Fuksas Movement

Massimiliano Fuksas has faced his share of controversy and rejection, but these days he is one of Italy's most sought-after architects. Meet Italy's anti-establishment man and his imagination-defying buildings.

Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas may be a busy man, but he's also a terribly jovial one. As he recites the long list of where he has been in the last few days, and who he has met, the smile never leaves his face. “My life is impossible, I have no possibility to work,” he concludes, somewhat flamboyantly. He says he can't wait to get away from it all for a couple of days and head to his house on the southern Italian island of Pantelleria. We are in the architect's Rome office, located over several floors of an airy Renaissance palazzo in the heart of the Centro Storico. Fuksas wears his usual attire: a dark sweater and jacket; his manner is informal and approachable.

He admits that he has always felt like a bit of an outsider and played by his own rules, and identifies with the Roman Renaissance architect Francesco Borromini, who was “a little bit out of the power. He was not like [Gianlorenzo] Bernini, who was the inside man.” Fuksas too worked in total anonymity and isolation for a long time. “I was not published at all for 12 years,” he says, almost proudly. “In Italy, people, academics, were against me.”

He did not feel frustrated, though, because “I worked to get paid, I was completely free.” Fuksas clearly relishes his freedom; he opened his own studio two years before graduating, at the age of 23. When I ask how one starts to work professionally so young, especially in a place like Italy where architects often study and specialize until their early 30s, he replies simply: “With some friends, we rented a space and we stayed there.”

His first construction was a cement sports centre in Sassocorvaro in central Italy. It was 1970 when construction started and he was only 26. “It was a Brutalist piece, but it's interesting because now the Brutalism of the 1970s is very much in fashion,” he says. From this point on, whenever and wherever he could, Fuksas made buildings. He says he rejected the beliefs held by some of his Italian colleagues, who limited themselves to drawings and sketches on paper, concluding that building was impossible because “the world was too ugly” and “architecture can only reflect the spirit of an age”. Fuksas, on the other hand, “spent a lot of time showing that it was possible to build”.

Of course, Fuksas is no longer an outsider, or an unknown. With offices in Rome, Paris and Frankfurt, and as the architect behind the Milan Trade Fair (2005), the head office for the new Ferrari research centre in Maranello (2003), the International Trade Centre in Pudong, Shangai (early 1990s), the Piaggio History Museum near Florence (expected completion 2007), the spectacular cloud-like Congress Centre in Rome (expected completion 2009) and numerous other projects in Germany, Holland, France, Austria and Switzerland, he is now one of the world's most exciting and sought-after architects. He has been most active in France, where he has built over 40 buildings.

In 2000 he was appointed Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française (Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic). The downside is, he says: “Now that I am a little more well known, I have no time.”

Fuksas the architect is known for his poetic approach to building, and Fuksas the man for his passionate and intense nature. He always begins with a picture, the models are born out of that. Yet this technique does not mean that details or methodology are undervalued; in fact, Fuksas is increasingly known for creating structures that defy imagination but require incredible precision and advanced technology to come to life. One such example is the Congress Centre in Rome. The idea for the project came to him in a highly charged moment at the seaside. “A group of clouds was being blown across the sky by a strong wind. As I looked at them, I remembered a dream I had had, which involved constructing a building that had no crystallised form at all,” he has said. Now he adds that he won the competition “probably because I wanted to win. I had an idea, I saw this cloud, I saw it by night. I said, ‘I have to do a project with a glass box with a cloud inside'.”

The building will indeed resemble a large translucent glass box, about 30 metres in height. Suspended inside it will be a 3,500-square-metre steel ‘cloud', capable of holding a 10,000-seat auditorium as well as meeting rooms. Underneath, another 9,000 square metres of space will be used for temporary exhibitions, conferences and eating facilities. When the building is completed (it is scheduled for 2009) it will have something otherworldly about it, especially when lit up at night. Fuksas is quick to point out that the cloud is not really suspended, and will actually rest on three elements and be braced, underlining once again that the highly emotional and visceral quality of his work relies on sophisticated technical know-how and careful study.

The project has been hampered by a confusing system of financing that has only now – six years down the line – been resolved. Construction will begin at the end of 2006, and he is clearly both relieved and excited. “The system was not the right system,” he says. “That's typical of Italians. We have to do things twice! I don't know why.” Fuksas is generally known for making things happen in short timeframes and to budget. The gigantic new Milan Trade Fair was built in just 26 months, an achievement the architect is clearly proud of. “It is 1,500 metres long,” he says. “It is like a town. You have facilities, restaurants, cafes ... it is very simple and very strong.” Fuksas attended the building's second inauguration earlier this year, but pointedly avoided the official opening in 2005, which then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi attended. “There were big polemics in the newspapers,” he sighs. “This is my life, it is always the same.”

Fuksas is no stranger to controversy in his home country. When he directed the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000, an event he rather pompously titled ‘Less Aesthetics, More Ethics', he was criticised for appointing the direction of many sections to his wife, and for installing a video wall that was half a kilometre long and overwhelmed all the other exhibits. Yet Fuksas believes the real reason he was not asked to come back for a customary second term was because his inauguration speech openly denounced the Biennale bureaucrats whom he claimed had tried to thwart him at every turn.

The speech was consistent with his stance on challenging the status quo. When I ask him about the title of the Biennale, he says that he wanted to place more importance on the concept of ethics, not “threaten” aesthetics. “Architecture is not a discipline that is out of this world, it is a part of our community,” he explains. “And architects have some responsibilities. We have to make fantastic, beautiful buildings, creative buildings, but we also have to deal with the concept of democracy. It's more than just aesthetics and architecture.” Does he mean buildings must take people's needs into account and involve them in their conception? He nods and adds: “Democracy is not only about having a polling system.”

Before Fuksas heads off to a meeting with a Nigerian delegation from the Mandela Foundation, I ask him which buildings in the world he most admires. “The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul,” he says, without a moment's hesitation. “It is the best building ever built.” His second choice is the Sydney Opera House. “I think they are both landmark buildings. They have the same geography, power and landscape.” And they also transmit emotion, I suggest. “Oh, very big emotions!” he agrees, his eyes lighting up.

Appeared in in Pol Oxygen, November 2006