Career Case Study #8: Gio Ponti
Graduated with a degree in Architecture from Politecnico di Milano.
Worked in partnership with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia.
Exhibited at the first Biennial Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Monza.
Ponti House in via Randaccio Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Randaccio 9, Milano
For many architects, their first built work is a house for their parents. This was Ponti’s.
Garches, Paris, France
Two decent houses within five years after graduation.
Continued with Lancia as Studio Ponti e Lancia PL. [In these years he was influenced by and associated with the Milanese neo-classical Novecento Italiano movement. The movement can be said to have done nothing to discourage nationalistic tendencies via its appeals to the past great traditions of Italian art. [Mussolini neither approved or disapproved but, it must be said, the general secretary of the Fascist Party deemed it insufficiently Italian.] Other buildings include the 1926 Bouilhet villa in Garches, Paris, the 1929 Monument to the Fallen with Giovanni Muzio, the Casa Rasini apartment blocks in Milan, and the 1930 Domus Julia–Domus Fausta complex on Via Letizia. [W] I’ve not seen these buildings, but they’re certain to be documented on the Gio Ponti official website. It’s a huge and useful resource.
Founded DOMUS magazine and was its editor from 1928–1941, and again from 1948 until he died.
1928 – 1931
Apartment building Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Domenichino 1-3, Milano
Rasini House and Tower Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
Bastioni di Porta Venezia 1, corso Venezia 61, Milano
The stone, and the stonework is exquisite.
Ponti teamed with engineers, Antonio Fornaroli and Eugenio Soncini and formed Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Soncini.
Now, fifteen years after graduating and five years after founding DOMUS, Ponti became permanent professor of the Faculty of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano University. I get the feeling he intuitively understood how architectural projects, education and media all feed off each other.
Via Gustavo Modena 36, Milano
From the late 1930s until about 1942, Ponti’s buildings have Rationalist overtones and are not dissimilar from those of Asnago–Vender at that time. The mounting of windows flush with the wall surface is an obvious similarity but may have some non-stylistic justficiation. It’s a notable feature of Pirelli Tower and a design decision more likely to have been Ponti’s than Nervi’s.
Montecatini office building Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini
largo Donegani 2, Milano
In 1941 Ponti was to resign his editorship of DOMUS magazine to start the magazine Stile. In one of its early issues, Ponti praised the buildings of Asnago Vender as “The Style of Tomorrow”. [The essay is reproduced in Caruso & Thomas’ book Asnago Vender and the Construction of Modern Milan.]
“For them, modern architecture is a form of free expression that emerges naturally like a science and a technology, a trade and a profession, and is released from any kind of precedent. Asnago & Vender work naturally, in accordance with a firm conviction that lies in their own nature and is as spontaneous as an intrinsic vocation. Their art is ‘just right’: their approach is expressed by the diligence of silent, consistent work, like an almost natural phenomenon that has no more need for system, programmes, or previsions, with no more hidden controversial content of any sort.
“But the two architects are also artists who have natural feelings that they are able to express in their work without any hindrance or wastage – fortunately. This is the additional gift that is necessary and essential to enable one to represent an art – having the ability to do so.”
These are powerful words indicating an industry awareness befitting a magazine editor even though Ponti’s own career did not go in that direction.
House By The Sea
There’s nothing not to like here.
University commissions for the University of Padua
Ponti himself painted the frescos on the staircase walls. [W] I can understand an architect helping a country’s war effort by designing industrial buildings but hand-painting frescoes on a university’s walls? Here they are lining the “staircase to knowledge”.
Here’s the professors’ Reading Room at the University of Padua, with the Dean’s Office on the other side of those doors. Look at the floor! Terrazzo never looked so classy – and so it ought. Arranging aggregate in lines only to pour white concrete over it and then grind and polish it was neither fast nor inexpensive to do. Low-quality materials have been given the decadence of process. I know I shouldn’t like things like this and be adding to my list of guilty pleasures.
And what about that idiosyncratic arched door in the corner? If Ponti had wanted to incorporate it into the aesthetics of this room, I’ve no doubt he could have. The difference between the sea green wall colour and the peach beyond makes me think a waiter uses that door to enter the room and take drinks orders.
