There are three useful keys to interpreting the work of Duilio Damilano: symbol, sculpture and emotion. Symbolic key. Damilano was studying architecture, somewhat frustratedly, at the Turin Polytechnic when he heard of Daniel Libeskind’s workshop in Milan. He began attending it and was fired by an approach which combined sense and sensibility in a novel form that revived metaphor and symbol. This line of development would soon lead Libeskind to design his masterpiece, the Berlin Jewish museum. Here, welded into one story (‘symbol’ derives from the Greek symballo meaning ‘I unite’), we find physics and metaphysics, history and meta-temporal reflections. Though obscure in part and not exempt from esotericism, the idea led forward out of the doldrums of the post-modern quotation school that still prevailed in Italy in the late Eighties, and redirected the sights of architecture towards concrete space, seen as the medium in which the invisible becomes visible and manifest. Sculptural key. Damilano is son and brother to sculptors. A feeling for volume is in his DNA. Hence his interest in deconstructivism focusing on the plastic dimension and picking up a tradition - the Fifties and Sixties works of Eero Saarinen, Jørn Utzon and John Johansen - which seemed almost extinct, again due to post-modern tastes. His deconstructivism is more Hadid than Gehry: unity of form prevails over fragmentation, and the tactile is emphasised (to use a category proposed at the turn of the nineteenth century by Bernard Berenson). That is, the architecture-sculpture attracts senses other than sight, and fills the surrounding environment with its own presence. Emotional key. Damilano confesses to an almost cradle-born attraction to architecture. Not just because it acts out and plays host to life, but because it can guide and shape an existence. Good organisation of space makes for orderly activity: if we live in the wrong habitat we tend to be aggressive and unsatisfied. Architecture, just like art, enhances our way of seeing the world; all that is positive in us it gives material substance to, and in releasing our emotions rids us of stress and anxiety. Damilano has had an active professional practice since the early Nineties, specialising in two fields: single-family residences, and industrial buildings fed by works commissioned by the Damilano Group, a company belonging to a cousin with whom he has tried to fashion a concrete utopia where architecture becomes a key tool for enhancing quality in the workplace. Let us briefly examine two single-family houses he has designed and completed, as so often in the province of Cuneo: house G, built from 2002 to 2005, and house C finished in 2006. House G is a groundfloor villa playing on the contrast between shiny black volumes and light see-through volumes. The former are clad in marble, pitch black or Africa black, polished to the point of reflecting; the latter are a mixture of broad glass surfaces and rendered walls painted white. The sharp contrast makes a symbolic point: like human nature, a house conforms to two opposite principles. The important thing is that the opposition embodies two ways of occupying space: one retiring, private, introverted; the other extrovert, open to nature and the surrounding landscape. The shapes of the house recall 1930s German architecture, especially Erich Mendelsohn’s blend of rationalist and organic. There is no attempt to meld with the surrounds, yet, with its mainly horizontal lines, the building avoids competition with its environment, and the result is a balance between artifice and nature. The plan is L-shaped and divides into three (or at times four) nuclei: the children’s rooms, the parents’ bedroom and, separating them, the living area. A section of the latter converts to a guest room, if necessary. The central living area has the kitchen for its own “ideal centre” (though actually it is off-centre to increase the external impact and to enjoy a 180° view). The adjacent dining area with its large window aperture lies open to the gaze of anyone entering the building. In the designer’s idea, this is a spatial expression of family conviviality, as well as a space in which to develop that quality. The apertures are all positioned so as to lead the eye into the far distance. House C is based on the composition principle of visual features balancing and offsetting one another. It too divides into three nuclei, its centre of gravity being the drawing room area with its two facing windows. From one of these the eye is drawn to the outside prospect, enlivened by the reflection off the swimming pool sited along this axis. The other gives onto a more domestic scene: an inside connecting area from which the staircase descends to the lower floor, and beyond it the garden area, first paved in wooden blocks and then given over to lawn. Thus from inside the house one has a view of water, greenery and sky framed in a kind of microcosm vaguely reminiscent of a Zen garden, though obviously made up of more geometric, functional, modern shapes. The lower floor of the building contains guest quarters - designed as a house within a house - and an area intended for a gym. This brings us to the work-related buildings. The new administration headquarters of the Damilano Group is approaching completion. It consists in a glass prism containing three upside-down cones, a curvilinear volume on an elliptical base, and a prism. Onto these moulded shapes containing the functional areas, images and film sequences are to be projected. The upper floor is to have a hanging garden establishing a new contact with nature. For a sister company of the same group, the Iridium Doors Industry, work has been in progress since 2003 on refurbishing an industrial unit to incorporate office accommodation inside. The design vaguely resembles a bridge. To make it visible from outside Damilano has de-materialised the sides of the unit using plate-glass walling and creating an approach route by a wooden bridge over a large expanse of water. As a result this mediocre industrial building is transformed into a display cabinet containing a sculpture. Its sensuous dynamism of form reminds us that it is possible to live in a better, more imaginative, less alienated world. In the boss’s office a manikin dangles from the ceiling beside a giant amphetamine tablet. For those who have difficulty in deciphering the abstract language of architectural form, this is a reminder of the fate awaiting those who go over the top and lose all healthy contact with a world that good design can help to create.
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi