Interpretations of architecture have always used metaphors.
To introduce this conversation, I’d like to use the one of skin. If an adult man’s first clothing is skin, then we find “private” items of clothing, then various articles. So then the bed, certain furniture, rugs, the space of an apartment with floors and ceilings and walls. The mysterious sum of linings form a wrapping that we receive in part without being able to modify it, and in part we construct and modify without stopping. This represents the last “private clothing” of man before exposing himself in the public sphere. You have designed many interiors with clients: different architectures and needs. For you, has this sequence and stratification emerged? That is, of living first in oneself, one’s own body, and then the various spaces and wrappings that each one of us develops? What are the constants?
The house tells a lot about a person, more than clothing can. Even though the walls and the structures do not adhere to the skin, they are very important clothing. There are people who show themselves through the clothing they wear, but are reluctant to let anyone into their own home. Instead, architects and doctors are allowed, or even requested. And it is when the person thinks that a layer must be changed. A wall comes down, another is added, it can be covered or colored. Or you decide to pass to completely new layers and change homes. When we begin, the house presents itself in a certain way and when we leave, it is entirely different. During the time of remodelling, many people experience the transformation intensively together with us. The most exciting and childish is the conversion to color, because a very thin layer really changes the usual way of living. The first meeting with a client is often a mix of mystery and revelation. Doing a project for someone means this person becomes a person or family with stories, passions, doubts. Trying to understand a person where maybe they don’t know themselves, how perceive certain desires. It is always a new adventure. And you are the guides.
When clients look for you, do they know what they want, do they have a precise idea, or do they delegate it to you?
The client comes to a professional to create order and give concreteness to ideas. When he wants to have new ideas or it looks like he doesn’t have any idea, the job of the architect is to make them emerge. Therefore, what is fundamental for a project to turn out right, not only and not so much from an aesthetical point of view, is to understand.
Are there questions that you always ask when you meet a client or is it a free conversation?
It is very important to know what is the favorite place in the house, where you go to read the newspaper or a book.
How do you proceed? Where do you meet, in the house to be re-modeled or in your office, and while you talk, do you make drawings?
I must see the home, its light, the transparency, the points of view, and then within one day, I elaborate more or less, three different solutions. The one I instinctively feel, because the geometry that comes out of a floor plan is very strong. The second one is closer to the expectations of the client and the third one is contradictory, the opposite compared to the first on so that I can test it. This is the fundamental phase of the job.
Seeing the houses in which contemporary architects live, I am really surprised by the discrepancy. Do people look to give an image of themselves in furnishings, comfort aside, or of what they would like to be, between nostalgia and hope? Is the house the parade, the show, as Mario Praz used to define it? That is to say, private and privileged spaces, a theatre for life. Can the house be the last refuge of intimacy but also a place for a parade?
I believe that people want more and more a home that is ‘nice and comfortable’ with an inclination to take part in it, to transmit affection. The home of today should be a refuge and at the same time spread out and open itself to guests. Thanks to a certain subdivision, with mobile walls and other technological help, a house could function as an accordion – that thanks to its bellows, it contracts and spreads itself. Homes of the past worked this way, alternating rooms of different dimensions and new uses. There were always doors and secret passages and therefore it was able to convert and change to something new. Then there are people who, with a little bit of shame, say I live in a beautiful and elegant home made by an architect, but I don’t feel so great here. Perhaps these people reveal a banal reality: a desire for minimalism, high tech, elegance and other labels leave people dissatisfied because they are not sufficiently modeled on their personal needs. Walter Benjamin said living leaves an imprint, specifying that “interior” is not only what encases the private but it is also a universe. Developing this line of thinking, we could add the public and private history of the client or even of the architects. I have in mind a conversation with Luigi Snozzi, in which he stated that the inhabitant needed to be able to modify his space.
Whether light or invasive, how is it that these traces, connected to who lives inside the home, are never shown in magazines?
It’s the result of an ambiguity in the work of architecture. On the one hand you try to bring out the personality of the man who will live in that house, however, the project follows a n autonomous path and discipline: sometimes the schedule is tight and you cannot balance the two components. And so, when I see something coming into the house that is not part of the choices o f the project, I h ave a temptation to detach myself and in the end, I do not allow myself to censure an accessory that comes from the emotional sphere of the person who lives there. So if the client tends not to separate himself from this, I am willing to take a step back from my convictions.