1942 was only twenty years after Ponti graduated but he had already found his style and it was one of inescapable and relentless good taste. You can be confident that, when those main doors are opened, there will be more of the same.
Montecatini office building Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini
via Principe Amedeo 2, Milano
INA Casa Harrar
Via Harrar/Dessié/Via Novarra, Milano
This social housing project is anomalous and you can read more about it here where it says “Ponti developed the master plan along with Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini and Piero Bottoni” and that “Ponti designed two blocks, one facing Via Harrar-Dessiè, and the other, perpendicular to this, extending into the interior of the block.” I can’t find any images of interiors. Although many Ponti projects are collaborations of some sort, this is one of the rare ones that have a greater context.
This is another anomalous project during the construction of the Pirelli Tower. There’s no description for the design on the right, which is the more interesting of the two since the enclosed space is not divided into the functional zones of the other design, but into day and night zones that spatially overlap. Ponti was to re-use this device in his own 1964 apartment. The lesser-known iteration of this is rare because it shows a desire to extract maximum spatial utility from a volume.
Pirelli Tower Gio Ponti, Pier Luigi Nervi, Arturo Danusso
Via Fabio Filzi 22, Milan
Ponti won the commission to design the 32-story Pirelli Tower in 1950. It was Milan’s second tall building, the first being Torre Velasca constructed 1956–58. Pirelli Tower became an immediate symbol of a confident and renewed Italy and, with Nervi’s help, remains as idosyncratic and elegant as it was in mid-1950s. The effect of this important commission was felt long before the building was completed. It was the turning point in Ponti’s career, and the beginnings of the post-war phenomenon of Italian design that continues to this day. With Ponti and Pirelli, Milanese architecture and Italian architecture in general, begins to get more wilful, seeking more than merely local recognition. Whereas Asnago Vender were content to remain Milanese architects for their entire careers, Ponti marks the beginning of international architecture in Italy and of Italian architecture internationally, assissted by Ponti (now back) at DOMUS and Ernesto Rogers (1953–1965) at Casabella.
One of the first commissions Ponti received because of worldwide attention the tower was for Villa Planchard in Caracas, Venezuela. It’s a Pinterest favourite. Another villa in Caracas, the Villa Areazza, quickly followed, as did another in Teheran. All three are the mature works of someone fully in command.
The dining area of Villa Planchard is as good a place as any to pause for a while and try to make some sense out of all of this.
First, look at the supersized terrazzo of that floor! Again, it’s unimaginable decadence of process to get slabs of different stone to do this. Another guilty pleasure. How about that wall on the right? I’ve no idea what timber those panels are, but I’m betting they’re an inch think and oiled and polished to make them last forever. They’re beautiful enough but nevertheless enhanced by at least two ceramic inlays and two wall lamps calling attention to themselves by their differing orientations. Two ceilings each do their own thing. Those bubble-petally things on the far wall are probably Murano glass but the unadorned part needs an image or something to carry us around the corner into presumably the kitchen. But those bubbly things – see how they compress as they approach the ceiling? And what is that curve and angle supposed to do? Does either wall really need shelves with plants? Does the table really need to have to have supports profiled like the Pirelli tower? And a chair moved out of the way so we can see it?
What plants other than orchids would dare flower in such a room? What clothes would one have to wear to feel at home? The room doesn’t encourage solid colour, or seem to want any more pattern. It seems happy for plates on the table to express the potential for people but I can’t imagine this space accommodating even those stagey lifestyle people in the Julius Schulman Case Study House photographs. It’s difficult to live as fabulously as this house implies. It doesn’t matter in architectural imagery and, as a magazine man, I’m sure Ponti understood this.
Villa Namazee 1957 – 1964
Things to note here are the attention paid to sightlines and viewlines in the plan, the shape of the glass display cabinet in the living room, and the confident busy-ness of that internal courtyard.
1956 – 1957
Casa Ponti House in via Dezza Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Dezza 49, Milano
This is where Ponti and his family lived at least some of the time. Folding doors divide rooms at night.
