He has an electric drum kit on his desk for moments of restlessness, regularly manages to weave Charles Darwin and P.J. Harvey into the same sentence, and owns an impressive collection of chapati bread rolling pins picked up on a trip to Rajasthan. Not quite the introduction you’d expect to one of Europe’s leading architects, but then Cino Zucchi – the man and his architecture – gives little away at first glance.
Beneath his trademark striped facades, glass sheets and angular forms lurks a complex, multi-layered web of references that merge historical eras, opposing disciplines and thought-provoking philosophies with curiosity and humour. The book ‘Cino Zucchi: Inspiration and Process in Architecture’, curated by Matteo Schubert and Francesca Serrazanetti, gives us an unprecedented level of insight into this extraordinary mind.
Born in Milan in 1955, Zucchi was an adventurous and curious boy from a young age. After high school, he drove from Italy to the Bamiyan Rock Buddhas in Afghanistan and back. From there he enrolled at the MIT in Boston, where he acquired a strong background in physics and maths. With a head full of Artificial Intelligence and scientific processes, he returned to Milan where he underwent a “fruitful cultural shock,” surprising himself by discovering a love for the Mannerist and Baroque architecture that characterises the city’s courtyards. He even wrote a book about it.
This early, varied experience has defined his approach to date. “Rather than opposing a scientific process to an artistic one, both often naively seen as totally “determined” or totally “arbitrary”, I feel that designing is an act of interpretation,” he says. In his eyes, art and science are equal partners in the creation of a harmonious urban environment. But he goes deeper than that. Rather than defining architecture as an “autographic” art, like a single piece of work such as a painting or drawing, he likens it to “allographic” art, such as a piece of music or theatre, in which a notation can be interpreted in any number of ways by those who reproduce it. He implies architecture only comes to life when it is experienced by its intended users.
“Design is, in my view, a social practice and not a solitary one, which interacts in complex ways with other people’s values,” he says. It is a public service, a vessel for human interaction. Or simply an accompanying backdrop to urban life, like a soundtrack:
“To me, a building is like a pop song, a piece of “sentimental mathematics” which is composed in a specific place and time but which can nevertheless aspire to become the beloved background of our everyday life. I would like to design environments which are the spatial equivalent of the songs of my favourite singers: Natalie Merchant, Neko Case, Laura Veirs, Kristin Hersh, P.J. Harvey, Aimee Mann, Stephen Malkmus, Elliot Smith, Sufjan Stevens, Kurt Vile, A.C. Newman, Belle and Sebastian, The Decemberists, Rilo Kiley, Death Cab For Cutie, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Bright Eyes, Rogue Wave, Eels, The New Pornographers, and the countless others which play continuously on my iPod. As there is an architecture for every place, so there is a pop song for every state of mind.”
His passion for music; its rhythms, experimentations and iterations, bleeds into his architectural process. In contrast to the rigid linearity of the Modern Method, Zucchi advocates wandering through infinite variations on a similar theme as the way to arrive at the final result; much like contemporary composers do. The end goal is not to be original for the sake of it, he says, but to achieve a condition of individuality or specificity.
For his design for Leidsche Rijin Centrum in Utrecht (2008), we see the abacus of façade textures, colour and massing elevation studies, axonometric sketches and the collage of street elevations that reveal the long and winding road leading to the final construction. In one example, we see how Zucchi compared the density of a facade made of 80% wall, 20% glass versus 10% wall, 90% glass. The drawings are accompanied by a William Blake quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”
His plan studies for the ENI Headquarters in San Donato Milanese (2011) are arranged in a flow chart of evolutionary patterns, showing the meandering thought process that helped give shape to the design. Elevation drawings are placed next to a series of tiger rugs from Tibet, revealing the inspiration behind the facade’s irregular stripes. Here are the variations again, exploring the effect of different angles and configurations. The building becomes a weaved surface, blending into the fabric of a city.
There is something organic in the haphazardness of this approach. “I think that in the design process, like in biological evolution, the “dead branches” are as important as the continuous ones, and one could not exist without the other,” he comments. Just as in nature, there are no mistakes. Everything is a step towards the final solution, but it relies on an unbreakable bond between an open mind and a deep understanding of the task at hand:
“The goal is always the “naturalization” of techniques; today only knowledge combined with mental freedom allows us – in the era of “blind” procedures – to reach the simplicity that had always been the end of the final result.”
When Cino Zucchi feels the urge to bang away at his desk-side drum kit, he puts headphones in so as not to disturb the others in the studio as he lets out his creative tension. It’s this same balance between uninhibited expression and physical restraint that defines his architectural style of refined lines and dynamic forms. “A good drummer should also know when to shuffle, pause, remain silent; or, if necessary, when to silently tip-toe away from the stage.”