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Structures, Voids, and Nodes: Leonardo and Laura Mosso’s “Architecttura Programmata” 
Architecttura Programmata, Laura Mosso, Leonardo Mosso, Nodes, structures, Voids
Roberto Bottazzi
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The work of Leonardo and Laura Mosso provides a very early and original application of computation to architectural, urban, and territorial design. Although computers were actually utilised to develop their ideas (a rare event in the 1960s in Italy), the work possessed conceptual and political ambitions that exceeded both the simple (or even fetishistic) fascination for a new technology and the functional approach that conceives computers as tools to efficiently complete tasks. Rather, the computer was part of a proto-ecological approach in which artificial and natural elements worked together towards the emancipation of the individual and their environment. At the centre of their research was “Architettura Programmata”, defined as a “theory of structural design” dedicated to the design of elements, their connections, as well as a higher, meta-system which we could call “structure” in the sense that Structuralism defined this word. Computers were involved in this project under both a design and an ethical agenda to understand and define “ecocybernetic dynamic as a structure for a self-evolved language of the environment and of the form at various levels of complexity, inserted in an unforeseen chain of self-evolved cybernetics: from political cybernetic to cybernetic of information, as integrated instruments of evolution in a condition of direct articulated democracy”.[1] 

This paper will discuss how computational thinking and computers were employed in the work and research of Leonardo and Laura Mosso, by analysing three paradigmatic projects which tackled the notion of structural design at different scales and contexts. The first project will be Cittá Programmata (1967-70), a theoretical proposal for a new type of city. The project represents the first actual use of computers in the work of Leonardo and Laura Mosso. The second example will concentrate on a piece of research on Piedmont territory – the place in which they operated throughout their academic and professional careers. Although computers were not directly employed to carry this research out, the approach to territorial analysis and planning employs a form of algorithmic thinking which impacts on both how the territory is read and how it could be re-imagined. Finally, the proposal for the restoration of block S.Ottavio in the historical centre of Turin shows a very innovative use of computers to intervene on historical artefacts of relevant cultural value, as well as the possibility to use computers to manage the future life of a building. 

Structuralism played an important part in the work of Laura and Leonardo Mosso, and it is an essential element in understanding their conceptualisation of structures and the role that design and computation had in it. A slightly left-field but very fruitful interpretation of Structuralism was produced by Gilles Deleuze in 1967, at the time Leonardo and Laura were intensifying their interest in computers.[2] Deleuze emphasised the role of emptiness, more precisely, of the “zero” sign as a mechanism for the transformation and articulation of structures. The notion of empty structure and zero offer a dynamic interpretation of Structuralism that is not only relevant to computational thinking, but can also clarify how the structures designed by Mosso can be understood as dynamic and adaptive.  

Early Experiments with Computers in 1960s Italy 

Before delving into the actual discussion, it will be useful to quickly sketch out some of the cultural trends operating in Italy in the 1960s to better contextualise how Leonardo and Laura Mosso arrived at their “Architettura Programmata”. 

“Architettura Programmata” directly refers to the exhibition “Arte programmata. Arte cinetica. Opere moltiplicate. Opera aperta” organised by Olivetti in 1962. The show was curated by Bruno Munari and Giorgio Soavi, with an accompanying catalogue edited by Umberto Eco. It displayed works by a series of artists, including Enzo Mari, who generated art procedurally, opening up a different mode of production and reception of works of art, also inspired by Eco’s Open Work.[3] In the same period, Nanni Balestrini was also experimenting with computers to generate poems.[4] These two examples are perhaps useful in helping to focus on some lesser-known aspects of Italian post-war culture, which is often mentioned for the work in cinema, architecture, art, but rarely for computation or scientific work in general. Along these lines, it is also worth mentioning the cybernetic group operating in Naples under the guidance of Prof. Eduardo Renato Caianiello, who maintained regular contact with MIT and Norbert Wiener. It is in this more international and open environment that we should position the research of Leonardo and Laura Mosso. 