In “Philosophy in the Bedroom”, there are objects that tell personal stories. How do you behave faced with the “stories from a drawer” that tell of loves, lives, deeds, defeats?
There are two distinct houses within the same house. The one before moving day and the one the day after. The first one is made of conjecture, a good part of the choices were made with an understanding. But once the job is finished the client has chessboard and he can have fun moving the pieces and anything can happen. We lived in those houses with a virtual decoration during the work, developing a sensitivity of an imaginary inhabitant. We tried to imagine in every room the sensations to be activated and the decoration that corresponds to them. It’s a beautiful game.
It’s the job of every responsible architect not to be always at the center of what he/she does. Sometimes there is a meeting/challenge between architect and client where the architect is defeated.
When the architect ends up the victim of his own narcissism. I was shocked when I saw and understood the Müller House in Prague and the Jaoul house in Neuilly-sur-Seine, close to Paris. The first, designed b y Loos, is certainly one of the emblems of pure rationalism. So, he represents the first to represent the hard and pure rationalism. It is surprising to see that in t he master bedroom Loos chose the toile de Jouy which is one of the most traditional fabrics imaginable. For the Jaoul house, designed by Le Corbusier, the strength of the spaces is such as to demonstrate that being orthodox to live there i s useless: a good project goes beyond a formal way of decorating. Today the houses are inhabited by two sisters with their respective families. And inside you can find an orthodox house and the other one is a freak house but both are very beautiful. On the Threshold of a House In the contemporary world of architecture, something important is lost more and more often, which is the notion of threshold, as Aldo van Eyck defined it. Benjamin comes to mind again, when he said at the end of the ‘20s that we were getting poor in terms of the threshold.
You give a very large importance to the entrance, is there a threshold in particular to which you give great importance, is it the entrance or the first place that welcomes you to a home?
The entrance is a room that I love very much, for how I live. I remember that in my parents’ home, the greetings and the last conversations moved pleasantly outside. The last conversations were on the doorstep, standing up or sitting on the couch, we continued talking. The entrance is a room where you stay, almost in suspension, it is not a space to be crossed quickly.
Some of the qualities that you are talking about are also the qualities of the apartment where you have been living for the past twenty years. Can we say that your apartment is a matrix for the houses you design?
It is the attempt to remake a situation, maybe improve it, something already tried and in which I still believe, that I need and I like to share.
A font of inspiration, are also the houses in which we lived as children. Not because they are a model, but because in those houses you thought many times how the ideal home might be “when you grew up”. And at the same time how that first home was expressing some relationships inside the family, with neighboroughs, with the world, with the sea.
And your travels as inspiration?
The development of a design is influenced by the experience of travel and is constantly updated with images that come from various places. We have always tried to personally see the works of the great masters. We have really spent our lives visiting perhaps a thousand works. Observing for a long time each detail and trying to live the atmosphere – elaborating some variations, so to be able to reproduce them in our designs.
Specifically in Villa Spinola Carrara in Quarto, the entrance is a special room where the presence of the books seems to whisper “welcome”.
Yes, it is a good beginning. Hospitality shows itself through shared readings and trips, souvenirs in a real and mental sense. In this sense the trip we made to the Charles Moore h ouse i n Los Angeles in 1988 was fundamental.
You’ve done interiors in other countries. Does the sense of entrance adapt to specific cultural or geographic questions?
In London t he entrance became a sort of Italian piazza, with a high table, two stools, a large clock, a blackboard on which to write, an informal space. It is a transition space, you can eat and chat. Much livelier t han t he living room. A place to be together like in an Italian square.
Also in the Sant’Ilario house, the entrance shows different influences.
Yes, one influence arrived from a small and pure work o f Carlo Scarpa, a true paradigm of threshold. So we tried to connect the entrance to the vastness of the sea, this is the fundamental idea of the project. It w as s o beautiful to look outside that we delineated the entrance axis with two splayed walls pointing them toward the window, which is slightly lateral and creating a sort of oculus. It was a moment of suspension in which you could be projected toward the outdoors. From that window at any hour of the day, the light shines on who enters: at times the light shining on the sea is an intense light and there w e understood that in Liguria, light enters the room like crazy and those two walls, like wings, in those moments marked deep chiaroscuros, defining the main axis of the house. The other axis, the longitudinal one, runs parallel along the windows and goes all the way through the home creating some niches of light along the way.
