Gae Aulenti, The Artist’s Architect
I don’t know if I could only call Gae Aulenti an architect and leave it at that. Architects are artists in their own right, but there’s a quality to Aulenti’s that is too idiosyncratic to fall under either of those definitions. She is two parts: one purist and one pragmatist. The body of her work is the purist, the unimaginable structure—whether it be a transformed train station or a cliff-side cave. The pragmatist in her appears in elements of the interior, each piece customized, is comfortably sculptural. The New York Times has described her as “provocative,” to “the most important female architects since the beginning of time,” and “fabulously eccentric.” I agree, but want to add fearless, influential, and inimitable to the list.
Aulenti is the famed Italian architect that transformed the Musee d’Orsay from a train station into the home of one of the most notable art institutions in the world. Her path toward becoming an architect began in 1954 at Milan’s Polytechnic University. At the time she was a woman in a boy’s club and a fearless one at that. In the postwar era she revolutionized Italian design upholding qualities of history and saturating them with the contemporary. Aulenti’s resume is a compilation of art, design, and architecture. Her studies fluctuated from installation art to industrial design and architectural theory.
Gae floated between furniture designer and architect. Frequently her two mediums interlaced. She worked with Zanotta and Knoll as an interior designer specializing in furniture and then expanded on experimental forms of lighting throughout the span of her career. I’ll go in depth and elaborate on a select few of her most notable projects, but first, I’m going to run through a list of her accomplishments, seeing as her prolific career could take the length of a book to highlight. Aulenti transformed the Italian embassy in Berlin into an Academy of Science; turned San Francisco’s main library branch in the Museum of Asian Art; Creation of Space in the Georges Pompidou Center; designed and renovated additional museums in Venice, Barcelona, and Istanbul; designed showrooms for Fiat and designed pens and watches for Louis Vuitton; refurbishment of Palazzo Grassi in Venice and restoration of the Palaver in Turin for the Winter Olympic Games in 2006.
Among her many collaborations was Italian typewriter company Olivetti, for whom she designed showroom in Paris and a storefront in Buenos Aires. Olivetti gained recognition for launching Italy’s first electronic computer. The original pieces were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952 in an exhibition titled “Olivetti: Design in Industry.” The company was well-known for enlisting architects like Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, and (of course) Gae Aulenti to design their properties. Aulenti designed the Paris showroom in a “piazza” style with a rotating and tiered “pyramid” centerpiece serving as a display for the typewriters. Its continuous motion allowed for a passerby to catch a glimpse of each piece. The pyramid is intertwined with a staircase (which we covered in a previous article highlighting their often overlooked significance) that she believes represents “an architectonic symbol of continuity.”
Aulenti’s architectural literacy and instinct translated into design as well. Her interior design extended from functional (while still being architectonic and sculptural) furniture and accents to set design at opera houses such as La Scala in Milan. The set designs have been described by both herself and viewers as being “environments” made to create “experiences.” Gae’s domain pieces – from chairs, to tables and lamps – were designed with the intent of creating a sense of interaction between the person and the space. In 1972 the MoMa hosted an exhibition titled, “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.” As part of the show Aulenti took a room and transformed it into one of her own style and design. Efforts were taken to create something personal and encourage interaction.
In 1980 she designed the “Tavolo con Route” (translates to “Table with Wheels” in English) in collaboration with FontanaArt—one of which the New York MoMa still owns.
Aulenti is truly an artist’s architect. Like a painter, photographer, or sculptor her aesthetic may evolve and differ, but a consistent tone exists. Gae’s is a hard one to encapsulate, being virtually indescribable. Perhaps hers is transformation. When trying to describe Aulenti it always seems that words are never enough and evidence is everything.