In September 2012, Triennale di Milano awarded Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo the Gold Medal, a prestigious award that in the same edition went also to Vittorio Gregotti and Gae Aulenti, and in former editions to notable architects Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas, Renzo Piano, Paolo Ricatti and Umberto Riva.
The award was instituted in collaboration with the Ministry for Cultural Affairs and MADE expo, and every three years “…wishes to promote and inspire reflections on the newest and most interesting building works in the Country and on the architects that made them possible and, more specifically, on contemporary architecture as a builder of environmental and civil quality”. (1)
The award most recently went to Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo, who had already received other national and international acknowledgments: the RIBA Awards/EU in the commercial section in 2005, an honorary tribue at the European Architectura Award Plaster in 2006, the Vaccarini award in 2009 and again the Riba Awards EU in 2012 for the construction of a home in Noto.
Architectural work, a field of much interest, attains mainstream status in the second half of the 80’s, when MGGC decides to return to Sicily, where she was born and lived before leaving the island to attend university in Rome. She graduates in 1974, after a brief stay in Turin between 1980 and 1986, where she has the privilege to work with key figures of contemporary art, one of her chiefest interests.
Sicily is where she designs and develops most of her architecural projects. The remote geographical location of the island has perhaps delayed (certainly not prevented) her work from receiving wide acclaim, in Italy and abroad.
In an article published in the magazine Casabella in July 1985 and quoted later in the introductory pages of the catalogue of the Architetti in Sicilia exhibition of spring 1986 (Pierre Alain Corset 1986, p. 8) posed the question as to how much a confined island condition was decisive in determining the success of an artist’s architectural production. Pasquale Culotta, the promoter of the exhibition and catalogue, some pages later was of the idea one should speak of ‘contemporary architecture in Sicily’, rather than of ‘Sicilian architecture’ (Culotta 1985, as quoted by Alain Croset in 1986, p. 10), underlining that the work of an architect in such a geographical context does not necessarily produce architecture that is an expression of regressive regionalism, but can give place to projects of top international status.
To which Sicily does Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo belong? In the geography of the Plural Island described by Gesualdo Bufalino (1997, p. 14), we find MGGC in Vittoria, in the Sicily of carob, on the Western frontier of the Iblean land, where territorial boundaries are marked by low, dry stone walls.
In the Sicily of architects, MGGC gains professional experience quite independently of the narrow-minded affairs of the Academy (2) and local orders.
From her hermitage accessible to a selected few and inhabited by cats, birds, dogs and contemporary artworks that migrate to be featured in international collections, MGGC in the limelight of her beautiful Sicilian country home, with tar-step staircases (an old technique in disuse), absorbs the confidence of the objects piled up by the parents and generations that came before her, feeding architectural schools of thought and a system of relations whose natural habitat is the international scene.
The home and studio are one and the same. MGGC attends to her projects, surrounded by a very small nucleus of assistants who seem like altar boys taking part in the same lithurgy (from the Greek leitourgia ‘public presentation’) because architecture, even when the project is for a private client, must nonetheless express an ethical and civil dimension of becoming shape accessible to the community, for the project beneficiaries who are part of a larger society.
In general, MGGC’s architectural work consists of projects to mould small-sized buildings, ‘miniature scale miracles of pride and humility’ (Irace, as quoted by Bono, 2012), and could have been much larger and extensive if she hadn’t turned down several project proposals, which she deemed incompatible with the intransigent rigour that has distinguished her professional career. There is no universal method in developing a project, if by that “we mean an approach that is identical from start to finish” (Russo, 2013). It also would seem impossible to separate the link between critique and project in MGGC’s work or, in other words, the expression of a method that adds more value to her architecture because, as Agamben believes (2009) “….a work of art [and in our case architecture] that does not have some critical value is fated to oblivion” (p. 14).
A project, at least in its first stages, does not grapple with formal aspects, it unfolds from inward to outward, it is not concerned with providing perspective solutions, but rather with ordering the elements of a given architectural problem to provide solid solutions and satisfy the client’s demands, as part of the specific conditions at hand which, as MGGC herself affirms, “…generate reasoning and lead to the identification of strategies for intervention” (as quoted by Russo, 2013).
