GENIUS OF THE PLACE
FROM A SPOON TO A CITY, THERE IS NOTHING OUTSIDE THE SCOPE OF POLYMATH ARCHITECT-DESIGNERS CARL PICKERING AND CLAUDIO LAZZARINI – AN AUSTRALIAN-ITALIAN PARTNERSHIP THAT MARRIES CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL DEPTH WITH A LOVE OF LIGHT AND NATURE.
In his airy, light-suffused studio on the Via delle Mantellate in Trastevere, the architect Carl Pickering – transposed Sydneysider, expat of 37 years – is pondering my question: after all this time spent living in Rome, does he consider himself, and his work, more Australian, or Italian? “That attachment to the natural environment – treading lightly – that’s all definitely Australia,” he says, finally. “That, and the great love of natural light. But seeing the complexity of things, finding architectural and design order in myriad materials and colours ... have often thought the complexity in our work is the influence of Rome, that palimpsest of history and styles that is Rome.
“That said, I like that I feel Australian when I’m in Australia, and Italian when I’m in Italy.” He laughs. “I think I’m happy in no man’s land.”
“No man’s land” may be how he views it. But among the many admirers of Lazzarini Pickering Architetti, the architecture and design firm he founded 35 years ago with partner Claudio Lazzarini – these include the late Carla Fendi, Stefano Gabbana, the Niarchos and Ferrero families, and the editors of design bibles World of Interiors and Abitare – the prevailing view is that he and Lazzarini belong quite effortlessly to many worlds.
From glass-and-steel pavilions to bespoke lighting collections, from a chalet in St Moritz to Bondi’s iconic Icebergs Dining Room, the spaces and objects that Pickering and Lazzarini create harness myriad influences and references, but always in the name of an entirely original vision. They have designed a spa in Beirut, fitted out a pizzeria in Bali, collaborated with the great Paolo Pejrone on landscape designs in southern Tuscany, fashioned a state-of-the-art redoubt in Oxfordshire, England (which recently won a Dedalo Minosse international architecture award), and created almost 80 boutiques around the world for Fendi. Current projects include a luxury coastal master plan in Montenegro consisting of a resort, restaurants, villas, and apartments; a Balinese beach club; the conversion of an Umbrian borgo into an ultra-exclusive resort; and the rehabilitation and expansion of a landmark-listed 1830s NSW estate with a vast stratified garden.
“That pride in the multidisciplinary aspect of architecture and design is very much part of this office,” says Pickering. “It’s that thing of [eminent 20th-century Italian architect] Ernesto Rogers’s, dal cucchiaio alla città” – from the spoon to the city – “the idea of being design strategists on a very broad plane. We believe in that multitude of scales that one can work within, and in doing exhaustive research even for in the most humble projects, because we never want to repeat ourselves.”
“We like being from a different field to the one we are working in, or for; it allows us to see things afresh.” adds Lazzarini. “It’s related a bit to that outsider-ness Carl spoke of. We have for instance designed quite revolutionary yachts, though we’re not sailors.” Indeed, boat design is where Lazzarini Pickering has made one of its most conspicuous and universally admired marks, having collaborated with Italian yacht makers Wally, Benetti, and Nautor’s Swan (among others) on awardwinning bespoke commissions, despite having no formal training in nautical design.
Then there is the collaboration with the late Pietro Ferrero, which began when the scion of the FerreroRocher family, who had admired their work for Fendi, asked them to help relaunch his brand. “‘I really like the way you think,’ he told us at the time,” recalls Lazzarini. “‘But we’re architects, not marketing professionals,’ we told him, ‘and we don’t especially like or care about chocolate.’ He said, ‘Good. Then you’re exactly the right people.’” They ended up designing a St Moritz chalet for him. “When you see something through virgin eyes, if you like, solutions come out that aren’t immediately mainstream, or about a certain style,” Pickering says. “Louis Kahn said it very well: ‘What the thing wants to be’, rather than what a style wants it to.”
