Review: The image of the city: Alessandro Piredda

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The image of the city: Alessandro Piredda

For painter Alessandro Piredda, looking at a city is a dramatic act, which begins the moment we reach a place and consider how to enter it. His series of urban panoramas places us at the edge of the city: at the point of deciding how to approach it, navigate it, and finally, how to remember it. His Urban Assembly 02 Bangkok represents a new way of perceiving that city. In his view, the Asian metropolis has a greenish hue: it is seen as if underwater, submerged beneath glass or gas.  Rather than a steely business centre or a marketplace, Bangkok appears compressed but strangely remote: that shade of bottle green suggests a city preserved in liquids. However, even though this is a valid way of interpreting Bangkok, it is also very personal: the city has a distinctly European colouring. The panels of a building fit together like polished Italian stones (Piredda was raised in Sardinia); an asymmetrical pattern of tiles suggests the aspirations of high modernism, still seen in the former Italian colony of Eritrea. So this foggy, dense, almost novelistic version of Bangkok relates to the place itself, but it also contains memories of other cities.

If Piredda conceives of cities as assemblies, this is partially a conceit.  In his paintings, a city is constructed from parts that fit exactly: every gap is filled and there are no overlaps.  However, this theory only works if each piece of the jigsaw is an elaborate object, which consists of several dimensions pasted together: for instance, if what looks like the corner of a skyscraper is actually the reflection of another building. We focus on how an image of the city is put together, and this seems to be a fiercely contested process. Despite the fact that Bangkok is bursting with towers, only a few make a memorable impression: some may physically overwhelm without becoming part of our vision of the skyline.  However, even if a recent, upstart building can’t oust a landmark from our minds, it alters our view of it.


Skyscrapers are like squishy, pointed fingers, constantly pressing upwards and sideways.  When a new feature is crammed into the landscape, it edges out the surrounding figures.  Buildings grow like hothouse plants, gasping for limited resources. This is an ecosystem in which individuals fight to displace one another. When one construction is stifled, its design elements can pop up elsewhere. Piredda refers to his buildings as actors in a theatre; he perceives cities as stages, in which the performers jostle for prominence.  His method for deciding what to include in the final work is to point at each building and say: “You make it to the play – but you don’t.”  Some forms lend themselves to being remembered more than others: these are cast in the equivalent of starring roles. Piredda never works from photographs, but tries to recall which elements stand out mentally, after a long period. Over time, certain features regress; buildings make themselves known as distinct or inscrutable personalities. His conviction is that a memorable image, no matter how unlikely, encodes something about the nature of a place. For instance, he believes that his impression of how much light there is – a sense of dimming or crowding – corresponds to an element of the city’s character, whether it is evident in photos or not.  

Yet these paintings are also a reflection of how much cities are alike: what they have in common is our way of apprehending them. Whether Piredda is painting Europe or Asia, his buildings tend to be marked like dice. The windows are tiny, concentrated dots, like pupils which let in little light; sometimes they have a mean, pinched look. They also resemble black studs on clothing. As his theatrical analogy suggests, many of the buildings look like actors, zipped into costume and wearing their façades like close-fitting jackets. Buildings with many dots have a buttoned-up look, like the strict vests worn by businessmen; others look like long arms dressed in high gloves. Piredda seems particularly attracted to the tops of buildings, which resemble screw-top caps. They are like little power-packs – it is as if the entire city could be unplugged if all the caps were taken off.

This version of Bangkok is given the colours of the stage – deep blues and greens, and the turquoise of the harlequin – as well as lending itself to a futuristic vision.  The fact that Piredda can give us a city which is both quintessentially Asian and linked to Italian futurism is remarkable. It suggests that we use a particular “lens” for viewing all cities: we interpret different sites in terms of a common symbolism.