I had noticed that you always work on axes on the inside of the house that give the impression that an interior is bigger than it is really.
Almost always we try to hinge the new way the house looks on two perpendicular axes. In Sant’Ilario, the second axis, the one along the corridor, concludes with a scaled backdrop, sensitive to light that shines. We were happy to use an element dear to that man, an important “neighbor”, Carlo Scarpa who right in Sant’Ilario designed his last work (Galli Tomb, 1978).
Even in the Zoagli house there is a strong relationship between inside and outside. There is almost a double perception. Is this a house introverted or is it open to the vastness?
It is decidedly open to vastness. Originally, it was the sub-structure of a Nineteenth Century belvedere. It is a house that is totally dedicated to looking outside, half grotto and half facing the wooden terrace and the horizon.
In your houses, the interiors are joints between contiguous spaces. The trail inside an apartment is for you very important matter, calibrated to the smallest detail, with the goal of enlarging perception of space and dilating distance. Moreover, it allows circumnavigating volumes, as if there were houses inside the house.
The free circulation in a house is one of our constants. There are only a few houses where we were unable to do it.
It is a sign of great ability because at times you are able also to reproduce it in small/tight spaces.
Starting from our first home (house 3), and then in house 57, we used a simple trick, other times it took a little structural work. Gadamer with accents from Heidegger, observed that, when art organizes space, the architecture works to give shape to the space as well as to liberate it.
Do you see the inside of your houses like a continuous space where you carve out spaces to liberate them, or is it a “house” in the house, alternating the thresholds?
The tension toward the continuity of the space exists, but since we are talking about a home that needs to distinguish types of spaces, to use the language of music, you can use agogics, making spaces that are more dense first and then open them up. Spaces become more specific according to function, for example a recess becomes a closet, but in a fluid way. The perception of a house is amplified thanks to light variations on doses and passages of light, thanks to reductions or increases in height. Everything has the purpose of going beyond the space of the house.
What does it mean to go beyond?
It means to lay out an easy relationship with the outside from the inside. The relationship can be with a tree, with the shingles of the church across the street, or with the cars that are passing in the distance. About Gadamer, I really like the intuition that architecture can be a filter to be able to see the vitality that is beyond the architecture itself.
How do you identify this “easy relationship”?
Room by room, we look for the sensations and visuals that can accompany the person who lives there. Before and during the work, we enter a room, and turning over a couple of buckets to sit on, we study the position for breakfast, lunch, or other domestic activities. We simulate living inside there. We look for the best point, and comparing with each other, we challenge our feelings. This is an analytic procedure through simulation that has also to do with internal and external trajectories and the quality of light.
The building site is a moment of testing out and verifying. Or do you consider it a moment in the process?
Recently it happened to me, to go to a construction site at a certain time and notice that you could see a tree with a certain light, unusually illuminated. So I built from this feeling a place to stop and sit. They are casual realizations, that to realize them you have to be “distracted”. It is u seful t o go to t he j ob site without any particular need, without anyone asking you anything. Silently looking for space.
We were talking about Luigi Snozzi and changes: does the house accept or put up with change?
The house is conceived to be open to changing w ays of living. Cutting the different environments, in a certain way. Separating the room from its accessory elements allows the room to make itself available to be used in a new way. For example, the kitchen almost always has a pantry on the side, the bedroom has a closet, the bathroom if possible, is in or next to the bedroom, and is subdivided. The whole is made of larger units next to smaller units. So an order decides the shape and hierarchy, often starting from an axis. Moreover, we almost never use curved walls or sine curves, because we have noticed there are limitations in future transformations.
Many houses on which you have worked are from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. House 11 located at Forte Sperone is one of the oldest ones. You met with the strong presence of the existing old fortification walls. On one hand, this was a rather tense confrontation. On the other, you danced a tango with this house, approaching and rejecting, adapting to a partner, using force or inertia. There are functional elements like stairs and fireplace presented as independent objects. Should these plastic presences be read as real sculptures in space?
he floor plan of the house was a wonderful rhomboid: on the inside six cross vaults. Implacable, very strong, and far from being livable. We intervened with connecting (stairs and bridges) and steady elements (fireplace) in order to keep the character of the ancient munitions storage room where the material of the walls was of extraordinary depth and exuberance. And at the center among the great pilasters we built the stairs. It seemed right to do work among the great spaces, so that they remain so. We had to p lace objects and materials of the present without detracting from the sobriety of the structure of the past.
