I first immersed myself in the work of Milan architect and designer Michele De Lucchi two years ago by visiting Knowing How to Use Knowledge, his exploratory exhibition during the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale. It featured hundreds of sketches, dozens of abstract architectural models and wooden objects sculpted by the architect himself with a chainsaw – a tool he uses as a three-dimensional sketch pad of sorts, to express his ideas often entirely independent of his studio’s projects.
Included in the exhibition were De Lucchi’s Earth Stations, or visionary architectures, objects conceived as being in transition or on a journey from one form to another, from one building type to something that may be more appropriate in the future. Crowded along the pavilion’s curved plan, these intriguing creature-like structures were interspersed with the words of Vitruvius: “The architect must know astronomy if he wants to build roofs.” In other words, the shape of the roof may not necessarily be a consequence of what is taking place under it; it should be a lot more aspired by what’s above it — stars, dreams, aspirations.
Michele De Lucchi was born in Ferrara, Italy, in 1951 and grew up in Padua. He studied architecture at the University of Florence from 1969 to 1975. As a student and young designer, he was active with the then-emerging Radical Architecture groups. Immediately after graduation, De Lucchi taught at his Alma Mater for two years while running his independent practice and forming creative collaborations along the way. He was among the leaders of such movements as Cavart, Alchymia and Memphis Group, which he co-founded with Ettore Sottsass and others in 1979.
His friendship with Sottsass led to a long-lasting partnership with Olivetti, where De Lucchi was the design director for 15 years, from 1988 to 2002. His furniture pieces, lamps and household appliances, some of which became more famous than his buildings, includes such design icons as Tolomeo lamp (1987) — the world’s best-selling lamp — and Lamp Logico (2001), both for Artemide; Pulcina Espresso Coffee Maker (2015) for Alessi; and First Chair (1983) and Oceanic Lamp (1981), both for Memphis.
Among many of his built works, the architect is proudest of his Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi, Georgia (2009). Other renowned buildings include the AZ Award–winning Novartis Pavilion in Basel, Switzerland (2022), Garage Italia Headquarters (Milan, 2015), the UniCredit Pavilion (Milan, 2016), the Batumi Palace of Justice (Batumi, Georgia, 2010), and two large structures for the 2015 Expo in Milan — Zero Pavilion and Expo Centre. De Lucchi lives in Angeraon Lago Maggiore, where he works on his art projects and commutes to Milan every day to run his 40-person interdisciplinary practice, AMDL Circle, an experimental laboratory housed in a remodeled Art Nouveau building in the Brera area.
After an insightful walk through of the architect’s studio — a warm, airy place dominated by wood flooring and stone walls filled with a meticulously curated parade of architectural models, art works, design and curiosity objects, construction material samples, pinned and framed photographs and posters — I talked to Michele De Lucchi about his twin brother, his Radical Architecture movement days, the need for architecture to inspire new ways of living, and employing materials that are the closest and most fitting to the sensibilities of a human being.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: I like a quote from Vitruvius that you used in your exhibit at the Venice Pavilion during the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. More than 2,000 years ago, he said, “The architect must know astronomy if he wants to build roofs.” And you interpreted his quote as, “When you build a roof you are not simply making a shelter from the rain but something that connects you with the stars.”
You have also said, “Architecture can be revitalized by stimulating the imagination. I want to inspire people to dream new dreams, dreams not yet ventured.” Would you say that this idea of dreaming and stimulating imagination is an overall guiding principle in your work?
- Michele De Lucchi
Yes, for sure! More so, I think it is the same for any architect. Or it should be true for every architect. Every architectural project needs to step into the future. You have to dream of a better future — something very desirable, inspiring, and at the highest level of ambition. I believe the future is the most important subject for architects and it is critical for them to be as optimistic and happy about the future as possible. I don’t like any pessimistic visions about the future, especially by architects. It is as if someone would take your steering wheel and say, “Be careful, something very dark and dramatic is about to happen.”
I love your optimism and idealism.
Vitruvius also used to say that architecture is the mother of all arts. But now I would say this is not enough because more than that, architecture is the mother of all desires. And architecture is the mother of scientific and technological approaches to improving the world. Why? Because so much of science and technology is about imagination. There is so much that we cannot see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and touch with our hands. For these reasons, architecture should be the way to have a dialogue between people and different disciplines. An architect who is not willing to have a dialogue shuts the greatest human ambition: to go further, to go to a better future.
Therefore, the idea of my studio, AMDL CIRCLE is to create a circle, a community of people and professionals from across different disciplines such as psychoanalysts, psychologists, scientists, physicists, geneticists, biologists, anthropologists, and historians. It is a wonderful circle of friends and experts in all kinds of disciplines. The environments architects create deeply influence people in so many ways that we need to have a continuous dialogue with many different experts.
You grew up in a very large family — your parents, you, and seven brothers. Could you touch on your upbringing?
It is true, I have seven brothers. I have a twin brother. We are exactly the same but he doesn’t have a beard. We are the oldest. Until we turned 18, my parents treated us as a single person. They never called us by our names. They simply referred to us as “the twins”: “Hey twins, come over here. Hey twins, bring this or that.” We did everything together. So, I had a huge lack of personality. I felt like I was not a complete person. That’s why as soon as we finished high school and it was time to go to college, we decided to have two different careers and in two different places. So, I went to study architecture in Florence and he went to study chemistry in Padua. Then he became a scientist and I became an architect and designer. So, our lives went in two completely different directions. But, curiously, by the age of 50, we started converging again. He became a painter; he develops his own colour pigments as a chemist. And I also turned to art and work both as a sculptor and painter.
