PRINT April 1986


A DISCUSSION OF GAE AULENTI’S work—of its quality and importance, and also of its various difficulties, uncertainties, and defeats—seems basic to a discussion of the role that the generation to which she and I belong has played in Italian architecture over the last thirty years. In general, Aulenti’s life and mine have followed parallel paths, and they have also intersected both publicly and privately; thus my essay mixes different levels of discourse—biography, history, and analysis—in what may seem an imprudently personal fashion. I hope, though, that it will convey the context from which I write, as well as a sense of the different spheres of thought and activity that have gone into her work. During thirty years of acquaintance Aulenti and I have maintained diverse viewpoints and judgments, and yet remained on the same side—the unpopular side—of the troubled barricade between traditional architecture and the Modern Movement to which we both belong. I am proud to say that I organized the first comprehensive show of Aulenti’s designs, at Milan’s Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, in 1976, a show that stirred up a great deal of debate. Our alliance began long before, however, with our days in the classrooms of the musty Milan Politecnico, in which we both studied, having arrived from our respective provinces in the piedmont. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, the only topics of real interest in the school came from the student body, or were imported from outside: the debates of Milan’s Movimento Studi per L’Architettura (Movement for studies in architecture) over the future of rationalist architecture in our new democratic state (we hoped to participate in these debates, and were soon successful); lectures by various well-known 71architects, invited to speak, against the opposition of the school, by the students; the 1949 meeting of the Congrès Intemationaux d’Architecture Modeme, in Bergamo; the first architectural collectives, exciting events for us; and, above all, our own passion for political debate, and our encounters with the writer Elio Vittorini and his Politecnico magazine.

After graduating, I went to work as an editor for Casabella Continuità, and two years later, in 1955, Aulenti joined me on the magazine’s staff. Our doubts about the permanence and the value of any of the ruling ideologies, and about the misinterpretations of Modem principles that were becoming widespread at the time—in short, our sense of the need for profound critical revision—were nurtured during these years by the visits of the philosopher Enzo Paci to the offices of the magazine, and later by the addition to the staff of Guido Canella, Aldo Rossi, and Francesco Tentori. Under Ernesto Nathan Rogers, editor of Casabella, we both came to understand that theory and awareness of history are as indispensable to becoming a good architect as are technical knowledge, taste, and talent. Aulenti learned a lot from Rogers, and also from Giuseppe Samona, under whom she was a professor in Venice in the early ’60s. There is no doubt that it was Rogers who taught our generation architectural literacy; he made us understand our moral obligation to be intellectuals above artists or professionals. This feeling of responsibility was fundamental to our discussions, in both writings and projects, of the Modern Movement. And it instilled in our “generation of uncertainty” a sense of continuity with and respect for the Italian generation of Modern masters—from Ignazio Gardella to Franco Albini, from Samonà to Ludovico Quaroni, from Mario Ridolfi to Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini. The houses Aulenti and I each built in 1956, whose designs were published in 1958 in Casabella #219, manifested a sense of impassioned thought, and probably were also influenced by our interpretations of Theodor W Adorno’s critiques of Marxism.

In 1960, Aulenti and I both participated in the Milan exhibition “Nuovi disegni per il mobile italiano” (New Italian furniture design), in which we tried to use limited economic means and a narrow range of expressive devices to convey a rather wide point of view. Aulenti contributed solid, architectural furniture that even then went well beyond the usual. The precise poetry it described would remain central to her work in the years to come. The same furniture was also shown in Milan’s 12th architecture and design Triennale, in 1960; the historicist interests of her installation touched off a minor scandal among architects, but nothing compared to the controversy over her installation for the next Triennale, in 1964. During the intervening years, political issues had brought about important realignments in the Italian architecture world. Realistic and historical concerns were replaced by linguistic experiments—the formal manifestation of a deep unease about our relationship to the present and to the future, both of which we saw in terms of changing value systems and social hierarchies. In hindsight, the 1964 Triennale presaged many events and crises in the years to follow It raised unsettling questions about the possibility of arranging a harmonious environmental whole, whether physical or social, and also about the possibility of any real independence from that whole. The exhibition demonstrated a desire to make firm, solid statements, whose strength was measured precisely in terms of the architect’s awareness of the surrounding fragmentation and change. Its focus on leisure was inevitably controversial, for Italy was not used to thinking of itself as an affluent society In Aulenti’s installation, cutouts of the two women in Pablo Picasso’s Women Running on the Beach, 1922, ran—or roared—to the sea, as if obeying the dramatic interrogatives of a Godardian weekend.

In the ten years following the 1964 Triennale, Aulenti’s work consolidated and grew in density. Density I think, is the right word to describe her research, her mode of developing objects and architecture, the way she seeks to maintain the work’s sense of necessity and to extend her spatial and volumetric ideas, even in the most apparently frivolous pieces. Here the distinction between design and architecture is purely a nominal one—a question of occasions and subjects, not of contents; what makes Aulenti an architect is not a question of scale or of media, of cement as opposed to composition board. For me, one of her most beautiful architectural works is her 1966 Jumbo table, and the Olivetti company’s traveling exhibition of 1969–70, which she designed, initiated a discussion of the language of architecture ultimately more important than, for example, the fine project, unbuilt, that she submitted in the competition for Olivetti’s Perugia headquarters, in 1978–79. Aulenti is very attached to her finished projects, and has no desire to be thought of as a designer, still less an interior designer. But only those with scant understanding of her work, and of the history of architecture since the mid ’50s, would make such a banal mistake. Nor does she argue the Modern case for methodological unity between design and architecture. On the contrary, she opposes the idea of the general transferability of principles between the two disciplines, presenting instead a more internal system, one that can specify the separateness of different themes while unifying them through a process of structural reduction, of dissection, which seems to augment the density of the different materials she uses.

Two precise morphological processes in Aulenti’s work contribute to its internal density: centrality, and the rupture of or variance from the vertical plane. Centrality is emphasized by her passion for the solid structure of the square, though it is also countered, kept from stasis, by various exceptions to the geometric form, amplifications that set in motion a slow, heavy, dynamic tension. As for the rupture of the vertical (influenced by the ancient structures she saw during travels in the Yucatan), it is evident in much of Aulenti’s work: her designs for the 1972 exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the interiors of the 1970 Fiat store in Turin, and of the 1966–67 Olivetti stores in Paris and Buenos Aires; the 1971 villa in Capalbio, near Rome; the 1969 apartment complex on Milan’s Via Borgonuovo; and, finally, the 1975 project for Cap Ferrat, near Cannes, and, in the same year, the Pisa house, with its long parallel walls. With their diverse slopes and slants—the steep, stairlike devices, the echoes of the buttress and of the prehistoric roof structure—these designs show a taste for references to preclassical architecture as the best means to communicate a sense of elementary construction, and as a way of relating to the earth. Two more architectural projects should not go unmentioned: the 1973 Parma house, one of the most sure, specific images of the last thirty years, successfully communicating that same feeling of elementary construction as the basis for architecture; and the 1977 project for residential dwellings in Caracas, which accomplishes the same end in a different way.

Some of Aulenti’s most famous objects were designed during the ’60s and ’70s: the rocking chair and the Locus Solus (Single place) chair of 1964, the plastic chairs designed for Kartell in 1968 and for Knoll in 1975, the metal armchairs and folding chairs from 1973, and the famous lamps—the Oracolo (Oracle, 1968), the Pipistrello (Bat, 1965), the Rimorchiatore (Tugboat, 1967), and, my own favorite, the Pileo (Pileus, 1972). The objects Aulenti designs are almost never modeled by mass-production considerations; instead, relying on the developed traditions of craftsmanship from which today’s manufacturers can draw, she puts into production objects that have generally begun their life as components of a strategy for a specific space. Mass-produced, they pass into the common language, acting as parts of a common debate and taking on new meanings. The range of Aulenti’s designs—for flatware, doorknobs, house-hold objects—tells of an intense level of activity, signifying not only talent but also a conception of architecture as infusing the everyday, and signifying also the necessity for the kind of patient, obstinate, organized, and probing research without which creative results are never possible.

