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Gino Valle, Zanussi-Rex offices, Pordenone, 1959-61

In the early 2000s I worked, for a brief period, in the Milan office of the designer and architect Gino Valle. For those who do not know the work of Gino Valle, Kenneth Frampton wrote about him in 1983:

In Europe the work of the Italian architect Gino Valle may also be classified as critical and regionalist inasmuch as his entire career has been centered around the city of Udine, in Italy.. Throughout the Fifties, Valle dedicated himself to the evolution of an industrial format for the Lombardy region. This development reached its zenith in his Zanussi Rex factory built at Pordenone in 1961.. Regionalism, as we have seen, is often not so much a collective effort as it is the output of a talented individual working with commitment towards some sort of rooted expression.

Joseph Rykwert more recently wrote in the UK weekly Building Design about a monograph on Valle’s work called Gino Valle (Documenti Di Architettura):

This splendid monograph about the work of Gino Valle (who died, aged 80, in 2003) by two critic-historians, Pierre-Alain Croset and Luka Skansi, was published a few months ago but received little attention in this country. This is surprising since Valle has long been known here. The Royal College of Art gave him a unique one-man show in 1964, when he also gave the RIBA Annual Discourse. About the same time, Architectural Design devoted most of one issue to his work, which was also often featured in the Architectural Review.

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Gino Valle, Monument to the Resistance, Udine, 1959

Introductions aside, what I would like to write about are some comments that Valle said to me. One day, he told me: “Architecture is easy. I escaped a German camp during World War II, that was difficult”. He then proceeded to tell me the story, which he also told interviewers from RAI TV. As I could misrepresent the story, I will translate the words recorded in that interview with Italian TV journalists:

My experience with the manufacturing industry began as a prisoner of war or interned military in Germany, because I was in the Navy, I was a second class marine, or a corporal, in Brioni and I ended up in Germany due to the “politeness” of the Navy officers, who behaved in an abominable way. Anyway I ended up in Germany and I found myself in a transit camp, with many comrades. The famous ninth course of the naval academy was moved from Livorno to Brioni, and the slave merchant would arrive and say: “What are you? What can you do? Student? OK, well if you are a student we will send you to the development course”. 

As I had sniffed out this business, I managed to hide in the infirmary for a few months, until I had to leave or they would have operated me for an ulcer. So I ended up in a very tough camp, where there was a Henkel factory, that made tracks for tanks and engines. I found myself there with all the workers who were Italian, Russian, or French and all the bosses who were German. All were politically suspect and therefore all under some surveillance. The chief was a politician. I survived because I never said I was a student. I always said I was a ‘constructeur’, meaning I was a mechanical designer. So, as I knew to draw over projections, they gave me a small exam and they concluded that I could do that job and I was the one who developed equipment for mass-production. So I conquered for myself a wooden table, a room, a storeroom. As I was in a department where packages would arrive, at the border between Austria and Germany and the Germans (I spoke German) once in a while would come to see me, after having smoked a cigarette with great voluptuousness, they would tell me: “But as you are so skilled, why are you not with us?”. I managed to, I am not saying to just survive, because the problem there was only to eat some soup and to find something to smoke, to be informed on the war because we managed at night to listen to Radio London by ourselves, but to not lose respect for myself. I was living a full life and all the problems were solvable, day by day. So it’s not a question of career, it’s a question of survival, eating, surviving, not losing face with oneself, to maintain one’s own freedom. 

So this is what I did, I learnt a job, I applied what I knew in this job for making equipment, with some comrades who were better than me. They were the French from Renault, the Italians from FIAT, the Russians and the Belgians. We had managed to be somewhat in charge of our fate in this department  that consisted of roughly 25 people, because we were more competent than our German bosses, so we also did what we wanted, we made rectangular lighters.. We made French lighters, English lighters, which cost a lot of money, those shaped as a rectangular block.. We would sell them to the Germans. We made all these on our own. There was a group survival instinct let’s say, which helped a lot. At some stage I escaped and I reached Italy with one of the first trains that returned from the camps in Poland, and I arrived in Bolzano, during bombing, and in Trento I found someone who lent me a gun, I found a German and took his gun off him, sent him home and then arrived home on the 5th of March in a convoy. I then went back to University, going to Venice in a  train was an adventure, but everything was now alive, culture at the University also awoke, I was the only one who had Wright’s autobiography and I would translate it.

Since he told me this story, which had some more details than what is reported above, every time I had some project to look at, or to propose, remembering his escape from the German camp and how he made his way back home by holding a gun to a German’s head and forcing him to drive him towards home, made all my tasks seemed so much easier than before. He then had his moral revenge on his Italian and German captors when he won the competition to design the monument to the resistance of Udine, in 1959.

See Valle’s work in this book: Gino Valle (Documenti Di Architettura)

Bibliography

Gino Valle, Intervista, Lezioni di design. Available at http://www.educational.rai.it/lezionididesign/designers/VALLEG.htm [Accessed 7th October 2016]

Frampton, K. (1983). Prospects for a Critical Regionalism. Perspecta, [online] Vol. 20. (1983), pp. 147-162. Available at http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0079-0958%281983%2920%3C147%3APFACR%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Q [Accessed 7th October 2016]

Rykwert, J. (2011). Gino Valle Monograph. Building Design,  [online]. Available at http://www.bdonline.co.uk/gino-valle-monograph/5017546.article [Accessed 7th October 2016]

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