One of the main topics that animated the debate
on architecture in Italy during the Fifties was
the relationship between modern architecture
and historic town centers and whether it had a right
to citizenship amid the existing historic buildings and
what principles new projects should be governed by.
The most respectable results from this period are those
that set out to vie with the existing environment and,
rather than indulging in consolatory mimicry, give full
voice to their contemporaneity. This was the case with
the Rinascente building, the only work by Franco Albini
carried out in Roma. It is considered the best example
of the setting of a modern building within the historical
context of the city.

 

The site for the building is hemmed in by piazza
Fiume, via Salaria and via Aniene, noteworthy for the
presence of the old Aurelian city walls and its setting of
late 19th century residential buildings.

 

The practical requirements put forward by the Borletti
family, proprietors of the “La Rinascente” chain, were
those for any large department store: a volume of ten
floors, with storage space in the basement floors, offices in the attic and sales areas on the intermediate floors;
as uncluttered as possible to guarantee maximum
flexibility, constant artificial lighting and ventilation.
Albini had studied in Milano and was a key figure
in Italian architectural circles between the 1930s
and the 1960s. In this project, he chose a modern
interpretation of some of the traditional themes of
Roman architecture such as striking chiaroscuro effects
and the 16th century and Baroque use of movement
in façade decoration. Beside the pleasing harmony
created with the surrounding historical features, the
building appears to have re-invented the memory of
the Roman palace. In fact the steel cornice protrudes
emphatically at the end of the façade as if reaching out
to Michelangelo’s grand cornice on the Farnese Palace
and the colors of the external walls resurrect the
shades of Roman porcelain based plasterwork through
the gray granite and red marble agglomerate paneling
and again the spectacular curved interior staircase
with its metal frame and Veronese Red marble bears all
the signs of an explicit homage to the styles of Bernini
or Borromini.

 

The Rinascente is a closed block with a rectangular
footprint, and appears suspended above the wholly
glass fronted ground floor. The six large windows,
only in the façade facing the square, come together in
the center as if to form an enormous single light, in a
modern take on the rose window.

 

The architectural language is wholly entrusted to
the refinement of the rapport created between the
burnished steel frame of the building in full view
on the outside like an exoskeleton, and the tortoise
shell-like skin that encases the compact volume of
the building. The overstated break up of the primary
order of structural elements, set on a number of levels
like an ancient entablature, conserves the individual
identity of each element, according to criteria inspired
by neoplasticism. The secondary beams sit on the
side beam, which in turn sits on a small pulvino,
jutting out from the pilasters. Its value as a motif is
highlighted by the interplay between the rakes, the
architraves, the lighting conduit and the rails for the
façade cleaning platform. These elements all mark the
building horizontally, protruding forward on the façade
that presents a long series of ripples created by the
corrugations in the panels that carry the drainpipes,
air-conditioning conduits and the fire sprinkler system.
As the machinery for all the systems is up in the roof,
the corrugations gradually narrow as they descend:
when a conduit bends inwards to link into a floor, it
doesn’t continue down to the next floor, where the
corrugation holding is discontinued.

 

Albini and Helg’s La Rinascente was cited as a model
in Reyner Banham’s famous essay “The Architecture of
the Well-Tempered Environment” of 1969, and achieved
wide acclaim among international architectural critics.

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