Each of the objects I have mentioned is constructed like a piece of architecture, a “design” in the Renaissance sense of the word. This sort of design necessitates theoretical elaboration, and it was no accident that in 1974, ten years after Rogers left Casabella, Aulenti and I found ourselves editing the magazine Lotus, along with Joseph Rykwert and Oriol Bohigas. As Casabella had before it, Lotus became a forum for ideas as important as they were heated (at least during the magazine’s first five years), and these were relevant to our design work. Also during 1974, Aulenti had her first meetings with Luca Ronconi, who directed the theater and music section of the Venice Biennale in 1974 and 1976 (while I was the director of the visual-arts section). It is a tough undertaking for an architect to become a stage designer, even leaving aside the hostility one gets from professionals in the field. The transition seems as if it should be easy, but actually one must tackle the difficult but necessary task of submerging one’s point of view, putting the interests of the theater production above one’s architectural concerns. At the same time, one cannot abandon these concerns, which are integral to one’s vision of space.

Aulenti reconciled this conflict, and in fact her capabilities and passions were such that after her first attempts at stage design she joined Ronconi in his Laboratorio di Prato, a workshop whose special study was the relationship between theater and the notion of territory, of the land as it is socially organized and understood. A series of productions grew out of this experience, including, in 1976, La vita è sogno (Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño, or Life is a dream, ca. 1633); in 1977, Le Baccanti (Euripides’ The Bacchae, ca. 406 Bc) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Calderon (Cauldron, 1973); and in 1978, La Torre (Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s Der Turm, or The Tower, 1925). In all these works the sets played a central part, and contributed to the coherence of the whole. Independently of the Laboratorio, but again working with Ronconi as director, in 1976 Aulenti did the stage design for a production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, 1925, and, in 1984-85, the sets and costumes for Gioacchino Rossini’s extraordinary Il viaggio a Reims (Journey to Reims, 1825). In her hands, stage design is in no way simply a backdrop; it is an integral part of the performance. And Ronconi, working with her, has himself become something of an architect, dealing more and more in his theater with a sense of space.

With the exception of the 1983 competition for the Lingotto building, in Turin (a competition I also entered), and of a series of interiors, Aulenti’s activity in the last five years has focused on two large-scale projects, both of them in Paris—the Musée d’Orsay (a collaboration with halo Rota), and the redesign of the large part of the Musée national d’art moderne’s space in the Centre Pompidou. In this city we both found ourselves cultural emigres at the same time—she with her museums, and I as the architect for the now-aborted 1989 World’s Fair. To live away from home is always difficult, but in Aulenti’s case it culminated in the successful resolution of an extremely complex theme, whose articulations stem from two principal considerations: the situation of working within a preexisting building, a condition she exploited to the fullest; and the problem of displaying works of art, and of their relationship to the public. Despite the wisdom and inventive richness with which Aulenti met this challenge in both projects, my preference is for the Centre Pompidou design, in which she confronted an architectural work itself recently built, brilliant, and contemporary, but adhering to entirely different architectural principles from her own. The clarity and poetic simplicity of her solution to this impossible task, and the way she used the Beaubourg building’s strengths for her own ends, is admirable. Her intervention has given the art a secure framework and brought architectural honesty to the spaces, all with an elegant naturalness—yet a naturalness that I know is the result of a complex system of ideas and esthetic choices.

