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The role of synthesis: interview with Ottavio Di Blasi

Ottavio Di Blasi is an architect and one of Renzo Piano’s closest collaborators from 1980 to 1990, the year he decided to open his firm with Paolo Simonetti and Daniela Tortello. He’s been Tutor of G124, a group that works on urban suburbs. OTTAVIO DI BLASI & Partners is an architectural firm which started working in Milan in 1990. Their method is not based on specialization, but on the belief that the easiest design solution comes from the contamination between different kinds of knowledge and other sectors.

1 – “How will we live together?” is the question asked by Hashim Sarkis, curator of the Biennale di Venezia 2020. In your opinion, how much should the architects be heard in planning the future choices of a nation?

This question leads to another one, that is, what is the architect’s job, and there’s a lot of confusion lying behind this matter, both now and back in my times. The ones that were trying to get clients talking about architecture rather than design, where once called architects “da salotto”. So, if the society needs the opinion of an architect, it depends on what you consider the job of an architect. If an architect’s job is really to find solution synthetizing different issues, than yes, society needs his opinion. But if the architect is just a man whose job is to make more or less interesting the products he’s selling, than no, I don’t believe the nation needs our opinion. There could be a client coming in and asking to realize on paper his idea, his real estate initiative. But really, I am not just his professional, because an architect has a wider audience of customers that includes even the ones who are not paying for the project. And I think that this could be the added value that the architect could bring to the project.


© OTTAVIO DI BLASI & Partners, UPO – Campus of Università del Piemonte Orientale, photo by Beppe Raso, Novara, 2016.

2 – The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the inefficiency of some of the infrastructures, but has also underlined new opportunities and possibilities of change. The ODB & Partners firm has always kept in mind the importance of the urban space: how will it change in the next decades?

Firstly, I believe that the Covid-19, as all the pandemics, will disappear. I do not believe in a future made of individuals working locked in their apartments. It is certainly true that the virus brings changes with him; hard to say which ones will they be, but some can be fairly predictable. For example, the smart working and the fact that we learned to talk to other people using the internet without much effort it’s linked directly to the urbanization issue (the growth of large urban centers at the expenses of the small country ones that consequently become depopulated). The spread of high-connection lines could invert this phenomenon, and the economy of those places would benefit from it, avoiding the extinction. But it’s not even possible to imagine that the human relationships will happen only through a computer. I believe that the design of the offices could significantly change: in the corporations or in the work places, for example, there could be less individual offices and more areas realized to let people meet and exchange ideas. In a broader perspective, I think that the cities will also be like this: a place to share time with other people will be fundamental, and so the designing of these places. Here I believe the architect can help the society to find a richer way to be together. Another change that no one talks about, but it’s really interesting, is the one concerning the air conditioning systems. Almost every building is cooled or heated through recycled air that re-enters the rooms, and this could be very dangerous in the terms of transmitting the virus. This will open up a stream of investments and designs on how to change the old implants creating new economical opportunities. Other changes will concern the hospitals, to be prepared to face this type of emergencies, whether it’s a pandemic or a natural calamity.


© OTTAVIO DI BLASI & Partners, UPO – Campus of Università del Piemonte Orientale, photo by Beppe Raso, Novara, 2016.

3 – You have worked together with Renzo Piano to the realization of the implementation for the new Architectural campus of the Politecnico di Milano. How did you imagined the spaces for the students, and especially, which approach has been used for the university campus?

From the beginning, talking to Renzo Piano, it was clear that the crucial point for a good realization of the project was the relationship with the historical contemporary building designed by Gio Ponti and Viganó. Today the campus is a summation of different buildings, a cumulation of architectural volumes really close to each other. The answer we gave was to make room around the pre-existent buildings to make them more visible, giving them a greater importance; then we decided not to build another architectural object, but to work on the emptiness that surrounds them with the green (126 trees) and with a new architecture conceived as something to go in between these buildings, so as not to create competition between the new volumes and the old ones, finely designed. The new one is an architecture that takes a step back into the idea of “showing off ” and gives life to the old buildings and the green that surrounds them. Regarding the life of the students, the most important thing to do was to find some new spaces, because the existing ones were insufficient; the parterre we realized is a place to live, with benches, rest areas under the trees and workbenches: the old parking lot has become the new connective tissue of the campus. Concerning the Covid situation, even if the project was designed before the pandemic, I’m glad to say that the buildings we are realizing are safer than the historic ones, because we worked on realizing an air conditioning system that was different from the old ones based on fancoil and impossible to clean air canals. We have a mixed system, radiant and for external air intake, that allows the buildings to show everything and be an example of exposed architecture, hoping they will help the student’s training.


