Milan-based architect Cino Zucchi on how to design generous, open-ended spaces

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Cino Zucchi about urbanity, excessive social engineering, and his own design methodology the architect refers to as “reverse engineering”.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Nov 15, 2021

Milan architect, Cino Zucchi (b. 1955), obtained his Bachelor of Science in Art and Design from MIT in Cambridge in 1978 and the following year earned his degree in architecture from the Politecnico di Milano, where he is Professor in Architectural and Urban Design. Actively engaged in theory, writing, teaching, and lecturing all over the world, Zucchi is the author of numerous books that include The architecture of the Milanese courtyards 1535-1706 (1989), a painstaking research on Renaissance and Baroque courtyards in Milan and the architectural culture that generated their forms. His architecture has numerous sources—historical as well as contemporary—and it is influenced by projects of Aldo Rossi and writings of Manfredo Tafuri. Yet, Zucchi insists that he is largely self-taught, pointing out that his work is more about interpretation and manipulation than invention. The architect has designed many award-winning mixed-use, predominantly residential environments in Italy and in other parts of Europe; they include such projects as Lavazza Headquarters in Turin (2017), "Novetredici" residential complex on via De Cristoforis in Milan (2016), Nuovo Portello housing complex in Milan (2008), and D residential building in Giudecca in Venice (2003), which attracted international attention and praise. The following is a condensed version of my recent conversation with Cino Zucchi over Zoom between New York and his busy studio in Milan.

‘Novetredici’ residential complex on via De Cristoforis, Milan, Italy, 2016 | Interview with Cino Zucchi | STIRworld
‘Novetredici’ residential complex on via De Cristoforis, Milan, Italy, 2016 Image: Filippo Poli, Courtesy of Cino Zucchi Architetti

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): We spoke at the opening of the ongoing 17th Venice Architecture Biennale. So, it will be apt to start with some of the impressions of what you saw there. What do you think about the main theme, which for the first time was posed in a form of a question, “How will we live together?”

Cino Zucchi (CZ): People meet in cities, and it is there where they exchange knowledge and engage in dialogues. In English, the word “urbanity” stands for courtesy or politeness; in Italian, the etymology of “villano” (unpolite) refers to someone who comes from a village, and, therefore, has no manners. That’s what “urbanity” means—to come together, to meet each other, to cultivate a dialogue, a common code of behavior, and why not, some kind of shared aesthetics? In this sense, even if I am not at all indifferent to the beauty of natural landscapes, I consider myself an extremely “urban” person. Today, information technology allows us to be together without meeting in person, just like we are conversing right now. But we still have a strong need to meet informally: to gossip, to share a meal, or to go for a walk.

Some days ago, I was in Place des Vosges, a beautiful 17th century Parisian square with trees and fountains. I took a series of pictures of very different people there —loving couples, loners, families, and friends of different ethnic groups, genders, and ages. They all used very “generic” cast iron and wood benches in their own peculiar ways. It is important to be aware of how much our designs can determine people’s behaviour.

‘Novetredici’ residential complex on via De Cristoforis, Milan, Italy, 2016 - Façade detail | Interview with Cino Zucchi | STIRworld
‘Novetredici’ residential complex on via De Cristoforis, Milan, Italy, 2016 - Façade detail Image: Filippo Poli, Courtesy of Cino Zucchi Architetti

VB: In a way, the more generic our designs, the more freedom they entail, right?

CZ: And here is another example to illustrate what happens when you try to be too deterministic. Just some weeks ago, I visited a celebrated project, the Superkilen Park in Copenhagen, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group and Topotek1 with the art group SUPERFLEX. To tackle with the extreme ethnic diversity, park’s design features a fountain from Morocco, swings from Iraq, a playground from India, Armenian picnic tables, German benches, and iconic references to many other countries. It was equally instructive, but in the opposite way.

‘Novetredici’ residential complex on via De Cristoforis, Milan, Italy, 2016 - Façade detail | Interview with Cino Zucchi | STIRworld
Residential Buildings in the ex Rossi & Catelli area, Parma, Italy, 2011 Image: Courtesy of Cino Zucchi Architetti

VB: I wonder if this strategy didn’t backfire, even if the initial intentions were good?

CZ: It did! It created all kinds of tensions between different ethnic groups. Conflicts erupted when some people started claiming “their own” territories to hangout. They would react to mismatching identities, saying to other minorities, “Go to your own bench!” I saw this happening before my very eyes.

We need to admit that “social engineering” often failed because of so many architects' and urban planners' deterministic attitudes. Space is strongly related to social life and human behaviour. Yet, so many architects seem to be unaware of this connection. We can admire many early designs by architects of the Modern movement, such as Moisej Ginzburg’s Narkomfin communal housing block in Moscow with its tiny cell-like rooms and large collective spaces. But almost all these experiments have failed socially. In any case, most of them never reached the capacity of potential adaptation to new uses that we still see in more “traditional” urban models.

Now, let’s go back to the question by Hashim Sarkis, “How will we live together?” The issue he raised is crucial, and it forces us to consider what architects can and cannot do in the present situation. What responsibilities we should and shouldn’t take from an ethic point of view? But most of all, what concrete changes can be undertaken by the means of our discipline and what is really out of our control? I consider myself a very “engaged” architect in the fields of environmental protection and social integration, but I still believe that many of my colleagues are overly optimistic and ambitious in their assumptions that their designs can “save the world".

Residential Buildings in the ex Rossi & Catelli area, Parma, Italy, 2011 - Elevation | Interview with Cino Zucchi | STIRworld
Residential Buildings in the ex Rossi & Catelli area, Parma, Italy, 2011 - Elevation Image: Courtesy of Cino Zucchi Architetti

VB: Did you see any interesting projects at the Biennale that you think could point to an inspiring direction for architects at this time?