Leonardo studied architecture in Turin, a very active city that led the Italian post-war economic boom, thanks to the presence of Fiat, the car manufacturer and one of the largest Italian factories. After graduating, Leonardo won a scholarship to study in Finland where, eventually, he started working in Alvar Aalto’s studio around 1958. From then on, he became the point of reference for most of the works that Aalto designed for Italy—such as the design of a residence for the Agnelli family (the owners of Fiat) and the Ferrero factory. A more international profile also characterised the figure of Guiseppe Ciribini, with whom both Laura and Leonardo also collaborated. Ciribini concentrated on the modernisation of the construction industry, focusing on prefabrication and modular design. His work was not limited to Italy and expanded to a European scale through his involvement with the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, or CECA in Italian, the precursor of the European Union) to devise international standards for prefabrication. Leonardo and Laura Mosso also established connections with Konrad Wachsmann, incidentally Giuseppe Ciribini’s predecessor at the Ulm School of Design, invited by Tomas Maldonado in 1958. Finally, Leonardo and Laura Mosso were also involved in the early experiments with computer art (which had developed in Croatia since the early 1960s) through the magazine New Tendencies.[5]  

In all these experiences, computation played an increasingly central role. In the case of Ballestrini or for the scientific research developed in Naples, computers were actually utilised, but in other cases, the work only consisted in speculation over what tasks and possibilities could be performed and unleashed. Leonardo and Laura Mosso are among the small group of architects and artists who did make use of computers in their work. With the help of Piero Sergio Rossatto and Arcangelo Compostella, two projects utilised computers to simulate and manage their transformations. Throughout almost two decades of using computers in their work, Leonardo and Laura Mosso developed an approach that was never guided by technocratic notions of efficiency. Rather, the philosophical implications of computing architecture and the political role that information and computation could have brought to a project and society in general constituted their main interest in this new technology. The computer as used in the Mossos’ work was in fact at the service of larger cultural project that aimed at distributing, rather than concentrating, power. Computers were an instrument for change, whereas the values of efficiency and sheer industrialisation appeared to be ways to fundamentally preserve the status quo, by simply making it run more smoothly. Rather than improving how architecture could better fulfil its role under the tenets of a capitalist, industrialised economy, Leonardo and Laura wanted to change the rules of the game itself; the computer, therefore, had to play an almost moral role in radically overturning the mechanisms regulating architecture and its use.  

Central to their research was the close relationship between philosophical ideas (Structuralism), design language (which particularly concentrated on discrete elements connected through reconfigurable, dynamic nodes), and computation. Leonardo and Laura Mosso’s approach to Structuralism was already open to dynamic, cybernetic influences and, for this reason, it may be interesting to read it against the famous writing that Gilles Deleuze dedicated to the same philosophical movement. 

The Dynamics of Structural Form 

Culturally, the post-war years were characterised by the diffusion, particularly in Italy and France, of Structuralism; generally understood as a philosophy of structures rather than functions. Structures could be organised in more general systems – of which natural language represented the most complex, paradigmatic example. Linguistics was indeed the domain of Structuralism, and the source from which most of its fundamental ideas were derived. From Saussure’s Course – indicated as the first structuralist text – to Barthes, Eco, Levi-Strauss, the Bourbaki group, Althusser, and also Foucault and Lacan, structuralist thinking extended beyond the linguistic domain to provide a framework to re-conceptualise other disciplines such as anthropology, psychoanalysis, mathematics, history, or politics. 

Broadly speaking, the definition of a structure consisted of two steps: the determination of its constituent parts (taxonomy) and the definition of the mechanisms that would govern the relations between parts and their transformation (grammar). Critics of Structuralism often rebuked this particular approach to structures for its excessive formalisation and the strictness of its deductive logic. Such criticism tended to depict structuralism as a mechanical, overly linear theory of systems, resulting from the perhaps excessive importance attributed to linguistics. Perhaps such characterisation of structuralism paid too little attention to the more transformative aspects of the theory: the dynamics of change and transformation. These are present in all the major structuralist thinkers; however, Gilles Deleuze provided an original overview that concentrated on the open, topological, and playful aspects of structures which is useful to briefly summarise here. In Deleuze’s “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?”,[6] originally written in 1967, Structuralism was detectable through six different criteria: symbol, local/positional, differential/singular, differentiation/differentiator, serial, and the empty square. Throughout the analysis, the emphasis is on transformation rather than permanence, on the mechanisms that guarantee a structure can operate by straddling between the real and the imaginary in order to transform reality and be transformed by it. 

