Reflections from a talk with the architect Paolo Arveda

Project: Castle/Delizia di Belriguardo (Voghiera – FE): details of the frames on the XV century mullion windows
A few ideas for discussion and reflection emerged from a pleasant, constructive conversation with the architect, Paolo Arveda, about restoration work and the use of steel.

The following is a brief initial extract.


Restoration is often the topic of conversation, mainly about historic, traditionally “antique” buildings, while the enormous wealth of splendid buildings from the early XX century is often forgotten, which instead are extremely important and require more than formal protection. How do you face this problem, this research in everyday design and planning?

Each restoration project is strongly “interpretive”, even the critical choice of which parts should be highlighted, those that should be scrupulously conserved or which should be integrated. However, each one should be considered as a part of the whole addressed to conceptually expressing the overlapping layers of the building’s history. With this method of approach steel is doubtlessly highly versatile, being both mimetic and expressive, with the duplicity of aesthetics and a means of expression at the same time, but without ever transcending the dialectic confrontation between the previous and the “new contemporary”.

A restoration project can be considered as coherent and respectful when it protects the formal language of its representations, conserving the different strata of the construction phases and actions on the building making them understandable to the observer, not least the restoration itself in that it is also a phase and a historic and cultural sequence in the entire complex.


In using steel in the planning phases, what are the units of measure and scales to use when approaching a restoration project?

In metallic planning and, more precisely, in the use of steel profiles or elements, including in restoration, from mainly using the centimetre as the unit of measure we move onto the millimetre, especially when the project is extended to the scale of the details. This is one of the reasons why steel is so highly expressive in the various ways it is used, both as material and composition, independently from the simplicity of its origin. The need for controlling the details in the project is strictly related to the material used. A detail scale is always needed when using steel: firstly you design the overall scheme, then the node, or the heart of the system, the point where the parts communicate and blend with each other. The project scale, always attentive to studying the detail, underlines the value of the noble “craftsmanship” of the architect. For example, when looking at metal structural work designs, where the choice of the material is fundamental (steel, ed.), you immediately study each single node. In other words, given the physiognomy of the overall design that effectively emerges, you must also consider the design aspects that are the heart and essence of the work in question. Without wanting to be predictable, but what other material can be used to enter into the project in such depth, analysing the various connection points between the individual elements, the joins to compensation the expansions, the interface, the meeting points with other components and materials? This all means an approach but also a different way of handling the project theme, becoming a choice that is not just based on reproducing an aesthetic model, but originates in understanding the quality and limitations of the specific material and what it is able to express.

When the project considerations turn to the structural use of steel you immediately realise its amazing expressive strength and capacity for formal development. Just think of the order of magnitude of the forces in play, comparing 10 kilos per square centimetre of brickwork, to 30 kilos for concrete, 60 kilos for wood to reach 1200 kilos per square centimetre for steel. This alone helps you immediately understand that we are moving to another level in performance, where all the bearing thicknesses can be drastically reduced. Another feature of steel is its invariability, i.e. the uniformity of the properties of the material all-over, which very few other materials are able to guarantee. Another important detail is its finish and final appearance: from the beauty of the raw material, commercial “black” steel, to the possible surface finishes such as nickel plating, brushing, chromatic or thickness oxidation. It is also ideal for finishes using converters and special treatments with wax, or experimenting with cold or hot oils (treatments that preferably should not be used on surfaces exposed to aggressive external agents). In several of my projects my personal preference has been for treatments that leave the natural roughness and protective patina of the metal on show, avoiding plastic surface treatments that hide and unnaturally uniform the material.

The uniformity of the material is often taken for granted and not fully appreciated in its importance in the project. For example, the limitations when materials are used which, due to their intrinsic nature or standardised production needs, do not allow specific project solutions required for the specific context, reducing its character and uniqueness.


An architect in a craft dimension?

The project dimension has always led me to work in a detailed dimension, where everything in the project was initially developed at a detailed level. This dimension means I feel like a “craftsman”, and I neither miss nor feel any envy for colleagues who are working on the grand projects. I have always felt that this planning dimension is my way of being. I believe that everyone develops a capacity to control the project dimension most suited to each one: like the study of a provincial town, or the direct personal relationship with a limited number of colleagues, or with a few craftsmen who are still active in this field.

How do you forecast restoration will develop over the coming decades?

The future restoration projects will focus on the comprehension of the work and respecting the materials’ language, construction compatibility and interior expression. Sometimes, I feel that a restoration project is like leafing through a book, as if the reader were free to read it as his or her own pace, feeling personal emotions, and able to stop and reflect along the way on the details that are more interesting or important for that person. However, it is a delicate balance, a gradual knowledge of the building, reading on a different scale that can be acquired at different times without a clearly defined chronological order. I sometimes feel a certain concern for the restoration culture. For example, for work reasons I came across various cases in Umbria after the earthquake, where the historic heritage had been seriously damaged, and there was not sufficient methodological and cultural rigor that indicated a consistent and conservative technological and planning approach. If restoration is only a generic term which, for indisputable reasons is used simply to cover what is behind and aimed at just obtaining specific anti-seismic qualities in the building, including by taking the building apart, or demolishing all or part of it followed by a fake reconstruction, then the profound meaning of the work is compromised. However, it is different if the restoration project is considered as an attentive analysis of the stratification elements and the fine calibration of interpretation and subjective awareness of the work, even when they are not linked with structural consolidation or reinforcement. In the specific case I would have preferred to find something that was legible as different, as an element to purely integrate the building’s static functions, and perhaps this would have been more historically coherent as well, clearly documenting the event that had occurred. Restoration is a planning process and an expressive process based on semantics, like documented democratic expression, information the observer is able to understand through visual communications elements. Like managing to have more people read and understand a message without having to write it down. Besides the bibliographic references, a restoration must be assimilated and understood through the semantics of the material used, or the devices used to highlight the communicative language with no need for captions or other elements of translation. This is why I assimilate the understanding of a restoration project with reading a book or other publication, because we very rarely manage to read it all in one go, but gradually, freely, with no guide or compulsory pace. This is not only what future restoration should be, but what it should have always been, the desire for everybody to be able to understand its history. For instance, if the restoration project were highly sophisticated perhaps only a few people would be able to understand it and identify each single aspect. In my opinion that is not the social role and meaning that the project should show, I feel the meaning of a restoration project should be culturally extended so that the entire society is able to understand both its language and its history.

By Antonella Parisotto

Acciaio Arte Architettura 54