It is an attitude that you develop also in other architectures.
Elsewhere it is more ordinary and discreet. The spaces tend to be apparently disjointed and then re-joined. It is an architecture for living made of rooms, but also of passages, antechambers, corridors, recesses, stairs and shortcuts. If a home does not have good small surfaces, it reduces some of the rooms to the status of service areas, in fact you gain fullness in the remaining rooms that breathe with greater volume like in house 62. It a lesson that comes from Soane and his house museum in London, where he scans different room, never dropping the tension. There is a house from the inside and a house from the outside. When the walls have different thicknesses, and are quite thick like in old homes, when for example external and internal spatial logic does not coincide. Modernism proposed thin walls both inside and out.
Your interiors are prevalently with old homes with imposing thick walls, sometimes with niches carved out. Working on these architectures, have you noticed the “two houses” and the role of the wall as an arbiter, or is the interior for you such a pregnant condition as to exist on its own?
It is true that the outside is different from the inside, but the historic architecture with its secrets and its camouflage conveys solutions in these situations. Sometimes it transposes everything to a surreal level with invisible doors, false perspectives, secret rooms. Then the principle of the accordion for the walls seems, again, useful to us, compacting or stretching as it follows the functions. The inside wall may be treated with maximum thickness, making it the lining for a piece of furniture. And in those cases, when the wall is so reduced that looks like “a piece of paper”, we prefer to work with a wooden wall.
You pay great attention to integrating furniture with architecture in the tradition of Wright, Aalto, etc., so that the furniture does not appear individually as an added, extraneous presence. Do you make an exception for objects with sentimental value?
It is very stimulating to be a public architect, busy doing buildings for the benefit of the community, like the Maritime Station, the sports center and various museums. At the same time, it is also stimulating to take care of a single individual with the problems of a residence, remaining faithful to a single idea of architecture.
There is a considerable discretion in your work. Sometimes however we can find unusual appearances, metaphysical and even a little surrealistic, such as the giant clock and a blue dome. There are explicit citations of Robert Venturi. How do you behave faced with history, both ancient or recent?
On the one hand there is the attempt to discreetly make an operation that is a “poetic reaction”. On the other, we enter a field of language which we have developed in a crucial period of our work. There was a time, from 1990 t o 2000, w hen we worked with old houses, where we worked with a language that was somewhat “postmodern”. The reference to Venturi was the most refined way for us. Trying to be “contemporary” in homes with traditional customers who wanted a strong theme of the traditional. We needed to use a language “in fashion” – coherent with the walls and furniture – without being banal in the contrast between old and new. The post-modern, as we have known it in a trip to the U.S. in t he ‘80s, through the Michael Graves exhibition, was the beginning. From there, we took a step back to Lou Kahn and then made one “forward” toward Charles Moore during a long meeting at his home in Sea Ranch in 1988. We started thinking about a new key for working in a context like Italy, with clients fond of that language.
What quality did you take from postmodernism, an ambiguous term?
Post-modernism was honest in recognizing in cities and generally in our culture, permanent elements, the so-called constants of history. A lot of work can still be d one on permanent e lements: Leon Battista Alberti, John Soane, Plečnik, among others, have intercepted those elements and have known how to renew them. In this sense, the key to interpret the modern home is the Anglo-Saxon one. In ‘88 at Harvard and Berkeley studying how Wright, Sullivan and some California architects were working on the classical repertoire, I was convinced that the Anglo-Saxon culture expresses a greater freshness in translating constants. More recently, Moore and Venturi were i deal architects, because they knew the repertoire well, interpreting it effectively and with great respect for livability. Aldo Rossi in Europe and the trend did the same but in a too intellectual way, with exploitation of the function.
The architect normally engages in a lot of experiences and many jobs, but few people have the opportunity to work in such diverse fields: for example interior fittings on ships. Are there differences and parallels between the inside of a ship and that of a home?
Yes, in the “Costa Victoria” we created micro homes for sailors. Almost everyone had a minimal cell, typically 2x2 meters with all kinds of equipment to be able to stay in his/her world. I remember that the idea started out with the room of Van Gogh.
