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Gio Ponti (1891-1979)

Italian architect and founder and director of Domus, Gio Ponti will be remembered for his attention to surface and urge towards simplicity in the relation of structure to form

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Illustration by Maaike Canne

In 60 years of creation and 50 of editorial activity, Gio Ponti designed more than 200 projects, from buildings to urban planning, theatre sets to exhibitions, seeing at least a third come to fruition, with more than 40 just in Milan. He created over 250 pieces of furniture, machines, lamps, ceramics, textiles, tiles, glassware and metal objects. He wrote more than 99,000 letters, executed more than 17,000 drawings and architectural and product studies and directed over 500 magazine editions, while the articles he penned are almost incalculable. 

Born and educated in Milan, the young Ponti harboured ambitions to become an artist, but instead enrolled in architecture at the Milan Polytechnic in 1913, completing his studies in 1921 after serving in the war. This period is recorded in his portraits of his fellow soldiers, along with his sketches of bivouac life. An outstanding draughtsman, his first direct encounter with architecture resulted in sketchbooks filled with first-hand studies of Palladio’s architecture. Ponti looked to the Venetian not only technically and aesthetically – Palladio also exerted influence on his formulation of a theory of architecture, which found its expression in Amate l’architettura (In Praise of Architecture) from 1957. Ponti’s daughter Lisa remembers that, ‘When we were young, father would ask my sister Giovanna and me, “Girls, who are your father’s masters?” And we would reply: “Serlio, Palladio and Vitruvius”.’ 

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

Biography

Key works:

Family home, Via Randaccio, Milan, 1925
Villa Bouilhet ‘Ange Volant’, Garches, near Paris, 1926
Founder and editor, Domus, 1928-41, 1948-79
Borletti family home, Milan, 1928 
Torre Littoria (renamed Branca), Milan, 1933 
Casa Rasini, Milan, 1936
Primo Palazzo Montecatini, Milan, 1938
Ocean liner interiors including the Andrea Doria and Conte Biancamano, 1949-52
Apartment building, Via Dezza, Milan, 1957
Amate l’architettura, published 1957
Villa Planchart, Caracas, 1957 
Pirelli Tower, Milan, 1960
Hotel Parco dei Principi, Sorrento, 1962
Villa Nemazee, Tehran, 1964
Concattedrale Gran Madre di Dio, Taranto, 1970
Denver Art Museum, 1972 

 

Quote:

‘Original ideas are not important: actually, original ideas don’t exist. Ideas are received and re-expressed’ 

His marriage to Giulia Vimercati, with whom he would also father his other two children Letizia and Giulio, attached him to a prominent Milanese family with ties to the entrepreneurial Borlettis, who were behind significant development projects in Italian industry such as the mechanic appliance manufacturing company Fratelli Borletti and the Italian department store chains Standa and La Rinascente. The family funded a number of Ponti’s Milan projects, from the Borletti family home in 1928, designed with Emilio Lancia, to the family’s tomb in the Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale, which incorporated sculptures by Libero Andreotti. 

The Borlettis were also crucial in the distribution of the Domus Nova series, Ponti’s first attempt at large-scale, affordable production, designed with Lancia in the late 1920s and sold by La Rinascente. His wife’s family also enabled a connection to Tony Bouilhet, the director of and heir to Maison Christofle. Passionate about Ponti’s work, Bouilhet commissioned the architect to design his family villa, the Ange Volant at Garches, in 1926, along with various silver objects for the house, cementing the pair’s lifelong friendship. As he would later recall in 1976, ‘[Ernesto Nathan] Rogers said that the client is the thing without which architecture cannot be done. I was lucky enough to meet wonderful clients’.

