A member of RIBA, ARB, and of the Italian Chartered Architects, Pier Andrea Notari graduated in architecture and majored in interior design at the University La Sapienza in Rome (IT). Over the past several years, much of his professional life has been dedicated to private and public building design as a project architect in Italy, Paris and London. These experiences abroad helped Pier Andrea to combine his classical and modern design background with the most up-to-date cosmopolitan trends. Upon his return to his native Rome, he put his award-winning skills to work, and founded his own company that provides trilingual services in architecture and interior design on a worldwide basis.
Pier Andrea Notari Speaks with Ava Living:
You have experience working with classical elements within the confines of a historical structure like the Musée de la Contrefaçon in Paris and also, more modern clean lines with loads of glass and steel like One New Change in London. Can you explain how varying projects like these help to shape and expand your identity as an architect?
I’ve definitely been lucky to work on such an amazing array of projects. With my profession, I often deal with unique and original architectural styles/types, and I feel that it is essential to keep looking for new clients and projects to help your identity as an architect evolve and improve. In my case, since I grew up in Rome but lived abroad, I was inspired both from my origins, which is classic architecture that inspired modern architects such as Louis Kahn and Renzo Piano, but also from unconventional approaches to architecture, like the ones you can find in Paris and London. Those cities in particular really succeeded in bonding their importance in history with unique, innovative and experimental visions.
Basically, I believe that an individual's architectural taste develops early on, and then goes through less radical changes over time. However, one’s identity as an architect is under constant evolution, and needs a variety of experiences to be complete.
My diverse project background has helped me to keep an open-minded approach to my work and also to consider the importance of both historical background and a modern and innovative design. I really encourage other designers to challenge themselves with new projects, and also to try using local materials in order to learn how they work in all types of areas and environments. This is certainly the experience that has worked the best for me.
There is a visual on your website for the entrance to the One New Change project that features a structure made of rounded, clear, modish forms. It has a very sculptural feel, and the contrast between that area and the more classical building in the background speaks of London’s wide range of architectural style. Can you tell us a bit about the materials and process that went into that section of the project? How does it work with the whole?
To be honest, since I have started working on that particular project, the design has changed due to client requests and building controller's suggestions and this sculptural section, which I considered to be the heart of the project, may end up not being part of the final design.
One New Change is an Ateliers Jean Nouvel design and I worked on this development's amazing interiors with Sidell Gibson Architects, a very well known London-based architectural company. The rounded feature that you mentioned is something that was already in place when I began working on the project. Being that One New Change it is right in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, there is a natural confrontation between these two buildings, and that sculptural section was meant to work as a 3D mirror that would show a unique view of the cathedral.
One New Change as a whole, is a glass sculpture that looks like a rough diamond in the heart of the city of London. London, along with most Northern European cities, is constantly in need of natural light and that consideration often becomes an essential part of a building's architectural design, like it was in this case. Since most office spaces need to take in the most light possible, steel and glass are typically the most popular choices in materials for these new developments.
This particular project is a very innovative due to it's use of mirrored surfaces and façade fritting that helped it to stand out from the surrounding architecture, and will give each person that nears or enters the building a different perspective every time they turn a corner. The glass cladding’s fritting fades from the outside to the inside which changes the appearance of the colors of the building from soft grey tones to a light maroon.
The One New Change Project is slated for completion in 2010. Do you often visit your completed projects to observe how the populace interact with your work?
Absolutely. I always spend a lot of time observing people reactions to my design. That’s actually the most critical part of a project emotionally, I find. It’s like in a TV series, such as ER or House when, at the end of a surgery they "restart” someone’s heart to see if it works. This tends to be successful when everything was done well, and all of the parts are compatible, and working together as expected, also traits of a great design. I can’t compare architect's work to saving someone’s life, as doctors do, but from a creative point of view, we both have duties that have to do with people's health and happiness.
I feel that my duty as an architect would not be complete if people were uncomfortable or unhappy when they interacted with my work. If you bump into me on the site of one of my completed projects, you will notice me for sure, as I am the one with big eyes and looking like a father that's counting his newly born child’s fingers.
You also have experience working on public housing projects like Boulogne Billancourt. Does your approach differ on these types of undertakings as compared to say, a more commercial building like the IBM project? Do you find that the emotional bonds are different?
I wouldn’t say that the emotional bond is different. I have the same approach to every project, whether it's a residential or commercial design. No matter if people are living or working in a space, they spend part of their everyday life nearby, and therefore must be able to interact in a positive way with a structure.
