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Great Masters | Gae Aulenti

Gae Aulenti (portrait)

“I believe that the place is first of all a conceptual fact, that is, a fact of culture; in fact if you work in Paris, in Barcelona, in Milan or in Rome, the cultural conditions are different. Understanding these differences, and getting to know them, becomes a necessity for those who are going to design, because they have to operate in continuity with the tradition of the place.” Gae Aulenti (1)

Gae Aulenti and the Via Presolana 5 Studio

Gae Aulenti, Livio Castiglioni and Rina Brion(Livio Castiglioni with Gea Aulenti and Rina Brion – Photo courtesy: Piero Castiglioni)

This quote describes a concept that we apply to concept development in Architectural Lighting Design projects. Gae Aulenti is an important figure for the studio in Via Presolana 5. The collaboration started with Livio Castiglioni and then consolidated over time with Piero.

The “Lady of Architecture”, as defined by the Order of Architects of Milan, in 1953 she graduated in Architecture from the Milan Polytechnic. From 1964 to 1969 she was an assistant lecturer in Elements of Architectural Composition under Professor Ernesto Nathan Rogers at the Faculty of Architecture at Milan Polytechnic.

“Aulenti, who had just graduated, was (before she was even known, known), Ernesto Nathan Rogers’ assistant at the university. She was my assistant in the course of Elements of Architectural Composition, from the very beginning she made me damned. I had made a project, a dozen or so drawings, I had three days to do it, I showed it to her before I took it to the exam. She told me that the project was fine but that it had to be done in ink, so I worked for three days and three nights, and it made me crazy, that’s all. Of course coffee, coke, cigarettes, lots of them to keep me awake, the radio at full volume. That was the first meeting I had with Gae. Then we worked together, even with my father, on a few projects, and then the first important job was the Musée D’Orsay , and many others followed. But it always drove me crazy! One day she said to me, “Look, you have to put the lamps there to illuminate there,” and I said, “Look, Gae, the light doesn’t curve, we haven’t invented it yet,” and she said, “But you’re very good, you can curve it. It always drove me crazy. But then we always got good results. Gae was a great school for me, but like all the others, because when I work with architects, I give them solutions that they may or may not expect, so I am surprised, but I learn a lot. One of the fundamental elements of a good designer is curiosity, my uncle Achille used to say: “If you are not curious, forget it”. Piero Castiglioni

Piero Castiglioni and Gae Aulenti at work(Piero Castiglioni with Gea Aulenti – Photo courtesy: Piero Castiglioni)

The Lady of Architecture and the Architect of Light have worked together on numerous projects: in 1985 in Paris the National Museum of Modern Art Centre G. Pompidou, in 1987 in Barcelona the Museu d’Art Catalunya, in 1992 Seville Expo 1992 – Italy Palace, in 1999 Milan the Cadorna railway station and square, in 2006 Vela Palace – Winter Olympic Games in Turin, in 2012 the San Francesco d’Assisi airport in Perugia. Countless “Exhibitions” at Palazzo Grassi in Venice and in the most prestigious national and international exhibition spaces.

The lighting of one of the rooms of Palazzo Grassi(1986 – Italy – Venice – Grassi Palace – Photo courtesy: Piero Castiglioni)

Dialogue between Gae Aulenti and Franco Raggi – 23 May 1991

We could talk about light, about the culture of light, about light and architecture, about light in architecture; you work as a designer and as an architect, what is the relationship between your lamps and your architecture?

Well… I’ve almost never designed lamps alone, my lamps are a consequence, I’ve always designed lamps for specific places, some of them have gone into production…

Have you never designed without thinking about a place?

Not much, I designed a system for offices … the “Sistemi Tre” but you won’t remember it, generally my lamps are linked to precise situations, to spaces and times of architectural projects….

So you’re a somewhat accidental designer, somewhat occasional compared to lighting specialists, lighting technologists …

Yes, even if there is always a reflection on the use that involves a technical reflection, like this one …

Which one?

This one on the table… it’s called… oh God, I can’t remember… it’s called Pietra, it’s a light that I consider an office light, … it’s not a light for working, but a light for ‘talking’ around a table, because you don’t always work by reading or writing, you also work a lot by talking, so I thought of an office light to discreetly illuminate an interview…

Do you think more from situations than from technical or lighting performance?

I think we work with three things: spaces, light, especially during the day, but also at night, and architecture; then there is light as a design, as an instrument of architectural precision, and light as an integrated functional fact, as in museums, where it is part of the design, not just a desire, but a necessity.

What do you choose between light as a technical necessity and light as an expressive possibility?

