Inside the whale. Alfonso Femia, in an exclusive interview, tells us about his home-studio in Genoa, in an elegant old building with a garden, which becomes the compass of his voyage through cities and works of architecture, time and spaces, gazes and thresholds, materials and light

For 18 years of his 25-year career, Alfonso Femia, an architect of international renown based in Genoa, Paris and Milan, has put down roots the first of those cities, on Via Interiano, in an extension of the historic Palazzo Interiano Pallavicini built by the architect from Ticino Francesco Casella in 1565-67. Here we find the ‘pilot’ studio of Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia (AF517), one of the most stimulating laboratories of design and thinking.

An almost seamless arrangement, with spaces that act as enveloping passages, the kitchen and the garden, a guesthouse for friends and visitors, and two living areas facing the two piazzas of Fontane Marose and Portello, is the site of his own home, a more private island shared with just a few, the family and the books of the library.

Beyond the typical narrative of a place that is marvelous in its own right – one of the 42 palaces registered in the “Rolli di Genova” and listed as UNESCO World Heritage – close to Via Garibaldi and the map of its museums, we were intrigued by the idea of talking with Alfonso Femia about the city and architecture as forms of representation and interpretation of contemporary complexity. He agreed, and the following story is based on his answers to our questions.

Alfonso Femia
Alfonso Femia developed a “research around matter” which leads him to collaborate in design projects with international companies. With AF*design, he deepens the themes related to ceramics, light, wood, glass, cardboard and biodynamic cement. The three-dimensional design of ceramics and its application to architecture led him to create products that characterize the recent residential projects in Paris, Brescia, and the new BNL-BNP Paribas headquarters in Rome. Together with the artist Danilo Trogu and his magical poetry, Alfonso Femia develops a “Mediterranean Bestiary” in ceramics, which animate the Marseilles Docks, the Great Railways Workshops in Turin and the Asnières-sur-Seine housing around Paris. AF*design is a project research and development team around the subject. Alfonso Femia, Simonetta Cenci, Enrico Martino, Fabio Marchiori, Alessandro Bellus, Luca Bonsignorio, Marco Corazza, Sara Gottardo, Carlo Occhipinti, Carola Picasso.

Dear Alfonso, let’s talk about places. You listen to places and talk about chronotopy, sounds, vibrations, frequencies...

We are the time and spaces we inhabit, cross and return to.

What does Genoa represent for you? A city of mountains and water, another major theme of your research: has it been a way of getting back to basics?

Genoa represents the idea I love about cities, a continuum between territory, landscape, architecture, material and intimacy, where the boundary between private and collective translates into minimum or major thresholds that can be glimpsed, at times, in the stone with which the city has been conceived and constructed. As it if had been sculpted, salvaged from a dense volume of emotions. It is water and earth, sky and sea, wind and horizon. It is much more than a single city. It is the place from which I have chosen to move out into the world, and to which I return each time. It accompanies me, silently, introverted, but it is always inside me, in every day of my time.

Is there something you simply could not do without?

I cannot do without its capacity to invent scenarios and to reinvent itself, outside of any rules, codes, statements, dogmas, languages. It is real, uncomfortably honest at times. Genoa is a city that is not afraid to make mistakes. It has the courage to look its present in the eye, even when it knows it is fragile and weak with respect to its past. You have to live up to Genoa. It is not always easy, it’s a constant challenge the city silently faces you with, even as it welcomes you. A great, continuous lesson from which you cannot escape.

Speaking of lessons, what is related to the city in this home-studio? From the windows you have views of the garden of Palazzo Lomellino and Palazzo Rosso, restored and converted as a museum by a great master like Franco Albini

Everything is related. Starting with the genesis. Simonetta, my partner and wife, chose this place among many others, with incredible sensitivity. It is a space of synthesis, the essence of the city, of its way of being territory and settlement at the same time. In a few hundred meters it is an ongoing surprise, invention, wonder. Unexpected and simple, in the end, like Genoa, even in its unstated magnificence. As for Franco Albini, he’s an interesting neighbor to watch. Over time, I feel an affinity with his projects made of material, urban landscapes, an introverted dimension, stratifications. There is a silent way of operating in his work, made of constant dialogue and observation; it is not superimposed, but seeks a conversation in continuity between different times.

