Mario Cucinella’s ‘Iceberg’ Ospedale San Raffaele emerges ethereal in Milan
by Jincy IypeMay 20, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Jincy IypePublished on : Apr 21, 2023
In spirit and being, cultural architecture has enjoyed the privilege (or imposed responsibility) of being representational of stories and time—of burrowing through and learning from the past, standing for the present, and preparing itself to stay relevant in the future. But how do the building’s skin, its innards, and its essence, through materials, form, and spaces reflect this embodiment tangibly? In the same vein, Italian firm Mario Cucinella Architects (MCA), latest endeavour burrowed in the heart of Milan, attempts to embody different era's and time.
Simultaneously traversing the past, stepping into the present and holding hopes for the future—the new Etruscan Galleries at Fondazione Luigi Rovati opened recently. The Italian studio carried out the transformation of a 19th-century building into a contemporary subterranean art gallery that journeys through space and time, with vaulted interiors that 'just flow.' Two floors of the exhibition space display more than 250 works that take visitors from the Etruscan age to the world of contemporary art.
Led by Italian architect Mario Cucinella, MCA was commissioned by Fondazione Luigi Rovati for the renovation and remodelling of Milan’s 19th-century Palazzo Bocconi-Rizzoli-Carraro in 2015, apart from extending and annexing additional areas for future museum purposes. MCA also created the expressive shapes and dramatic halls of the Etruscan Galleries, apart from masterminding and composing the Fondazione Luigi Rovati’s two floors of exhibition space above ground, as well as its conservation facilities, an archive, a study room connected with the Luigi Rovati Foundation Library in Monza, event rooms, a bookshop, a café and a restaurant on its top floor. The new museum design was carefully conceived in respect of the pre-existing building, sans altering its existing characteristics, and has been completed by extending the first basement floor for use as a museum and constructing a second basement floor, below the level of the existing foundations, dedicated to storage for works of art and containing all the mechanical services for the whole building. Studio MCA also carried out the interior design, the museum’s displays, and the general art direction.
For context, Corso Venezia forms the eastern gateway to Milan, a crucial street that was embellished in 1770 by the young son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who commissioned the architect Piermarini to create the public gardens that are now known as the Porta Venezia gardens. The palaces of Milanese nobility, eschewing great architecture, took form on this urban structure, including becoming the setting for the Fondazione Luigi Rovati—“a building that not only represents the history of the entire Corso but is also a mirror of the stories that have taken place within it. The history of a building is important: its stratifications given by time, its modifications, and its architecture. They reflect the culture and vicissitudes of the families that have inhabited it, and the context in which they lived,” shares the studio based in Milan and Bologna.
We are working on some hypotheses, always with the idea that a museum is not a crystallised space, but an open and hybrid space for culture. Milan is a city that knows how to use this type of space very well. – Mario Cucinella, Founder, Mario Cucinella Architects
Cucinella elaborates on the design’s intent—“The new Etruscan Galleries at the Fondazione Luigi Rovati in Milan offer a journey through space and time, inviting visitors to enter an underground world of flowing curves and vaulted interiors that bring to mind the ancient civilization’s underground architecture. The Italian city’s new cultural destination has recently opened to the public, welcoming the exploration of Etruscan treasures and more – as its home, the prominent Milanese foundation, juxtaposes old and new art in a redesigned space on Corso Venezia.”
The Bologna-born architect has displayed his acumen for working with site-specific conditions while blending sustainable architecture and eye-catching forms to dramatic effect. To that end, the galleries are articulated in one elliptical, and three circular domed ‘caverns,’ the inspiration for which is cited from the Etruscan tombs of Cerveteri (in modern-day Lazio), their cavernous formations, which are reflected in the dome shapes carved out of natural bedrock, and translated into the 21st-century art museum space.
Almost as if they are 3D printed into precise existence, the horizontal layers and lines that help create and define the curves, recall the overlapping, underground earth strata found on those sites, crafted seamlessly out of a single type of stone, pietra serena. Concurrently, concealed air circulation mechanisms behind the stone architecture allow for precision in the control of temperature and humidity inside the exhibition halls.
