“Bergamo Magazine”

extract from "La Rivista di Bergamo" no. 59, July-August-September 2009, Graphics and Art.

Pino Capellini

The architect who loves cities: VITO Sonzogni

Sometimes we talk about town planning. Because he has it in his DNA, and not only professionally. But one day we also talked about botany. It may seem natural, considering the beauty of the garden with the trees in the old orchard around the farmstead where he has built his house. That day, however, the reason was a little different. He, the architect Vito Sonzogni, brought attention to the bougainvillea, an exquisitely Mediterranean plant that needs light, sun and warmth to weave the pattern of its slender branches on walls and pillars, where it then explodes with its extraordinary colours. Sonzogni remembers vividly when he first held a flower of this tropical plant in his hands. In 1965, with his wife and children, he was at the seaside in Ischia. He was walking and his attention was drawn to the spectacular flowering of a bougainvillea. It was the first time he had seen it, he plucked a flower from it and began to observe it. These flowers have no scent; on the contrary, the actual flower is small and inconspicuous, while she was struck by the splendid palette, with very intense shades ranging from purple to red and orange, of the three bracts that envelop them. At the time, he was working on the Monterosso church project, for which he had recently been commissioned by the bishop of Bergamo, Monsignor Clemente Gaddi. At Monterosso, once a place of farmsteads, vegetable gardens and fields at the foot of the Maresana hill, a new quarter of popular economic housing (CEP) was being built. Coming back from the two important experiences of the sanctuary in Zogno dedicated to Maria Santissima Regina di Zogno and the parish church in Castro, in Ischia the architect took advantage of the break between many commitments to think about the design of the new temple. The attention paid to that flower immediately had a professional implication. He was struck by the structure of the three bracts that made up the envelope supporting themselves. He imagined he could do the same for the three sails of the roof of the new church. He focused his attention on the transition between the vertical walls and the momentum of the roof, which spread out over the vast space of the nave. And as in Zogno and Castro, he designed this building entirely in concrete. Not an easy operation, because it requires highly qualified companies and labour. "Today," he observes, "I would no longer do it. Just think of the positioning of the wooden boards of the formwork from which the surface of the walls is derived. You cannot make a mistake and you cannot regret it. Back then, teams of workers came from the same village, maybe they were all related to each other. They took pride in working better than everyone else". Now the church is there as if to guard the neighbourhood (which, having grown, has become well connected with the rest of the city): to those who enter, it gives the impression of compactness and levity at the same time. A perfectly successful dialogue between the faithful and the sacredness of the place.

Like so many masons and stonemasons, people who were almost born with a love for well-squared and well-set stone in their hands, Vito Sonzogni was born in the Brembana Valley (1924, in Zogno). His story, both personal and professional, is similar to other characters who are said to have come down, i.e. gone down to the city and then gone out into the world, with a flood of the river, synonymous with mountain strength and will. Because the Brembo has a rather singular story: so quiet does it flow that it entices you to stop along the banks and admire the blue and blue-green of its waters, so much so that at times it swells with sudden fury as to become irrepressible. A story that begins with those mountaineers who, since the 14th century, went to Venice to work as porters in the port or servants in the houses of the great merchants, and the tenacious 'camalli' who had a monopoly on the docks in the port of Genoa for centuries. And then, as authentic messengers of modernity, from Brembo came down the postal couriers that the Tasso del Cornello extended to the whole of Europe, together with the ingenious Baschenis, painters famous for their works and for the saga of the wandering artists who adorned the walls of the little churches scattered throughout the valleys of Trento with dazzling figures. Then again, the stone mason Mauro Codussi, who revolutionised architecture in Venice. 'I have always felt,' says Sonzogni, 'the deep breath of the popular soul of Brembano, and as I could, with my means, I too as one of the family, went out into the world, wherever I could serve it or where there was 'work'. Popular culture is the true soul of beauty'. It is no coincidence that the beginning of his professional and political commitment coincided for Sonzogni with the years of Italy's reconstruction after the disaster of the war and economic development. It was an unrepeatable era, in which the Christian Democrats played a leading role: a generation of local administrators, parliamentarians and ministers who grew up in the shadow of the oratories, inspired by an authentic spirit of service and a strong focus on social issues, in which the concreteness of everyday life was accompanied by great farsightedness. As a very young mayor in Zogno, for Vito Sonzogni, the problems of the people and the search for concrete solutions in the pressures of a society that was rapidly changing were a school that he never forgot. A school that was destined to deeply mark his professional activity when, strengthened by the teachings of great masters such as Wright and Le Corbusier, as well as Gropius and the Bauhaus, he began to draw and draft projects. But even then, he was already putting into practice what was not a motto but an operational criterion: 'looking into the face of the present to build the future'. It was precisely in his role as provincial councillor for public works and town planning that he had the opportunity to confront realities and problems in search of solutions that were not only based on the contingent and the immediate.