We will return to Deleuze, particularly his understanding of the notion of “zero” which offers an interesting frame in which to conceptualise the role that structures played in the work of Leonardo and Laura Mosso – and, particularly, how physical construction nodes were instrumentalised to attain a structural language able to change and be appropriated (or “spoken”) by its users. Before dwelling further on this aspect of their work, it is important to point out that the work of Jean Piaget – an author often quoted in Leonardo’s and Laura’s writings – also offered a dynamic reading of structures and Structuralism in general. Laura and Leonardo often made use of Piaget’s characterisation of structures being composed of three main characteristics: wholeness, transformation, and self-regulation.[7] In Piaget’s work, we also we find an open, interactive, “proto-cybernetic”[8] reading of Structuralism marked by a relational understanding of the connections between environment, cognition, and symbols. Particularly, the notion of assimilation outlined by Piaget in The Construction of Reality in the Child[9] outlined a cognitive model based on continuous feedback between reality and the child’s development – an image that brought Structuralism much closer to cybernetics. An eco-cybernetic approach to planning was often also advocated by Laura and Leonardo. These initial definitions are helpful, not only in framing the work of the Mossos in relation to the cultural milieu in which they operated, but also in understanding how computation was conceptualised in their projects to translate notions of structure, node, transformation. 

As mentioned, Deleuze’s survey offers a particular vantage point to understand how Structuralism dealt with change and transformation, and how this can help to frame the role that structures and nodes have in the research of Laura and Leonardo Mosso. Deleuze dedicates particular attention to the notion of the “zero” sign in Structuralism; the “zero” sign is understood as an empty place in structure, determined positionally rather than semantically, that allows transformations to occur. The empty place in a structure guarantees the possibility of its transformation in a way which is analogous to the role of empty squares on a chess board. The structure is understood as a symbolic object. Symbols are here understood according to the definition provided by C.S. Pierce’s semiotics; that is, structures have an arbitrary character that does not attempt to find the essence of the object of investigation, but rather to construct it. In Deleuze’s words: “[the structure does not have] anything to do with an essence: it is more a combinatory formula [une combinatoire] supporting formal elements which by themselves have neither form, nor signification, nor representation, nor content, nor given empirical reality, nor hypothetical functional model, nor intelligibility behind appearances”.[10] The structure is always a third, encompassing element, beyond the real and the imaginary, that allows the structure “to circulate”. In other words, the elements of a structure can only be determined relationally, as “[they] have neither extrinsic designation, nor intrinsic signification”.[11] As the order of the structure is more important that its meaning, not only is the space (or spatium, as Deleuze refers to it) a central medium for the articulation of relations and transformations, but is best described topologically, in the sense that the function of such a spatium is to logically order elements so that specific, empirical objects can occupy the different squares of the structure. The final element to note in Deleuze’s analysis is the “wholly paradoxical object or element”,[12] that is, the connective element that allows different structures or series to communicate with and orient each other in order to perform on different levels, beyond the purely symbolic one. Such an element is defined by Deleuze as the “object = x”; the “zero” sign par excellence; the “eminently symbolic” object that injects dynamic qualities into structures and therefore allows them to work.  

Leonardo and Laura Mosso dedicated large parts of their architectural research to the roles that connecting elements, or nodes, had in articulating structures. Such research produced four different types of nodes which informed their work and can be seen at work in the three projects discussed in the second part of this paper. Deleuze’s consideration on structures help us frame the Mossos’ research as well. The node in a structure is the element that allows transformations to occur. Pieces can be detached, substituted, or removed according to the possibilities and constraints set by the node connecting them. There is therefore an analogy between the physical nodes of a structure and the mechanisms of transformations at work in the philosophical concept of structure. Borrowing from Deleuze’s description, the physical node becomes the “object = x”, the “zero” sign; that is, not simply the element that makes change possible, but also the element that is syntactically operative and open in order for meaning to emerge. The analogy between the two manifestations – physical and philosophical – structure is poignant to grasp the Mosso’s work: nodes are often literally “zero” signs, voids as in the case of the particular type of node developed for Cittá Programmata is literally organised around a void, an empty space. By straddling between its physical appearance and its philosophical interpretation, the node acts structurally, that is, beyond its purely empirical presence, the node is a device that orders physical elements logically. . In both accounts of structures, the minimal unit is the phoneme – “the smallest linguistic unit capable of differentiating two words of diverse meaning”[13] – which Leonardo and Laura put at the centre of their approach to structures by speaking of “phonetic” and “programmed structures”. This approach was already visible in the first example of “programmed architecture”, the Chapel for the Mass of the Artist in Turin (1961-63) in which a static node connected together 5cm x 5cm wooden studs to produce a highly varied pattern for the interior of the Chapel. In successive projects, nodes quickly grew in complexity in order to achieve more articulate and varied configurations, as well as allowing the end user and community to be able to adapt them for future uses. Such an architectural agenda demanded a new type of node that began to be articulated as a void, an “empty square” so to speak, around which the various elements aggregate (fig.). The morphology of this new type of node consisted of a virtual cube – a void – whose eight vertexes could be reconfigured around smaller voids, each able to link together four members. None of the members physically intersected (making the implementation of changes easier) and were organised around a series of voids of different sizes. These physical and conceptual voids held some analogies with the “object = x” Deleuze spoke of in regards to Structuralism; the final configuration was dynamic, a sort of system to let the structure circulate, to make transformation possible. In other words, such an approach to structure transformed the spatial model of representations from a strictly geometrical system to a topological one in which relations between objects took precedent over the presupposed semantic qualities.  

