In the world of international architecture, Massimiliano Fuksas  and Doriana Mandrelli are something of a “Made in Italy” power couple. Both attended Rome’s La Sapienza University, both became designers. Once married, they created a flourishing partnership that has yielded global results. Recently, they’ve collaborated on Strasbourg’s Zenith Music Hall (both inside and out in translucent orange), the €1.2 billion Bao’an International Airport in Shenzhen, China, Giorgio Armani’s Ginza Tower in Tokyo and are now working on developing Rome’s new Congress Center (Centro Congressi) in the suburb of EUR.
Born in 1944, Fuksas lost his Lithuanian father as a boy, leaving him in the care of his Italian mother and German grandmother, whose cultural viewpoints differed. “I’m a strange Italian,” he says. “Actually, I’m more Roman than Italian. I have a crazy sense of organization. A Roman has craziness alone while Germany has only order; I put them together.”
For Fuksas, architecture should improve people’s lives, particularly those of harried city-dwellers. Building should contribute to mood, “like music.” His taste in projects is eclectic. After finishing Milan’s Trade Exhibition Center (a million square meters in 26 miles of glass and steel) Fuksas went on to design a small church in Foglino, Italy (1,500 square meters, all of it built from basic cement). “You have to change the scale,” he says, “Otherwise, you lose perspective.”
Fuksas goes for projects that inspire him. “It’s like when you look at a person and say, ‘This one could be my friend.'”
He opened his first studio in Rome in 1967, and once in partnership with his wife, added a second in Paris and a branch in Shenzhen, China [the commerical city north of Hong Kong has the nation’s second-largest port and a population of more than eight million]. His ongoing efforts include “La Nuvola” (“The Cloud”), a full reworking of the Rome Congress Center, scheduled for completion by the end of 2010. Aside from the Bao’an airport project, he’s also working on a plan to help the Chinese save energy by adopting designs which would cut energy costs by limiting air conditioning and recycling water. Since 2007, his imprint has been seen in Nigeria, Slovakia, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Russia, Poland, Israel and Brazil.
Together, Fuksas and Mandrelli also designed the stairway in Giorgio Armani Fifth Avenue store in New York City. It was Armani who took the initiative, says Fuksas. After New York, Armani asked the couple to work on stores in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo. Says Mandrelli, who befriended Armani during the projects: “I kidded him, ‘Since we designed the exterior and interior of your buildings, the next time I’ll also design your clothes!'”
Fuksas and Mandrelli live in a spacious and airy apartment in central Rome. Overlooking Castel Sant’Angelo, it reflects their love of design. Mandrelli has a credenza made by 20th century French designer Jean Prouvé, whose work she calls “my passion.” The couple also owns a replica of the Prouvé’s steel door with round windows on display inside Paris’ Pompidou Center. A paper and bamboo light by Noguchi, an acclaimed 1940s Japanese designer, provides the lighting, and a gold-framed painting by Argentine-born Futurist Lucio Fontana, from his “slash series,” hangs from the wall. “It took me a lifetime to buy it,” Fuksas confides.
The couple splits its time between Rome and Paris, where they have an apartment in the trendy Place de Vogues in the Marais neighborhood, which Fuksas labels “another world.”
Sitting on a couch on their penthouse living room, they talked to Katie McGovern separately about architecture and family life. Fuksas, clad entirely in black (“always,” he says), spoke first.
What’s your goal as an architect?
I didn’t want to be an architect. I wanted to be an artist. So I use architecture as if I were an artist. The goal of an architect is to resolve peoples’ problems — so that you give them the space and emotion to improve their lives.
After modernism and then postmodernism, what would you call the era in which we now live?
I would call it the era of “sublime chaos.” Because these are uncertain times. People wanted to organize everything — ideology, philosophy, all action. But now uncertainty has taken over and man wants to do what he feels. The “Obama miracle,” as we call it, shows that in addition to reason there is also emotion.
Architecture has become an experience. Even walking into a store is an experience. It is no longer geometry and something static.