And you have also done public spaces on ships…
The differences between a public space on the ship and one on land is that on the ship we tried to provide spaces for escape. For example we had a dining room for 300 people where we put two wide painted panels – about 7,50 x 1,70 meters – inspired to Henri Rosseau representing the Jungle. As if to say, do not put pictures of the sea in the marine world, but images of the earth, in a most archaic and savage way. Working for a ship, in a sense it’s almost easy due to the fact that the organization of work and space becomes more ordered. And then in naval design, architectural design is highly assisted by those who make the ship. It is a very well organized world. Obviously when you start working with them, you have to be efficient and aware of the technical knowledge that you must work with. You have to be very flexible and quick to understand how your proposal might fit into their system.
From the outside you can imagine that the work of an architect is much more limited on a ship than in a house, especially on the rationalized use of space, or commercial exploitation of certain spaces.
No, because in a house you do the design but, due to a lot of interactions with builder, owner and burocracy, you play multiple roles. On the ship it’s easier, even if you deal with higher tehcnology.
When you hear the phrase “a beautiful home”, what do you think?
A place to feel good. It is a very concise definition, but really right on. It is the result of a composition where the visuals, the arrival routes, the interior paths, the proportions and rhythm of the environments have been taken care of: high, low, wide, narrow and the colors. The limit between architectural space, furnishings and design is less and less clear.
Do you sometimes hear that decorators know better how to design interiors?
I think in many cases yes, because they have a stronger sense of how to feel good, although sometimes it is a bit superficial. For me, feeling good is deeprooted and cannot be ignored: if I go to a hotel, I do not hesitate to change the room, even for one night. I move the bed and other things. Sometimes clients call me to discuss possible further changes in their home and it makes me immediately want to move the furniture. I involve the client, we do it together. In those cases I feel the urgency to act.
How do you acquire this technique?
The sense of comfort in a home responds to a series of mental exercises that we do among spatial perception, fabrics, colors and memories. Memoirs of architectural tours, films seen, houses visited. Slowly a reservoir has been accumulated from which to extract with great rapidity what the client needs in that moment.
Your mind is inhabited by images of affection, recurrent architectural forms or fragments or by many obsessions from which you liberate yourself designing projects?
I would say small obsessions. Affection is maybe a better definition. There are constants in domestic life: you can wait years before proposing a certain atmosphere that comes from who knows where: Strehler’s Cherry Orchard or Beatrix Potter’s scenarios.
Having your “dog house” to return to, the home is a place where you relax, regenerate and depart again.
And in t his Mariri is very determined, that is, to offer through the home through “little nooks” of well-being, and she does it with great attention to detail, to adhere to that model she has in mind. It’s her constant attitude, 24/7 for 35 years, linked to her own personal history. She goes for a short trip by car and makes her own little house inside the car. What stands out in the value of how to live is this idea of living well in daily life, starting with, for example, the fireplace. We have had one in our house in the city for 20 years, and we believe that it is good for you and we try to convince our customers to do have one too. Just like we think that a dining room, however small, but close to the kitchen allows for always eating comfortably without having to settle for a frugal meal at a counter. They are devices that work and as such are proposed to clients.
What do you think of architectural experience to the effect that the world is in motion? The world is transitory, in the world everything changes, then the home should reflect this instability in the world?
I am fascinated by changes and at the same time, I need to have stable points ‘to catch my breath’. And then the home is like a body or, as Auguste Perret said, architecture is the skeleton of a human body. Starting from here, one could say that it is not made for echoing external suggestions. It has to simply welcome, like a womb.
How do you imagine the home of tomorrow?
Maybe tomorrow our homes will flake off and we will have only simple rooms spread over the territory, where we will perform specific activities in various hours of the day or night. Or maybe the home will never change. The home as factory, in a negative sense. There is a home made of industrial materials. It is a changing house, also transparent, open to the outside and inside, an extroverted house. It appears mechanical. But it is also welcoming.
The house built by Chareau in Paris. It is a house from the ‘20s, all metal, glass, wood and cement. It has stability, it is comfortable and reassuring…
These things amuse me a lot. I try to do this in my own small way. But this sense of movement is essential in the play of daily life. Like c hanging scenes in theatre.
