Whiskey, women, and Le Corbusier.
“In the summer of 1952, I was about to graduate with a degree in architecture in Milan. I was already working for Ernesto Rogers’ studio. He had asked me to help organise the Italian attendees to a C.I.A.M [Congrès International de l’Architecture Moderne] seminar near London. Because he was so pleased with this first project of mine, Rogers decided to bring me to London as well.”
We are in the conference room of the Studio Gregotti, which is quite spartan with white walls and a large, white, square table that holds reams of white paper. A slightly unusually shaped, red Pentel pen offers the only bit of colour. Gregotti is wearing a white linen suit with brown shoes (most likely from an English brand). Someone knocks lightly on the door. It’s a smiling secretary who brings in a tray with a white coffee pot, a white cup, and a white sugar bowl. The coffee has arrived. And Vittorio Gregotti tells his story.
“I remember I took the train with the architect Franco Albini with whom I later shared a room. I was twenty-four years old, Albini was around fifty and was a gorgeous, elegant man. Women liked him, and he pursued almost all of them. During that long, uncomfortable journey on the train, I remember I asked Albini a lot of questions about women, and he told me that one of the fundamental things in order to be liked by women was to be truly interesting. Women were a real passion of his. Albini and I bonded right away, also because neither of us spoke English well. That August of 1952 in England was very important for my future. Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier were some of the big names at that seminar. In the dining hall, there were tables where seven or eight people could sit. The person sitting at the head of the table served the rest of the table. It was a strange feeling for a young man of twenty-four to be served by Gropius, who was a living legend and Alma Mahler’s ex-husband. Le Corbusier, whom I would see later in other situations when I worked for Casabella, wasn’t a pleasant man. He was very Swiss and meticulous. And when he spoke, he spoke to the world and not the person with whom he was supposed to be speaking. He was petty bourgeois, a gifted watchmaker. Walter Gropius was different. He was an elegant German man, a bit like Thomas Mann. He smoked a cigar and came from an upper middle-class background.”
Did Alexander Calder participate in that seminar as well?
“I got to know him very well. We became friends, and I went to see him in the United States. I also became friends with Joseph Ryckwert who went on to become a famous architectural historian. So it was a great privilege – almost a dream for me after having recently left the war – to be admitted into that restricted group. An exclusive and sophisticated group that represented great European architecture, which in the time between the two wars, had invented modernity and changed the rules of architecture. It felt like I was becoming a part of history.”
What did you dream about back then?
“Becoming a great architect.”
Vittorio Gregotti’s eyes are lively and smiling as he talks enthusiastically about that summer in England. The Studio Gregotti, which is housed in an old brick factory a stone’s throw from San Vittore prison in Milan, is quite spectacular. Gregotti converted a large space that was a brick warehouse into a two-level workshop and studio where about sixty people from different countries all work. Architect Pierluigi Cerri is a partner, but he mainly handles graphics. The studio has projects all over Europe, including Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany. It was back in London in 1952 when Gregotti says he felt his calling was in Europe.
“I felt European. The United States, which I first got acquainted with in 1958, has always fascinated me, but I couldn’t live and work there. Of course, it is not easy to work in Italy. There are many difficulties. In Milan, we had a period of great development and energy in the 1970s, but now that has all gone away. It’s like we have a mental block in terms of being able to think about our own future. Compared to other European countries, we are at a standstill. In Italy, there are very few competitive tenders.”
What were you like in 1952?
“I was a real sponge. I didn’t have my own strategies. I watched Le Corbusier turn a whole concept upside down with a little sketch. I had idolised the avant-garde between the two wars, and Gropius had me dreaming. He had made his way into the architectural field after first dabbling in music. I come from a family of textile industrialists, and I spent my early years in Novara. The fact that I grew up in a factory is important. I was used to group work. I soon realised I wanted to do something creative, in a group. I could have also become a director. I was a good student at high school, but architecture school was, on the other hand, a big disappointment and didn’t live up to my expectations. The professors didn’t seem to be very good.”
