Aura Spaces

Blurring the line between public and private, retail and residential, Michael Gabellini creates a minimalism of sensual power.

It is a late February afternoon—a particularly brutal day in an unusually cold and dark winter—and Michael Gabellini is sitting at a large black table surrounded by piles of photographs, plans, and proposals. “You know, this studio only has two natural light sources,” he says, motioning to the large windows facing lower Broadway behind him then throwing his hands in front to indicate the long distance to the other end of the office, which offers views onto the concrete blocks of New York University faculty housing. This is hard to believe because the slender floor-through studio seems cosseted by an ambient light that feels totally natural before it’s made clear that it is almost entirely a theatrical effect.

Gabellini goes over to a discreet wall panel to demonstrate various levels that evoke the luminosity of different times of day. “In theater,” he explains, “it’s possible to have a single lightbulb onstage that will evoke the time of day, the characters’ emotional disposition, and a sense of place. Why should it be any different in architecture? Light is our first material in every project.”

Before Gabellini studied architecture—first at the Rhode Island School of Design, then at the Architectural Association in London—he trained as a sculptor and was a great admirer of the Italian Arte Povera movement and light artist James Turrell. Gabellini admits to being more engaged by the work of artists than architects. In fact, in the initial stages of design research, Gabellini and partners Kimberly Sheppard and Dan Garbowit create an image bank of artwork that expresses a visual or conceptual tone for a project.

The idea for a rotunda for Giorgio Armani’s colossal store in Milan, for example, finds its initial voice in a “filmstrip” of photos that includes images of coiled wire, starched white collars, a Shaker hay-drying barn, and a Richard Serra sculpture. The color palette for Gianfranco Ferre’s recently opened boutiques in Milan and Paris is abstracted from a number of moody canvases—storm blue and cloud gray from an El Greco detail; deep red, vibrant orange, and sun yellow from a Mark Rothko painting. “Through the process of editing the images,” Gabellini says, “you create the possibility of a more potent concentration of experience.” Final client proposals look as much like beautifully paced art books as architectural pitches.

Gabellini believes in what he refers to as “aura spaces”—buildings and sites that evoke a certain sensual or sacred specificity: the Pantheon or the Baths of Caracalla, for example. History holds great fascination for the 44-year-old architect; he admires the artisanal traditions of the Etruscans, who settled Italy before the rise of the Roman Empire. Eschewing the modern tendency to reject history outright and the postmodern impulse to wax nostalgic about it, Gabellini favors an archaeological respect: “Our projects have always been a kind of investigation of ancient culture and the way that you can use things that preceded you in a correct rather than superficial way.”

Fortunately Gabellini has repeatedly been able to work on restoring and reshaping buildings that have interesting, and sometimes illustrious, histories. His first project for German fashion designer Jil Sander was a boutique on Paris’s tony Avenue Montaigne, once the showroom of couturiere Madeline Vionnet, the early-twentieth-century designer best known for her innovative draping of bias-cut material. The Beaux-Arts mansion had been gutted in recent years and then reconstructed with poured-concrete floors and columns, and a side-entrance porte cochere designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox—a “very unique postmodern intervention,” according to Gabellini, who coincidentally started his career working for the firm.

Although the interior of the 12,000-square-foot building was already destroyed, the exterior facade was protected by landmark status, so any work had to be approved by the city of Paris. Gabellini ended up ripping out 75 percent of the interior. The resulting store, opened in 1993, is an architectural paean to the craft of clothing construction, with stone, plaster, wood, glass, and metal forming subtle references to seams, bias-cut patterns, and ribbon. “We looked at the project as urban surgery,” Gabellini says, “rehabilitating an existing building and breathing new life into it.” Surgery is an apt metaphor; the facade was taken down stone by stone, numbered, labeled, and individually restored before being returned to the building, which in the meantime had been lifted five feet to enable a double-height room, like the entrance hall in a grand home.

Gabellini’s conversation is often peppered with references to domestic spaces, even in regard to the numerous retail projects his 30-person studio has designed since opening in 1991. “We have an understanding of interior space that is more about the home environment than overtly commercial space,” he says. No surprise, then, that when Gabellini gets involved from the beginning of a retail project, chances are the property was at one time a private home.

In Hamburg Gabellini restored an eighteenth-century manor house on Lake Alster with all the care of an archaeologist—and all the visual tricks of a master magician. “I’m fascinated by the way in which through sleight of hand you can make certain incisions in a building that transform the use but don’t erase the history,” he says of the 18,000-square-foot building that serves as Jil Sander’s headquarters and showroom. Used by the German Finance Ministry during World War II and then boarded up for decades, the villa is a more literal historical restoration than the Paris shop, complete with a ballroom, two orangeries, and an ornate grand staircase of Greek marble that carries the eye to the second floor. Like in Paris, the space reads insistently white, although Gabellini admits that there are about 18 shades of white, putty, gray, and limestone that combine to create this illusion. (The white aesthetic, it turns out, is an entirely ahistorical addition to the villa; “core samples” of walls taken during the research phase revealed striations of gold, red, blue, purple, and green—garish colors and anathema to the cool blond fashion designer.)