We are intrigued by becoming more skillful in giving form to change. In other words, we have become more sensitive in putting together elements that have multiple uses and meanings. The Home of the Artisans: Wood, Marble, Iron, Plaster, Fabric, Color. Regarding remodeling work, years ago Andro Corboz published an essay, “Old Buildings and Modern Functions”. The book identified three different strategies of projects: one was the legibility of intervention, the second was reversibility, the third was contemporaneousness, that is, a project’s ability to exploit what the age offers.
Is there resonance for you in Carboz’s criteria? Why did you put a white wood floor covering on the original flooring in Villa Rusca [house 105]?
The same thing happened also in house 90 where there is artisanship, it is difficult to makeover and I do not feel like demolishing it. There is always something to learn from works that were done 100 years ago. It is low tech and you have to respect it. And so, the solution is not erasing something that has a value in and of itself, even if only for the trials and tribulations of the craftsman who made it. The home speaks about individuals who live in them for months or years, but the materials that we find inside speak about entire generations.
On the subject of artisans and materials, the interiors of a few of your houses appear like treasure chests, with great care to details. There is wood, treated with paint or reflections, some rooms have the impression of being a great big piece of furniture.
In house 57 like in house 80, there were so many functions that were supposed to insert, that we couldn’t lose space in centimeters for the thickness of the walls. So only the wood allowed us to make spaces with dividers 3 centimeters thick. Each room grew out of another like an interlocking game managed in the end by four assemblers, almost like circus performers.
Let’s observe another house where there is great attention, and complexity, where various linings and wooden items are used, that mutate mysteriously into spaces to be discovered.
It is a home built for a family and the daddy is one who loves every detail. It was a home that was deeply desired and we had to put together comfort and technology. It was the first “smart house” that we did i n 2000.
In the bathroom of house 57 there is a lot of attention to marble covering, especially the floor where you inserted a staggered sheet, almost out of scale with the dimension of the room.
Perhaps we wanted a rug of marble as large as the entire bathroom. It was a pink from Portugal that we sought for a long time, because it had to be unique. The different layering allowed us also to link the axis of the window with that of the door because they were not completely aligned. By doing so, we created that movement that when repeated in the other direction became a game. Aside from the best intentions, these are things that happen when you draw.
Going back to house 105 in Villa Rusca in Genoa, there you framed the doors of the hall with double edges. An elegant and refined detail. What was the problem underlying this detail?
It came from a problem of interferences between cables and beams, together with a fact of minimum height of things in the hall. We sought a solution that was able to create harmony and unity through an architectural motif.
Is it possible that the solution to problems like this can become an element that is taken up in another home where there is no technical matter to be solved, in other words, that it becomes a stylistic element that characterizes your work?
In the specific case the cable coverings pronounced in house 105 were already used in another house. In this case too the presence of very thin walls was annoying. It was to counter these walls that we proposed a thickness that almost like a powerful blade cutting, to oppose the walls with strength.
In some houses, you worked with fabrics. This happened for example in the home in the Villa of Quarto, where it was the covering of a cushion of an armchair. Is this something you propose, or do you wait for your client to ask?
Together we felt this need, so we did it. Sennett said that a well-woven fabric and a well-cooked fish allow us to imagine wider categories of goodness.
Why did you decide to substitute the fabric of a chair from the 18th century with a fabric imported from Africa with a design like Paul Klee?
The point is to understand the right level of affinity between the two materials: the woodwork done in the 18th century and the chromatic work and geometry of the fabric made today. In a glance, you can see that in the end, space and time work together, compressed into one object. The chair and its fabric bring together for a moment the manual skill and thought of two artisans who lived two hundred years and 6000 kilometers apart (animal laborans and homo faber).
How do you find fabric for the upholstery of an 18th century chair?
It is not a predictable research: if someone sets out to find a specific item and doesn’t find it, let’s say that running around, at times, certain things jump out at you and you like them. The right thing to do is leave without the urgency of finding just that thing, because you do not know if it exists or where.
When you finish a house, are there surprises or does what you planned come true?
We are always amazed, going back to the initial sketches: what we had imagined is exactly there and in those proportions. As if the beginning and the end match.
And in Villa Spinola Carrara you had a star made on the floor to give some light to the room. Is it unusual to find formal or decorative elements in your work? Why did you chose exactly that sign in that case?
