Right near where I work in downtown New Orleans, there is a most unusual place. Not everyone loves it, but I do. It is the Piazza D’Italia, a decorative plaza built in the 1970s and designed by the famous postmodern architect Charles W. Moore.
The Piazza D’Italia was built to celebrate the contributions of Italian-Americans to New Orleans culture, which are often overlooked given the more obvious French and Spanish influences. (Among other things, the Italians gave us New Orleans musical greats Louis Prima and Cosimo Matassa, as well as the city’s most legendary gelato joint.) I am not sure how the city’s Italian-Americans felt once the piazza was finished. It’s very…weird.
I suppose the best way to describe the Piazza d’Italia is that it’s kind of a goofy parody of a classical Italian piazza. It has all of the various orders of columns—Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and so on—jumbled together in a large arcade. It has a big pool with a lot of waterfalls, and a map of Italy made out of stepping stones. (At the beginning of the movie The Big Easy, a corpse is found in the pool at the piazza.) There are fountains and waterfalls. Sculptures of the architect’s own head spit water. There are gaudy neon lights. It looks chaotic, like all of Italian architecture has been put in a food processor and whizzed around a bit.
The Piazza d’Italia is famous. It appears in lots of architecture textbooks as a leading example of the postmodernist school of architecture. Charles Moore had been the dean of the Yale School of Architecture and would go on to win one of the most prestigious awards in his field. We find the piazza called “seminal” in Classical and Modern Interactions: Postmodern Architecture, Multiculturalism, Decline, and Other Issues, which cites its “eclectic, serious yet playful classicism,” and the “flood of associations” and “multiplicity of references” that it displays. It has a spirit of “civic humanism” along with its “stylistic pluralism.” Henrich Klotz’s The History of Postmodern Architecture tells us more about the purpose of this distinctly odd bit of public space:
(Warning: Academic writing ahead)
The Piazza d’Italia was created solely for the purpose of fiction. The colonnade fragments of this stage of memory do not want to be serious, perfect architecture. Rather, they want to be the vocabulary of a narrative: architecture between the Old World and the New, between wit and seriousness, between perfection and fragmentation, between historical exactness and humorous alienation. The piazza risks making the poetical statement “Here is Italy!” only to add immediately, with a sad smile, “Italy is not here.” … Moore’s Piazza d’Italia awakens and localizes memories and permits identity to be reformed without forcing anyone to ascribe autonomy to this architecture of signs and references or to declare it a literal surrogate for an Italian city. Moore’s system of symbols intentionally retains the character of witty allusion while it points illusionistically to a set of circumstances without claiming to be identical with them. The relativization of classical forms, neon lights, and steel capitals creates distance, reduces the relationship to the factual reality of Italy to one of mere quotation, and breaks with a modernism marked by a one-sided definition of progress. The Piazza allows one to smile at it and at oneself: it does not seriously tempt one to look in it for a surrogate for Italy. Its main theme is nostalgia, veiled with irony and humor. A pervasive wittiness destroys the bogus “as if” quality of eclecticism and prevents all this from being accepted as the genuine article. The fiction that has been staged here has qualifying features that keep its illusionistic effect from becoming too strong.
I understood some of that, I think. I take the basic point to be that Moore didn’t try to build a little slice of Italy in New Orleans but made a fun twist on a piazza. The American Italian Cultural center says that instead of inspiring “admiration, reverence, humility, awe, and other such solemn emotions” the Piazza d’Italia “fill[s] its beholder with feelings of happiness, joy, warmth, and love” and is “the perfect expression of the gloria di vita that is characteristically Italian.”
Well, that’s what some people think. Reviews of the piazza on TripAdvisor and Google are mixed. Among the positives:
- “Pleasant little plaza. It is a visually interesting public space. It’s worth going out of your way a couple of blocks to check out.”
- “An unheralded architectural gem. A piece of history neglected by the locals. Come see it when you gamble.”
- “Very peaceful calming romantic atmosphere. Would be an ideal choice to propose or a meeting point.”
