Tomas Ghisellini architect

1.  How would you define Italian architecture in the world scenario and how do you see yourself within it? Do you know any Balkan architecture?
Italy is currently going through a delicate phase of transition and change. The economic collapse, the extremely precarious political balance, and an underground but diffusely perceived social tension all reflect, in a striking way, on architecture. It is a straight expression of that zeitgeist, which pervades every society’s complex, evolved structure. Today’s conditions are inducing fragmented search paths and expressive languages, which blur the outlines of major goals indirectly leading to productivity. It is a season that, in spite of the disastrous crashes and uncertainties generated by capitalist systems, doggedly progresses by revivalist infatuations, imitative replications of architectural “effects” processed elsewhere or simple coverage of formalistic drifts.

In this context, Italian architecture seems to have gradually lost contact with that vocabulary of measure, sensitivity and appropriateness which defined its character. The architecture has become internationalized, more impersonal, and homogeneous. The nerve of expressive autonomy has been compressed and given up that so-called passionate attitude towards a place.

I firmly believe it is necessary to view this challenging moment not as fated condemnation, but as a crucial opportunity. Like Blumenberg’s hapless castaway who was crushed, humiliated, and assaulted but chose to resist the fury of the seas, we, too, live through traumas while simultaneously choosing opportunities to re-establish a new world, starting first with ideas.

This is an unprecedented metamorphosis. For Balkan architecture with its multi-cultural population, multiple drives and fragile structures, it has been undergoing an interesting process of “re-discussion” on the key character, purpose and content of contemporary architecture. The geographical and intellectual experiments executed by protagonists such as Njiric & Njiric, Studio UP, 3LHD, Randis & Turato, Reichenberg Architecture, Bevk Perović Architects, Pero Vuković and Tonči Žarnić have transformed the Balkan region into a kind of grand research lab. It is an interesting and innovative development, which is uniquely and positively independent of the international scene. And although current results are not yet crystal clear, they do point to a future architectural lexicon that has started to be stuttered.

2. You have been (and currently are) teaching architectural composition at the Faculty of Architecture in Ferrara. In your experience as a professor, what is the most important thing you feel you gave and you can still transmit to students?

I have to say I started very early. I was still a student when professors, who perhaps noticed something good in me, began to ask me to help them review academic projects submitted within their design courses. It was pretty embarrassing: I stood there dispensing critiques, hypothetical solutions, proposals and suggestions to students just like me, my peers! It was really hard at the beginning, but they slowly learned to appreciate the useful, practical advice I gave (well, this is the assumption I want to believe). I vividly remember my first official day as a teacher; it seems like yesterday. Now, almost a decade later, I have taught courses such as “Analysis of the City and the Territory”, “Theories and Techniques of Architectural Design”, ”Landscape Architecture”, and most recently “Architectural Composition”. I always desired to teach design and in 2010 that became possible. I call that period in my career the “time of anticipation”. Now I realize it was extremely helpful, essential even, because it enabled me to patiently, carefully and humbly formulate the character and substance of ideas that would become my personal contribution to the training of new generations of architects. The bottom line is that it is in the construction of thought, awareness and conscience where the seed of change is sown and where the foundations of the world to come are laid.

By nurturing young talent, we cultivate hope for future good, a dignified rehabilitation of our profession, and decisive emancipation from decades of speculative paralysis. The paralysis has condemned our country to mediocrity, to a vulgar provincialism that disguises itself as radical-chic, resulting in magazines full of foreign works, contributions and protagonists as if nothing good was detectable at home.

Thus through teaching I have a strong call to responsibility. Architecture is not a joke, not an instrument of narcissistic individual affirmation or a foolish pass to fifteen wicked minutes of fame. It is an extraordinary platform that records biographies and serves to shape human experiences, circumscribe emotions, ignite enthusiasm, arouse admiration, and nurture intellectual reflections that all result in a sense of protection, in value and dignity. All in all, I think balance, precision, and measure should be the underlying motivation for young architects in order to temper egoistic temptations and the many smart, indispensable tools for a more natural and intelligent architectural practice. If inhabiting means ‘dressing’ spaces with ourselves, as Heidegger suggested, and gaining happiness from that, then we could say that architecture is a good way to take care of the world. I am also reminded of Hölderlin who declared that “poetically man dwells on this earth”. If true, then architecture must primarily be lyric and emotional in substance.

