BBPR studio was founded in 1932 by Gian Luigi Banfi, Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Enrico Peressutti, and Ernesto Nathan Rogers. The studio was one of the first and most significant examples of an artistic and cultural partnership founded on teamwork rather than individual personalities.
This form of working in agreement proved an essential cultural intuition that carried them beyond the craft dimension of a professional studio towards a conception of the architect's work based on collegial contribution as a methodological principle. BBPR's collaboration worked through respecting intentions and joint efforts to ensure the quality of the design with an approach defined by the team's cohesiveness. These principles were taught to young professionals who worked with them and were publicly proclaimed. They were fond of repeating: “any design made by four people is always better than it would have been if done alone by each person... we will never reveal the individual paternity of an idea. Every idea is always our idea”. From its early years, BBPR was about unity of intent in design choices and discussion of cultural paradigms. This was so starting from their shared education at the Polytechnic of Milan, then as followers of Rationalism, through competitions in the 30s and their post-war maturation, which after a short-lived adherence to fascism, came to the painful experiences with the racial laws that Rogers suffered. Then came their membership in the “Partito d’azione”, Belgiojoso and Banfi's dramatic deportation, and then the death of Banfi, on April 10, 1945 in the Mathausen-Gusen concentration camp. After Liberation, Belgiojoso (who survived the Mauthausen-Gusen camp), Peressutti, and Rogers (who had taken refuge in Switzerland after the armistice of September 8, 1943) decided to continue the studio's work, keeping the name BBPR. As their first act, they hired a young German architect in the name of reconciliation.
After the war, the studio's organization became a way to offer professional responses to the growing complexity of design, and take on increasingly broad, diverse themes, from interior design to town and territorial planning. It was the first time a professional Italian studio was organized following a model of work division, which had been an aspect of the English model, and is that of today's design firms.
From the start, their designs were conceived through collegial discussions, often very heated, that would lead to identifying an agreed-upon design tact. The studio had many kinds of partners, including architects and “maestri d’arte” hired to develop designs. There were surveyors and engineers in charge of exploring technical aspects and overseeing construction, as well as younger professionals (architects and surveyors) who served as draftsmen. Careers within the studio were based exclusively on merit and individual inclinations. This is part of what made the BBPR studio a standard setter in Milanese and Italian culture and a major crossroads in the careers of young, Milanese architects.
The engagement of the studio's individual members on many cultural fronts – participation in CIAM and the Movimento di Studi per l'Architettura (MSA), university teaching in Milan and Venice, work with the “Trienniali” starting in 1933, and the editing of “Domus” and “Casabella-Continuità” by Rogers – made it a true workshop of modernity in the 50s and 60s. It became a bridge to international discourse for the spread of Italian design culture. The studio was also a gateway for architects and intellectuals who came through Milan. Its interdisciplinary, cultural scope was also seen in frequent collaborations with other architects, as well as artists and intellectuals (such as Lucio Fontana, Max Bill, Alexander Calder, Corrado Cagli, Fausto Melotti, Saul Steinberg, Enzo Paci, Antonio Banfi, and many others). It was this orientation to team work that also brought BBPR to be one of the first in Italy, in the 30s, to work on the town and territorial planning scale, with interdisciplinary work teams. For example, there were the Master Plan of Valle d'Aosta in 1936, devised with Adriano Olivetti, Renato Zveteremich, Italo Lauro, Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini, Piero Bottoni; the Tourism Plan for the Island of Elba in 1939, which they presented as an autonomous project, exhibited at the VII Milan Triennale in 1940; most significantly, the A.R. Plan, with Franco Albini, Ezio Cerutti, Ignazio Gardella, Gabriele Mucchi, Giancarlo Palanti, Mario Pucci and Aldo Putelli, started in January 1943 in the midst of bombings and submitted for the Competition for the Master Plan of Milan in 1945.
In the 50s, BBPR started in-depth consideration about the renewal of modern architecture in relationship to its context, history, and tradition. From this perspective, the theory of pre-existing, environmental conditions that Rogers promulgated in “Casabella- Continuità” sought to consider design in relationship to a new concept of environment. Its goal was to represent empirically certain meaningful features of spaces in the architectural vocabulary, taking up aspects of material, color, and image. There is no doubt that the emblematic building of the outcome of this theory is the Velasca Tower, which was completed in Milan in 1958 after a design and construction process lasting almost ten years. The design and construction of Velasca, and the debate that arose around it, shaped an entire generation of architects. In relationship to the curtain- wall theme, a hallmark of International Style, in the Velasca Tower, and many other of their designs, BBPR presented a concept of in-fill walls that, in the Perretian sense, are set alongside the bearing structure, leaving visible a series of opaque, pre-fabricated panels alternating with windowed panels.
BBPR made their contribution to the great era of Italian museums with the restoration and exhibition design of Sforza Castle, between 1956 and 1963 with the curator of the art collections, Costantino Baroni. The design has a powerful expressive and symbolic resonance that alludes to the past through the eyes of modernity. The culmination of the exhibition is the final room, where a trajectory leads to the Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo's last work, surrounded by an enveloping wall of pietra serena, and resting, in 16th-century style, on a Roman-era votive stele. Here, and in their work in general, we need not bother looking for a taste for refined detail, for delicacy, harmony or lightness, like that found in many of Italian master architects of their generation. BBPR's artistic approach works through a formal pursuit of gravity; in other words, they take to an extreme level the discharging of loads to the ground. They do this through an energetic oversizing of architectural structures and elements that come into physical contact with people (such as handrails, steps, handles, and parapets). At times, this “formalist hypertrophy” sometimes borders on a foreshadowing of Brutalism, and is particularly evident in their work in Milan, notably in the Velasca Tower and the '60s designs for Piazza Meda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The only, significant exception is in the lightweight, ethereal, poetic metal trellis of the Monument to the victims of concentration camps in Germany at the Monumental Cemetery in 1946.
Starting in the mid-70s, the center of architectural and urban planning culture shifted towards an urban and landscape dimension and towards experiences that threw the traditional values of the architectural discipline in doubt. This came to detract from the primary role as standards setters from the master architects of the first generation of the Milanese school. After the death of Ernesto N. Rogers, in 1969, BBPR's design work, as well as that of other leading Milanese studios, centered around individual professional works. It was in this period that we started to see a kind of datedness in an entire generation of architects in addressing the metropolitan dimension of development phenomena. Significantly, the greatest works in Milan by BBPR (as well as some of their contemporaries) were almost all in the old city. In the outlying areas, there were some clear low points, such as the Gratosoglio District, designed for the IACP of Milan between 1963 and 1967 on Via dei Missaglia.
On this topic, a line of research could be explored about this generation of architects, considering this sensitive, little explored topic, comparing the part of their work that is of unquestionably high quality, seen in invaluable “inimitable fragments” set in history centers, and the part of their work that is of a considerably lesser tenor. Though less well publicized, they are still important works, precisely because they were affected by more difficult relationships with clients and a clear discomfort with the need to dialogue with a place and working conditions that had become irreparably affected by the mass construction boom.