Mario Cucinella graduated in Genoa in 1986 with Giancarlo De Carlo and the following year he began his training in the studio of Renzo Piano with whom he would have the opportunity to collaborate on several occasions throughout the years. In 1999 Cucinella founded the studio MC A – Mario Cucinella Architects which would become an important actuality in the European architectural panorama and today it is certainly one of the most prestigious design activities in our country. Speaking with Mario Cucinella, it becomes evident that the building and the form in themselves are not the centre of his thoughts, but the possibility of using architecture as a means of improving people’s lives. Mario Cucinella has never tried to become a star in search of applause and notoriety through his projects, but a man who puts his work at the service of the community.
MC A – Mario Cucinella Architects work on multiple scales and in multiple places on the planet. What does it mean to manage such a structure?
Given the premise that when we began, we were just a small architectural firm, the current configuration of the Bologna office alone now comprises about 100 people. This type of structure has allowed us to introduce figures and tasks that would otherwise not have been sustainable. To give you an example, we have a research group of four to five people who go to the project sites with the task of assessing the impact that our building will have on the surroundings. During the analysis, a large amount of data of varying forms is collected, which we will contend with during the design stage.
Would it be fair to say that you adapt to the setting?
We don’t export models. We work with local relationships. I believe this approach is also a way to respect the theme of diversity and the ecosystem.
MC A is very attentive to the issue of sustainability. What does it mean to create truly sustainable architecture?
We have believed in sustainability since before the times when these issues were anticipated, and were not the trend of the moment. For us, architecture is the expression of a place and setting, not vice versa. The architectural language that “colonises” the territory does not come into our way of thinking.
Despite your assignments you have always been far from the world of “archistars”…
There was a period at the end of the previous century where some architects were as famous as actors in the cinema and the works they achieved, in many ways reflected this climate. What I can say is that I understand this communicative approach but it must be said that creating architecture is something very different from projecting films and when the lights go out a building, unlike a film, continues to exist and influence the environment that surrounds it.
Going back to sustainability …
Sustainability today is an inflated term that is often used inappropriately. To give a definition I would start with two aspects. The first concerns the performance aspect and that is the possibility of creating buildings that don’t consume much and have a low impact on the environment. This happens not only thanks to technology but also how architecture is conceived. The second aspect is the cultural one where we try to empathise with the surroundings and with the people who will inhabit it. Still too often today, what should be the main purpose of a building, that is, its ability to welcome its inhabitants, remains in the background. Some of the fundamental elements of producing an architecture capable of welcoming and not rejecting its inhabitants are unfortunately not visible and therefore are less attractive to architects, just think of the qualities of air, light and habitable spaces. These factors are fundamental but unfortunately, they are not “photogenic”. For us, living is at the centre of architecture and it is our duty to find the best solutions capable of satisfying this right.
I seem to understand that you hold that the central theme of sustainability is the cultural aspect.
Today there is a technological drift in which I believe less and less. To think that with an app we can make everything work perfectly, I believe, is a big lie. The real centre of research are the skills of men. Architecture is not created by the technological devices that we place inside the buildings. Technology is not the aim of the project but only a support tool for it.
Architecture has never been limited to creating containers, through its interventions it influences the social balance of the territories it occupies. What do you think about this?
I will give you an example. If a building inside the city is not used it becomes a mute element. Almost like an instrument that does not work inside an orchestra. This inactivity, however, is not neutral and as in an orchestra, its non-functioning creates an imbalance and damages everything around it. Architecture comes alive only when it begins to be lived-in by man. And one of the architect’s first thoughts should be to consider the impact of his work on the city. Constructing buildings generates behaviour. Architects have a great social responsibility.
In Italy there have been emblematic cases such as Corviale in Rome which seem to lend support to your thesis.
That was a purely theoretical academic exercise that turned into a nightmare for its inhabitants.
Architecture has always held a political role, just think of the Egyptian people and then move on to the Romans and the 16th century Italy up until the revolutions and wars of the 1900s. Do you think architecture can still play a political role today?
Constructing architecture is a political act. When a new hospital, square or school is built, they are all initiatives that begin with politics. The problem in Italy is that politics has decided that architecture is no longer the means with which it should be represented. With the continuation of this attitude the consequences have become very serious because the urban tools are now obsolete, the cities are often in great trouble and no more common areas are being built for citizens. In the past, thanks to political will, architecture was a cultural and educational tool, attentive to social issues. New neighbourhoods, new cities and many common areas were built. Today all this has disappeared.
Politics and architecture of the past have also made many mistakes, I am thinking about the development of what are called “suburbs”.
Unfortunately, many of these subjects were designed without the necessary complexity. We built entire dormitory cities and fifty years later we are still surprised that they are the cause of many social problems. If we do not include schools, shops, bars, museums and all the activities necessary to create social aggregation in a city, it is inevitable that we will have many problems. In a nutshell, there was a lack of urban planning vision. There have also been very happy experiences such as the INA-Casa plan called for by Amintore Fanfani in 1949.
Do you think there are fundamental components to make outlying suburbs work?
First of all, we have to stop using the term suburbs, because it is misleading. Today there are metropolitan cities made up of different municipalities and configured in a polycentric way. The fabric that composes them is heterogeneous, composed of both the ancient and the modern. I believe that the historical areas should have some services such as schools or municipal buildings removed which would lighten them, and which I believe would be more suitably located in the new areas. If I had to construct a new Teatro della Scala I would not do it in the historic centre of Milan but in one of the new developing neighbourhoods that should not be considered second rate spaces, but opportunities to build a better city. Milan is doing very well in this aspect. Today, in order to be politically adept, you need the ability and desire to fight for your ideals. You can’t build a city by posting selfies on Facebook!
If I have understood you correctly, you’re saying a city that works is a polycentric one?
Exactly. It should be said that the morphology of our country is a very particular one and cities always start from a historical centre, which is now increasingly distant from other areas. One solution to this is to create other attraction poles that balance the whole. Today’s city is no longer assimilable in a single central point but within a constellation of centres that form a network.
Looking at some important historical centres of our country such as Florence and perhaps even more so with Venice, it seems to me that they are becoming large malls with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and B&B apartments on the upper floors…
This is a problem regarding urban and social policies that should safeguard these sites. Instead, the process of gentrification of historical areas is often followed by the forcing out of the common, everyday citizens who are obliged to go and live in more and more distant places.
I happened to visit some shopping centres that are used like small ancient cities and vice versa I have seen historical centres that seem like large shopping centres…
Marketing strategies have understood that the best distribution model for sales is to take people to a beautiful street with buildings, shop windows and restaurants and if this is not possible, build something that emulates it. This model is now applied worldwide. Consumerism is also a social activity and a sharing of spaces, it cannot be practised inside a concrete “box” as happened in the past.
Mario Cucinella, in addition to being an architect, is also a speaker who gives lectures and conferences all over the world. Do you have any advice for tomorrow’s architects?
I am not an academic, but we have a professional school within the study, SOS – School of Sustainability.
What is it about?
Let us try to transfer our knowledge to the young people who will face tomorrow’s challenges. Knowing that what we teach today will influence the appearance of the city of tomorrow obliges us to a great social responsibility. The 15 young people who attend the course work with us for a year and participate in all the phases and dynamics that lead to the definition of a project.
What do you mean by all?
Simply all of them, including attending meetings with clients. I believe this method is the only valid way to make people understand what our work consists of. Architecture is learned by practising it. The advice I give to young people is to gain a lot of experience within the actualities where things are truly built and not to have too much desire to become independent because the world of the architect is a complex and even dangerous profession. If performed poorly it could cause a lot of damage!