the way a building projects an image of the future, though it certainly does that; drawing on the ideas of how a house, a garage, a stadium is used, and how it could be used by future generations, whether or not those generations gel with the ideas, reject them, or forget them. 


A building is a lot of things, and it is also, frankly, a building. Often, its value depends on how we interact with it, what it comes to represent over time, and the memories it holds.


Thinking about exploring, building and remembering, the architectural researcher Bianca Felicori began a Facebook group in May 2019, called Forgotten Architecture. The goal was to collect imagery of buildings that had been, well forgotten. Not, of course, by people – the page was open for users to add pictures of extraordinary buildings from their cities and locales. But these buildings were those that had, for some reason, been neglected by more traditional architectural historians. Houses in Turin shaped like a flying saucer. Houses that grow and adapt with a family. Roofs that float from balloons. Playgrounds that look like majestic edifices, and majestic edifices that look like playgrounds. Mainly from the 1960s and 70s, they suggest another world, another history, and another modernism – free, utopian, sometimes fantastical, and now, finally, no longer forgotten. 


Many of the featured designs emerged during a truly radical period in Italian public life, in which politics was inseparable from the everyday. During this period of tumult, of push and pull between left and right, the country saw the emergence of the militant leftist Red Brigades – but also softer socialist visionaries like Superstudio, an architecture practice that aimed to facilitate social change through its work. Such context is needed to understand many of the buildings and structures erected at this time; infused with a subtle political subtext that questioned, and often disregarded, what had come before. Why shouldn’t a children’s playground be designed by a world class architect? Why can’t the buildings we encounter be beautiful or joyful? Can a service station be a work of art?


These experimentations have been cataloged and collated by Felicori, in a book under the same name as the Facebook group. It serves as a new archive, an adventure in reclaiming what was left out, and a suggestion of a new time, built from buildings so recent they’re just around the corner, in the other city that is within our own.

Can a Service Station be a Work of Art?

CRJ: What’s so interesting about your book is the amount of joy in the world. These things are very beautiful, very fun and almost libidinal, even. Why is it so hard to talk about this in architecture school? 


BF: There are so many reasons. I think the most important one is because this kind of architecture is related to a socio-political message. The buildings can be political symbols, which is a really different approach from the modernist movement. You see the celebration of technology, and something fantastical emerging. Look at Superstudio: they were really going against capitalism, and trying to find a new way to turn architecture into a political act. If you see buildings, from the first years of the century, there’s no color, or it was used like a Mondrian painting: not something really free or emotional. But for many of these architects, color becomes something radical, fantastic and visionary. Color was almost an extra material. It was something that really changed the shape of the buildings, or the shape of whatever they designed, because they started designing everything. 


CRJ: I think there’s something inherently political in saying that a public building can be gorgeous and bright. There’s a politics in the idea that a children’s playground should be designed by a world class architect, you know.


BF: It’s the thing that we’re talking about. It’s coming across something and thinking: “Oh, my God, this playground, this is so nice.” But the idea behind that playground was not an accidental birth. So this period is really dangerous for the future. One story: Ettore Sottsass entered a competition to design a house, in which every room was designed by another architect. He chose the bedroom, which no-one else wanted. He said he chose it because it’s the room of love. The room of intimacy. This was a theory of architecture, he said, that encompassed these things. Your whole life could be a project. 


CRJ: Perhaps we could talk about the appeal of this work. Sottsass has been rediscovered, let’s say. Gaetano Pesce, who features in the book, was the subject, finally, of a recent book and built the set of the Summer 2023 Bottega Veneta show. So, why is this so urgent for today?  


BF: The huge topics of that time are the same ones that we are trying to talk about right now. I mean, they talk about ecology, they talk about technology. And the psychological revival of that time you mention is about trying to reconnect ourselves to that period and trying to make it work. Definitely.

Can a Service Station be a Work of Art?Can a Service Station be a Work of Art?

CRJ: The book opens with a section on ephemeral architecture – buildings made of water vapor, buildings that float, or buildings that are to be taken apart. Why are temporary buildings so important to remember?


BF: Because they are the easiest to forget. Every building, like a human being or a natural element, has a biological cycle, which can be short or long. Ephemeral architecture is that which has a very short life and is often built for events, big exhibitions, concerts and so on. This element makes it easily forgettable even if designed by great architects. In my opinion, they are also the projects in which architects experiment the most, because they have more freedom in the use of materials and the study of forms. Expo pavilions are a key example because not only are they often design experiments, but they also become a symbol of the society of the time. Take for example the 1970 Osaka Expo, where most of the pavilions are inflatable structures. What the architects wanted to communicate was that architecture was moving beyond the traditional use of reinforced concrete and steel, towards a new conception of architecture in which the “wall” was replaced by a plastic “skin.”


CRJ: How has working on this book changed your relationship to architecture, how you perceive buildings, and what you enjoy about them?


BF: It was a challenge, because I had to produce an architecture book according to traditional canons, even though there was nothing traditional about the design of Forgotten Architecture. It also gave me the freedom to work with great people and to devote myself to architectural categories that I have always loved, such as petrol stations, clubs, resorts and so on. The great thing about Forgotten Architecture is that it allows everyone to look at the city in a different way. It asks us to question things when walking down the street.


CRJ: You speak about this special time in which these buildings were made. What made this time so special?


BF: The most important thing is that it was not only about building and designing anymore. At that time, architecture abandoned any reference to technical and functional aspects, and focused instead on the dimension of perception and experience of an artificial environment. It went beyond the dimension of the building and the city to imagine fantastic visions of occupation of the landscape. This new architecture focused on the lifestyles of primordial communities in order to guarantee a new ecological balance and it placed the human body at the center of its research, undressed and altered to the point of becoming cyborg. It was something really experimental and different from the past.


CRJ: And how could we reconnect to this?

BF: I suggest you read the essay by the historian Beatriz Colomina “Learning from Global Tools.” It’s published in the book about Global Tools curated by Silvia Franceschini and Valerio Borgonuovo (Nero Editions, Rome 2018). Global Tools was an alternative school founded by all the radicals from the 60s and 70s. Its journey began with its foundation in 1973 by groups and figures drawn from Italian Radical Architecture, Arte Povera, and Conceptual Art, and ended in 1975 after three years of intense experimentation. She wrote about the way we look back at this era not because of a nostalgic revival, but because we need to reread their lessons today and understand how relevant their ideas are now. They criticized the post-economic-boom society and the new age capitalism, and proposed this new idea of architecture that, as I said, was not about styles and shapes, it was a political, social and ecological act. They were not just architects, they were activistsCan a Service Station be a Work of Art?

WIP magazine issue 08 is now available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.

WIP Magazine Issue 08