London-based polymath Claudio Silvestrin spoke to hinge during a fleeting visit to Hong Kong.
hinge – First of all, what brought you to Hong Kong?
Claudio Silvestrin – I was invited by Minotti Cucine to come to launch the new kitchen I’ve done for them called Pietra. It was launched in Milan this April, and Ms Lau saw it, loved it. and wanted (to launch) it here.
You do a lot of product design?
I do products. interiors and buildings. depending on how lucky I am, and how many clients I have I dо have some principles. which I apply. whether I do a building, a villa, a table. an interior or a restaurant Perhaps because I grew up in Italy where we have this fascination for Renaissance man… Leonardo [da Vinci], Michelangelo, etc…they were all specialised, and you more from one area or another according to opportunities, but you always supply the same thinking. And also you notice the great masters like Mies van der Rohe. Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, they also did architecture, interiors and furniture. So why not? It keeps the mine more elastic if you are not too specialised. Maybe there are less jobs but your mind s more alive because you have different challenges all the time. Doing a piece of furniture is a different challenge… I find it very positive. Also, I put the same energy into doing a dining table as I do a building or a restaurant. Again, it is perhaps because I grew up with this Renaissance man ideal Michelangelo was a painter a sculptor, an architect… and I dо the same. So that does influence you.
You were born and educated in Milan, later moving to London. Would you mind sharing a bit about your background?
I moved to London and I studied at the Architecture Association (AA). Before moving to London I had a very good master – a maestro – who opened my mind up to Japanese architecture, and to a minimalist aesthetic, to use a media term. So l was very lucky to have a tutor, a maestro, who gave me direction. When I moved to London, the positive thing was that I learnt the less artistic side… [I learnt] more about productivity, and the pragmatic way of approaching a design problem and finding a solution. So I consider myself a mix of the two experiences of my life: the more Mediterranean one. and the Northern [European] one. And therefore that makes me more complete. I guess. And therefore what you deliver is efficiency and creativity, without one being on top of the other. And l think I was very lucky to do that I’m very organised, precise, methodical, focused. And yet at the same time I’m very instinctive, artistic, creative… so in a way I consider myself very lucky to have these two aspects of culture, because if you embrace both you are richer inside.
Another student of the AA was John Pawson. and with two tutors, Crispin Osborne and Johr Andrews. The four of us decided to get together to set up a practice. Unfortunately Crispin Osborne and John Andrews pulled out Quite soon, maybe alter one year. Then John [Pawson] and I stayed together for four years. And then we split up, which I think was a good thing for both of us, because although we had positive synergy for objects and materials, we had different views on architecture. Therefore I think there was not a strong reason to remain [partners] as we had different principles when it came to designing buildings.
So after that you established your own practice in London. How did that come about?
Yes, I think that was in ’89, if I recall correctly. And I must say I have been lucky and have always been busy, doing interiors, restaurants, an galleries, or houses… or quite a few objects, because there is a big market for doing tables and chairs, bathrooms and kitchens, and whatnot. I’ve done a lot of buildings that unfortunately did not get panning permission I think what I tend to do is quite reluctant [to approve them]. I was lucky to do an architecture project n Singapore, which was not only approved, but a so built, by YTL Construction. It was completed about a year ago. And we got a few awards – some prestigious ones, too. I think it is a very good project.
Was it a residential project?
Yes, 18 villas, built from scratch in Sentosa. The project is quite excellent And I think it might bring me some more projects in Asia.
Have you done much else in Asia?
I’ve done a lot of Armani stores. I managed to dо one building in Seoul. I’ve also done a huge spa, shops… I’ve worked a lot in Korea. I haven’t done any work in Japan. In China I’ve only done an Armani [store]. But now I have a Chinese client Probably l will do some shops in China for this brand, based in Shenzhen. In fact I’m going to be back in Asia in July. In Hong Kong I only did the Giorgio Armani store back in 2002 They’ve charged [the scheme] since. Mine had a lot of stone… more architectural, less functional.
Minimalist? I’m not sure it’s a term you embrace, but it is one that gets applied to you a lot.
Yes, my parents call me Claudo; the media calls me Minimalist There is not much you car do, is there? In fact I don’t think about it. The media needs some kind of classification so…
There is an element of minimalism to your architecture though, isn’t there? Stripping things to the basics. Elemental perhaps?
