1992 saw Citterio complete two projects for furniture manufacturer Vitra: the Visavis chair series, and Vitra’s new furniture factory in Neuenburg, Germany. At first glance his chairs seem near replicas of the famous small armchairs designed by Mies for the Tugendhat house. But a closer look - at the chair back, for example - shows how Citterio has not sacrificed physical comfort to purity of line or opted for the austerity of absolutely logical form at the expense of the sensual pleasure of matter. We are on a totally different conceptual planet. Known as High Touch, it is a whole new approach to design and architecture. Although High Touch has been around for some time - especially among Italian designers - it has largely been developed by individuals. As a result, unlike with High Tech or de-constructivism, its practitioners are not aware they are part of a new trend. High Touch springs from the need to reconsider technological innovation in terms of its positive contribution to enhancing perceptions and relations, though not forgetting the danger of taking it to excess. In contrast to “organicism” and “expressionism”, High Touch eschews the complex, fractal, all-embracing forms of nature. But also the wholly subjective approach, and most definitely, the myth of the architect as the all powerful creator. High Touch people espouse research and experimentation. They have little truck with abstract questions of language. High Touch practitioners disdain stereotype products passed off as signature items. They assert the right to experiment with well known forms, developing on models and prototypes that are part of recent history. They attempt to wed design - still a craft practice - with the latest industrial production methods. But their main concern is how an object relates to its user and how technology can be humanised, made appealing and sensual, not inhuman, abstract or even hostile. Summed up like this, several contemporary Italian architects, usually classed as unclassifiables, would fall into the High Touch bracket: Antonio Citterio, Renzo Piano, Mario Bellini, Michele De Lucchi and Mario Cucinella to name a few. All address the international scene and its challenges, a mindset confirmed by their considerable achievements - and numerous awards - outside Italy. Although Italian, they have no time for traditionalist nostalgia or Byzantine enquiries into the Italian character of Italian architecture, still less for designed architecture. Which is not to say they do not differ profoundly in approach and research. Citterio, for example, is the most concerned with simplification, materiality and the seductive allure of minimalism.
The Vitra factory in Neuenburg a few kilometres from the main complex in Weil am Rhein - another signature Citterio work completed in 1992 - is part of designer chair manufacturer Fehlbaum’s project over the last decade to transform its production base into one of today’s most exciting experimental contemporary architecture sites. The factory designed by Citterio is simple in the extreme - almost the antithesis of contemporary works by Gehry and Hadid. Three large, rectangular open spaces form the ground floor: a central block flanked by two, double height adjoining volumes supported by a slender iron frame allowing uninterrupted spans of 30x8 m. On the upper storeys, the central core houses the administrative offices with eight-metre high glazed façades. Slender laminated wood struts supporting the ample roof cantilever have a distinctive aesthetic as well as functional role: on the south side, the overhang shields occupants from the sun; on the north, it protects against the snow.
Antonio Citterio and Partners, was established in 1999 to give more focus to architectural briefs. Architect Patricia Viel heads this side of the company. The Hamburg office was set up in 2000, the same year the company moved its Milan premises to Via Cerva. With its five above grade storeys and three underground levels, the building is their architectural manifesto giving many clues to where they will be going in the future.
The building’s slender but sturdy stone-clad exterior frame accommodates wide span window and door casings, the somewhat austere frontage offset by the delicate line of the window and door frames. Street-side on Via Cerva, the large glazed light gives a clear view onto the internal ramp leading to the reception desk on the mezzanine floor. The cut-way floor parallel to the ramp makes this stand clear of the wall, giving it an ethereal quality. The opening also provides daylight to the floor beneath and creates an ample wall area to host itinerant art displays. In this way too, a space of one and a half storeys is perceived as a triple height volume. The slender elegant reception desk designed for Vitra and the full-height glazed light overlooking a small internal court are the focal points. On the right, a striking glass lift stands before an essential staircase in Aurisina stone. The floor slabs of the upper storeys are slightly detached from the framework of the facade. The reason is simple: the building’s frontage is in keeping with the external urban fabric and would not have tolerated the fussier sectioning required by interior partitioning.
The Hamburg headquarters of the company Edel, a five storey building running along the banks of the River Elbe dates back to 2000-2003 and is part of a large urban revitalisation project of the former docks. Although almost fully glazed, the façade is not a traditional curtain wall on account of the closely set series of repetitive windows and cantilevering projections at each floor that underline the horizontal aspects of the composition. Inside, space is elegantly divided by wood and stone clad partition walls, some of which, in the auditorium for example, are on tracks.
Still in Hamburg, Neuer Wall (2001-2002) is a seven storey building: two for commercial outlets, the rest for offices. Elevations comprise two skins: an outer stone envelope and an inner glass one. The outer stone façade allows the building to fit comfortably into its urban fabric. An air space separates this from the inner skin that permits spatial divisions that would have been out of place on a street-side frontage.
The B&B building at Novedrate near Milan was completed in 2002. Conceived as a prism of reinforced concrete, it succeeds in the almost impossible task of standing out as a building unto itself while also providing the backdrop for two pre-existing constructions. There is a touch of Tadao Ando, but with more spatial freedom.
2002 was also the year Citterio planned the concept and interior design for the Bulgari Hotel chain. In 2004, he completed a hotel in Milan, a former convent of Augustine nuns of Saint Claire in the Brera district. As with all Citterio buildings, the façade is characteristically sleek and uncluttered. It is vaguely reminiscent of the composite style typical of Milan architecture, in particular, the work of Caccia Dominioni: long narrow French windows, simple balustrades, repetitive but slightly asymmetrical succession of lights. Inside, as one would expect, everything is luxurious. But it is luxury in keeping with Citterio’s architectural style and the Bulgari image: refinement without opulence, quality of materials not ostentation of decoration. Citterio shows yet again he can blend the sensuality of contemporary design with the market demands of a big business client at the top end of the market. Further examples are the Bulgari Resort in Bali (2003) and numerous private houses: Sondrio (2002), Hamburg (2003), New York (2003) and Villasimius (2004). Here materials - especially wood, stone and plasters - are masterfully used to dialogue with the environment.
Text from the book “Antonio Citterio”
Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi
Edilstampa, Rome 2005