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Architcture Misfits #26: Asnago Vender

That’s Claudio Vender [1904–1986] on the left and Mario Asnago [1896–1981] on the right. We can tell from the photograph that these two gentlement are stylish but haven’t been contemporary for quite some time. Their buildings however, remain both. You won’t find much information on them or their buildings. Here’s a bit from the NY site of furniture company Flexform.

Both Mario and Claudio received Architecture Certification at the Bologna Institute of Fine Arts in 1922. The first joint projects were for competitions, such as the Como War Memorial. In 1928, after obtaining the right to practice as architects, together they opened the Studio Asnago-Vender Architetti. 

Here’s some tables they exhibited at the Trienniale Exhibition of Milan in 1936.

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Here’s the Moka chair Vender designed for Flexform in 1985.   

Their partnership lasted from 1928 until Asnago retired in 1971. This post is about what happened inbetween. Their earliest projects show a simplicity that reflects the increasing influence of Rationalism and the decreasing influence of Novocento eclecticism.

Villa Arnaldo Marelli 1933
Cantù, Milan

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Palazzo di via Manin 1933
Via Daniele Manin 33, Milan

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Apartment Building 1934
Via Euripide 7, Milan

Apartment Building 1934
via Mosè Bianchi 22, Milan

Mixed-use Building 1935
viale Tunisia 50, Milan

Villa Molin 1935
via Previati 85, Luogo, Milan

Apartment Building 1935
via Col Moschin 3, Milan

Case Coloniche 1937
Tenuta Castello, Pavia [32km south of Milan]

S. Rita Apartment Building 1937-1938
via Euripide 1, Milan

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Three Interior Design Projects 1939
Milan

Villa Clerici 1940
Chiesa In Valmalenco [95km NNE of Milan]

Mixed-use Building 1939-1941
via Albricci 8, Milan

The corner of this building may be a 1941 extension or a completely independent building designed to appear as both extension and partial mirror of the building on the opposite corner. This is the first example we see of Asnago Vender’s urban contextualism achieved with nothing more than materials and window types and spacings. 1940.

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 Fabbrica Trattori Vender 1940
Via Manzoni, Cusano Milanino, Milan

Stabilimento Zanoletti 1940
Viale Ortles, Milan

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Cormano e Cusano Milanino 1942
via Manzoni, Milan

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The factories are only in the post-war reconstruction years. Most of Asnago Vender’s later buildings are apartment buildings or mixed use buildings. There are perhaps a dozen villas, one school, two churches and three factories. All are in and around Milan. Asnago Vender were content to repeat themselves, with differences guided only by the dictates of the brief and the site. There is aesthetic innovation but it is always low-key and always subservient to the building itself. Their buildings are not statement buildings.

Vezzani Storefront 1946
via Dante, Milan

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Apartment Building 1948
piazza S. Ambrogio 14, Milan

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All Asnago Vender buildings are part of their surroundings. This building is an apartment building from 1948. It manages to be part of its context yet at the same time have an identity of its own, resulting in a simple juxtaposition. This doesn’t seem such an amazing feat when the neighbouring buildings are also residential buildings but the fact this apartment building has this kind of fenestration and not some other, is a design decision just as conscious as those instances where the pattern is broken. This is characteristic of many of their buildings.

XXI Aprile Apartment Building 1949
via Lanzone 4, Milan

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Villa Bellioni 1950
Seveso, Milan

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Villa Roberto Strada 1952
Cesano Maderno, Milan

Mixed-use Building 1950-52
Piazza Velasca 4, Milan

Note the attention paid to the entrance mullion positions, the window spacing and how the stone is cut to suit, the two types of transom …

Apartment Building 1952
via Plutarco 15, Milan

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XXI Aprile Apartment Building 1953
via Lanzone 4, Milan

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Apartment building 195?
via Euripide 9, Milan

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Villa Vegni 1954
Barlassina, Milano

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Apartment Building 1954
via Faruffini 6, Milan

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Apartment & Retail Mixed-use Building 1954-58
via Foscolo 4, Milan

Elementary School 1955–59
Seveso, Milan

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Villa Fiorilli 1955
Seveso, Milan

Apartment Building 1956
via Senofonte 9, Milan

Isolato tra via Albricci e piazza Velasca 1958
via Albricci, Milan

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Apartment & Retail Mixed-use Building 1959
viale Caterina da Forlì 40, Milan

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This 1959 mixed-use building above introduces new variations with window size and presence/absence. The corner with the windows within screens on the street side of cantilevered balconies is seemingly the most irrational thing I’ve seen Asnago Vender do. They seem to be calling our attention to the gap between the buildings and the fact there’s a private space on the other side. It’s unlike them to call our attention to things like this. I suspect it’s a Vender touch.

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I say that because this is Villa Conti (in Barlassina, Monza e Brianza, Italy). It uses commonplace elements in a decorative manner, each of them calling attention to themselves. It was designed independently by Vender in 1959. We don’t know why, but it provides us with an opportunity to see what Vender brought to Asnago Vender and, indirectly, what Asnago brought to the partnership. You can see more images here on OfHouses.

Villa Lanzuolo 1960
Barlassina, Milan

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Mixed-use Office & Residential Building 1961
Corso Sempione 75, Milan

Casa del Contadino 1961
Sirtori [35km NE of Milan]

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Stabilimento Ceita 1961–64
via Fratelli Bandiera 12, Milan

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Building on via Rossini 1962
Via Rossini, Milan

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Casa Albergo 1963
Corso di Porta Nuova 52, Milano

Mixed-use Building 1962-1964
via Verga 4, Milan

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Mixed-use Residential, Retail & Office Building 1966
S
ant’Ilario d’Enza, Reggio Emilia [120km SE of Milan]

Apartment Building 1966
via Pisanello 8, Milan

Wohnhaus 1967
Via Veneto 31-33, Milan

Condominio Via della Signora 1966
Via della Signora 2A, Milan

Villa Brenna 1968
Como [40km N of Milan]

Mixed-use Building 1969
Piazza Ss. Trinità 6, via Giannone 9, Milan

• • •

Nearly all of these buildings are mixed-use or residential buildings in Milan or within 50km of it. Over the decades, the commissions became larger and more frequent but Asnago Vender had little appetite to design building types for which they had no experience, or in places with which they weren’t familiar. They did what they knew best in the place they knew best. They never had a media profile or a desire to be known beyond the people they worked for. They worked for their clients and their buildings worked for the city. 

The architecture of Asnago Vender is now almost completely unintelligible to us and what’s worse is we don’t even know what it is we’re not understanding. Asnago Vender did not prosthelytize, publicize, theorize, lecture or teach. It is up to us to learn what we can from their buildings and their professionalism. These are my suggestions.

Context

The 1941 extension terminating this 1939 building has different window sizes but continues the same mullion pattern of the earlier building. This is all that identifies it as an Asnago Vender building. Note also how that one irregular gap in the window spacing mirrors the building opposite. The colour also changes to match, as if stitching the streetscape together.

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Commitment

I’ll use the term commitment (to a place) to indicate a different dimension of contextuality. It’s a better term than regionalism which has come to mean nothing more than localized stylistic affections resulting from climate and materials. Apart from the excellent construction and finish, the appearance of an Asnago Vender building has nothing that is identifiably Italian or Milanese. All their buildings have structures and building elements common to buildings everywhere. However, their apartment building in via Lanzone is adjacent to another of their buildings.

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Via Euripide has three of their buildings, two of them adjacent.

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A block away on the corner of via Senofonte and via Plutarco 15 are two more adjacent. 

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The three sides of the block bounded by Piazza Velasca, via Albricci and via Cannobio (in the distance) has four adjacent buildings constructed within ten years of each other. I have never heard of this happening anywhere else.

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Occasionally, architects design monolithic buildings as apparent assemblages of smaller buildings. It’s a known device to reduce the visual impact of a single large building and maintain a scale more in keeping with some historic one. It’s also dishonest.

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The instances of adjacent Asnago Vender buildings are all natural occurrences due to them being commissioned by either the same or neighbouring clients. This shows that both the landowners and clients know how to work with each other for the long-term good of their city. Situations like this do not occur when either the client or architect is short-termist or opportunistic. They also do not occur when architects are chasing fame and prestige through the publicity associated with overseas commissions. [Who started this? When did it become the norm? Why? And why is it thought to be a good thing?]

Subtlety

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Returning to this building on via Albricci, at the top of the building is a open frame that, by being there and not being there, bridges the height difference between the left and right buildings. I expect that a curved boundary on one side of the corner site accounts for the slight curve on that side. However, the spacing between the windows increases almost imperceptibly towards the corner but on that side only. The building to the left is probably why.