Obviously no quarry stone, forest wood, or blasted furnace steel is itself poetic. Architecture is first of all an immaterial presence: it nestles in the magic of relationships, in the intersections of meaning, in the tension of the approaches or loving conflicts. In this way, even a musical score of Bartók is wonderful architecture. When I first meet my students and address things in this manner, many of them consider leaving my course. But then, in the end, they reconsider and change their mind. All of them.

The Italian educational system moves alongside the conflictive conditions generated by our profession. Europe as a whole is crossing an unprecedented crisis. Global competition is getting fiercer every day (work is scarce; thousands of students graduate every year while building constructions get reduced). What is your vision for the future? What do you think it is going to be decisive for the next generation of architects?

Well, I am pretty clear in saying my design course has always shown a certain impatience with the classical methods of teaching as well as an overtly “anti-academic” attitude both in the selection of the content and in the didactic transmission system. That is why it often sparked debates and interesting controversies of which, I must say, I am very proud!

I am convinced that the architect’s figure and professional activity may have initiated a process of irreversible transformation unlike what could be said about them even just a decade ago. The upheavals in the fields of communication, real-time interaction and technological sophistication, not infrequently associated with the parodoxal complications that have affected the sphere of project responsibilities, have radically reshaped the role of the architect in contemporary society, turning it ever more from manufacturer of buildings to producer of ideas, scenarios and strategic solutions.

The millennial bond, with its focus of doing and volume density, has gradually dissolved in favor of a more distinctly immaterial alliance to proactively and imaginatively solve complicated issues from not only a constructive perspective but, more importantly, from social, economic and cultural ones as well. The architect is becoming less of a builder, in the practical sense, and becoming more an interpreter of reality, reader and decoder of historical circumstances, anticipating trends and inventing innovative social panoramas even before developing urban scenes. So to use the technical jargon typical of strategic communication activities, we could say he is a problem solver.

If it is true that the profession’s dynamics and the role of the architect are not (and will not be) those of the past anymore, the same must necessarily hold true for teaching. From this assumption, my courses do not focus on the apparent certainties offered by traditional notions but rely instead on the unstable, fluid field of experience: lectures and operations by designers, landscape architects, artists, photographers, writers, filmmakers or even theater actors and graphic designers who build exciting, multi-faceted scenarios with unlimited potential. One can discover significant works with travel and architectural itineraries, however life experience provides the rest and delivers a strong sense of familiarity to sublime ingredients found in good architecture. The ingredients are palpable yet sometimes incommunicable: light, mass, weight, volume, transparency, color, lightness, balance, proportion and measure. All appear before the students’ eyes for their perceptual and interpretative experience. In this way, they are shielded from stagnant orthodoxies from the past and the magazines’ fleeting trends of the present.

The result is almost always a lighting rod that goes off in the minds of students. I can see their dreams of what they can do or become, of the influence they may have in determining reality. And most importantly, this spark catalyzes ideas, their points of view on things and helps me bring out their best. I intercept these ideas and make the most of their personal inclinations, nurturing fresh talent that is, more or less, in each of them.

3. In 2008, at the age of 30, you won two important competitions consecutively. Less than a year later you opened your own Studio. That rousing start moreover assigned you the role of being a highly-promising young architect within the Italian scene.

In 2008, after many experiences in Italy and abroad, I decided it was time to test the knowledge and skillset accumulated over the years. Thus, in a few months and working almost exclusively at night and on weekends while collaborating with large architectural firms, I participated in a couple of competitions focused on radical, yet compelling themes: a cemetery and a school. It was as if the cycles of birth and death in life “met”, so to speak, in a circular path in these two architectural projects. This was an irresistible challenge which I found very exciting. I tended the projects with passion, determination and dedication, in solitude, and in a kind of curious path of spiritual analysis. The victory came through both competitions, beating hundreds of other proposals and acclaimed architectural studios. That moment was so overwhelming, because it happened all at once at a relatively young age! I was in a state of disbelief and convinced I had consumed the “victory bonus” for the next ten years (we all know how difficult it is to win a competition)! It seemed to be the perfect time to open my own studio, and I ignored the voices that argued that contests were just ideas that ended up in a drawer or that live, at most, as long as an election campaign.




