Carlo Cappai and Maria Alessandra Segantini graduated from the Venice Architecture Faculty in 1991. Their first work opportunity came through a competition that they won in 1993, before reaching the age of 30. The resulting twelve two-storey apartments at Marcon (Venice) are set on a slight curve intended to soften the light with a subtle play of chiaroscuro. The effect is enhanced by recessing the upper storey slightly and cladding it in whitened wood. The building gained a mention at the Luigi Cosenza award in 1998, presaging a bright career.
In 1997 they designed a school complex at Caprino Veronese which won the City of Oderzo prize in 2001. 1999 saw the couple working on the Venetian island of Sant’Erasmo: the project was to provide cultural facilities and restore the Massimiliana tower. It would gain numerous accolades: national awards and mention for the Mies van der Rohe. Again in 1999 Cappai and Segantini designed the university residence in Murano’s former rope factory, a project that entailed sleeping accommodation for some 250.
It formed a trial run for the student residence at Novoli, Fiat’s erstwhile industrial site near Florence. This is perhaps one of the couple’s most successful ventures. It hinges on simplicity of materials: exposed concrete for the plinth, Prodema wooden brise soleil units on the residential parts, glassblocks on the service areas. It is also a masterpiece of ingenuity in getting round the Leon Krier area plan which, among other things, demanded sloping roofs and traditional-shaped windows. Virtually the same rules applied when planning responsibility devolved on Gabetti and Isola from Turin. In order not to kowtow to this diktat with some neo-historical pastiche or get embroiled in a wearisome dispute with the Administration by asserting freedom of expression, Cappai and Segantini opted to play by the rule-book but giving a free contemporary twist to the interpretation against the intentions of the planning department. To avoid dividing the whole into absurdly small plots, they ran the two plots they were given into a single building pierced by a kind of tunnel which acts as an entrance foyer and covered public area. They met the requirement of sloping roofs by tilting the skylights. Upright windows were kept but covered by wooden sun-breakers making the building look like a box that can close down or open up to the surrounding light.
While the outside façade is in the austere tones of cement, wood and glassblocks, on the inside the building is painted a deep blue, demarcating the communal study areas. This stands out against the white of the residential part and the green of the lawns.
One striking indoor area is the entrance hall with its variety of ceiling heights; here the reinforced concrete is left on view and the resulting chiaroscuro effect recalls the style of Tadao Ando. Though the present instance possesses greater expressive vitality, it stands as a formal reference paid by the architect couple.
The rooms destined for communal use are curiously effective with their connecting landings posed over the void, again on various levels, and the contrast their dark colour forms with the sheen off the ceiling and light filtering through the upper stages in glassblock. A mention, lastly, of the canteen with its stone floor and bright red glazed ceiling lights. The light from above adds to the luminous effect.
In the Novoli student residence austerity seems to prevail over colour; in the nursery school designed for the municipality of Covolo di Pederobba the opposite occurs. At first sight the project appears to belong to the minimalist school, to judge by the low-rise outline, the almost perfect rectangle of the plan and the spare elegant porches on the main elevation sheltering the glass-walled crèche area. But even before one sets foot indoors, the Spartan effect is offset by the use of bright red on the wall of the main central hall, in the skylights and on sections of masonry in the entrance and the rear courtyard. It sounds showy, but the red dialogues with the surrounding greenery and recalls certain features of the Treviso landscape. It also vivifies the grey of the cement.
Inside, colour becomes dominant, enlivening hallways, corridors and communal spaces. Rooms devoted to motor activity have purple doorways, the crèche quarters have them in bright yellow, and other parts again are denoted by blue or green doors. When many rooms with different functions abut on the same area it imparts a lively multi-colour tone; the central hall, for instance, has a mixture of purple and blue doorways leading off it. Again, where corridors meet there are stripes of yellow, green or red: yellow leading off towards the yellow-doored classrooms, green to the green-door section or towards the exit (the entrance doors being framed in green); the red stripes point to the courtyard exit where the walls have the same colour. The aim is to create an information system where children can easily find their bearings, colour being far easier to memorize than arrows bearing images or, worse still, abstract notices.
Light also plays a strategic role. As in most buildings designed by this couple, it floods down from rooflights set over the central hall and the inmost regions of the building where there are corridors or otherwise blind rooms. Overhead natural lighting heightens the colour differences and saves electricity during daylight hours.
One of their most recent works is a water purifying plant on the island of Sant’Erasmo which is undergoing an upgrade directed by the same two architects. The basic idea behind the design is extremely simple: to avoid turning the plant into an anonymous industrial shed. Hence their decision to hide part of it underground and blend the part above ground into the landscape. The building achieves this with its series of metre-thick parallel walls in red additive-added cement. The moving parts are simple doorways lined in wooden slats arranged so as to run lengthwise. This is clearly inspired by other constructions dotted around the island, especially the fort system devised by the Austrians to defend the lagoon of Venice. The result combines the spareness of a minimalist object, the grasp of context found with land art, and the sensual effects of a work by Luis Barragan.