Franco Albini, 1905-1977
After spending his childhood and part of his youth in Robbiate in Brianza, where he was born in 1905, Franco Albini moved with his family to Milan. Here he enrolled in the Faculty of Architecture of the Polytechnic and graduated in 1929. He starts his professional activity in the studio of Gio Ponti and Emilio Lancia, with whom he collaborates for three years. He probably had his first international contacts here; at the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona (where Gio Ponti curates the Italian pavilion and Mies van der Rohe creates the one for Germany) and in Paris where, as Franca Helg tells us, he has the opportunity to visit the studio by Le Corbusier.
In those three years, the works carried out are admittedly of a twentieth-century imprint. It was the meeting with Edoardo Persico that marked a clear turning point towards rationalism and the rapprochement with the group of editors of “Casabella”. The Neapolitan critic’s partly ironic and partly very harsh comments on a series of drawings, made by Albini for the design of some office furniture, cause him a great disturbance. “I spent days of real anguish – remembers Albini – I had to give an answer to all the questions. I also had a fever, a big and long fever ”.
The new phase that that meeting provoked starts with the opening of the first professional studio in via Panizza with Renato Camus and Giancarlo Palanti. The group of architects began to deal with public housing by participating in the competition for the Baracca neighborhood in San Siro in 1932 and then creating the Ifacp neighborhoods: Fabio Filzi (1936/38), Gabriele D’Annunzio and Ettore Ponti (1939).
Also in those years Albini worked on his first villa (Pestarini), which Giuseppe Pagano, architect and critic of the time, presents as follows: “This coherence, which the superficial rhetoric of fashionable jugglers calls intransigence, and which is instead the basis of understood between the fantasy of art and the reality of the profession, in Franco Albini, it is so deeply rooted as to transform theory into a moral attitude “.
But it is above all in the context of the exhibitions that the Milanese master experiments his compromise between that “rigor and poetic fantasy” of which Pagano speaks, coining the elements that will be a recurring theme in all the declinations of his work – architecture, interiors, design pieces . The opening in 1933 of the new headquarters of the Triennale in Milan, in the Palazzo dell’Arte, becomes an important opportunity to express the strong innovative character of rationalist thought, a gym in which to freely experiment with new materials and new solutions, but above all a “method”.
“Cultivated as a communication laboratory, the art of staging was for the rationalists of the first generation what perspective had been for the architects of humanism: the field open to a hypothesis of space that required deep reflections before arriving to the concreteness of the construction site “.
Together with Giancarlo Palanti, Albini on the occasion of the V Triennale di Milano sets up the steel structure house (with R. Camus, G. Mazzoleni, G. Minoletti and with the coordination of G. Pagano), for which he also designs the ‘furniture. At the subsequent Triennale of 1936, marked by the untimely death of Persico, together with a group of young designers gathered by Pagano in the previous edition of 1933, Franco Albini takes care of the preparation of the exhibition of the house, in which the furniture of three types of accommodation. The staging of Stanza per un uomo, at that same Triennale, allows us to understand the acute and ironic approach that is part of Albini, as a man and as a designer: the theme addressed is that of the existenzminimum and the reference of the project is to the fascist myth of the athletic and sporty man, but it is also a way to reflect on low-cost housing, the reduction of surfaces to a minimum and respect for the way of living.
“Celebrating the beauty of mechanics was the imperative to which, for example, Franco Albini’s surprising preparations adhered to, who managed, in the subtle manner of a refined and rarefied style, to sublimate their practical content in the metaphysics of daring still lifes: flying objects which marked in the void refined frames and metal entanglements the knots of a fantastic cartography where industry finally became art free of purpose “.
In that same year Albini and Romano designed the Ancient Italian Goldsmith’s Exhibition: vertical uprights, simple linear rods, design the space. A theme, that of the “flagpole”, which seems to be the center of the evolution of his production and creative process. The concept is reworked over time, with the technique of decomposition and recomposition typical of Albinian planning: in the setting up of the Scipio Exhibition and of contemporary drawings (1941) the tapered flagpoles, on which the paintings and display cases are hung, are supported by a grid of steel cables; in the Vanzetti stand (1942) they take on the V shape; in the Olivetti store in Paris (1956) the uprights in polished mahogany support the shelves for displaying typewriters and calculators. The reflection on this theme arises from the desire to interpret the architectural space, to read it through the use of a grid, to introduce the third dimension, the vertical one, while maintaining a sense of lightness and transparency.
The flagpole is found, however, also in areas other than the exhibition ones. In the apartments he designed, it is used as a pivot on which the paintings can be suspended and rotated to allow different points of view, but at the same time as an element capable of dividing spaces. The Veliero bookcase, built in a single prototype in 1940, has two main uprights, made up of slender curved and juxtaposed bars, linked by a complex tensile structure. The lightened upright is also found in the LB7 bookcase, produced by Poggi in the 1950s.
Like the evolution of the upright, also the decomposition and recomposition of the architectural elements and the use of the module, constitute the elements of a method that tends to simplify the complex phenomena of design down to the essential nuclei.
Albini is a complete designer, whose work ranges from construction to design, from installations to urban planning. Among his masterpieces are: the Genoese Museums that change the way the public uses the work of art, the Pirovano Refuge in Cervinia, the Rinascente in Rome and the Milan Metro, which inspires the projects of the New York and Sao Paulo.
Silent, rigorous, ironic man, Albini works incessantly, supported by a moral code that accompanies him throughout his career. He firmly believes in the social role of the architect as a profession at the service of the people. He considers it the very reason for its existence.