It is also along these lines that we can read the introduction of computation into the work of Leonardo and Laura Mosso. The computer became the perfect instrument to both manage the structural logic of the design and give it the political agency the two architects had been seeking through their notion of programmed architecture. The next section will analyse three paradigmatic projects in which the conceptual issues highlighted can be seen at work.  

Cittá Programmata, 1967-70. 

Cittá Programmata is one of the most iconic projects developed by Leonardo and Laura Mosso, a manifesto that encapsulates some of the key aspects of their work; that is, the potential for a structural approach to design to provide an environment for social and political self-determination. To implement their agenda of political and spatial self-determination, Leonardo and Laura introduced the computer, which represents the other radical aspect of this project. The computer played both an operational and a moral role in enabling the appropriation and transformation of the users’ habitat. Strictly speaking, the project consisted of a series of physical models and computer-generated drawings for an entire city and its possible transformations. The city was structured through a series of cubical modules (or “voxels”) of 6m x 6m x 0.5m that could co-evolve with the life of the city and its inhabitants, resulting (as the models and drawings showed) in an interrupted field of variously extruded elements, each composed by structural elements variously transformed.  

The research for Cittá Programmata took place in a rich cultural environment in which the work of Laura and Leonardo stood out for its original take on some of the topics that animated the architectural debate of the time. As mentioned, the post-war Italian scene was characterised by a growing importance of Structuralism in all aspects of culture. On the one hand, Structuralism guided the introduction of linguistics and semiotics as a general field of study, as well as their application to architectural and urban analysis. This line of inquiry sought to detect the underlying principles of architectural form in itself and in its relation with its context. At the other hand of the spectrum, a more pragmatic understanding of structural thinking was animating the debate on pre-fabrication and modular design, to renew the construction industry and fulfil the demand to modernise the Italian landscape. It is between these two main interpretations of the notion of structure in architecture that Cittá Programmata can be understood, as it proposes a different conception of language and structures. 

Leonardo and Laura Mosso saw in the semiotic approach to architecture an excessive interest in meaning, both in its relation to the internal history of architecture and in context. Against the backdrop of semantic studies on architecture, Cittá Programmata proposed a more structural approach to language and its formalisation; a “phonological” system that would enable its users to ‘speak’ their collective mind through the groups of structures the architects provided. Pre-fabrication, on the other hand, was indeed a rich field of investigation – as mentioned, Leonardo and Laura Mosso had been in close contact with Giuseppe Ciribini. However, prefabrication was committed to a model of society that privileged economic values (through the minimisation of costs, for instance) over political, cultural and social ones. Indirectly, their critique of pre-fabrication was also a critique of the notion of programme (“programma edilizio”), understood as an excessively functional approach to design. The brief – the document through which to implement a building programme – fixed the use of structures or, at best, described a limited number of activities that a piece of architecture could house over a limited period of time. The formalisation of such an approach to programme usually resulted in a neutral outcome which favoured the design of a generic spatial container which, in principle, could adapt to future needs. Leonardo and Laura critiqued this view of design both on the basis of the vagueness of the mechanisms for programmatic determination (future activities may be impossible to predict in advance) as well as for the generic architectural response. In opposition to it they proposed a structural approach that did offer implementable choices (as opposed to programmatic vagueness) and therefore was not limited to regulating quantitative growth, but could also take into account the qualitative aspects of spatial structures. Finally, programme was also critiqued from a political point of view, as it was identified as the political instrument that guaranteed an asymmetrical distribution of power between users and designers.  

