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A balance between east and west

by Alessandra Coppa

After graduating in Architecture from the University of Florence in 1997, the young Modenese architect Andrea Maffei headed to Japan, impatient to see Tokyo’s futuristic architectural technologies for himself. But he was soon to discover their fragility compared for example to a detail by the great Milanese architect Gio Ponti. Following a longstanding collaboration and close personal friendship with Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, Maffei started up his own practice in Milan in 2005. His approach to architecture is influenced by international, especially oriental, models, which he is able to filter through a solid European design culture.
In an approach that blends the technological and material minimalism of Japanese architecture with the rationality of the Milanese masters, he focuses on functionality and the ability to reorganise projects and translate the spirit of places into design ideas.


After graduating in Florence, in 1997 you began working with Massimo Carmassi in Pisa and soon afterwards left for Japan. It must have been a big step from drawing to high tech…
I studied under Alberto Breschi who had collaborated with the Superstudio group of architects in Florence. We worked together on “deconstructionist” projects. After graduating I worked with Massimo Carmassi in Pisa for several months. Carmassi’s work involved redeveloping old buildings, but he also taught me a lot about the value of drawing in architecture. At that time, everything was drawn by hand, especially perspective views. But throughout the years of my training I was always fascinated by international architecture, from high tech to deconstructionism. I was particularly interested in Tokyo because it was the city that was most receptive to innovation. I wanted to work abroad and discover more about international architecture. As soon as I arrived at Isozaki’s practice, he asked me to work on the project for the Museum of Modern Ceramic Art in Gifu, which houses modern and contemporary Japanese and world ceramics.
The Museum is unusual in that it houses and promotes both craft and industrially-made ceramics, which it sells in a gift shop located alongside restaurants and tearooms. In 1998 I began working with Isozaki in Qatar, in a Doha that with just two skyscrapers and an airport was very different from today’s city.
We worked on the extension project for the Qatar museum of history and on Sheik Al-Thani’s estate in the middle of the desert, the Al Wabrah villa.


Your relationship with Isozaki is very interesting. You have carried through many projects together, including the new exit from the Uffizi Gallery, the Palaisozaki in Turin for the 2006 Winter Olympics, the Allianz Tower in Milan in 2004, the new Bologna Centrale station and the library in Maranello. Did you find it difficult to reconcile western and eastern cultures?
It was very easy for me to mediate between the two cultures because both have a very high level of quality, and in any case Isozaki has always been interested in European culture. He’s much more open to international ideas than other Japanese architects I’ve met, such as Toyo Ito, so he’s willing to make room for foreign architects like me. He accepted the challenge of taking part in design competitions in Italy, so we submitted a project for the Loggia of the Uffizi. He himself went to make the first sketches and observe the new Palazzo Vecchio entrance. Isozaki had been friends with Adolfo Natalini throughout the Superstudio period and regarded Florence as the birthplace of the most innovative ideas. The project has been developed as far as the executive stage, so we hope the city’s new mayor will decide to carry it through.


What made you choose a reinterpretation of the “loggia” for the Uffizi?
Designing the new exit from the Uffizi onto Piazza Castellani meant devising a structure that would be capable of interacting with the city, extending the existing museum space while also promoting urban regeneration. We wanted to create an urban space that would fit in with the Florentine tradition, especially the adjacent areas of the Loggia dei Lanzi and the Loggia del Grano. Our idea of recreating the iconic Loggia dei Lanzi with the same dimensions or proportions in Piazza Castellani would offer a complete solution in keeping with the monumental nature of the Uffizi, integrating with it as part of a forward-looking vision.

The project for the ice hockey stadium in Turin is a perfect example of architecture open to new spatial and functional configurations.
The most important question we asked ourselves was how it could be reused after the Olympics. Our solution was to build an enormous empty rectangular stainless steel box suspended over a concrete and glass base. With its excellent acoustic performance and capacity for up to 17,000 people, it would serve as a highly dynamic venue for the city. It would be a versatile and flexible “event factory” with movable decking and stands to enable the internal layout to be reorganised and the ice hockey rink converted into a venue for concerts, conventions and shows.


