Gaetano Pesce. Interview by Vladimir Belogolovsky

Gaetano Pesce is one of participants of an exposition of Russian pavilion of XI Venetian architectural biennial

author pht

Written by:
Vladimir Belogolovsky

08 September 2008
Gaetano Pesce
Gaetano Pesce is an Italian architect, artist, designer and the man of the world, living in New York City since 1980. His first major design invention might be his best work – the famous “Up” chair, which was presented at the 1969 Milan Furniture Show. The organic shape molded out of polyurethane foam evokes beautiful curves of a female body. There is a foam sphere attached to the chair with a rope provoking an image of a prisoner and a strong political statement about freedom. Yet, the same chair can be taken neutrally and playfully – you kick the ball and it comes back. How many ideas can one express in a chair? Well, there is one more and it is quite radical – the packaging. The “Up” chair could be compressed almost flat since it is 80% air. The package is so light and small that anyone can pick it up at a store and bring home. Then the chair magically appears out of nowhere – great modern spectacle in the comfort of consumer’s own home. There is another point – the chair is really comfortable to sit on! Over the years, Pesce created many thousands of innovative products for leading manufacturing brands and prestigious museum collections.
Pesce is intrigued by modern day Moscow and after ten or so trips there, still finds plenty of room for discoveries. He compares this dynamic metropolis on many levels to New York or Tokyo. In 2002 at the Milan Furniture Fair, the designer created his vision for “Moscow Room” project with resin furniture, lamps and pillows shaped as Russian Orthodox church domes, cut out profiles of Stalin and Putin, a bedspread with the map of Moscow and the glass floor painted with tiny red hummers and sickles. In 2007, he was invited to St. Petersburg by AD Magazine to have a retrospective of his work. To his surprise, he is much more popular in Russia than in the US and now is involved in a number of fascinating projects that could happen only in Russia. We comfortably sat down in his design studio on Broadway, surrounded by brightly colored vases, sofas, chairs, architectural models, paintings, books and many inspiring and innovative creature-looking things that make this room – one of the most inspiring places in the world.

– I heard there is a fantastic apartment that you designed in Moscow. The rumor has it that there is a river running between rooms and kids ride up and down the stream in a real boat! Is it for real?

– Just rumors! I designed this wonderful apartment just like you are describing for a private client in Moscow and I think it is a very nice project. But then the wife of the client asked me to do a silver sofa. I said – ok, I’ll paint it in silver. That wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted the sofa made of real silver, weighting 2 tons, maybe more. I don’t do that so the project stopped right there.

– Or maybe the project was built and you just don’t know about it. Do you have any other projects in Russia?

– Just today, I finished a project for a developer in St. Petersburg. He wants to build a little housing village. He saw my project in Brazil where I designed a small recreation center with a gym, a spa and a play area for children. I also suggested including three green houses in the shape of Russian church domes. I’m critical of architecture that doesn’t have any identity so I searched for something that has local character. I started with the idea of a cupola and talking with the client, he told me that the origin of the cupola shape is the flame. So my green houses moved from domes to the flame. I imagine them to be made of beautiful multicolored glass. I’m going to Russia to present this project.

– How many times have you been to Russia?

– At least ten times. The first time that I went there was in 1958 to experience communism. I traveled there for three weeks in many different cities and everybody looked the same to me. So I started to think that there is international style in architecture and there is international style in politics. I didn’t agree that in China, Russia or Europe everything had to be the same. I started to think that architecture should be like people. We are all different and our architecture should be different. The climate, the culture, the context and so forth should provoke a different kind of architecture. I think Moscow as a place is exploding with curiosity. There is so much interest in doing something unexpected. I like working there. I think architecture is rare, meaning what surrounds us everywhere – is not architecture, but mere buildings. Architecture is something that happens once in 100 years. Architecture is innovation. It is the use of new materials. Falling Waters by Frank Lloyd Wright – is architecture. Brunelleschi’s Dome is innovative in its expression, structure, materials. But if you copy his dome today – that is not architecture – just an ordinary building.

– Is Pesce your real name?

– Yes.

– It means fish in Italian, right? Is it symbolic for you?

– Yes. You know, in some cultures fish has a particular meaning. In China, it is identified with good health. Chinese have fish tanks at their homes so any misfortune would strike the fish first and protect the occupants of the house. And if you join five Greek words which mean “Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Savior”, they will make the word, that is, fish. I did one marina project in front of a small town in Italy and I made it in the shape of a fish. Not because of my name, but to celebrate the symbolic meaning of it. Also I believe that today we should go back to figurative architecture, not abstract. If you look at most contemporary buildings, you would not know what is inside. I believe that in the future, we will use symbols to distinguish meanings of different buildings.

