One of the most curious artifacts in the current exhibition, Energy: Oil and Post-Oil Architecture and Grids, currently running through November 10, is the one you run into just outside the entrance doors to Rome’s MAXXI museum. It’s one of those ubiquitous mini AGIP filling stations, of the kind you normally would find curbside in any one of Italy’s many town centers. The look is ultra modern, with a cantilevered steel structure sheltering a smartly-constructed metal-and-glass shed designed for the gas station attendant and his stock of replacement windshield wipers and engine oils. Next to one of the pumps is AGIP’s bright yellow icon featuring a black, six-legged, fire-breathing dog. The filling station wouldn’t seem so odd if it were not for where it sits: on the pavement just under one of Zaha Hadid’s flying concrete viaducts. The architecture of Hadid’s MAXXI suggests a series of highway overpasses crashing into one of the remaining buildings preserved on the former barracks site. The miniature service station with all its loaded petro-symbolism seems to fit perfectly under the shadows of this massive Ballardian road wreck.
Inside, the exhibit offers an eclectic collection of road-related projects tied together by the medium of energy—petroleum in the immediate postwar era and proposals for projects fueled by alternative energy now that we are experiencing the fallout from post-peak production. The exhibition is divided into 3 distinct sections—“Stories,” the historical section; “Visions,” the section interrogating new energy possibilities; and “Frames,” a set of commissioned photographs. These are loosely tied to the Italian landscape, mainly by association to “Stories,” the core collection on display that features an impressive archive of visual documents on the beginnings of Italy’s Autostrada—the toll road that now extends over some 6,000 linear kilometers. Each of these sections has it’s own curatorial team and particular approach. MAXXI’s chief architectural curator Pippo Ciorra masterminded the exhibit and curated the section “Visions.”
Just how does this exhibit fit into the broader global debate on sustainability, resources, waste, and climate change? What kind of critical contribution does it make to today’s energy forecast? Energy is not a high powered show. There is no pretense to comprehensiveness. If anything, there is a prevailing sense of arbitrariness not only in how things fit together but also to how much weight one section is given in relation to another. Yet in this age of data overload, a lot can be said about presenting a subjective assembly of issues held together by not quite much more then osmosis. Energy is an opportunity to focus in a couple very significant investigations and see how these issues stand up to the current debate. In this regard, the show, the second in the MAXXI series that began in 2011 with Re Cycle, is worth probing deeper into.
To begin with, there is the “Stories” section curated by Margherita Guccione with its rich collection of archival drawings, renderings, photographs, and tourist postcards. While the United States looms large in Italy’s early postwar imagination, these documents provide an interesting view of how the architects involved in this first wave of transport innovation locked in to some of the key architectural typologies of the time. Specifically, the Pavesi and Motta Autogrill restaurants, the AGIP stations, and ancillary infrastructure that supported the growing highway network, including the ENI headquarters known as Metanopoli just outside Milan, and a score of worker leisure facilities that were then considered obligatory for a company of such national scope. And while most of the architects names are not that well known to the general public, contributions by Luigi Nervi and Mario Ridolfi accentuate the significance of this push towards Italy’s second wave of modernization. Anyone who is interested in Italy’s historical postwar design and manufacturing boom will find this section of the exhibit particularly rewarding.
“Visions,” on the other hand, steers through a much more complex and, at times, more difficult terrain. Ciorra handpicks seven architectural groups who, he notes in the catalog, are “part of a generation that are ‘naturally sensitive’ to environmental issues” and who come from a range of countries as diverse as South Africa, Australia, Japan, Korea, Great Britain, and, of course, Italy. The road matters everywhere, though this is most eloquently taken up in the work of the Australian-based group, Terroir, whose manifesto begins and ends with the bleak landscapes of Mad Max. According to Terroir, the continent’s highways can be harnessed to generate non-expendable energy, but just in case, the architecture Terroir projects is intended to outlast civilization as we know it.
In keeping with Ciorra’s initial premise, the group of protagonists in “Visions” are not bent on presenting the latest energy related gizmos, but rather to engender a set of solutions that make us want to “crave” leaving our wasteful consumption habits behind. MoDus Architects from Italy, present their “Heads Up Highway,” a sort of elevated power ribbon providing 160 million square meters of energy generating rooftop. For the most part, however, the “Visions” section remains utopian. One example is by Noero Architects of South Africa, who present the small fishing village of Hangberg outside of Capetown that explores the possibility of a localized energy infrastructure woven into the informal residential fabric. Open Building Research’s “Right to Energy,” picking up on the increasingly popular Commons movement, advocates multiple intermodal means of transportation to cut down on energy waste. Or in other words, get off the train and hop on a bike. There are two in the gallery connected to a looped video going through the streets of Milan.
The photographic section, “Frames,” curated by Francesca Fabiani, could have had a much greater impact on the show if only it were given more space to breathe. Italians are incredibly sanguine in their photographic mastery of contemporary landscapes, and here too contributions by Paolo Pelligrin, Alessandro Cimmino, and Paola Di Bello give lucid portraits of the big and the small of the petrol industry. Perhaps this section could have easily eclipsed the other two.
Which brings us back to just how much can a show like this matter, when the world is so hopelessly beholden to fossil fuel. Countries are plundered and peoples are massacred to ply this profitable trade. Nothing—thousands in highway dead, oil spills, not even biblical droughts and out of season hurricanes—serves to dampen the appetite for limitless oil. Ciorra in the accompanying catalog brings up Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1972 book, Petrolio, published posthumously. The architecture curator recalls the renowned film director’s concern with Italy’s moral decline. Pasolini’s lead character is Carlo, an engineer who works for ENI, Italy’s main energy powerhouses and one of “Visions” main sponsoring partners. Carlo succumbs to a deep crisis of identity that runs in step with the postwar mood of the country. Yet Pasolini in this exhibition remains an illusive ghost.
Yes, Ciorra and his curatorial team have done well to find a simpler kinder approach to the energy controversy, perhaps in keeping with the notion that anything much harder will turn the general public off altogether. This lightness is what makes the show worth the immersion, precisely because it starts the process that greases our sense of collective responsibility. For those who continue to guzzle, there is the real the risk of getting burned by the six-legged black dog. There can be no doubt that this dog is from Hades.
Energy: Oil and Post-Oil Architecture and Grids runs through November 10 at the MAXXI museum in Rome.
Peter Lang is currently Professor in History Theory at the KKH Royal Institute of Art and Architecture in Stockholm, Sweden.