Originally composed by architect Filippo Perego in the first half of the 20th century, the historic palazzo was previously damaged by the Second World War and was in dire need of both, a layout refresh as well as building repairs. The initial commission included an extension too, which was achieved by means of the excavations two levels beyond the ground. Cucinella and his team worked on the space in tandem with creating the exhibition design inside, based on a flexible arrangement of elegant, ethereal, and rectangular display cases that contrast beautifully with the layered stone interiors.
The conceiving of the Italian architecture began with preliminary structural reinforcement and sub-foundation works preparatory to carrying out the excavations for constructing the two new basement floors. After finishing the strip-outworks to reduce the loading, and demolishing a portion of the roof for structural reasons, the building was temporarily placed on foundation piles to permit the demolition of the old foundation structures and construction of the two basement floors, the studio relays.
The hypogeal levels are accessed from the main entrance, where a staircase carved in pietra serena, a material extracted from quarries in Tuscany and Emilia, leads to the exhibition space, consisting of three circular rooms and a large elliptical room. This space is intentionally kept in semi-darkness, allowing its continuous envelope of 30,000 stone segments, each one individually designed and skilfully built and assembled to emulate a softly illuminated, cave-like setting. “(This) formal continuity gives it a sense of unity and fluidity,” explains Cucinella.
The preference of employing a single type of stone, the pietra serena, gives expression to a material that is extracted from deep quarries in Firenzuola, Italy. “It gives the impression of a space that has been hollowed out: subtracted just as quarries are hollowed out to become works of architecture of unconscious beauty,” he adds.
Due to the size of each stone segment, five centimetres thick, one metre long, and placed at a distance of five millimetres from its neighbours, the horizontal stripes of the stones give the imposing grey mass an effect of suspension that contrasts with the reflective specks from Mica flakes in the stone. “They create a multitude of small points of light in the shadows and the solid mass,” he says.
“The building is thus transformed into a journey of art through time, in its technical, poetic and human expressions,” says Cucinella.
In this stratification of time, the exhibition space dedicated to the Etruscan collection is placed at the first basement level, which has been extended (under the garden) to create a series of new rooms. According to the design team, this subterranean, fluid space draws inspiration from the tombs of Cerveteri, one of the few remaining examples of Etruscan architecture.
“The exhibition is a journey through art and architecture, between the formal and the material, between city and civilisation. From warriors to the relationship with nature, from beauty to the encounter with the gods. The urban layouts of Etruscan cities, from Marzabotto to Vulci, recount the history of those cities, and the organisation of their inhabited spaces; the urban scale and the scale of objects, from the house to the workshop, from the banquet to the sea, become part of the exhibition experience: a broad reading of that civilisation that extends through the whole exhibition space,” Cucinella expounds.
Studio MCA was also behind the design of the transparent display cases, working closely with the Fondazione Luigi Rovati and the scientific collaboration of Prof. Salvatore Settis, who also conceived the museography project. The design team relays that the exhibition display windows and the internal layouts were designed to meet the highest international standards in terms of their aesthetic and functional technical quality, in tandem with introducing elements of innovation and experimentation into the field of museology.
Concurrently, all the internal finishing work on the above-ground floors commenced—on the first floor (the piano nobile) the pre-existing boiserie and furnishings, designed and introduced into the building by Perego were prudently restored and repositioned. Level zero, out of the five floors hosts the entrance hall and garden, the bookshop, the ticket office, and the coffee bar/bistro. The next, mezzanine level incorporates the offices of the Luigi Rovati Foundation while the main floor above contains museum rooms and spaces for contemporary art exhibitions, including site-specific interventions in some of the rooms. The second floor dedicates itself to events and temporary exhibitions, while the third level contains the restaurant.
Designed by Marilena Baggio of Greencure, the outdoor garden forms another fundamental element in the overall recovery and restyling project for the Palazzo. “The project envisages maintaining and respecting the pre-existing tree species, integrated with elements of vegetation and lawn that are already present in the urban context. To reduce water consumption, it was also decided to select tree species that require minimal irrigation,” reveals the official press statement.
From the start, significant attention was given to environmental and energy sustainability, in terms of services engineering, the choice of materials as well as general use strategies.
All the thermal and cooling energy required for air-conditioning is attained via ground-source heat pump systems. “In this way, by exploiting the significant geothermal resource that can be accessed in Milan, local greenhouse gas emissions are cancelled out and the maximum usability of all the building's outdoor spaces is guaranteed without introducing significant noise emissions and without occupying any of the valuable outdoor spaces that can be used by the public. The performance of the building envelope has also been considerably improved by insulating the preserved historic walls, replacing all door and window frames with high thermal and visual performance components, and finally, by introducing automated shading systems for both solar energy and light comfort control. The lighting systems are fully LED and intensity-controlled. The reduction of the energy demand is also achieved by a photovoltaic system at the roof level, positioned on the inward-facing pitch to respect the landscape constraint that protects the view of the building from Corso Venezia,” the Italian architects explain.
The Milanese architect paints a picture—The stone architecture of the ‘Hypogeum Floor’ hosts a portion of the exhibition itinerary—greeted by a large travertine cinerary urn, visitors move through cupolas, triangular crystal cases featuring large vases, votive offerings, antefixes and small Etruscan bronzes, alongside modern and contemporary works by Arturo Martini, Lucio Fontana, and William Kentridge.
The artefacts on display underneath the cupolas and inside the large ellipsoidal room, illustrate the everyday lives of the Etruscan people: their homes, craftmanship, and navigation. A vase realised by Pablo Picasso depicts an Etruscan banquet. The section In Search of Beauty is set up in a separate niche: small crystal cases hold Etruscan jewels and trinkets, as well as other precious objects, including a little, gilded-bronze female head by Alberto Giacometti. At the centre, the largest of these cases guards the Museum’s symbol, the Cernuschi Warrior, a refined and expressive Etruscan votive bronze. The section devoted to writing features cinerary urns from Volterra and Chiusi, as well as small ceramic works which, through the use of new technologies, can reveal the meaning of inscriptions. A large pane in the Children’s Room, dedicated to kids’ workshops, reveals the architecture supporting the cupolas. Another small room hosts video-animation clips projected on the stone walls which narrate episodes of Etruscan history.
Leaving the Hypogeum, the exhibition itinerary continues on the first floor, on the Piano Nobile. The interiors designed by Filippo Perego in 1960 – boiserie, gilded doors, floorings, marble fireplaces and the Eighteenth-century mirrors in the hallway - have been recovered, renovated and readjusted to build an avantgarde exposition space; the studies behind the chromatic choices open up the dialogue between archaeology and contemporary art, stimulating visual emotions into the visitor.
The canvas The Etruscan Scene: Female Ritual Dance (1985) by Andy Warhol, Polaroids from the series Etruschi (1984) by Paolo Gioli, drawings and watercolours by Augusto Guido Gatti (1863 – 1947), remains of paintings rediscovered in the Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia: these are some of the artworks integrated with the Etruscan mass pottery production represented by the vases displayed in the same room. The exhibition itinerary unfolds in the following rooms, inhabited by Etruscan sculptures and artefacts as well as works conceived by contemporary artists such as Luigi Ontani, Giulio Paolini, Francesco Simeti, and Marianna Kennedy. In addition, the Museum hosts important loans such as the extensive collection of axes, clasps, and working tools including the “San Francesco’s storehouse”, from the Museo Civico Archeologico of Bologna; Le Cheval d’Agamèmnon (1929), a large painting
The various sections of the exhibition itinerary aim to create a narrative continuum between the Hypogeum Floor and the Piano Nobile in which ancient and contemporary dialogue with one another, thanks to contrasts and similarities – explains Giovanna Forlanelli, President of the Foundation – The visitors will experience the artefacts and artworks on display as well as the architectural spaces which, thanks to their constantly varying forms, lighting effects and colours, are not simple containers, but essential parts of the Museum experience.