Your architect friends include Gae Aulenti and Aldo Rossi?
“Gae was a classmate, and we only worked together later. Aldo Rossi, on the other hand, was a student of mine, and even if we don’t always have the same ideas, I have a lot of affection and respect for him. But back in 1952, I was the only young person participating in an international conference. Our group of Milanese architects got together later with the magazine Casabella.”
Going to a foreign country in those years must have made a big impression on you.
“I had already been to Paris for eight months after the war. I was a small-town boy just out of the war so, naturally, it was incredibly fascinating for me to see Jean-Paul Sartre at the Café Flore or women wearing pants or a certain freedom in the way people lived. And that isn’t to mention the effect the beauty of Paris had on me. During the conference in England, I remember I was courting the daughter of a Milanese architect. We were a bit shy, and you didn’t talk about making love back then. We took walks in the park, and we talked a lot. English women were freer. They didn’t say, “Please excuse me. I need to go wash my hands.” They said, “Please excuse me. I need to go pee.” But when it came to habits in love, France seemed more liberal than England. In London, I would go to the pubs and drink a lot of beer. It took some effort, but I ended up getting used to and learning to love warm, dark beer. In Italy, middle-class men wearing ties didn’t go around drunk. Italians drank a bit of wine with meals, and nobody drank whiskey. I only knew of my grandfather, who had been an engineer in Africa, as someone who drank whiskey. Yet in London, you saw drunk people walking down the street, and this shocked me quite a bit. In the pubs and the Labour-dominated London of that summer, I had the impression that the social classes were trying to cancel one another out. In those years after the war, there was a great sense of a desire to rebuild and to organise things differently. There was a great amount of energy that today, however, has vanished. I liked English food right away. I don’t travel looking for spaghetti. I like meat and potatoes – basic foods, in other words. Even today I prefer English restaurants to the excellent Indian and Chinese restaurants in London. Since that year, I go almost every summer to London in August. I like the atmosphere, and I can write there in peace. I am a man of the city. The only time I go to the sea is when I am in Venice where I teach architectural design at the university. My third wife, Marina, is from Venice so we go there at least three days a week. We go swimming in the pool of the Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca.”
Gregotti talks easily. He’s a smiling, jovial person. During our conversation, he holds the red pen in his hand and draws – rectangles, arrows, and round figures that look like snakes – on the white sheets of paper on the table. He only answers the phone once, speaking in polite tones.
Do you paint?
“No. I write. If I have a fault, it’s that I’m a bit too much of an intellectual. I have always had a great interest in the avant-garde and modernity. This is, after all, what made me become a part of Gruppo 63. I’ve always thought that writing, frequenting artists, and teaching were all part of being an architect. That’s what I want to do – be an architect.”
Do you have any regrets? Have you changed a lot since 1952?
(Gregotti’s leg is shaking, and I realise that, deep down, he’s nervous). “Yes, I’ve changed. I’ve aged, but in a way that I think is right for me. I have done many things that I wanted to do. I can’t complain. It’s true that I’m anxious, but I’ve acquired a lot of patience over the years (with his leg trembling under the table, one wouldn’t say so). Architectural projects last a long time. Seven or eight years! You become detached, and that’s actually right when you need to be very patient and stubborn.”
What happened after that first experience in England?
“I graduated after my return. My thesis was on Porta Ticinese, a former city gate in Milan, one of the first constructions. My experience in England was useful. (Gregotti gets up). I’ve told you many things. I have almost given you a confession.”
What about the urban development plan in Turin?
“That was a great experience. Now our studio is working on another plan for a competitive tender. To build a city for one hundred fifty thousand inhabitants on the Black Sea.”
Vittorio Gregotti asks a secretary to give me his book, Dentro l’architettura (Inside Architecture), which was published by Boringhieri. Then he walks me out to my taxi, looks over to the walls of the San Vittore prison opposite us, and says:- “Big trouble over there!”
La Stampa, 29th August 1992.