Ever since he made New York his home in 1970, architect Roberto Brambilla has been a champion for sustainability, social issues and European design. Born in Milan and educated in Switzerland he came to the U.S. in 1968, after winning a prestigious fellowship to study and research at Harvard, where he earned a Masters of Architecture in Urban Design. Now he has undertaken a bold new restoration project, Casal di Noto, that is about to open on the island of Sicily. In this interview he talks about his life in New York, his work around the world, and the experiences that shaped his perspective.
Roberto, you arrived in the U.S. in 1968, what was your impression as to how Americans perceived Italians?
Italians were highly respected in the design field. In the beginning at Harvard, Italians were few and far between. My experience was that of a privileged immigrant. After graduating from the Politecnico of Milan, I was one of six young Italian professionals (and the only architect, that year) to be awarded the fellowship that brought me to Harvard. The benefits included tuition, a car and even spare tires, so that I could travel as much as possible throughout the United States.
And what were your impressions in 1970, when you came to New York?
Mind blowing! I was swept away by the energy in the air, the sense of hope and optimism, and the cultural diversity of American society. It was intellectually provocative and, luckily, I was immediately offered the opportunity to work and pursue my ideas. My first job in New York was with the office of Mayor John Lindsay, who had a profound interest in Urbanism. The Mayor’s Office was preparing an urban design study for Manhattan that included the establishment of traffic-free zones in key urban nodes of the city. My contribution to that project was the European experience of urban pedestrian areas, and I continued to research, promote and design traffic-free zones over the following decade. But it took 40 years to see our preliminary ideas for Times Square and other Manhattan areas finally implemented! At that time, Manhattan was intensely human and more creative, while today many artists have left and tourists and shoppers have taken over, making the city less diverse and stimulating, and giving birth to a “corporate humanism” that is immensely less spontaneous. Tribeca, my neighborhood, has become atrociously expensive, while Soho looks like a mummified shopping mall.
What is the role of architecture for you?
Architecture has a strong social role to play because it influences human behavior. It has to be sustainable because it needs to respect both humans and nature. Ultimately, architecture’s main contribution to the improvement of our society is its ability to make our environment more livable. I believe that its functional role is closely related to social uses because architectural spaces are fundamental to the users’ well‑being and to their interaction. That’s why I like the concept behind the “piazza”, a semi-enclosed space designed for people to meet and interact, becoming the stage for an urban theatre that allows relationships to begin and flourish. Architecture is a method of confronting and resolving the challenges of the built environment from an aesthetic, social and functional perspective. The aesthetic dimension is essential for expanding the appreciation of our human condition. Art is essential to our psychological wellbeing, and helps us to deepen our understanding of human nature and emotions.
Many “archistars” have made this profession fashionable.
Not every archistar has pursued the social role of architecture. I appreciate the work of Renzo Piano because he has succeeded in harmonizing beauty, function and sustainability.
And what do you think of Zaha Hadid who died recently. What do you appreciate most about her work?
Her exceptional talent! Good architecture is difficult because architects operate in a larger context than artists, since they have to reach beyond pure aesthetics to resolve practical problems. Many of my projects of the 1980s and ‘90s dealt with the conversion and adaptive re-use of abandoned warehouses in Soho, Tribeca, and Brooklyn. My approach was to try to revitalize not just the skin of these buildings, but some of their intrinsic energy, revamping their past history and social use. There was a growing interest in the European contextual approach to architecture and design in those years, and this was a familiar and fertile ground for my ideas.
You became known for your interest in historic, environmental and social sustainability. That is your trademark in many architectural and urban design projects in the U.S., Puerto Rico, on the island of Pantelleria and now the project in Sicily, Casal di Noto.
Casal di Noto grew out of a desire shared by an international group of creative friends who wanted an artists’ retreat where we could meet and exchange ideas. After considering Istanbul and Marrakesh, we agreed that Sicily was the ideal destination. It is the birthplace of Western civilization, and with its rich culture and art Sicily is a kind of “de facto” World Heritage region. Although most Americans already know Rome, Venice and Florence, Sicily is a wonderful region to explore and enjoy, and thanks to its four international airports, is an easy destination to reach. Together, we purchased a historic 18th century mansion on a hilltop near the Baroque town of Noto. In its finest days, this magnificent home had been a place that attracted artists and thinkers of the times, but had since been abandoned for over 70 years and was in ruins. Our concept was to transform it into a center for cultural tourism, where art would blend with history, hospitality, food, wine, and education, and create a modern take on the idea of caravanserai, the welcoming roadside inns that served travelers and commerce up until the 19th century in Asia and southern Europe. At this point, the mansion has been restored and will open as a small hotel later this month. The following phases include development of a wine museum, a culinary center, artists’ workshops, a sculpture garden, and a university campus. We see Casal di Noto as a model program that will establish a bond with the local region and its culture, and serve as a pilot project for converting other such historic structures to modern uses. Sicily features a great number of significant properties that have been abandoned and are slowly disappearing, and we believe that only an international effort can save its many valuable churches, castles, fortified farmhouses and villages. Our objective is to raise money to restore some of these treasures and increase awareness and appreciation for the place and the culture. The energy fueling this project is our love for Sicily.