The collections of Etruscan and contemporary art are the heart and entryway to Fondazione Luigi Rovati, but they are not the total sum of its efforts – continues Salvatore Settis, coordinator of the Foundation’s Steering Committee – as these include maintaining close ties with the city of Milan and its institutions, in addition to providing new spaces for a multidisciplinary dialogue, with a focus on ideas and activities that prove socially beneficial. Whatever cultural initiatives are undertaken, they are meant to display the same level of quality and commitment made clear by the works on display.
The exhibition spaces are designed to serve as an integrated, well-defined platform for temporary events, providing visitors with a brand-new museum experience. Furthermore, the White Space on the first floor and the Pavilion in the garden are entirely dedicated to temporary projects.
Along with the exhibition activities, the Foundation is committed to research and education initiatives. The services and spaces dedicated to this purpose include the Study Room on the second floor (where volumes on loan from the Foundation’s library in Monza can be consulted) and the sub-basement level, holding the Foundation’s Study Collection, reserved to experts and researchers, and open to the public on “special” occasions.
The Foundation promotes access to knowledge, making every effort to overcome physical, social and cultural barriers through partnerships with professionals and non-profit associations. Guidebooks will be available for free to assist visitors with cognitive disabilities thanks to the initiative realized by L’Abilità Onlus and supported by De Agostini Foundation. Moreover, an accessible museum tour for visually impaired visitors was developed in partnership with the Istituto dei Ciechi (Institute of the Blind) of Milan, including a series of 3D reproductions of artefacts and a guidebook in braille.
"The Museum is a place of research, experimentation and knowledge, in accordance with the principles of social utility that guide all the Foundation’s activities. This is why the Museum was initially opened to the public free-of-charge, without any formal opening ceremony," concludes Giovanna Forlanelli.
"By thus recovering a building, the Fondazione Luigi Rovati is expressing the fundamental concepts of sustainability, of recovery, of focussing on energy and consumption issues, and on the reuse of materials; but the special attention that has been given to the conditions of well-being for visitors, researchers and staff. Architecture and art are also a form of care; they enter into us, creating emotions, imagination, and memories. This is a way of caring for people; an attentiveness that is the most genuine expression of sustainability," shares Cucinella.
Name: Fondazione Luigi Rovati Museum—Etruscan Galleries
Location: Milan, Italy
Area: 4,000 sqm
Year of completion: 2022
Client: Fondazione Luigi Rovati
Architect: MCA - Mario Cucinella Architects
Design team: Mario Cucinella, Giovanni Sanna (project leader), Damiano Comini, Maria Dolores Del Sol Ontalba, Luca Sandri, Dario Castellari, Enrico Pintabona, Irene Sapienza, Martina Buccitti, Wallison Caetano, Eurind Caka, Flavio Giacone, Ernesto Tambroni, Chiara Tomassi, Davide Cazzaniga, Silvia Conversano; Yuri Costantini, Andrea Genovesi (model makers)
Structural Engineers: Milan Ingegneria S.r.l.
Services Engineers, LEED Consultants: Manens – Tifs S.p.A.
Engineering for Stonework and Domes: Casone Group S.r.l., Elios Engineering
Landscape Design: Greencure
Restoration: Chiarugi Simone Restauri Mobili Antichi, Gasparoli S.r.l.
Acoustics: Biobyte S.r.l.
Lighting: iGuzzini illuminazione S.p.A, Enrico Colombo S.p.A.
Multimedia/ Tech: Dotdotdot S.r.l. and Zeranta Edutainment S.r.l.
Graphics/ Signage: Zup Design S.r.l., Silvia Gherra – silosilo studio
Contractors: Ediltecno Restauri S.r.l., Aertermica S.r.l.
Accessibility: Associazione L’abilità onlus, Fondazione De Agostini
Fire Safety: Gae Engineering S.r.l.
Site Supervision: Engineer Walter Incerti – IZed Partners
Health and Safety: Engineer Claudio Caramia – Arkein Studio
Project Management: Engineer Giovanni Canciullo
Interiors Restaurant and Coffee Bar-Bistro: Flaviano Capriotti Architetti
Project Management - Interior Design: Maurizio Forlanelli, Giorgio Mantegazza – Attua Project
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