21 July 2014
Cino Zucchi (born in Milan, in 1955) has always liked to tackle the most diverse scales and areas of design: from urban planning to residential buildings and from parks to churches, culminating in his recent foray into the world of product design with Artemide—not to forget his curation of the Italian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale of Architecture, still underway. Among the architects of his generation, he is one of the few who has been able to combine a commitment to academia (he teaches at Milan Polytechnic) with a noteworthy building activity, leading to the realization of a very long series of projects in Italy and abroad. Yet those who know him are well aware that architecture does not exhaust the entire range of his interests. Zucchi is a great talker, with a gift for subtle irony. He loves to come up with quotations, is passionate about music and painting and is intrigued by so-called minor stories and figures who are regarded as marginal, but capable of great poetry. At bottom, Cino Zucchi is the epitome of a collector. For he accumulates stories and objects of every kind, from the highbrow to the bizarre: books, puppets, paintings and images downloaded from the internet are jumbled together in a sort of Merzbau that, like Kurt Schwitters’ original, is made up of many things, but primarily describes its creator’s personality.
Cino, you describe yourself as a pop architect. Explain what you mean.
The term pop harks back to the sixties, and for me is a sort of imprinting of my youth. As a boy, shortly before 1968, I had the impression that the world might really change. It was a time of great experimentation with society and with form. But pop for me means popular too, in other words the fact that architecture, which is necessarily for use by everyone, cannot be cerebral or elitist. I’m thinking of the cartoon film Cinderella, a masterpiece that has revealed the full extent of its refinement with the passage of time, and of the essay written by Sergei Eisenstein on Walt Disney, of whom he was a great admirer. The whole of the last century is permeated by the relationship between highbrow art and art for the masses, and German Kultur often looks with envy at the vitality and perfection of American music and cinema.
And so from architecture we have already arrived at the movies.
The best thing in this regard was written by Walter Benjamin in his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, where he says that cinema and architecture are the two arts for the masses par excellence, because they can both be absorbed in a distracted state. In short, I consider myself a pop architect because I regard the discipline itself as pop. Even my musical tastes are in tune with this, and I only listen to pop music while I’m working. Every moment of my life has a song in the background. I think the only thing that I’m going to leave my children will be an unknown number of CDs of Canadian indie music.
In an interview you once said: “I like architecture that tolerates the disorder of daily life.”
I have a great deal of admiration for the SANAA studio, but I find their buildings difficult if not impossible to live in. If you had unleashed my four children on one of their houses, they would have covered all the windows with Pokémon stickers.
And what is the job of architecture instead?
Architecture ought to be like a soup bowl, a sort of container for our liquid life. Half the buildings we see in magazines are photographed with no people in them, as if they were just parasites that mess things up. Architecture doesn’t end with its functional program. In fact it’s an invention that should be immediately put to the test under the conditions of existence that make it possible. I don’t believe in social engineering: rather than generating a new lifestyle, architecture should be able to accommodate and amplify the one that exists. Life is untidy and architecture has to be able to tolerate and interpret it. If you go to Chandigarh, Le Corbusier’s brutalist architecture of the superman retains its force even after all the spontaneous transformations brought about by the people who have lived in those spaces over the last sixty years.
In which buildings designed by famous architects would you carry out your daily activities?
Some works of architecture that I admire as a tourist—I’m thinking of Gaudí, for example—are total spaces of art in which I would never live, because it would be like living inside someone else’s brain. A bit like what happened in Fantastic Voyage, that science fiction movie of 1966 in which a group of miniaturized people were introduced into the body and brain of another person.
What are the positive examples?
The most civilized and welcoming institution that I’ve ever visited is Arne Jacobsen’s Aarhus City Hall. You see it even in the details: on the button of the elevator is written in Danish “You want to go up?” or “You want to go down?” I find it moving, because it represents the relationship between institution and citizen in the best possible way. Again because of a certain fondness for Nordic architecture, I’d like to die and be buried in Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, a magnificent place from the point of view of its landscape and architecture. I’m a “city person,” I love urban life, but if I had to choose a house in the country it would have to be Louis Kahn’s Fisher House. The most effective museum, on the other hand, is undoubtedly Ignazio Gardella’s PAC in Milan. I’ve been there to see I don’t know how many exhibitions, and everything worked perfectly, disclosing different qualities of the spaces. We are attracted to works of architecture, like people, because while having an identity of their own, they are capable of holding a dialogue with us. Finally, a piece of furniture: Luigi Caccia Dominioni’s Catilina chair, able to give shape to our life. When you sit in it you feel like a Roman senator, it makes you assume a regal posture!