– More and more architects are using what Charles Jenks calls enigmatic signifier. In other words, buildings are identified with a number of forms and shapes. The best examples are buildings by Le Corbusier or Frank Gehry. Gehry’s Guggenheim is reminiscent of a mermaid, a swan, an artichoke, a sailboat and of course, a whale or fish.

– Interesting. I thought Gehry was very abstract. Let me show you something (Pesce walks to his desk and brings a few photographs back) – look at this house interior. When you look out – you see the profile of a face (the face is formed by a contrast between solid wall and a large window frame with another small round window, representing an eye – V.B.). Also cabinetry evokes human bodies and faces. This is my own house in Brazil.

– Do you think this humanizes buildings?

– This is a way to make a connection with people, because people do not relate to abstraction. The problem with abstraction is that it takes you away from local context and it strips the identity from a particular place. You see, a church looks like an apartment building, an apartment building looks like a factory and so on. It is confusing. Objects inside declare the use of buildings – a bed, a couch, a desk, a bathtub – but architecture no longer tries to make such distinction. There is the identity crisis.

– You went to Architecture School in Venice. Did you meet anyone particularly influential there?

– My school was the best in Italy. The professors there were very progressive architects and historians, especially Carlo Scarpa and Bruno Zevi. There were 75 students and 30 or 35 professors so we were all very close.

– There are so many beautiful things from fashion, film, industrial design, furniture, cars and so on that are made in Italy. What makes Italian design so special?

– Italian design is a consequence of Italian Art. In the 20th century, Futurism affected every medium of art – painting, sculpture, theater, poetry, music, architecture. This movement was originated by a poet Filippo Marinetti and it celebrated speed, energy, industry, production, the machine and technological triumph over nature. The industry became the center of life. Creativity played a very important role in manufacturing and the designers, not artists came at the forefront of technology and mass production. High-level design is common place in Italy. It is everywhere – on every street.

– Were you active in such movements as Alchemia and Memphis?

– No, I was active in Radical Design. I also created an experimental company for radical design, called Braccio di Ferro, meaning arm of iron. I never collaborated with Alchemia and Memphis because both of them were postmodern. I see Postmodernism as a very reactionary expression.

– What is the difference between what you did and postmodern?

– In Braccio di Ferro we searched for new progressive expression, where as Alchemia and Memphis simply revived and repeated styles from the 1930’s. Let me show you an example (Pesce goes back to his desk and finds a few photographs of his installation, the Golgotha from 1970). This scene was not the revival from the past. Everything here is very modern to the time it was designed – the chairs, the table, the costumes and so on. The idea here is taken from history but not in terms of forms and style, but its content. It was a connection between design, history and religion. Before that, design was just a decorative and applied expression so here is another dimension for design.

– What is good design for you?

– I believe that good design is a commentary on everyday life. It is not simply the expression related to forms and styles but to what is happening in everyday life. It is a commentary on the real world.

– Why after finishing architecture school, you designed chairs and not buildings?

– To realize a chair you don’t need a lot of money. All you need is to find a company that would be interested in realizing your design. In architecture, it is much harder to find someone who would take a risk in realizing your idea. Developers or other clients are not going to spend money on innovation. They would not pay for the building to be blue in the morning and red in the evening, following the change of temperature.

– Is that what you want to do?

– Sure, or for example, Elastic House that I tried to build in Brazil – I used rubber and resin in wall construction and then one day it collapsed, why – because it was very experimental.

– What collapsed?

– It was an experimental house. I was experimenting with a rubber wall – trying to test its constructability and one day it collapsed.

– Did you rebuild it?

– No, there was no money to do the second test. That’s why I’m telling you that architecture has limits to how much it can afford experimentation. But in the future, I’m sure, architecture will be more like our own body – not rigid and concrete, but much more organic and reacting to the atmosphere. You know, rubber has a terrible smell, so I used another plant, juniper, which smells very good. I mixed the two together to produce a good atmosphere. That is the kind of architecture I want to do – a place that you would want to smell, touch and see in a different way. The technology already allows us to experiment in that direction.

– Why did you leave Italy?

– Maybe for the same reason you left Ukraine. You know your own place well and you need to learn more about the world. I lived in Venice, London, Helsinki, Paris and now I’m in New York.

– When you came to New York, for a while, you were teaching at Cooper Union, right?