Cittá Programmata imagined an environment in which the relation between users and architects was not hierarchically organised, but rather more radically and horizontally distributed. Here, both the programmatic and semantic critique that animated the Mossos’ approach converged. The aim to generate an environment based on a horizontal distribution of power called into question the role that semiotics could play in designing structures. The analogy proposed is once again with language. As for immaterial notions, language and architecture (understood as body of knowledge) are inherently public, they exceed anyone’s ability to claim ownership of them or control them. Both the linguist and the architect can only play with the systems of signs constituting their disciplines in order to make them public and accessible. Contrary to the semiotic studies of architecture which concentrate on the internal mechanisms and references of architectural language, Leonardo and Laura Mosso proposed a rather more “extroverted” approach interested in opening architecture up and inviting users to participate in the creation of their own environment. The architect was “at the service” of architecture, rather than a custodian of the arcane mechanisms of architectural language. In a way, we can say that the position taken was reminiscent of Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole: whereas semiotic studies in architecture appear to privilege the importance of the langue, in Cittá Programmata, Leonardo and Laura Mosso worked to maintain a dynamic relation between the two terms of Saussurean categorisation: 

Architecture, understood in a traditional sense, cannot be a language; that is, it cannot speak by itself. Similarly, we cannot say that the work of a linguist on language is a language … Architecture is at [the] service of language … in the same sense that a language services the community of speakers when it is spoken; that is, when architecture becomes “a system of transformations” or possibilities, from which it is possible to generate infinite messages. 

Mosso and Mosso[14] 

It is in this context that the computer was introduced, both to support the management of the city and to simulate its future configurations. The actual machine utilised was a Univac 1108 owned by the Politecnico of Milan and programmed by Piero Sergio Rossatto – an engineer and programmer at Olivetti – with Arcangelo Compostella. The stunning drawings generated by the Univac (now part of the Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection) showed the possible growth patterns generated from an arbitrary string of signs placed at the centre of the drawing. Two parallel lines of pre-allocated units (*) and voids (-) constituted the starting input for the simulation, which could either proceed in a sequential growth, on the basis of a probabilistic algorithm, (fig.XX) or randomly (fig.XX). The process of algorithmic growth did not take place in a vacuum, rather constraints could be programmed in making growth sensitive to contextual information. 

Landscape, Structure and History (1980-1986)  

A second type of node Leonardo and Laura Mosso had been working on were a kinetic, self-managed, and elastic universal structures(Strutture autogestibili e complessizzabili a giunto universale elastico). Since the beginning of the 1970s, as part of their research on the use of different types of nodes to articulate transformations in physical structures, they had been testing this particular type of node at different scales and in contexts. The research started with the academic work that Leonardo carried out with his students at the Politecnico in Turin, then through commissons such the “Red Cloud” (Nuvola Rossa), an installation completed in Carignano Palace in 1975 in which these nodes found one of their most convincing and poetically powerful applications. This large piece consisted of a complex structure made up of individual elements connected through elastic joints, which allowed the architects to build an undulating mesh suspended between the visitors and the frescos of the palace. These elastic structures were tested at different scales: for instance, between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Laura and Leonardo would put their kinetic quality to the test by using them as props accompanying the movement of the bodies of contemporary dancers, both in their work with the Conservatorio G. Verdi in Turin (1978) and the performance staged in Martina Franca (1980). It is, however, the territorial scale which is of particular interest in this discussion, since it highlights an original understanding of how structures can perform algorithmically and because of the unusually large scale of this research.  

Here, particular reference is made to the research carried out between 1980 and 1981 under the broad agenda of “methodological work aiming at devising a system of signs to program both at the level of the territory and the city”.[15] The results of this methodological analysis of territorial structures would also inform a subsequent research project and exhibition titled “Landscape, Structure, and History”,[16] which tested their structural approach to territory on the local landscape of Piedmont, its rural cultures, and their relation with their surroundings, with a view to devising a strategy for preservation. Perhaps it might appear unusual for avant-garde architects to dedicate their research to the rural, historically-layered territory of Piedmont. On the contrary, local forward-thinking architects and engineers had already focused on vernacular architectural expressions in the local countryside: Carlo Mollino extensively studied and recorded examples of Alpine vernacular architecture in Valle D’Aosta, and Giuseppe Ciribini – whose work on the industrialisation of construction has already been mentioned – also paid attention to the spontaneous architecture of Alpine and pre-Alpine territories. Some of these interests in rural and vernacular architecture were gathered together by another Torinese architect, Giuseppe Pagano, in his famous exhibition “Continuity – Modernity”, in 1936, for the 6th Triennale in Milan.  

The Mossos’ research on territorial structures consisted of both drawings and physical models of specific areas of Piedmont (Canavese and Carignanese). The work mapped and recorded the landscape of Piedmont by positioning a series of kinetic structures over a map of the existing territory. The structures consisted of a series of elements connected through elastic, kinetic nodes that allowed each element complete freedom of rotation around each vertex. The final configuration of each structure emerged from the mediation between their internal properties (length of the elements, arrangement, type of nodes) and the cartographic representation of the landscape. The drawings took this relationship to more radical conclusions: the landscape was further abstracted and re-coded through a structural approach which adapted to different contexts. Rather than an image of a superstructure, the re-codification of the landscape through models and drawings struck a complex balance between the algorithmic approach and the context.  

In this particular project, structures are understood as organisation principles rather than physical constructions. Earlier, we spoke of a algorithmic use of structural thinking, a quick definition that requires unpacking. An algorithm is a set of instructions that, once applied to a set of input data, will perform a finite number of operations to return an output. Regardless of the complexity of the operations performed, an algorithm recodes the input data into a new set of data. Chomsky’s generative grammar, for instance, could be seen as a recursive (continuous) series of algorithms that rewrites any given statement of a natural language to produce new linguistic statements. The superimposition of Laura’s and Leornardo’s structures on a map of Piedmont countryside operated in a similar fashion and, therefore, could be interpreted as an algorithmic recoding of the territory. The input data was constituted by the information recorded in the cartographic representations of the landscape, whereas the kinetic structures acted as analogue algorithms that recoded the input data according to the vast (yet finite) number of configurations allowed by their physical characteristics (length and number of members, type of joints). In short, the physical structures deployed rewrote the landscape according to a precise set of rules; more poetically, we can say that the elastic node structure allowed the landscape to speak in the language of the structures superimposed onto it; an image that Laura Mosso also evoked when she wrote about developing methods to “make the structures whistle”.   

Contrary to stricter interpretations of Structuralism, the type of algorithmic approach proposed here was not merely deduced from internal, formal rules (that is, the physical constraints set by the elastic nodes); rather it emerged from a more iterative, open relationship with the context (abstracted through cartographic representations). The results of the process set up were particularly legible in the physical models: the kinetic structures made up of interconnected springs were laid out on the map to return a ‘structural re-reading’ of the landscape. A new, structural image of the territory emerged from the interaction between nodes and territory.  

The research on territories that Laura and Leonardo Mosso completed allows us to make a series of considerations on these algorithmic operations, their formal qualities, and the implications they give rise to. First, through a structural, algorithmic approach to territory, the research rejects distinctions between natural and artificial in favour of a more holistic approach to landscape – and yet, one describable through a set of finite operations. The constraints embodied in the physical structures do not decisively distinguish between artificial and natural, symbolic and productive, and thus support Leonardo and Laura Mosso’s call for the kind of expanded notion of ecology they had been advocating for, both in projects and publications (through, for instance, the publication titled La Nuova Ecologia). The structure is the symbolic device that catalogues and organises the whole of the territory (here understood as superseding dichotomies such as urban/rural, artificial/natural), establishing principles for its preservation and transformation Similarly, algorithmic re-writing provides a diachronic reading of the territory that is re-organised along structural rather than chronological vectors. The different nodes of the elastic structures are positioned on the map to establish connections between artifacts built in different times in order to give rise to new relations between them.  Finally, there is the function performed by the elastic structures as analogue algorithms. We have already seen how an algorithm can be understood as a form of rewriting and transformation of an existing condition (input data). The types of operations performed by an algorithm are always precise (determined by the rules programmed in the algorithm), executed in their entirety (the algorithm goes through all the steps scripted to return an output), and yet partial, as the algorithm can only survey a dataset according to the set of rules that form the algorithm itself. The constraints inbuilt in the elastic kinetic nodes allow them to only perform a vast, but finite set of movements; that is, only a subset of all the signs contained in the maps of Piedmont can be computed by the physical structures-algorithms. In short, an algorithm generates a specific representation of the object it is applied to.  