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

Ponti’s house on Via Randaccio, Milan

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Antoine Baralhe

Living room of Villa Planchart, Caracas

The marvellous story of Ponti’s patrons began in the ’20s and ’30s. The decade witnessed the first instances of Ponti’s professional expansion, rooting him socially in the entrepreneurial upper-middle classes and informing his curiosity, which had developed with his experiences in the disparate fields of the decorative arts and cultural promotion. His stint as artistic director of the Richard Ginori ceramic company paved his entry into the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Monza, along with its successive editions. At the fifth Triennale – the first to be held in Milan – Ponti sat on the directorial committee with Carlo Alberto Felice and Mario Sironi, as well as building the Torre Littoria (renamed Branca) with Cesare Chiodi, close to Giovanni Muzio’s new Palazzo dell’Arte. The exhibition featured modern European architecture and Italian rationalism which represented at the time the technical avant-garde of national modernisation dear to fascism. The fifth Triennale also celebrated mural painting and the integration of architecture and decoration with works by Sironi, Giorgio de Chirico, Massimo Campigli, Lucio Fontana, Fausto Melotti, Marcello Nizzoli and Mario Radice. 

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Domus architecture magazine was founded by Ponti with Giovanni Semeria in 1928 to renew architecture, interiors and the decorative arts in Italy

Ponti nourished his creativity with what he encountered in these flourishing cultural circuits, which from 1928 he also would contribute to through his magazine Domus, founded with Gianni Mazzocchi and edited almost exclusively by himself until his death, with a pause in the years 1941-48. Domus, from the Latin for ‘home’, represents his successful attempt to render his ideas on architecture and the decorative arts more accessible, and to spread awareness of the wealth of contemporary visual arts, from sculpture to painting, graphics to craftsmanship. Taking as his starting point the premise that ‘the house … should not be in fashion, for it should not go out of fashion’, Ponti curated a magazine aimed at an audience that was cultured but not necessarily specialised, all the while disseminating his inexhaustible interest for the new. 

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

Gio ponti reputations architectural review 06

Gio ponti reputations architectural review 06

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

In postwar years Ponti designed interiors for ocean liners such as the Conte Biancamano (top) and the Andrea Doria (above).

Informed by humanism and neoclassicism throughout the 1920s, Ponti accomplished his first coupure with Casa Rasini, built in Milan in 1936, again with Lancia. Here Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse prompted him to integrate the theoretical lines of CIAM’s Modernism with his idea of the casa all’italiana (Italian home).

But it was Guido Donegani, the CEO of the chemicals company Montecatini, who would offer him the opportunity to undertake a whole project to accommodate 1,500 people working from the company’s new HQ. Informed by the principles of Modernism, the Primo Palazzo Montecatini, finished in 1938 with his new firm Ponti-Fornaroli-Soncini, included sanitary facilities and a number of other state-of-the-art features such as the telephone switchboard and the pneumatic postal system. Along with these innovations were the exterior marble slabs, cut against ‘the vein’ to achieve an effect known as ‘Tempesta’ and the mass production of bespoke furniture designed for the project, from desks to washbasins. The building was praised by Curzio Malaparte in the May 1940 issue of Aria d’Italia as a ‘palace of water and leaves’ and by Giuseppe Pagano in Casabella-Costruzioni as ‘a lesson in courageous expressive independence with its extremely up-to-date architecture’. 

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

Molteni chair design

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

Ponti’s Molteni chairs in-situ at the Palazzo Montecatini, Milan

Ten years on from the trauma and destruction of the Second World War, Ponti continued to demonstrate his talent in the search for the new with the Pirelli Tower completed in 1960, which remained for a considerable time the tallest building in Milan and Europe. Commissioned by the brothers Alberto and Piero Pirelli and designed alongside Egidio Dell’Orto, Arturo Danusso, Pier Luigi Nervi and Giuseppe Valtolina, the ‘Pontian silhouette’ is a symbol of reconstruction and modernity, physically in opposition to the adjacent Stazione Centrale, fruit of the fascist pomp that had led to the ruin of culture in Italy.

The building is a perfect actualisation of the architect’s reflections on ‘finished form’ and of the urge to integrate form and structure which traverses his whole oeuvre, from the Hoffmann-inspired cutlery for Krupp (1951) to the Gabriela chair ‘with a reduced seat’ (1971). Specifically, the Krupp knife and fork have a diminished blade and teeth so that the objects may be used in their entirety; the smaller seat of the Gabriela chair helps you cross your legs and the backrest encourages an inclination rendered invisible by its technical simplicity. Similarly, the 32-storey building shows his belief that ‘architecture is a crystal’, in other words the expression of ‘an ideal of simplicity; a metaphor for the chasing of an image of purity, of order, of momentum and of the immobility of “perpetuity”’. 