What did this historic building have to say when you first met it?

It said it would be our guide, if we knew how to listen and look. That it would care for us, demanding a lot without offering much, urging us to seek beauty through reality. And that it would always remind us that you have to have vision, to dream but also to act responsibly.

Where did you live before this?

In a fine apartment on Via Assarotti, not so far from here, though it is a completely different context. After seven years there we needed more space, and also a place that would have a soul, an identity we could feel was ours. I remember the thrill of opening the door, enchanted by a magic few places are able to convey. I had no doubts – our future had to happen in this space, in an awareness of mutual belonging. From that moment on everything began to fall into place and to make sense.

One creates, one constructs, one lives step by step. Each moment, each experience or encounter bears witness to another time, another moment, experience or encounter. The most important ones stay with you forever."

What have you brought with you from the previous house?

I brought dreams, and I left nothing behind. I believe in the idea of the future as the sum of presents, in keeping with the vision of Saint Augustine. One creates, one constructs, one lives step by step. Each moment, each experience or encounter bears witness to another time, another moment, experience or encounter. The most important ones stay with you forever.

Today what does this place mean to you, where you have brought together studio and dwelling, life and work, affects, public and private?

It represents me, my beliefs, my ties and references, addressed through my work. Genoa and my studio are the heart and the motor, the energy, indicating routes of expansion or, more precisely, where to aim the gaze, and what rhythm to give to the various moments. Thirteen years of Paris and ‘my’ Mediterranean have made me understand, even more, that during every voyage I unconsciously carry Genoa with me, with its contradictions, unexpected pauses and changes of pitch. Genoa is the world’s most contemporary city, in a unique context between the Apennines and the sea, in eternally precarious balance but with a solid soul and body, as an anchor and a refuge. Here I can always find the strength to transgress, to doubt, to ask questions rather than seeking reassurance. There is a forceful, brutal, intense, intimate idea of beauty. Light, shadow, color, material, nature, infrastructure, noise and silence: it is all one, and man plays a fundamental role in the narration of these infinite spaces, and the way they are perceived. This place represents the traveling companions who are with me today, as they have been in the past and will be in the future. Those who work with me have to come to Genoa, even for a short while, to ‘feel and understand the whale.’

Yes, the Whale, your studio’s symbol. Why is that?

It is an image of light, sea and sky, the metaphor of permanent pursuit of depth and expansion. It is the idea of time, rhythm and apparent contrast that we often insert in our projects. Years ago, Danilo Trogu, an artist who works with ceramics, interpreted these reflections, when I asked him to make a piece like the tail of a whale for a temporary project in Switzerland. It is here, in the garden in Genoa, the symbolic transposition of my gaze and of the idea of time. It is a presence you always carry when you go elsewhere. The Whale is born and takes on a form in recent years from a human relationship as well, more than professional affairs, that connects me with Gianluigi Pescolderung, a great interpreter of communication design. Together we created a beautiful evening in Venice, at sundown, when the water and the sky merge, and the buzz of people settles in the glimmering of the lagoon. You cannot fully understand our way of seeing, thinking and making architecture if you do not pass through these rooms, if you do not meet these places and the city of Genoa. It is a continuous sequence of urban perceptions and landscape, collective yet intimate. It is poetry, cinema, theater, music. It is what architecture in unison with life means to me.

I wanted to make the atelier becomes a device of perception and emotion of reality, a form of reciprocal generosity between spaces and ourselves."

If you think about Genoa and the Whale, does a book come to mind (besides Moby Dick by Herman Melville, 1851), or a particular film you feel has aptly interpreted the city and its territory?

