After graduating from the Faculty of Architecture in Milan in 1976, a university in the throes of a crisis which managed to interest him very little, (the attendance of which allowed him, however, to meet a number of important figures from the Italian cultural scene), Citterio entered the world of design, perhaps as a means of measuring himself, even by contrast, against the figure of his father, a producer of custom made, traditionally styled automobiles. He set up a studio with Paolo Nava in 1971 and in 1979, at the age of 29, received his first taste of professional success: the Diesis sofa. Designed for B&B Italia, it is characterised by its severe and minimalist elegance, though with ergonomic leanings, more Eames than Mies. In fact it is possible to note that, with respect to the German master’s rigid sense of measurement, here the design is not characterised by the pressure die-cast aluminium structure, so thin that it almost appears to disappear all together, but rather by the soft and just slightly over-dimensioned cushions: suggesting that the objective here is comfort, the relationship with the body and even a certain tactility that is indissociable, according to the pragmatism of American technology, from the simplification and the rationalisation of the product. It is also possible to note, from the care with which the backrest has been designed, that the sofa is not intended to be placed against the wall. The intention here is to create an object that, if placed in the centre of a room, is capable of separating itself from that which surrounds it. In my opinion, if this is not a poetical declaration, it is at least the first concrete signal of a method of designing that will be honed over time: where architecture is conceived of as the backdrop and furnishings as the plastic forms through which space is articulated and made more complex. Some of his successive designs also move in the same direction. They testify to Citterio’s playful creativity as well as his ability to draw inspiration from models inspired by the tradition of design from the first half of the 20th century and the Post-War period: Eames, in addition to Le Corbusier, Chareau and Mies, if not also Aalto. On the one hand there is a necessity to refine, to perfect and reinvent particular technological and/or formal instruments, which by now have become the patrimony of our contemporary world: I remember, during one of our discussions in which I mentioned that I thought one of his chairs was derived from a work by Mies, the level of determinedness with which Citterio highlighted the differences between the two by demonstrating to me the method he had used to resolve the construction joints in an original way and how he had transformed the chair back. Primarily, however, there exists an awareness that I would not hesitate to define as Mannerist, typical of the best representatives of his generation: a Mannerism that is different from that of Post-Modernism which is in vogue during these years, fostered by Portoghesi’s 1980 Biennale with its nostalgic title The Presence of the Past (La presenza del passato), where reference is used in order to fill it’s production with the detritus of classicism; it is also different from the Memphis style of Sottsass or Mendini, once again Post-Modern in its derivation, where historical reference is substituted by an image that is constructed of pieces taken from a metaphysical and/or oneiric kit of parts. Citterio’s is, instead, a contemporary Mannerism that confronts the traditions of Modernism; in line with the work of many young architects from the same period, as varied as Tschumi, Hadid and Koolhaas, in whose projects it is not difficult to find precise references to Russian Constructivism, the transparency of Mies and the volumes of Le Corbusier. What sets him apart from his colleagues, however, who are attracted more by excess than by restraint, more by language than by craft, more by the heroic dimension than by praxis, is that Citterio follows his own path (to be precise Citterio was born in 1950, the same year as Hadid, four years after Liebeskind and six years after Tschumi, Koolhaas, Mayne and Fuksas). His association with Nava ends in 1982. The following year Santini awards him the contract for the realisation of a number of stores and the project for the Brera Picture Gallery also dates from this same year. Inside the Santini stores, notwithstanding some concessions to a more metaphysical geometry that was in style in those years, the furnishings almost disappear, in the same way as the cumbersome shoeboxes are hidden away in other shoe stores, in order to guarantee that it is the shoes that act as the protagonists, with their various colours and varying geometries. They act almost like miniature furnishings, set off against the backdrop of architecture. A playful idea, not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also commercial, testifying to a twofold interest – for the work and for the requirements of the client – an interest that, only with great difficulty, can be said to disappear in his later work. In the store in Florence, amongst the most successful, a wrap-around steel walkway creates a closed ring: its serves to bring the double-height space down to a more human scale, introducing the theme of the lightweight and semi-transparent steel structure. This is a theme that will be used by Citterio in many projects, articulating interior spaces through the use of a steel element – a ramp, a gallery, a staircase, a floor slab – freeing up the play of visual elements while simultaneously guaranteeing the integrity and the legibility of the existing structural box.
The Brera project, the result of a collaboration between Citterio and Gregotti & Associati, consists of the reworking of a small room which houses the so-called Madonna dell’Uovo by Piero della Francesca, the Sposalizio della Vergine by Raphael, and an altar-piece by Luca Signorelli. It is a work of minimal dimensions but of great importance within the overall restructuring of the museum, entrusted to the office of Gregotti & Associati. The well considered solution consists of the realisation of two extremely simple cuts in the ceiling, one longitudinal and the other square, through which natural light enters; the placement of Signorelli’s altar-piece on a thin stand that is de-centred within the room transforms it into an aerial and plastic totem that enriches the space, almost offering a counterpoint; and the design of the ultra thin, semicircular barriers in front of the works of Piero della Francesca and Raphael. These latter, in addition to protecting the works from the public, load them with a symbolic aura: the only slightly noticeable semicircular form brings them into a relationship with the voids in the ceiling – the elongated rectangle and the square of the two skylights – as well as with Signorelli’s altar-piece-totem: together these elements create a three dimensional composition that vaguely recalls the musical paintings by Licini, or the sculptures of Melotti.