There were two options: either an eye or a star. Now I do not remember why we chose the star. But we liked that shape at the base of the fireplace and it worked with the “starry” ceiling. And after the star of the bath at Portaluppi’s Villa Necchi I was reminded of the master’s ease, which is linked to the freshness of certain “homes without architects”.
In home 84 you inserted a blue cupola. Other places you used sails as false ceilings. Any link?
The vault is not a theme that is developed in contemporary architecture. It is a topic we developed in 2005 in house 84: a house that was designed on the interior by Luigi Carlo Daneri. Here we have created a dome. The dining room had a table that could not be at the center. It was slightly eccentric because you had to leave space on t he side. So the physical / geometrical center of the room didn’t correspond with the point where the table is. The dome was used to provide a new center for the eating area restoring its dignity. A few months later, we met Makovecz in Hungary and found a certain similarity and resemblance with a dome that he had in his studio, and it made us laugh. Still on the subject, we did work at Villa Rusca and house 66 i n Milan: i n the latter the clients were sailors and we thought the image of the sail could attract them to their passion for that sport. When you use a solution like this, we feel the person who lives there might like to find a simple and plastic form of their own life. It is like when you make a gift to someone hoping they like it. Also there was a strictly compositional reason: the vault was spread over three rooms in a line (the dining room, living room and TV area) and served to unify them. They communicated in the center through wide gaps in the walls and open sliding doors. There was a beautiful communion between the three environments.
What connection can there be between a sail and a veil of cement?
The tension. In fact, drawing something so it looks like something else, is slippery because of an underlying ambiguity. But we believe that this is the challenge, or rather, a typical content of architecture: to resemble or refer to something else. From the Apollo’s walls in Delphi simulating the most archaic stones, to Renzo Piano, often proposing natural affinities for his details. You can make a false vault of very tense shape. There is always a transmission of meaning: the language of a growing tension and thinning of the material thanks to technological progress, passing significantly from one century to another.
From human skin to a home’s skin… What is the final layer? How is the fabric or color?
The choice of the final layer with which you dress the walls – the color – goes back to a visual archive of one or two lives. Sometimes entire backgrounds other times just fragments from Seventeenth centur y frescoes in the palaces of our city come to mind. The irresistible temptation to transfer them into the houses we design. In some occasions even the colors of the clothes from Renaissance paintings. And they are also the colors of souvenirs that we take with us as tourists: the lilac of the Royal Academy in London by Norman Foster, the white on the heads on the beams in traditional Japanese homes. Up to the periwinkle shirt of Peter Smithson. And when the opportunity presents itself finally the obsession is satisfied. I’m kidding but it is part of us and our Italian-ness. We want to include, to save, to accumulate. And the house – in spite of minimalism – is the ideal place of stratification, of ritual and strangely even of memory.
Speaking of color, there is another large interior where you used a lot of color and I mean the work at Ponte Doria. Is there a parallel or an influence in the use of color in homes and the use of color at Ponte Doria or can they be considered two completely different things?
Color is one of the ingredients to use, like in cooking, and we use it both in homes and in public buildings. There are those who express themselves using a white background; this could be a characteristic of the Le Corbusier style purism of Richard Meier, especially in the Decorative Arts Museum in Frankfurt, but also more recently in his Barcelona museum. We have always used the color. We love color: at times we like to paint the entire room or, like in Ponte Doria, only one pattern. There the intention was to underscore the geometric design. The assumption was that rationalist architecture was icy outside and colorful inside. Here I remember, above all, the Villa Müller in Prague by Adolf Loos.
Patterns of a different color that we vary from room to room bring out the depth in visual perception. A dark pattern in a room may serve to enhance something in perspective in the next room. In reinforced concrete houses, for example, you could have more freedom to overlap surfaces, color helps mark the diversity. We don’t always use the same range of colors. It depends on the situation: for example in our first house there was a large window looking out onto the port through which beautiful red sunsets reverberated. So we decided to “extend” these sunsets, making them enter the house and painting the ceiling a warm red and the doors of three different shades of green. The house was in the hills and the colors that came in from outside, from the sea and the sky, could not be separated from the interior space. These situations might well have seen only ten days a year, but those days are well worth waiting for.
architect, professor of architecture in France and Switzerland, recently published L’espace et le dОtour (with André Corboz, 2009), Invention d’une ville (2011), Humanisme et Architecture: Raj Rewal, construire pour la ville indienne (2012).