Piredda’s faith in the image of the city relates to the work of Kevin Lynch, the great theorist and urban planner. Lynch looked at how people understand cities: what images recur when they describe their urban experiences. For instance, the fact that most people recall two buildings as being adjacent, when in reality they are 500 metres apart, would indicate that there is something about these buildings that lends itself to being remembered, while the intervening structures are forgotten. According to Lynch, this loss of memory has social consequences. His research suggested that the city which cannot be “imaged” – a city which remains faceless in the imagination, where the inhabitants cannot recall paths – tends to be disconnected from the real, as evidenced by vandalism and gang violence. Since all of Piredda’s paintings are, to some extent, critiques of the modern city, the works tend to deal with places that have become drab due to cramming or sparseness. The depictions of Rome and Zurich are especially bleak; Piredda’s account of becoming disoriented in a Roman suburb parallels Lynch’s terror of being lost amid identical, reproducing structures. Most of Piredda’s series was inspired by recent travels – however one location he hesitated to paint was Amsterdam, simply because it is not a place one remembers in terms of cityscapes. If you try to picture Amsterdam, what you generally get are interior snapshots – the warmth and aura of specific settings. One is rarely drawn into a confronting relation with the city as an array of forms.

By contrast, the urban plan of 02 Bangkok is all too visible: grey paths are cut and laid out like ready-made paving, in a perfectly geometrical lattice. These paths seem more solid and established than the buildings around them, as if the skyscrapers were moulded to match the neat cut-out corners. Similarly, Urban Assembly 01 Zurich is a critique of a metropolis designed according to a rigid template. Ingeniously, the Swiss city is seen as a network of tiny, Lilliputian buildings erected, as if by chance, on top of another building.  Piredda describes Zurich as a sterile place, “so clean you can see the reflections of houses in the streets.” He represents this perfection by locating the entire city on the roof of what appears to be an enormous skyscraper – hence Zurich exists above a gigantic version of itself. What is it like to live on top of a monstrous replica? Do the inhabitants see themselves as a microcosm of the “ideal” city?  

There is some mystery as to what lies beyond this miniature town. The fact that it is mounted on a vast steel reproduction of itself suggests that it may be engulfed by some new society, which is even more perfect and orderly. The skyscraper is a massive walled structure: like a dam or blockade, which holds out against external forces gushing in.  The town paths are exceptionally precise and straight; other than the prescribed grid, there is no way to negotiate the confusing, anonymous buildings. While the windows in Urban Assembly 01 Bangkok are small (the high-rises look like filing cabinets, with paper-thin slits for documents), the windows in Zurich are even tinier: mere pin-pricks. Clearly, this is a city in which life occurs beyond closed doors: the place resembles a gated community, with a huge unknown looming beyond.

At first glance, Urban Assembly 01 Sardinia is arranged in a much more homely fashion: it is a circle of brown buildings at sundown, laid out like a Greek city.  However, like Zurich, this city is perched on top of another structure: the curve of houses is at the rim of a giant sphere, so that the community is teetering precariously. One movement of the sphere would send the town hurtling through space. This is another enclosed, “perfect” city which exists on the edge of a colossus – and faces a potentially disastrous encounter with another world or system.

Piredda’s Rome may be austere and washed-out, but its facelessness is made up of complex grey parts. In Urban Assembly 01 Rome, what appears to be the detail of one building is actually a close-up of another structure. Several forms contain studies of themselves, as if a zoom lens had been applied to their corners. So it is unclear whether buildings are entities in themselves, or partial views of other structures. This way of seeing is built into the entire picture. Rome is a city of prisms, in which structures are stacked on top of each other like Picasso profiles: different perspectives are pieced together to form an opaque whole. The city is packed with forms which must constantly adjust to incorporate the slotting of new buildings. Paths are slid in to indicate new perspectives, but also to prop up existing structures.  It is as if, in order to accommodate a new shape, a mental link has to be made between two other forms.

Piredda has said that he often paints two buildings together, only to discover they are in entirely different locations. On these occasions, he retains his belief that there must be some imaginative relation between the two structures which draws them together. In a few cases, he deliberately stretches or contracts the distance between objects. If our way of looking at cities remains fairly constant, then it makes sense that we would mentally adjust “Bangkok” to fit with our preconceptions: balancing rooftops so that they harmonise, or turning a high-rise into a sleek modernist shape. Yet the precise degree of murkiness or density – the way we light the mental image – would tell us something specific about Bangkok. For instance, why is it that in this city, the light seems to shadow rather than illuminate? Perhaps the most revealing elements are those which are absent: the path we keep crossing but can never recall.

By Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow is a Melbourne arts critic and associate editor at Bright Lights. Her articles have also appeared in Artist Profile and Photofile. She has curated works and appeared on festival juries in Portugal, South Korea and Hong Kong. She is the author of catalogues for artists including Jacqui Stockdale, Alan Jones and Guy Maestri.