ENDLESS CONVERSATION Luca Cipelletti, between architecture, art, and design
Over the past decade, Milanese architect Luca Cipelletti has cultivated an open-ended dialogue between architecture, art, and design, an approach that stands out on the contemporary scene, multiplying the points of contact between a wide variety of forms of visual expression and cultural domains. Paradoxically, one of the features that most clearly distinguishes Cipelletti’s approach is the way it allows the constraints and problems of each project to shape the intervention without any imposition of a forced stylistic signature. Uniquely flexible, his strategy illuminates each project’s conditions of existence by allowing it to “speak its mind,” as in any good conversation.
If one had to sum up Cipelletti’s trajectory in a single word, sprezzatura would be as good as any. This notoriously untranslatable Italian term, coined in the 16th-century by Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, implies not only the ability to draw upon previously untapped reserves of versatility at a moment’s notice, but also an effortless optimism that welcomes difficulty as a spur to unexpected solutions. That is why Cipelletti’s approach centers as much on a constantly evolving vie des formes as on the realization of new potentials for exchange between diverse mediums at different scales.
A striking example of this exchange can be seen in Cipelletti’s own Milanese apartment (2012–13), one of his most singular inventions and a veritable laboratory for testing out new ideas. Located near the Porta Venezia, on the sixth floor of a 1920s bourgeois building, the apartment was reinterpreted by Cipelletti in order to draw in the spectator without his or her being entirely aware of it, proposing a dual meditation on the nature of vision and the exhibition value conferred upon the modern art object. The project takes its cue from three related imperatives: reversibility, the enhancement of relations between objects and the ambient space, and an overturning of the conventional separation of work, leisure, and artistic display. “The main objective was to reinterpret an apartment of a typical bourgeois design of the period in a more contemporary language, but without compromising the intrinsic qualities, details, and elegance of the past,” notes Cipelletti. “The identity of each room is therefore preserved to guarantee an element of intimacy, while openings in the walls create a uniform environment of visual continuity.” Proportionally coordinated, these apertures establish an unexpected set of relationships and interconnections that operate across scales and between rooms, enabling the visitor to glimpse the design objects and furniture from different angles, no matter where he or she happens to be. The result is almost cinematographic, though it also has undeniable affinities with scenographic representations of architecture and with theatrical set design.
The line of perspective aligning the living room, dining room, and bedroom along a single visual axis culminates with L’Attesa by Ugo Mulas (1973), a photographic work representing, in a series of black-and-white images, Lucio Fontana working on his cut canvasses. The proportions of the opening cut into the wall between the living room and the dining room were designed to accommodate the table from the Milanese textile store Galtrucco (a Cipelletti family business), designed by Guglielmo Ulrich in the 1950s, to one side, and, on the other side, a prototype desk by Norman Foster for Tecno, lit by a 1920s Bohemian chandelier, creating a triple visual analogy between the idea of cutting the wall, the cuts in the canvas by Fontana, and the cut glass of the Bohemian tradition of chandelier fabrication. Furthermore, the first wall “cut” holds a retractable projection screen which reveals, in its opening movement, all the work on the perspective and the empirical depth of the space.
This complex transformation of the field of vision multiplies the angles of sight that connect the works of art and design within the apartment. As already mentioned, occupying pride of place in the living room, across from a mural in thick black motor grease by British artist David Tremlett on the end wall (2014), is the long Ulrich table, which enters into dialogue with an Ettore Sottsass Suvretta bookcase, while the Achille Castiglioni Toio lamp strikes up a dialogue with the Franco Albini Luisa chair, which in its turn sets up a subtle counterpoint with Albini’s Cicognino side table in the other room, visible at an oblique angle to the person seated in the Luisa. All of these works participate in the valorization of a space energized by the removal of large segments of wall mass to create the impression of mirrors that do not actually exist. This strategy occasions a dialectical reversal of the approach pioneered by Carlo Mollino in many of his projects, where the mirror takes over the space by multiplying its image as well as by refunctionalizing vision through a close attention to ambient proportional relationships. This particular filiation is underscored by the two Polaroids of Mollino’s Casa Miller on the wall adjacent to Tremlett’s mural, paired photographic images in which Mollino’s idiosyncratic use of the mirror as an agent of the derealization of domestic space figures prominently. But, in contrast to Mollino’s “enchanted rooms,” the mirror is evoked in Cipelletti’s apartment but fails to materialize, and what one sees instead are real spatial relations of objects in a carefully controlled perspective. This conjures up the relationship of mirror to reality without actually needing it, joining the reception of the space to a deliberate thwarting of expectations that functions simultaneously on the conceptual and perceptual levels by establishing a friction between the two.