The scale was that of a growing society and the drive was no longer solely for reconstruction. Sonzogni was able to anticipate the vision of the great infrastructures that we only see being built today. But it was not easy to make local administrators understand the need for a road network around Bergamo to quickly connect the plain to the valleys without clogging the centre. The Dalmine-Villa d'Almè is the most obvious example of this. The project for the future road network in the Bergamo area drawn up in 1959 was sized to an estimated traffic volume of 53,000 vehicles per day in 1965, and this figure was already considered excessive, by visionaries: the reality of 1965, with 67,000 vehicles counted in 24 hours, overwhelmed all forecasts. Despite this, for almost twenty years the Dalmine-Villa d'Almè remained the only artery around Bergamo designed for this purpose. Not to be outdone is the example of Via delle Valli in Bergamo, which came into being in the early 1960s and remained for a long time an end in itself because the advantages of a major ring road not only for the development of Bergamo but also for the quality of city life were not understood. Unfortunately, an extraordinary momentum of ability and will was beginning to run out, with consequences for the economy and growth of Lombardy and its people. Obstacles and difficulties that Sonzogni encountered in the Region when, as councillor for town planning, public works and transport, he set his hand to the great infrastructures. His was the idea for the great pedemontana artery, a vital work for the large area between the Alps and the Milanese metropolis as well as for a large part of the Lombardy region: only today - finally! - construction work is about to begin. The inability to understand the great revolution that was taking place in mobility, which radically changed the lives of people and cities, weighed heavily,' he observes.