It is important to remember that this is the same year that Tschumi wins the competition for the La Villette park with a work inspired by Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane, testifying to the fact that any given moment in history is defined by the circulation of common ideas. In the book dedicated to the work of Citterio and his wife Terry Dawn between 1979 and 1992 (edited by Pippo Ciorra, Brigitte Fitoussi and Vanni Pasca), there is some mention that the inspiration for the Brera project is drawn from the work of Franco Albini and Carlo Scarpa. This can be seen in the particular approach to the valorisation of the art works, the play of light, the design of the supporting structures and the way in which they are arranged within an architectural space. Within Citterio’s minimalism there exists, nonetheless, an element of novelty and originality. Perhaps even the desire to step outside of that excessive furore of decoration that, if in someone like Scarpa produced masterpieces such as the Castelvecchio or the Palazzo Abatellis, in other cases and when speaking of designers of lesser importance, has led to the realisation of too many over-designed museums, in some cases to the detriment of the works on display.
For Citterio the 1980’s are the years of travel, in particular to India, Japan and the United States. In India he visits the works of Le Corbusier and Kahn, by which he is profoundly impressed, as is made evident in the elegant drawings found in his travel diaries. In Japan he visits the works of Tadao Ando. What he appreciates about Ando are the rigour and simplicity, tied to an idea of the monumental that, at least during this period, does not surpass the sense of the human dimension. In the Untied States he is impressed by the experimental climate of the new generation, poised to escape from the narrow alleys of Post-Modernism, renouncing the extenuated formal refinements of the European tradition in favour of more essential products, preferably left in their raw state, realised using cheap materials, often metallic, low cost and highly effective. The aesthetic of the New York lofts, the great residential spaces found in abandoned commercial or industrial buildings, undivided by interior partitions, with exposed electrical and mechanical systems, furnished with simple and/or found objects found in markets or in some cases recycled, all of which is clearly marked by the tastes of the Pop movement. There is also the aesthetic of the Californian new wave. In 1978 Gehry had already designed the addition to his home in Santa Monica, using sheet metal and wire fencing, in 1979 he completed the Spiller House and in 1983 the guest pavilion for the Winton House, using a composition of primary volumes and had been working on the Loyola Law School buildings in Los Angeles since 1978, all of which Citterio visited in person, and by which he was profoundly impressed. Traces of this new sensibility can be found, for example, in the Factory industrial kitchen that he designed for Boffi in 1980, (the name makes reference to Andy Warhol’s world-famous Factory). The kitchen is made up of simple elements, grouped together according to the anti-compositional method of a radical matrix, and not according to conventional and modular elements like the majority of kitchens at the time. Terry Dawn, whom Citterio met in Venice, begins working with the office in 1985. She is an American born architect with a degree from Houston’s Rice University and a Masters in Architecture from Yale University. They continued to work together until 1992, when they decided to separate their professional careers from their personal relationship. 1986 was witness to the arrival of the French architect Patricia Viel who, not considering a brief pause between 1990 and 1992, began to assume a continually greater level of responsibility, supervising some of the studio’s most important projects, becoming a partner in 1999, in addition to the being the reference figure for the office’s architectural projects.
The midpoint of the 1980’s represents the beginning of Citterio’s collaboration with three important clients, defining the professional destiny of the studio. In reality the first meeting with one of these figures – Busnelli – dates back some years. Piero Ambrogio Busnelli is, in fact, the owner of B&B, the company that produced the Diesis sofa and numerous other products designed by Citterio. However, beginning in 1984 their relationship is further reinforced when Busnelli entrusts Citterio with the design of his country house in Meda. For many aspects it is a work that is not without its rough edges, realised by a talented architect, who until this moment, however, had only designed furniture and interiors. It recalls the rigour of Ando, substituting, however, the characteristics of oriental architecture with a particular Lombard austerity that can be seen, for example, in the base and the giant orders of the side elevation; this austerity is enlivened by a fortunate concession to the sensuality of the work of Five Architect, who became known in Italy during the second half of the 1970’s, and by the taste for round windows, which can be found in Japanese residential buildings, in particular projects found in the Canton of Ticino and in the work of Stirling. In 1986 Citterio designs the Sity system for B&B. The idea is original, even in its extreme simplicity: a system of seating for a contemporary dwelling, where one passes lengthy periods of time in the living room, in front of the television, with a desire to be comfortable and relaxed and not fixed in a rigid position, where friends and acquaintances can be hosted in an informal setting. This is the reason that traditional sofas and chairs are substituted by hybrids that are simultaneously sofas, easy chairs or lounge chairs or even sofas where one can lay down in a moment of relax and, as necessary, offer a bed to eventual guests. They are equipped with small components – headrests or cushioned arm rests – which can be added or removed, but above all they are characterised by the comfortable enlargement of the asymmetrical or curved space of the seating. Independent of perimeter walls, they function as islands in an archipelago, tied to each other through functional relationships and, because they are precisely the elements which define and characterise the space of existence, they can be placed in almost any environment that is capable of containing them. Even the name is symptomatic – Sity, which is the transcription of the pronunciation of the word city – expressing the change in the lifestyle of the average citizen, felt by everyone, but in particular by the new generations who inhabit the metropolis: this are the years, we should remember, of the rediscovery of the body, of the private, of new ways of living. The market reacts to the novelty of this proposal, declaring its immediate success. The critics are also in agreement and, in 1987 Citterio is awarded the Compasso d’Oro, projecting him once and for all into the firmament of the stars of Italian design.