The thing that is slightly different on residential or commercial projects is the designer-client relationship. Designing a house or an interior for a private client means having a more empathetic connection with them than designing a corporate space. We all live in houses and apartments, and we all share similar attachments to our private spaces, so the relationship with those clients is a little more intimate since they will be the ones that are using the final design.
The IBM project was an exception to the usual experience, however. I worked on that project with MBA Architecture, the former Marcel Breuer agency in Paris, that is now run by his former associates. IBM has always been an historical client of Marcel Breuer as he designed many of their buildings, and recently, a lot of these buildings have been refurbished, so I got the chance to work on this one with his associates. Being that Marcel Breuer is someone that I admire and respect, the experience of working on his original designs with his associates was something that I did, and still do, care about deeply.
Glass, cool tones, and curved edges seem to play a big part in your work, but you also incorporate nature into the mix, like in your Shanghai World Expo 2010 project. Can you talk about how you balance made-made materials like glass and steel with natural elements to create the harmonious balance that is desired on projects like this?
Shanghai World Expo 2010 is an Architecture-Studio project that I was working on when I was living in Paris. The final phase of the competition wasn’t won by Architecture-Studio in the end, but they worked really well to make nature a fundamental part of their design. The inclusion of nature was meant to help people feel at ease as they explored the pavilions of the expo, and also to release minus ions which regenerate and bring a positive energy to a person's disposition.
I like to use local materials in my projects and there are two reasons to do that: they are easier to find as they come from the surrounding area, and they are integrated more easily with the surrounding environment, this being either in a geographical or cultural aspect.
Most new buildings are steel structured because of the lower costs, easy assembly, and the flexibility given to the distribution. These particular materials also help to give the appearance of light to a design. There are times when I see projects, especially in residential design, that use a lot of designer furniture that look really cold to me. The inclusion of nature helps to bring some warmth into a space. By nature, I'm not necessarily just talking about plants, this is also the choice in natural materials like stone flooring and walls that you will see in photos below in my new project in Rome.
I also have a strong architectural passion for my heritage and the ancient Roman Insulae, which were noble family’s dwellings that were designed around an internal open courtyard that used a big basin used to collect rain water. That implant really became part of my architectural language and I usually start from a natural core with my designs.
On the topic of creating a harmonious balance, let’s talk about your current project that’s under completion; working on a private flat in a former convent in the Colosseo area of Rome. You mentioned that this is a challenging and exciting project as the space is a cozy 45m squared. Can you talk a bit about the creativity involved with designing such a small space? Also, I imagine that there would be some additional concerns about respecting the history of the structure and working with the historical relevance that surrounds it. How did this influence the project direction and execution?
The building is a former Convent for nuns, where its internal cloister was converted to flats in the 1970’s. It’s located in the Celio area, one of the seven hills Rome was built on, and is full of historical monuments such as the Colosseo, the Constantin’s arch and the Domus Aurea (Nero’s palace from where legend says that he played music while he watched the city burn). With historical surroundings that are this rich, it will inevitably have an influence on the final design.
The entry of the flat is from the internal cloister that is done in Moresque architecture. It was breathtaking the first time I saw it! I almost felt as though I was in the South of Spain and not in Rome. The intuitive process started right away, as it does with many of my projects, and I quickly summed up the building's potential.
The space is very narrow and is comprised of two floors for a total surface of 45m². A 50 cm brick wall would have given this building a very good acoustic and temperature insulation but being a listed building, I had to respect and restore original structures.
The ground floor was a single medium-sized room with a fireplace taking up half of the room, so I decided to design a partition to divide kitchen and dining area. The first wall partition was made rough natural stone, since I felt the need to include some natural elements and also to reference the area's history. I envisioned the other section as a completely separate lounge area and decided to use a dark damasque wallpaper and a suspended lamp.
The use of mirrors is essential in narrow spaces, so I designed mirrors that were installed in crucial areas in order to amplify the depth and different perspectives.
The lighting was fundamental and I decided to use different combinations of lights to create dissimilar atmospheres depending of the mood and the occasion, and also used downlights to highlight the wall's features.
The final point is storage, a big issue in small spaces. Many forms of storage were included in this design and I tried to make it as discreet as possible by using the same colors as the walls, or making them part of the wall itself. I had so much fun designing them and creating unusual shapes.
Not only do you live and work in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, your hometown of Rome, you have also settled in other destinations that are rich in culture and history like London and Paris, where you lived on a peniche for a spell. Can you talk a bit about those experiences?