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Photo by Filipo Poli

Note also how the corner is turned at street level. We’re probably looking at a maximum permissible cantilever being used to determine the curve. To the left, two of the far piers are recessed ever so slightly, possibly due to the influence of its neighbour. A transom is repeated but not in the same line.

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At the corner on the first and second floors are those vertically-paired, offset windows that are the only remant of the lower-level banding along via Albricci. Let’s take a closer look at the adjacent building to the left, on Piazza Velasca.

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The horizontal spacing of the windows appears regular but you will have to look very hard to find repeats or symmetries. The irregularities are below the Venturi threshold for complexity and contradiction. Perhaps these slight differences are things we respond to even if we don’t notice them, like those asymmetries of the human face? I mentioned in the MILAN post how this building maintains the floor heights of the adjacent buildings yet makes no attempt at lining through of lintels, cills or masonry joins. It works – something of identifiably the same scale results.

None of this is noticed when walking along the street. The question we must ask ourselves is: Is there such a thing anymore as design that is not meant to be noticed? See the slight angles on the balconies to the front of this building? It’s subtle.cd901370e575ecbbba9176699f12f8f1Something not so subtle is happening and a great many times on the (ZHA) building opposite.

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Redeeming the Trivial

The following quote [googletranslated from the Italian] is from here.

The research area of Asnago and Vender is still dictated by the city and by its rules: they have to operate within the framework of economic and housing laws need that imposed detailed rules and conditions for new buildings; these charges were not seen as limits by the two designers, but rather as an opportunity to redeem the trivial. The buildings of Asnago and Vender, mostly intended for the good Milanese bourgeoisie, do not break with the desire of urban homes comfortable and dignified, but that the nourish, to ennoble they can be studied with interventions and elegant. This conciliatory attitude is foreign to elite choices or controversy; the building techniques are sublimated into a pure language, abstract, where you avoid a break with the habits they can be redeemed for the inside; by doing so the two Milanese architects manage to redeem the trivial, the already seen, the usual, giving a renewed quality where details count and clarity of purpose.

Decoration

Early Asnago Vender buildings had forms of decoration not surprising for the time.

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Both these buildings of theirs can be said to have decorative balustrades.

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Many Asnago Vender buildings have some complex things happening with offsets and windows sizes and these are decoration of sorts. I’d previously said a 1970 house of Kazunari Sakamoto’s was the first instance I knew of offset windows being used as a decorative device and then I found a 1966 building of Togo Murano’s with offset windows. I now place the origin further back to 1940 and name Asnago Vender the inventors.

Economy

Seventy-five years on, offset windows have become a kind of shorthand for design effort that doesn’t need to be justified in terms of plan or context. The following examples are just four I saw over the course of a few days. The two buildings on the right probably have plans causing the fenestration hiccups, the two on the left probably not.

arxyre3p6rp5l0kyvuw6We’ve become accustomed to think of offset windows as contemporary and not as a form of decoration that costs next to nothing because it is not applied. Asnago Vender mostly used various window positions and shapes to add a contextual liveliness and meaning to the facades of utilitarian and much-needed buildings in the post-war Italian economy. They did not waste resources. Around the time when the architectural world was debating the relative merits of Farnsworth House and Glass House, Asnago & Vender were making useful buildings with inexpensive contextual devices that, like the buildings themselves, have staying power.

Design Flair

Design flair is the skill of doing something unjustifiable yet perfect. Togo Murano had it. Luigi Moretti had it. Asnago Vender had it. These mullions are from a 1969 mixed use building of theirs. It was to be one of their largest, and one of their last. There’s no reason why these mullions should have this pattern rather than any other. I notice a square, and another square, and perhaps a few golden rectangles but it is not intended to be clever, or probably even noticed. It is simply like this and it is good.

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Design flair is nothing more than the sense of knowing when it’s okay to do something unjustifiable, and when to stop.

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• • •

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Signori Asagno e Vender,

for showing us how to do it

misfits salutes you!

• • •

2 thoughts on “Architcture Misfits #26: Asnago Vender

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks very much for finding that building for me Ermanno – it’s on my list next time I go to Milan. I’ve still not managed to actually connect to the Lombardia site which is annoying but, by way of compensation, my Caruso & Thomas book on A&V arrived today. It’s the essays I’m most interested in as I want to see how these guys were placed at the time. Already I’ve found out they were most likely sidelined because they weren’t from Politecnico di Milano from where all the in-crowd hailed. It makes me admire and respect them all the more.

      Reply

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