In spite of the years I spent living in Italy and hunting up significant buildings, I still occasionally stumble upon work of astounding beauty or power that is completely new to me. While in Venezia this past July, my friend Adolfo Zanetti took me up to see the Giovanni Michelucci church in Longarone, built to commemorate the Vajont disaster (nice church but nowhere near as unsettling as the Chiesa della Autostrada near Firenze). And then we went to see the town cemetery, a project Adolfo knew of (he studied with Tentori) but hadn't ever visited. So I didn't get much of a run-up as we approached. Generally worn out from the IUAV workshop and already looking forward to dinner at Adolfo's parents, I wasn't particularly alert as we wandered in. But what followed was a kind of rapid on-set euphoric experience as I quickly came alert.
Designed by Gianni Avon, Francesco Tentori, and Marco Zanuso, the cimitero di Longarone was built between 1966 and 1972. It's one of the best works of the period I've seen in Italy, and can match about anything I've seen anywere.
I'm still at a loss to describe the experience coherently, but my impression was of a long sinuous crevice cut into the ground plane and running away from the entry gate on an slight angle against the slope's fall line. The cut is retained by a series of walls in rough local stone and wanders through a range of exquisitly proportioned spaces and rooms. At the top of the wall, which appears to be the natural grade, grasses and other plantings run riot covering the seam. Just back from the edge the grass is mown like a rich carpet.
The view sweeps out over the 100 meter long expanse across the valley and to the opposite mountains. At your back is the mountain. There's a chapel at the gate and a large above-ground mausoleum at the head, but the sense is that the project is scored into the earth. Not unlike Carme Pinos work at Igualada.
My first thought, overpowering in its force, was this is where I would like to be buried. Second thought was peccato, non si riesce. Third thought was forgot both the camera and sketchbook. Of all the work I saw this summer, this is the place that continues to haunt me. Most of the work I do, and all of the work I do with students, poses the same basic and simple question - is architecture a viable form of cultural expression today? In this place I think I could say the answer is more likely yes than no.