Third episode of Casa Vogue’s “ski season” in the mountains here and there around the world. After Gio Ponti and Carlo Mollino, today the protagonist is Joe Colombo, another great of the project. Casa Vogue chose to present the Milanese designer at a lesser known time, a bit like it was done for Mollino and Breuil, by going to discover the first examples of his activity, which have remained on paper. We are also in 2021, fifty years after the death of Colombo, which took place (we carry on) fulminating in July 1971. We are then sixty from the conception of these projects that Casa Vogue published in October 2002. And to close the pinwheel of dates , sixteen years after the great exhibition that the Vitra Museum and the Milan Triennale dedicated to him at the end of 2005. The dedicated volume / catalog is still on the market, it is worth looking for it for the completeness of the information and the beautiful graphics. You will also find other mountain projects there, such as the one for the renovation of the Hotel Stelvio, on the famous Alpine pass. Neither then nor later was it possible to publish it, but it deserves to be known for the hazard of the oblique and asymmetrical body which, as we read in the volume, “seemed to defy the laws of statics and imitate the structures of the surrounding rocky massif”. Here then is the future Joe; the prophet without teachers who in a few years has strongly marked the very idea of the project with his never seen way of seeing tomorrow, immediately giving it shape. The precious indications and suggestions of the architect Ignazia Favata (who had been Columbus’s assistant and took care of the studio and the heritage) helped to discover these “almost” beginnings. As Mollino, Columbus also loved and knew snow and its mountains which, if for the Turin architect it was Val D’Aosta, for him from Milan it was Madesimo, Valtellina, Stelvio. Not surprisingly, they were both ski instructors. (Paolo Lavezzari)
Joe Colombo on skis. Courtesy Ignazia Favata / Studio Joe Colombo, Milan.
From the Chronicles of Milan in 1961. The city admires, now completed, the new wonder: the ultra-modern and dynamic Pirelli Skyscraper which stands as a counterbalance to the gothic, controversial, indigestible Torre Velasca. The first Salone del Mobile opens, a bit as a wager and without too much fanfare, but with good public success: Italian design has (but still doesn’t know) a date to celebrate its birthday in the future. The gallery owner / collector Arturo Schwarz prepares a historic exhibition on Surrealism that had nourished so much and continued to solicit the inspiration of more than proposed painters. While a year has passed since Pierre Restany launched the manifesto of the “Nouveau Réalisme” at the Apollinaire gallery by Guido Le Noci, effectively marking a definitive break with the informal of the previous decade, now turned to a mannered gesture. Probably all these events will have looked with interest also by the young and talented artist (however no longer such, at least in the strict sense, given that his important pictorial experience ends in ’58) Cesare “Joe” (pronounced Gioe) Colombo. But at the turn of the decade, his main concern was finding clients for his first newly opened architecture studio. How? Simply throwing himself into things: the solution that Joe has always adopted in every choice, as documented by the extremely composite curriculum of this thirty-year-old Milanese young man: scientific high school, then the Brera Academy, the Polytechnic. Meanwhile, painting and exhibitions with friends Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo with whom he gives life to Nuclear Movement; then the jazz loved and played in the Milanese “quarries”, as well as a short, difficult experience at the helm of his father’s company.
Colombo has already chewed a lot of architecture during his pictorial adventure, sketching out perspectives of futuristic cities, and creating in 1954 a series of public newsstands for viewing the first TV broadcasts. He has already followed construction sites, but not yet really important: of course, a building in Porta Venezia, but above all renovations of apartments of friends, acquaintances, a little everywhere, especially houses in the mountains. For example in Madesimo, where his family has a home and where he also regularly tries his hand as a ski instructor; and in Valtellina, at the Stelvio, in Cervinia: in short, in the winter destinations that have always been preferred by the Milanese bourgeoisie, that milieu that Colombo frequents, where he has friends to whom he proposes new interiors, furniture, lights he invents. On the one hand, his extraordinary ability to relate, to convince and self-convince, helps him, on the other hand he is able to see the project without second thoughts – at most, variations of the initial idea – which he transfers to paper with a sure, continuous line. “He unscrewed the cap of his pen,” wrote Dangelo, “and the brand new project was already there, complete with measurements and corrections.”