What do you consider the most important buildings of the past decade?
I won’t talk about the last 10 years, but instead about all of history. Number one is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul because it was a new concept of space [editor’s note: Hagia Sofia was built as a cathedral and transformed into a mosque. It is now a museum]. It looks like it floats on air. Secondly, the Sydney Opera Hall built in 1960s, which was landscape architecture. Thirdly, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. He projected the emptiness, and then made the walls. It looks like the walls come out of the emptiness instead of the other way around. You think about the spiral but not about the walls of the spiral.
If you had the power to change Rome’s architecture what would you do?
I’d get rid of the traffic in the center. You could make an underground transportation system using trains and subways. It wouldn’t be hard. The best thing about architecture is to delete rather than to add. To have the entire historic center of Rome as a pedestrian zone would be one of the most beautiful things in its history. Again, it’s possible. We have the technology and know-how. What we’re missing is the will. We need politicians that are more “Obamaist,” who think environmentally and realistically.
For example, I don’t use a car. I always walk. From [my apartment] to Piazza del Popolo it is only 10 minutes on foot. No bike necessary. You could get around fine in Rome just taking the bus, the metro, and walking. Traffic suffocates Rome, as it does Naples and other beautiful Italian cities.
What would you change about Italy’s architecture?
For future architecture, we should renovate a lot of buildings and demolish some of them completely, like the low-income housing built in the 1970s. Not because they are ugly, but because they represent areas of suffering where people are unhappy. The first consideration in architecture is to think about people’s happiness.
We should also construct a new idea of a city. A new pedestrian city with more trees, where social relationships are better and people can meet.
Smaller cities work better, such as Modena or Mantova. Larger cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants have lots of problems. A big city needs to be considered as a group of small cities, not as a single city. In a part of the city that has too many offices, you could add houses so that people could also live near work. To simplify.
Today, people have to travel across their cities; they live in the north and work in the south, or live in the east and work in the west. This is pure madness. We need to think about deconstructing cities.
For example, a city of three million could be thought of as 10 cities of 300,000. With a center and an organization in each part. And then not just connect the periphery with the center, but each small center to each center. A subway that connects all the peripheral zones. As it stands now we all have to go through the center from the periphery to get to another periphery, which is an incorrect concept.
What about infrastructure?
Italy lags behind. We don’t have a national network of high-speed trains. The United States and China are both thinking in terms of faster trains. Italy, a European nation that already has railroad infrastructure in place, still can’t connect all its cities using high-velocity trains. It’s madness due to political warfare.
Are Rome building projects limited because of strict regulations and bureaucracy, particularly in terms of the historic center?
Why would you want to build in the centro storico [Rome’s historic center]? It’s the part that works best. You need to work on the suburbs, the outskirts, where it doesn’t work as well. Building in the historic center would be like performing surgery on a healthy leg while not treating the sick one, which is the urban sprawl. Such structures as the EUR Congress Center, the Auditorium, and the MAXXI Museum are making Rome’s outskirts important through the adoption of contemporary architecture.
The real city is the periphery. Rome’s center numbers some 127,000 inhabitants, but three-to-four million live on the outskirts.
What do you think of the replacing of New York City’s Twin Towers with the Freedom Tower?
I don’t know. Eight years later, I’m still shocked by September 11th. I think I’d leave [Ground Zero] as a park for 10 years and then think about it. Architecture is an art of peace. I don’t have the capacity to analyze that space. When I think about September 11th, I don’t see architecture or buildings.
What effect is the economic downturn having on architecture?
I think it’s good for architecture. In the building bubble people built everywhere, including erecting ugly and vulgar things. They’ve destroyed whole parts of the world by building in places that shouldn’t be built on. Given how much has gone up, this period hasn’t produced many interesting buildings. Maybe the downturn will make better architecture emerge and see the best clients survive.
Which of your contemporaries do you admire?