From the very beginning his professional activity was extremely intense. It is difficult to summarise it, however quickly: about sixty schools, about fifty churches, twenty of which are new and the remainder have been adapted to the instructions of the Second Vatican Council, dozens and dozens of civil buildings, many residences. What he likes to remember most are the social implications of his interventions and assignments. Such as the building cooperatives of the 1950s and the early years of the following decade, through which a considerable number of homes were built, mostly for young couples: they were homes that cost the new owners between 60-65,000 lire per square metre, 10,000 less than on the normal market. These were the years in which he worked, as president of the Union of Municipalities, on structures, services, and regulatory plans. Another important role that gained him valuable experience was the presidency of the IACP Istituto Autonomo Case Popolari. Again the house, as the primary place of man's existence and to be designed by first studying where it should be built. This is how cities are created,' he observes, 'and made beautiful, not through building regulations but through culture. In him we find expressions such as 'art of the city', understanding the city as a work of art that is never finished, in continuous becoming but undermined precisely by the excesses of wanting to reduce everything to just rules. Sonzogni is in favour of the project for the new Province headquarters in Bergamo Sud presented by the Japanese Arata Isozaki. A work destined to enhance the place where it will be built and which will also impose an urban quality on the surrounding area. Precisely because the value of the city does not lie in buildings conceived as structures for their own sake but resides in urban spaces, without which the beauty of architecture has no force because you end up not seeing it. The boldness of proposal - and once again the far-sightedness - of the Pam complex in Via Camozzi is quite evident. It must be given credit to the principals - simple entrepreneurs - for having sacrificed part of the immediate advantage that would have derived from the cubic metres to be put up for sale in favour of an organism in which architecture is closely linked to the urbanistic vision. Thus was born the large car park on the first floor, still the only one usable today in a high-density area with shops and offices. Another strong example of anticipation is the apartment building between Via Divisione Tridentina and Martiri di Cefalonia: a building of considerable size (44 metres high), an architectural marker that has guided the entire area. It was also the first intervention to restore a disused industrial settlement: the only one in Bergamo for thirty years or more. Remarkable for the quality of the intervention was the recovery of the former Gissi house, later the site of the "Parco dei Colli" Golf Club, while in the Baio di Gorle district, it is the urbanistic vision that intersects with the architect's work, giving life to an "accomplished" place.
His project destined to leave the greatest mark on an international level? It is perhaps the one that matured in the desert of Jordan, in the place where Jesus was baptised. It is the Park of Baptism and the Jordan Valley - 'Jordan: the land and river of baptism' - which had great support in King Hussein. Conceived in function of the Holy Year, the project, approved by the Royal Commission, envisaged at the end of a route through a beautiful and highly evocative natural environment, the rite of immersion in a large unified baptismal pool, symbolically summarising all Christian believers. The death of the enlightened ruler prevented the completion of the work, which was completed in all but the part on the river bank. The drawings remain of a project that was both audacious and visionary at the same time, which in the valley furrowed by the waters of the Jordan found its true "cathedral", while from the shapes of the desert came the lines of an extraordinary temple.

Sonzogni has maintained strong ties with his valley. From the aerial 'buen retiro' on the hill of Miragolo to the frequent 'ascents' to meet friends and see places dear to his memory, the houses and stones of the 'old men', linked by a double thread with the memories of childhood and youth. This gave rise to the book 'La mia valle' (My Valley), one of the most emotionally powerful texts on the Brembana Valley. Writings and drawings for 'a poetic journey' of the author's memory and, at the same time, a beautiful document on the valley: it should be distributed in schools so that children can receive the knowledge that is not learned in the classroom but from history and daily life.

The years are there (he recently turned 85) but they do not weigh on the freshness of his thinking and the vivacity of his ideas.

Still active, in Sardinia he is engaged in the construction of a village. Yet another, because two have already been built, the third is under construction and for the fourth - which he is currently working on - he is covering pages of albums and sheets of paper with his pencil with sketches and drawings in unmistakable style. These are constructions that leave their mark and have received prizes and awards in Sardinia. When he arrived there years ago, the island immediately spoke to him with its extraordinary beauty. The sea was Homer's, the land seemed to have been recently trodden by the first Mediterranean peoples, the mysterious builders of the temples of Malta and the nuraghi. From places like these come dreams, to which Vito Sonzogni has given concrete form with a material that has almost the force of these dreams. It is the splendid granite of Sardinia, not debased by the use of machines but removed from the quarries and worked by hand, 'splitting', almost as if to preserve the most intimate imprint of nature as it emerged from the beauty of Creation. But it would not have been possible to use this stone with its pinkish hues without a workforce with the ancient knowledge that is that of the Sardinian quarrymen. It is precisely by observing the large granite slabs resembling monoliths, hearing and seeing these quarrymen at work that Sonzogni has gone on to compose the villages, almost block by block, skilfully placed between the sea and nature, where the simplicity of the Mediterranean dwelling is joined by echoes of distant civilisations. There are no barriers: from the houses of the villages you go straight to the Mediterranean maquis and its intense scents. And if you catch a glimpse of them from afar as you walk up the velvet beaches, it is not because of the lure of this architecture admirably dosed in the environment that envelops and absorbs everything, but because of an unmistakable, beautiful colour. That of the bougainvillea.



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