– Yes, I was teaching students to invent elastic architecture. It was very different from other professors there. For example, Eisenman was exploring very rigid, dogmatic, kind of Theo van Doesburg geometry. I asked students to design elastic skyscrapers in Manhattan. I remember that the best projects were done by female students. They understand elasticity much better. We experimented a lot with mixing rubber, resin and crystals. One girl created a building that would show various deformations. It was a small library. When it was full of people, it would bend down and so forth. So the building was very informative of what is going on inside. I think contemporary buildings should express new technology in many different ways.

– How do you work?

– Just like I always worked. I come up with an idea and look for a client to realize it. Right now in this office, we have three people – two assistants and myself. Next door, there is a production shop where one artist works. If we go ahead with this Russian project in St. Petersburg, I will collaborate with a local architect there.

– Is resin your favorite material?

– I think each time should have its own material. There was time when architecture was realized in wood, brick or marble. Today we are mostly using materials that were used in the past – metal, concrete and glass. I try to use new materials. I discovered rubber after graduating from school. I contacted various chemical companies to let me see how they use rubber, resin, silicon, etc. in their laboratories and production. I’m fascinated with this fantastic material. Even today, many students are not aware of it. Architecture schools should educate about new materials and new technology.

– After designing so many products, do you still have a dream of designing something for the first time?

– There is always a place for innovation and discovery, so you always find something for the first time. For example, right now I’m working on table design. Usually it is rectangular. But I’m not sure that is how it should be. For me a question mark is very important. So this table is shaped as a question mark and around the question mark, I have small individual stations – one per person. This way it is much more personal and not generic. Each station has its own shape and color. In our time, we have a lot of questions and very few answers. I have a question mark shape in many of my projects, not an exclamation mark.

Gaetano Pesce

08 September 2008

author pht

Written by:

Vladimir Belogolovsky
comments powered by HyperComments
Headlines now
​In Three Voices
The high-rise – 41 stories high – housing complex HIDE is being built on the bank of the Setun River, near the Poklonnaya Mountain. It consists of three towers of equal height, yet interpreted in three different ways. One of the towers, the most conspicuous one looks as if it was twisted in a spiral, composed of a multitude of golden bay windows.
​Dynamics of the Avenue
On Leningrad Avenue, not far away from the Sokol metro station, the construction of the A-Class business center Alcon II has been completed. ADM architects designed the main façade as three volumetric ribbons, as if the busy traffic of the avenue “shook” the matter sending large waves through it.
​Steamer at the Pier
An apartment hotel that looks like a ship with wide decks has been designed for a land plot on a lake shore in Moscow’s South Tushino. This “steamer” house, overlooking the lake and the river port, does indeed look as if it were ready to sail away.
The Magic of Rhythm or Ornament as a Theme
Designed by Sergey Tchoban, the housing complex Veren Place in St. Petersburg is the perfect example of inserting a new building into a historical city, and one the cases of implementing the strategy that the architect presented a few years ago in the book, which he coauthored with Vladimir Sedov, called “30:70. Architecture as a Balance of Forces”.
​Walking on Water
In the nearest future, the Marc Chagall Embankment will be turned into Moscow’s largest riverside park with green promenades, cycling and jogging trails, a spa center on water, a water garden, and sculptural pavilions designed in the spirit of the Russian avant-garde artists of the 1920, and, first of all, Chagall himself. In this issue, we are covering the second-stage project.
​Architectural Laboratory
A-Len has developed and patented the “Perfect Apartments” program, which totally eliminates “bad” apartment layouts. In this article, we are sharing how this program came around, what it is about, who can benefit from it, and how.
​“Architectural Archaeology of the Narkomfin Building”: the Recap
One of the most important events of 2020 has been the completion of the long-awaited restoration of the monument of Soviet avant-garde architecture – the Narkomfin Building, the progenitor of the typology of social housing in this country. The house retained its residential function as the main one, alongside with a number of artifacts and restoration clearances turned into living museum exhibits.
​LIFE on the Setun River
The area in the valley of the Setun River near the Vereiskaya Street got two new blocks of the “LIFE-Kutuzovsky” housing complex, designed by ADM architects. The two new blocks have a retail boulevard of their own, and a small riverside park.
​Celestial Tectonics
Three towers on a podium over the Ramenka River are the new dominant elements on the edge of a Soviet “microdistrict”. Their scale is quite modern: the height is 176 m – almost a skyscraper; the facades are made of glass and steel. Their graceful proportions are emphasized by a strict white grid, and the volumetric composition picks up the diagonal “grid of coordinates” that was once outlined in the southwest of Moscow by the architects of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Clouds over the Railroad
In the stead of former warehouses near “Lyubertsy-1” station, a new housing complex has been built, which peacefully coexists with the railroad, with the flyover bridge, and with the diverse surrounding scenery, not only dominating over the latter, but improving it.
​Towers in a Forest
The authors of the housing complex “In the Heart of Pushkino” were faced with a difficult task: to preserve the already existing urban forest, at the same time building on it a compound of rather high density. This is how three towers at the edge of the forest appeared with highly developed public spaces in their podiums and graceful “tucks” in the crowning part of the 18-story volumes.
​The Towers of “Sputnik”
Six towers, which make up a large housing complex standing on the bank of the Moskva River at the very start of the Novorizhskoe Highway, provide the answers to a whole number of marketing requirements and meets a whole number of restrictions, offering a simple rhythm and a laconic formula for the houses that the developer preferred to see as “flashy”.
​The Starting Point
In this article, we are reviewing two retro projects: one is 20 years old, the other is 25. One of them is Saint Petersburg’s first-ever townhouse complex; the other became the first example of a high-end residential complex on Krestovsky Island. Both were designed and built by Evgeny Gerasimov and Partners.
The Path to New Ornamentation
The high-end residential complex “Aristocrat” situated next to a pine park at the start of the Rublev Highway presents a new stage of development of Moscow’s decorative historicist architecture: expensively decorated, yet largely based on light-colored tones, and masterfully using the romantic veneer of majolica inserts.
​Renovation: the Far East Style
The competition project of renovating two central city blocks of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, developed by UNK project, won the nomination “Architectural and planning solutions of city construction”.
​The Contact
The Istituto Centrale per la Grafica in Rome presents Sergei Tchoban’s exhibition “Imprint of the future. Destiny of Piranesi’s City”. The exhibition includes four etchings, based on Roman architectural views of the XVIII century complemented by futuristic insertions, as well as a lot of drawings that investigate the same topic, at times quite expressively. The exhibition poses questions, but does not seem to give any answers. Since going to Rome is pretty problematic now, let’s at least examine the pictures.
​In Search of Visual Clarity
In this article, we are reviewing a discussion devoted to the question of designing city space elements, which is quite complicated for the Russian expanses of land. The discussion was organized by the Genplan Institute of Moscow at the ArchMoscow convention in Gostiny Dvor.
​The City of the Sun
Jointly designed by Sergey Tchoban and Vladimir Plotkin, the VTB Arena Park complex can arguably be considered the perfect experiment on solving the centuries-old controversy between traditional architecture and modernism. The framework of the design code, combined with the creative character of the plastique-based dialogue between the buildings, formed an all-but-perfect fragment of the city fabric.
​...The Other Was Just Railroad Gin*
In their project of the third stage of “Ligovsky City” housing complex, located in the industrial “gray” belt of Saint Petersburg, the KCAP & Orange Architects & A-Len consortium set before themselves a task of keeping up the genius loci by preserving the contours of the railroad and likening the volumes of residential buildings to railroad containers, stacked up at the goods unloading station.
​Lions on Glass
While reconstructing the facades of Building 4 of Moscow Hospital #23, SPEECH architects applied a technique, already known from Saint Petersburg projects by Sergey Tchoban – cassettes with elements of classical architecture printed on glass. The project was developed gratis, as a help to the hospital.
Park of Sentiments
