As a design curator and writer, I am interested in emerging talents. One of my biggest tasks is to help designers develop and communicate their unique voice, the expression of their individuality. In some cases it is a matter of time and research, but there are tricks to make it happen. Certain switches can trigger characterising traits.
For this reason, when I was invited to take part in this symposium, I focused on an essential aspect of Enrico Taglietti’s professional career: his move from Italy to Australia. In the 1950s, when he left, Milan was experiencing a period of extraordinary effervescence in which designers played a decisive role. Milanese designers were incredibly versatile, designing everything from tiny objects to giant buildings. In 1952, the architect and architecture theorist Ernesto Nathan Rogers described the typical approach as ranging ‘from a spoon to a city’.
Nonetheless, architect Lina Bo Bardi became a Brazilian citizen in 1951; designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli moved to the United States in 1957; and Enrico Taglietti arrived in Australia in 1955 and settled here permanently the following year. All of them were great Italian designers who chose to leave Italy precisely in the 1950s to find their own voice. The move gave them the chance to design according to their own principles.
I imagined the journey, the distance, the sense of discovery and strength needed to make a choice that allowed little room to change your mind and backtrack. I was particularly struck by what Taglietti said about Australia, once he had settled in. He said he was ‘in love with the place, with the emptiness, the sense of space, the sense of freedom from the past’. In these words lie the meaning of his decision to change countries. He was motivated by key elements that he wanted from the future.
So, is it still important to choose the right place to work and live? In the age of easy travel and fast communication, does moving to a new country make a difference? And why did designers of the past decide to move to other countries?
Of course there have always been circumstances that force us to move, leaving little room for personal choice and with no option to go back. This is the case of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who in the 1930s had to leave Germany with great bitterness because of the rise of Nazi power. When he arrived in America, he was already a reputable German architect and a master designer of the modern movement. He had been the director of the Bauhaus school until its final closure. He had won important competitions for the design of great buildings. During his years in America, he developed his vision of monumental architecture made of ‘skin and bones’. His aesthetics were minimalist and coherent with the ‘less is more’ principle (Rawn 2014). With its clearly visible structural elements, it had a great influence on architecture in the United States and beyond.
After working in Milan at the Gio Ponti office and being the deputy editor of Domus magazine, Lina Bo Bardi moved to Brazil in 1946 at the age of 32. She went with her husband Pietro Maria Bardi, an art critic and art dealer. As a young woman, still in Italy, she posed the question, ‘How can we achieve a coherent fusion of form and life in our intentions?’ Her concrete answer was given by the architectural projects she designed in her new homeland. These made her one of the most important architects of the twentieth century. Her work, often categorised as brutalism, shows her ability to merge different elements together: the popular culture of Brazil, the typical landscape of those parts, her studies, memories and Italian culture, and the peculiarities of the inhabitants of various areas of Brazil. She endeavoured to gain knowledge of these peoples, having the spirit of a passionate anthropologist. The result was an entirely original empirical collage with extraordinary expressive power. South America gave Bo Bardi the opportunity to really build, and to do so in a young country that was open to the new. As she said, ‘Brazil had no bad habits and no ruins’ (in Rubino 2009). On this basis, she designed fundamental structures such as Casa de Vidro (glass house), her first built architecture and her own house. She lived there until her death in 1992. Currently a foundation dedicated to her legacy resides there. It is a glass box suspended above the rain forest. She later installed drapes to screen it, and allowed nature to grow up all around for protection. The house was all but swallowed by the exuberant growth of local vegetation. The interiors are typical of her fusion of styles. She said, ‘When we are born, we choose nothing. We just happen to be born. I was not born here, but I chose this country to live in. For this reason, Brazil is my country two times over. It is my country by choice, and I feel like a citizen of all its cities’ (in Moore 2012). The SESC Pompeia factor, a sport and cultural centre, was her last piece of work. Completed in 1986, it was inspired by the Brazilian spirit. Bo Bardi said, ‘I never disregard the surrealism of the Brazilian people, their inventions, their pleasure in gathering together, dancing, singing. Therefore I dedicated my work at Pompeia to the young people, to the children and to the third age, all together’ (Bo Bardi 1994: 231). It is hard to imagine her architecture in another country in the world.