It’s hard to say, because for me Genoa is too much to try to close up in a single literary or cinema reference: it is many parts of various films, many gazes of many photographers. I find it in many passages in writings, even when they are not talking about Genoa. It is a protagonist, an antagonist, an instigator, an enemy, an invisible helper that crosses various representations because it narrates a state of mind that changes over time, grasping the present of man.

How has the city changed with respect to the period of your arrival here?

It has changed a lot. From gray, it has taken on many colors. From closed and repelling, it has started to make itself likeable, and to be liked. Not always, without a routine: it is like a true couple relationship, with continual arguments and discussions. I will be able to become a marvelous city when it regenerates its bond with the sea, with its coast, in a unique way. I believe and always will believe in the expressive power and potential of Genoa.

A declaration of love. Getting back to this building, can you explain how you approached the recovery of the architecture and the spaces?

By staging the space itself, its soul, its being, perceiving inside and outside, without changing the nature, the identity of time, the stratification, without intervening to make what might seem decadent or worn-out into something unreal. As we often do in our projects, I wanted to make the atelier becomes a device of perception and emotion of reality, a form of reciprocal generosity between spaces and ourselves.

What materic-chromatic palette did you use, and why? Did you do everything yourself, or with Simonetta?

Simonetta and I love sequences, rhythms as in music, acting through counterpoint. The colors and materials in the atelier, the white and the staging of all the openings towards the city and its hues, which enter the house. We have ‘constructed’ the spaces without worrying about organizing everything immediately, and only today, years later, does the studio have a true relationship of sedimentation with time.

What are the elements of the narrative you feel are most significant in this setting?

The windows, the lights, the seamless, almost filmic dimension of the spaces, from the house to the atelier to the garden, in a continuous loop with blurred boundaries. You cannot grasp when one ends and the next begins. I like the fact that the windows are open, that the city can enter visually, that in the evening each room has its own light, utilized in a different way depending on the moment, to create a fluid landscape, always balanced between intimacy and convivial existence, interior and exterior.

How do you choose design objects to introduce in your rooms? 

It is always a matter of sentiment and the relationship with time. There are snapshots of life that leave a concrete trail, with objects that are immediately memory, not depending on whether I like them or not. What remains is to understand, with time, if they can truly be part of a unified body, the mental body of this place.

Genoa represents the idea I love about cities, a continuum between territory, landscape, architecture, material and intimacy, where the boundary between private and collective translates into minimum or major thresholds that can be glimpsed, at times, in the stone with which the city has been conceived and constructed. As it if had been sculpted, salvaged from a dense volume of emotions."

So there is no one object you cherish most?

I cannot name a single object. Each one has a meaning and a different emotion, and it is important for me, for us. Perhaps now, twenty years later, the ceramic tail of the blue whale made for me by Danilo Trogu takes on a predictive meaning. It contains the evolution of the path that has led to many choices, and today to ‘Insidethewhale,’ the spirit of Atelier(s) AF517.

Do you have a favorite space?

This too is a question of time, the month, the week, the day, the time of day. But since every space borders on two others, there is always the magic of transition. After three months of lockdown, the garden has clearly taken on a unique, rare role, which would be hard to live without.

What are the most important projects of architecture and design on which you are working right now?

We have been lucky to win various international competitions over the last two years, and to move into the worksite phase of many projects, which we are completing. Others are getting started, and we are also moving forward with several research projects that are priorities for me. We are working on schools/universities, cities, housing, recover of urban areas and existing buildings. We will continue with projects for architecture and workspaces that are integrated with the research I have conducted for years, with the Atelier(s), on material and design, on light, ceramics, concrete, glass, wood. The project for the Italian State Mint in Rome, the BNL campus in Rome, the University of Annecy, two new urban districts in Paris and Marseille… these are some of the most important experiences at the moment.

Project Alfonso Femia / AF517* - Photos Stefano Anzini / courtesy Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia