Studio Binocle brings a 1930s Piero Portaluppi apartment to life for Massimo De Carlo

Studio Binocle brings a 1930s Piero Portaluppi apartment to life for Massimo De Carlo

Likely to be a major draw at this year’s Salone del Mobile is art dealer Massimo De Carlo’s eponymous new gallery and Milan headquarters. It’s his third gallery space to open in the city and yet 5000 people flocked through the doors on the opening weekend. They came not just for the inaugural exhibition, MCMXXXIV curated by De Carlo and Francesco Bonami and billed as a ‘parallel vision of history, fusing elements of historicism with modernity’, but for the space itself – which architecturally achieves the same thing.

The new eight-room gallery is housed in Casa Corbellini-Wassermann, a 1930s Piero Portaluppi gem with opulent marble interiors. It was built during the same period as his famous Milanese landmark Villa Necchi Campiglio, but unlike its much-visited grander sibling, this Portaluppi creation lay empty for 15 years before De Carlo snapped it up.

Constructed between 1934-36 for the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Mr Wassermann, the property was designed as an apartment block, incorporating the middle-class owner’s two-storey family residence with rental condominiums above. Wassermann died before completion, passing it to his daughter who married Mr Corbellini, a prominent engineer. It stayed in the family until the 1990s, then became the offices of a bank, only to be abandoned in 2001.

Exterior of Massimo De Carlo Milan

‘This is the first time the public have been able to enter this historical apartment, hence the interest,’ explains Lorenzo Bini, of Milan-based Studio Binocle who led the three-year restoration project with architect Antonio Citterio acting as a fellow consultant. 

‘Portaluppi was one of these architectural figures who sat between the classical and the modern,’ says Bini. ‘If you think that Villa Savoye was 1929, this building is not strictly modern, but judging by the large windows of the first and second floor, it was definitely consciously moving towards modernism.’ 

The main challenge was, ‘adapting the space to create the infrastructure required for a contemporary art gallery in a listed historical building,’ says Bini, who is particularly pleased with the gallery’s minimal lighting system of ‘glowing beams’ custom-designed with Metis Lighting.

Studio Binocle worked with the city authorities to ensure the renovation didn’t compromise the original character of the property, which as the facade suggests is flamboyantly Portaluppi. The first two ‘piano noble’ storeys are clad in a distinctive patchwork of pink and grey Ornavasso marble, signalling the owner’s private residence, as opposed to the upper rental floors that are simply rendered. The 600 sq m upper level now accommodates the gallery, while the 400 sq m basement contains the systems required to service it, plus a library, kitchen and offices.

Interior corridor of the apartment

Blessed with generous proportions, the major spaces of the apartment, such as dining salon, lounge, and master bedroom translated well into exhibition spaces. However, Binocle also managed to transform smaller incidental areas by subtly disrupting the ‘strict, rational and modern’ spatial organisation of the apartment.

‘The large hallway with the striped marble floor is a special device that divided the noble part of the house from the servants’ quarters, kitchen and English tutor’s room at the rear,’ explains Bini. By creating an opening in this hallway connecting these areas, exhibition space was increased, while also revealing the architectural narrative of the property. The room with an unrestored blue glass mosaic floor demonstrates the simplicity of the service areas as opposed to the family’s more ornate living spaces.

Rich in ornamentation, the interior is a refreshing alternative to the typical white cube, and follows in the footsteps of De Carlo’s Belgioioso gallery, which is housed in a neoclassical palazzo. Studio Binocle took care to clean and repair the original tempera painting in the hallway, and although other walls are not true to the earthier originals (they opted to extend the ivory of the ceilings), Portaluppi’s extravagant use of mixed marble has been left spectacularly intact.

Most incredible are the owner’s former bathrooms; Mrs Wassermann’s in pink Ornavasso marble and Mr Corbellini’s in an extraordinary turquoise Verde Challant (or Malachite di Challant) marble from a now defunct quarry in Valle d’Aosta – this same marble also lines the entrance of the Fondazione Piero Portaluppi.

Bathroom

The piece de resistance is the external spiral staircase. ‘It’s one of the most iconic elements of the entire house,’ says Bini of the winding concrete and marble structure that was designed by Portaluppi with BBPR for the ‘Casa del sabato per gli sposi’ (which loosely translates as ‘the wedding chamber’) pavilion for the 1933 Milan Triennale. ‘It was created without a balustrade in a glass cylinder and was extremely modern. Portaluppi reinvented it here to allow the family on the first floor direct access to the garden below.’ Studio Binocle mirrored this feature inside the gallery, by replacing an internal staircase from the 1980s with a spiral version of similar proportions. Clad in green linoleum rather than marble, it provides staff access between the gallery and offices below.

It seems a tragedy that this interior lay hidden from public view for so long, but Bini believes it probably saved it. ‘If Casa Corbellini-Wassermann had fallen into the wrong hands it could have been lost forever,’ he says. ‘It was only finally listed in 2004 as people started to recognise the worth of modern architecture and our recent heritage.’ §

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