But the detractors say:
- “Fake concrete columns painted so badly claimed to be Italian. What a shame”
- “It was not dirty or anything like this but there was just nothing. I expected a little bit more”
- “Ugly, strange square. It tries to imitate Italian architecture, but it looks like the setting for a school [play]”
- “Strange juxtaposition of ancient and modern is unsettling.”
- “Not sure what the point is?”
I said that personally I love the piazza, and I do. I love it because it’s pointless. I love it because it’s silly. I love it because it was a colossal waste of money that never should have been built.
Here’s the thing: the piazza might feature prominently in architectural textbooks, but nobody here in New Orleans ever goes there. I can see it from my office window, and I can tell you that it’s empty most of the time. I had to go there once to do a somewhat strange photoshoot, and I was worried passersby would ask me what I was doing. I needn’t have been concerned. There were no passersby. There hardly ever are. Even though the piazza is in the heart of downtown New Orleans, it’s consistently empty. It’s dead space. It doesn’t work at all as a piazza.
Moore clearly wasn’t thinking about trying to design usable space. He didn’t put any shade, so you can’t really sit in there for long in the Louisiana heat. It’s kind of fun to climb on, but it’s strange and awkward and you can’t even really tell that it’s shaped like Italy. The Piazza may be interesting as a demonstration of a certain trend in architectural theory, but as a public place it’s a pitiful failure. It fell out of use quickly and was dilapidated for years, until a small fortune was spent refurbishing it, getting the waterfalls and neon lights to work again. It’s now open every day, not that anyone cares.
But I love the Piazza d’Italia in part because it is such a total failure. It’s pointless. It’s ugly. It is almost pure in its lack of a function. (Sometimes events are held there, but not too often, because what kind of events can you really hold there?) And so the Piazza strikes me as a kind of defiant rebuke to utilitarian thinking.
You see, under capitalism (oh no, here he goes again), the value of something is often measured by its market price, and in a perfect free market, nothing is created that cannot be sold to someone who wants it. In the imaginary “market world,” parks and plazas would be created only when they can bring in revenue. But even in a world with a robust public sector, it’s possible to apply utilitarian thinking. You build parks because they are to be used by the public, who will get a benefit out of them. That benefit justifies the cost of building the park.
On no theory of cost-benefit analysis can the Piazza D’Italia really be justified. It doesn’t do anything. It disappoints visitors, who wonder what the point is. If you were proposing to build it today, rather than in the 70s, I doubt anyone would ever fund it, precisely because there’s more of an insistence that investments should only be made in things that can prove their worth.
And yet: surely the world is more interesting for having the Piazza d’Italia in it. It’s quirky. It’s funny. It does bring joy and delight to the very few people who see it. I think it would be a tragedy if it were ever to be demolished, because it’s just so unlike anything else. I want it to survive even if it’s lonely and unloved.
In fact, I wish there were more similarly pointless things and pointless places. I dream of giant sculptures far off in the desert where hardly anyone ever sees them, but the few people who ever come across them are flummoxed and amazed. I love the idea of spending years creating something that isn’t for anything, that doesn’t even try to justify itself except to say that it interested the person making it. That’s central to the creation of art: it exists because the artist wanted to make it, not because it serves a function.
Because artists don’t often have much money, a lot of what they make is small-scale. It’s relatively cheap to make a drawing or a painting. To make a giant piazza requires millions of dollars, which is why we find a lot of pointless small things but not a lot of pointless large things. I dream of a world where artists can create things as elaborate as the Piazza d’Italia without having to justify them, just because they express something meaningful to the artist. At the moment, only very rich artists can afford to do that, or those who pour their entire lives into some quixotic project, like the makers of Hamtramck Disneyland and the Coral Castle. What I’d like to see is a world where enough resources are invested in art to create hundreds of “Piazza d’Italias”: interesting things that don’t have to justify themselves in terms of profits or even the interest of the public. So that when someone asks, as the reviewer above did, “Not sure what the point is?”, the answer can come: “There is no point. And isn’t that a beautiful thing?”