The second important client from this period is the Californian Doug Tompkins, the owner of the chain of Esprit stores. Demonstrating the generosity for which he is known, in 1984 Sottsass presents Citterio to Tompkins as the ideal architect for designing Esprit’s new headquarters in Milan. The project calls for the renovation of an abandoned industrial building in an area near via Tortona, an area which, during those years, was considered accessible, interesting and inexpensive for stores and offices (the most important recent transfer was made by Armani in 2002, with a project by Tadao Ando, while for many years this area has been the principal host of the Fuori Salone during the Milan Furniture Fair). Tompkins had very clear ideas about the image he wished his new offices to project: slightly libertarian and somewhat rigorous according to the latest style, both informal and classy, that was characterising Los Angeles, a city which, as we have seen, became the centre of creation and innovation during the 1980’s, emerging as a formidable breeding ground for contemporary architecture. The contract is followed by a trip to the West Coast where he is hosted by Tompkins who, other than being a talented businessman, is also an important patron, having transformed his home into a meeting point for numerous European and American intellectuals, including Oliviero Toscani, Ettore Sottsass, Maria Rosa and Aldo Ballo. The time spent in Los Angeles offers Citterio an occasion to discover the work of Schindler and Neutra and, thanks to Rolf Fehlbaum – the third important client, about whom we will speak later – the possibility to meet Ray, the wife of Charles Eames. Citterio was thus able to closely examine not only the works of the master, who died in 1978, but also the production of his energetic and no less talented partner who was carrying on their common project.
Completed in 1987, the Milanese home of Esprit express the Californian spirit requested by Tompkins in the large windows that appear, on the exterior, to be undivided by window openings; in the choice, at the time unusual in Italy, to expose the mechanical systems; in the use of galvanised steel ramps and stairs; in the interior garden crossed at grade by reticular beams and walkways in galvanised steel; in the grey and somewhat unfinished exterior stucco; and in the precise desire to reduce the building to simple volumes, avoiding any projections, cornices or other decorative elements. The entry sequence is particularly interesting. It occurs by means of an ample portal and a sudden 90 degree change of direction created by a ramp that gently leads to the upper floor where the reception desk is located and from which one has a glimpse of the interior garden (today, following a series of modifications, the entrance leads directly to the garden, with the resulting loss of the surprising effect at the end of the original sequence). What should not be underestimated, even if they were surely over-evaluated by our own critics, are the references to Italian architecture from those years: the nude building volumes with the conical chimney stack which recall the works of the Italian Metaphysical movement, from Carrà to De Chirico that was rediscovered in those years in the poetic works of Aldo Rossi, who boasted a significant following in Milan at the time, but no less in the rest of the world, California included.
In 1987 Citterio also completes the new Esprit store in Amsterdam. The project includes the renovation of a building from the 1800’s, almost entirely conserved on the exterior, while the interior was completely demolished and reorganised around a central staircase in perforated steel, rendering it as transparent as possible and exalting the central void. Exposed systems, industrial materials, semi-transparent metal dividers and highly economical finishes, tied to a new concept of retail that mixes cafés and rest spaces with environments dedicated to the sales and management of products contribute to transforming the original middle class building into a loft that directly addresses an alternative culture, even while being steeped in a modern commercial guise. The following year Citterio completes the Esprit store in Antwerp, once again inside a renovated historical building, this one from the 1700’s, located in the city centre. In order to tie the three floors of the store together, Citterio designs an imposing entrance cavity on multiple levels, characterised by a walkway that cuts diagonally across this space, constructed of the same perforated metal used the panels that clad the principal wall, designed in its own right as a display wall – elegant and transparent in its industrial hardness – upon which to hang articles of clothing.
The Corte del Cotone, a financial, commercial and residential complex that kept Citterio occupied from 1987 to 1994, is essentially an urban centre which, even in its somewhat blocky severity manages, however, to escape from the monumental excesses of other works realised in Italy or in the Canton of Ticino during the same period. The complex, even while essentially symmetrical in plan along the long axis and clearly inspired by the monumentalism of Khan – an architect that both Citterio and his companion Terry Dawn have studied at great length, as testified by the numerous sketches made by both – does not privilege axial movement, instead it creates a particular visual variety through frequent changes in elevation, the formal plurality of the buildings, the varying scale of the openings in the facades and through a few, well calculated shifts. This attitude, which tends towards a rigorous and austere research that is devoid of frills, if objectified in a different form, is the same that we have found in the treatment of the building volumes for Esprit in Milan. It serves to create a built environment that is sufficiently robust and solid for hosting the world of more mobile and precarious furnishings. It would appear that Citterio is stating that space without objects that articulate it would be a void, but that these objects, in the absence of a space that fixes them within a solid urban environment, would fluctuate without ever finding a point of reference.
