Gae Aulenti the Italian architect and designer is well known for several large-scale museum projects. She turned the Beaux Arts Gare d’Orsay train station into the Musée d’Orsay. She is commemorated in Milan by the Piazza Gae Aulenti, dedicated to her in December, 2012 soon after her death there at the age of 84.

“I’m terrified of gossip.”

Gae Aulenti is at her home in Milan, which is next door to her studio. She is wearing dark blue trousers and a dark blue shirt. She is smoking an unfiltered Chesterfield cigarette. She has just returned from a long trip to the United States.

Gae Aulenti converted Old Main Library into new Asian Art Museum Photo Tkao

Gae Aulenti in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Tkao

You’ve been working for a year in San Francisco for the Asian Art Museum, which has an extraordinary collection of objects from Turkey to Japan and from Mongolia to Indonesia. Are you specialised in museums?

Yes. I’ve always been interested in art, especially contemporary art. After the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I acquired this so-called specialisation, and this led to an explosion of other projects like the Musée d’Art Moderne in the Centre Pompidou in Paris and then there was the Palazzo Grassi in Venice and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona. There’s also the contemporary art museum in Istanbul, and the first phase has been opened but there’s a second phase on hold since the Muslims won the elections, and they don’t care about contemporary art.


Working on the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

So you don’t work very much in Italy?

It is very difficult to work because even if you win tenders, there is no guarantee the job will get done, or you do it but the decision-making period is long and drawn-out.


The restored Palazzo Grassi, Venice

What about private clients?

Things work very well with them because they know exactly what they want and things are done quickly because they also realise that, economically speaking, that is in their best interests.


The Quirinal Stables, Rome

Will you work on the Jubilee?

Yes. We won the tender for the Quirinal Stables, which will become the home of a very high-level temporary exhibition space.

Do you prefer public projects to private ones?

They are more interesting because an architect needs to not only think about form but must also think about the representativeness of the place. And – how can I say it – you aim higher.


Gae Aulenti

Do you consider yourself an intellectual?

Well, I think I do. You can’t do architecture without knowing music, philosophy, art, and literature.

Are you passionate about music?

Yes. I express my passion working on stage sets for the opera.

You are very good friends with Maurizio Pollini and Claudio Abbado.

Yes. I worked on an opera with Pollini at the Rossini Festival where he directed for the first time, and I stage directed and created sets for the first time. I worked with Abbado many years ago and we did Rossini’s “The Journey to Reims,” which was a worldwide success from Pesaro to La Scala to Tokyo to Vienna…

What about writers?

I read a lot because it’s a kind of nourishment I haven’t been able to do without from the time I was a little girl. This fills up my free moments.


Gae Aulenti

What about fashion?

I am very curious about the work of designers I know well like Armani or Miuccia Prada. I am interested in the theme of their research. I am not at all interested in appearance. I want to go deeper.

Are they any good?

Where they are very good is bringing together the idea with the manufacture and distribution. This is something design hasn’t known how to do. Italian design had an exceptional period but not when compared with how much fashion has produced in terms of quantity.


Gae Aulenti

Are you vain in terms of the way you dress?

I only have one way of dressing, which is my own.

Prada or Armani?

Neither. For the lifestyle I have, which is very mobile with a lot of travel, I have to have things that don’t take me off track.

Why won’t you tell me how you dress?

Even if I have things from Prada, Armani, and others, they all blend in with very austere “Aulentis.”


Gae Aulenti with Giorgio Armani

You have a daughter and two grandchildren. Are you a strict mother and grandmother?

I would say so. I am strict because that is my nature. I am not strict because they deserve strictness. Strictness manifests itself in allowing others to have great autonomy because I think it’s important to acquire knowledge at all ages.

Do you see your grandchildren on holiday?

Yes. On holiday and on other fleeting occasions because we don’t live in the same city. As they get older, I see them less, but we have long telephone conversations.


Gae Aulenti rocking chair

On Sundays?

No. In the evening before dinner.

Do you like gossip?

[She laughs loudly]. I am absolutely terrified of gossip. Gossip filters in and gets sticky, and I don’t like it.


Piazza Gae Aulenti, Milan

Not even with your girlfriends?

No. I can’t imagine accepting that as conversation. It’s a bad Italian habit, and fortunately I frequent other countries for work where gossip is not practiced.


Running through Piazza Gae Aulenti, Milan

What is your favourite country and favourite city?

Milan is my base, and I like it because it’s not a city where you stay. You go there to leave, and you leave to return. I like Paris and New York a lot. I take very long walks in Paris. It is a city where it’s natural to walk.

Has being a woman made your career more difficult?

As compared to my ambitions, yes. It took me many years to be able to do “important” works, but I went along in silence without protesting and without allowing myself to be aware of it.

Chiossone - Interno8 - @genovacittadigitale

Chiossone Museum of Japanese Art, Genoa

Going back to what you have defined as being your speciality, what is your impression of Italian museums?

The extraordinary thing about Italy, in addition to having large museums like the Uffizi, Brera, and the Vatican Museums, is there is this myriad of small museums throughout the country that are real treasures. If there was the opportunity to create a circuit of them and make them all appealing with the right services, it would be one of the most important characteristics Italy could have. Almost nobody knows that in Genoa there’s the Chiossone Museum of Japanese Art.


Library of Celsus, Ephesus

Is it true that you are perhaps planning on making some municipal libraries in Rome?

For now it is only a dream, but I would really like to. Also because one of the most beautiful archaeological examples in the world is the Library of Celsus.


5 July, 1998

La Stampa


Gae Aulenti: The Guardian Obituary