1923 – 1958
Throughout this period Ponti also designed ceramics, furnishings, vases, dinnerware, chairs, glassware and lamps for various companies. Below are a 1931 lamp for Fontana Arte, one of many glass bottles for Venini in 1949, and the Superleggera chair for Cassini in 1957.
Palazzo del Lavoro Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi
My undergraduate history book World Architecture  had upward looking closeups of the famous roof structure as its front and back inner covers. The building seems to be slipping from the history of architecture faster than it is from the history of engineering. It’s a beautiful thing, stunning in its simplicity. Wikipedia lists Ponti as architect and Nervi as engineer but I can’t find it on the Ponti website, presumably because it does nothing to further the mythology. Pirelli may have been Ponti’s but Nervi owns this one.
Parco de Rei Principi
We should thank Pinterest for allowing us to gain even an inkling of what it is like to stay here. It’s claimed the hotel was the first designer hotel in the world and, going by the profile of those lobby columns, I suspect it’s true.
Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano
The ground level appearance of these buildings has been compromised by the interconnecting bridges installed later, no doubt for reasons of accessibility.
Building for the Istituto Nazionale Assicurazioni Gio Ponti, Fornaroli, Rosselli
via San Paolo 7, via Agnello 6/1-8, Milano
With this building we see the first use of textured ceramic tiles.
Chiesa di San Francesco
via Paolo Giovio 31, Milano
I took three photographs of this next corner so something about it must have disturbed me. As I find with much of Ponti’s later work, I can’t guess at what effect he was aiming to achieve. Now I think about it, what I find it disturbing is how this wall denies the spaces behind it, only acknowledging them when they provide an opportunity for window as ornament for the wall. The same accusation could be made against the central wall as well.
Chiesa di San Carlo Borromeo presso l’Ospedale
Building 14, Politecnico Milan
Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano
In the photograph below you can see the other Politecnico Milano building to the rear. Fifty years on, this is still a handsome building, and is undergoing partial retrofitting for enhanced energy performance.
But gosh it scrubs up well – it looks as if it’s just been built! Properly made and laid textured ceramic tiles must be the perfect cladding.
Montedoria building Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Pergolesi 25, Milano
The building forms one half of a gaetway as is common on many piazzi.
The tile cladding is highly textured, changes with the light etc. and is, basically, gorgeous.
The third photograph above however, shows gratuitous layering for the sake of it. Surely there’s a better reason for building volume than to create shadows and avoid a planar surface? We’ve become immune to this sort of thing and, like variously offset and sized windows, have come to believe it indicates design effort, if not excellence. My only criticism of this building is that there’s simply too much happening. It’s happening in a highly controlled, competent and elegant manner so it pains me to say it, but every window, by virtue of its shape or position, doesn’t need to state that a designer is on the case. This dusting of gratuitousness might be what makes this building designed and constructed 1964-1970 still appear so contemporary. Its materials and construction are a contradiction. Their sheer quality means we can see this building today as if it were new but it also means the building could never be a product of any other place and time but Italy in the 1960s.
De Bijenkorf Gio Ponti, Theo Boosten
By now, the glazed ceramic tile had been perfected. Relief becomes bas-relief to make shadows deeper on cloudy days and in low-angle sunlight. Sunlight or rain produce shimmering effects intensified by the glazing being seemingly resistant to dirt, grime and the passage of time.
Denver Art Museum
100 W 14th Ave Pkwy, Denver, CO 80204, USA
Cathedrals aren’t generally known for their restrained interiors so what’s immediately noticeable here is how austere this one is. For the entrance and campanile, the walls are no longer things that exist to accept ornament but things that are constituted from it.
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Gio Ponti is a phenomenon, a person who touched every corner of Italian design for half a century and the person responsible for making Italian design the international phenomenon it remains to this day. As an architect, he understood how to make spaces and how to decorate them and, as editor of DOMUS, how to publicise them. He knew how to make a building fit well on a site and how to clad it so it looks new forever. Ponti is remembered most for the Pirelli Tower but this is probably more of a reflection on architecture’s obsession with shape and what came to symbolize being an architect for Pirelli Tower is not really representative of Ponti’s interests or his career. He seemed happiest when he had a wall to ornament or decorate. Perhaps he knew this and this is why he makes it so difficult for us to see past the surface. Or even want to.
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