Finally, I look to an Italian couple from the recent past, Massimo and Lella Vignelli, who were industrial designers and also famous for their revolutionary graphic design. They created corporate image and logos for American Airlines, Ford, Knoll, and Ducati, among others. They moved from Milan to New York in 1957. In a lengthy interview recorded in 1999 by the Italian broadcaster RAI, they talk about the moment of this choice. The following is an excerpt from this interview:
We were living in Milan, in this incredible climate after the liberation, at the end of World War II. It was a climate of great expectation and great recovery. It was the era of the modern movement. We grew up learning that an architect should know how to make everything. We went to America for the first time in 1957 on a three-year scholarship. We returned to Milan in 1960 and remained until 1965. Then, we had the desire to return to America for what felt like our mission. We returned as design missionaries. Missionaries of a certain attitude towards design. The United States was based on specialisation, much different from the way we saw things. From the beginning, we looked to extend the design field to communication, objects, interiors, furniture, etcetera. We wanted to work on everything that needed designing. So that was what we did.
A symbol of this migration from Italy to America dates back to 1972. It is the famous subway map of New York, an abstract diagram of the network where each line is identified by a different colour and each stop is identified by a dot. It was a radically modern approach, compared to the traditional maps in use. It received mixed reactions and still provokes debate. The Vignelli map is part of the collections of several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Vignelli mission consisted of developing highly innovative work that involved many different aspects of design; as Vignelli said, ‘Design is One’ (2004). In America, they managed to practice design in all its forms, yet never lost their critical spirit towards their adoptive homeland. In the same interview they say:
The United States is pretty far behind in certain design fields but very advanced in others. In Italy, design is part of the cultural fabric of the nation. In America, it is seen as an incentive for sales. That is disastrous. On the other hand, it is an element that strengthens us and encourages us to fight against it. We feel very motivated in the United States, where there is still a battle to fight. We prefer it to Italy, which is absolutely full of designers.
I return now to what Enrico Taglietti said about Australia, once he was living there: that he was ‘in love with the place, with the emptiness, the sense of space, the sense of freedom from the past’. But what was his yardstick? To what was he comparing Australia — what was happening in Milan in the 1950s?
Milan in the 1950s was one of the most vibrant European cities. The post-war period was one of economic boom. Many iconic buildings were being constructed, such as the Velasca Tower by the BBPR group. This brutalist building was erected in a downtown area devastated by bombs. It is a symbol of that transitional period. Ernesto Nathan Rogers, the then director of Casabella magazine, said, ‘The Velasca aimed to represent the cultural atmosphere of the city of Milan without resembling the design language of any other building around it’. The Pirelli skyscraper by Gio Ponti, which we Milanese affectionately call the Pirellone, was also built then. It is a product of Italian rationalism. Its 127 metres made it the tallest skyscraper in Europe until the mid-1960s. In the same period, extremely innovative design companies that would become world famous emerged: Fiat, Olivetti, Cassina and others. We also saw great productivity by designers such as Castiglioni brothers, Angelo Mangiarotti and Marco Zanuso, with whom Enrico Taglietti worked.
The city was full of people, cars and new buildings, but also with historical elements that had survived the war. This was exactly the opposite of what Taglietti found and appreciated in Australia. In 1955, he left Milan and arrived as an Italian architect in Sydney to present an exhibition on Italian design at the David Jones department store. The display included some of his projects. Recently graduated and married, he spent six weeks in Australia with his wife Francesca. He was tasked with finding a location for the new Italian embassy in Canberra, and here he had a revelation, an epiphany. The architecture historian Ken Charlton writes: ‘When he arrived in Canberra in 1955, Taglietti was instantly enamoured by the prospect of contributing to the creation of a future but then “invisible” city in the way he knew best, by creating superb architecture’ (Charlton et al 2007).
But in order to move forward with the considerations we must take a step back in Taglietti’s background. In 1938 Taglietti was in Asmara, Eritrea. Although he stayed there for only few years, the African territory was deeply relevant in Taglietti’s life approach. It was in fact in Asmara that Taglietti, at only eleven years old, for the first time in his life faced what would become his main source of inspiration: the uncontaminated and infinite nature. The environmental landscapes. The infinite horizons and the sense of boundlessness. Taglietti remained enchanted by those desolated lands. Since he was used to living in a completely different context in Milan, getting in touch with that reality was a real wonder for a child. As he explained in an interview, he loved finding himself in the middle of nowhere, only surrounded by nature: ‘The lights and the colours of the land had an enormous impact on me; I remember the red of the land and the lights reflecting on that earth. It was a real fascination’ (Taglietti, in Rusden 1988).
So it’s not reckless to say that in Africa Taglietti had his first epiphany. In his mind, the image of that infinite nature had an enormous influence. The idea of his personal world started to take shape. The African landscape, and those years spent in a foreign country, helped him to feel safe with the unknown. The same safety led him so easily away from Milan, to find his fruitful place in Australia, the perfect country, the ‘invisible city’, where he could build his vision.