Citterio’s third important client is Fehlbaum, the man behind Vitra, the furniture manufacturer known around the world as a manufacturer of chairs, including those designed by Eames. Fehlbaum, who is also a talent scout, was very impressed by the Diesis: he decided to hire Citterio, even without imposing a requirement for immediate production, in order not to lose him and in order to be able to participate actively in his education, to which he contributed by organising the meeting with Ray Eames in Los Angeles as mentioned above. Citterio, for his part, does what he can in order to arrange a meeting between Fehlbaum, Busnelli and Tompkins in Basel – an important cultural centre, in addition to being the closest city to the Vitra headquarters in Weil am Rhein. Citterio’s first projects for Vitra date back to 1989: they are the entrance canopy to the showroom in Weil am Rhein and the AC chair programme. The AC1 represents the synthesis of a lengthy process of ergonomic and technological research and is characterised for its measured elegance, while the AC2 is more geometric and based on the square backrest. These two elements were followed, in 1990, by the series of chairs for waiting rooms, which develop and refine the design principals of the AC series. The beginning of the 1990’s are also defined by the contract to design one of the production facilities for Vitra in Neuenburg, to which we will return later after having completed the discussion of the works from the second half of the 1980’s, a professionally intense period that led to the growth of the studio and, in 1986, the move to the new atelier in via Maroncelli in Milan, a space carved out of an abandoned industrial building in the semi-central area of Corso Como. The office, designed according to the principles of the loft and used until 1991, now employs about 20 people. It is an international working environment, with staff from the Untied States, Germany and the United Kingdom. In 1986 Citterio begins to collect works of avant-garde contemporary art and becomes, in 1991, a partner in a gallery (an activity that he abandons beginning in 2001, though which he continues in a virtual manner, where his studio becomes the space for the continually changing display of his collection, a partial confirmation of our interpretive hypothesis based on the dialectic between architecture which tends to be permanent and furnishings, which play on change). The renovation of his home in Milan dates back to 1988, where the main living space is resolved by a system of bookshelves and wall hung containers and by a lightweight stair, placed on a skew, which visually separates the dining room from the entertaining area, while the acoustic separation is obtained by a lightweight sliding glass wall, perhaps inspired by Chareau, one of Citterio’s great passions. The Tisettanta showroom in Milan, with its inclined ramp between the two floors, is also from the same year. The following year, while continuing to work on stores and exhibitions in Europe, in addition to his design projects, Citterio is busy in Japan working on an experimental house commissioned by the City of Kumamoto in order to promote the use of wood and the headquarters for the Word Co. in Kobe, with its play on internal spaces of varying heights, extremely rigorous in their design, though animated by unexpected curved and/or inclined walls. 1989 is also the year of the presentation of the Domus system by B&B. It is a system of mobile walls and components that represents the logical development of Sity. The latter in fact organises space around a system of seating elements, while Domus further articulates it, though without touching the main structure of the room. Reference is made, even in this case, to the work of Chareau: not only for the invention of elements which pivot, of cabinet doors that move up and down in an unusual manner, but above all for the idea about dwelling that expresses a method of confronting design more as an architect, that is as the organiser of spaces, than as a designer, that is as the producer of objects primarily conceived for their aesthetic appeal.
High Touch and the First Half of the 1990’s
The years 1990 and 1991 are particularly busy for Citterio, in the fields of design, renovation and architecture. In 1990 he designs the showroom for Vitra in Paris, the Esprit stores in Paris, the Virgin Megastore in Milan, the Santini stores in Rome and Paris, the Ohbayashi Corrente showroom in Tokyo and the Moroso showroom in Udine, the city in which he sets up his art gallery which, as we have already mentioned, he manages until 2001, with Massimo de Carlo. This is also the time at which he begins his collaboration with Kartell – an innovative company specialised in low cost objects, many of which are in plastic – for whom he designs Battista, a marvellous folding trolley that occupies very little space and which can also be used in the half open position. It is part of the family of small tables baptised with the names Leopoldo, Filippo and Gastone. He also presents Oxo, one of the first trolleys designed to host the elements of new media that are invading homes in the form of personal computers, video recorders, stereos and televisions. These pieces betray a notable interest in technology and in no way refuse to investigate other approaches; these include ecological approaches, seen as a dream from a past that is more authentic and closer to nature. This is achieved by returning to some of the collections which he designed in the 1980’s, Nonna Maria and Divani di famiglia, and by invoking the memory of the reassuring sofas of history – above all found in markets and used to furnish the houses of the new generation in an informal manner, where the theme is more environmental and social – characterised by large seating, comfortable armrests and backrests, candid fabrics all of which give an impression of being slightly rustic, which he updates through small adjustments, including wheels instead of wooden feet, allowing them to be moved around with greater ease.
