The Critical Surrealism of Massimo Scolari Reimagines the Architectural Drawing

The Critical Surrealism of Massimo Scolari Reimagines the Architectural Drawing
CIty without Parts, 1993, watercolor on cardboard
(Courtesy the Cooper Union)

For the uninitiated viewer, “Massimo Scolari: The Representation of Architecture,” a retrospective show now in its final week at the Cooper Union, appears only vaguely connected to the discipline with which it engages. With over 160 drawings, paintings, watercolors, and models gleaned from more than four decades of work, the show is a rigorous survey of the Italian architect’s elusive vision. In the late 20th century, as modernism frayed into its many iterations of postmodernism, Scolari (b. 1943) was recognized for his turn to the surreal and the subjective, producing a wealth of provocative paintings, sculptures, and texts instead of building. Beyond scripting a synopsis of an extraordinary oeuvre, this retrospective reinvigorates an important dialogue, challenging the dogmas that gird visual culture now more than ever.

Curated by Scolari himself, the show begins with works from the architect’s early career in the late 1960s and 1970s, when he first distinguished himself with his obstinate refusal to build. Sketches of women greet visitors at the start of the exhibition, followed by colorful tableaus that cobble together equal parts architectural and non-architectural imagery. True to its name, the show spans all the way to the most recent paintings of this still prolific (and still un-built) architect. The welter of thumbnail-sized watercolors, construction diagrams, paintings, models, and photographs is almost dizzying, tamed only slightly by the cadence of the slate-gray wall displays and perpendicular partitions that frame the works.


What is immediately felt is the foreignness that pervades Scolari’s work. His compositions aggregate familiar forms and images but empty them of precise meaning and function. Though easy to dismiss as nonsensical, these visions accomplish the difficult task of constructing architectures that eschew historical allusions. In painted and sculptural form, they refuse to settle into any established frameworks. Stairs appear as both the extruded volumes of a modern plan and the crenellations of a medieval fortress. Pitched roofs become winged gliders, and bridges lead nowhere, abruptly transforming into cantilevered eaves. Scolari’s landscapes conflate anachronistic histories and sprout industrial and urban features at distorted scales.

Alternative perspectives emerge as an obvious hallmark of the architect’s work. His paintings revive the conflicted visual logic of medieval illuminated manuscripts, flouting the accepted hegemony of one-point perspective. This is seen most clearly in “Gate for a Maritime City,” a 1979-80 project realized in both painted and sculptural form. Scolari’s Gate is a fiercely symmetrical brick portal constructed in unsettling axonometric angles. Represented this way, the image challenges the accepted truths of symmetry, confusing reality with illusion.

Meanwhile, “27 Models of Laconic Architecture,” a collection of plaster models, exhibit a playful, Palladian exploration of form. Arranged on a broad red pedestal, the white models appear wonderfully abstract, casting sharply defined shadows on each other. Gutted of function, Scolari’s forms rescript architecture as an autonomous visual language, one that need not justify itself with legible, external meanings.

Like his contemporary Aldo Rossi, Scolari abandons the objective reality upon which Modernism tried and failed to build its foundation. The modern movement’s attempt to make sense of the world, to digest history and all its phenomena into fixed understandings, comes to a staggering halt in Scolari’s work. It seems only fitting, then, that the show refuses to clarify exactly where his 45-year trajectory has led.

Like the motif of a winged glider that recurs in his work, the architect’s oeuvre is difficult to pin down. What his fantastical theoretical projects do, however, is question the conventions of contemporary practice. Scolari reveals ways in which perception informs our understanding of the world. Thus the representation of architecture, as Scolari suggests, can have a profound influence on actual built form. Instead of aspiring to graft falsely utopian visions onto reality — an effort endemic to contemporary practice — architectural representation can take on an even greater task, that of challenging the basis of reality itself.

To view more images from "Massimo Scolari: The Representation of Architecture, 1967 - 2012," click the slideshow.