Obituary: Gae Aulenti

One of the few Italian women to achieve fame in architecture, not least for turning a train station into the Musée d’Orsay


Gae Aulenti’s long career says a lot about the nature of post-war architecture in Italy, about the status of women in design and about the recent history of museums. Gaetana Aulenti was born near Udine on 4 December 1927 and died on 1 November, aged 84. She trained as an architect at the Polytechnic of Milan, but like a number of other Italian architects who started to work in the 1950s, from Vico Magistretti to Mario Bellini, she was more convincing as a designer of furniture, interiors and domestic objects than as an architect. Like her peers, she was driven by the determination to build, perhaps because in Italy there is more prestige in being a well-respected architect than a well-respected designer, no matter how successful.

After she graduated, the impeccably elegant, socially well-connected Aulenti worked at Casabella, the architecture magazine edited by Ernesto Rogers. She designed showrooms for Fiat and Olivetti, and lamps and furniture, of which the most notable example was “Table with Wheels”, a slab of plate glass with a readymade caster at each corner. It was the perfect distillation of Aulenti’s aesthetic sensibility. She was fascinated by the tension between the mechanical and the immaterial.

The key work of the early part of her career was a small apartment for the Agnelli family in Milan, completed in 1969 and characterised by sensuous high-gloss finishes, in particular stainless steel and chrome, with ambiguous surface effects. It was intended to show off the Agnelli art collection, which involved the giddying spectacle of François-Xavier Lalanne’s lifesize flock of sheep grazing in the lobby and a bronze by Magritte in the bathroom, along with a Bacon, a Lichtenstein and a Warhol fitted into a space that was the polar opposite of a white cube gallery. She made the art blend into her architecture and the furniture that she designed for the apartment to form a single entity. The apartment was modest in scale, but within it were elements of almost her entire repertoire for all that was to come. It looked impressive, though was perhaps not the most cerebral setting for looking at great works of art.

As a domestic interior it was memorable, but it was a problematic point of departure for developing an approach to the design of museums of art. Her museums all bore traces of what she had done in the apartment, as did her public projects: the remodelling of Milan’s suburban railway terminal at the Piazza Cadorna, with its Claes Oldenburg needle and thread, and the interiors of Perugia’s airport.

All four of the museums that she completed involved Aulenti working within a powerful architectural context designed by another architect. At the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, it was the railway station originally built by Victor Laloux. In the Centre Pompidou, to the continuing frustration of the original architects, Piano and Rogers, she remodelled the Musée National d’Art Moderne with little interest in its high-tech context. In San Francisco, she turned what had been the Beaux-Arts city library into a museum of Asian art, confronting lush Classicism with her jagged insertions. In Barcelona, Aulenti made the Palau Nacional, built in 1929, into the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. In Venice, working once again for the Agnelli family, it was Giorgio Massari’s 1748 Palazzo Grassi that became an exhibition space owned by Fiat—subsequently remodelled once more by Tadao Ando when François Pinault bought it.

Aulenti found that her career was defined by working with historic buildings, yet she showed little inclination to adapt her architectural vocabulary to address the context. In every case, her approach was dissonance rather than harmonisation. She had a way of confronting stone and iron with polished plaster and bronze. She was interested in monumental geometry rather than subtlety.

Aulenti began her career at a time when women were not encouraged to make a career in architecture. Through force of personality, she demonstrated that she was an architect who happened to be a woman, rather than a woman architect. She was certainly an adept politician. The commission to turn the Gare d’Orsay into a museum of 19th-century culture wasn’t meant to be Aulenti’s. Colboc, Bardon and Philippon won the architectural competition in 1979, and the curatorial team asked Aulenti to offer some advice on the interior. Three years later, with François Mitterrand, the recently installed president, taking a close interest, Aulenti had managed to sideline them altogether. She got to do all the public spaces, the galleries that the public see; and Colboc, Bardon and Philippon were restricted to the basements, the offices and the auditorium. It became her project.

The Musée d’Orsay was a surreal idea. Where could be less appropriate a place to show the glorious Impressionist collections that had once hung in the Jeu de Paume across the river? They were reduced, as one horrified curator put it, to the scale of postage stamps, in the midst of what looked like a Pharaonic tomb for the French presidents.

Aulenti helped to define a particular moment in the architecture of the 20th century. She offered a monumental and sensuous alternative to the restraint of Modernism. And in the way that she put it to work, she demonstrated its strengths, and its weaknesses.