© OTTAVIO DI BLASI & Partners, Architecture Campus at Politecnico di Milano, Milan, 2018.

4 – Since 2015 you have been Tutor of the G124, a work group coordinated by the life senator Renzo Piano that works on the urban suburbs. Why do the suburbs represent the future of the cities and how could their “mending” start this evolution?

The reason is really simple, we already talked about the phenomenon of the urbanization and how it leads to an increase of the suburbs, residential fabric of the cities. We all come from the suburbs and just a few are born and raised in the centers of the cities, which are most likely to be used for the interchange and the institutional functions. It’s essential to rethink them, they are the new millennium challenge, and architecture can not run away from this theme. What we tried to say with the G124 group starts from a very simple observation: the problem of the suburbs is so big that no carpet intervention could ever solve it. What we need to do, aware of the shortage of resources, is being able to understand which are the sensitive points in every part of our cities and input in them a bit of change. The search for these sensible points it’s already a project. Here in Milan for example, we took care of the Giambellino neighborhood, a big historical neighborhood that accommodates 18000 people in public houses and wherein there are no shops, exception made for the local market. We visited it and we realized that the entrance wasn’t facing the neighborhood but the avenue Giambellino. The paths to the market were long, winding and sometimes interrupted by walls. Spotted the sensible point, it was only a matter of turning the entrance towards the pedestrians paths and the green: a very low cost intervention that represented a big change in the possibility of the citizens to use that service. It’s a reductive example but its purpose is this one: get as much as possible with little, as in homeopathy, where a small dose of active substance can trigger useful mechanism for the human body.


© OTTAVIO DI BLASI & Partners, Project for Università degli Studi di Padova.

5 – The ODB & Partners’ projects cover a lot of areas and in all these projects a recurrent element is the clean shapes, both in the architectural volumes and the scale of detail, even when you have to build on the preexisting; how do you explain this design attitude?

I would not address this matter talking about my own work, but I would rather talk about the job itself. We already said that an architect needs to have an integrating role, but this is just one aspect of this work; the other one is the builder, because the synthesis has to transform itself into something tangible, built. To be able to build is the body to the ideas that were developed during the synthesis process, there is no one without the other. I believe that one needs to have both ideas and body, you cannot have an image that is neither one nor the other. That being said, to have body, the architect has to have an ability to put together different materials, make them work with the details that make a building’s quality. Our job is difficult and you need to be able to hold this two components together, as the architect of the past did; what my buildings represent is the desire to control the body through the ideas behind it. One thing is certain though, you need to be curious. You should never settle for some cliches because you’re too afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Curiosity is the fundamental push, the one that allows you the things that matter in different topics and technologies; by contaminating this disciplines, you create a need for a different constructive detail; it’s the result of a knowing process that originates in the curiosity.


© OTTAVIO DI BLASI & Partners, Sesto San Giovanni railway station, Milan, 2018.

6 – When, how and why did you decide that Architecture would be the right path to follow?

I had just finished high school, and I had to pick what I wanted to do; I had a friend of mine working in the agrarian business and I remember feeling drawn to that field of study. But then, one time while I was walking around a bookstore, I found a beautiful book about soviet architecture, it was the 1968, so the social component was strongly felt. There, flipping through the pages I thought architecture held together the willing of socializing with working the land. It was a very instinctive choice.

7 – What is right now your definition of Architecture?

In my opinion, the work of the architect has to be a synthesis between all sorts of problems that he is presented with: financial, social, aesthetical, communicational etc… It’s hard to do this job because I believe the architect has to be a receptor of problems and he should be the one to create a coherent synthesis between them, as hard and uneven as they could be.


© OTTAVIO DI BLASI & Partners, Maritime station of the port of Messina, Messina, 2018.

8 – What advice would you give to future architects?

The advices that I feel like giving to architects are: be curious, don’t take anything for granted, ask yourself questions about what you see, study your predecessors and leave. Leave to open yourself to the rest of the world, even if Milan is beginning to become an important metropolis, leave to come back and bring with you what you learned.

Translated into English by Alessandra Biondi.

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Born in Verbania in 1998, he completed scientific studies at the I.T.I.S. Cobianchi who guarantee him a wider choice in terms of university faculties and possibilities. In 2017 he enrolled in the degree course in Architectural Design at the Politecnico di Milano, graduating with a thesis that investigates the concept of Great Beauty in Architecture, linked to the prehistoric, historical and cultural heritage of the Sassi di Matera archaeological complex. Currently enrolled in the Itinerant Master in “Museography, Architecture and Archeology”, he also attends the master’s degree course in Urban Design in which he mainly deals with the themes of Smart City Design, the enhancement of historical and cultural heritage and the design and application of systems technologies aimed at guaranteeing the constructability and sustainability of the project.
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