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Pirelli Tower, Milan

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: RM Flavio Massari / Alamy

Concattedrale Gran Madre di Dio in Taranto

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Ponti residence, apartment building, Via Dezza, Milan

The ‘Ponti-system’ is a rich universe in dialogue with itself and the world, based on theoretical principles that, from time to time, materialise into a project in unprecedented ways, easily traversing art forms. His attention to surfaces and textures was first manifest in the bi-chromatic flooring of the first home he designed for his family with Lancia on Via Randaccio in Milan in 1925, recurring in the Venetian seminato, a type of terrazzo, in his rectory for Palazzo Bo in 1941 and persisting even as he neared 70, when he produced the yellow and black rubber with the help of the Pirelli tyre company that coated the floors of the company’s tower. Similarly, the principle of lightness resurfaces across his oeuvre, cutting through the perforated ‘sail’ of the Gran Madre di Dio in Taranto built in 1970, as well as the ‘furnished window’ of the Milanese apartment building on Via Dezza in 1957, and the Superleggera chair for furniture manufacturer Cassina the same year. His research on ‘self-illuminating’ architecture began with the Villa Planchart in Caracas, Venezuela, continued with the Pirelli, and found its articulation in furniture pieces such as the Positivo-Negativo and lamp designs, producing different kinds of light and unseen shadows. 

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

Ponti’s illustrated letter to Esther McCoy

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

Ponti’s sketch of the design for the front cover of his theory of architecture Amate l’architettura

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Amate l’Architettura, published by Rizzoli, was Ponti’s architectural pocketbook, a 1957 classic from the eclectic founder of Domus

When approaching the oeuvre of this extraordinary designer, many young architects have noted Ponti’s rare capacity to move from micro to macro, have been encouraged to work with surfaces and colour, and have addressed the problem of contemporaneity and ‘newness’. Italian architects and designers (at the very least) have had to confront his multifaceted work, always full of inventiveness, both technical and visual. This confrontation is always a complex process; perhaps an easier encounter is with his thought process which, as Arata Isozaki writes, ‘from the point of view of artistic temperament, Ponti always remained coherent with himself, but his relationship with the contemporary and the ideology that underpinned it changed completely’. 

It is probably impossible to fit ‘tutto Ponti’ in one show, however two recent retrospectives, at the MAD in Paris (2018/19) and at the MAXXI in Rome (2019/20), have attempted to do so. Tutto Ponti Archi-Designer in the magniloquent Palais du Louvre, focused on decorative arts and design, while also including his multifarious other activities. For the first time, fragments of some of his most renowned interior designs were reconstructed so to re-enact the variety of his joyful talent. Gio Ponti: Amare l’architettura / Loving Architecture presented instead his architectural legacy, with occasional references to the world of design. 

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

Drawing presented at 11th Milan Triennale in 1957 expressing the ‘Ponti-system’ across different objects

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Gio-ponti-reputations-architectural-review

Source: Gio Ponti Archive

Swimming pool of Hotel Royal Continental, Naples

In 1941, when even in the domain of culture it had become necessary to take up a position in the face of fascism and war, Pagano referred to him in his editorial of the January edition of Casabella-Costruzioni, probing the limits of the designer’s insatiable curiosity. ‘Taken by a spontaneous and natural interest found in those who search, investigate and identify the future’, Pagano writes, ‘he scuttles, unperturbed, with laurel branches, bountiful praise and cordial smiles, among the most irreducible enemies.’ Ponti’s ‘conciliatory temperament’ – which Pagano laments – did, however, undoubtedly permit him to select and familiarise himself with the aesthetic and technical influences he found useful to his work, and perhaps also to make many friends. From the outset, Ponti engaged with an entrepreneurial and industrial establishment – the power of which, however, should not necessarily always be construed as political. He was an impassioned promoter of talents, an insatiable and enthusiastic professional, driven in any creation by the motto: ‘The most resistant material in construction is art’.

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today