Why we love Italian architecture

Italy has influenced building design around the world for centuries and today that export is more evident than ever, writes Simon Brooke

When Starwood Hotels was developing its luxurious W Hotel, which opened in St Petersburg in June, it chose architect Antonio Citterio. The fact that a US hotel chain opening in a Russian city opted for an Italian architect tells you something about the continuing – and growing - influence of Italian architecture. A country known for its aesthetic traditions is shaping the look of the world’s cities.

“St Petersburg is surrounded by a number of historical Italian designed landmarks, including the Winter Palace and Palace Square,” says Michael Tiedy, senior vice president of parent company Starwood’s Global Brand Design & Innovation team. “Given the architectural history of the city and Citterio’s personal interest and passion for Italian design, we thought this would be an ideal collaboration with someone who could capture the historic character of the city to create an innovative modern personality within the hotel.” Citterio has also worked on the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and designed the Brooktorhafen Bridge in Hamburg.

Architecture has long been one of Italy’s greatest exports. In Britain in the 17th century, the Italian architect Palladio had an enormous influence over Inigo Jones – witness the elegant lines and contrasting exuberant detailing of Jones’s Banqueting House in Whitehall.

Italy’s centuries-old interest in aesthetics is key to its success in architecture. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that Bulgari the jewellery brand and, latterly, hotel chain, also went for Citterio. “Our hotels convey the excitement of the Bulgari brand, its timeless glamour and its heritage of magnificent Italian jeweller,” says the company, which is about to open a new hotel in London.

We look at the interior design and product design

But for Milan-based Matteo Thun, 90 per cent of whose commissions are outside Italy and who has worked with brands such as Porsche, Hugo Boss and Siemens among others, there is another reason for Italian architectural success abroad. Thun was a member of the Memphis Group. Founded by fellow Italian Ettore Sottsass this international grouping of architects influenced building design around the world and is currently being celebrated as part of the Postmodern – Style and Subversion exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

“We take a holistic approach,” says Mr Thun. “We look at the interior design and product design as well as the architecture in a project so this creates a more integrated style. Very importantly it speeds things up and reduces costs too – and the client only has one person to speak to.” The Matteo Thun & Partners office is also very international. “Around 80 per cent of our staff are not Italian, and we speak English and German as well as Italian in meetings,” he says.

Mario Botta, whose work appears in Switzerland, Greece and South Korea among other countries, believes that the connections with the city that Italian architects exhibit, is important. “It seems to me that Italian architecture has always had a special relationship with the city,” he says. “Architecture and the city are two inseparable terms that require an intense relationship with each other.” He argues that buildings must relate to the cities in which they are located and create a better environment for those living in them. With Italy’s tradition of the city state this is a natural deduction.

Given that, according to the UN, as of 2008, for the first time more people live in cities than in rural areas, with 60 per cent of China’s vast population set to make this transition by 2030, Italian architecture could well be more successful and more influential in future decades than ever before.