July 2022 8 Min Read

Interview: Claudio Silvestrin

By Josh Sims

Claudio Silvestrin is considered one of the world’s leading architects, known for his calm, open, intellectual spaces; muted tones; and use of natural materials. In addition to buildings, Silvestrin has designed products that complement his spaces, making use of the same principles.

Born in Switzerland, raised in Italy and based in Milan and London, Silvestrin has designed for Cappellini, Anish Kapoor, Fondazione Sandretto, Giorgio Armani and Kanye West, among many others. Some of his more recent projects include work on a 12th century Italian castle, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, as well as a myriad of sleek, contemporary restaurant spaces in London. We spoke to Silvestrin to discover more about his opinions on how modern culture is influencing architectural styles, the intersection between art and architecture, as well as what he would most like to design.

ACM: Your work has been acclaimed as being as much art as architecture. Is architecture a vocation for you?

CS: Yes, for me it is. It’s what I feel. It’s not that architecture is a vocation from a logical point of view – it’s a profession. But I’ve always felt architecture was something more, in the way it’s a vocation for some to be a doctor, those who want to heal people. That doesn’t mean all doctors see their profession that way. But I know a few architects feel the way I do. I think it’s a choice you make. It’s a decision, in the way that all of architecture is really a series of decisions – what colour, what material, what detail. The built environment would I think be a better place if architects saw what they did as more of a vocation, but that’s hypothetical.

Known for his minimalist style, Silvestrin has worked with the likes of Giorgio Armani and Kanye West, among others.

What brought you to architecture?

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an artist. I was in London, aged around 18, learning English, and I went to the ICA library in my spare time and borrowed a book of letters by Paul Klee, one of my favourite artists. And in one of those letters he says that the greatest art is architecture. And I can’t explain it, but I had this flash, like lightning, and felt “this is it!”. It was a strong emotion, a sense of illumination, that I should be an architect and see it as a form of art, not as being all about concrete and steel.

You’ve said that one reason we all understand architecture at some level is because it’s all about geometry, and we all have an instinctive understanding of geometry…

Yes, we all understand geometry as a form, no matter where we are on the planet. And architecture is an expression of geometry. We’re also tied to the ground, and architecture is something that’s all around us. It’s not something, like a painting, or a landscape, that you only look at. Architecture has a certain roundness to it – it’s not just what you look at, but what you touch, what you touch with your feet, it’s in front of you, behind you. You’re inside architecture nearly all the time. It has a totality to it that maybe other disciplines don’t have.

In his younger days, Silvestrin dreamed of becoming an artist, and has since viewed architecture as a form of art in and of itself.

Do you think architecture can improve quality of life?

Yeah, I do think you can improve the quality of your life through architecture, but to see it as some kind of medical therapy is a little pretentious. Of course you can feel better if you’re in a quality space, no question about that. But to say architects are healers is stretching it. Certainly what I try to do with my interior spaces is to make people feel better, more meditative, more inclined to think, inclined to silence rather than noise. The client then makes their own choice as to whether to respond to that and be more meditative or not. Certainly there are some buildings I go in that make me feel depressed, or at least not joyful. There’s a heaviness and a coldness to these spaces, in the use of the materials, dark colours, not much natural light - but that feeling is very subjective and it would be monotonous if all architects felt the same. Personally, I feel uncomfortable with concrete, but then I’m in love with natural materials. I love stone. I love wood. I hate plastics. I don’t use much metal because it implies hardness and sharpness. I do believe that the task of the architect is to transform a space to make us feel good in it.

Given that technology means modern buildings may stand for perhaps centuries, do you think architects pay enough attention to the impact their buildings make?