Gabellini Associates often uses retail projects to spin out furniture, lighting, and fixtures that go on to have an afterlife as commercial products. Because the studio approaches even its most commercial spaces as domestic interiors, the leap from showroom to living room is a relatively small one. Royalty arrangements with companies like Cappellini and Arredoquattro generate income that feeds back into the studio’s more experimental efforts, like the three to four architectural competitions it enters each year. An extensive retail commission in Rome for the department store Davide Cenci, for example, is expected to result in a line of some 15 to 20 pieces to be released by Cappellini, including seating, coffee tables, nesting tables, and shelving systems for residential and hospitality use.

The studio’s most extensive commission to date has been to transform a 1930s fascist-era building in the heart of Milan into an outsize emporium for Armani that includes distinct areas for his various collections as well as two restaurants, a bookstore, and an upscale flower shop. Described by Gabellini as “Mussolini modern,” the 100,000-square-foot store—which opened in 2000—is cut through with a cruciform thoroughfare for public use, a condition mandated by the city of Milan and punctuated by two skylit atriums. Using Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele as a model, Gabellini ensured that retail thresholds adjacent to the passageway are permeable, separated by light, translucent glass, and walls of LED screens projecting multimedia art rather than by discrete mall-like stores.

Blurring divisions between types of space—whether retail and leisure or public and private—has long been a leitmotif in Gabellini’s work and is omnipresent in residential projects like the apartment he designed for Gary and Sarah Wolkowitz, art collectors who live in Manhattan. A 4,000-square foot penthouse with two wraparound terraces, the Wolkowitz apartment serves as a gallery to house an extensive collection of photography, including pieces by Man Ray, Rodchenko, and the Bauhaus masters. Floating walls of white plaster and black ribbon mahogany line the open-plan living area, which is kitted out in low-slung furniture—a strategy that masks the fact that the ceilings are only eight feet high. “What was most striking,” Gary Wolkowitz notes, “was Gabellini’s sense for how materials play into one’s life visually, spiritually, and emotionally.”

The apartment’s seamless continuity is interrupted by three glowing boxes that enclose bathrooms and play peekaboo—the electrified glass goes from transparent to milky white at the touch of a switch—with the apartment’s more public spaces. Gabellini’s instinct to conflate bathing and sleeping areas matched the Wolkowitz’s desire for “the ultimate hotel suite”—a space of pleasure that includes references to the days of public bathing in ancient Rome like an eight-foot sink and a drain composed of a handful of stones. The guest bathroom extends the stone metaphor with a pebble-shaped sink handcrafted of marble from Split, Croatia, by a master craftsman frustrated by the limitations of digital technology. This exercise led Gabellini to the idea of creating a line of high-end hand-carved toilets, bidets, and tubs, on which the studio will collaborate with an Italian artisanal shop.

Split is the site of another one of Gabellini’s favorite “aura spaces,” Diocletian’s Palace. He marvels at the white marble that comes from this area of former Yugoslavia, and is planning a current residential project using it along with white glass and white plaster. The client—a couple who own Germany’s version of Staples—contracted Gabellini to build a “cocoon” for them on the 49th floor of a New York apartment tower. There was one condition, the architect says with a laugh: “The wife asked me to make it purer than the Jil Sander showroom!” Gabellini may be mentioned in the same breath as the renowned master of the monastic, John Pawson, but the work that he produces is anything but spartan. “Minimalism is not about doing without. It’s about pleasure.” He smiles. “Call it compassionate minimalism.”

Gabellini confesses, “We’re material fanatics,” and a look around the studio confirms this. Tables lining the office’s front windows are lined with samples of wood, glass, metal, stone, and synthetics that the architect picks up lovingly while describing the details of certain projects. Much as the studio works through a conceptual direction by collecting art images, Gabellini Associates goes through material categories with clients from a project’s beginning. “It’s a kind of Rorschach test,” he explains. “We allow the client to feel good, to see what they like—and don’t like.” For its retail work the firm does exhaustive research into materials that are indigenous to the area from which each company stems.

Not every client comes with a preconceived idea of what he or she wants. But in the case of an art collector who hired the studio to create a glass house for her in Denver, the ideas were already there. “She came to us with two pictures,” Gabellini says. “One an image of the Katsura Palace and another of Dulles airport.” Conflating the sublime and the everyday, the designs show a three-story house that will be sunk into the ground and surrounded by a moat—a long lap pool in the front and a Barragán-like reflecting surface in the back that leads to a guest house. The water, which will never freeze because the property lies below the frost line, will be recirculated through a radiant floor that will keep the house warm. The roof—designed in the shape of a gull wing, in reference to the client’s aviation hobby—will be clad with solar cells that will aid in running the 8,000-square-foot household. The client’s other love, the work of French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, will help form the house’s interior, which will include open-plan space for art on the main floor, a spa in the sublevel, and a “bird’s nest” bedroom on the second floor.

The Denver residence is the first of what Gabellini hopes will be a line of holistic projects in which the studio creates the exterior as well as the interior. There is an increased energy toward expanding the studio into more capital-A architectural commissions. Competition entries serve to stretch the designers’ conceptual skills and help them transcend the limiting label of “interior architects.” Big ideas that result from such brainstorming can often be spun out and incorporated on a lesser scale in commercial projects. Gabellini recently submitted a design for a cultural and administration complex in Montreal, and won a competition for a new urban plan for the Piazza Isola in Verona. “Because we’ve always thought of projects from the inside out, it’s easy to think of individual blocks of space as urban rooms,” Gabellini says. “You can elevate the everyday to the platform of awareness no matter what the space is.”

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