The most representative works of Gae Aulenti, the Grande Dame of Italian architecture

Gae Aulenti left an indelible mark on Italian and international architecture: these are her most important works.

Eight years have passed since the death of the architect Gae Aulenti. She died on 1 November 2012 and, a month later, her name was given to the famous Piazza Gae Aulenti in Milan, the futuristic circular piazza raised nearly 20 feet from the ground with a diameter of 328 feet, designed by the Argentine architect César Pelli. The Grande Dame of Italian architecture, with her studio – which later became Gae Aulenti Associated Architects in 2005 – knew how to leave her mark on the world of modern architecture, managing to break into a mainly masculine universe.

Gae Aulenti’s early works date from the nineteen fifties at a time when a female architect was the absolute exception. She herself ironically explained that “architecture is a man’s profession, but I always pretended not to know that”. Decisive in work yet timid in life, far from the despised concept of starchitect, Gae Aulenti collected an array of prizes and awards: from the special prize for Culture of the Italian Republic to the title of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, bestowed on her by French president Mitterand, as well as the title of Cavaliere di Gran Croce and the career Medaglia d’Oro, personally accepted by her at the Triennale di Milano in 2012.

Born in Udine in 1928 to a half-Apulian, half-Neapolitan family, she studied in Biella, Turin and Florence and, finally, at the Milan Polytechnic. Her career began as an editor and graphic artist of the Casabella magazine, alongside Ernesto Nathan Rogers, from whom she would learn the importance of always keeping an eye on the international scene. It was there that the figure of the architect Gae Aulenti began to be formed: for her, the profession had to be, primarily, entirely intellectual, supported by continuous literary, historical and artistic research. “The architect,” she explained, “must know how to read the context because the roots are very often hidden underground. Knowing how to recognise and make them appear is the great historic reinterpretation of a place.”

 Gae Aulenti, designer

Before examining Gae Aulenti’s most famous projects, it is worth considering her parallel career as a designer. Her most celebrated piece is without doubt the famous Pipistrello table lamp, which encapsulates the features of the Neoliberty movement that opposed the rise of rationalism in the nineteen sixties. Among the particularly famous design objects by Gae Aulenti is, for example, the Sgarsul rocking chair, which helped write the history of made-in-Italy design.

Gae Aulenti’s main projects

In Gae Aulenti’s long career, she engaged in numerous projects of international standing, such as the renovation of the Gare d’Orsay in Paris with the fitting out of the museum, the restoration of Palazzo Grassi in Venice and Turin’s Palavela arena.

Below are some of the most important and renowned works of the architect.

Musée d’Orsay

One of Gae Aulenti’s most famous projects is undoubtedly the renovation of the interiors of the Gare d’Orsay, the former Paris railway station, inside which the celebrated museum was installed and opened in 1986, where there are clear references to the Neoliberty style, starting from the floral theme.

In this work, as in so many other Gae Aulenti projects, the great respect for the station’s original structure stands out. Great attention was paid to the lighting. The architect explained: “I think that the architecture of a museum should be defined by the type of natural and artificial lighting that must be arranged to allow the best perception of the works.”

Not surprisingly, therefore, a lot of effort was poured into carefully defining the perfect lighting for each one of the more than 4,000 works exhibited, choosing limestone to best exploit the natural light projected inside through the glass ceiling.

Piazzale Cardorna in Milan

In the nineteen nineties, Gae Aulenti designed the urban redevelopment of Piazzale Luigi Cadorna, one of Milan’s main squares and an important underground rail hub. The square’s new design certainly favours the movement of pedestrians thanks to the shelters, which protect people from bad weather and reduce the brightness of the sunlight as they enter the station.

In contrast with the seriousness of the project, the coloured sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen stands at the centre. This project also displays the fundamental concept of Aulenti’s way of designing: every place is primarily a conceptual fact and every work must therefore start with an overall, organic understanding of the context.

Palazzo Grassi

Bought by Fiat in 1983, Palazzo Grassi in Venice was assigned to Gae Aulenti for a renovation with a philological approach. Evidence of this is the preservation of all the masonry and, where that wasn’t possible, the use of nineteenth-century bricks, the same age as the building, for the reconstruction, later insulated to keep out the humidity created by the new air-conditioning system.

Scuderie Papali in Rome

Following an international competition, Gae Aulenti was selected in 1998 for the restoration of the Scuderie Papali (the Papal Stables) in Piazza del Quirinale.

Built between 1722 and 1732, covering an area of around 32292 square feet on several floors, the stables had not been used for their original purpose for some time: the aim was therefore to rebuild the spaces and then use them for temporary art exhibitions.

To preserve the original structure to the utmost, Gae Aulenti opted for entirely reversible interventions, starting with the imposing but easily removed plasterboard walls. The visitor’s gaze is especially drawn to the large window designed by the architect, which offers a stunning view from the highest of Rome’s hills.

Italian Institute of Culture in Tokyo

This is another of Gae Aulenti’s foreign projects, this time in Tokyo. Its 12 floors overlook the Imperial Gardens and have an exceptional view of the famous sakura cherry trees, unmissable during the flowering season. Certainly the building’s façades, as conceived by Aulenti, do not fade into the background with their corners in white marble and the walls in bright red, in tribute to the long Japanese artisan tradition of lacquers.

Palazzo Branciforte in Palermo

This building in Palermo, converted into a multifunctional cultural centre, was one of the last works designed by Gae Aulenti. Inaugurated a few months before the architect’s death, the sixteenth-century building was restored with the aim of reassessing all the architectural spaces that, over time, had lost their original functions, making the best possible use of each area to make it a crucial point of reference in the Sicilian and national panorama.