Mies van der Roher had expressed himself along the same lines on the theme (quote from 2010): “We do not see a particular formal problem, but rather only constructional solutions. Form is not the end goal but rather the natural consequence of our work. Form as goal is formalism: and we reject it”. About Mies’ work (but the same could well apply to MGGC), Carlos Marti Artis has this to say (2002): “…shape is not the immediate objective of the architect’s work […]. The clear constructional expression of his work, the precision of syntactic rules, the clear interpretation of form are for Mies [and for MGGC] nothing more than a series of strategies which are meant to guide us to the expression of perfect beauty ” (p. 42). But it is the beauty that Adolf Loos (1982) attributed to the works of ancient Greece: “… in their work, the Greeks were only bothered with the practical aspect, without in the least thinking of beauty, without raising the issue of catering to an aesthetic constrigent. When their work achieved perfect practicality, they thought of it as being beautiful” (p. 43). This is also true of the architecture of Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo.
There are three factors that MGGC considers essential to her career and that we find in her architectural work.
The first concerns her experience at the University of Rome, where she took part in the 70’s to a course on renovation by Franco Minissi, who equipped her with the tools and gave her the opportunity to develop a special calling for comparative work with former building constructions. The course itself largely dealt with monuments. She now juxtaposes recently built artefacts that require structural changes.
The second has to do with her interest in contemporary art, whose origin is unclear, but that certainly received vital impulse from her stay in Turin from 1980 to 1986, when she was fortunate to make the acquaintance and hang out with Mario Merz, Alighiero Boetti, Pierpaolo Calzolari and others among the most pioneering artists on the international scene. In those years, Turin attracted international operators and artists who met at exhibitions, events and private venues. More specifically, we think that the interest for conceptual art offered a useful paradigm in the field of architectural production: a project is first of all a concept, reflection before being a sign that takes on its own specific dimension when the conceptual solution, which is often time-consuming, appears convincing.
The third is her significant experience at Fiat Engineering in Turin. Industrial design followed strict codes that fit into a standardisation process that made it possible to replace the designer at any moment during the project.
MGGC’s architectural design is stripped down, minimalist and focused on the project aim, which is to serve as a tool to deliver information to other subjects who contribute to the work, with no concessions to caligraphy.
In a time of rendering and of the FX of a society geared to display and image, this method of representation gives the sign its original value of means to an end, rather than end in itself or, even worse, of phony graphic design. This was a concern prophetically prefigured by Adolf Loos (1982) who, already in the early 20th century, remarked “architecture has depreciated to graphic art, for which architects are to blame. It is not who knows how to build better that is most commissioned projects, but the architect who most skilfully presents a project on paper [….]. To the ancient masters, instead, the drawing was only a tool to communicate with the builder” (p. 246).
If on one hand the career achievement award is a tribute to her work, on the other it necessarily not coincides with the deposition of the pencil and sheets in the drawer which, instead, continue to happily occupy the tables of Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo, for whom we wish the same destiny of Frank Lloyd Wright, who approaching 90, still replied to the question of a reporter as to which was the most important feat of his career: the next one (as quoted by Costantino, 1991, p. 89).
(1) Excerpt from the website:
(2) There are three Faculties of architecture in Sicily: one at the University of Studies of Palermo, one belonging to the University of Catania and based in Siracusa and one at the Kore University of Enna.
Alain-Croset, P. (1986). Elogio dell’isola. In AA.VV. Architetti in Sicilia. Catalogo della mostra, Cefalù: Edizioni Medina.
Agamben, G. (2009). Nudità. Rome: Edizioni Nottetempo.
Bono, M. (2012, September 13). La Repubblica.
Bufalino, G. (1997). La luce e il lutto. Palermo: Sellerio.
Costantino, M. (1991). Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: Crescent book.
Loos, A. (1982). Parole nel vuoto. Milan: Adelphi 1985
Martì Artìs, C. (2002). Silenzi eloquenti. Borges, Mies van der Rohe, Ozu, Rothko, Oteiza, Milan: Christian Marinotti Edizioni
Mies van der Rohe, L. (2010). Gli scritti e le parole. Torino: Einaudi
Russo, L. (2013). intervista a Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo. Incontri, 3.