So I opened the Atelier of Architecture. It is like a “bottega” where now a group of architects, engineers, graphic designers and artists contribute to conceiving, researching, developing, and managing projects. We are definitely a “family” and every bit of content is produced and edited within the atelier, starting with the first sketch to the building’s construction documents, from conceptual renderings to the structural system that undergoes safety and technological analysis. Particular attention is always given to researching the environmental and economic sustainability of projects. Our sustainability guru and LEED accredited professional on the team straddles between the U.S. and Italy and evaluates proposals for LEED certification as well as scouts for projects abroad.

After the surprise of winning two consecutive first prizes, I was just as equally surprised with the fate of the projects: the national competitions led to the construction of both projects shortly thereafter! This was really against the odds, because it usually takes on average seven years to see a medium-sized public building get built. We subsequently won other important design and urban planning competitions, both public and private, all completed (incredibly) or currently in progress.

4. With the project for the primary school named “The Court of The Trees”, near Bergamo, you received the prestigious Renzo Piano Foundation Award. What were the building’s hallmarks that allowed you to gain this important prize?

The project has enjoyed widespread popularity: published on many occasions by the media, on nontraditional platforms and specialized magazines both in Italy and abroad. It has received numerous awards and several significant acknowledgments – the most important one being the one received recently from Renzo Piano’s hands, at the end of a long, unforgettable day spent at his Building Workshop in Genoa.




According to the touching and motivating words spoken by the great architect, the elements that enabled us to earn the award are mainly found in a range of small great field-choices: the special attention given to respecting the delicate contextual conditions (the school stands in front of the historic cemetery of the small town!); the inclusion of unconventional uses of common construction techniques and humble building materials found locally (perforated walls and volumetric conformations lightly reinterpret the expressive vocabulary of the magnificent farmstead courts punctuating the Bergamo area); the detailed study of the perceptual and atmospheric quality of spaces (a detailed plan of the inside colors gives the interior, here and there, an almost dreamy ambience); the custom-made tailored approach in the construction of the building’s skin (its architectural details), and we were even tasked with integrating the interiors with the creation of child-friendly ergonomic furniture and play equipment.

But perhaps even more revealing was the innovative and rebellious re-interpretation of environmental and sustainable design solutions. We eschewed the banal and technologically sophisticated, preferring instead simple and integrated solutions. A three-dimensional grid of “invisible” wind chimneys eliminated the need to install a complicated and expensive indoor air forced replacement system. It saved money, brought beauty, and also allowed the building to validate one of the oldest techniques known in architecture as passive design: natural, slow ventilation belongs to many of the pre-industrial Western civilizations and, more specifically, is an extraordinary knowledge asset within Mediterranean architecture.

5.With a competition project for Bologna you offered an interesting vision for the rehabilitation of the historic city through micro-surgery actions. Do you think this strategy could be properly applied to all other Italian cities?

The project, which was awarded an Honorable Mention in a major international design and urban strategy competition, was titled: Urban Micro-surgery: Five Non-invasive Surgeries for the New Ruralcity. Starting from an interesting interpretation of the city as a physical and organic entity, the project contemplates the idea of spreading swarms of non-invasive microsurgical interventions, completely or partially reversible, as a “proactive care” to many points of suffering within the urban body.

Cities are complicated social, symbolic and political bodies. Urban projects, today more than ever, need the ability to claim that sophisticated esprit de corps between unity and fragment, between continuous and discontinuous, of the identical and the nonidentical that exist in juxtaposition. Very often urban and especially environmental planning are seen as isolated pieces of territories tampered in time and handed back to nature; this seems inappropriate, because the value and quality of a place needs both the presence of natural features and a wise integration of man-made infrastructure for an optimal experience. Likewise, every piece of architecture in an urban landscape becomes an instrument in the process of controlling the metropolitan scenario as well as a study of hierarchical relationships, dimensions and quality.

