In March 2019, Massimo De Carlo Gallery opened its new Milanese headquarters inside Casa Corbellini-Wassermann, a building from the 1930s designed by the famous architect Piero Portaluppi. Thanks to a philological restoration of almost three years curated by Studio Binocle with the collaboration of Antonio Citterio and the authorization of the Superintendent of Archeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Milan, two floors of the historical residence opened to the public for the first time.
At the beginning of the 30s the Corbellini-Wassermann spouses decided to establish their residence in a suburban neighbourhood not far from the so-called ‘Città degli Studi’. Guido Corbellini (engineer, professor and influential politician) and Paola Wassermann (heir to an important family of entrepreneurs in the pharmaceutical field) appointed Piero Portaluppi and expressed the desire, typical of the bourgeois clients of the time, to create a home for the family that could also become a real estate investment. Portaluppi conceived an unusual architectural typology of five storeys above ground: a strange mixture between a single-family villa and a small condominium combined into a building large enough to accommodate the family's apartments as well as some units to lease. Despite a deep floor plan, the enire apartment enjoyed a good level of lighting thanks to its wide openings towards Viale Lombardia, the private garden, the rear backyard and the large internal patio. The raised floor and the first floor were designed to host the large master apartments, the second and third were divided in two smaller units each, while the fourth floor featured a 'bachelor' apartment surrounded by a vast hanging garden. The external cladding and the rhythm of the openings denoted the internal spatial organization of the different levels: a plinth of black marble marked the basement, a sober gray, white and pink marble slab covering extended to the raised and first floor, while the upper floors were rendered. The hierarchy of the interior spaces, as well as the horizontal arrangement of the different materials, was underlined by the layout of the windows: the large horizontal openings of the lower floors, made technically possible by the use of reinforced concrete, were countered by the small, square windows of the upper part were arranged at regular intervals. A marvellous sculptural spiral staircase in Ornavasso marble blocks - originally designed by Portaluppi and the young BBPR for a temporary pavilion called 'La Casa del Sabato per gli sposi' (The Saturday house for the newly weds) erected in occasion of the Milan Triennale in 1933 - was literally 'recycled' and installed on the facade of Casa Corbellini-Wassermann to connect the apartment of the first floor with the ground floor garden and became the most representative and recognizable element of the entire building.
The apartment on the noble floor
The apartment of the spouses Corbellini-Wassermann on the raised floor was organized around a non-linear sequence of large hallways that allowed access to the main rooms, arranged along Viale Lombardia or overlooking the private garden, and separated them from the service area, developed around the rear backyard. Instead of a traditional corridor, Portaluppi decided to design a 'path of rooms' that crossed the entire apartment from the North-East to the South-West, a zigzag with orthogonal changes of direction that clearly divided the served zones from the servant ones. The main rooms and the hallways had monumental dimensions and were put in mutual communication by a system of large marble portals that gave them the appearance of a continuous and labyrinthine space, while the bedrooms, bathrooms and service spaces had smaller proportions and were organized according to a more strict layout. For the cladding work Portaluppi employed a great variety of materials and controlled their installation according to rigorous geometric patterns as if to underline at the scale of the details the overall compositional principle used in the plan. The large living rooms were characterized by a walnut wood floor with rectangular slabs laid in staggered joints marked by thin aluminium profiles and coffered ceilings with thin plaster strips oriented along the two main orthogonal axes; the dining room ceiling was an exception for the more massive and articulated relief elements arranged diagonally to form oblong diamonds. In the hallway Portaluppi selected, perhaps to recall the principle of a conventional corridor, a floor - called by him "a thousand lines" - obtained through the refined juxtaposition of different strips of marble distinguished by weaving, width and colour: the greens of the Verde Alpi Cesana, the Serpentino Classico, the Verde Issorie and the Verde Roja, the white of the Carrara, the reds and the oranges of the Rosso Amiata. The vertical surfaces in the large living areas and in the bedrooms were painted with warm, earthy and almost military colours that were probably obtained by removing saturation from to the greens, oranges and browns of the marble used in the floors. A remarkable exception were the walls of the entrance, completely decorated with tempera to depict the agricultural landscape of the Po valley embellished by the presence of a variety of birds, a probable statement of the family hunting tradition. In the service rooms the intensity and the expressiveness of the materials was even increased. The walls of the cloakroom near the entrance were lined with walnut briar, while large slabs of brightly coloured marble were placed on those of the bathrooms: the tiny toilette next to the wardrobe was entirely covered with Fior di Pesco Carnico marble, while in the personal bathrooms of Paola Wassermann and Guido Corbellini the pink tones of the Ornavasso and the turquoises of the Challant stood out respectively. The decorative element that united all the noble rooms of the raised floor was a linear marble band that flowed seamlessly as skirting along the floors, as frame around the doors and as slab at the portals. This three-dimensional trail with orthogonal changes of direction was made of Rosso Levanto marble with some exceptions such as the dining room, which was in Verde Alpi, and the entrance, whose portals featured orange jambs in Rosso Amiata. Each window became an opportunity to design a furniture: the large oak wooden windows - particularly modern for their width and for their opening mechanism - were framed by fitted cabinets covered in walnut wood and lined with maple wood inside; the niches for the radiators were hidden by copper alloy grids with lozenges, orthogonal mesh, or side-by-side vertical tubes; the doors were veneered in walnut and presented smooth surfaces or featured raised diamond motifs. Numerous fireplaces, mainly made through the juxtaposition of different types of marble and in copper alloy plates, served both the main living rooms and the bedrooms. Particularly intriguing was one of the two fireplaces in the dining room, consisting of a covering in Verde Challant marble, of a single sculpted block in Nuvolato del Piemonte marble and crowned by a conical hood stucco decorated with oriental ornamental motifs.
