In 1995, even before they graduated, Valter Camagna, Massimiliano Camoletto and Andrea Marcante decided to open a firm of architects. They called it UdA (standing for “Ufficio d’Architettura”). They began with interiors, a necessary step in Italy if they were to get known. The sort of design they went in for combined minimalism with a hint of sensuality through an interplay of light and materials. The same sensitivity would pervade their first building commissions.
One was Casa Levis (2001) at Vandorno near Biella where a rhythmic series of wooden frames envelop the shell. Into the cavity these create - a filter between the house and its surrounding garden - they incorporated balconies and a staircase. Another commission was Ilti Headquarters, Turin (2004), a drab tenement of an industrial kind to be extended upwards. The operation brings dignity to this building by a pattern of methacrylate panels lit from behind by fibre-optic lighting and closed in at either end by plate-glass panes framing a landscape that is dominated by the church of Juvarra on top of Superga hill.
One of UdA’s recent projects has been to restore a building in Turin’s via Gioberti. It is a quality operation, remarkable for its originality. The way restoration is going in Italy nowadays, hedged about by Superintendency restrictions, it is quite unusual to find a downtown building in a major Italian city transformed by an act of bold intelligence.
The property is a typical late nineteenth-century hotch-potch of styles, crowned by a couple of post-war penthouse floors. It was going to rack and ruin after having been a public office. The estate agency handling the conversion had the foresight - rarely met with in the private sector - to announce an open competition through which various design groups were invited to express their ideas for an upgrade. UdA won the contract because their plans kept the historical façade but radically modernized the added top floors. Inside, they completely reorganized the space, profiting by the heights between floors and especially the piano nobile.
UdA are used to playing upon opposites, and the via Gioberti block is a fine opportunity to explore the aesthetic potential of ancient and modern in contrast: the hotch-potch building restored to its original state, versus the upper storeys with their sparse lines. This part is handled in minimalist fashion: the linear volumes, cement-rendered and painted charcoal grey, are perforated by long window apertures with the wooden frames set right inside - a deliberate combination of a cold substance and a warm one which makes the recesses all the deeper. It also gives the upper extension a pronounced horizontal quality reminiscent of a row of back-to-back houses suspended aloft. This feature is captured especially well by the very top floor of terraces belonging to the two apartments underneath.
By a few touches - a floor with a raised dais, a slim set of rafters to break the sunlight, a slender handrail - the building seems to float above the surrounding townscape. Then there is the interplay of materials. The stone employed in the penthouse volume and to face the communal parts is scored with vertical grooves: a device to hide the joins between slabs and give the walls an abstract motif. The same pattern recurs in the wooden flooring. The outcome is to obscure the fine distinction between artifice and simplicity: everything that looks elementary is the fruit of artful touches, while the complex parts in the end prove conceptually unalloyed.
The single-family house at San Giusto gives further evidence of sophistication. The building stands out uncompromisingly from the low-grade backdrop of terraced villas, many of them of a shoddy design. As a composition it uses the prism shape: the ground floor, white-rendered, the upper floor clad in two grey tones, alternating in vertical pattern.
Inside, with more than a hint of minimalism, the rooms flow gracefully off one another, an interior staircase rises encased in a see-through parapet and the window apertures are sited to afford carefully chosen vies of the surrounds.
Put on their artistic mettle, Valter Camagna, Massimiliano Camoletto and Andrea Marcante came up with a list of six principles.
The first is to reject all mimicry of the organic school: that often naïve evoking of trees, clouds, shells. The architecture they propose goes in for geometrical shape and experiments with materials. Rather create a new nature than ape her as she is. The second principle is to eschew the established formal codes. Nowadays, claim the partners of UdA, dismantling and re-assembling is the only option. That is, with an eye on tradition, but a heretical approach to it, deep down. It sounds like a rehash of mannerism, but only so far: the third principle leans towards Neo-Baroque. “Design, you see, is about showing how things are permanently changing into something else, but at the same time preserving an original core of meaning in which it is more or less narcissistically mirrored. This is Baroque inventing the wonder of the senses.”
The fourth principle is to heighten the interplay of opposites. The fifth, the importance of memory drawing on the time dimension to subvert three-dimensional Cartesian space. The sixth exploits the creative interest of strategies aiming at dissimulation and pretence, which thus show the link between what we see and what lies hidden.
In the project to refurbish a solicitor’s chambers in Turin, the six principles come out in a somewhat contrived contrast between the new and what went before, austerity and sensuality, innovation and quotation. Also, in the choice of materials and the treatment of surfaces via a dialectic: finite/infinite, matter/artifice, sophisticated/crude.
The danger of such a sophisticated approach is that it may lapse into décor for décor’s sake. UdA seem aware of this. In presenting their latest work, a 250 sq m apartment in Turin’s old centre, they caused a stir with the phrase “ornament and outrage”. The goal is to work through decoration to an emotional factor. But although the operation is skilfully handled, one glimpses the ghost of post-modernism in the distance. Not the woeful classicism of Trend, but shades of post-Sottsass, for all the irony and creativity of the handling.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi
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