I would like to think that architects do think about the impact of their buildings, but I know there’s a lot of ‘prostitution’ in architecture, too – money first, all the compromises, and so on. But we’re in a phase in which the client has a lot to say – because they have a lot of money – and I don’t think that’s a good thing. It’s not an intelligent way to approach matters. Back in the times of Mies Van Der Rohe, or Le Corbusier, for example, there was a different, less arrogant attitude from clients. Now clients look at Instagram and want a copy of this or a copy of that. People are influenced too much by the imagery they’re bombarded with, which form a fashion of the moment. Right now, people tend to want what they’ve seen already, because that’s reassuring. The pandemic hasn’t helped at all – people are more afraid, less willing to experiment. It’s brought in a conservatism. Look to the 1960s and there was an explosion of creativity such that even a James Bond film – the sets of Dr. No, for example – were 100 years ahead. You don’t see the same daring now. But maybe it won’t be as it is now in 10 years or so.

In his work, Silvestrin leans towards natural materials such as wood and stone.

You once said that, when working with entrepreneurs, 99 percent of them are about the money, but there’s still one percent of poetry in them. And your job is to bring out that one percent…

Yes, but now even finding that one percent is a struggle. I think there were bigger dreams before. You could say, “How about that one percent?” And now – well, forget about it. The internet gives us the impression that we’re all artists. Some of the time we even think we’re doctors, too, because of what we read on the internet. It gives this illusion of a little bit of knowledge, but also a little bit of power – so we tend to listen less to [experts] than we did 20 years ago. I used to show a maquette of a design and people would ask a thousand questions – they’d want to know why one material instead of another, and so on. Now these kinds of meetings are over in three seconds. There’s no interest in understanding why certain choices have been made – that’s a big change, culturally. Still, we can’t be nostalgic.

It’s interesting how rare it is to see traditional thinking challenged. You more or less invented the idea of the infinity pool, and yet your notions of how it should be positioned have not been so welcomed, have they?

It’s interesting, because the swimming pool, this stretched narrow pool to the horizon, has been copied a thousand times now. But the convention of keeping the building and the pool separate – the house there, the pool over there – is still typically maintained. It’s easier to move a mountain than to break that convention and, as I’ve done, put a pool going into the house, or at least touching it in some poetic gesture. I was working on a villa in Tuscany recently and was told it’s not practical, that nobody does it. And that was that. People see what they see and it becomes a dogma.

You’ve designed resorts, homes, shops, hotels, museums, galleries, even airports. What would you like to design?

A cathedral, because theoretically in a cathedral there’s no reason to compromise. There’s no commercial necessity to make money and there’s no need to deal with practical questions like, “Where do I put my socks and underpants?” When you do a house, you have those kinds of things to think about, and when you do a boutique you have to think about how it’s going to be used to sell shoes or whatever. With a cathedral, there’s nothing mundane. It’s pure light and space. And no shaving cream. But it’s also because peacefulness, is absolutely an important characteristic of my designs. That for me is what gives meaning to the building. I do attract people who feel the same, but there aren’t that many because the majority of people prefer noise. You know, when they see the Ferrari what they want is the “Vroom! Vroom!”. I prefer the silence, so you can think. You’d like to think that with the pace of life now we’d like more stillness, but I think we’re going towards more and more machine-oriented, more mechanical, more noise. Again I think the pandemic has made us forget how to do stillness. Rather it’s meant that we need noise all the time.

“I do believe that the task of the architect is to transform a space to make us feel good in it.”

What’s at the heart of that cultural shift, do you think?

It’s that media bombardment with everyone desperate to sell. It forces you to become a customer. You’re not a citizen anymore. You hardly hear that word anymore. We’re all ‘consumers’ instead – we’re objects that consume and if you’re not that, you’re useless to the system. So you’re forced to have 30 pairs of shoes and all the rest. I try to be limited in the stuff I own, without being obsessive about it. I like to rationalise. When you have too many objects you have less space. That’s just mathematical.

Does that mean you don’t have great hopes for how architecture will evolve?

