Neave Brown

My Kind of Town: Bergamo


I haven’t had to search for ‘my kind of town’; mine came to me unbidden. I doubt it is quite as I would have specified. It lacks the conspicuous drama of great cities, their immense scope and spectacle. My town is provincial, rich and inclined to be smug. Its conspicuous style is a little predictable. It doesn’t sound too attractive.

However it is south of the Alps, spectacularly beautiful, off the tourist beat despite its unsurpassable architectural qualities, and Italian. And by the grace of a local architect, my friend Armando Malvestiti, I have worked there. An unbeatable combination.

Bergamo deserves to be better known. Most people drive by, to Milan, Turin, or search out its neighbours towards Venice, Brescia, Verona or Vicenza. The old Citta Alta sits on top of the very first hill of the range rising to the Alps, overlooking the ruined, industrialised Po Valley – one of the richest areas on earth. It is surrounded by walls of astounding scale and magnificence. Within, the grip of ten centuries of architecture holds. Carved out of the dense walls is a parade of civic spaces graced by lovely monuments. There is not a single ‘modern’ building and no gross evidence of betrayal by commerce. Le Corbusier recommended a total banishment of the vehicle, saying: ‘You would not wear your raincoat in the living room’. The height and incline gave surprising views. Aalto said the proof provided the other elevation.

The city early overflowed the hill, pouring down was and west like lava; two main streams of ancient streets descend to the plain below, spreading like great claws. Between, in their grip, lies the gridded modern city (neo-classical, Liberty, Fascist, modern) where once in a perfect square there was a remarkable walled market and fair. Here the architecture and spaces are also good. It is arranged about an axis from railway station to the Citta Alta, although the ascent is necessarily deflected, winding up against the walls. The most direct route is by funicular. So the normal pattern of growth is reversed, the central active new city in the embrace of the old.

I have work in Bergamo because a young Italian architect came to see Alexandra Road. The outcome was an invitation to Bergamo to give a talk. I had become used to getting on trains and planes, lecturing, having dinner (very variable feasts) and returning. Bergamo, I thought, was likely to be different. I was right.

The event covered three very full days, with successive presentations, interviews, lunches, dinners, all (simple and elaborate) to a style unapproachable here. The final morning (without warning) I was driven to a large official car to the town hall, escorted to a lobby graced by magnificent double doors, to meet the mayor – a formal presentation with little speeches.

He led me by a long gallery to a crowded hall, a dais and a display of drawings. An interpreter replayed the description of the City Plan given by the chief planner – followed by a moment of the politician responsible – followed by a pause – and I was invited to speak. Necessity overcame panic, and I did. I didn’t take to the proposals; range circular cluster developments set in parkland – urban nodes in rure – not an Englishman’s view (even one nurtured on Le Corbusier) of an Italian city. I had with tact to say so. So I suggested growth by streets, frontage, things people had been talking about for some time, and a change in the rules. I also recall a haphazard comment about water– I hadn’t seen many fountains. I would like to think that an ex-group architect from a London borough influenced an Italian city (a footnote for history). However, that’s more than unlikely, although they soon abandoned the plan.

The final event was a drive with Armando to visit a site – and the question – would I like to design the building? The consequent drama of Mozzo 1 is another story. My friend now lives there with his family. So does his sister and hers. Mozzo 2, 24 row houses, is about to start, and work has been done on five other projects (much probably abortive, but who cares). At the moment we are waiting judgement on two large villas on a hillside of magical beauty above a village. The higher house terminates a vineyard stretching far up the hill. The owner, the client, makes wine (a hobby) in a vast fourteenth century cellar, crowded with ancient black casks. I carried his bottle back to London and drank in the hope of building.

No Englishman alone could master the labyrinthine processes with awe. Armando and I talk symmetrical bad French and together we developed a refined Faxomania. I am spared the difficulties and my perception of the city is probably not very real. However it has a presence in my mind. I travel in it, occupy it, in imagination.

On a practical level our large plans and sections, showing pictorially what we want, are far cry from normal working drawings. They are handled with care in Bergamo; the builder works to a level of precision and skill almost forgotten here. Craftsmen want to know what you want, exactly, but don’t want to be told too much – in a city where the Association of Artisans is still among the most powerful lobbies. What they make will be beautiful. People look at drawings, ideas, designs and react. Bellissimo. My kind of town.

Neave Brown’s My Kind of Town was first published in AT13 (Nov 1990)