CZ: The Biennale is so big that visiting it, is like going to the Louvre: either you see it all in a state of “information fallout” or you focus on a few things. In any case, there is too much text, infographics, and visuals to absorb. As a reaction, on my visits to the Biennale I tend to prefer things that are simple, clear, and without much explanation. This year, I particularly enjoyed the Chilean Pavilion and the presentation by Michele De Lucchi at the Venice Pavilion with its soft architectural utopias of pristine landscapes; in my eyes, reminiscent of a contemporary version of Bruno Taut’s Alpine Architektur.

D residential building, Giudecca, Junghans area, Venice, 2003 | Interview with Cino Zucchi | STIRworld
D residential building, Giudecca, Junghans area, Venice, 2003 Image: Courtesy of Cino Zucchi Architetti

VB: Having a chance to see it in person, I agree about the Venice Pavilion; it was one of the few installations focusing on potential beauty of spaces, structures, and forms. The installation was also accompanied by inspirational quotes, including a beautiful interpretation of a quote by Vitruvius who said: “The architect must know astronomy if he wants to build roofs.” And the interpretation was: “You don’t build a roof to make a shelter from the rain, but to make something connecting you to the stars.”

CZ: Yes, I found it to be a very poetic installation, full of architectural cues. In general, when you go see an art exhibit, you see the actual artworks in front of you. But when it comes to architectural shows, the big dilemma is: should we represent an architecture that is physically not here—maybe it is in Canary Islands or in the middle of Moscow—and narrate its complexities through videos, interviews, drawings, models or even a full-scale mock-up? Or, should we design an installation around our thinking, vision, position, and so on? Most of the authors mix both of these approaches.

Apartment building on the Harbour, Ravenna, Italy, 2011 | Interview with Cino Zucchi | STIRworld
Apartment building on the Harbour, Ravenna, Italy, 2011 Image: Courtesy of Cino Zucchi Architetti

VB: You mentioned earlier that architects should not get involved in “social engineering". Could you elaborate on that? And perhaps you could point to a particular example that would support that position.

CZ: There are many of such examples. I was in Madrid, visiting the Mirador housing project by MVRDV, which is promoted as a collection of housing units stacked vertically around a semi-public elevated plaza; to implement this idea, the architects sacrificed all the individual loggias in order to have one “collective balcony". As I was taking pictures of it, a teenager living there came up to me and testified that all the inhabitants including him really hate this building and that nobody ever goes to this sky-plaza. It is in fact a windy and somehow unfriendly space. As a social experiment It is a total disaster, despite the architects’ perfectly good intentions. Still, it doesn’t mean that we should stop experimenting.

Lavazza Headquarters, Turin, Italy, 2017 - View of staircase | Interview with Cino Zucchi | STIRworld
Lavazza Headquarters, Turin, Italy, 2017 - View of staircase Image: Andrea Martiradonna, Courtesy of Cino Zucchi Architetti

VB: Is there one example you could share from your own experience where you believe your design improved a particular situation?

CZ: That would be my project of the new headquarters for Lavazza in Turin where I kindly forced my client to bring the company’s canteen outside of their new corporate building and place it in an existing refurbished power station in front of it. The restaurant is used by the entire neighbourhood and by the students of the nearby design school, and the large green plaza between the company headquarters and the former power plant has become an inviting public space of the whole quarter. Corporate buildings usually provide wonderful facilities for their employees but from outside they look a bit like enchanted castles with reflecting glass facades; but this complex really exploits its urban location as a resource, spreading out its facilities and services around the shared public space. It is a win-win for everyone.

I don’t believe architects should force people’s behaviour, but rather design a loved backdrop of their daily lives to promote social exchange and well-being. I like architecture to be open-ended. I particularly like the word “generous", which is better than “generic". Generic is something that can please everyone and host everything, but it can end up in a box with no character. A generous building or space can have a certain richness and articulation of materials, structure, form, detail, and still be very open to many uses and behaviours.

Often buildings from the past are much easier to reuse than buildings built in the last 50 years. This does not mean we need to be conservative and nostalgic. We should continuously look for new architectural and urban configurations able to respond to the needs and values of contemporary life. Yet, we need to be aware of the qualities of proven models and explore the new potentials of existing buildings and environments, without any fetish of the “new for its own sake".

Subsidised residential buildings, Nuovo Portello, Milan, Italy, 2008 | Interview with Cino Zucchi | STIRworld
Subsidised residential buildings, Nuovo Portello, Milan, Italy, 2008 Image: Courtesy of Cino Zucchi Architetti

VB: Where do you derive your inspirations from?

CZ: What I sometimes do could be similar to what is called “reverse engineering", —you take an existing artefact that seems to work, you take it apart to examine its components, and you put it back together making it better. So, whenever I am in a place that I like intuitively, I try to analyse it and understand what is it that creates its magic feeling. For example, sitting in a Parisian café, for all of us is a wonderful experience— we are outdoors but protected and gazing on a busy boulevard. A variation of this primary sensation is the pergola of a fish trattoria in Capri overlooking the Faraglioni or another distant view. 

Architects are producers of new spaces. I start to consider my desired goal and then I look for precedents of manmade environments, be it by architects or by traditional craftsmen, as exemplified by the seducing images of Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects. The aim is to achieve something universal and unique at the same time. One useful reference for this process would be Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language, where the author looks for configurations, which not only express a desire or a problem but also reveal how material culture responded to it, from the scale of a city to a kitchen table.

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