Gae Aulenti, the preeminent Italian architect whose art-infused take on postmodernism elevated such projects as the Musée d'Orsay and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco to works of true resonance, died on October 31st, following a long illness. Aulenti, who lived in Milan, was 84 years old.
Aulenti was arguably the only internationally-recognized female practitioner in the first wave of starchitects, winning commissions in the 1980s alongside the likes of Aldo Rossi, Michael Graves, I.M. Pei, and Robert Venturi. And while she shared postmodernist interests in reconnecting present day technologies with the multivalent richness of the past, she rejected labels. "It's not possible to define a style in my work,'' she told the New York Times in 1987. ''If you're designing an airport, then airplanes are important. It's no more complicated designing a museum. I prefer museums for my own personal passion—the art."
Born in Palazzolo dello Stella near Trieste, Aulenti defied her parents’ wish for her to pursue the traditional marriage course and fled to Milan where she earned her architecture degree at the Milan Polytechnic School of Architecture in 1951. Then as now, architecture degrees provided a wider latitude of employment and Aulenti's first post-university job was creative director of Casabella magazine, a leading voice of avant garde modernism in the Sixties. Aulenti joined a powerful milieu of thinkers in Milan that included Aldo Rossi, furniture designer Mario Bellini, and writer Umberto Eco.
Like Charlotte Perriand, Aulenti applied her interests in architecture first to furniture design, creating one of the seminal pieces of the Eighties, the Tavolo con Ruote, notable for its imaginative marriage of tough and fragile, craft and industry, float glass and factory wheels. The Tavolo made for Fontana Arte is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Unlike Perriand, however, whose talents were long obscured by the brilliant shadow of Le Corbusier, Aulenti never attached herself to a male collaborator, working with a small staff out of a home office on the Piazza San Marco in Milan for such leading furniture companies as Knoll, Kartell, and the lighting manufacturer Artemide.
Early on, Aulenti renovated Fiat's Palazzo Grassi in Venice into an art museum, winning the lifelong friendship and patronage of Fiat's chairman Giovanni Agnelli (she designed a ski lodge for him in St. Moritz). Other projects included showrooms not only for Fiat but also for Knoll and Olivetti and the Palacio Nacional de Montjuic in Barcelona, a museum of Catalan art. Adding landscape to her portfolio, she adapted an 18th-century garden for Emilio Pucci in the Tuscan hills outside Florence. In 2003, she completed the adaptive reuse of the old main library into the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Aulenti, married twice, first to architect Franco Buzzi and then to Carlo Ripa di Meana, a former cultural affairs commissioner for the European Community, is survived by one daughter, Giovanna Buzzi, a costume designer living in Rome, and a granddaughter. Even now, Aulenti remains a controversial figure, her name sometimes barely mentioned in collections focused either on modernism or on postmodernism. Her scope was too large and her aesthetic too independent for easy categorization. Meanwhile, the Musée d'Orsay, critiqued sharply in its own day as a pastiche, has earned a revered place on the Left Bank and is now one of the most visited sights in Paris attracting more than three million visitors a year.
Julie Iovine writes a monthly architecture column for the Wall Street Journal.