Hans Ulrich Obrist: an interview with Luca Cipelletti [PIN-UP 29]

“Preserving Italian architecture is a driving force for Cipelletti, but rather than simply recreating and enshrining the past, the 47-year-old has a propensity for teasing out unexpected connections between exhibition content and the historic buildings housing it […]”

Luca Cipelletti is somewhat of an exhibitionist: since founding his studio AR.CH.IT in 2000, the Milanese architect has designed literally hundreds of temporary art and design exhibitions, as well as many permanent exhibition spaces. This year alone he’s been busy with several major museum projects, including Rimini’s new PART — Palazzi dell’Arte, the master plan for Milan’s science and technology museum, and the design of Florence’s new Fondazione Bitossi. In 2019, Cipelletti, who often directly collaborates with artists, was also asked to take on the artistic direction for the restoration of the Palazzo dell’Arte, Giovanni Muzio’s 1930s building for the Triennale Milano, which specializes in one of Italy’s biggest exports: design. Preserving Italian architecture is a driving force for Cipelletti, but rather than simply recreating and enshrining the past, the 47-year-old has a propensity for teasing out unexpected connections between exhibition content and the historic buildings housing it, chipping away at conventional curatorial notions to allow for multiple perspectives, layers, views, and readings. Delight is always his goal, and he’s not afraid to throw in the odd touch of theatricality to achieve it. At the height of Europe’s coronavirus lockdown, writer and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who shares Cipelletti’s impassioned investment in exhibition making, spoke with the architect by video chat from their respective homes in London and Milan.

Luca, it’s such a pleasure talk to you. We have many friends in common, like [architect and Triennale president] Stefano Boeri and the Triennale team, who all talk about you every day. You and I first met when you opened the Museo della Merda, or Shit Museum, which is very Piero Manzoni, but also very relevant to our current age and the need for sustainable architecture. Tell me a little bit about the epiphany which led you to the Museo della Merda.

Well, a few years ago I visited this incredible farm at Castelbosco near Piacenza which is owned by Gianantonio Locatelli, a farmer who produces milk for Grana Padano cheese. Locatelli, who’s also an art collector, has been pioneering the transformation of cow dung into biogas that can be used to produce electricity. I found this unprecedented intersection of nature, technology, agriculture, and science really quite amazing. Locatelli asked me to come up with an idea, and together we decided to create a museum about shit and art, but also about the importance of shit in general. Why a museum? Because a museum is a place where you can learn something. Shit is endless: you can transform it into electricity, you can use it for heating, you can mix dry shit with clay to produce bricks, vases, and tableware. We’re now working on making new construction materials with it. Shit is a resource for coming genera- tions — it’s the new gold!

HUO And what brought you to architecture or architecture to you?

LC You could say that since day one I’ve been build- ing. As a child I used to put all the Lego together with different toys to build a city. Then, when I studied architecture, I met Marco Albini, Franco Albini’s son, in whose studio I spent a few years. It was there that I learned about the culture of museums, layering history and art, and began focusing on museums as public architecture. So Albini was definitely my second entry point. Then I immediately opened a studio by myself, which was very, very, hard at the beginning. I did tons of temporary exhibitions, more than 100. I learned to understand the language of an artist or designer.

HUO As you know, exhibitions are also the medium I work with. Richard Hamilton told me that Marcel Duchamp once said that we mostly remember exhibitions which invent a new display feature. Exhibitions are, of course, a laboratory for architecture in a similar way to pavilions, because there’s more freedom to improvise and experiment than with permanent buildings. At the same time, exhibitions are part of a non-sustainable industry where resources are wasted, so it’s also important to talk about sustainability issues. Can you say a little bit about the medium of the exhibition and give maybe two or three examples of favorite exhibitions that you’ve worked on?