Impulsive, enthusiastic, Colombo manages to draw all the projects and transparencies in one night to explain his ideas to a possible customer met the night before in detail the next morning. To those who look at the young Colombo when he thinks about architecture, imagines environments, finds solutions, often – in those years – still not “finished” but full of future ideas, as shown by the photos he himself took, today the only document of realizations disappeared? In his writings, Columbus makes no motto of “fathers” or influences of any kind; indeed, in a famous interview he declared: «My family was a normal family, an Italian, Milanese family; I was a normal boy, my game was Meccano. Nothing in my environment pushed me in one direction or the other. ‘ Nor should he have drawn many stimuli from the academic environment of that time, considering the inaction in which the faculty of architecture was, with the exception of Ponti who later praised him a lot, with at most Nathan Rogers (BBPR) confined to a corner. In this absence of models, one immediately understands his refusal for the international style, for a rationalism that has now become formalist. In reality it seems to be the pictorial experience that left the greatest signs in him, very clear in the refusal for the straight line in favor of organic forms that he takes up from the abstract surrealists, especially Matta and Tanguy. Disappeared, indeed completely forgotten, remained for years at the bottom of a drawer and re-emerged from oblivion only after the disappearance of Colombo and the arrangement of his archive, the projects in these pages well represent the ideas that the designer had at that time. the transition to full maturity.
Joe Colombo, project of the Confortola ski refuge, Passo dello Stelvio, perspective drawing of the south facade. Courtesy Ignazia Favata / Studio Joe Colombo, Milan.
In the one for the Confortola allo Stelvio refuge (1961), Colombo seems to reflect on the diamond cut that Gio Ponti he adopted in those years, mediating Wright’s use of certain geometric shapes. But giving up building an anonymous parallelepiped, as mountain huts usually are, Columbus does lay the structure on the irregularities of the ground with the sloping roofs that reflect those typical of the huts. The only vertical element is the grouping of the chimneys at the top of the building, articulated in a game of cylinders that almost creates a pivot on which the whole complex rotates. In addition to a renovation study of the Hotel Stelvio, also dated 1961, October, is the vast project for the large residential complex called Casa Pasi, in Barni, Como. Nothing is known about the client; in all likelihood Columbus had conceived the project trying to convince the owner of the land to build it, on the wave of the holiday home boom that in those years changed the landscape of seas and mountains of Italy. The environment, the nature of the place (the beloved mountain) still guide the choices of Colombo who, to exploit the scarcity of building space, designs a high building, only apparently related to the many despicable condominiums-beehives-dormitories from the end week, which make the Milanese Alps ugly. Here Colombo works on two apparently opposite levels: on the one hand he emphasizes the verticality of the walls with the extraordinary play of the external flues, on the other he dampens it, breaking every straight line, dividing them.
Joe Colombo, project of the Pasi residential complex, Barni, perspective drawing of the southwest facade. Courtesy Ignazia Favata / Studio Joe Colombo, Milan.
Meanwhile, the horizontal elements, such as theunprecedented solution of the independent bridge entrances and the balconies that fit into the recess of the building become a rhythmic ascending scan. Once again the project, albeit in principle, is absolutely complete in every detail, from the layout of the apartments, to the large spaces for the completely open garage, without pillars, to the roof with delicate sloping. In the rigor of architecture, Columbus does not seem to want to give up a pictorial element, however, consisting of the spaced mosaic that various openings, slits with small windows compose between the flues. The game of inspirations refers to Le Corbusier, Ronchamp, but also to the painting of the Mac (Concrete Art Movement), to which Colombo was very close and in which, it is no coincidence thinking about the future results in the design of ours, they also militated Bruno Munari ed Ettore Sottsass. While the mountain projects remained on paper, Colombo conquered his first important construction site in 1962 by the sea, in Sardinia, a large hotel that was immediately a success. In the same year he created the “Acrilica” light for OLuce, making use of his constant search for new materials. It is the beginning of his brief, intense adventure in design, at times visionary, often prophetic, at the center of which is always man.
Courtesy Ignazia Favata / Studio Joe Colombo, Milan.