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Gae Aulenti. Eccentric genius or provocateur?

"Her ranking in the international architectural fraternity is disputed, but her notoriety is assured. "1

Although Italian designer Gae Aulenti is best known for her visionary renovation of the Gare d’Orsay (into the Musée d’Orsay), she had a lengthy career as an industrial and graphic designer prior to this commission. Nonetheless, it was the controversial Musée d'Orsay that made her internationally famous. While the design was beloved by the public, the reception by her colleagues and critics was not so complimentary. The Architect’s Journal wrote "Aulenti has indulged herself in an aggressive orgy of ornamental excess...Nowhere is it possible to escape from intrusions on the eye." 2 Holland Cotter of the New York Times wrote that the project was "fabulously eccentric." Conversely, French magazines compared the interior to "'a funeral hall, to a tomb, to a mausoleum, to an Egyptian burial monument, to a necropolis."'3

Thirty-plus years later the barrel vaulted lobby, with its massive skylights is a gorgeous, dramatic space that hardly seems controversial. But the vast open space and juxtaposition of traditional architectural elements with industrial materials such as stone, wire mesh, and graphic colors were unheard of at that time. Keep in mind, this museum was created 10 years before Frank Gehry's Bilbao Museum or Richard Meier's Getty Center. Ten years later, opinions of the project, and of Gae Aulenti, changed drastically. Herbert Muschamps, (the architecture critic of the New York Times at the time) proclaimed in 1999, that Gae Aulenti was “the most important female architect since the beginning of time.” 4 Despite the originally negative press, Gae Aulenti was the first woman awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 1987, France's highest honor rewarding the most deserving citizens in all fields of activity.

Prior to the Musée dÓrsay, Gae Aulenti was well known, (though hardly a household name) in Italy for her interior design and furniture, most notably the pop-art inspired furniture she designed throughout the sixties and seventies. She graduated from Milan Polytechnic University in 1954, one of two women in her class of twenty. Work was hard to come by for anyone in post-war Italy, let alone a woman. Like many female architects at the time, she took whatever jobs she could get whether it was teaching at her alma mater, acting as creative director for Casabella magazine or even set design. Throughout the sixties and seventies she designed furniture and lighting for all the major Italian design houses, such as Kartell, Artimide, and Zanotta. She also designed showrooms for major Italian corporations such as Fiat, Pirelli, Olivetti, and Knoll International. Gianni Agnelli, the chairman of Fiat and his wife Marella, became perhaps her biggest supporters .

photo by Ugo Mulas

Gae Aulenti did a series of homes for the Agnelli family, starting with this apartment in Milan, two chalets in Saint Moritz, a pool and pavilion in Villar Perosa, and a home in Marrakech. The Agnelli's also comissioned a school in Villar Perosa and eventually the restoration of the Palazzo Grassi. After the success of the Musée d'Orsay, Ms. Aulenti went on to renovate a number of art museums but she credited the Agnelli apartment in Milan with teaching her how to design spaces for showcasing artwork. "It was there that I understood that what matters, when you are confronted with great works of art, is not only what you focus your attention on but also what enters your peripheral vision." 5 The Altana Palazzo Pucci interior, photographed by Ivan Terestchenko, remains one of the most elusive and popular examples of her interiors work. The ghostly photographs of the stainless steel and mirrored interior are works of art in themselves. Although the project dates from 1971, it could be mistaken as one designed today. This shimmering, modern interior in a Renaissance Villa is more art installation than renovation. Donald Judd meets Italian Modernism.

photos by Ivan Terestchenko

Another stunning interior is the home she built for herself in an existing cave overlooking the Tyrhennian Sea. The gorgeous photos below by Carla de Benedetti document Aulenti's skill at seamlessly weaving a cutting edge modern interior into an existing ancient architecture. The same open plan and built-in furniture seen in the Palazzo Pucci feature prominently, as do the orange flourishes. Surprisingly it only took three years, from 1969-1972, to convert this grotto into a fabulous home.

photos by Carla de Benedetti After the Musée d'Orsay, Gae Aulenti was selected as the design architect for a number of similar museum renovations: the Centre Pompidou in 1982, the Palazzo Grassi in 1983, the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) in 1990, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 2003. During this string of high profile commissions, she received quite a bit of criticism from her male colleagues: her architectural style; her work being mostly interiors and not "truly architectural", and; using her relationships with the Pirellis and Agnellis to win prestigious commissions. (The Palazzo Grassi was purchased by Fiat Group in 1983.) But along with her detractors she had many supporters, including the architect Renzo Piano who said that while she may not have had the resume of some of her male competitors when she won the Musée d'Orsay commission, "Her competence comes from years of day by day work on everything. She knows art and she has developed a style that works."5 Interestingly she was not the architect originally selected for the Musée d'Orsay . A French architecture firm was selected, but Giscard d'E'staing (the French president at the time) was not satisfied with their interiors and asked five international architects to submit proposals for this portion of the project. Gae Aulenti was selected. One of the most important skills that made her successful was her talent at negotiating and mediating. The mission of the museum was to show the entire historical and artistic context of Impressionism, such that famous Impressionist paintings would hang near lesser-known painters of the period. This translated to finding destinations for 2,300 paintings, 1,500 sculptures, 1,100 objets d'art, and 13,000 photographs. According to the chief curator, there were "many heated discussions, many arguments, but I remember Gae as a a genius mediator... at the end of one particularly long day she threw down her glasses, looked at me and said, 'It's tiring having always to be so strong.' "6

By the time she received the commission for the Asian Art Museum in 2003 she was the go-to interior architect for major museum renovations but she never did get that breakthrough commission to design a new building from the ground up. She died in 2012 at 85.

Thirsty For More? Celebrate the life and legacy of Gae Aulenti with a Sbagliato cocktail.



1,6.Vogel, Carol. "The Aulenti Uproar" The New York Times 11.22.1987 2. Wainright, Oliver. "Gae Aulenti, Architect of the Musee d'Orsay. The Guardian 2012 3,4,6.Martin, Douglas. "Gae Aulenti" Obituary The New York Times 2012 5.Caracciolo Chia, Marella. with Marella Agnelli. Marella Agnelli:The Last Swan Rizzoli,

New York 2014


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