Cities are bodies, we said. In the case of Bologna we detected five main organic diseases affecting the urban body at that time. We proposed specific micro-surgical treatments for each “urban illness”, which were carried out with non-invasive techniques, strictly localized, limited action, considering that each operation had to be performed repeatedly for every “point of affection” across the area. This would result in a conglomerated system of diffused curative measures. These specific approaches aimed to heal and remove obstacles to a contemporary alliance between urban and country, i.e. the birth of the new “rural city”. Just as a medical practice depends on the crucial interaction between doctor and patient, likewise urban policies and cities need to relate. To treat an area so it cures, improves, and stimulates positive chain-reactions in communities, it is essential to recognize the need to take action and have courage. Graphically, these were visible as spots placed on urban and rural territories that served to promote a global action on a slow but progressive urban awakening.

We think this may represent one of the few opportunities contemporary cities have to recover their lost integrity. Minor surgery – diffusive, non-invasive and mostly reversible – seems to be one of the few means available to solve problems. Town and country get the chance to live and blend together if unusual relationships of interdependence are preserved. This seems to be achievable with the creation of new connections that are based on real ecological preservation, on the development and use of alternative energy sources, and on the (re)design of a mobility infrastructure. Moving the country to the city, not in a physical way, but connecting it efficiently to the fabric of the city and consciously enriching it with social deals and identity shares, gives substance to a new way to think about living rurally in an urban landscape. It is not just built for action. Sometimes, it is introducing a new costume or a new custom, to create positive conditions for transformation. Many times it is human intervention, without premises, planning or execution of a material work, that ends up being significant micro-surgery for the future city.

6. For the Malga Fosse’s rehabilitation competition project, among the Dolomites, you proposed an almost “metaphysic” settlement in the formidable landscape of the Alps. What is the reason why?

The competition announcement explicitly invited designers to think about the renovation in terms of landscape and architectural regeneration. The conversion of the historic Malga inn, whose structural integrity was fatally compromised due to long-term deterioration, into an excellent tourist destination would be attracting visitors, residents and tourists to a very high altitude site. The competition also served to ignite new ways to promote this remote mountain territory with its small neighboring towns in the wider regional circuit of urban marketing.




In our opinion, an iconic and highly evocative design would also have to consider re-establishing the image, the ways and customs of living on a mountain at high altitudes. By articulating around a strong, radical and uncompromising design, we aimed at making a positive impact on the inhabitants’ collective imagination, while avoiding violations to the site’s sacredness and natural heritage. Doing so would prevent the proposed design from succumbing to the whimsical nature of architectural trends.

So we believed the best way to address the special charm inherit in “mountain design” was by re-interpreting the quintessential mountain archetype: stylizing the wooden hut with a steep slope to echo the surrounding peaks with a nod to the “conquest” metaphor. A slim, sharp, tapered body affords extraordinary views of the landscape with the insertion of triple-height glass walls on the ends, strategically placed windows on the sides, and glass railings on the balconies for unobstructed bedside views! The triple-height glass wall and exposed staircase recreate the exhilarating experience of mountain trekking or climbing. (If you are afraid of heights, do not look down!) At the top, one gets a memorable view of the whole complex, which by itself is worthy of a postcard. The materials chosen are vernacular and contextual. Despite the large expanse of glass and extreme cold temperatures, the building is highly energy efficient as sustainable design best practices, quality materials with high insulation ratings, and renewable energy solutions for on-site power generation were used. It is a self-sufficient structure that enables the inhabitants (guests and residents alike) to live autonomously and comfortably year round. This also translates to a viable business model where the property owners can keep their doors open and take advantage of all four seasons. The best part about our design is that it mimics the vernacular and surroundings so well that it looks like it was always there and as if it was supposed to be there! This structure anywhere else would simply be unthinkable!

Indeed, this new contemporary hut is reminiscent of high altitude rock formations. Perhaps we all have a memory of these old structures in our subconscious. For this reason we named it Tip Top, to remind one of the tops between mountain tops, rocks between stone peaks, and huts between cabins. Although this project only received an honorable mention, I find it interesting that we found ourselves on a higher mountain several months later to receive another award elsewhere.