This period in Eritrea was also crucial for Taglietti’s primary formation, since his education was shaped through an important ideological debate among his high school’s educators, who were indeed following diverse political and philosophical directions, since Eritrea was ruled by the Italian Fascist colonial power first, and then by the British government:
My education definitely influenced me, the Greek tragedies and Chinese philosophers taught me a lot of things. Also in Africa, without knowing it really, I learned from seeing things like Lalibela, a church totally excavated underground with fantastic light – as good as Le Corbusier’s La Tourette, which is a bit different. During the War in Eritrea, occupied by the British, high school teachers where dismissed and in their place we had engineers and university philosophers. I had an education that was outside the normal, a fantastic education I believe. (Taglietti, in Hartoonian & Stein 2015)
The city of Asmara offered Taglietti the experience of getting in touch with a totally different environment, as for instance the Lalibela site, the rural town famous for its churches, carved from within the earth — from a ‘living rock’. Eritrea was a rich territory, with important architectures influenced by oriental and indigenous cultures. All these conflicting experiences, both in Milan during his studies at the polytechnic and his youth in Eritrea, resulted in Taglietti’s architectural arguments (Favaro et al 2007; Taglietti, in Rusden 1988).
The architectural philosophy of Enrico Taglietti could have blossomed in Milan or in any other city. But it was in Canberra that his idea of the Invisible City made of space, light, nature and landscape evolved to become the foundation of all his creative expression. It is no wonder that the architect Bronwen Jones, expert on Taglietti’s work, calls the Italian architect an ‘urban poet’. Jones says that ‘as a younger man, Taglietti was a dreamer wanting to make his mark’ (in Charlton et al 2007). But even as a mature architect, he knew his own mind, and stuck to his principles. He wrote a list of criteria for judging modern buildings in Canberra in 2002. One of the points says, ‘Modern architecture is invisible. It cannot be represented. It can only be walked through and lived’.
Enrico Taglietti explains in no uncertain terms the reason he decided to leave Milan to move here: ‘The fascination of Canberra was really the thing that brought us back’. And also: ‘An empty city was exactly what I was looking for’. It was an incredible opportunity, seized with professional talent and courage. I will not elaborate here and analyse Taglietti’s work. There is much to say about the signature elements of his architecture, his use of materials, his concept of the void as a starting point for his designs, the many buildings he designed, and the extraordinary public and private spaces that brought him to receive the highest award for architecture in Australia in 2007, the Gold Medal for Architecture.
But I think it is useful to emphasise some elements from an Italian perspective, such as mine inevitably is. Taglietti said, ‘Coming from Italy, history was always present. There was a burden of history’. Just think back to how Lina Bo Bardi said she was happy to work in a country ‘that had no bad habits and no ruins’. Apparently, the seemingly simple idea of creating beautiful shapes that were suited to their context, and able to meet the needs of the people who inhabited them, was revolutionary. In some cases, as with Taglietti and Bo Bardi, the results are surprising because they created a truly new visual and architectural language.
To me, the private dimension of houses is perhaps the most significant design category of Taglietti's work. In response to a specific question asked by Ken Charlton regarding what the most challenging project was for him, he replied ‘a house’. Here is an excerpt of an article published in 1964 by the Italian magazine Domus, one of the most influential architectural design reviews of that period, about the Osborne residence in Currandooley, NSW.
While writing these pages we stopped, as the reader will do, to consider this clear sky, these lean trees. This architecture, this house, thrown horizontally on the lawn, is new, freshly made, waiting to ‘vegetablise’ its white walls with vines, and to welcome a tree or two in its enclosure, which will grow large and protect it. (Domus 1964)
The tone of this text really expresses the idea of the distance between the Italian editorial staff and the context of the house in Australia.
This idea of distance, I found, was a key in understanding the work of Enrico Taglietti. Distance is a key concept in the practice of anthropology. For the field of study to be effective, it is thought absolutely necessary that the anthropologist come from a place far away from the focus of investigation. In a certain sense, Taglietti always and perhaps instinctively had an anthropological attitude. It started with the endless series of questions he asked the clients of his houses. He was convinced that he had to know the future inhabitants of his designs very well in order to be able to design better. He is not just someone who emigrated from Italy to Australia. As the geographer Robert Sack writes in his book Homo Geographicus, ‘We humans are geographical beings transforming the earth and making it into a home, and that transformed world affects who we are’ (Sack 1997: 1). This is exactly the case of Taglietti, an Italian architect who came with a high level of training (let us not forget that he graduated from the Milan Polytechnic), and adapted it to the ideal conditions he found on the other side of the world. He assimilated elements to transform his work into something new, the result being the addition of two components — the Italian and the Australian. In this I can see the matrix of the originality of Taglietti’s work. His approach takes nothing for granted. His multifaceted personality combines the architect, the poet and the philosopher.