In 1992 Citterio completes the projects that, in my opinion, are the most important from this period. They are both for Vitra: the Vis a vis chair and the furniture factory for the complex in Neuenburg. Vis a vis appears to have all of the characteristics of a product from the Bauhaus: structure in metal tubing, minimal seat, backrest in an economic material; it clearly recalls the chairs by Breuer and, above all, the chairs for the Tugendhat House by Mies, by which it is clearly inspired. However, a more attentive analysis leads to the identification of the differences: Mies separates that which supports from that which is supported and is attracted by the idea of a structure that is made by bending a single piece of metal tubing.
Citterio, even while considering the chair based on the visual continuity of the structure-armrests, contradicts the structural principal: the seat is invaded at a certain point and supported by a cantilever, while the backrest in perforated plastic, with its square holes, connects the two armrests, becoming an element of structural reinforcement. They are two artifices which most certainly have an important role in functional terms because, separating the seat and the backrest guarantees an increased level of ergonomic comfort, allowing for a reduction in the quantity of materials, and as a result, the cost but, above all, modernising the rigidly rationalist image of an object that is visually and tactilely attractive. To date it has sold over 1 million pieces. Different than Mies’ chair, there is no longer an abandonment of the reasons of the body to those of the purity of the structure, the austerity of an image that is logically and formally absolute compared to the sensual pleasure of matter. We are on another conceptual planet. The planet of High Touch, a method of approaching design that was being proposed by some of the best designers, above all Italian, during those years, however, in an individual way, without the intention – as was the case for example with High Tech or Deconstructivism – or the awareness of belonging to a common approach. High Touch is born from the necessity of revisiting the process of technological innovation in a perceptive and relational way, seen in a positive light, where it is possible, however, to clearly understand the perils and where excesses are stigmatised. This is different than the refusal of organicism and expressionism, however, it is an escape from wrap around and complex and fractal forms found in nature, avoiding the resolution of the design problem according to a subjective reading or, worse still, taking refuge in the myth of the architect seen as the titanic creator. Instead it supports research and experimentation; it shows little interest for the abstract problems of language; it does not place its trust in those who repeat the same stereotypes, passing them off as a signature; it lays claim to the right to experiment with forms and to work, through their development, with models and prototypes from our recent history; it attempts to come to terms with the process of design that still counts on the methods of the craftsman and processes of production based on ever more efficient criteria of industrial organisation but, above all, it focuses all of its attention on the relationship between the object and the user, attempting to humanise technology, rendering it attractive and sensual and not inhuman, abstract or, worse, coldly repelling. Given these criteria it is not difficult to place within the High Touch movement a number of designers who would otherwise be seen as isolated figures from recent history: from Antonio Citterio to Renzo Piano, from Mario Bellini to Michele De Lucchi to Mario Cucinella. What brings them together is, above all, their common openness towards the international panorama and the challenges that have been made concrete in numerous projects and awards received abroad, a substantial extraneousness to traditionalist nostalgia and the Byzantine inquiries into the Italianness of Italian Architecture, the total or almost total indifference towards paper architecture. This is demonstrated by the lateral position taken by these figures with respect to academic debates and the fact, in no way casual, that many are not professors within Faculties of Architecture and, those who are have accepted this position as recognised professionals, avoiding the unnerving red-tape and games associated with professional competitions. Naturally, the differences in the orientation of their research are numerous: Piano in fact defines, in a humanist vein, the experimental deign associated with High Tech; Bellini plays with complex forms, brushing the borders of organicism; De Lucchi pursues a post-functional research that aims at a sentimental strategy of the image; Cucinella focuses an awareness on the themes of environmental sustainability; Citterio is more attracted by simplification, by the pleasure of matter, the seductive capacity of the minimal. Furthermore, to these figures, though with differing points of view, we can add, as other practitioners of High Touch, a vast number of younger architects, including: Ud’A, Labics, Nemesi, +Arch, n!studio, Corvino e Multari. We must, however, understand that even in these cases the term is used as an instrument of critical orientation, above all for defining the differences with respect to other currents and trends, and not as a category to hypostasize.
The factory building for Vitra in Neuenburg, a few kilometres from the main complex in Weil am Rhein, the other important work by Citterio completed in 1992, is one of the projects conceived of and implemented by Fehlbaum during the course of a decade aimed at transforming the manufacturing complex, known for the production of famous chairs, into a field of experimentation for some of the most innovative tendencies in contemporary architecture. The project is built following the completion of both the factory designed by Grimshaw in 1981, a brilliant building, though devoid of the Pindaric feats of one of the protagonists of the High Tech movement and the display centre by Gehry, realised between 1987 and 1989, a fundamentally Deconstructivist work that inaugurates a design method that is substantially new, which in turn leads to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; and just prior to the realisation of the Fire Station by Zaha Hadid – the first important construction for this Anglo-Iranian architect, completed in 1993 – the conference centre by Tadao Ando from 1993 and the factory by Moneo from 1994: the latter of which are more traditional, belonging to the world of Critical Regionalism, a term invented by the critic Kenneth Frampton, which includes those works that lie somewhere between the absolute research into form and an attentive adherence to the site and context into which the have been inserted.