Your mother is Sicilian and your background is very interesting because you grew up in a tumultuous time and were exposed to an international experience that opened the world up to you.
My father was a young Milanese lawyer when he was drafted during World War II. He served as an Italian officer, but when Mussolini placed the Italian army under the direct command of Hitler, my father refused to serve and was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp. He survived and I was reunited with him when he returned home. By then I was five years old. My grandfather (from my mother’s side) was an eccentric Sicilian businessman, who always traveled with his own olive oil, kept in a small bottle in his internal jacket pocket. After the war, my grandfather decided to launch a diamond import business and he offered my father the opportunity to work with him. This compelled my family to move to Buenos Aires for a time, and I was parked, temporarily, in a boarding school near Zurich, in Switzerland. I liked this school so much that I stayed for seven years, and it was there that I met many well-bred kids from all over the world. Playing soccer with John Kerry, and sparring punching blows with Marzio Ciano, the nephew of Mussolini, helped to build the confidence of the shy Milanese boy that I was, and prepare me for a future in a larger arena. It helped me to overcome my fears, and nurtured my interest in international pursuits. Your love for Sicily transcends the fact that your mother is Sicilian. You have worked on projects on the island of Pantelleria before embarking on the Casal di Noto challenge. Pantelleria is part of my life history and I love spending a few weeks there every summer. Traditional life on this tiny Italian island was becoming unsustainable in a modern world, and hundreds of abandoned “dammusi”, (its rural stone shelters topped with Arabic domes) dotted the landscape. In the 1960’s, together with a small group of Milanese architects, we devised various projects to restore these stone dwellings and convert them for agro-tourism. A few years later, we created a Summer School of Landscape Architecture aimed at developing programs to preserve the island’s historic agricultural landscape. One of these strategies was to convince local farmers to place their “dammusi” into an island-wide Coop, then obtain some governmental grants to restore them, and finally, rent them out to tourists during the summer, rather than to sell them. This would allow farmers to keep tending their agricultural fields and restoring the stone walls that shape the island’s magnificent landscape.
What are your childhood memories of Sicily and what do you love of Sicily, today?
My mother moved to Milan when she was 16 but never lost her Sicilian habits, and she was atrociously protective of me. During my childhood, we visited our Sicilian relatives three times during summer vacations, and it was a long journey with our FIAT 600’s. My love for Sicily began at age 7, when I fell in love with my Sicilian cousin, but it developed in the mid ‘60s, when I began to photograph the island’s monuments and landscapes for the exhibition Italia Da Salvare. Years later in the U.S., I produced Art & Landscape of Italy: Too Late to be Saved? (an English version of that exhibition). It was presented at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and, later, in 18 other North American cities. Catania is my favorite Sicilian city because of its urban vitality, its baroque nobility, the ash-grey color of its buildings, and the charm of its women, who always look busy and on the move but are still immensely seductive.
Let’s get back to New York. What do you think of the social and architectural impact of its growing gentrification, and where the city is going?
Gentrification is not necessarily bad, and it’s a trend affecting most of the world’s cities. Gentrification, however, brings along higher densities and a loss of cultural diversity, and these effects have a negative impact on urban livability, particularly in Manhattan. I always saw Brooklyn as the “rive gauche” of Manhattan and, in the 1980s, I worked at a few projects in Clinton Hill. Today, Brooklyn is experiencing a rapid process of gentrification that is deeply altering its social, economic and environmental nature and the cost of housing is rapidly escalating. When I was studying architecture in Milan, the cost of housing as a percentage of total income was 25%. Today, in some NYC neighborhoods, that percentage has reached 80%, and this is clearly unsustainable. In New York, urban development is fueled by private investors who benefit from the high price of housing, but increased density and more affluent residents call for better services, from transportation to waste removal, and these costs are paid for by the public sector. The new Mayor is trying to correct the problem, but his tenure is temporary and the pressure of real estate developers and the building lobbies is formidable. To decrease the pressure on Brooklyn, I would suggest developing housing and services in the other boroughs, a trend that is already occurring.
What do you think of Milan, which seems to be experiencing a new architectural and cultural phase?
The Milan that I remember and experienced in the 60’s was culturally provocative. Today, I feel that Milan is less stimulating, both socially and architecturally, despite the new skyscrapers. Ultimately, I believe that this city has lost a great opportunity, but urban changes take many years of planning, and Milan has suffered from a long period of political negligence that has negatively affected its cultural growth. These days, when I visit my mother (she is 101) in our house near Corso Garibaldi, I enjoy the human scale of this neighborhood, its traffic-free zone, the elegant stores and its vibrant social life, and wish that this model had been applied to the entire city.
How would you envision our urban future?
Urbanization is man’s destiny and the current trend toward megalopolis seems unstoppable. Living in the country in small alternative communities is, today, an “elitist” choice. I would prefer the urbanization process to be based on networks of smaller cities (less than a million inhabitants each) with a more balanced relationship between residents and services, and an efficient public transport system.
Do you think that Dubai is going to be the future New York?
Absolutely not, because Dubai lacks history and soul. A real city needs both.
The CASAL DI NOTO video can be seen by visiting
https://vimeo.com/89456264 (password: noblehouse)
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Roberto Brambilla professional activity, visit