During your years of study at the MIT in Boston you were in contact with Marvin Minsky, one of the earliest theorists of artificial intelligence. Did he have an influence on you as an architect? I’ll quote you a passage from The Society of Mind, in which Minsky uses an architectural metaphor: ?“No linear account could ever describe as vast a structure as the human mind, just as it would not be possible to grasp the character of a cathedral, a city or a civilization by looking at just one aspect of it or following just one route.”?
The most sophisticated approach to artificial intelligence—I’m thinking of Minsky and above all Douglas Hofstadter, another great hero of mine—looks at cognitive processes that cannot be summed up in unambiguous terms. It is no longer possible to think of a mechanistic model of the brain because, to use Minsky’s words, the latter functions as a multiple semantic network. Allow me to quote something at length. In his first essay, Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci, Paul Valéry wrote: “The monument (which composes the city, which in turn is almost the whole of civilization) is such a complex entity that our understanding of it passes through several successive phases. First we grasp a changeable background that merges with the sky, then a rich texture of motifs in height, breadth and depth, infinitely varied by perspective; then something solid, bold, resistant, with certain animal characteristics—organs, members—then finally a machine having gravity for its motive force, one that carries us in thought from geometry to dynamics and thence to the most tenuous speculations of molecular physics […]. It is through the monument […] that we are best able to reconstitute the clear intelligence of a Leonardo. Such a mind can play at imagining the future sensations of the man who will make the circuit of the edifice, draw near, appear at a window, and by picturing what the man will see; or by following the weight of the roof as it is carried down walls and buttresses to the foundations; or by feeling the balanced stress of the beams and the vibration of the wind that will torment them […]. It will test and judge the pressure of the lintel on its supports, the expediency of the arch, the difficulties of the vaulting, the cascades of steps gushing from their landings, and all the power of invention that terminates in a durable mass, embellished, defended, and made liquid with windows, built for our lives, to contain our words, and out of it our smoke will rise.” This multi-existence of the cathedral and of the work of architecture in general, an object that is at once abstract and phenomenal, is the same as the one of which Minsky writes in the passage I quoted. His is really the intelligence of a Leonardo.
Once you spoke to me of Hofstadter and his essay Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity, in which he points out how many scientific discoveries come from the observation of small but significant variations taken to an extreme.
This is a concept that I have embraced in full in my activity. Instead of always thinking about finding a new basis for everything, we need to proceed by minimal variations pursued with constancy. I believe that the process of design is a tree of choices, a set of branches in which we have to choose the right direction each time, until we reach the end result. This complex scheme is in a way very similar to the game theory studied in the field of artificial intelligence.
How do you manage to balance your pragmatic approach to design with a humanistic and multidisciplinary culture?
I have an education in the American mold. I’m a great fan of Thomas Jefferson, who when he was president of the United States designed the University of Virginia in a Palladian style, but with fantastic low serpentine walls—worthy of Eladio Dieste. From America I learned the great lesson of empiricism, and in my head I have always tried to unite the scientific and experimental approach, which is what has made the Americans great, with the historical erudition typical of us Italians.
What is the type and scale of architecture with which you are most at ease?
I like to keep changing. I’ve always done with interest whatever has been asked of me, things that can be very different from one another. Paradoxically, it is sometimes more difficult to design a faucet than a city, because the design of the latter is based on established rules and techniques. At times, as you descend in scale, the theme becomes more arbitrary and therefore more complex. This is why I find product design so intriguing: this year, for the first time, I had the opportunity to work for Artemide and I enjoyed it greatly.
Better a free project or one with strong constraints?
I like themes with strong limitations, they’re the ones that have stimulated my best designs. Many people associate my name with the D residential building in Venice, low-cost housing in a tightly constrained context. I believe that freedom is not always the harbinger of quality, because when you work with very tight constraints you’re forced to sharpen your wits. Recently, I had great fun curating the Italian Pavilion, because it was a quick job. I’m impatient, I’m not good at waiting, and here you see the result in five or six months, fantastic!