In the 80s the owners began to rent, in addition to the accommodations on the upper floors, also the large family apartments of the noble part. In the 1990s they eventually decided to divide the property into different units and sell it out. At that time Casa Corbellini-Wassermann - as most of the modernist buildings of Milan - was not protected and several apartments were radically transformed by the new tenants. The large apartment on the raised floor, acquired by a company that turned it into its offices, underwent some transformations which, although unmindful of the original design, did not compromise the structure and the general layout leaving most of the elements and finishes of the 30s untouched. It was therefore only due to a fortuitous coincidence that the former master apartment on the raised floor was not lost forever and was kept - with the exception of some non-reversible transformations carried out in the service zone - in its original appearance until 2004, when the Superintendence of Archeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Milan placed a longed for conservative constraint on the good. When Massimo De Carlo acquired the property inside Casa Corbellini-Wassermann in 2015, the rooms of the noble floor, although uninhabited for a very long time, were still largely intact. In addition to the service area, the basement had also been completely modified, but in the large rooms above, in the spacious hallways, in the former bedrooms and in the opulent bathrooms, the patina of time could not conceal the shine of the materials and the finishes featured in the original project of Piero Portaluppi.
Carried out under the tutelage of the Superintendet of of Milan, the renovation by Studio Binocle converted the house into an art gallery, inserted all the necessary infrastructures for the new activity and succeeded in the preserving and emphasizing the original character and finishes. Today the main apartment of 600 square meters of the raised floor houses the exhibition spaces, while the basement, which measures 400 square meters, hosts the offices, a library, a kitchen, a dining room, as well as all the technical infrastructure that serves both levels. Thanks to their generous proportions, the main rooms of the apartment such as the lounge, the study, the smoking room and the dining room, proved to be suitable for hosting the new function without requiring any spatial transformation. Nevertheless the intervention has selectively altered the rigorous layout of the original scheme by opening two new connections along the monumental central corridor to expand the exhibition space and to set new possible paths for future visitors. An opening was carved to connect the main hall to the old service area, while an 'L' shaped planking - the result of previous transformations from a later period to the original scheme - was demolished between one of the bedrooms and the second stretch of the 'thousand lines' corridor. In this way the overall exhibition area gained two rooms: the first on the area once occupied by the kitchens, the second next to the bedroom area. Here, precisely because of the clever juxtaposition between some elements of the original project and others of the newly realized one, the architectural narrative of the restoration is revealed and dignity is conferred also to those materials that, although meant for less noble zones, assume today a new meaning as survived fragments returned by history. Each room of the exhibition spaces is equipped with a new lighting system, designed in collaboration with the Milan-based lighting design studio Metis, consisting of cantilevered luminous beams that revisit in a discreet and functional way the theme of the orthogonal line which was uses at different scales by Piero Portaluppi. The basement, dedicated to offices, did not show any trace of the 1930s intervention and was therefore interested by a more substantial renovation. Nevertheless the designers managed to established an ideal connection between the two floor as they kept the same distribution system and took care of the original atmosphere in the careful selection of new material and colours. Exploiting the opportunity provided by the new passage on the raised floor between the large corridor and the old service area, Studio Binocle designed and inserted a circular staircase completely covered in linoleum. The new element, although different in terms of materials and constructive system, reflects the overall dimensions and the riser-going ratio of the famous marble staircase that still stands outside.
The transformation of Casa Corbellini-Wassermann into the Massimo De Carlo headquarters conducted by Studio Binocle is remarkable because it combines some significant themes related to interior architecture, conservative restoration and contemporary art.
First of all it is a relevant case study within the interior architecture practice because it deals with the problem of how to intervene on part of a modernist building of representative value for an historical era and for of a city like Milan. If transforming the existing is what distinguishes the discipline of interior architecture, the designers must question themselves about what has remained from the past and must collect as much information as possible to be able to change without distorting. If an intervention deals with the work of a renowned architect of the past, the study and learning phase is even more compelling and significant. If every interior architecture project rewrites the history of an existing building, the deeper this story is, the more meaningful the designer's task becomes.
The second theme, the one of the practice of conservative restoration, is equally important and perhaps even more topical, because it does not only concern the dilemma of observing, identifying, knowing, selecting, conserving, communicating and presenting what’s already there in a harmonious and clear balance with what is newly inserted, but it also introduces the question of the ability of a historical artefact to prove adaptive enough to host a completely new function. If any intervention on an existing building represents- to a certain extent - a proper trauma, an existing building of particular historical value is even more fragile and demanding due to the constraints - both symbolic, practical and normative - that it presents. Considering the complexity and the invasiveness of the technological infrastructure that is today necessary for the normal functioning of a building, it is easy to imagine how complicated it is for a designer to equip a historical building with such an apparatus without distorting its appearance, atmosphere and character.
Lastly, the insight that persuaded Massimo De Carlo to move his gallery into the former modernist apartment designed by Piero Portaluppi represents an utter change of perspective with respect to the established practice of presenting contemporary art within functional, neutral and transformable exhibition spaces, places without a defined context in which history is an element that can be ignored. If contemporary art has reached its maturity, if it did become a discipline itself, then it is eventually ready to be shown and enjoyed in places surrounded by history and if this change represents a challenge for artists, curators and gallery owners, the difficult and delicate transformation of buildings from the past as Casa Corbellini-Wassermann in spaces for art open to the public is among the new, compelling and intricate tasks that interior architects are asked to face.