I think culture now brings a certain flatness to architecture. You can have some very ‘wow’ buildings, but they tend to be all ‘wow’. And when you see them in the context of the last 20 buildings that the architect has done, you get that overall flatness. It becomes like a brand. It’s like if you make red shoes and that’s your brand, all your shoes inevitably have to be red. There aren’t any surprises anymore. I think architecture is likely to get more and more repetitive and monotonous. It’s why, with Kanye, we’re trying to do something that’s really 100 years ahead – that looks like sculptures, not like houses – but the most difficult part of the process is to get planning approval. The authorities too tend to stick to what they’ve seen before, not push towards the new. Bureaucrats don’t like risk. My last store project with Armani was this amazing building in New York, but it was rejected by the authorities. The head of planning said, “Why don’t you do something like this Renzo Piano building?” I couldn’t believe it. They freak out at the new. But I hope that will change. And who knows, in maybe five or 10 years, it will have. Let’s hope so.

But there’s still scope for buildings to have the power of the sublime, of the kind we find in nature, isn’t there?

As human beings, we like to think that we’re at the centre of the world. It’s our ego that counts. We want to be in control of everything, to express our opinion, see it all from our perspective. But sometimes when we face the beautiful power of nature – thousands of feet up in the Dolomites, or on the sea – for a few seconds, you don’t feel you’re at the centre. You feel there’s something more magnificent, something greater than you. It only lasts a few seconds and then you go back to thinking about who and what you are and what you think. You can see buildings from 5,000 years ago, and some modern buildings, in which you get the same emotion. They make you speechless. Now that to me is architecture. Go inside the Pantheon in Rome, or to the pyramids, and for a few seconds you’re not yourself anymore. And creating that feeling is the task. I’m doing an airport now and when it’s finished I’ll let you know if I think I’ve achieved it even with that. But the thing is that more than 99 percent of buildings don’t give you that emotion.

According to Silvestrin, planning approval and authorities do not always sympathise with the scope and vision of architects.

Some buildings can really stop you in your tracks, less for their showiness as for their serenity and order. Do you agree?

I remember when I did a bakery 15 years ago in Milan, I got an email from a woman saying, “I felt lonely, but decided to enter your store for a croissant and after a while I didn’t feel lonely anymore.” That’s the emotion of being in a particular space that’s beyond the blah blah blah of the everyday. I could tell you many stories of people telling me they’ve gone into my spaces and they’ve made them cry. In a good way. Architecture really can be powerful sometimes.

How important do you think having big-name clients – the likes of Giorgio Armani and, latterly, Kanye West – has been to your work?

I was lucky in that I wasn’t looking for them and they both came to me. And, ha, I know a lot of architect friends are very jealous of this… I wasn’t interested in chasing celebrity. But I do tend to attract strongly creative people and I notice that they’re not afraid of sharing with other creative people. I remember meeting Richard Serra who had a piece in this installation I did. He was a huge star and I was a young architect very few people knew at the time. He shook my hand – wow, a very strong hand from working with all that steel – and we had a chat like we’d known each other for a long time. There wasn’t that battle of the egos, but an openness. People say, “It must be really hard to work with Kanye.” But actually it’s harder to work with people who aren’t creative. I’m talking with him tomorrow, in fact, about some projects, but they’re all highly confidential, especially now Elon Musk is involved. Big, big things…

Recreating the sublime: Silvestrin’s work seeks to generate emotion, and in some cases, awe.

If the cathedral project hasn’t come yet, do you have a favourite kind of commission?

You really learn from every project, whether it’s someone’s home, or a shop, or something crazy like a new city. Put it this way: I have four children and I love them all the same. Yes, really. But you know what I mean. I can look back on projects and wish I’d done some a different way – there were too many compromises. And among the products I’ve done, some are amazing and some are so-so. But when I look back at what I’ve done over the last 40 years, I surprise myself. You know, my favourite project is always the next one.

Our thanks to Claudio Silvestrin for sharing his thoughts on architecture and design with us.
Photography by Federica Sasso.