10 September 2014
“Smoke?” she asks me. “No, thanks,” I reply. In her brightly lit studio on Via Donizetti, in Milan, the architect Cini Boeri first offers me the packet and then takes out a Marlboro Light. She lights it, takes two pulls, three at the most. And stubs it out. She is female emancipation in the shape of an architect, a woman of other times, past and future. Born in Milan in 1924, she graduated from the Polytechnic in 1951, something only two other women did that year. After a baptism with Gio Ponti, and a long collaboration with Marco Zanuso, she opened her own studio in 1963, devoting herself to civil architecture and industrial design. She taught at the Polytechnic from 1981 to 1983, and as a designer created such celebrated pieces as the Lunario table for Knoll, the Ghost chair for FIAM and the Strips modular sofa for Arflex, which won her the Compasso d’Oro in 1979.
Have you always smoked?
I started when I was a partisan. I was 18 years old, we were hiding out in the mountains beneath the peak of Mottarone, and my job was to act as courier for the documents. But sometimes I took part in raids on the Germans too.
Let’s start from that. What is antifascism for you?
Antifascists are born, not made. In my family we were antifascist from birth. I remember that when I had to put on the uniform of a piccola italiana, my father used to close his eyes and go out. He couldn’t bear it.
How do you remember those days?
I have a vivid memory, how I’d love to be able to show you the picture I have in my head! I can still see the parachutes opening like white umbrellas in the sky. With one of them I even sewed myself a skirt.
A woman, an antifascist, making skirts out of parachutes. What was the next step?
Why an architect?
It’s what I always wanted to do. I knew Giuseppe De Finetti, who kept on telling me to give up because architecture was a job for men. “What has it got to do with you?” he used to ask me.
Of your three sons, Stefano has followed in your footsteps (Sandro is a journalist, Tito an economist, author’s note). You were able to pass your passion on to him.
Doing this job means renewing yourself every day, always creating something new. As a child, when they asked him those stupid questions about what you want to do when you’re grownup, Stefano always answered: I want to be an architect. And he has become one, but it doesn’t seem to me that he’s been inspired by my work. He looks at things more laterally than I do. By the way, I just heard from him on his return from the Architecture Biennale: he says that it’s interesting, but he won’t go further than that.
Speaking of the Biennale, in 2014 it was curated by Rem Koolhaas and given the title Fundamentals. What in your view are the fundamentals of architecture?
Loving life and the people who live in it. The architect should be a bearer of culture.
They are saying it was a rather provocative biennale. Marcel Duchamp used to say that architecture is a kind of plumbing.
He was just being facetious. Architecture is provocative because it has or ought to help people to live. It’s a form of creativity that takes its origin from life itself, and so the quality of an architect should improve over the years.
Before talking about other people’s architecture, let’s start with your own home.
I live in an ordinary rented apartment, fairly big and very practical, on Piazza Sant’Ambrogio.
An exceptional observation post from which to see how Milan has changed in recent years.
Of late it seems to me that the city is in the hands of the builders, and that the Office for the Architectural Heritage is letting things go too fast. In essence, anybody can do anything.
Does it have something to do with the city council too? And yet today the mayor is Pisapia, with whom your son Stefano has worked as councilor for Culture, Fashion, Design and the Expo.
Poor thing, they’ve thrown him out so many times, perhaps because Stefano is someone who always says what he thinks. It’s a pity, because he had started to open the theaters, to get people playing music. From the cultural viewpoint, it seems to me that he’s doing a good job.
What is the city’s weak point?
Milan has some very beautiful parts but, I repeat, the Architectural Office does little and what it does it does badly, leaving the field free to private or unnecessary interests. Part of the blame should be put on an intellectual milieu that doesn’t take any care of the city in which it lives.
What was the intellectual atmosphere forty years ago?
More lively, but don’t ask me the name of a great personality, I’d have to go back fifty years. The problem is that in the end even in Italy it is practicality that has prevailed, as can be seen from the success of Berlusconi and his retinue. Let’s say that Italian society is not at its best.
Yes, but you say it with a smile.
Perhaps because I have the courage of my opinions. After all, what has the Italian intellectual world produced? You know, lately I’ve been trying to collect likeable and honest faces.
What do you do with them?
I hang them on the walls of my home. I need to surround myself with beautiful faces. Faces of honest people. Especially now that my boys are no longer here to liven up the rooms.
What faces have you hung up so far?
For the moment I’ve only one, but if I tell you who it is you’ll pin a label on me immediately.
No, I promise.
Berlinguer as a young man. I’ve already framed the picture and hung it on a wall. Obviously beauty is a relative concept, but his face has something to say.
The thirtieth anniversary of his death has just passed, with Veltroni marking it with a film, Quando c’era Berlinguer, and the Five Star Movement making him its posthumous leader. Incidentally, would you hang Beppe Grillo’s face on your wall?
Never. Would it be smug of me to say that I can understand people from the expression on their faces?
No, I don’t think so. How have the faces of women today changed?
They are very beautiful. When I was young men were idolized. Then over time we have shown that we’re smart too. I’m not thinking of any woman in particular, but if you want an example I’d pick Milena Gabanelli, and certainly not Daniela Santanchè.
You have struggled for rights to which everyone is entitled today.