Why did you choose to study architecture?
I come from a family of engineers — my father, grandfather and uncles were all engineers. I was also supposed to become an engineer, but it was too technical for me. So, from early on, I wanted to study art. I wanted to be a sculptor. I suppose architecture was a good compromise for my family.
In Florence, you studied under Adolfo Natalini, one of the founders of Superstudio. What was that experience like?
What was important is that Natalini was an avant-garde architect. Superstudio was breaking all kinds of rules and looking for new expressions for architects. What I learned from him the most was the idea that architecture is not just a technical discipline. It is not about building walls or air-conditioned office buildings. Architecture is about creating a good environment for people. It is a humanist discipline. And I studied architecture in the city, which is known for its humanistic approach to life. Of course, studying in Florence, I was also influenced by the Renaissance.
You must have been also influenced by the student protests shortly before you entered the university, right?
That’s right. I started my studies in 1969, just one year after the student protests around the world. My parents feared for me to go to university that year. But for me, it was very exciting. Those times were full of inspiration and hope. There were renewed reasons to study and to become an architect — to use imagination in new ways and to solve problems creatively. We wanted to build a new society that would be more responsible, just, and future-oriented, a society that would be ready to embrace new qualities of life.
Was it Natalini who introduced you to Ettore Sottsass?
Yes, he did. It was during my student years that Radical Architecture groups became active, particularly in Italy. That was the time when it formed into a protest movement that developed in parallel with conceptual art. That was the time when artists no longer were concerned with producing works of art. The aim was to define their role in the contemporary society. Artists were trying to build a dialogue between society and art. Architects of the late 1960s and early ’70s were concerned with similar ideas. The key message of these artists was that art is a way to inspire common imagination. But architects wanted their architecture to be related to everyday life. And, therefore, the role of the architect became this: to inspire new ways of living. We should not impose our visions on people, but we should express our visions to excite people’s imagination. These ideas remain very relevant today. Of course, the role of an architect is still reflected in the need to design buildings. But the role of an architect is also in acknowledging what kind of time we live in today. And, more importantly, the role of an architect is to offer an imagination of where we are going.
When you describe your work, you use such words and phrases as “circularity, open theme, unplanned environment, a place of happiness, bringing together, forms of interaction, lifelong learning and unlearning, ironic shapes, diverse aesthetics, symbolic significance, a better future, constructive provocations, stimulating environments, an object that tells a story, everything is experimentation, intangible concepts, an evolution of thinking, a world of connections, and opportunities to generate creativity.” What would you say your work is about and what kind of architecture do you try to achieve?
[Laughs.] Well, in simple terms, I believe that an architect should rely on his or her own capability to express not merely personal desires but to engage in addressing issues that are relevant to the communities in which we live. Architects should engage in a dialogue with society. Ideas are fundamental in creating sparks of imagination. I don’t believe in imposing ideas. We need to be aware of our limited resources and we need to be conscious about being ethical. There should be a limitation on what we can do and what we should desire. This is one of the most important questions of our time. We can only be sustainable if we have an ethical and moral attitude. We no longer can live, design, and build the ways we did 20 years ago.
When I studied architecture in Florence such topics as ecology and sustainability were never discussed. I believe the first time I heard the word “ecology” was in the late 1970s in response to the oil crisis. But now we are on the verge of devastating climatic changes. Everything is changing exponentially and it is our responsibility to be conscious of what we do and how we do it.
This perhaps explains your own transformation, which is quite apparent if we examine how your work evolved aesthetically from your early days of radical designs to the current focus on much more restrained and disciplined forms and palettes. How did this transition occur?
Right now, we have a very large exhibition at Grand-Hornu in Belgium called “Futuro Gentile — A Kind Future.” It focuses on the humanist approach exemplified in our projects here, centered on the constantly evolving needs of the human being. Curiously, the exhibition’s curators pointed out to me that there is a strong connection between my work from the early days of the Radical Architecture movement to the time of the Earth Stations and other visionary projects that I work on now. The forms are very different, materials are very different, and iconographies are very different, but the content and intentions are the same. This was actually a surprise to me. I didn’t realize that my work has been so consistent and coherent from the very beginning. Consistency is in my focus on addressing the behaviour of people inside my projects. The point is not in the language of aesthetics but in the attention to how people would interact with the environments I design.
So, the ideas I explore today are still the same as always. The idea is that an architect is not only a technical provider but an intellectual provider. But as far as the changes you see in the kinds of geometry, materials, and colours we use in our projects, these reflect very much the evolution of how our society had been adjusting to the issues of sustainability. To be sure, I am worried about these issues and, as an architect, I know I can help to address them because I can choose not to use or use less concrete or other energy-consuming materials, as they are very damaging to the environment. It was for this reason that I abandoned all plastics and all synthetic materials. The material that I use the most is wood. Also, I use clay and those materials that are the closest and most fitting to the sensibilities of a human being.
Decades since he helped form the radical design movements of Alchymia and Memphis, Michele De Lucchi continues to envision a better future.