Western Europe is quite a small place compared to North America, and going from Rome to London or Paris is only about a two hour flight. Still, even with close proximity there are many differences from country to country, which I found fascinating. Paris happened unexpectedly, as most nice things in life do. In the beginning I had a three month contract, and when that ended, I decided to visit Brittany and ended up staying there a while before returning to Paris.I then started my job hunt without knowing if I would end up living and working in Paris but soon found an ad for a peniche (house boat) on the river next to Place de la Concorde. I thought it was very Parisian to live there for a while and I took the opportunity to do that for a while. This moment resonated the most with me as it was one of those once in a lifetime chances that came about.
After that, I lived in a small studio where the bathroom was in the staircase. I trained myself to only need that at night pretty quickly.
I also lived in Montmartre, and since I was just starting my career at the time, was living in a cozy (and I mean small) studio flat where the front step was featured in the movie Ronin, where Robert De Niro and Jean Renault, after shooting everyone, have a coffee together and say goodbye to each other on that very step. I’m sorry that I revealed the end of this movie, but it’s an old movie anyway.
I felt very fortunate to have lived in Paris and felt the same while living in London. London also helped me to realize that I enjoy the convenience of living in a young and modern country, but that I also need to be surrounded by history and character.
Travel appears to play a huge part in your life with your voyages taking you to Japan, Barbados, Milan, Barcelona, among others. Your travel assistant Trixie, seems to be very diligent about documenting her full experience of a place. Do these trips help to keep your mind fresh and inspire new work?
I am so surprised that you found out about Trixie! She was “born” in a small toy shop in Soho, London. I was travelling a lot at the time, and had a bunch of friends doing the same. I saw this little doll and thought of the movie Amelie where the flight attendant takes photos of a gnome for Amelie's father from all around the world. Thinking that was a very poetic idea, two minutes later I was walking out of the shop with this doll in my pocket. Trixie is the name that she immediately inspired to me. Since that moment I started packing her in my suitcase and taking her picture all around the world to publish them in a blog. I also lent her to my friend, who happens to be an architect as well, who was taking a trip around the world.
I am a quite comfortable living in a place that I know well, but I always reach the point where a change of scenario is needed to take a breath and reset my mind — I find that it keeps my mind open and flexible.
You’re in the process of writing travel pieces that have been published on an Italian website (www.professionearchitetto.it) and have also documented your daily experiences while exploring the world aided by coffee, cigarettes, and benzodiazepine which lead to your book My Buddy Diazepam. Your approach to documenting these events seems to have a beat generation spirit to it. Is there a daily recognition of the angel in everyday life in your writing work, that being, for example, life itself for Jack Kerouac’s character of Duluoz in his book Desolation Angels? If so, what would that angel be? Architecture?
I am really impressed with your research; finding both Trixie and the book! I'm also happy you talked about Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. Most people seem to only know him for his book On the Road. I love the contrast you can feel between the calm and nothingness of Desolation Peak, and then the fast-paced energy of everyday living. At some point, a lot of people need to take a break from their lives and recharge to renew their energies and feed new inspirations. I’ve felt like that in the past and that’s why I decided to spend some time in the Caribbean on my own, where I rediscovered the colonial style. I know this might sound Hemingway-esque, but I can assure you that it was pretty luxurious being in the Caribbean, so in that way, it was not like a Kerouac experience.
Soon, I found another (and cheaper) way to take breaks like this: writing. My life and passion is definitely architecture, but I spend a lot of time observing. It was this constant curiosity that inspired me to write novels. So, architecture is definitely one of my passions, as is writing, but I guess curiosity is more likely to be my angel in everyday life.
Are there any notable projects that you’re excited about this year that we should be keeping an eye out for?
Yes, this past year Milan won it's bid to host the Expo 2015 and the council is investing a lot of money and energy in a big scale urban renovation project. In the recent past, other developments have been designed in Milan by architecture ‘griffes’ such as Daniel Liebeskind, Zaha Hadid, and Renzo Piano, but while Milan is the most cosmopolitan city in Italy, it still has a very out-of-date look.
I look forward to seeing what will happen in a few years and if they can make Milan a modern European city by content, as well as architectural aesthetic. It must be noted that the council has decided to involve both young talents and prominent names in this process. This involvement of young talents happened only recently since in Italy, architecture is the ‘Cinderella’ of the arts and big developments were often associated with the usual big names. This mentality has been changing over past years, and with the help of new generations of designers, we can make the distance between us and other neighboring countries shorter.
Written by Ehren Seeland
To contact Pier Andrea Notari:
Visit his company website at: http://www.pierandreanotari.com/