LC I actually love to recycle materials from previous exhibitions. I remember I designed a show about Alberto Savinio, a wonderful painter, writer, and musician, who was Giorgio de Chirico’s brother. This was in 2011 at Milan’s Palazzo Reale, and, as is very often the case, there was no budget. So I reused panels from the previous exhibition. When you work in old buildings of this kind, you want visitors to be able to appreciate the architecture of the different rooms in which the works are shown, but sometimes you don’t have the square feet of wall space you need to hang all the paintings and other exhibits. This was the case with the Savinio show, so I took these old panels and made cutouts in them, creating the perception of windows and doorways. Through these “windows” you could see Savinio’s paintings, which themselves often have windows in them. Whenever I’m designing in spaces like this, I try to keep the architecture and the volumes alive, adding another layer with the exhibition. I never want to “cancel” the existing architecture. Of course it’s easier to build a new white box, but, like you said, this is a waste of energy and materials. Having all these layers makes an exhibition unique: my intention is to avoid over-designing and instead find a relationship between the architecture and the work being shown. It’s also less expensive that way! I did something similar for the Triennale in 2004, when I designed two shows related to fascism, which were obviously very controversial. There was an exhibition about the artist Mario Sironi on one side of the museum, which showed his panels for architec- ture sculptures, and the other show was of photographs by Donata Pizzi, who’d gone to former Italian colonies in Africa and Greece to photograph Italian architecture there. The Sironi show was very difficult because there were so many small-scale paintings and drawings, and then gigantic drawings for the buildings, scale 1:1. To connect all these different parts of the show, I made sure not to close one room off from another and to always give a glimpse of what came next. For example, I made a vertical cut in one of the entrance’s walls to give a long perspective on a sculpture that was at the end of the corridor — in a way, anticipating an important part of the show. With both Savinio and Sironi, it was about deduction, making a void, and forcing a perspective to help viewers under- stand the show. A hole or a void creates a clear point of view, and makes it easy for our eyes and minds to focus.

HUO Sometimes an architect’s first building commission comes through family. Was that the case for you?

LC Not at all. My family is very conservative. They would have never let me anywhere near their houses. The first real work on a building I did was completed in 2015, at Milan’s science museum, the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci. We converted the Cavallerizze, the old 19th-century stable block which had been badly damaged by World War II bombing, into a new wing for the museum. For the first time, I was able to apply what I had learned doing hundreds of shows to a whole building, keeping the origi- nal walls of the structure while working on an impressive 80-meter perspective.

HUO That’s fascinating, because in a lot of your projects you create perspective changes, and you were already testing this out in your first museum. Can you tell us a little bit about this key aspect of your work? I’m very interested in this idea of changing perspectives and the multiplicity of viewpoints.

LC I always focus on the fact that a human being is walking into a space — it can be a house, a shop, anything, but when it’s a museum experience, it’s often boring if you don’t consider that there’s a need for direction in a theatrical way. If you direct perception in a way that changes constantly, even if the rhythm is very clear, this helps avoid boring the visitor, and it opens up a new way of perceiving objects. Take my project in Rimini, which just opened. The mayor, Andrea Gnassi, is trying to develop the city center instead of the beach. The project is a joint venture between the Municipality of Rimini and San Patrignano, the biggest rehab center in Italy, which is 7 kilometers outside Rimini. The mayor wanted contemporary art in the city center, but he didn’t have a collection. The San Patrignano Foundation already started a new collection based on an endowment in order to guarantee the future of the rehab center. The donors gave different artworks, and the municipality provided these two stunning buildings in one of the city’s main squares, the 13th-century Palazzo dell’Arengo and the 14th-century Palazzo del Podestà. So we’re talking 65 contemporary artworks in a medieval complex — oh my god, fantastic! But my first problem was that there weren’t any walls to hang the artworks on — I had to create new display walls. And the other problem was that they also asked me to display Giovanni da Rimini’s Last Judgment, a huge early-14th-century fresco from the church of Sant’Agostino, 16 meters by 8! It wasn’t easy connecting the fresco with the contemporary works in the collection. In the biggest room in the Arengo, the only one large enough for the fresco, it was particularly difficult because I wanted to keep the perception of the entire volume with its five-light windows and Palladian beams. That’s why I decided to add a diagonally placed wall to carry the fresco and other artworks, so that when you enter you don’t immediately feel the presence of this gigantic wall, since it’s only perceived as a blade in front of your nose, allowing you to take in the entire room first. Then, as you start moving around, you slowly see the artworks one by one, distanced from each other and related to the architecture, and it’s only at the end that you turn round and find yourself in front of Giovanni da Rimini’s masterpiece, displayed on the other side of the blade. The idea is that, as you move around, the objects change according to your viewpoint. This is key: all the frames initially look 2D, but then they become 3D before going back to 2D. There’s an ephemeral quality, things disappear in a way. As you move around the space, you see a lot of connections. For me these ideas on perception and perspective are reminiscent of the post-war Italian school, people like BBPR, Franco Albini, Carlo Scarpa. They used to position a sculpture so that it was looking in the direction of another sculpture, gently showing a path without overloading the space with the design.

HUO You’re also working on the Fondazione Vittoriano Bitossi outside Florence. How do you invent a ceramic museum?