I would like to mention two other projects; in both, Aulenti was her own client, so they are especially revealing as to her architectural approach. I refer to her house in Gubbio, in the Umbrian hills, and to her Milan apartment, in both of which I’ve spent time over the years. Works in progress, they have often been modified, but I think they are among Aulenti’s most beautiful achievements. They also stand among the most enduring examples of recent Italian architecture. In the Milan interior, begun in 1973, the entire tradition of the modern dwelling seems to achieve a sort of calm maturity, though the apartment retains a qualitative experimental tension. Its measured use of materials gives it an unquestionable architectural presence. In the Gubbio house, built in 1977, one could say again that the issue is one of interior composition—of a system of interiors, actually, including the inner spaces of the chain of structures that string together to make up the building, composing a kind of catalogue of the site’s specific properties; the spaces between these elements, masterfully placed on the sloping land; and ultimately the enclosed space of the valley in which the house stands.

Nothing, of course, is more obsolete in critical terms than the mythology of interior space as the axis of contemporary architecture and as the controlling element in our interpretations of architectural history. Yet the theme of the interior is a principal element in the tradition of the Modern Movement. Periods of momentous change have often been marked by new meanings and even new vocabularies developed through the construction of small, experimental interiors—a tradition that Aulenti’s work seems to continue. Today, the interior is usually presented either as the matrix from which the entire built organism is developed, or according to a programmatic idea of spatial continuity beginning from the outside, so that the interior rethinks the architectural issues raised by the exterior. In both cases, the Modem Movement sees the correspondence between interior and exterior as a question of coherence more than as a question of linguistics.

What happens when one reexamines the need for this coherence? An architect like Aulenti does not posit interior and exterior as distinct models, but investigates the dimension between them as the very center of architectural inquiry. She joins together these two distinct surfaces in order to emphasize the difference between the various parts, and she draws out the transition from one to the other through voluminous depths, elevated passages, mysterious slants, and changes in light and distance. It is not so much that the interior takes on an autonomous truth as that the fundamental solidity of the architecture both proposes and negates a Wrightian symmetry, simultaneously restating the notion of coherence between interior and exterior even as it questions the necessity for them to cohere. (Aulenti is one of the few architects of my generation to retain a fidelity to the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright without becoming encumbered by the stylistic consequences of those ideas). Rather than a relationship between spaces, she often sets up a relationship between weights, a patient measurement of intervals, and here one senses points of support and reference for the unfolding of the architectural story in our time, and for the development of its discourse. Aulenti’s interiors seem to pave the way to an existence of the future. If ours is a “society of spectacle,” as Guy Debord has stated, then nothing better defines contemporary society as it is and ’as it aspires to be, in all its diversity, than the environment of the house—both defense against and mimesis of our urban and territorial negotiations, and the setting for the difficult dynamics of our cultural relationships: man/woman, parent/child, stability/change. Aulenti’s work has revealed these dynamics, sometimes through the exceptional sophistication of her structures, sometimes through her alignments of established and developing cultures, and her new and original notions of comfort and privacy.

It was no accident that Aulenti became a stage designer, for this was a logical step in her architectural discourse. And she has transformed the style of Italian theatrical design, which in large part, even in the most sophisticated cases, was based on the tradition of stage scenery and the illusion of perspectival distance. Aulenti’s abandonment of this tradition in theater reflects back on her work in architecture, for she has always questioned our notions of the true and the false, our acceptance of artifice. In doing so, she has instigated a profound discussion about meaning, and about the limited legitimacy of the theatrical dimension in contemporary architecture. If for the Modern Movement beauty is truth, and truth is the essence of the built object’s use and of the morality it embodies, then the manipulation of space of which architecture consists must be evaluated in terms not of its theatrical effect but of a critical stance toward it, a mode of reason. Today, this criticality must pass through a complicated labyrinth of reflections, returns, intervals. The image of reason may seem to have a clear presence, but actually it has become impossible to tell where truth ends and where its mirror reflections begin. I suspect that no one really has the answer right now, but I know that, for Aulenti and myself, the dream of its eventual discovery cannot be ruled out.

Vittorio Gregotti practices architecture in Milan. He is a professor of architecture at the Istituto Universario di Architettura, Venice, and the editor of Casabella.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.