The aura of Gae Aulenti, one of Italy’s most celebrated post-war architects and certainly its first female big-gun, continues to glow assuredly in the 21st century. A new exhibition at Turin’s Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli examines both the life and extraordinarily rich career of the Udine-born architect, industrial designer and set designer, including 700 of her designs spanning from 1953 until her death in Milan in 2012.
Entitled 'Homage to Gae Aulenti', the exhibition’s organisers all share deep connections to the architect. The show is curated by Nina Artioli, Aulenti’s granddaughter, who also runs her archive. Ginevra Elkann, president of the Pinacoteca, is the granddaughter of Giovanni and Marella Agnelli, who were great patrons of Aulenti.
'I had the privilege of knowing Gae Aulenti personally and I was very close to her,' says Elkann. 'The show at the Pinacoteca is a tribute not only to the architect but also to the woman, to her passion and her vision. She shared a friendship with my grandparents, especially my grandmother, with whom she worked on many projects.'
The work done with the Agnellis reflected Aulenti’s great range as an architect of private homes, public cultural institutions and even city planning. Donna Marella commissioned Aulenti for several projects, including a school for the town of Villar Perosa, the restoration of Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, which the architect turned into a museum, and the Agnelli’s family apartment in Milan in 1969.
'I admired her and loved talking to her,' Elkann recalls. 'She was an extraordinary woman, a source of inspiration and knowledge, driven by her open mind, independence and great strength, that made her the lady of architecture in Italy. Well ahead of her time, she began working as an architect straight after the Second World War, a time when it was very difficult to emerge as a woman in her profession.'
Indeed, Aulenti was a powerful female force who trailblazed through the male-dominated industry decades before anyone had ever heard of Zaha Hadid. Designed by Marco Palmieri, the show features a sweeping account of her work, much of which earned her international accolades, from grand architecture – including Tokyo’s Cancelleria dell’Ambasciata Italiana, Paris’ Musée d’Orsay and Milan’s Piazzale Cadorna redevelopment – to set designs for Luca Ronconi’s theatrical production, to private homes such as the ‘Collector’s House’ in Milan, and iconic designs such as lamps for Martinelli Luce, or for exhibitions like 'Italy: The New Domestic Landscape' at the MoMA in New York.