To better grasp this last point, we can draw an analogy between real objects (such as buildings) and their orthographic representation. For instance, a section through a building can only return a partial image of the object it investigated, and yet how a section is drawn follows precise and rigorous rules that determine what and how the building will be captured in the section. But the section is a sign-object, not a building; it elicits further manipulations by either applying different sets of criteria (e.g., by concentrating on the structural, programmatic, material qualities of the building) or by changing the very parameters that generated it (changing the position of the section plane or the conventions applied). The approach developed to the Piedmont territory by Leonardo and Laura Mosso makes aspects of this landscape intelligible through the production of new signs which, in turn, make it amenable to further manipulations. It is important to notice that all operations performed by Laura and Leonardo are performed on a cartographic representation of the territory; photographs and other cultural aspects of the areas such as the name of places are complementary, rather than primary, information. Cartography is itself a coded, notational (rather than mimetic) representation of the territory. As a medium it therefore lends itself to the operations of re-coding and re-writing, since it is already a semiotic system; on the other hand, it acts as a recipient of the new codification of the landscape generated through a structural reading. 

Finally, the structure-algorithm becomes a marker of change, as the instrument through which modifications, and, in general, any metamorphic transformation of the territory can be foregrounded, read, and made tractable in order to preserve it or alter it. The research developed by Laura and Leornardo Mosso shows that a structural approach through algorithmic thinking should not only be confined to new, pristine domains, but can also offer innovative ways to interpret and intervene in historical contexts. The last project discussed – the proposal for S. Ottavio block in the historical centre of Turin – will further reinforce this point.  

S. Ottavio Block, Turin, 1980 

The commission for a study of the block located in the historic centre of Turin was received in 1978 and became an important, yet entirely forgotten chapter in the story of both Leonardo and Laura Mosso’s production and the integration of digital technologies in architecture. On the one hand, the brief for the project was a rather common one for Italian architects, whose practice often confronted (and still confronts) historical artefacts. Leonardo and Laura, however, saw in this commission an opportunity to advance their research on structures as well as on the use of computational tools. For purposes of simplicity, we can artificially divide the project between the physical proposed interventions and the immaterial, data-driven ones. 

The physical restoration of the block consisted in a series of more traditional interventions to reinforce the old brick walls, as well as the insertion of new levels to convert the existing spaces into inhabitable housing units. The new structures in steel and wood were elegantly laid out at a 45-degree angle, to mark a clear distinction between pre-existing and new elements. The type of node deployed in this instance was also a dynamic one, however, the only permissible movement was to slide along one of the orthogonal directions of the structure. Though the dynamics of nodes were limited (in comparison to the conceptual experiments at territorial scale), they allowed users to alter and self-organise their habitat. By deploying the same type of node at different scales and through different materials (aluminium, wood, and plexiglass), users could appropriate the environment both at the architectural and interior scale.  

Perhaps the most radical proposal of this research was the organisation of the conceptual side of the project. A computerised system was going to be set up to monitor and maintain the block. A proto-digital twin, the system would map all the elements of the project and generate a database in order for both individual users and the municipality to control, repair and maintain the whole block. For the programming of the whole system, Piero Sergio Rossatto – who had worked with Laura and Leonardo for the Citta Programmata – was consulted. The spatial representation of the block in the digital model followed the logic of voxels: a three-dimensional grid of individual cubes that provided a system of coordinates to locate every element of the project, existing or proposed, architectural or infrastructural. In Rossatto’s scheme, the project would be surveyed starting from the ground level (z=0 in the digital model) and gradually moving towards the roof by increasing the z-value in the voxel grid. Every intersection between the voxel grid and an element of the project would be recorded.  

Although the project was not well received by the local administration that could not fully grasp the innovative approach, eventually shying away from a unique opportunity to radically rethink the relation between digital technologies and historical artefacts, the project illustrated a different, complementary fact of Leonardo and Laura Mosso’s approach to algorithmic form. 

As mentioned, the project applied digital technologies to pre-existing architectural artefacts protected by preservation laws. Whereas digital technologies are invariably understood as the instrument to deliver the “new” or the “radically different”, or even to make a tabula rasa of pre-existing notions, this project showed a more nuanced, and yet still radical side of digital technologies, which could coexist with and complement the delicate pattern of a historical city.  