The factory realised by Citterio is extremely simple, almost the antithesis of the contemporary works by Gehry and Hadid: the lower floor is defined by large open spaces with a rectangular plan, one central and two lateral, double-height spaces placed side by side, made possible by a thin steel structure that defines bays of 30×8 metres; the administrative zone, with its eight metre high glazing, is located on the upper level, in correspondence with the central volume. The building is characterised by the showy projections of the roof, supported by thin columns in laminated wood which, while giving rhythm to the composition, also carry out an important visual function, other than functional, protecting the southern facade against the sun, and the northern facade against driving snow. The material dimension of the original project, with its wooden infill panels, (substituted for budget reasons), was to have emerged in a stronger manner, in the end vaguely evoking the technologies and forms used in the hay barns found in the surrounding landscape. There is obviously no intention at being mimetic or making use of a rustic approach, but rather the use of a surplus of technology that would have led to the humanisation of the overall image and, therefore, the reduction of the distance between the building and its natural context. This is the experimental approach being used during these same years by architects such as Renzo Piano on the one hand and the Swiss studio of Herzog & de Meuron on the other, and which led to the innovative design approach adopted, for example, in the Ricola factory in nearby Basel (1993) by which Citterio was positively impressed.
In 1993 Citterio completes the Corsico factory and offices for Antonio Fusco, a work that he began in 1990. It marks a definitive specialisation in the field of factory design that would later involve him in numerous projects, such as Eurojersey in Caronno, completed in 1998: an essential composition of volumes clad in brick that convincingly establishes a standard for new industrial buildings in the manufacturing zone of the province of Milan, composed of austerity and good taste, of the clarity of the structure, the simplicity of construction and the refined nature seen in the detailing.
In 1994 he designs the Mobil storage system for Kartell: perfect in it’s highly sought after simplicity, it is based on an ultra-lightweight structure in metal, inside of which are inserted coloured drawers in semi-transparent plastic. The project won him the 1995 Compasso d’Oro, and the prototypes were purchases for the permanent collection of the MoMa in New York and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
This is also the period of numerous store display projects: these include, in 1993, the showroom for B&B and the Santini store in Milan; in 1996 the office designs two branches of the Commerzbank in Frankfurt and Berlin respectively, the Santini boutique in Düsseldorf and the Habitat store in London; in 1997 the Mariella Burani store in Milan; in 1998 the Birago showroom for Enzo degli Angiuoni, a store for Alberto Aspesi in Milan, one in Caldogno for Arclinea and the concept showroom for the line of Smart cars.
There are also numerous commissions for objects of design: this is the period of the creation of new collaborations with manufacturers and the request for new products from existing ones, B&B and Vitra at the top of the list. For the latter he designs, with the collaboration of Glen Oliver Löw, a series of systems for office furnishings that keep him busy from 1994 to 2000: Ad-hoc, Ad-usum, Vademecum, Monowall and Monowall 2. Versatile and functional, they are set apart from other industrial systems produced by competitors, burdened by an institutional or excessively technological appearance, by an attractive and playful aspect, almost like Meccano, and by an ideal level of ergonomic comfort, guaranteed by an ingenious system of counterweights that regulate the height of the work surfaces, and the unusual minimalism of the image, aimed at the identification of the essential and the elimination of the superfluous.
In the field of architecture, in addition to the factories that we have already discussed, some mention should also be made of the private residential work designed by the office: near Como (1995) and Bergamo (1995). They are both rigorous and contextual works: the project for Cene, for example, is built in stone and defined by the subtle cuts of the openings.
From 2000 to 2004
A revolution that would lead to a greater interest on the part of the studio in the field of architectural design took place between the end of the 1990’s, and the beginning of the new century. In 1999 Antonio Citterio and Partners was formed, increasing the level of involvement of Patricia Viel, by now working side by side with Antonio Citterio. In 2000 the office in Hamburg was opened with Jon Hinrichs. Again in 2000 the Milanese studio moved to via Cerva, in a former gym, located in a very central area. With five floors above grade and three below, the offices represent the manifestation of the architectural ideas matured during the previous years and an anticipation of those still to come.
Externally the building presents a slender but robust frame, clad in stone and framing large window openings. The impression is that of an austere severity, softened ever so slightly by the design of the slender window and doorframes. From via Cerva, through a large glazed opening that occupies the entire space of one of the divisions of the facade, it is possible to observe the interior ramp that leads to the raised floor where the reception desk can be found. However, in order to find entrance door it is necessary to penetrate the other opening, to turn back around with respect to the line of the street, and access the building from the side, by means of a door that one almost confuses for part of the wall. This approach avoids the necessity of having to add a visually heavy element, such as an entrance door to the facade and creates an entry sequence that, by valorising points of view and imposing changes of direction, articulates a system that is otherwise very simple. Inside the building a cut in the floor, parallel to the ramp, separates the latter from the wall, reinforcing its floating appearance, illuminating the floor beneath, providing an ample wall surface for the rotating display of the works of art from Citterio’s collection and of creating the impression of a triple height space in what is actually one and a half storeys. The focal point of the sequence is the lightweight reception desk designed for Vitra and a full height window that looks onto a small internal courtyard. To the right can be found the glazed elevator that faces a minimalist staircase in Aurisina stone, creating a visual point of reference. The upper floors are independent from the divisions of the facade and for this reason they are slightly set back in order that they do not interfere with it. The reason for this is simple; the facade measures itself with the urban context, with very little tolerance for an excessive level of fragmentation. The furnishings are largely examples of the products designed by the office, expressing, in an almost ideal way, the spatial concept of background and foreground seen in the office’s previous works. The architecture, more solid, constitutes the context, while design, more ethereal, is what spatially articulates it. As a result, the furnishings are either part of the wall, in the end becoming a single element, or they are placed specifically in the centre of the room. The walls also absorb lighting fixtures, switches, plugs and doors, which almost disappear. This approach has also led to the elimination of all baseboards, which would have compromised the purity of the design. All piping and ductwork is hidden from view – unlike the works from the more “Californian” period. The upper floor is home to Citterio’s personal office, featuring a large table, behind which is a long and slender wall hung bookshelf. In the centre it is possible to note the volumes of the Complete Works of Le Corbusier, the covers of which – it should be remembered – are entirely white, with the exception of one which is orange, clearly distinct from the rest; I do not feel that it is by chance that orange is precisely the colour used for the office’s business cards: an expression of the search for a refined equilibrium, unbalanced exclusively by samplings of visual energy.
The office designs the home of Edel in Hamburg between 2000 and 2002 and the offices of Neuer Wall, also in Hamburg, between 2001 and 2002. The Edel project is a five storey building on the banks of the Elba River, part of an urban planning project aimed at recovering an old river port. The approximately 6,000 square metre building contains a restaurant, a bar, a cafeteria, a showroom and a small auditorium on the first two levels, open to the public, while the upper floors are for office use. What is interesting to note here is the treatment of the building’s facades which, even while entirely glazed, distinguish themselves from a traditional curtain wall system as a result of he tight design of the windows according to a functional rhythm and the overhangs located in correspondence with the slabs, underlining the horizontal nature of the composition. Inside, there are elegant plays of space set off by large walls clad in wood and stone, some of which rotate, as for example those in the auditorium.
Neuer Wall, also in Hamburg, is a seven-storey building, with two floors given over to retail and the others to office space. The elevations are ideally formed by two overlapping facades, the external one in stone and the internal one in glass. The first guarantees the insertion of the building within its urban context, while the second, set further back, gives depth to the composition that otherwise would have been resolved in an artificial calligraphy and, what is more, through a deft play of visual depth, makes the building appear almost one storey lower than it actually is, avoiding a clumsy appearance with relationship to its neighbour. At street level the stone almost disappears, making way for the large glazed openings of the retail spaces, through which it is possible to see right through the building, increasing the level of transparency of the base, in contrast to the greater opaqueness of the upper levels.
In 2000 Citterio designs a multi-storey, single family residence in Sondrio, the upper floor of which is characterised by a patio, delimited on two sides by the dwelling structure, and on the other two by the surrounding landscape. During the same year he also designs a stone house in Novara, closed on the exterior and characterised by the slope of the roof, almost as if to demonstrate that it is possible, even through the use of traditional forms and materials, to create a more contemporary image.
There are also numerous examples from this period, as mentioned, of industrial buildings. The Aspesi factory in Legnano was designed between 2000 and 2001 (completed in 2003) and the addition to the Enzo di Angiuoni factory in Garbagnate Monastero is also from the same period (also completed in 2003). The latter is resolved on the exterior with a facade in concrete, painted in an elegant black and on the interior through the intelligent subdivision, using movable walls composed of an opaque central portion containing mobile containers and a glazed frame on the other three sides that allows to look into each space from the next, even while maintaining the privacy of each workstation.
In 2002 the office also produces the design for the B&B research and development centre in Noverate: it completes the design of the factory designed by Tobia Scarpa, built in two phases during the 1970’s and faces one of the first buildings designed by Renzo Piano, with a slender structure in reticular beams and glazed infill panels. The work, conceived of as a large prism in reinforced concrete, manages to fulfil the almost impossible role of creating an autonomous identity while functioning as the backdrop to the two pre-existing elements. It reminds one of the works of Tadao Ando, though it differs in its increased spatial liberty. The prism in fact, if carefully considered, manages to resolve itself with a pair of calibrated walls in reinforced concrete, and is almost contradicted by the lightweight roof of the attic level, set back with respect to the exterior perimeter, in order to create a magnificent terrace onto which face the company’s display spaces and technical offices.
