Tom Kovac Architecture
Alessi's Tea and Coffee Piazza celebrated postmodernism. The City of Towers project, previewed at the Venice Architecture Biennale, creates a new landscape of objects designed by contemporary architects. Stefano Casciani interviews Alessandro Mendini about the process Photography by Carlo Lavatori.
What was your criterion in choosing the architects for this new typological product research?
I believe the way these architects think is fundamental to the debate on contemporary design. Their works send out loud and clear messages about an interpretation of the world through architecture. Unfortunately, we won't be able to translate the ideas of all the architects we invited into concrete objects. But what we were really interested in was to survey - in the broadest and freest possible sense - the meaning of certain types of objects for the home. We wanted to see how far new and diverse idioms can interpret today's need for products that will also satisfy an expressive demand.
Left: Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA, Right: Morphosis
Can this also be defined as a commercial operation or, rather, as a restyling of the Alessi image?
Its historical precedent, the Tea and Coffee Piazza, launched in the 1980s, led to a collaboration between Alessi and Aldo Rossi and Michael Graves, and their objects have since become design best-sellers worldwide...
Let us say that with City of Towers we have tried to accomplish two goals. On the one hand we wanted to find out where the contemporary idea of 'domestic' objects is heading, and whether there is still a future for such things. So we thought it would be worthwhile studying and comparing the visions of different designers, without attaching too many practical or industrial strings. On the other hand, though, Alessi will clearly be able to take advantage of this research - not only to widen its vision of the design world, but also to spot new 'design' talents among 7architects who may not yet have thought about working on objects of this sort, on such a fascinating and challengingly small scale.
Among the Italians taking part in the project, the only one represented seems to be Massimiliano Fuksas, with Doriana Mandrelli. Why is that?
I believe that in the cultural and generational area that interests us, Fuksas embodies a certain evolution of Italian architecture that is worthy of international attention but still isolated within a particular cultural world. So we thought it might be interesting to ask him to experiment with a new dimension of research.
Left: David Chipperfield Architects, Right: Massimiliano Fuksas, Doriana Mandrelli
At the time of another Architecture Biennale, the first and most 'scandalous', you staged a show under the highly provocative title The Banal Object. Is there anything in common between that hypothesis and the one presented today?
Our survey on 'the banal object' was very important at the time, since it helped us to understand the limits and scope of domestic design. With the Tea and Coffee Piazza we had already hit on a number of possible solutions and ways out of that dimension.
Now, with City of Towers, we are again addressing the matter of differences in scale - from the large dimension of architecture to the much smaller one of objects. There can also be something heroic about facing this kind of simplification... I might say that the idea of the 'banal' has, if anything, become a philosophical preface to design as a whole. Ever less concerned with heroism, we have come to accept that the emotions aroused by an object may not be as intense as those stirred by a building. It makes an interesting paradox - the instruments of 'large' design applied on the 'small' scale - and one that we certainly wanted to explore through this adventure into the world of possible things.
An adventure that won't be over all that soon... When is the concrete conclusion of City of Towers expected, and when will these ideas become real products?
At the Venice show we are exhibiting the project results in their present state - the basic ideas, a few prototypes and images of the objects in their embryonic stage. The whole thing is very unpredictable and could change, even decisively, at any point. This aspect of uncertainty was also accepted by the architect designers. Indeed, in some cases they themselves changed their ideas, and, whenever possible, we have tried to follow the workings of their minds. However, the deadline that we have set for the presentation of the final results, the realized objects and their communication, is 2004.
Twenty years after George Orwell's 1984... Aren't you struck by the fact that we are now so deep into the future yet still relying on instruments of thought and design from the past century?
Maybe that is also why we have tried to re-create an imaginary landscape of objects through the languages of architects who were born in a not too distant past and who have their eyes very closely fixed on the present.
This project may not be the future; it is perhaps a present pushed slightly forward. Nevertheless, it can open up horizons of great interest.