Learning From Italy

Dawn comes through the skylight as a dove-gray patch of firmament. A bird awakens in a nearby tree and greets this first, tentative light. In the distance a cock crows, and a dog barks somewhere in the valley. Leaves rustle, and a cool breeze ruffles the lace curtains and washes over the white linen sheets on my bed. As I drift back into a deep, restorative sleep, I feel keenly connected to this blessed place in the Tuscan hills. I’m on vacation in the middle of a late-June heat wave, living in a farmhouse that’s worlds away from the shimmering, scalding parking lot at the Florence airport where we landed just a day ago.

Every year at this time, I come to these hills to reconnect my body, soul, and mind to sky, land, plants, and animals, but my strongest connections are with the generations of smart and sensitive people who made this place the heaven on earth it is. Their historic buildings and towns teach me something new each time I’m here—about capturing breezes, natural cooling and shading, respect for the existing terrain, and the rewards of working with local materials. How is it, then, that American architects who regularly make pilgrimages to Italy have not learned these age-old basics of sustainable building? How does all this intelligence get translated into faux-Florentine condos and soulless malls with ersatz piazzas? Are we as a culture so desen­si­tized to the world around us that we’re blind to what we desperately need to know to build anything? There’s a more urgent question we must ask: Can we afford to hide behind our national bravado and cultural provincialism at a time when the built environment is the major contributor to global warming?

The wisdom of Italian design—celebrated world-wide for its awareness of local climates and building history, its enthusiasm for invention, and its balanced view of technology—can be studied in this issue, detailed in the stories we tell of Meyer Pediatric Hospital, in the Florentine hills (“Hiding in the Hill,” p. 130), and Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco (“Green Architecture’s Grand Experiment,” p. 109). The keys to both of these breakthrough projects are the connections they make between the world of nature and human nature. At Meyer, the Tuscan sun invades every nook and cranny of the children’s hospital tucked into a lush hillside. At the Academy of Sciences—designed to breathe without forced mechanical air, just like my summer home, the Tuscan farmhouse—visitors and workers alike can experience the earth’s processes and feel that they belong to something bigger, more powerful, more varied and memorable than themselves.

As America rebuilds and readjusts for the 21st century, we might do well to remember what the Italians have known since the earliest Etruscan set­tlements: cultures thrive, survive, and grow when they relate their buildings and cities to the sun, wind, and terrain while employing invention and technology—all in the service of supporting life.

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