I found it very significant that he designed the Italian embassy in Canberra and then represented Australia at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the exhibition ‘Transformations in Modern Architecture’, bridging different countries and demonstrating how the concepts of nation and boundaries are relative and circumstantial.
Indeed the so called ‘elsewhere’ is not only the place not yet discovered, but also, in fact the dreamy place. Canberra became an inspirational muse for Taglietti, who wanted to escape from a reality in which there wasn’t space for such a complex personality. As immigrant, Taglietti decides to leave his mother country to find his personal accomplishment in the country he chooses to belong to.
An excerpt from an interview with Gevork Hartoonian and Patrick Stein for Fusion journal helps clarify Taglietti’s influences and source of inspirations, and the architectural reasons that pushed him to leave Milan.
When I arrived back from Africa and joined the Politecnico I found that it was following the direction of the Bauhaus, which at that time I considered to almost be a bit Fascist. Everyone was screaming at me, but I was saying if one has to follow a rule because everything is codified like in the Bauhaus then it is no use for an architect to be there because he has no freedom. […] I was totally against that and said I wanted to be slightly freer. So that was the education that I had, until the last couple of years when I discovered Bruno Zevi. I found that finally I had a possibility of choice between codification, or scientific rationalism, and poetry — and I said that is what I want to know: I want to become a poet and not a scientist. (in Hartoonian & Stein, 2015)
Buildings became a real language for Taglietti. It has no limitation, but it must address to people. In constant dialogue with the landscape. His architecture becomes a living creature, not to be conceived only in details or in structure and which should answer to emotions.
I believe you have to know what can be achieved with structure. At the Politecnico you had all structure, structure, structure, and nothing was architecture for the first two years. By the third, fourth and fifth year you start having a feeling of what architecture should be. This is something that doesn’t exist in our schools today. (in Hartoonian & Stein, 2015)
His background set the basis for the way he perceived life: as made of different cultures, different aesthetics and different ideologies. His being an immigrant by choice is an intrinsic aspect of his poetry. And since he was quite familiar with the unknown, he treasured every little aspect of his life. He developed the ability to take advantage of the circumstances, and had the power to adapt, change and shape his ideals without following any imposition: ‘For a true architect, the mind constitutes an unfathomable storehouse of information and impressions that, in the process of creating, lose their identity and are converted into something new’ (in McCarter 1996: 60).
In Canberra, Taglietti had the opportunity to question all the bases of architecture such as external volumes, surfaces, and interactions with the landscape. Taglietti’s work is outside the mainstream, offering more depth and playfulness of forms; it is against every structural and functional rationale, preferring to shape forms simply for their delight, with aesthetic and emotive appeal. All the influences he experienced — the African landscapes, the city of Milan and at last, the vastness of Australia — became the little pieces of a larger puzzle.
Considering all this, I can’t help wondering: What happens today? Must we still move to a different country to find the expression of our individuality?
It is undeniable that things have changed. Travelling is easier; nowadays, even a major trip does not mean you must abandon your native country for good, as it often did in the past. Effective communication happens in real time, allowing you to work from anywhere, regardless of where you choose to live. We know that the big architecture firms now operate at a global level, opening studios in countries that interest them. Trans-continental commuting, especially in highly specialised fields such as design, is the new reality.
Yet, I believe that even in the present time, choosing a place to live and work has a decisive personal and professional meaning, different from what it meant in the past. To test this theory, I decided to investigate some design studios that are similar to the architecture studios of the past regarding number of staff and the essential role of their founder.
Philippe Malouin was born in Canada in 1982. When asked if his choice to live and work in London had been an important decision for him, he answered with heated enthusiasm. ‘It matters!!!’ He explained that Canada didn’t offer any opportunities for an aspiring product designer. Aside from this, London also meant the chance to meet people and create connections, and to be close to Europe. Malouin believes it is important where you decide to study, where you decide to live and where you decide to work. He told me about his struggles to get a visa, saying, ‘It was hard’. So when in 2016 he finally got his citizenship, he celebrated on social media, publishing photos of his new UK passport. It was a crucial moment for him and he was not ashamed to be proud of it.
London is at the centre of everything. It has the necessary connections for the work you do. It is a city full of possibilities, but in a peculiar way. Even if you have little money and little space (it is difficult to have a big studio) and few resources, you can do a lot.
