“Anything is possible if you know the art of building”. Interview with Mario Cucinella

“We need to build better and less, concentrating only on what we really need and making the most of what we have”

Born in 1960, Palermo-born Italian architect, designer and academic Mario Cucinella is known for his sustainability-oriented projects. Mario Cucinella is on the jury for Special Sustainability Mention of the Archiproducts Design Awards 2022.

Cucinella obtained his degree in Architecture from the University of Genoa in 1986. In 1992, he founded MCA – Mario Cucinella Architects in Paris. The architecture and design office, where he is also the creative director, has offices in Bologna and Milan.
In 2015, he founded SOS – School of Sustainability – a school that aims to provide young, recent graduates with the necessary tools to address environmental issues with an open, holistic and research-driven approach.
The importance of his work and his continued commitment as an architect and educator regarding environmental and social issues has been recognised with the International Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects (2016) and the Honorary Fellowship of the American Institute of Architects (2017).
In 2018, he curated the Italian Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale with the ‘Arcipelago Italia’ exhibition. 

Interview with Mario Cucinella

Who was Mario Cucinella as a child, and what did he dream of doing when he grew up?
I am a child of the Italian boom years, with a family that – like many – left the south for the north to seek opportunities. First stop, Piacenza. My father was an artisan, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom to my twin sister and me. I was a lively, cheerful child, but I suffered from moving from one city to another, with friends left behind who necessarily changed all the time. I watched my father’s work  – making buttons by cutting them from coloured bars – with curiosity. What did I dream of doing? Between 6 and 8, I wanted to be an actor. I loved movies and was taken to the movies on Sunday mornings.

Is there a particular moment when you realised that you would dedicate your life to architecture?
I thought about becoming an architect during the first years of middle school, to be exact, the day I entered my mother’s cousin’s office in Genoa. The passion deepened with my constant surprise at seeing places and buildings at art school over the years. I cherish the memory of my grandmother, who took me to Rome to visit relatives. Walking around the city for a whole week in amazement at all the places I visited. Then I was sure I would enjoy designing and thinking about buildings.

MCA Architects has more than one hundred employees between its offices in Bologna (1999) and Milan (2018) and an ever-expanding multidisciplinary team. How is your studio structured? And how are the ideas that you transform into reality born?
It is a long story that began somewhat recklessly 30 years ago with a beginning exploring the design world. Today, we are a collective intelligence – many people, different professions who dedicate their time and creativity to the firm. We have various units: R&D, visuals, project design, a BIM group, modellers, administration, tender office and sales. Projects come to life with everyone’s contribution – an intersection of knowledge and ideas shared and brought by everyone. Architecture is undoubtedly the sum of many skills, but it’s hard to say where ideas come from – an instinctive, irrational part within us. Ideas, however, must necessarily be managed because designing and building are acts of great responsibility.

You founded MCA Architects in Paris in 1992 after working in Renzo Piano’s French office. What influence did the Master of Italian Architecture have on your career?
Our profession has a talent quota and a knowledge quota. As the Maestro says, it is a profession in which you must “steal” from the good ideas and continue them. That is what I did during the years I worked with Piano, which were crucial because I learned not to be afraid and to have the courage to do new things; I learned that you have to design and redesign over and over, progressively clarifying your ideas. You must not be afraid to throw away your work and start all over again. It is a continuous and collaborative process. That is what he taught me. And then it became clear to me that anything is possible if you know the art of building; it is an important Italian tradition, the synthesis of art and science.

Among MCA’s many completed and/or ongoing projects, can you name some closest to your heart?
All projects are important because they all leave traces and memories. Some were born a bit out of the blue; others took longer. The first project I remember with pleasure is the Ispra Eco centre. We created a 5,000 square metre shade roof to shelter an old building from the sun. It was a 1998 retrofit project, one of the first to focus on sustainability.
More recently, the Rovati Foundation Museum is an underground museum dedicated to Etruscan art. The itinerary narrates an historical/artistic period, enveloping the visitor in an emotional space. Thirty thousand ashlars of pietra serena continuously shape the museum space. It is an authentic sensory experience.

Fondazione Luigi Rovati | Museum of Etruscan Art, Ph. Giovanni de Sandre 2

Fondazione Luigi Rovati | Museum of Etruscan Art, Ph. Giovanni de Sandre

Another project I am very attached to is the Church of Mormanno, built for a small community in Pollino Park. It is a contemporary and  ancient space at the same time – a place of prayer and light.

Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno (Italy), Ph. Duccio Malagamba 3

Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno (Italy), Ph. Duccio Malagamba

What are the most exciting projects you have right now?
We are finishing a building in the heart of Tirana and the beautiful new head office of Nicein Limeira (Brazil). In Milan, we are designing Mind in the former Expo area, an ambitious but important project for the city’s future. Further downtown, the Unipol Tower is nearing completion. We have smaller projects like the visitors’ centre for Burri’s Cretto (Gibellina) and a public space in the heart of the Bolognina Park in Bologna. The University of Aosta is also finishing up; it is a critical project for the region and, more in general, because it creates new learning spaces. We are also finishing the project for the Virtus arena in the Bologna exhibition centre. All very different projects.

Citing the MCA presentation, we read that your mission is based on imagining a world where beauty is an expression of sustainability.
Sustainability is the most pressing issue for architecture.
To this end, what actions has MCA taken in the Present and what is your thinking about the Future?
Sustainability is the most urgent issue not only for architecture;  it is a vast topic, and we still don’t see real change. Unfortunately, despite the general awareness of the need for change, there is still much resistance. We are only at the beginning of a transformation that will take time, even though time is running out. Architecture is a human activity, except when it is merely speculative. It is a necessary action. We need schools, hospitals, museums, stations, and housing; it is important not to demonise building. We need to build better and less, concentrating only on what we really need, making the most of what we have. Unfortunately, construction is one of the most profitable activities, so it will take time to change. What we, as architects, can and must do, is convince clients to approach projects with increasing attention to climate strategies, to materials. It is necessary to trigger thinking about the urgency of not waiting but becoming aware of how important it is to take the first steps in that direction.

“Education and professional practice can no longer be considered separately”. Topics like sustainability were not included in university study until a few years ago. When did you decide to found SOS – School of Sustainability Foundation, and with what dream in mind?
Ours is a profession that requires important preparation because it has two opposing components – one immaterial, the project, and the other material, its construction. It is not a simple process and requires training on both fronts.

SOS was created to provide young people with the appropriate tools to face the environmental challenge – from digital tools to vocational training with people skilled in different professions. It is a vocational school that seeks to cover an often-ignored segment between the end of university and the beginning of professional practice. The dream is that, in the future, SOS will become a campus where young people can come and undertake research projects.

How do you imagine the buildings of the future?
There are different futures. One is the result of what we will do with everything already built; the other will depend on how we construct buildings when there will be a shortage of primary resources and a growing population. The world is large and diverse, and futures will differ depending on places, contexts and geographies. If we think of places closer to us, like Europe, a great deal of work is being done on the recovery and recycling of materials; there is an awareness of the need to build better with more attention to energy issues. But so far, nothing is really new. The big question will be how to get to 2050 with the goal of a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions. That is the real challenge. And, of course, it will not only concern architecture, but all of us and our behaviour.

What advice would you give a young architect entering the world of architecture today?
First of all, spend a few years travelling around the world. An architect must know the complexity and richness of cultures. Then get a master’s to focus your study on a specific topic and acquire expertise. Try to be part of a firm where you build what you design. That is the only way to learn. Architecture is a difficult job, and the ultimate goal of this effort is to create spaces where people can live, study, work, and learn. That is why it is essential to learn from people who build things – before you embark on your career or not.
Don’t rush. Look around. Browse. It will serve you well.

Mario Cucinella, Ph. Giovanni Gastel 4

Mario Cucinella, Ph. Giovanni Gastel

Fondazione Luigi Rovati | Museum of Etruscan Art, Ph. Giovanni de Sandre 5

Fondazione Luigi Rovati | Museum of Etruscan Art, Ph. Giovanni de Sandre

Fondazione Luigi Rovati | Museum of Etruscan Art, Ph. Giovanni de Sandre 6

Fondazione Luigi Rovati | Museum of Etruscan Art, Ph. Giovanni de Sandre

Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno (Italy), Ph. Duccio Malagamba 7

Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno (Italy), Ph. Duccio Malagamba

Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno (Italy), Ph. Duccio Malagamba 8

Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno (Italy), Ph. Duccio Malagamba

Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno (Italy), Ph. Duccio Malagamba 9

Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno (Italy), Ph. Duccio Malagamba

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