Founder of Mario Cucinella Architects
GV: I would like to understand the conditions that marked the beginning of your professional practice. Can you tell us about those years, starting by your university studies, and the beginning of your practice?
MC: I don’t really remember the moment that I said “I want to be an architect”, but I had a cousin who had an office in Genoa, where I grew up, and I found that environment very exciting. I was a little student from an art high school and to me, drawings and colours seemed exciting. When at school, I found that space and buildings were the two things that made me feel the most emotion. I always get some sort of feeling when I see a beautiful space. I designed a Kindergarten in Guastalla a few years ago, and when designing it, memories came back to me from when I was four years old in my own kindergarten. There are not many memories from that time when you are so small because it seems too far away. But I had a flashback in my mind and I remembered my kindergarten – it was in Piacenza (which is close to Milan). And I thought: ‘why am I remembering this school?’. Then I remembered the school had a little garden, a small wall and a classroom with a lot of sunlight. Fifty years later I discover that building was designed by Giuseppe Vaccaro, one of the modernists in Italy in the 1960s. I am not sure if this is really why I am an architect, but I would say that buildings don’t move, but they travel in memory. It is very strange that in my memory of that time, there was only that space. I don’t know exactly why but something remains. I like the idea that maybe I am an architect because I was a little boy in the kindergarten and I was impressed by the quality of the space. Maybe that was the beginning.
Mario Cucinella in the period of his university studies.
GV: I am fascinated by your biography, and by those that might be defined as your ‘masters’. How have you and your work been influenced by them and by the environment in which you spent the first years of your career?
MC: I studied architecture at the University of Genoa, which was a very interesting university. It was very pragmatic, it wasn’t a university with ‘star’ architects, it was very technical. In the last few years Giancarlo de Carlo – one of the masters of Italian architecture – went there to teach. For me, it was amazing because I was studying very technical things and an intellectual person was opening my mind. At that time I felt that it was what I wanted to do: to be in some ways very practical, and in other ways very open. That is what the university is to me.
I grew up in the same city where Giancarlo de Carlo was teaching at the same time as Renzo Piano. So as a student, I spent a lot of time helping out in the studio. I lost my summers working at the office for a few years because I was very excited – the place seemed magical to me. After graduating university on the 17th of December, I was in the office by the 8th of January, and I worked for Renzo for five years non-stop. You can have talent and desire to do things, but on the other hand you need to learn, and it’s better to learn from good people, one surely being Renzo Piano. So I was stealing his knowledge, and after five years I thought it was time to start my practice. You do that because you don’t know how difficult it is, I did it because following Renzo’s work, everything looked so easy. Then when you start alone, things are very complicated. I always say that I was in a very fast train, and after I jumped out of the train, everything became very slow.
GV: After qualifying as an architect, you spent some time in Paris, where you worked for a while. Do you recall any interesting anecdotes from that time?
MC: I have a story from when I first started out in Paris. It was Easter time in 1992, and a friend told me there was a free space to open a small office. I went to look at the office which was in Maison Planeix of Le Corbusier, and my French wasn’t very good. I said that I had been in Maison Planeix and that I was interested, but the guy had a very difficult French accent. We didn’t understand each other, and in the end he gave me the key to this space in the house of Le Corbusier. I remember opening the door and looking at the beautiful space and thinking: wow, this is my office. Renzo was moving and he gave me some of his furniture, so the next day I had three tables and chairs, but there was nobody there. The beginning was very exciting. I worked for three years with no clients, only competitions. In France during that period there were a lot of competitions, it was a great opportunity for a young architect to excel. I just got little money by just getting second, third and first prizes.
«You can have talent and desire to do things, but on the other hand you need to learn, and it’s better to learn from good people»
The first thing I did was a competition design for a school in Gaza, for the United Nations. It had 600 people participating in it, and I was just moving to my new office, so I had to work during the nights because I really wanted to do the competition. I remember that a few months later I received a call, and I could not understand what they were saying on the phone, and in the end they told me that I had won that competition. I think at that moment I realised that I had started to work alone on a competition, and of course I won it, so I got a lot of adrenaline. It was a very exciting moment, because the most interesting thing about this work is that you don’t know what is going to happen in the future. You need to be strong enough to accept the challenge. This work is a challenge, it is like jumping in a hole and without knowing what you are going to find in the end.
GV: Did you learn any important lessons from all these competitions in which you participated at the beginning of your career?
MC: I did a competition for a master plan in Cyprus, where I got through to the second stage along with two other architects, with the prize being 70,000 dollars. I had never seen so much money in my life in one shot. I found that exciting, but in the end I only came second place. It is always nice to win a competition, but I lost a lot of competitions too. I think that this is the life of an architect: you can win one or two in every ten you enter. But you need to do a lot of competitions, and sometimes it’s hard to start again after losing, but you have to believe in it. This is what I tell my students: maybe you didn’t win a competition, but you always gain something from it, because you did an exercise, you created a design, you created a project, you investigated yourself, you investigated an opportunity. I did that for many years, which was very exhausting, but from it I created a ‘reservoir of ideas’. I was always gaining something from these competitions, it was patrimonio (heritage) – something that remains in your history, which is very important.
GV: Through being involved with architectural competitions, have you been able to invest more time in focusing your research on specific areas of interest? Would you be able to summarise these?
MC: At that time, I was always interested in the relation between building and performance, because I didn’t study the history of architecture in a traditional way. I was very interested in understanding why buildings work well, especially in difficult areas like the Middle East or Africa. You can always connect the shape of a building with its performance. Many years later, I called that ‘creative empathy’: there is always an empathy between the design, the place and the building. In the 1990s the ‘starchitecture’ system started, and then everybody was very globalised. We did every kind of building everywhere, and it didn’t matter. I found it very strange that after a thousand years of the history of beautiful buildings, we don’t consider the place as an element anymore. I was always focused on this relation between performance, building, and energy, because there is a connection in the way you design the shape and the language of the building.
GV: Mario Cucinella Architects has been recognised as one of the most innovative practices in relation to ‘sustainability’ – a term that has been overused in the past few years, and has partially lost its meaning. How does sustainability relate to your work?
MC: For me, the history of sustainability is one of the fundamentals of architecture, and I think many people talk about this without knowing anything about it. I work with English and German engineers, and there is a long tradition in Germany and England about sustainability, energy and performance. In Italy we are not involved in this, even today, so my roots are coming from this relation between building and environment, because it is a fundamental now and it will be in the future. We are working with these ideas in many buildings. Sometimes you can realise 100% of your ambitions, sometimes less because I am not the client of myself. I work with somebody else who asks me to design a building, so I need to negotiate all of the time about how much we can push sustainability in buildings. In a few of our buildings, we did a lot of work on this.
As mentioned before, we designed the school on the Gaza strip. For me, it was a great experience, because I realised for the first time how important the work of an architect is. It is always important, however, in that specific context, that the quality of my design can make a difference in people’s lives. It demonstrated how much architecture can have a positive effect on a student, and also the relation between the ‘curve of learning’ and the ‘curve of comfort’. The better the comfort condition, the better the learning process. That specific context is where there is not another option on the table, and the only option is to build a bridge with your past, because for a thousand years architects have dealt with the climate, as there was no energy.