Citterio, who continues his growing business in interior design during these years, realises a large number of projects in 2001, including works in New York, Rome, London and Paris for Ungaro and for Valentino in Milan. During the same year he designs the concept for the interiors for the Bulgari chain of hotels, for which he completes a hotel in Milan in 2004 within the former convent of the Augustinian Monks of Santa Chiara, in the Brera neighbourhood. The exterior, like all of Citterio’s buildings, is characterised by its rigour and severity, vaguely reminiscent of a particular Milanese method of composition and, in particular, that of Caccia Dominioni. One is reminded of the latter by the narrow and high windows and doors, the simple railings, the rhythm of the openings that is composed, though vaguely asymmetrical. Inside, as expected, there is a dominance of luxury, a luxury, however – in line with the architecture of Citterio and the image of Bulgari – that is made manifest more through a refined treatment than through opulence, more for the quality and the treatment of materials than for an ostentatious approach to decoration. The paving and much of the wall cladding is realised in Birmanian teak, while the SPA is defined by the golden hue of Vicenza stone, large semi-transparent glazing and, for the cladding of the pool, glass mosaic tiles in gold and emerald hues. A further confirmation that the architecture of Citterio is capable of representing the point of encounter between the sensuality of contemporary design and the needs of a client with vast economical reserves and a refined level of taste can be found in the Bulgari Resort in Bali designed in 2003 and a number of private residences: Sondrio (2002), Hamburg (2003), New York (2003) and Villasimius (2004). All of these projects present a notable and consistent research into materials – above all wood, stone and stucco – and forms that are capable of dialoguing with the environment. Removed somewhat from this group is the house in Basel, inspired by the purism of Le Corbusier, and constituting an exception also in the colouring of the building, obtained using paint colours as opposed to through the use of different materials.
Citterio belongs to a category of architects that escape stylistic definition, at least the more common ones. He is not a minimalist, even if many of his projects use the reductionist poetic of masters such as Mies. He is not a classicist, even if his works from the 1980’s and 90’s are not without their references to Louis Kahn and today there is some point of contact with the rigour of Tadao Ando. He is not a disciple of Rossi, or of Rogers, even if it is easy to find chromosomes from the Milanese school in his poetic DNA. He is not a disciple of Eames, even if many of his products are clearly indebted to this American master.
This refusal to be pigeonholed by a particular style, a refusal made manifest even by other talented and very talented architects from his generation and that which immediately precedes it – whom we have grouped under the term High Touch – does not imply either weakness or the lack of a point of reference. Actually, I feel that this sense of not being defined by some ism gives Citterio and his partner Viel a greater sense of control. It occurs, if I understand correctly, through the use of five fixed points, five axioms that have never been explicitly revealed, which guarantee a level of coherence in the office’s production.
The first is the obsession of the search for the correct solution, the conviction that architecture must resolve more so than represent problems. It is the answer to a concrete requirement, in fact, that directs one towards the systems and signs and not the other way around. In this way the sofa for domestic interiors avoids sharp or ultra essential forms: we can observe, for example, how the thickness of the seating acquires depth and, as a result, comfort, in the rationalist ABC sofa designed in 1998 for Flexform; the Bulgari hotel in Milan aims at a level of rigour that is part Loos, part Caccia Dominioni; the country houses in Cene or Novara are substantially introverted, almost in order to defend themselves from the surrounding landscape; the Edel Headquarters make use of a post-industrial image and, with its glazed walls, allows for the increased illumination of its work spaces. This is followed by measured oscillations between Rationalist and minimalist architecture, with some concessions to the organic. There is also the attention to technologically innovative solutions, almost high tech, though never completely so because there is never that love for the aestheticisation of function or mechanism.
The second axiom is the religion of simplicity: it recalls minimalism, though never its anorexic forms of renunciation, but rather makes references to sensuality and a type of luxury whose cost increases in relationship to the requirements for perfect materials and impeccable workmanship. It is clear to see that glass, in Citterio and Viel’s architecture, serves not to reveal, but to conceal. Their work is born, in fact, from a Milanese mixture: both Calvinist and aestheticising. The same mix that has produced the fashions of Armani and Valentino – the latter of whom, by no accident, is a client – the design of the Compasso d’Oro, of Domus and other magazines and the commercial aura of via Montenapoleone.
There also exists an anti-decorative obsession alla Loos, focused on avoiding, as much as possible, that which may appear as extrinsic or artificial in a particular construction. “I never use colour, but rather materials.” – Citterio has stated in an interview. These are the elements of decoration that play with the light, which give rhythm and a sense of the precious to a building through the lines that they define. We observe, rather, how these lines enliven a refined play of signs.
The fourth axiom is contextuality. The architectural work must belong to the site, rather than emerge from it. This excludes any explosive approach, in the style of Gehry or Hadid, for example. The country houses lie within the landscape, their eave lines tend to reflect the movement of the terrain, and they are made of natural materials, such as stone and wood. The urban buildings raise the issue of urban decoration; they enter into a dialogue with the neighbouring buildings, underlining their presence without raising their voice. This contextuality never falls into the trap of the mimetic, a depressing rigour or the crèche that our historical centres now represent, governed by the local Historical Control Boards.
Finally – the fifth axiom – the necessity of offering a contrast between the solids of the walls and the voids of the openings that consists of avoiding the extremes of the glass house and the bunker. Large expanses of glass are accompanied by the solid form of the roof or a brise soleil. Where matter dominates, there are always generous windows, often asymmetrically arranged, lightening the overall effect of the building, allowing for a balanced visual relationship between the interior towards the surroundings, giving the facade a refined metropolitan rhythm. All of this convinces us of the base hypothesis that the architecture produced by this office, amongst the most refined examples in the Italian panorama, rather than following the ideology of a system that is abstractly linguistic, pursues instead a clearly modern aesthetic to be understood, above all, as a tradition and a carefully considered way of living.