LC Well, first of all, Bitossi has a big collection. Ceramic making in that part of Italy goes back to the Renaissance sculptor Luca della Robbia, and even if Bitossi’s collection only dates back to the early 20th century, it’s still very extensive. My starting point was that I didn’t want it to be boring. The default is always, “Here’s the story of the founder, he was born, he created his first whatever, bla bla bla.” That narrative arc is more suitable for digital nowadays. I think that the idea of transforming an entire archive into a permanent show is more powerful. So I really insisted on putting the collection in the original place where they used to produce ceramics, leaving all the old tiles and architectural layers. I even used the cabin of a very old elevator for display. I redesigned the shelves they used for drying ceramics and put them in an incredibly long line: when you enter, all the 7,000 pieces are displayed together in chronological order, so you can really immerse yourself. On the other side, there are industrial windows for which I made frames out of Plexiglass: backlit by the windows, the frames show a selection of draw- ings for ceramics designs by Ettore Sottsass, Aldo Londi, Nathalie du Pasquier, and many others. You can walk around and stop anywhere you want. You need that freedom because it’s so interesting to really see the quantity. I think the link between my recent and current projects — Bitossi, the Triennale, Rimini, the science museum — is that they’re all about pre- serving the buildings and adding contemporary, fluid, adaptive layers.

HUO Let’s talk more about the science museum, because your work there is ongoing. I’ve been reading Achille Mbembe’s new book, Brutalisme, and he talks about the anti-museum, the idea that we should give the museum back to the city and make the walls more porous. Also, natural- history and science museums in particular often aim at a synthesis: Édouard Glissant said we need to deconstruct the synthesis because a synthesis is standardizing. We need to create an archipelago, a network of interrelations between various perspectives, and that feels in line with what you’re saying about wanting to generate multiple perspectives in a museum, rather than a synthesis from one perspective.

LC Yes. The science museum was the first time I had the opportunity to work on a more urban scale. It’s a very complicated urban site, because the main part of the museum is a 16th-century mon- astery, to which many other buildings were added at different times: the Cavallerize in 1855, the Railway Pavilion in the 1930s, yet others in the 60s All these different buildings made me ask myself, “Why are we still thinking of getting into a museum through just one door?” I felt it should be more like a park instead, where there are different entrances to different areas and pavilions. The most difficult thing for me was connecting all the various buildings, redrawing the paths. I had to think of how to reorganize the space so that you could step into an archipelago, and not through a single door. Every building has its own identity. There are certain details that connect them, but I didn’t want to redesign everything based on my idea of style. I like to let people experience the difference between the buildings. And then there was some empty space which became an opportunity to design greenhouses — a way to add greenery to the area but also to provide displays about agriculture and sustainability. Taken as a whole, the site is far more than a museum, it’s like a quarter in the city of Milan.

HUO As you know, this is PIN–UP’s REVOLUTION issue, a theme that takes us nicely to the Triennale, since, when he took over, Stefano Boeri told me that his leadership will be a revolution — one that uses the past dynamically to invent the future.

LC Revolution can happen through preservation! And preservation doesn’t mean just restoring an old building back to its original state. For me the idea is to reinvent the original building but in a new, meaningful way. If there’s architecture and it’s fantastic, then let’s play with it. Giovanni Muzio’s original axial plan for the Triennale created the perfect building to dramatically display anything you wanted — the entire building rotates around the main axis, generating two voids, one of which, the impluvium, is now covered but which we will open again. It’s this void created by two volumes that makes the space poignantly theatrical. Museums tend to be developed as empty, closed-off white boxes, the idea being that they’re easier and less distracting. But over the past ten years I’ve met many artists who prefer spaces with character, a personality, an identity. I think there’s a new way of doing things. The challenge is to create museums that produce more interactions. It’s about not giving too many directions, about taking things away, leaving more air in the space, more entrances, more freedom, offering multiple perspectives, not forcing paths. We shouldn’t be afraid of having natural light in museums. The revolution I hope to see is about having more layers in a space, with room for new temporary layers too. Of course, every museum is completely different. The science museum is about entering a big garden. With the Triennale, it’s leaving a lot of freedom for differ- ent perspectives, to let you decide where to go, where to start.

HUO And now I have a surprise: Stefano Boeri is on the phone here. Stefano, we are recording our conversation for PIN–UP magazine, I wanted you to ask Luca a question.

Ciao Luca! The Triennale is an amazing building, but it has a kind of hidden soul, un’anima nascosta. And I believe that only a sophisticated designer like you can decipher this mystery. So my question is simple: Luca, have you already deciphered the Triennale mystery?

LC I believe the anima nascosta of the Triennale is the void. And this is what was completely lost in the last decades. We have to get the void back!

SB Bravissimo! I totally agree.