Indeed, it’s hard to define the Lazzarini Pickering style. Extravagance and austerity have both found their way into private residential commissions; some interiors sing with colour, others play in a subtle spectrum of neutrals. They are cultural polymaths: in the weekend we spent together, references as varied as Korean calligraphy and cheap greenhouse plastics, Lucio Fontana and Thomas Chippendale peppered their conversation. “We’re quite eclectic in our interests,” affirms Lazzarini. “We’re art collectors; we have friends who are film directors and physicists and antiquarians – but not architects, really. Very few of those.” Italo Lupi, the architect/graphic designer/editor emeritus of the seminal Italian design magazine Abitare, which has published “a vast complexity of projects” by LPA, recalls that across their work “the one constant is a noble informality ... a cultured way of working, conscious of history, of intervening in a radical new way.”
One of the LPA commissions that best expresses this cultured working style is the holiday villa in Positano they created for a Melbourne-based family in 2004. Originally an 18th-century monastery, the multi-level space and its soaring volumes showcase a collection of antique hand-painted maiolica tiles from Vietri – collected passionately by the owners, they are the theme around which the entire villa plays out. Suspended balconies are clad in them, top and bottom; beds are raised on platforms covered in vibrant patterns. The pièce de résistance is a band of tile-clad raised steel that traverses the main living and dining areas, uninterrupted but transforming from coffee table to pathway to dining room table as it moves through the bi-level spaces, before ascending the wall to the ceiling, supporting a series of hanging lights.
“We sometimes call residences ‘site-specific portraits’ of our clients,” says Pickering. “The house has to reflect the genius loci of the place, but also the client.” Thus the villa in Positano nods to the former maritime republic’s rich architectural history – not least through those tiles, which were brought to Italy from the Arab world in the 8th century. There is brilliant interplay between function and ornament. But some surprisingly quotidian, practical exigencies are met, too: “In this case, because it’s a holiday house, the client wanted art that couldn’t be stolen. That desideratum, and their love of maiolica, created this project in great part.”
Pickering’s ability to commute between aesthetic and cultural worlds dates back to his childhood in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, where he attended Sydney Boys’ High School. At 18, he did the unexpected by moving to Venice to take an architecture degree, studying under Massimo Scolari and Peter Eisenman (one of the New York Five, along with Richard Meier and Charles Gwathmey). He met Lazzarini, who had completed his studies at Rome’s La Sapienza university, during his freshman year; the two instantly partnered, with Pickering commuting down to Rome for 10 years before relocating. “We’d fallen in love, but also realised we could work well together,” says Lazzarini.
Their working process is arcane, thoroughly organic, their descriptions of it evoking images of parallel but never identical trains of thought, like a twist of DNA. “Unlike with other architects, our concepting tends to happen with discussion, not sketching,” he says. “At the beginning, the words might be muddled or hesitant, or misunderstood – which can lead to something good, actually. But we’re looking for the primary idea of a project. Basically, if you can eventually explain it in a simple, coherent sentence, then it’s a project that works. For us it tends to originate from discourse, not drawing.”
With longer-standing clients, this process is more fluid – and rewarding. Which brings us back to Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, and its operator Maurice Terzini, with whom LPA have collaborated on numerous projects in Sydney, Melbourne and Bali, starting with the famous Bondi site in 2000-01. Terzini is “brilliant”, Pickering says: “He’s taught us most of what we know about hospitality.” For the restaurateur, Lazzarini says, “it’s the final detail that’s the thing. For six, seven months, Maurice walks through a space over and over in his head. There’s so much fine-tuning that happens in the design phase. He wants a machine that feels effortless – which is very similar to our approach, in that the final result has to feel like the natural, logical thing to do in a certain space.”