The project of “Romantic Park Tuchkov Buyan”, which was developed by the consortium of Studio 44 and WEST 8, and has won an international competition, combines sculptural landscape design and wooden structures, variety of spatial features and an eventful agenda, designed for diverse audience, with a beautiful and complex passeist idea of a palace park, meant to evoke thoughts and feelings.
​Architecture as an Educational Tool
The concept of a charity school “Tochka Budushchego” (“Point of the Future”) in Irkutsk is based on cutting-edge educational programs, and is designed, among other things, for adapting orphaned children for independent life. An important role is played by the architecture of the building: its structure and different types of interconnected spaces.
​The Gallery Approach
In this article, we are covering the concept of a Central District Clinic for 240 patients, designed by Ginzburg Architects, which won at a competition organized by the Architects Union and the Healthcare Ministry.
Health Constructor
In this issue, we are publishing the concept of a standard clinic designed by UNK Project, which took second place in the competition organized by the Union of Architects of Russia in collaboration with the Healthcare Ministry.
From Foundation to Teaspoon
Based on the taste of their friendly clients, the architects Olga Budennaya and Roman Leonidov designed and built a house in the Moscow metropolitan area playing Art Nouveau. At the same time, they enriched the typology of a private house with modern functions of a garage loft and a children’s art studio.
Continuation and Development
The second “office” stage of Comcity, the most popular business park of the “New Moscow” area, continues the underground street of the already existing part of the complex, responding to its architectural identity.
​The Flying One
Expected to become an analogue of Moscow’s Skolkovo, the project of the High Park campus at Saint Petersburg’s ITMO University, designed by Studio 44, mesmerizes us with its sheer scale and the passion that the architects poured into it. Its core – the academic center – is interpreted as an avant-garde composition inspired by Piazza del Campo with a bell tower; the park is reminiscent of the “rays” of the main streets of Saint Petersburg, and, if watched from a birds-eye view, the whole complex looks like a motherboard with at least four processors on it. The design of the academic building even displays a few features of a sports arena. The project has a lot of meanings and allusions about it; all of them are united by plastique energy that the hadron collider itself could be jealous of.
​The Aperture Effect
For a housing complex built in the town of Pushkino in the Moscow metropolitan area, KPLN Architects designed facades that adjust the stream of light by using the wall geometry.
​A Comfortable City in Itself
The project that we are about to cover is seemingly impossible amidst human anthills, chaotically interspersed with old semi-neglected dachas. Meanwhile, the housing complex built on the Comcity business part does offer a comfortable environment of decent city: not excessively high-rise and moderately private as a version of the perfect modern urbanist solution.
Moving on the Edge
The housing complex “Litsa” (“Faces”) on Moscow’s Khodynka Field is one of the new grand-scale buildings that complement the construction around it. This particular building skillfully tackles the scale, subjugating it to the silhouette and the pattern; it also makes the most of the combination of a challenging land site and formidable square footage requirements, packing a whole number of features within one volume, so the house becomes an analogue of a city. And, to cap it all, it looks like a family that securely protects the children playing in the yard from... well, from everything, really.
Visual Stability Agent
A comparatively small house standing on the border of the Bolshevik Factory combines two diametrically opposite features: expensive materials and decorative character of Art Deco, and a wide-spaced, even somewhat brutal, facade grid that highlights a laminated attic.
The Faraday Cage
The project of the boutique apartment complex in the 1st Truzhenikov Lane is the architects’ attempt to squeeze a considerable volume into a tiny spot of land, at the same time making it look graceful and respectable. What came to their rescue was metal, stone, and curvilinear glass.
Color and Line
The new successful techniques developed by A.Len for designing a kindergarten under budget constraints: the mosaic of irregular windows and working with color.
The Union of Art and Technology
His interest for architecture of the 1930’s is pretty much the guiding star for Stepan Liphart. In his project of the “Amo” house on St. Petersburg’s Vasilyevsky Island, the architect based himself on Moscow Art Deco - aesthetically intricate and decorated in scratch-work technique. As a bonus, he developed the city block typology as an organic structure.
The Countdown
The project that Evgeniy Gerasimov and Partners developed for Moscow’s Leningrad Avenue: the tallest building in the company’s portfolio, continuing the tradition of Moscow’s Stalin architecture.
White Town
In the project that they developed for a southern region of Russia, OSA Architects use multilayered facades that create an image of seaside resort architecture, and, in the vein of the latest trends of today, mix up different social groups that the residents belong to.
​Just a Mirror for the Sun
The house that Sergey Skuratov designed in Nikolovorobinsky Alley is thought out down to the last detail. It adapts three historical facades, interprets a feeling of a complex city, is composed of many layers, and catches plenty of sunlight, from sunrises to sunsets. The architect himself believes that the main role of this house is creating a background for another nearby project of his, Art House in the Tessinsky Alley.
​Part of the Whole
On June 5, the winners of Moscow Architectural Award were announced. The winners list includes the project of a school in Troitsk for 2,100 students, with its own astronomy dome, IT testing ground, museum, and a greenhouse on the roof.
Pedagogical Architecture
Yet another project of a private school, in which Archimatika realizes the concept of aesthetic education and introduces a new tradition: combining Scandinavian and Soviet experience, turning to works of art, and implementing sustainable technologies.
​Rational Arrangement
In this article, we are examining a complex of buildings and interiors of the first stage of the project that has recently become extremely popular – the Kommunarka clinic.
​Parallel Universe
In the “Parallel House” residence that he designed in the Moscow metropolitan area, the architect Roman Leonidov created a dramatic sculptural composition from totally basic shapes – parallelepipeds, whose collision turned into an exciting show.
In the Istra district of Moscow metropolitan area, the tandem of 4izmerenie and ARS-ST designed a sports complex – a monovolume that has the shape of a chamfered parallelepiped with a pointed “nose” like a ship’s bow.
​Stairway to Heaven
The project of a hotel in the settlement of Yantarny is an example of a new recreational complex typology, and a new format that unites the hotel, the business, and the cultural functions. All of this is complemented by 100% integration with nature.