At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Gae Aulenti – architect

Designer who made mark in Italy and abroad


Gae Aulenti forged a career in design when female architects were rare
Gae Aulenti forged a career in design
when female architects were rare
The architect Gae Aulenti, who blazed a trail for women in the design world in post-War Italy and went on to enjoy a career lasting more than half a century, was born on this day in 1927 in Palazzolo dello Stella, a small town about midway between Venice and Trieste.

In a broad and varied career, among a long list of clients Aulenti designed showrooms for Fiat and Olivetti, furniture for Zanotta, department stores for La Rinascente, a railway station in Milan, stage sets for theatre and opera director Luca Ronconi and villas for wealthy private clients.

She lectured at the Venice and Milan Schools of Architecture and was on the editorial staff of the design magazine, Casabella.

Yet she is best remembered for her part in transforming redundant buildings facing possible demolition into museums and galleries, her most memorable project being the interior of the Beaux Arts-style Gare d'Orsay railway station in Paris, where she turned the cavernous central hall, a magnificent shed lit by arching rooflights, into a minimalist exhibition space for impressionist art.

Aulenti also created galleries at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Palau Nacional in Barcelona as well as turning San Francisco’s Beaux Art Main Library into a Museum of Asian Art.

The frontage of Milan's Cadorna railway station was restored in 1999 to a design by Gae Aulenti
The frontage of Milan's Cadorna railway station was
restored in 1999 to a design by Gae Aulenti
She restored Milan’s Cadorna railway station and the adjoining square, oversaw the expansion of Perugia Airport and designed six stores for the American fashion designer Adrienne Vittadini, including one on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles.

Aulenti was born Gaetana Aulenti in Palazzolo dello Stella, in the region of Fruili-Venezia Giulia, a town through which the Stella river passes a few kilometres north of the Laguna di Marano.  At home, she read and learned the piano and it was because her parents had no ambitions for her beyond finding an eligible husband that she was determined to forge her own path in life.  She went to Milan and enrolled at the Milan School of Architecture at the Polytechnic University.

When she graduated, one of only two women in a class of 20, she set up a private practice in Milan and joined the staff of Casabella magazine.

She became part of a Neo-Liberty movement, reacting against the growing dominance of modernism and arguing for a revival of local building traditions and individual expression.

Piazza Gae Aulenti is part of Porta Nuova Garibaldi renovation project near Milan's main railway station
Piazza Gae Aulenti is part of Porta Nuova Garibaldi
renovation project near Milan's main railway station
Aulenti's distinctive outlook soon attracted clients, among them Gianni Agnelli, chairman of the Fiat empire, for which she designed showrooms in Turin, Zurich and Brussels. Agnelli became a close friend and when Fiat bought the rundown Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal in Venice, he commissioned her to renovate the building as an exhibition space. She also built a ski lodge for Agnelli in St Moritz.

For Olivetti she created shop windows for showrooms in Paris and Buenos Aires, where with the skilful use of mirrored steps she produced a display of typewriters that wrapped around a street corner and appeared to multiply infinitely.

During the 1960s and 70s, Aulenti designed furniture for many of Milan's major design houses, including Knoll, Zanotta and Kartell, as well as lighting for Artemide, Stilnovo and Martinelli Luce. Her folding chair made from stainless steel and a coffee table made from a thick square of glass supported on four black casters have found their way into museums of modern art.

Her major breakthrough came in 1980, when she was chosen to design the new interior of the Gare d’Orsay, where she tore out the majority of the building’s interior features, in their place creating airy galleries that preserved the original Beaux-Arts features of the old railway station while offering a modern environment in which to give the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces maximum impact.

The main hall of the Orsay Museum in Paris
The main hall of the Orsay Museum in Paris
In 1997, Aulenti refurbished the dilapidated Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, transforming the former stables into an exhibition space.

She left her mark on Milan, which became her adopted home city, with the restoration of the Cadorna railway station in 1999. 

Aulenti died in 2012, a few weeks short of what would have been her 85th birthday, having been in failing health for some time.

Two months later, a modern circular piazza at the heart of the Porta Nuova Garibaldi development next to Milan’s main railway station, featuring a continuous flowing circle of seating surrounding a vast reflecting pool, 60 metres in diameter, was named Gae Aulenti Piazza in her memory.

The Scuderie del Quirinale was restored by Aulenti in 1999
The Scuderie del Quirinale was restored by Aulenti in 1999
Travel tip:

The Scuderie del Quirinale is a palace in Rome situated in front of the Palazzo del Quirinale, official residence of the President of the Republic. It was built between 1722 and 1732, commissioned by Pope Innocent XIII. It maintained its original function as a stable until 1938, when it was adapted to a garage. In the 1980s it was transformed into a museum of carriages. It was restored by Gae Aulenti in time for the 2000 Jubilee and inaugurated by President Azeglio Ciampi.

Aulenti was commissioned by her friend Gianni Agnelli to restore Palazzo Grassi after it was acquired by Fiat
Aulenti was commissioned by her friend Gianni Agnelli
to restore Palazzo Grassi after it was acquired by Fiat
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Grassi – sometimes known as the Palazzo Grassi-Stucky – was designed by Giorgio Massari in the Venetian Classical style and built between 1748 and 1772. It is located on the Grand Canal, between the Palazzo Moro Lin and the Campo San Samuele.  It has a formal palace façade, constructed of white marble, but lacks the lower mercantile openings typical of many Venetian palaces.  After it was sold by the Grassi family in 1840, the ownership passed through many individuals until it was bought by the Fiat Group in 1983, at a time when there was talk of it being demolished. Restored by Gae Aulenti, it is now owned by the French entrepreneur François Pinault, who exhibits his personal art collection there.




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