The result is a perpetual reframing of the gaze that pulls the proverbial rug out from under the spectator. The overall impression is that of a tightly controlled organization of space whose internal transformations and external effects are restricted entirely to the elevation. In this respect Cipelletti becomes an impresario of vision through the felicitous placement of the carefully selected object; he acts not so much as a collector than as a director, placing the elements of art and design as if they were actors on a stage speaking their lines in accordance with an ever-changing script. Ultimately Cipelletti challenges the spectator, flinging down a gauntlet where art, design, and architectural space intersect and open each other up to new possibilities of exchange through crossed lines of sight. In this sense, Cipelletti’s vision of domestic space is not only sin- gular, but also unsettling. Perhaps the most revealing situation to arise out of this logic of displacement was the result of an impromptu visit by an American fashion executive during a fashion-week reception for Cipelletti’s friend, the young designer Arthur Arbesser. After making her way to the end of Cipelletti’s long corridor, she paused to adjust her makeup and lip- stick in front of the mirror — only there was no mirror, a fact she did not immediately recognize since all the normal perceptual and spatial cues were there. An important key to Cipelletti’s design method may very well lie in this rather bizarre incident straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It acquires an emblematic meaning, if only because it attests to a continual displacement of boundaries, the disruption of the tacit agreement between the empirical world of things and the individual subject.
There is something uncanny, and even somewhat Lacanian about the way Cipelletti directs the gaze back onto itself in a kind of endless spiral, referring vision to its underlying conditions of possibility. This gives his home a specific psychic charge that is only enhanced by its perspectival organization and establishes a unique symbiosis with the objects of design and art arranged within it. The apartment thus becomes a terrain of aesthetic encounter traversed by manifest tensions and latent congruences. For although the Mulas images of Fontana and the Tremlett mural are in many ways antithetical, significant aspects of concretion join these poles of the experience of the domestic space, not the least of which is their dramatic contrast of black and white. As Nicoletta Pallini has noted, Tremlett’s interventions “are the natural and almost inevitable extension of an architectural element” — in this case, the living room walls of Cipelletti’s apartment — that “spontaneously cling to it like a second skin.” By engaging this anti-illusionistic, site- specific approach, Tremlett’s mural reads not only as a singular response to the perspectival ordering of space across from it, but also as a new conception of the dialogue between architecture and art.
David Tremlett and Luca Cipelletti have collaborated on several occasions, and among their notable interchanges was the Fondaco in Portofino (2014), a series of interconnected renovations of small nondescript vernacular Ligurian houses perched on the crest of a hill. Part of a local project to recover local traditions and revalorize abandoned areas, the restored and redeveloped Fondaco is a center for farm produce and a public space in its own right. For this reason, Cipelletti reorganized and gave architectural form to the offices, olive press (frantoio), showroom, and tasting room, while Tremlett’s wall drawings use colors characteristic of the Ligurian coast in a novel way, employing them to articulate bold geometric figures delineated on the wall surfaces. They thus knit together the interior and exterior of the structures, magnifying their visibility from a distance and enriching the experience inside.
Another project to which Tremlett contributed is the ongoing renovation of Milan’s Museo della Scienza Leonardo da Vinci (2006–16), Cippelleti’s most important public project to date. His earliest intervention at the museum, which is housed in a former monastery, involved reformulating the cloister with transparent glass partitions so that the scientific demonstration areas, chiefly for educational purposes and designed for children, can be seen clearly from the ample corridors, which include chromatic paths and signage painted by Tremlett. Cognizant of the need to refunctionalize the museum’s circulation so as to respect the scale and grandeur of the existing structure, Cipelletti later introduced a brand-new staircase in one corner of the cloiter. Realized in white-painted steel, the stairway is a dramatic, winding, origami-like composition that eschews orthogonality in favor of an oblique approach, its flights being suspended away from the perimeter walls and forming a trapezoidal well at its center. This theatrical solution is filled with nuanced contrasts, and gives the impression of a series of superimposed skins that peel away successively to show the layers beneath.
Cipelletti is currently carrying out a major new intervention at the museum, which involves restoring and converting the old Austrian stables, or cavallerizze, into exhibition space. Badly damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, the stables are set at a 90-degree angle to the historical axis of the monastery’s monumental nucleus and, once the intervention is completed, will be connected to it by a suspended passageway, a kind of interstitial bridge whose floors, walls, and ceiling will all be in tempered structural glass. The stables will also provide a new entrance to the museum on the Via Olona, and it was to this end that Cipelletti took the decision to cut a dramatic, full-height passage through their entire length to create a new, axial pathway which, bordered on one side by a monolithic striated- concrete wall, will lead straight from the street to the heart of the museum. The axiality has the effect of emphasizing the far view, while restoring to the urban space at large a natural perspective that opens onto the most significant part of the museum complex. Directly continuous with the main transportation hubs of the city, both above and underground, the renovation enables a more fluid organization of circulation in the museum as a whole. The scarred old brick walls of the original stable volumes have been preserved in their état brut, with visible and clearly distinguished repairs. In the central area of the cavallerizze there will be a huge empty space, a multiuse volume, whose missing facades will be closed with ample metal volumes equipped with a wood cladding made up of panels acting as negatives of the façade itself, and fitted with glazed apertures 12 centimeters high, repeating the progression of the secondary roofing elements. Natural light will filter through these panels so as to avoid any interference with the exhibition functions of the interior.
In order to grasp fully Cipelletti’s multivalent approach to the complexities of muse- ology, one should consider not only the Museo della Scienza but also his many temporary installations. Among the countless exhibition designs he has mounted all over the world, the 2011 retrospective dedicated to Italian artist Alberto Savinio particularly stands out. Much like Cipelletti’s own apartment, the dialectics of seeing engaged in this project conditioned the reception of the exhibition in novel ways that do not preclude a certain element of surprise. The “window” theme and the allied concept of “perspicere” or seeing through, the unique projective logic of a distorted, rotated visual pyramid — a typical theme for Savinio — provided the initial inspiration for the scenographic scheme. This strategy also had the distinct advantage of giving each a room a specific emotive charge modulated by the differentiated modalities of illumination. The overall result effectively brought out the theatrical character of Savinio’s art by reworking the aesthetic strategies that mark his work. Remarkable for its use of modes of vision specific to Savinio, the exhibition design moved from the assumption that the codes of reception and interpretation of the work of art are immanent to the artistic trajectory delineated by the works themselves.
The exhibition was held in Milan’s Palazzo Reale, but the different sections accommodating the artworks on display were coordinated according to a sequence that avoided the building’s conventional exhibition itinerary, producing dramatic shifts in points of view and varying the alignments along the exhibition path. The spatial experience of each room was heightened by means of a 3-meter-high wall system whose orientation diverged radically from the palazzo’s actual wall organization. Windows and portals were inserted in these walls to frame significant art- works situated in the background of the room in accordance with the architectural/ visual dispositions within Savinio’s paintings. The net effect was that of “spaces within spaces” that highlighted the interaction of the optical reality of the space of display with perspectival representation in the paintings themselves. This approach was enhanced by the new circulation path guaranteed by the subtly provocative divergence between the wall system of the temporary exhibition and the fixed wall structures of the Palazzo Reale. In this way, the visitor entered a wholly artificial world where (s) he and the art objects became equally significant protagonists.
While the Museo della Scienza and the Alberto Sartirio scenography are arguably “classic” examples of museological programs, Cipelletti’s practice has also included a far more experimental and avant-garde approach at Castelbosco, near Piacenza. Castelbosco is many things, but above all it is a huge milk- and methane-producing cow farm, which aims not only to maximize milk production in the most humane way possible, but also to produce clean and renewable energy from the considerable quantities of waste matter it produces. The spiritus movens behind the project is the cow farmer, indefatigable experimenter, and art collector Gianantonio Locatelli, who completed it in a series of interconnected research, construction, and renovation phases from 2000 onwards. Following the inner logic of the development of his experiments, Locatelli decided to collaborate, after 2005, not only with Cipelletti but also with the curator and collector Massimo Valsecchi, the curator and art historian Gaspare Luigi Marcone, the lighting designer Alberto Pasetti, the French artists Anne and Patrick Poirier, and David Tremlett. In the wake of this, a new element was added to the pro- gram: the Museo della Merda, or Shit Museum, housed in Castelbosco’s Renaissance castle. Together, the farm and the museum constitute a potentially revolutionary site of reflection where the valorization of dialogue shows itself to be caught in the throes of an endless transformation. The latter is of course inherent in the cyclical process of digestion/excretion/ alimentation that is a part of the thematics of waste matter from the outset. At the same time, the multiple implications surrounding the theme of waste take on new meaning in light of Cipelletti’s aesthetics of free collaboration.