The story of Formafantasma is entirely different. Both designers were born in the early 1980s, but Andrea Trimarchi is from Sicily, and Simone Farresin is from Veneto — the extreme south and extreme north of Italy. Formafantasma has a taste for pure research. It likes to analyse objects, materials and meanings to an extreme degree. Its rationalist approach has created connections with companies such as the Italian brand Flos.
Trimarchi and Farresin went to the Netherlands from Italy with the purpose of studying at the Design Academy Eindhoven. They ended up choosing to stay and live in Holland. ‘In Italy, we would not have known where to go’, they say. ‘Here we have found an entire generation similar to us’.
Their interest in their roots has grown over the years. They worked with lava rock from Mount Etna, an active volcano in Sicily. They recently worked with Flos on a collection of lamps. ‘We never felt as if we had left Italy for good’, is something they often say.
In a way, distancing themselves from Italy was necessary to allow them to step away and gain clarity on elements that are typical of this country. Trimarchi and Farresin say:
It was an instinctive and unconscious process, especially at the beginning. It simply happened when we chose the Dutch education system for ourselves and then decided to stay in The Netherlands.
They are keen to stress that it was not a search for opportunities that took them there. They say that there are other countries with more opportunities than the Netherlands. They mention a key concept: it is not about a sense of belonging to a country. They feel no need to be associated with one specific country in order to gain identity.
Yves Béhar was born in Switzerland in 1967. He moved to California in the 1990s. When he first arrived in San Francisco, his work was based on established technology. Over time, and in proximity to Silicon Valley, the cradle of advanced technology, it became easier for him to see what was coming and integrate newer technological features in his projects. He says, ‘Now, for me, technology has become a design tool and a material to give shape to’. For Béhar, technology is like wood, textiles and metal.
Could this have happened far from California? Maybe not, but speaking of his Swiss origins, Béhar says, ‘My roots allowed me to absorb the meaning of design integrity’.
And now, I take a last step back in time. In 1956, Enrico Taglietti moved to Australia. In 1957, the Vignellis moved to America. In 1958, the book Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote came out. It is the story about a desire to up and leave, perhaps not so different from what we have discussed here. Holly Golightly is the turbulent main character who leaves New York to go to Brazil. She sees it as the only opportunity to escape, reinvent herself and perhaps experience a sense of belonging for the first time. Holly Golightly says, ‘Home is where you feel at home’. In the book’s Italian translation, the phrase is different: La patria è dove uno si sente a casa: The homeland is where you feel at home. I wonder how purposely the Italian translator was expressing a particularly acute feeling in Italy during the 1950s.
It is rare to encounter such a strong desire to move away, followed by such a strong sense of belonging. It is expressed so intensely by the architects and designers we have spoken of here.
In Italy, there is an old saying that goes: ‘Who leaves the old road for the new one knows why he left, but does not know what he will find’. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is necessary to find out what is right for yourself and for your work. Taglietti and the other architects like him were able to change their perspective. With intelligence and adaptability, they reached a completely fresh way of designing. They developed it in accordance with dreams, principles and the specific wish to design a new and better world.
We stand upon a verge of an abyss, the abyss created by the culture of egoism and puritanical righteousness. Men have lost their belief in the invisible. Architecture is no longer a WONDER but a temptation for the profitable. The aim of my architecture is to express the invisible, joy and music, silence, light and the desire to be. (Taglietti, in Vassarotti 2019)
Indeed, creative migrants — as Taglietti was — chose to leave the mother country to have the possibility, somewhere else, to express their own personal willingness with no constrictions. For Taglietti Canberra was the promised land, full of possibilities. A blank canvas. An empty space waiting to be molded. The possibility to experiment with no boundaries. A perfect environment where a creative personality can fully express himself. The social and geographical relocation becomes the fundamental step so to give birth to something powerful, often unconventional, but also successful. As Taglietti himself said,’Architecture is a form of art. Design is not a skill, it’s a way of life’.
People currently are interested in design thinking from the 1950s and 1960s. Younger generations are curious about Italian design and architecture from the past. Perhaps this is due to common elements between two eras that seem polar opposites, but are not. Just like back then, everything seems possible nowadays. After World War 2, there was a climate of creative effervescence. It gave the hope of being able really to redesign the world according to their dreams. There was the feeling that dreams could become reality. Yet at the same time, society and politics were unable to keep up with the speed of such change. Today we are surrounded by increasingly faster and more advanced technology. Looking at the new space programmes, I wonder if students and recent graduates are attracted to that period of history because they sense that they live in similar circumstances. I wonder if they recognise themselves in these brave architects of the past. And I hope that they, like them, wish to build things that truly improve people’s life.
Thank you for being such a great example, architect Enrico Taglietti. Thank you.
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