Italo Calvino's Architecture of Lightness: The Utopian Imagination in an Age of Urban Crisis

October 3, 2012
Italo Calvino's Architecture of Lightness: The Utopian Imagination in an Age of Urban Crisis

by Letizia Modena
Routledge, 267 pp., $146.00 ($99.75 ebook)


“If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell you how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks.” It is one of Marco Polo’s accounts to the Kublai Khan, from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The Kublai Khan, wrote Calvino in the introduction, was viewing an empire that was “an endless, formless ruin,” in which “corruption’s gangrene [had] spread too far to be healed.” Only in Marco Polo’s account of far-away cities is the emperor able to see “the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.” Invisible Cities, with its portraits of spiral staircases and aluminum towers, has always stirred the imagination and is often found on architecture and design school reading lists. Now, in a recently published book, Letizia Modena gives us insight into a web of intellectual currents that served as background to Calvino’s literary project. Calvino’s Invisible Cities was published in 1972, the same year the Club of Rome published the Limits of Growth report calling attention to the threat of global overpopulation, urban sprawl, and environmental degradation. While there do not appear to have been any direct links between Calvino and the Club of Rome, surely the time-frame was not a coincidence. The Limits of Growth document was only the tip of the iceberg of a growing conversation among demographers, architects, and urban planners. Calvino, whose intellectual circles revolved around Turin and Paris, was immersed in broad-ranging dialogues over many of these same themes. Modena documents Calvino’s forays, literary and otherwise, with thinkers who were involved in architecture and city planning. Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs are both on this list. We note here that Jacobs’ groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities is still a point of reference for American policy-makers interested in revitalizing inner cities in decay. Even though he was no longer as directly involved with political action as he had been earlier in life during World War II and in the following decade, Calvino still counted among his interlocutors a broad group of practitioners who were involved on the ground. Modena is careful to notice that Calvino did not attempt to offer policy recommendations. He was interested in the imaginative dimensions of the city—in the urban center as a place of memory and desire. Pointing to Calvino’s reading of Northrop Frye, Charles Fourier, and Frankfurt School thinker Herbert Marcuse, Modena argues that Calvino’s interest in utopian literature led him to think of the literary task as essential for imagining alternatives to that era’s reigning technocratic narratives. In a chapter on the idea of lightness in architecture, Modena explores Calvino’s indebtedness to a group of utopian architects and designers working during the sixties and early seventies. While drawing extensively from these experimentalists, what is noteworthy about Calvino is that he intertwined utopian and anti-utopian visions with a sustained reflection on their epistemic dimensions. Lightness, for Calvino, was not just an aesthetic value. Of course, there was lightness to be found in architectural structures that used translucent materials and vertically flowing lines. Yet lightness as a way of thinking pointed a way towards creativity and imagination, a way of questioning assumptions and creating the mental disposition essential to innovation. If there is anything to be critiqued about Modena’s book it may be that the delineation between its chapters occasionally feels too fluid, and this is especially true about chapter 2 and chapter 3, both of which are readings of the novel from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Nonetheless, Modena is artful in tracing the philosophical and aesthetic strands that are woven through Calvino’s oeuvre. From Frye to Barthes to Melotti, she is as well-versed with the literary antecedents as she is with the artistic context. She offers plentiful historical details, supported by letters and documentary evidence. She also presents a sophisticated theoretical understanding, offering her own assessment of the literature’s import. Hers is a work that will be of value to scholars across the disciplines.