If you hadn’t become an architect, what profession would you have chosen? I’m thinking of Michel Rojkind, who ten years ago gave up his career as a drummer to devote himself to architecture. Or Vito Acconci, who left his mark on the history of art with his performances and is now a successful architect.
A musician for sure! I played the drums and percussion for years, as an amateur. Music apart, I have the character of an artisan, so I don’t like the work of organization or the kind based on public relations. I like all those activities in which, applying rigorous processes, you get unexpected results. Carpentry, for example. I’m thinking of St. Joseph. For a carpenter creativity does not come ab ovo, but lies in variation of the molding, of the types. Savinio called it “thinking with the hands,” a good antidote to idealism and aestheticism. Going back to the question of pop, I’m an enthusiastic collector of minor arts. I like unwitting experiences of art, the unending series of figures generated by everyday material culture. With the crafts you sometimes arrive at art and sometimes not. It’s like throwing dice.
Let’s imagine a playlist combining architecture and music. Try and connect your projects with a song.
Once I had great fun drawing up a playlist on the theme of the city for Patrick Tuttofuoco. I like sophisticated pop, and could make a long list. I’ll start for myself: Baby Cino by Miss Maureen and Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen. Then my projects:
As curator of the Italian Pavilion, you have been fully immersed in the country’s architecture over the last few months. How healthy is it?
The crisis is profound from the viewpoint of the profession and the property market, but in qualitative terms you can see a great renascence. I could quote Gio Ponti when he spoke of “courageous and highly cultivated” architects. The generation aged between thirty-five and forty that is working in Italy and Europe is of very quality and has a maturity that in some cases is very evident. After touching its lowest point in the eighties, the quality of Italian architecture today has taken a decided upturn. In this context there are some architects, but above all some works, that are truly convincing. I’m thinking of the Artist’s House and Studio at Kastelruth designed by MoDus Architects: it is innovative from the typological viewpoint, with good technological solutions, at a fairly moderate cost. What more do you want?
So you’re enthusiastic?
Yes, it’s a good moment. Young and gifted architects like Alessandro Scandurra, Onsitestudio or Labics have been given excellent opportunities to construct apartment and office buildings. In general, it seems to me that today’s clients are making more use of good architects that those of the eighties. Times of political and economic crisis are often times of artistic flowering.
How much of your bent for collecting is there in the Italian Pavilion?
Paul Valéry said that “taste is made of a thousand distastes.” When you put a lot of things together, you construct a repetition by difference, an almost artistic mechanism that allows you to point out not just the individual experiences, but what holds them together, the relationships. In his book The Shape of Time George Kubler would have called them “formal sequences.” In the installation Copycat. Empathy and Envy as Form Makers, which I created for the last Architecture Biennale, curated by David Chipperfield, I put a collection of insects on display alongside a series of submarines, to draw attention to the symmetries between the mechanisms of biological and technical evolution.
So the collection can be an exercise of symmetry in variety.
Personally I find the world fascinating precisely for its quirkiness. When I go to EBay I go crazy with joy. I’m moved by the ability of human beings to produce series of things that go far beyond what is needed. French cheeses, for instance. The collector has always had a slightly perverse approach, and the pavilion to some extent reflects this propensity of mine. In the section on Milan you can find, for example, an anomalous genius like Cesare Pellegrini: like Paco Alonso de Santos in Madrid, or Maurice Smith in Boston, Pellegrini is one of those highly cultivated figures whom their students find charismatic, but who can’t be classified from the viewpoint of the media. This is the beauty of the collection, that you sometimes find unclassifiable elements in it. It’s a bit like when you come across Borromini’s church of Santa Maria delle Sette Dolori in Rome, a minor work, but a very interesting one.
Which of your works would you have shown among the Graftings?
Even though for obvious reasons of style I didn’t include any, I could say that almost all my works are “graftings.” I never work solely on the building, but on the relationship with the open space, with an approach that is if you like a bit baroque, concave like the Piazza di Sant’Ignazio in Rome. For me this is where all the power of the Italian baroque lies. Let’s say that I would have had a wide choice of my own work to put on show. But in general the theme that I have proposed represents well my propensity to operate through interferences with and interpretations of what already exists.