In Melbourne’s (now-renamed) Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons, which Terzini opened with former business partner Robert Marchetti in 2008, the idea was to capture the singular atmosphere of a typical cosy Roman trattoria – but in a huge open space. LPA responded by dividing it into alcoves of just a few tables or banquettes, each alcove with its own Sicilian ceramic tile design, thereby imparting a sense of many separate, intimate restaurants, at the centre of which was a series of more theatrical spaces where chefs and staff were on display. At Icebergs, the idea was instead to create an environment that showcased the inimitable view by day, but also effectively stood in for it by night; something oceanic, calming, mirroring the aqueous blues and greens and faded driftwood tones of Bondi Beach.
“I met Carl after a design conference; he was a guest speaker,” Terzini recalls. “I knew about LPA’s work, and it was the Australian-Italian connection that inspired me – I wanted the designers to understand Bondi, but also understand my Italian heritage. They, like me, are actually more concerned about function and efficiency prior to the design; and they also, like me, value one good
“Basically, if you can eventually explain it in a simple, coherent sentence, then it’s a project that works.”
idea over a thousand [others]. It’s easy to work with someone when they have similar values and, importantly, when they understand the product – and enjoy it.”
At Da Maria in Seminyak, Terzini’s remit was to evoke the Amalfi Coast in Bali: something “clean, fresh, a very graphic restaurant-bar-club that would most importantly be a fun venue”, Terzini says. The exuberant space that resulted is a delight. The palette is white, Tyrrhenian blue and a bold orangey yellow, configured in various graphic combinations that pay subtle homage to Gio Ponti’s iconic Parco dei Principi hotel in Sorrento. The materials hark back to the Amalfi of the dolce vita years: tufted vinyl banquettes, whitewashed wrought-iron chairs, plastic plants (“a big thing in 1960s Italy”, says Pickering), and a permutation of a signature LPA chandelier design combining the look of back-garden festoon lighting with the lo-fi charm of bare bulbs. “The idea here was basically a 1960s Capri courtyard,” says Pickering. “In Bali you need airconditioning, so it’s enclosed, but it feels like an outdoor space,” thanks to skylights and ceiling configurations, and a back garden that allows natural light to flood in.
The Seminyak beach club project is yet another LPA-Terzini collaboration, slated to open late next year. It will be influenced by beach clubs on Capri, Mykonos and Ibiza, with a smattering of Palm Springs and Acapulco thrown in – “the Platonic ideal of a non-Asian beach club”, Pickering says with a smile.
Such fruitful longevity is a hallmark of many of LPA’s working relationships, from humble materials suppliers to Forbes 500 clients. At a villa on the Monte Argentario Peninsula, north of Rome, they have collaborated with the owner for more than 15 years, adding bold contemporary pavilions and sensitive landscaping across 33 hectares. “He is so clever, so genial and also intuitive,” says Lazzarini of his client, for whom LPA has also designed apartments in Monaco and Rome (in a listed 15th-century palazzo on the patrician Via Giulia), and a stunning 18m Magnum motor yacht; the Umbria project, in which Lazzarini and Pickering are restoring a medieval village and constructing a series of villas at its perimeter, is also his.
In the Monte Argentario villa, there are now, in addition to the main house (an 18th-century hunting lodge), three guest pavilions, staff quarters, and six hectares of landscaped garden. “It was about how to create a language that expresses that particular patina of Tuscany, without it being a caricature,” says Pickering, who relied on what he calls – admiringly – “poor” materials to convey the aesthetic: wax-rusted steel, drylaid stone, and walls and walls of glass, which create seamless panoramas through rooms to forest beyond.
The Monte Argentario villa is the apotheosis of what Lazzarini Pickering Architetti do. There is the elemental beauty of natural light, and the light footprint in nature. There are culture, refinement and intuition in equal measure. And finally, there is a portrait – rendered in glass and timber, stone and steel – of a person in a place, seen through the eyes of architects who are at home in his world, and many others.
The remit was to evoke the Amalfi Coast in Bali; the exuberant space that resulted is a delight.
Fendi’s Paris boutique; the St Moritz chalet; the spa in Beirut
The yacht designed for Italian maker Wally; the intricately tiled Positano holiday villa; Maurice Terzini’s Da Maria in Seminyak, Bali