Future is a journey into the past
03 Nov 2022
"We need to rediscover underground houses and the archaic wind towers": these are words of Mario Cucinella, probably the most important Italian architect of the moment
On the recently compiled list of Italian architecture firms by their turnover, MC Architects comes in fifth place. But if we are going to talk about influence within the discipline, Mario Cucinella is probably the most important Italian architect of the day. A status in a way inherited from another number one, the man who taught him his trade: Renzo Piano. As often happens in this profession, and has been even truer in the historical conjuncture of the last few decades, the practice has grown very slowly. It only began to bear abundant fruit about ten years ago. Now MCA – with a staff of 110 between the studios in Bologna and Milan – has on the drawing board an enviable portfolio of commissions. From entire master plans to major urban developments, from university campuses to schools and hospitals and very recent the renovation of Florence’s stadium Franchi. Without forgetting those little projects of regeneration of the historical heritage, highly complex and surgical in character and yet fundamental for its conservation in a country like Italy. And there’s sustainability. Cucinella has insisted on it right from the start of his career, and today is undoubtedly one of the architects with most experience in this crucial area. “Today the city is like a mine, everything is already there,” he explains, revealing its theme in advance. “We should regard it as a reserve of resources and materials to be recovered and transformed through circular processes. Only in this way will the future of dwelling be a virtuous one.”
As an architect, what other steps do you think need to be taken to find harmony with nature?
Neither trees nor buildings move. But unlike the building the tree does a lot of things. It absorbs nutrients, turns light into energy, produces humus, grows. After all, plants have been here for 400 million years, Homo sapiens only 300,000. We have enormous room for growth in our construction of the habitat, but we have to put aside the naïve belief that technology can solve everything. The industrial revolution has burned a bridge, the one to the knowledge hidden in the preindustrial past. We need to rediscover the prehistoric houses dug in the desert, the subterranean buildings of Indian, the archaic wind towers in Cappadocia and Pakistan. This is what I argue in a book I wrote recently, and it is something I have very much at heart. The book is called Il futuro è un viaggio nel passato (“The Future is a Journey into the Past”, Quodlibet, 2021).
How do you apply these bioclimatic principles in your works?
The fundamental lesson is that in order to consume little energy buildings must first of all be well-oriented, compact and 70 per cent opaque, and very well insulated too. These are now my points of departure in all projects. Like the university campus in Aosta, a complex resembling an iceberg, clad with box-shaped slats of Corian that are insulated on the inside. Or the new building for the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, covered with a special ceramic material that absorbs pollution and turns it into salt, which is then washed away by the rain. In the Unipol Tower, also in Milan, high thermal performance is ensured by a special double skin of glass with a ventilated air space.
Complex solutions that need to be continually updated. How do ideas emerge in your studio?
We work with a lot of engineering companies, but the first trials we carry out ourselves. The job of getting projects off the ground falls to a small group of senior figures, which lays the conceptual foundations. Then there are the units of Research and Development, which focuses in particular on sustainability, and Materials and Design – with which Marco Imperadori of Milan Polytechnic also collaborates – which looks for new contrivances: carpets made out of old fishing nets, panels that recycle newspapers, plaster made out of lime and clam shells.
There is a work of yours that represents this process well: Tecla, the house printed from unfired clay.Tecla stems from a collaboration with Massimo Moretti, who was already building a small house with the Gaia printer. For the form we took our inspiration from the nest of the mud-dauber wasp, while the conformation of the surface reproduces the ribbing of the cactus, with one side always in the shade to prevent excessive exposure to the sun. The idea of Tecla is a powerful one, it is a new paradigm, a zero-kilometre and zero-emission house. The clay is mixed with a technical material produced by Mapei. Printing it takes 200 hours and it costs 300 euros a square metre. The thermal mass increases in proportion to the number of ribs present on the surface, and the insulation is obtained by filling the cavities with sheep’s wool, rice chaff or hemp. It’s a structure made from local materials and can be adapted to the environmental context. Its development will allow us to construct whole houses. After all in Sanaa (the capital of Yemen, editor’s note) they have built fifteen-storey houses out of mud brick…
After so many years in Bologna it isn’t obvious, but you’re from Palermo. Do you have projects underway in the region of your birth?
Gibellina, the small city worst hit by the Belice earthquake in 1968, was rebuilt in the 1980s with contributions from some of the most creative people of the time. An extremely courageous experiment. Today perhaps the best-known installation – Alberto Burri’s Cretto, on the site of the ruined city – although completed and restored, has been left in a state of neglect. There are not even any signs telling people how to get there. We’re going to build a very discreet visitors’ centre, a place where they can leave their cars and walk along a footpath to see the work, and in whose rooms they will be able to learn all about the Belice Valley and other Sicilian stories. The second project concerns Pietro Consagra’s theatre in Gibellina Nuova, a work of civil architecture designed by a great artist. Its restoration is helping to realize the dream of Ludovico Corrao, mayor at the time and promoter of the reconstruction: a city in which art is part of everyday life.