Mario Cucinella on designing for our time by learning from the past

18 Jun 2024  •  Interview  •  By Collin Anderson
Mario Cucinella on designing for our time by learning from the past
00:00 / 00:00
Welcome to the Archello Podcast, architecture’s most visual podcast series. Listen as Archello's Paris-based Editor in Chief, Collin Anderson, sits down with architects to discuss their careers and projects. Each audio episode is accompanied by a rich visual storyboard which listeners can use to follow the discussion. 
Introducing Mario Cucinella, Founder of Mario Cucinella Architects - MCA
In this episode Archello is in London at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) headquarters with Mario Cucinella, where he is scheduled to give a lecture about his office and its work on Italian projects. 
Cucinella runs his own practice, Mario Cucinella Architects - MCA, which he first founded in Paris in 1992 and then moved to Italy, where it now has offices in Bologna and Milan. In 2015, Mario also founded the School of Sustainability (SOS) in Bologna, a post-master's program for training professionals in sustainable design.
Listen and scroll as we talk about Cucinella's background in Italy, his writing, some of his recent and upcoming projects, and how he approaches design by considering the environment and technological innovations from today as well as historically.
On the architecture industry in Italy today
Cucinella describes the construction industry as having been quite slow for a long time in Italy. It's one of the reasons why he didn't start his own practice in Italy thirty years ago, in the 1990s, and chose Paris instead.
Milan, however, is a place where many developers and investors have come in recent years to build new offices and residences, because the land is prime yet land values remain lower than in much of Europe. It's therefore a city attracting a lot of opportunities. MCA opened an office in Milan in 2021 to be closer to the work.
"Milan is the only city in Italy that has embraced contemporary architecture as part of its history....The economy is now adopting new laws about improving building performance. There's been some progress, but it is slow and there is still much to do."
On growing up in Italy
Cucinella was born in Palermo and lived there for a short time before moving north to Genoa, a place he describes as 'my city', and where he also studied architecture.
"During the 1970s and 1980s, it was a difficult period for Italy politically. But as a young student, you always say positive things, even in difficult moments. The university was nice. There weren't top architects teaching there, but at the same time it was very pragmatic, solid. A bit too scientific, but solid."
At university Cucinella met Giancarlo De Carlo, an Italian representative at CIAM known for having broken from the modernist movement to focus more on contextual, site-specific design. De Carlo became Cucinella's mentor for his diploma. Cucinella also worked for Renzo Piano's office during the summers as a student. He describes a good balance between two different, important architects: De Carlos's vision being humanistic and intellectual, while Piano's was on practical design and quality. Cucinella believes he has taken a little bit from each and mixed them into his own approach to work.
"I wasn't a very good student of Giancarlo because he asked young people to be more attentive to the context. Creativity comes after. He was in a period of his life when he understood how difficult it is to be an architect and the social responsibility of an architect when doing projects and buildings. I was a little too young to understand, but then later, his lessons became part of my background...when I started to understand better what it means to design, his lessons on being reading the context and being careful about how you use your creativity responsibly came out."
Cucinella describes Genoa as a complex city where a student can easily enjoy the quality of life. The historical city is beautiful and dense, with little plazas, narrow streets that reach the sea and high buildings.
"You really feel close to the city (of Genoa), you touch it. I always say that I became an architect because I felt the joy and energy of the city."
After working a few years in Renzo Piano's office in the San Matteo quarter of Genoa, Cucinella felt the need for change and moved abroad to work with Piano's office in Paris. It was a small office at the time located on rue Saint-Croix de la Bretonnerie in the central third arrondissement. 
13:00     RPBW
"Working with Renzo Piano was exciting every day, with high-quality people and constant engagement. Working with him was like being on a fast-moving train. But the moment you decide to leave the train, everything slows down. And before reaching that speed again, it takes years and years of work. There are moments when you work for the big Master and you realize, it is easy to work here, because everything happens so perfectly. I wanted to know what I could achieve myself, without hiding behind his work. After a while, I needed to see what I could do on my own."