Yes, now it all seems to be taken for granted. Whereas we were faced with a clear-cut task. I’m thinking of the Polytechnic for example, a very male environment, with very few women: of the nine in my year there were just three of us managed to finish our studies.
When you were studying, did you already know what you wanted to do?
I’ve always been interested in housing, the setting in which people live their lives. To put it more clearly, I never thought about designing a monument.
Is there one house that you are particularly fond of?
Casa Bunker, the small villa at La Maddalena. It sums up best the way I think. The plan has four rooms, each with its own bathroom and its own exit toward the sea. My concept of housing has always been this: the maximum independence, that is to say full responsibility.
Do you feel more of an architect or a designer?
I like to design interiors most, because the arrangement of the spaces always reflects a particular way of life.
What has design become today?
Purely a quest for decoration, whereas in the fifties it was the design of function. If there was one thing we didn’t want to do it was decorative design, while today I cannot think of a single object of design that reflects a function, a material.
You pronounce design with the final consonant clearly stressed. But why do we use the English word? For years it has been a largely Italian movement.
Yes, I agree and I saw it grow.
Was it difficult?
I tried to undermine the love of the antique that was in vogue in the fifties. My design was expressed in the bed that could be taken apart and folded up (the Strips line, 1968), or in the multiuse armchair that welcomed you when you came home (Borgogna, 1964).
Have the manufacturers changed since then too?
In this period of crisis they all tell you: “Beautiful, interesting, progressive. But not right now.”
Many prizes, an enviable shelf of trophies that range from the Product Design Award of the Resources Council to the Roscoe Prize, from the Compasso d’Oro al Good Design Award. How do they make you feel?
Every so often I think about them and feel uncomfortable. Other times I remember them and am happy. But I’m not an exhibitionist, at bottom I feel embarrassed.
In 2011 you also received an honor from the Italian Republic: Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
When Napolitano gave me the medal I told him: “Thank you, but I’m not going to wear it.” He responded: “But if I come to your home for lunch one day, will you put it on?”
Are you content when you look in the mirror?
I’m getting old. I want to keep a bit of dignity even as the years pass, but I’m fairly content. I don’t seem to have done anything that was useless.
You’ve given lectures at many universities: Milan, Berkeley, Barcelona, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Detroit, Los Angeles. What impression did you come away with?
The young people are always very willing to participate. I have a good rapport with them.
What would you like to teach them today?
To be independent and responsible. To young architects I would say that before drawing up the plan of an apartment you need to understand who is going to live there. A couple, or a couple with children? I’d like them to make an effort to be more responsible.
Do you feel that the young prefer not to assume their responsibilities?
Yes, I really do. Some don’t do it out of insecurity, others because they don’t think they’re capable of acting independently. There is arrogance, bewilderment and simple laziness.
Someone needs to invent a stimulant for the lazy.
That’s right, maybe a sort of spike that would force them to get to their feet. It might be an idea.
You’ve had a lot of good ideas, always connected with civil architecture. Like your revolutionary furniture for schools.
Yes, school without punishment or reward, a proposal I sent to the ministry. With circular classrooms, in which every student has a private drawer, the benches are three by three and there is full interaction between students and teacher.
Recently, together with the NGO Liveinslums, you have conceived a line of furniture to be designed with the carpentry shop of the inmates of the prison in Bollate.
Here too, no punishment. The quality of personal space, even if imposed, can foster the human dignity that the convict runs the risk of losing.
Can you describe the project to me?
It’s a bureau to be placed next to the bed, with a table, a panel and a bracket for hanging clothes that when needed conceals you from view. The prototype is being made by the prison carpentry shop.
And to think that you started as an intern with Gio Ponti. What did he say to you?
He asked me: “Do you want to work? Then come.” While his secretary was worried and asked: “Where is your little boy, where did you leave your child, Signora Boeri?”
Among your various collaborations there is the one with Zanuso for the refuge for unmarried mothers in Lorenteggio.
Yes, we gave each bed a ?chest of drawers? that acted as a partition and provided a bit of privacy. The project was conceived for the Senavra, a sort of home for single mothers in Milan, and funded by Signora Bonomi, a benefactor of the kind you don’t find any longer.
And what was your mother like?
I was a natural child, it seems right to say that. My mother was a very free and intelligent woman. She was a teacher and when I went to see her in her class I found the little girls sitting on the teacher’s desk with their legs dangling. There was already the sense of a certain independence and freedom.
How have you expressed this idea of freedom in architecture?
In the houses I design there is a particular feature: an extra room. It’s a space of individual reflection, a room where a person can have a life of his or her own even if part of a couple.
A very innovative idea. How did the clients take it?
Sometimes they’d say to me: “We sleep together, you know.” I would answer: “Oh well, and if one of you has a cold?!” Those were years in which it was easier to suggest a cold than a bit of independence.
So as well as an architect, you ended up being a marriage counselor.
Well, I’ve also been called a marriage wrecker, as I always proposed two rooms. But for me it was important to be able to choose, and not to be obliged to be together.
There’s quite a difference.
Yes, although in most cases the room ended up being used for guests.
Why did you split up with your husband if you had two rooms?
I don’t remember [smiles]. Renato was a nice guy. When they said to him “but you were such a lovely couple,” he used to answer: “Cini had her personality and she had to express it.” It’s true. I think that he found it difficult, then as now, to have a woman at his side who was a bit too self-important and independent. But perhaps I’ve already asked you, do you smoke?