Cipelletti’s first moves in the castle were structural and material in nature: by retrofitting the door embrasures with metal supports, he strengthened the points of access and clarified the relation of structure and circulation in the plan. This strategy — which was at least partly pragmatic, but also highly sensitive to the singular spatial logic and formal potentials of the rural site — led Cipelletti, and eventually the entire group of collaborators at Castelbosco, to realize an entirely new set of propositions involving recycled biomaterials drawn from the experimental site adjacent to the castle. In this continually evolving context, conventional renovation/restoration ideas gave way to a continuous renewal of the space of display by means of the reutilization of decontaminated cow dung. This process began soon after the realization that the excess methane produced by the super-efficient milk-producing cows could be used to heat the castle. In consequence, an ecologically efficient heating strategy inspired an artistically innovative use of materials. Here one senses, inevitably, yet with a difference, distinct echoes of Piero Manzoni’s 1961 artwork Merda d’Artista and, above all, Dieter Roth’s chocolate sculptures — especially since chocolate features among the ingredients that Locatelli has added to the “broth” of debacterialized, demethanized shit that ends up in vast containers painted in bright local colors by Tremlett. Generating a new set of relations between bioscientific engineering and Arte Ambientale through a constantly changing ensemble of installations revolving around the transformation of waste, the project harnesses nature’s gas- and bacteria- producing capacities for new aesthetic ends. Among the shifting array of installations are videos and exposés of the coprolite (i.e. fossilized dinosaur excrement); the life cycle of the dung beetle, deified by the ancient Egyptians; and Etruscan circular shrines made of shit and mud, where the archaic values of the sacred and the re-use of base materials coincide. Yet perhaps the most remarkable instance of reuse is where walls in the museum have been painted, but not tainted, by a pigment derived from recycled, debacterialized ordure.
It is no exaggeration to say that, when entering the internally heterogeneous space of Castelbosco, we are confronted by the centrality of waste as a master trope of artistic production — a constant reworking of the thematics of excrement which unlike, say, Pasolini’s film Salò, encourages an experience which is free and open. In the end, Castelbosco is a veritable utopie de merde, but also a heterotopia of all that is excluded by the tacit operation of hygienic and cultural norms; and this is why, when trying to characterize the universe of modern and contemporary art, as long as one does not reduce this characterization to one- sided negative connotations, its excremental vision provides an expanding set of transversal associations. In privileging the transformative power of waste and its occupation of a shifting intermediate domain between ideality and materiality, Castelbosco marks a point of transition between utopia and heterotopia. It is an exemplary corso and ricorso of the history, theory, and experience of shit in all of its disparate manifestations, presenting ordure as a privileged mediation and arena of metamorphosis between man and nature.
Castelbosco’s excremental vision, which reads like a contemporary transposition of the materialist imaginaries of a Rabelais or a Jonathan Swift, joins the linked polarities of nature and artifice, and science and art, by combining radical artistic thought with new modalities of re-use of the materials that are normally excluded from modern hygienic regimes. In this zone of transmutation, shit ends up not only taking on unexpected technical, aesthetic, and formal implications, but becomes plausible once more, as it was in ancient times, as a material for the building blocks of a new bridge between architecture, art, and the design of the environment. And though it is hard to imagine two projects that are more disparate in their aims and methods than Castelbosco and Cipelletti’s Milan apartment, what they share, besides their common author, is a commitment to a dialogue between opposed experiences and the dense array of effects that can be obtained by such a dialogue.
It is hard to imagine the phenomenon called Luca Cipelletti happening any- where but Milan, given the city’s vibrant architectural culture, unique tradition of design/ architecture dialogue, and contemporary conjunction of design and art currents. But, to be fully understood, Cipelletti’s practice has to be seen from a viewpoint that transcends local concerns. Though he is a classic specimen of homo sapiens Mediolanensis, one cannot situate Cipelletti culturally, just as one cannot situ- ate his city architecturally or artistically, without referring to international developments. These have been meeting in the Lombard capital, at the foot of the Alps, for millennia. Milan has always been, and is still today, the threshold, if not the hinge, between Italy and the rest of Europe. And since no Italian city is more conducive to the endless conversation of the most disparate ideas, mediums, and languages than Milan, it comes as no surprise that in its continuous, because perennially renewed, dialogo delle lingue — a conversation not only between individuals, but between their languages them- selves — one also finds, among its latest and perhaps most characteristic dialogues, the infinite conversation that Luca Cipelletti has initiated between architecture, art, and design.