On making use of design innovations from the past
Cucinella recently authored a book titled The Future is a Journey to the Past: Stories about Architecture. It is about facing the future with objectives like the 2030 and 2050 European reduction of emissions. It asks: How we can make our buildings less polluting and reduce energy and CO2? It then looks into how people have done it in centuries past.
"The future sometimes is not only in front of us in terms of knowledge. Maybe some of our future knowledge is behind us."
The book explores a journey from Ireland to China and Australia, showcasing buildings that harmonize with their climates. It highlights how humans have historically designed structures in tune with nature, uncovering diverse solutions across different environments and emphasizing the importance of environmentally conscious architecture.
"Today we have a very standardized typologies, but there are also many other solutions. This book is meant just to wake us up a little bit. There is a lot of knowledge behind us that we shouldn't throw away. Maybe the solution is already there. I'm always optimistic."
Cucinella uses many of these ideas in his projects. His workplace and laboratory project for the headquarters for the Regional Agency for Prevention, Environment and Energy (ARPAE), for instance, makes use of 120 ventilating chimneys that also catch sunlight and function as skylights.
"By the form of the buildings, we can achieve high performance.... People enjoy working in the context of daylighting all day, and even when it's cloudy, there's no need for artificial lighting."
On designing an Italian church
The Santa Maria Goretti Church, located in a hill town in Calabria, is a sculptural parish church commissioned through a Vatican competition aimed at reviving contemporary architecture. This initiative marks a return to well-designed churches after what Cucinella describes as a long hiatus. His office won the project competition to replace the main cathedral closed by an earthquake, providing a new church for the community.
"A church is really a place with two conditions: it's a common place for everyone to gather, but also very intimate. For me, daylighting was the key point."
The ceiling of the church is made of translucent material, diffusing light to create a soft, magical atmosphere. The interior walls are crafted from lime and hemp, giving a subtle vibration reminiscent of traditional church architecture. Limited funds dictated simplicity, but this design choice connects with classic architectural elements.
The furniture, designed by Cucinella, is also simple, emphasizing the people over the chairs. The wall geometry draws inspiration from various churches. Initially skeptical of the modern design, the community felt an emotional connection at the opening, which was Cucinella's goal.
Using hemp and lime allows for organic shapes through a traditional technique involving bamboo sticks and imperfections. The lesson here is to keep designs clean and simple, letting the lighting and geometry speak for themselves. The church features a high ceiling that diffuses light and one small window. On July 16th, Santa Maria Goretti's feast day, the sun shines through this window, creating a special moment.
On printing using raw earth
Another small-scale project by MCA is known as TECLA - Technology and Clay, a housing prototype 3D-printed from raw earth. The goal was to use the latest technology printing with the world's oldest material, earth, which is also available everywhere on the planet. According to Cucinella, this approach is useful for fragile contexts where it's difficult to send containers or materials.
"The printer is a basic machine...the knowledge is in the code. Combining the oldest material with the latest technology was an experiment, especially since there were many experiments with concrete but not with earth."
The project aimed to use zero energy, zero impact, and zero CO2. If you aim for these goals, according to Cucinella, there are few choices because transportation and industrial materials have an impact. This project was an answer to the agenda of reducing the environmental impact of buildings. 
"When the building was finished and we got inside, it was as if the body recognized the material. You get the feeling from the smell, the humidity, the sound - it is different than being in a box of concrete and glass. I find that the body reconnects with its DNA from the past, when it used to live in this type of building."
The project was part research experiment. Working with WASP, the company that made the printer, and the School of Sustainability, MCA experimented with changing the shape of the building based on climate data. According to Cucinella, it was a useful exercise for teaching students how to model buildings based on climate information.
The building was eventually demolished because there aren't regulations in Italy for building with earth. However, MCA is planning more experiments and is working with a Portuguese company. There are increasingly more examples around the world today of using 3D-printing in buildings. Cucinella believes we are moving ever closer to a new kind of industrialization of housing. MCA is working with a company to create a mix which uses more earth and less concrete.
