My first encounter with the work of Cini Boeri comes to mind: I was a student of architecture visiting the XVII Triennale when I stumbled across the idea of the rooms in an apartment being described not according to their purpose (living room, kitchen, bathroom), but according to a state of mind (dialogue, dream, love). «I was asked to design my ideal project. I designed a home for two friends, a couple or two people living together. I created two units that protected the independence of the residents, even if they were living together. Without the two individuals having to blend together and become shrouded in the traditional concept of the family unit. I separated their daily lives, giving them a name. I showed a film dedicated to German choreographer Pina Bausch, with lots of extracts on the Kontakthof show, where theatre-dance explores the light and shadow marking the relationship between a man and a woman, the fragility of this relationship». How did people react at the time? «A few newspapers called me the killer of matrimony, others congratulated me for my suggestions».
It has been 100 years since Bauhaus was founded – in 1919. If there is one school that determined the way we imagined and planned the world in the 20th century, it was the school founded by Gropius. Today’s archistars, their bold designs, their parametric architecture – trace them back to their roots, to the their most basic form, and you soon realize we have not moved away from the teachings of Bauhaus – even if the designers of today take them for granted or maybe are unaware of them. There are those who were raised according to the dictates of the Modern Movement, maybe sharing them or disputing them, but incapable of avoiding comparison. Masters, that’s how I call them. Cini Boeri is one of these.
A master of architecture and style, this is Cini. It is a typical trait of people from Milan, giving people nicknames, almost as if to play down the official sound of a person’s real name – a measured intimacy. I give myself permission to call her Cini too, not wanting to be rude but due to the affection of an admirer. Cini is the quintessence of a person from Milan. I don’t ask her if she agrees with me, that would be very uncharacteristic for the Milanese – I ask her if being born and raised in this city had a major impact on her education, not just in professional terms. «I first went to piazza Sant’Ambrogio when I was a child, holding onto my mother’s hand», she said. «I never left. I grew up in the brick house built onto the Basilica. Later on, I moved to a house designed by Asnago and Vender, on the other side». Asnago and Vender are two cult designers. Unknown to the general public but admired by every architect from Milan. «The studio has moved premises several times, in the piazza, then in its immediate vicinity, and now in Via Donizetti». Zona Conservatorio, where it’s not rare to come across buildings designed by Vico Magistretti or Luigi Moretti among the neoclassical palazzos and baroque courtyards. «Milan has been my city, where I studied and worked, where I have always lived and still do, with the sole exception of a brief period during the war when I was evacuated to Gignese, above Lake Maggiore. The core element, especially in the job of a designer, is the synergy between designers and the great manufacturing network all around».
It’s not polite to mention a lady’s age, but Cini Boeri isn’t bothered. She was born in 1924, and will be 95 in a couple of months. She experienced practically all of the 20th century. A dally of encounters, keeping the company of artists, philosophers, people who met up in the city. «Giorgio Strehler and Paolo Grassi. Artists – Mirò, Pomodoro, Cascella. I remember Giangiacomo and Inge Feltrinelli». This was Milan after the Second World War, a city rebuilding itself and an flag bearer of innovation, a carrier of the values of democracy and emancipation. I feel a twinge of nostalgia for an era precluded to me on account of my age. Cini catches on to it. «It is all down to people, today just like it was then», she says. It is not a question of a period in history. «Just after the war, before I graduated, I remember university professors who continued to teach notions overloaded with rhetoric. At the same time, there were other professors like Gio Ponti who taught with poetry and enthusiasm, encouraging us to see in color».
I remember one architect making a joke about women not being capable of becoming architects, as they had no sense of erection. Toilet humor. He certainly stuck out like a sore thumb compared to ‘noster politeknik’, as Carlo Emilio Gadda called it. Cini agrees. «Lots of men and not so many women, both at university and on the job. Vittorio Gregotti was a classmate of mine at the Politecnico. After graduation, a short stint with Gio Ponti, at his studio in via Dezza. Afterwards, many years at studio Zanuso». Nowadays, there are a lot more women studying architecture than men. «What’s important is that you have the chance to choose the path you want to take, without impediment. My advice to future architects is to design things that are useful, with social meaning (if possible), with a sense of responsibility, but also with a sense of joy».
The comeback of the lesson of the Modern Movement. In the words of Giovanni Michelucci, the sense of happiness for architects. Michelucci said he was happy with his work because it gave him the opportunity to speak with the workers who made what he had thought up, understanding about the commitment, the shared effort, the sense of a job done collectively. Goodness knows what is was like for a woman to go onto a building site, the domain of men like builders, labourers, electricians. «When I first started going on site, I had limited technical knowhow, I trusted the opinions and experience of the people working there, almost always steady people. They used to ask me: ‘Architect, how are we going to handle this aspect?’. Me: ‘How would you handle it?’».
We also owe the generation of Cini Boeri the peculiarity of a city like Milan where about 65% of the female population is in employment and where at least 45% are trained professionals. It’s true that there were fewer women in her time, but they were paved the way. Anna Castelli Ferrieri, Gae Aulenti, Franca Helg, Raffaella Crespi – the latter taught me design when I myself attended el ‘noster politeknik’. «Anna Castelli Ferrieri with Gardella and Franca Helg with Albini: I remember it was the latter who encouraged me to leave studio Zanuso, and open up on my own, to set myself up».
Her career took off and she was soon designing houses in Sardinia or near Piacenza, office buildings in Rome, museums in Monza, apartments in Manhattan. Not forgetting the vast production of designer items: armchairs, luggage, glassware, light fittings. I am curious about one thing: «I always try to design things that are new and useful. I look for solutions that can improve the life of the people using them, whether it’s the house they live in or an item they are using». Perhaps, I say, it is the scale of her work, that has always been contained. I would almost say “hand-crafted”. This has afforded her more control over the details. «It is partly down to working with craftsmen, builders, blacksmiths, joiners. What’s important is not losing sight of the overall result by focusing too much on the details».
Although you are always fond of everything you do as a professional, do you think there are items and projects that are more representative of you and, in contrast, of your ‘failures’ – or “incomplete” projects and items? «It would be dishonest to state the opposite. An architectural project that was important for me was Casa Bunker, built for my family on the seashore on the island of La Maddalena. A house with four rooms, each with its own access to the sea outside and a shared space in the middle linking them together. As regards design, I would chose the Serpentone sofa made of polyurethane foam, flexible, sold by the metre. This is one of those incomplete projects because we never found the right material to make it, that would guarantee seating that was soft yet sturdy at the same time».
«I was asked to take part in the last Prada Invites, so I designed a bag that can be altered and customized by its owner using certain accessories. I repeat: an item has to communicate its purpose – a useful purpose ». We continue chatting. At one point, I mention The Challenge, the first exhibition dedicated to architecture that is opening at Armani/Silos. An exhibition on the career of Tadao Ando, the architect whose shapes and philosophy are closest to the style of Armani. «You have to stay curious, that’s how you learn. As well as working on designs for customers, I like to design things for myself. My studio continues to exist by designing things for itself». Quite. Studio Boeri is still a hive of activity. It has been going strong for 55 years thanks to the young architects who worked here in the past and present.
Being among young people has never been a problem for Cini Boeri. She is mother to three children, the oldest is a journalist, the youngest an economist, the middle one is an architect. «I am proud and I love all three of them, and their families. Sandro is creative and absent minded. Tito is serious and determined». Stefano? I ask, mischievously. What does Boeri the architect think of Boeri the architect? «Stefano said he wanted to be an architect when he boy. He’s good, if you ask me».