Renowned as one of the most outstanding Italian landscape architect of the twentieth century, Pietro Porcinai designed a wide variety of projects on the most diverse scales: gardens and public parks, industrial districts, hotels and tourist villages, motorways and agricultural areas. The hundreds of projects implemented in Italy and abroad comprise the most extraordinary “landscaped” gardens, perfectly integrated within their surroundings and so natural as to appear untouched by human hand.
Born in Florence in 1910, Porcinai’s education in landscape architecture began early since his father was in charge of the gardens at the villa Gamberaia, an early seventeenth-century villa in the village of Settignano, overlooking Florence. As a youth, he studied horticulture at the prestigious Regia Scuola Agraria Media agricultural college. After graduation, he started working full-time as a landscape designer at the Martino Bianchi nursery in Pistoia, and later worked in Belgium and Germany. His travels abroad brought him into contact with contemporary European design. He met famous plant breeders and horticulturalists (Fritz Enchk, Karl Foester) and the most eminent European garden and landscape architects (Russel Page, Geoffrey Jellicoe, Renè Pechère and Gerda Gollwitzer). This experience gave the young Porcinai a chance to compare his own education in design and horticulture with a broader concept of the profession that was in sharp contrast with the Italian tradition of formal garden design.
In the 1930s he launched his lifelong struggle for the recognition in Italy of garden and landscape design as a modern profession. In the world of Italian architecture and town planning non-architects were generally excluded from landscape design.
In 1937 Porcinai began writing for the magazine Domus directed by Giò Ponti, which rapidly become Europe’s most influential design publication. This gave him not only his own professional opening, but also the opportunity to educate both architects and the public at large in the importance of landscape design.
In 1938 Porcinai settled a studio in Florence with the architects Nello Baroni and Maurizio Tempestini. This dynamic studio rapidly became a benchmark in the cultural life of the city, introducing Porcinai to the influential business dynasties who were to remain his loyal clients throughout his professional career.
In 1948 in Cambridge he was one of the 17 founder members of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA). A staunch defender of the natural and landscape heritage, at length he championed the cause of a proper training in landscape and garden architecture in Italy, coming up against a wall of indifference in the schools and even the universities. In 1950, with a handful of other pioneers, he fathered the foundation of the Italian section of the IFLA in the form of the AIAP (Italian Association of Garden and Landscape Architects) of which Porcinai was for many years secretary and, from 1979 on, Honorary President.
In Italy the post-war economic reconstruction produced a new moneyed class of industrial entrepreneurs: manufacturers of televisions and textiles, and executives in the burgeoning empires of petroleum and technology. The Italian practice of holding design competitions for public projects provided more visibility for his expanding practice. From designing private gardens for industrialists it was a logical step to projecting sites for factories and offices: notable examples include the Mondadori centre in Segrate, Milan (in collaboration with Oscar Niemeyer), and the Brion Vega plant in Caselle d’Asolo, Venice. A growing reputation for swimming pool design led to commissions from hotels, including the Hotel des Bains at the Venice Lido and resort complexes such as the holiday village in Nicotera Marina in southern Italy.
In the 1970s public parks and urban design projects became an important part of Porcinai’s practice, with an increasing number of commissions from outside Italy. Major projects included plans for parks in four Saudi Arabian cities (in collaboration with Albini, Helg and Partners), the Place Beaubourg in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris (as consultant to the architects Piano and Rogers), a design for the Parco Sempione in Milan (with the architect Viganò), and the Parco della Favorita in Palermo, Sicily. He was also engaged in large-scale projects such as the new Brennero motorway in northern Italy and the intricate relocation of the Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel for UNESCO.
Porcinai was convinced of the need to apply the lessons of the garden to the ecology of the urban context. He attacked the arrogant imposition of architectural theory on the modern city. However, he did not confine his criticism to the architectural profession: he was prepared to indict modern society for the twin evils of materialism and collectivism. The solution must lie in a process of education – in his words “ a task of evangelisation”.
Frustrated by the architects’ domination of design education in the Italian universities, in the 1960s Porcinai resolved to establish an educational centre at Villa Rondinelli.
The villa would become in the 20th century what the neighbouring Villa Medici was in the Quattrocento – a meeting place for artists and philosophers. The new studios were constructed in the villa garden for this purpose.
Unfortunately, the dream faded in the 1970s. Although Porcinai had acquired clients among the new elite, he had also made enemies. A period of enforced exile, during which he opened an office in Beirut, undermined the financial basis of the educational centre.
Committed to the profession, he took an active part in a number of international conferences; in 1971 he took part in the First International Symposium on the protection and restoration of historic gardens in Fontainebleau held by ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) where he promoted the ICOMOS-IFLA International Committee for Historic Gardens, which in 1982 drew up The Florence Charter on preservation of historic gardens, a set of rules governing the maintenance, conservation, restoration and reconstruction of historic gardens.
Porcinai won numerous prizes and awards, including the In-Arch prize in 1960 and the Award of Merit from the School of Environmental Design of the University of Georgia, and in 1979 the Friedrich Ludwig von Schkell Golden Ring by the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts.
His remarkable professional expertise ranked him among the elite of European landscape architects, a position consecrated in 1985 when he was the only living Italian to be assigned an extensive biography in The Oxford Companion to Gardens by Sir Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe.
Along with his numerous designs and projects, Porcinai has also left a large number of articles which cast fascinating light upon his cultural vision, his strategy and his design concepts. He contributed to magazines and newspapers (both Italian and foreign) including Domus, Garten und Landschaft, Architecture d’Aujordhui, and other minor journals such as Il giardino fiorito, Flora, etc.
In his published articles Porcinai called for training in landscape design, professional collaboration between planners, architects and landscape architects, sensitive road and motorway design and a sensitivity to regional characteristics in project development.
For many years he was an outspoken critic of the modern city. In an article entitled Urbanité de l’urbanisme (L’Architecture d’aujour’hui no. 118, February 1965), unanimously acclaimed by specialist critics, he attacked the arrogant imposition of architectural theory on the city. Other important writings include the essay Garden in the Italian Agrarian Encyclopaedia and Giardino e paesaggio 1942 -Accademia dei Georgofili.
In May 1967 his book Giardini d’ occidente e d’ oriente, written with Attilio Mordini, was published by Fratelli Fabbri Editori.