7.You won the international competition for the new Ferrara city morgue and public facilities complex with a project named Domus Vitae. What is the meaning of this interesting motto?

Very often, almost without realizing it, we have found ourselves planning and designing heretically in order to break from traditional norms. This is easy to do because handed-down buildings inevitably have flaws, and we always start with examining them first. From this starting point, it becomes less about what the project wants to be and more about what that it absolutely must not be! I call this phenomenon “rebel composition”, and it was evident early on that this was one of those projects. The challenge was to create a new city morgue with adjoining public facilities for the city of Ferrara in a former 15th century citadel. The site is in a highly dense, urban location adjacent to the city’s beautiful Renaissance walls.



Spaces traditionally dedicated to the death industry are among the most disturbing, desolate and impersonal ones ever witnessed in western architectural history. One can clearly see a demarcated process (with direct correlations) of degradation within this sector. As value systems changed and respect for the sacred and unknown deteriorated, modern society’s structures adopted and mirrored those attitudes. Disdain for death and decay consequently relegated places for the dead to the peripheries, making them vulnerable to neglect, abandonment and carelessness. The life-affirming craving for production and infinite progress redefined life and those alive in terms of worth. Only life was worthy of attention, beauty and care, while death was perceived as an unacceptable interruption and disruptive element within the natural order of things. The revulsion associated with the cessation of existence is fully expressed in the gloomy places that were once home to a collective sharing, a celebratory and architectural magnificence, and a condolent spirit.

Thus, pushed by the need and desire to rethink these places and drawing on the sensitivity of our forefathers, we broke away from common practice. We proposed the idea of “porous” spaces that allow guests to express themselves in any given moment or mood. There are rooms with different amounts of intimacy, vertical gardens, secret patios, rooms with warm colors, and natural light is ubiquitous and palpable. Together, they contribute towards bringing comfort, closure and protection. Compositional choices and unconventional materials are combined to outline a kind of grand house where different cultures and faiths co-exist in mutual peace and respect. It is an emotionally familiar place where mourning the end is replaced with dignifying the cycles of life. Domus Vitae, a home for life.

8.You are also widely active with the cultural group named Cluster Theory. What does it deal with exactly?

Cluster Theory is an innovative young multi-disciplinary research group established in 2011 by Giovanni Avosani and Elisa Poli that addresses theoretical approaches in contemporary architectural practices. The group has bases in Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence, Bari and Milan and develops critical proposals for public spaces, produces architectural critiques and organizes lectures on the current state of affairs in architecture.

Formed by architects, philosophers, sociologists, economists and art critics, Cluster Theory investigates issues of theory and criticism in the contemporary architectural realm through different approaches, evaluation systems and methodologies.

The landscape always changes, following social and physical mutations of contemporary society. Critical thinking, however, should point how our networks work as an information conveyor. Physical proximity is not essential for making public landscapes work, as these have been subrogated with the virtual spaces created by social networks. Therefore, in response to the request for shared information and content, the public landscape should revert to a main physical place for social interactions. Cluster Theory demonstrates how the quality of urban spaces affects their use (past and present) in daily affairs, both socially and culturally. An interesting research tool used by the group is their “integrated encounters” approach. For example, a recent international workshop titled, Passenger in a Landscape, gave a selected group of students the opportunity to participate in a unique experience inside the spaces of Wunderkammer and at the University of Ferrara’s Department of Architecture.

The workshop was organized around the Michelangelo Antonioni exhibit with the goal of building paths of inquiry focused on landscape design. Unconventional tools such as film, video art, mapping, viral marketing and communication were used. In addition to guests and tutors, others who joined me for this workshop were Alterazioni Video, Marco Brizzi, [im]possible living, Guido Incerti and Carlorattiassociati. The workshop was addressed to undergraduate, graduate, and post doctoral students from all disciplines who wished to explore design solutions using an unconventional language.

9.From July your work will be exposed at MoMA New York within an important international exhibition. This is maybe the first and most important presentation beyond the Italian frontiers so far. What are your personal expectations in this regard?

