Rome, the Teacher, and 'T' Space

John Hill
22. July 2019
All photos by John Hill/World-Architects

A new exhibition, Rome and the Teacher, Astra Zarina, is on display this summer in New York's Dutchess County. It celebrates the influence of Steven Holl's professor and is held in a new building designed by the architect. World-Architects attended the opening on July 14 and filed this report.

"The Big Bang is bogus." This statement slipped unexpectedly out of Steven Holl’s mouth during his remarks at the opening of Rome and the Teacher, Astra Zarina, on his property in Rhinebeck, New York. He followed the statement with the clarification that he believes in infinity "in both directions": from the past and into the future. The words seemed a bit out of context on this sunny Sunday in July; after all, the exhibition celebrates the life and work of the late Astra Zarina, a professor at University of Washington (UW), the founder of the school’s Italian Studies programs (the Architecture in Rome program and the Italian Hilltowns program), and a strong influence on Holl, who attended both. But perhaps Holl’s belief of a Big Bang-free universe — counter to the broadly accepted theory of the universe's origins — arose from, if not Zarina, then another teacher who created a strong impression on the famous New York architect. In this sense, the statement is fitting at the scene of an exhibition that is about, more than anything, the influence of a teacher on a student.

The line of cars parked along the usually empty shoulder of Round Lake Road stretched into the distance on both sides of the driveway to the T2 Reserve.

Astra Zarina is not a household name in architectural circles like Holl’s. Zarina, who died in 2008 at the age of 79, is one of many architects who have devoted their lives to teaching. She left her mark on the students that passed through her studios each year rather than on the world through the design of buildings (her most well-known buildings were done as project architect at Minoru Yamasaki's office in Detroit). More accurately, she made a mark on students but also on the landscape of Italy, where, as we'll see, she devoted much of her life to preserving one of its hilltowns. At a time when well-known architects like Holl spend some of their time teaching, it’s easy to be unaware of the full-time professors who are the mainstay of American architecture schools. Zarina, according to her husband Anthony Costa Heywood, "influenced thousands of students throughout her career, inspiring many who have gone on to become internationally influential architects and designers in their own right." It seems like Holl is being singled out in the last part of Heywood's statement.

Standing on a platform in front of the unfinished ArtArc, Steven Holl read a piece he wrote for Domus magazine upon Astra Zarina's death in 2008.

Rome and the Teacher occupies a single, long room in ArtArc, a new building on the T2 Reserve, one of two adjacent properties in Rhinebeck that Steven Holl has been adding buildings and artworks to for years and opens up to the public in the benign summer months. Collectively known as 'T' Space, the wooded properties feature a gallery, a studio and cabin for fellows, art trails, the Ex of IN House, and now ArtArc, which wasn't quite completed in time for the exhibition opening. Having just broken ground in October 2018, Holl asserted the building was 75% done, due in part to delays in the aluminum panels that will soon wrap the whole building.

The corrugated siding beneath the sign for the exhibition hints at what the whole ArtArc building will eventually be covered with.

Rome and the Teacher is curated by New York- and Rome-based architect Alessandro Orsini, who sees it as "an occasion to reflect on the influence of inspiring mentors in the life of architects." For Holl, the influence hinges upon the Architecture in Rome program that Zarina created in 1970, ten years after she was awarded the American Academy in Rome Fellowship in Architecture — the first woman to receive the fellowship. Holl studied in Rome with Zarina in the early 1970s and fittingly the exhibition includes his thesis: Study of Via dei Giubbonari leading to Campo de'Fiori. The same wall (photo below) features other early Holl projects: one carried out in landscape architect Lawrence Halprin's San Francisco office but most on his own after he established his own office in New York City in 1976. All of the projects bear the imprint of Zarina and the seven core values she espoused: the value of urban space; the value of organic food, with its colors, tastes, and presentation; the value of historic buildings; the value of urban roofscapes; the value of community; the value of ceremony and myth; the value of the earth, plants, and animals.

The thesis project from Holl's studies in Rome with Zarina is on the wall at left. The exhibition also features Holl's professional work, drawings by Zarina, photos by Balthazar Korab, and other models, drawings, and texts.

The strip of Holl's projects along one wall are balanced on the opposite wall with photos by Balthazar Korab (photo below), who teamed up with Zarina on her book I Tetti di Roma: Le terrazze, le altane, i belvedere, published in 1976. In the monumental, hard-to-find book she focuses on the roofscapes of Rome, what Orsini describes in the exhibition literature as "a surface that is part of the urban added plane that we can define as 'roof-terrace territory' or 'roof-terrace view'." Accompanying Korab's lovely black-and-white views of Rome's rooftops is a film by students from Columbia GSAPP that traveled to Rome earlier this year with Holl, Orsini, and architect Dimitra Tsachrelia. In a quite literal sense, these still and moving images on the wall and suspended in the gallery frame the models and drawings that sit in the middle of the space, providing context for the work of Zarina and Holl.

Fabric prints of photos by Korab hang on the walls. Zarina collaborated with the famed photographer on the 1976 book I Tetti di Roma (Roofscapes of Rome).

The center of the gallery is occupied by a series of tables and models, the former housing some sketches of Rome by Zarina during her American Academy fellowship and letters that Holl wrote to his family during his Rome studies, and the latter pertaining to Civita di Bagnoregio, a small hilltown about a two-hour drive north of Rome. Civita, for short, was the base for the UW Italian Hilltowns program that Zarina started and where Zarina retired with her husband. The couple restored many buildings there, a town so small and isolated it can only be reached by a footbridge. Built by the Etruscans on flimsy tuff rock, Civita was added to the World Monuments Fund list of the 100 Most Endangered Places in 2006, due in large part to Zarina's efforts.

An overview of the gallery space seen from the mezzanine visible at the far end of the two previous photos.

Now Holl is working on a memorial to Astra Zarina that would be built in Civita. With the site's obvious restrictions, it would need to be constructed with materials that can be carried via the footbridge and would need approval from the landmark commission. Holl reported at the opening of Rome and the Teacher that the latter was obtained, and the architect's website indicates the groundbreaking took place recently. Holl's website describes that the new space "will consist of new gates, new benches, planters and a central bronze and stone sculpture/fountain commemorating the primary 'spheres' of Astra’s work, life and influence." Located on a small belvedere space on the north side of Civita, the Memorial to Astra Zarina will pay homage to Holl's teacher, contribute to the town's roofscape, and celebrate her devotion to the singular Italian town. Rome and the Teacher gives visitors a clear indication why the memorial should exist, why Holl should design it, and why it should stand in Civita di Bagnoregio.

At the far end of the gallery space (on the far left side of this photo) is a photo of Civita di Bagnoregio, the Italian hilltown that Zarina worked at restoring before her death.
Columbia GSAPP students built a model of Civita di Bagnoregio, where Holl is designing a memorial to Zarina.
Model of a Memorial for Astra Zarina: The Civita Belvedere
Two of Zarina's sketches of Rome, displayed on the table in the center of the gallery.
A study model of ArtArc, the almost completed building that joins to a 1940s cabin that has been renovated for visiting fellows.
The mezzanine overlooking the gallery (also visible in the first photo at top) is home to a table full of models, like the previous one, of ArtArc.
Rome and the Teacher, Astra Zarina is open 12-5pm on Sundays until September 8, 2019.
Poet Elaine Equi read to the crowd on opening day, as seen from the corner window visible in the previous photo.

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