Then you won the Citylife competition in Milan to build the Isozaki Tower, now called the Allianz Tower, a kind of modern-day Pirelli Tower.
The collaborative Citylife project seeks to reinterpret the complexity of the city through the work of multiple architects, using their contrasting contributions to restore the sense of tension created by buildings with different forms and materials.
In this archipelago of forms, we thought it would be interesting to develop the idea of a Brâncușiesque “endless tower”.
To attain the maximum sense of verticality and upward movement, we opted for a modular system that can be repeated indefinitely. The chosen module consists of 6 office floors with a very narrow and elongated floor plan of 24×61 metres.
These proportions were chosen to accentuate the verticality of the structure, which has a surprisingly slender shape for such a tall building. The building’s façade consists of double-glazed glass with a slightly outwardly rounded shape.

Was this when you set up your practice in Milan?
I opened the Milan practice in Brera in 2005 after winning the Citylife competition in 2004.

Why did you opt for a horizontal layout in the project for Bologna Station?
The tender specifications allowed for the construction of two towers, which in the end we chose not to build. Instead, our idea for the station was a horizontal structure without tall buildings, so we decided to transform the station from a monolithic structure by breaking it up into a series of volumes capable of interacting with the urban fabric. We wanted to combine the station with functions unrelated to travel, such as shopping, attending a conference or going to see a film. There will also be a sports hall so that people can go there to play volleyball. Just like the ice hockey stadium in Turin, this project is designed to achieve the maximum flexibility. It is effectively a large air-conditioned box where retail spaces can be changed according to the needs of the market.

For the library in Maranello, the MABIC, you made extensive use of ceramic tiles.
As you know, I’m from Modena. The mayor of the nearby town of Maranello was an architect, an enlightened client who wanted to transform an old factory into a fascinating, organically-shaped green building surrounded by water. Consisting of a large fully glazed open space with an attractive design looking out onto the surrounding greenery, it was designed as a place that would appeal to schoolchildren, a venue for meeting or presenting books, and a focal point for the town’s population. We made extensive use of ceramic tiles, Florim for the floors and Casalgrande Padana for the exterior facades. The ceramic tiles demonstrated that they can be perfectly integrated with architecture. We chose a splendid grey ceramic plank that looks a lot like Pietra Serena, the range of different sizes creating an elegant, unconventional appearance. The exterior paving also used the same non-slip porcelain to create a sense of visual continuity across the fully-glazed envelope.
We are also working on the architecture and interior design of Florim’s showroom in Foro Buonaparte in Milan, a structure with a floor space of almost 1,000 square metres. It will have numerous windows, each featuring a different vignette. It is due to open in spring 2015 during the Fuori Salone.

Has anything changed in the projects you are working on without Isozaki?
To be honest, not much has changed. I always contributed my own ideas to projects carried out with Isozaki, such as Bologna Centrale Station and Citylife. We created the concept together, but most of the work was done here in my studio. I have always tried to make my own contribution to projects. Isozaki isn’t at all authoritarian. We’ve always enjoyed a very open dialogue, a dialectic exchange of ideas. When I opened my own practice it wasn’t so much a parting of ways as just another step along a continuous road.

BiographyBorn in Modena in 1968, Andrea Maffei graduated in architecture from Florence University in 1994. After working in Italy at Massimo Carmassi’s studio in Pisa, in 1997 he moved to Tokyo to join the practice of Arata Isozaki. From 1999 to 2001 he worked as project leader for the Al Wabrah villa owned by Sheik Al-Thani in Doha, Qatar and then for the extension project for the Qatar history museum in Doha.
Maffei became Arata Isozaki’s associate and head of Italian projects, directing the design of the Turin ice hockey stadium. In 2005 he set up his own practice Andrea Maffei Architects srl in the heart of the Brera district in Milan. Maffei has won a number of Italian architecture competitions, including the new Bologna Centrale station (2008) and the new offices of the province of Bergamo (2009). He created the projects for the new Uffizi gallery exit (2007), the new Maranello Library (2009), opened in 2011, and the Imprima Buildings in Bergamo. He is currently working as a designer and partner on the projects for the new Bologna Centrale station and Citylife in Milan, which includes a 207-metre 50-storey tower. Alongside his professional practice, since 1997 he has also worked as a correspondent for the architecture magazine Casabella, where he has published a number of projects and articles on contemporary Japanese architecture. He is the author of “Toyo Ito, works, texts, writings”, published by Electa in 2001.