"Concrete companies are very interested because it will become increasingly difficult for them to be sustainable. Concrete is unsustainable, but we need it. With more emissions regulations, concrete will be a problem because of carbon tax. There will be limitations, so companies are the first to want to find solutions. I think there's a huge amount of work to do for that...You may not be able to make a skyscraper [yet], but as any journey starts with a step, we need to start with a few steps and then see where we are going."
On designing a contemporary museum in a historic city
MCA is currently working on a museum in Palermo on the Italian island of Sicily, where Cucinella was born. The new Museo Giardino Santa Rosalia will expand exhibition spaces and include a new structure for temporary exhibits, creating a cultural hub for the city and neighborhood.
The design balances the site's historical significance with architectural innovation. A pedestrian walkway connects the new building to Palazzo Branciforte, extending the museum route through a rooftop garden. The new wing features simple, transparent facades that integrate with Palermo’s historic center. The entrance, set back to form a small square, enhances public space and connects the museum to the city's social life.
"What happened in Palermo with this project is that they realized the old tools are wrong for changing the historical center. These tools, meant to protect the city from demolition and bad buildings, are now too rigid, making contemporary buildings difficult. We broke some rules, demolishing an abandoned 1970s building and creating a transparent space with a floating roof, intended as a garden. This garden, visible to the surrounding buildings, covers two major exhibition rooms underneath."
In a dense city, transparency was crucial so people can see the exhibitions, presentations, book launches, and conferences. Located next to a school and a music conservatory, the area is filled with conversation, students, and music. This building seeks  to connect all these elements. The project also focuses on larger-scale urban renewal.
"What excites me about this is seeing the potential of Palermo and the south of Italy, which is one of the best places in Europe. There are so many things that can be changed, not extravagantly, but the potential of the relation between our time and the past is so strong. These places are so strong and beautiful, and many industrial sites are abandoned very close to the city. There's a new generation looking for new spaces like schools...There's a lot of potential for creating a dialogue between the past and the future. And Italian cities really have the opportunity to do it."
Half of the building is underground, using the earth's temperature as part of the climate system. The roof is undulated, with plants on top, creating little hills. In summer, the greenery mitigates heat. Part of the project is naturally ventilated.
"Sustainability is not about numbers or which kind of machine I use; it's a combination of solutions. The way you design the transparency, where it is transparent or not, how much you want to catch or insulate using greenery – many things together."
On designing an Italian Pavilion in Japan
Cucinella won the competition to design the Italian Pavilion for Expo 2025 in Osaka. MCA is working with companies to build a prefabricated wooden structure, like that of a hangar. It aims to build a structure that can be dismantled, where every single piece can be reused in another building.
The pavilion will make use of simple, traditional Japanese building techniques in wood using trusses and cables. The pavilion has two themes. One is the 'ideal city', a concept which started before the Renaissance in Italy, to envision the city of the future. The other is "pensare con le mani", or thinking with your hand. From Italian fashion design to the production of furniture and objects like Murano glass, there are many examples of objects made by hand without the use of machines.
At the top of the structure will be a garden, designed as a modern interpretation of an Italian garden. Visitors can stroll through this ring, experiencing the pavilion and the garden. Inside, a theater narrates the story of Italian cities, while the Piazza provides insights into these elements.
On making use of anxiety to design well
According to Cucinella, there are many elements of Italian design deeply ingrained in him. Italians excel in adapting to change, for instance, a trait seen in both architects and contractors. They embrace change throughout the process, even if it gets messy, because the result is what matters most. 
"Anxiety is the engine of your work. You need anxiety because if you're not questioning yourself, you think you're the best. Anxiety makes you question if you're doing well....The process is sometimes very conflictual, with many problems, but everything disappears the moment you finish. Nobody remembers the difficulties. The only thing that remains is what you did, and that's why I fight all the time. In the end, you will be happy. You are almost the only one who knows how the story finishes."