All the good ones. If I name any in particular, I’ll just make enemies of those I omit. I’ll mention only [Brazilian] Oscar Niemeyer. He’s 102-years-old and loves his life, his friends, and still smokes cigars. He still has a lot of ideas. Ideas only come to those who love life. If you don’t love your life, you won’t have them.
You have studios in Rome, Paris, and China. How do you balance the business side of running studios in different locations?
Badly. Very badly. I don’t know how to do business. But since I have fun doing this work, I’m surprised that people pay me to have fun. It seems absurd. I’ve always had enough work, never had debt. We have 80 employees in Rome, 35 in Paris, and 25 in Shenzhen.
Does spontaneity enter into your work, or is everything planned out?
All projects change. They’re not static. Fifty percent is in the design and 50 in the building. The building site itself gives you inspiration. It also provides suggestions for future projects. When I’m angry, I go to the site and pause for a few hours. It’s my environment.
Do you ever suffer from “architects block,” like writers block?
I’m crisis-stricken as soon as I finish a project. I feel like I have no more ideas, like I’ll never do anything else worthwhile. I’m empty, like an emptiness of spirit. Then slowly the urge returns. Who knows how? First you imagine something in your head, and then you put it on paper.
Do you like to visit your finished work?
No. In the same way that I don’t like going back to places where I was once happy, fearing it won’t be the same. Place are more interesting in memory than they could ever be in reality. Returning, you see more mistakes than you do the positive. Not because what you’re seeing are really mistakes, but because your outlook has changed. I look at my earlier buildings as children of another era. They’re beloved, but at the same time your mind is on the children that are with you.
The past is the past. It’s of no help. The present helps more, and future makes you feel happiness. Thinking about the future makes you eliminate the possibility of death.
How would you like to die?
I don’t believe in a good death, I believe in a good life. I have liked all the periods of my life. I enjoyed being young, then an adult, and now I want to grow old. It’s nice to fully live all parts of your life.
What would be your advice to aspiring architects?
Take risks. Don’t worry about trying to be successful. Dare to make things that other people might not like. Don’t create things with the intention that everyone immediately likes them.
DORIANA MANDRELLI: Joys and thankless pleasures
When La Sapienza architecture student Doriana Mandrelli met Massimiliano Fuksas, her professor, “It was love at first sight for me. We’ve been together for 40 years.”
In addition to collaborating with Fuksas — a thankless job at times, she says — and caring for their two children, Mandrelli designs bracelets, door handles, chairs, cutlery, and furniture. She’s also made a Seiko watch, an Alessio tea and coffee set, and an armchair for Poltrona Frau. Designing furniture means lots of effort, she says. “It takes two years to make an armchair, which is the same amount of time it took to create the Milan Trade Fair Exhibition Center [completed in 2005].”
Mandrelli, whose hair is strikingly short-cropped, has a young voice and laughs easily. She speaks candidly, as if you’d met a girlfriend at Starbucks.
How would you compare Rome with Paris?
We have a house and studio in Paris and lived there for a long while. In the beginning we liked Paris because we were used to Rome, and in Rome nothing ever happens. There might be an exhibit here and there, but overall there is nothing. The sun even starts to bother you.
In Paris, in the morning it is always gray, it always rains, which is when you start to realize the importance of the sun. When it does come out, everyone moves into the streets. There’s good cheer. Otherwise Parisians stay in a bad mood and stay out late at night.
How important is it to receive positive feedback?
I used to think it was important… Massimiliano and I work together and we sign our names together on projects. But often in the end my name doesn’t appear. I don’t know why. Even when Massimiliano says that I was 90 percent responsible for the project. So at this point I say, “Okay, who cares. The important thing is just doing the project.” Still, sometimes it’s still nice to get recognition. There are days when I don’t care, other ones when I’m tired and I think, “Why am I doing this?”
It seems to me that when two individuals work on a project, and one of them is well-known, that’s enough for people. Two people is one too many.
Massimiliano and I did the set design for a Greek theater production in Siracusa, Sicily this year and an audience of 5,000 applauded us, which was an extraordinary feeling. And for the first time, I thought, “How strange, how nice!”