The structural approach, which continuously developed throughout several decades of research, here resulted in an abstract grid – a field of voxels, to be precise – that acted as a monitoring system allowing users to appropriate and control their own habitat. In the course of their research, Leonardo and Laura developed a physical model of the virtual voxel field that did not include any of the physical structures designed. The model possessed a very strong sculptural quality, but, most importantly, also showed the power of the algorithmic approach they had developed. On the one hand (and similarly to the experiments carried out in coding the Piedmont territory), the logic of the structure not only enabled its own transformation, but also determined its aesthetic qualities. The algorithmic logic guiding its own re-writing (in this case represented by the rhythm of the voxel field) returned a new type of form; an algorithmic form. As the model clearly showed, the logic of the voxel field implied a space without discontinuities or interruptions; saturated with data, the model was “all full” (as Andrea Branzi would have it), a solid block of data. As such, the research and proposal for the S.Ottavio block represents one of the earliest attempts to think of design straddling between physical and digital environments – a concept that could only be implemented through a structural approach to design whose robustness would allow it to extend to immaterial representations of space.  


The work of Leonardo and Laura Mosso not only constitutes an excellent example of very early work with computers in architecture, but also provides a rich framework through which to problematise the issue of algorithmic form. The close relationship between design, philosophy, technology and politics not only forms a complex and rich agenda, but also expands the use of computers in design well beyond a functional focus on increasing efficiency and profits. Perhaps, this is one of the aspects of their work that still resonates with contemporary research on algorithmic design: the complex relationship between ideas and techniques, and the use of computation as an instrument for change. Computation was more than a vehicle to implement their radical design agenda, it was also tasked with implementing specific ethical values by orchestrating the interaction between architects, users, and built environment. In many ways, computation, and the algorithmic forms it engendered, was utilised by the Mossos to perform one of its original and most enduring tasks: to logically order things and, therefore, to conjure up an image of a future society.  

In memory of Leonardo Mosso 1926-2020.  


[1] L. Mosso & L. Mosso, (1972). “Self-generation of form and the new ecology”. In Ekistics – Urban Design: The people’s use of urban space, vol.34, no.204, pp.316-322. 

[2] Deleuze’s text on Structuralism, however, was only published in 1971, so the connection between the two architects and the French philosopher is coincidental.  

[3] U. Eco, The Open Work, Translated by A. Cancogni. 1st Italian edition published in 1962. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989). 

[4] R. Bottazzi, Digital Architecture Beyond Computers: Fragments of a Cultural History of Computational Design (London: Bloomsbury Visuals, 2018). 

[5] L. Mosso & L. Mosso, “Computers and Human Research: Programming and self-Management of Form”, A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International 1961-1973, edited by M. Rosen. (Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM/Center for Art and Media; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011) 427-431. 

[6] G. Deleuze, “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?”, Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, Ed. D. Lapoujade, transl. by M. Taormina. (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotexte, 2004). Originally published in F. Chatelet (ed.)  Histoire de la philosophie vol. VIII: Le XXe Siècle. (Prasi: Hachette, 1972), 299-335. 

[7] J. Piaget, Structuralism. Translated and edited by C. Maschler. (London: Routledge and Kegan, 1971, 1st edition 1968). 

[8] E. Von Glaserfeld, “The Cybernetic Insights of Jean Piaget”, Cybernetics & Systems, 30, 2 (1999) 105-112. 

[9] J. Piaget, The Construction of Reality in the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1954; 1st Edition Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Delachaux et Nestlé, 1937) 

[10] G. Deleuze, “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?”, Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, Ed. D. Lapoujade, transl. by M. Taormina. (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotexte, 2004). Originally published in F. Chatelet (ed.)  Histoire de la philosophie vol. VIII: Le XXe Siècle. (Prasi: Hachette, 1972), 173 

[11] Ibid., 173 

[12] Ibid., 184 

[13] Ibid., 176 

[14] L. Mosso & L. Mosso, “Architettura Programmata e Linguaggio”, La Sfida Elettronica: realtá e prospettive dell’uso del computer in architettura (Bologna: Fiere di Bologna, 1969) 130-137. 

[15] L. Baccaglioni, E. Del Canto & L. Mosso, Leonardo Mosso, architettura e pensiero logico. Catalogue to the exhibition held at Casa del Mantegna, Mantua (1981). 

[16] L. Castagno & L. Mosso, ed. Paesaggio, struttura e storia: itinerari dell’architettura e del paesaggio nei centri storici della Provincia di Torino Canavese e Carignanese. (Turin: Provincia di Torino Assesorato all Cultura, Turismo e Sport, 1986). 

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