Architect Raffaella Bortoluzzi talks about her dream assignment and the most challenging aspect of her job
“I think I fell in love with New York because it was an island,” says Raffaella Bortoluzzi on the other end of the screen. The architect, who is a Principal at Labo Design Studio, spent her childhood and early adult years on another famous island (or rather, a group of 118 small islands) across the Atlantic Ocean. Although she left her native Venice after obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the University Institute of Architecture in Venice, she brought with her a sensitivity to the complexities and contradictions involved in urban space, a focus on the many characters a palimpsest city can receive, and an ability to craft An architectural language that highlights these idiosyncrasies.
Her intellectual style, attention to materials, and conscious adaptability have enchanted a range of high-profile clients including Maja Hoffmann, Muriel Brandolini, and fine jewelry brand Pomellato. These days, Bortoluzzi is renovating his gut in Tribeca, building two new homes east, and completing an artist-residency project on Pantelleria Island for David Totah. to culturedShe took the time to chat about where she goes for inspiration, what she’s learned about herself during her decades as an architect, and why building a hotel would be her dream job.
Intellectual: What did your upbringing in Venice teach you?
Raffaella Bortoluzzikisa: I learned a lot about the materials and the details. Handicrafts have always been incredibly important in Venice, not only in important palaces, but also on the street. You’ll see a corner of the building with a column in it and someone had this strange idea to put it there… The most remarkable moment in Venetian architecture was the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, when it was still republican. They were using terrazzo, a technique developed from the ancient Romans. In Venice all the palaces are made of wood, and because of the water you move a lot. Terrazzo helped absorb floor movement but was still smooth.
My biggest influence (in Venice) was Carlo Scarpa. Even if he wasn’t from Venice, it was in his soul because his architecture joined different worlds, like Venice. He knew a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright, and he loved Japanese architecture. If you look at some of his architectural projects and interiors, you will find that every corner quotes from these two different worlds. And that’s something I’ve always cared about. When I came to New York, it was clear that the historical context was not that important anymore. I was more liberated from a style, from some constraints. I’m starting to look more at flow, and how I can craft a volume in a more cultural way. It is about how the program can be framed so that the interior of the building is a stroll through different volumes. Every space should matter, so when you walk around you have one point of view, but then you look from the other side and add another point of view.
Intellectual: Who else has had an influence on you?
BortoluzziAt Columbia University, I met Loretta Vinciarelli. At the time, she had already worked with Donald Judd a lot at Marfa. Vinciarelli’s watercolors were really amazing to me; It’s all these layers of spaces and volumes and this transparency — the idea that from one volume, you can almost go to the next already with an idea of where it’s going. Sometimes my architecture is about being in one place, but I already have an idea of what’s going on left and right.
I also love the lesson of Zaha Hadid, who was one of the first architects to try to think of a different way of moving through space, where you don’t just need to walk straight up and up stairs, maybe space can curve. My education revolved around this new way of thinking which was less realistic and more open to different ways of navigating a place.
Intellectual: Where do you go to feel inspired in New York?
Bortoluzzi: Art galleries in Chelsea and Tribeca. When I need a break, it’s very important for me to go. Even if I don’t see anything of this importance, I know it will be in my mind, and somehow it will resonate in a different way.
Intellectual: Which recent favourite?
Bortoluzzi: I’ve seen a Gego show at the Guggenheim Museum. There was a great showing of Theaster Gates at the new museum last winter. I love his way of putting together and being so poetic. It shows how important it really is for artists, architects, and everyone else to borrow ideas and concepts from other disciplines. His work is similar to architecture in that architecture, to me, is a living being. It’s not something that has hard limits.
Intellectual: What do you want people to feel when they are in the spaces you design?
Bortoluzzi: It depends on the client. There are some clients who enjoy a bit more privacy, so you want to create a space where they feel very comfortable, almost in a cocoon. Some clients really like to collect a lot of things, so you have to create spaces that allow all of them to be displayed. There are other clients who want their interior to look very clean and organized. So I need to be very open minded and create spaces that allow for that kind of flexibility. I don’t know if I want them to feel something that’s just coming from me. I can help them with what they want to feel.
Intellectual: Is there an aspect of your work that still presents a challenge?
Bortoluzzi: The challenge is when you have to confront yourself with an existing building. I always try to create that passage between what’s there and what I’m adding, so you can see what’s new, but with a smooth transition. You need to understand the technology, philosophy, building system, and typology that inspired the current building. The challenge is getting that clarity that takes you from one place to another.
Intellectual: What is your favorite building in New York?
Bortoluzzi: The Seagram Building for sure, because my education comes from this kind of novelty. I love the Herzog & de Meuron building at 40 Bond Street. It’s a great interpretation of the curtain wall system, which I’ve always loved because New York is made of curtain walls. Perhaps Herzog and de Meuron were the first to do the undulation to create that undulating facade.
Intellectual: Is there a type of project that you haven’t worked on yet that might be interesting to you?
Bortoluzzi: I would like to build a really big hotel. I would like every bedroom to be different. Perhaps when you go and choose your bedroom, you can say what kind of person you are and that somehow helps realize your vision of a great vacation.
Intellectual: Where do you place the hotel?
Bortoluzzi: I like the desert, Arizona, California… somewhere isolated. In a hotel where people have to stay, you have to do the best.
Intellectual: What have you learned about yourself during your years as an architect?
BortoluzziI am very open to taking in different lessons—from my clients, from contractors, from just walking down the street, going to a gallery or museum. I am not static, and my architecture can show that. Each project must be different to respond to different things.
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(tags for translation) Raffaella Bortoluzzi New York Architect Venice Herzog & de Meuron Maja Hoffman Muriel Brandolini