Traveller’s tales

July 2, 2024
2 min
5 min

Italy’s Mario Cucinella turns to the planet for his inspirations, drawing both on nature and the heritage of other cultures, real and imagined

©Julius Hirtzberger

While I’m chatting to Mario Cucinella, he presses a copy of The Future is a Journey to the Past on me. It’s a nice gesture – though the Italian architect probably feels it’s the only way to get his message through the filter of my blunt questioning. Currently in the UK for his RIBA + VitrA talk, Cucinella has been making cultural inroads here through a show at the Architectural Association and a substantial monograph packed with images of his fantastical-looking work, as well as this smallish white tome. Written during the pandemic, it collects stories from 10 journeys, from Ireland to Fujian in China to Star Wars’ Tatooine, with examples of our historic adaptability to climate and nature. It’s dense in references, language and ideas, visiting places where ‘messages are left in the folds of history’.

The founder and president of Bologna-based Mario Cucinella Architects takes what he calls a pragmatic approach to incorporating such lessons , but the results are striking. Unveiled last year, renders of the dramatic circular form for the New Hospital of Cremona resemble concept art – is this really a pragmatic solution? ‘When people say, “Why are you being so radical?” well – you put a radical question on the table, you say you want something very different, a new organisation, another landmark, to connect outwards, to have a public park – you started us on this radical track.’

MCA Visual

MCA Visual

The hospital’s semicircular configuration creates a micro-climate centered on a lake, but it is also permeable, providing links with the wider landscape and city. This is a strategy informed by Cucinella’s friendship with the botanist Stefano Mancuso, harnessing his insights into how plants form relationships with climate, in contrast to what he sees as the Modernist tendency to seal ourselves away with machinery. ‘They can help us, because plants are a community, they can listen and adapt to environmental conditions,’ says Cucinella. ‘If we really want to enter an ecological era, we need to understand how they collaborate. Of course, not all plants can be a building, and not all buildings can be a plant, but they can tell us something, no?’

Internally, the hospital’s flexible layout is based upon the principle of ‘the city within the city’, drawing on Islamic care-giving cultures that Cucinella encountered in Aleppo and Baghdad, where leisure and education are incorporated into treatment. ‘There are 500 rooms, but there will be 1,400 people working there every day – you need to look after those people, and people visiting too. You need to make the hospital a destination, with a crèche for your kids, some shops and restaurants, bars, a library, places for you to relax. You need to take care of people.’

©Moreno Maggi

A similar philosophy is evident at Cucinella’s headquarters for ARPAE (Regional Agency for Prevention, Environment & Energy) in Ferrara, completed in 2018, which features an undulating roofscape of 112 wooden chimneys. Again, inspiration came in large part from his travels. Stop eight in his book The Future is a Journey to the Past is Hyderabad, Pakistan, with its famous windcatchers, giving it ‘the most astonishing skyline a town ever had’ according to Swiss adventurer Ella Maillart in 1939. In Ferrara, Cucinella has adapted this model so that each chimney provides ventilation and energy in summer, and acts as a greenhouse in winter, ticking all the sustainability boxes required by the agency: ‘To meet emission goals isn’t a technological problem – that’s not enough – it’s a design problem.’

Once more, wellbeing is key. The chimneys provide a diffuse light year-round, in contrast to the agency’s previous building, ‘all concrete with little windows in aluminium, and a terrible system of cooling’. Erected entirely in wood with a rippling profile, the headquarters echoes the surrounding vegetation, but its form is no aesthetic gesture: ‘It was a consequence of the principle, exploring how you can catch the light. There wasn’t an existing language code, which is what architecture was for a long time. I was adapting this building to its location and function, the reason why it’s there.’

©Duccio Malagamba

We wrap up with a project that initially feels more in line with the Modernist canon, but in fact employs much the same mindset. The parish church of Santa Maria Goretti in Mormanno, Calabria, was completed in 2019, replacing an earthquake-damaged predecessor. It has a striking entrance forming a cross of light, an interior lit by sensuous drapes, and a four-leaf clover plan shaped by Cucinella’s favourite Baroque churches. Botanist Mancuso’s influence is deeply embedded, with green roofs, planted internal courtyards, natural ventilation and thick lime-and-hemp walls.

‘Maybe it’s the smell, maybe it’s the sound or the temperature, but there’s something connecting your body to these materials. It’s not the same as if you’re in a glass or concrete box,’ he suggests. The resulting sense of continuity and intimacy ensured that the local community gave its new spiritual home a warm welcome.

Throughout our review of his projects and journeys, Cucinella is a generous conversationalist, despite two podcasts and a talk next on his agenda. A question is absorbed, the response starts slowly, then gathers intensity, like a stone rolling down a shallow hill, occasionally pausing or wandering, but always with purpose. His belief is that ‘an architect needs to be a storyteller’, and he definitely has a beguiling story to tell.