Neither. I think of architecture as the technical possibility of filtering light, of attenuating it. At the end of the day, the problem is not so much how to make light, as there is daylight, but how to make shade… for example in the Italian pavilion being built for the Seville Expo.
The problem was how to protect themselves from the great heat and light in Seville. So the building is made up of two buildings, one is the shell, an enclosure, a perimeter of windows built that rests on the water and surrounds and contains a second building. The first is like a skin that lets the light through, lets it filter and reflect off the water and enter the second, which is the pavilion proper.

Project for the Italian pavilion at Expo 1992(1992 – Spain – Seville – EXPO 1992 – Italy Palace – Photo courtesy: Piero Castiglioni)

So you think of light as an independent variable inside the box of architecture, as a variable, almost random element.

Seemingly random, it is like setting up a vast arch but limited to the randomness, the variability of the outside world. Like preparing forced paths of traps and waiting for events.

What was the first lamp you designed?

The “Giova” which is a vase on a lamp, a plant on a light, and then the “Pipistrello”.

Detail of the Giova lamp(1964 – “Giova” table lamp for Fontana Arte – Gae Aulenti – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

How does the new technology, the evolution of lighting technology enter the home environment? After all, the real revolution in design was made by light bulbs.

I don’t know, I still think that the new light bulbs have also deformed the concept of lighting in the home, transforming it into a space with many points of light, which reminds me a bit of processions, of madonnas; many different lights as if there had to be a light bulb for every function, while we know that the same light changes depending on what we put around it. For example, I’ve always hated those directional American spotlights, which illuminate by points instead of diffusing; precisely the opposite of what architecture does with light. I am against glare, and all the more so in everyday life, it seems to me that certain new lights have turned conversation in living rooms into an interrogation.

What about intelligent buildings?

Buildings are not intelligent, they are intelligently designed. There is a bit of triumphalism around these designs for automated systems. When we were studying D’orsay, we were told “…look, in London they have made an intelligent diffuser ceiling that follows the light variations in the sky…”. So we went to see it and we realised that the speed of variation was faster than the capacity to react; there were these poor curtains that kept following the changes in the sky, and poor things seemed to be going crazy, …back and forth and gave the sense of the whole system being in a state of distress, it was a bit distressing. The problem is that you introduce a complexity disproportionate to the problem to be solved. The problem is that it introduces a complexity that is disproportionate to the problem that needs to be solved. After all, it’s a matter of spreading light over acceptable average values, not maintaining a standard at all costs. The architecture should be simple and not require too much maintenance.

Gae Aulenti at the Musee d'Orsay(1986 – France – Paris – Musée d’Orsay – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

So you mustn’t forget the old roller shutter?

Better still the shutter, it’s simpler, and remember that during the day a window is a beautiful lamp. (2)

Speaking of lamps, …. Gae Aulenti is also a protagonist of Italian industrial design. Some of her icons can still be found in the catalogues of designer lighting fixtures today.

  • 1965 – “Pipistrello” table lamp for Martinelli Luce – Gae Aulenti

Gae Aulenti and her Pipistrello lamp(1965 – “Pipistrello” table lamp for Martinelli Luce – Gae Aulenti – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

  • 1975 – “Patroclo” table lamp for Artemide – Gae Aulenti

Detail of the Patroclo table lamp for Artemide(1975 – “Patroclo” table lamp for Artemide – Gae Aulenti – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

  • 1980 – “Parola” table, wall and floor lamp for Fontana Arte – Gae Aulenti and Piero Castiglioni

Word table and wall lamp(1980 – Table, wall and floor lamp “Parola” for Fontana Arte – Gae Aulenti – Piero Castiglioni – Photo courtesy: Piero Castiglioni)

Gae Aulenti also devoted herself to the theatre. Elektra by Richard Strauss, in 1994, Teatro della Scala, Milan; Il viaggio a Reims by Gioachino Rossini, from 1984 to 1992, in Pesaro, Milan, Vienna and Ferrara; Wozzeck by Alban Berg, in 1977, at Teatro della Scala and at the Theatre de l’Opera in Paris. “From the very first moment he identified the stage box not as a container to be embellished and made recognisable in the sense of something already known, but as a real space. And if a radical change occurs with his entry into the theatre, it is in the most natural sense of the acquired awareness of the ownership of the stage, of a thorough study of the medium.” Franco Quadri (3)

(1) M. Petranzan, Gae Aulenti, Geneva-Milan, 2002, Rizzoli – Skira
(2) Courtesy Franco Raggi: Dialogue between Gae Aulenti and Franco Raggi published in Flare – Architectural Lighting Magazine – n°5 – September 1991 – page 38
(3) M. Petranzan, Gae Aulenti, Geneva-Milan, 1996, Milan – Rizzoli

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