For the Cut’n'Paste exhibit at MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, we were contacted directly (and unexpectedly) by the curator, Pedro Gadanho, who had been tracking (and appreciating) our work on several online publications. We readily accepted the offer to participate and collaborated with their team on the exhibit’s logistics. It officially opened July 10th inside the MoMA’s Gallery of Architecture and Design and will be on view until December 1st.

The surprise invitation to get featured in one of the most prestigious museums in the world was exhilarating! I can still remember the evening when I first saw the incoming mail. Considering it highly unlikely and mistaking it for junk mail (especially since it was April Fool’s day in the U.S.), I initially eliminated the message! Fortunately the next day, I recovered it from the trash (thank God) and finally opened that incredible communication. It launched this new, exciting adventure I am now experiencing!

The exhibit comes at a significant moment when our relations with the United States are thickening considerably because of some very interesting professional opportunities and collaborations. There may soon be important news for our studio overseas…

It is pretty interesting that you are also involved with photography. What is the difference between photographing your architecture and that of someone else’s?

One of the most common misconceptions about photography is that it constitutes an instrument of objective representation of reality. Anyone with even minimal notions about the photographic expressive language knows that this is absolutely false. If it is undisputed that the camera lens captures exactly all that is included inside the frame border, it is equally true that the operation of inclusion, through which the one who takes the picture individually selects what and how to include (or comprehend, we could say), is in fact a precise act of critical synthesis. Photography does not reproduce reality, but rather furnishes a particular, partial and independent interpretation that the author gives us. A simple movement of the camera can be sufficient to eliminate or add elements whose existence or absence can radically change the “spiritual” effect that the image can exert on the viewer. Strategic alignments or slight misalignments can effectively influence the construction of a narrative tension, strictly functional to the carrying out of a story. The poetics of color, the conscious choice of black and white or a secondary use of natural or artificial light, as well we know, can give the picture an emotionally significant character.

What has been said until now seems to be worth even more, and especially, if we talk about architectural photography, for which the use of shooting authorship is now more than ever required in the construction of the image through which the work shows itself to the world. Architecture, more so than other subjects, cannot be described but represented only. The need to give a reading of architecture by images forces you, anyway, to make a proper exercise of reduction to communication essentials, investigating the will and ideas of the designer to trace their actual physical manifestation. When you discover a glimpse, a detail or a particularly interesting atmosphere, you need to crystallize it in the image as something to be treasured. I learned in time that architecture is nourished by memory, experience, strong intensity and those unforgettable moments of passion.

I often photograph my work a bit proactively. The idea is to test, with a click, the effective substance in the built architectural body, the “spirit” that had animated the project. When, in astonishment, I see within the picture a kind of reproduction, so to speak a mise en scène, of the visual fascination that had already been in me since the preliminary design phase, this serves as an affirmation that perhaps I did do a good job, or at least I did not betray the seed that originated the idea.

10.You were born in and live and work in Ferrara, a city in constant evolution in the field of architecture. How much has the rebirth of the city influenced your work as an architect?

I like to think that somehow, even minimally, our work and research had a role in stimulating the city’s rebirth that we have experienced lately. Even regionally relevant projects will change the face of the contemporary Ferrara, launching it in a network of the future’s most dynamic metropolises relative to architecture, innovation, and urban regeneration. Besides our Domus Vitae, which will effectively redraw a significant portion of downtown near the most fascinating parts of the city’s walls, other experimental urban projects will also be realized. There is, for example, the new National Museum of Italian Judaism and of the Shoah, designed by a close friend, that we all have been waiting decades for. There is also the advanced shoe research and production facility being designed by a famous French firm.

The city has always demonstrated the ability to identify and achieve those goals really important for its social and economic long-term growth. When a formidable group of professionals established the School of Architecture in 1993 (my alma mater and employer), few were ready to bet on its future. Now, twenty years later, it is one of the most important and prestigious departments in the country, always topping national evaluations for its quality service and curriculum programs. The same is true for other initiatives around town, such as the infamous Space Grisù. All are contributing to the socio-cultural fabric and creating job and training opportunities.

We hope our efforts are seen as positive contributions to the city’s future; we dream of making it better and attractive where even you would want to live. We definitely work from this premise and thus work hard to bring new light.

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