The Density and Depth of Surface

Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte
Scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1961 film La Notte with Monica Vitti

By Claudia Trezza

Giuliana Bruno, a scholar of visual arts and architecture scholar, and the architectural historian Alice Friedman put the focus of the American Academy in Rome’s New Work in the Arts & Humanities: The Body series on the subject of surfaces.

From human skin to clothing, the façades of buildings to painting canvases and computer screens, Bruno explored the meanings and perceptions of surface space, and challenged the negative notion of superficiality. Speaking at the Academy’s Villa Aurelia on April 3, she pointed out the ochre cityscape of Rome below the hill and described how “the façades and the face of Rome come together in fleshy skin colors.”

Bruno argued that like the city’s face, a surface is a dynamic place, packed with everything that is most important in life and art. She added it was “a place of connection and materiality.” She also described the ways in which contemporary Italian and American artists and architects have emphasized superficial spaces and noted that the origins of the word “superficial” had no negative connotation.

Speaking on this theme, Bruno challenged the idea that transparent surfaces necessarily translate to transparency. She noted how architects have used glass façades to refute transparency by focusing the eye on the surface material as much as on what was behind it. She pointed out that in the Italian film La Notte, director Michelangelo Antonioni’s shot of a window reflecting the actress Monica Vitti’s face takes on depth by turning a merely transparent panel to a layer upon which more meaning is projected. “Surface has density and it has depth,” Bruno said, adding that “it has a body and it is a body.” In modern architecture, she said, surface space is not only an aesthetic and “optic” ornament, but it is “haptic,” from the Greek “coming in contact with,” something that interfaces and communicates with people.

Bruno talked about how screens were first used in the Renaissance period to filter light, create spaces and atmospheres as they still do today. In the 1960s, artists like Lucio Fontana generated “spacial ambiences” from light penetrating his paintings through his famous cuts in the canvas, and architects like Lina Bo Bardi used glass as screens to expose canvases. But screens also “project culture” and have transformed the role of the museum from what she called a “mausoleum” to an intimate space through “the architectural reconfiguration of screen.”

A different perspective on those same surfaces was offered by Alice Friedman, who focused on how seemingly ordinary architectural design can be used to mask, but also hint at, extraordinary lives. In her project called “Poker Face” she examines domestic interiors, those commissioned by successful women in the 1960s, and others today, where “conventions of style can be used to conceal individuality.”

She made the example of the architect Eleanor Raymond’s project “For Three Friends,” which she designed for three lesbian women in the 1940s. The New England house was seemingly “boring and ordinary” from the outside, but inside the walls were “completely modern” interiors with communal spaces such as the kitchen. Friedman also talked about “the idea of the wall as a projective surface onto which individuals can project their own meaning.”

Friedman talked about how many architects have played with the duality of surfaces—inside and outside—by eliminating internal walls (except for closing off a guest room) or substituting traditional brick exteriors with glass. In the case of Hiroshi Nakamura’s Radiator House, the concrete, glass fiber, and steel walls create a screen that envelopes the house, providing a strong sense of privacy indoors—going “against transparency,” she said—while at the same time having a porous element to it, as the house “breaths,” spraying water during certain hours of the day for air conditioning.

All those ideas, she said, were now themselves turned on their head by the culture’s obsession with surveillance and self-exposure through social media. A brewing backlash to that culture was prompting people to seek out privacy by adding “new layers to domestic precincts.” Even LGBT people, who for decades have fought to come out and be publicly accepted, are now eschewing exposure. “Everybody,” Friedman said, “wants to go back in.”

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