Yes In fact elemental, as you said, s a belter word. Perhaps if is too complicated for a lot of people. Minimalism is an easier word for the mass media, more approachable; but elemental is truer.
Talking about the media and minimalism, rumour has it that you converted Kanye West into a minimalist.
I didn’t convert him. He approached me because he wanted to have his New York apartment [designed n a] minimal [style]. So ho approached mo and I spent a wonderful time with him in New York. He has sold me apartment now, two weeks ago, because he has a baby [on the way].
It looked quite a spacious apartment from the pictures I saw. Room enough for a baby.
And also his new partner. I don’t know her, but I don’t think she is a minimalist.
When I met him he was hanging out with a fashion lady. Perhaps she was more into the minimal style [than his current partner].
And you were going to do a house in LA for him, but that didn’t get planning permission.
Yes. the house didn’t get planning permission because they [the authorities] said it looked more like a museum than a house.
Is that any reason not to give the go-ahead?
Unfortunately it was in an area where there are a lot of Mexican-looking villas with arches, so I would stand out; although, I was going to put a lot of trees in front. But they don’t loоk at the trees; they look al the design of the house. It looked like a red box; like a museum. So they rejected [the scheme] and Kanye got absolutely furious – he thought they were racist Which probably they weren’t. But anyway, the design was out. Maybe if it had been in a different area, in The Hills perhaps, next to Richard Meier [designed structures] and other villas, we may have got away with it. Indeed, you do see lots of different architectural styles in The Hills. Yes, so it all depends really on the location. I think that was a conservative street And I also had a few projects on conservative streets in London. I once designed a new house in London in Founier Street, which is [notable for its] French and Georgian architecture. Beautiful houses. And one house had been bombed in the war [WWII], so there was an opportunity to make a new building. I got permission from [the appropriate] London authority. I [also] got permission from English Heritage. They said my design was ‘of merit’. English Heritage said [gelling approval] is not about [being] ‘conservative’ but about [having architectural] ‘merit’. It just happened to be that old buildings have more merit. So we passed [muster with] English Heritage. So my client was absolutely ecstatic. But, can you believe it, the neighbours complained. The neighbours rejected the design. Of course my сlient could have gone to court, but he thought: ‘Why should I live [in a place] with these intolerant people next to me?’ So he gave up and went to a different area. So I haven’t been very lucky with authorities giving permission. But I’m not going lo retire tomorrow morning, so there’ll be other opportunities.
Architects seldom have it easy in historic cities heavy on red tap, such as London.
I think everywhere. Also one of my defects is that I don’t do politics. If you don’t do politics…
Would you describe yourself as ‘a lone wolf’?
I think a journalist made that up But I’m so focused on the project I’m doing, and my relationship with my clients, that l don’t do politics. I’m totally focused l don’t do parties; I don’t play golf. I’m a hundred percent focused. I’m so passionate about what l do that I am totally focused on it. For me nothing else exists.
So you have little time for the architectural social scene?
Yes. I find it is more interesting for me to focus on my work. And if I do have spare time, I read books My mind has to go further. There is a danger that you think you are a god, then you stop reading, you stop moving forward, you stop challenging your mind, which is wrong I think. I also notice that after architects get to a certain age, and the practice is successful, [and then] the quality of the design drops. I’ve noticed it happens a lot. Either you’ve got too many big jobs and you have to delegate to your assistants, or you are losing something by attending parties and playing golf? They are a distraction. How can you focus on your work if you are so desperate to socialise. That’s the way I see it. I still go on site and get myself dirty. I’m not ashamed to say that.
At your practice you are heavily involved in most of the projects you take on then?
You don’t delegate so much?
I delegate certain aspects. But certainly the creative side comes out of my mind… the essence, the spark. For example, this kitchen: I had a team working with me but the philosophical concept was mine. Also I go to the quarry, discuss with stone people. I love the physically of being part of the process, rather than being just an intellectual, or being a businessman behind a desk.
You’re more hands-on?
Yes. I like mowing. That’s why I came here. Plane. Moving. Talk. Sit. Boom. Back
You’ve done museums and galleries, retail spaces – Giorgio Armani stores for example — and private homes. What gives you the most satisfaction?
There are different challenges. For commercial projects, of course you compromise more. And in a way they are more difficult than doing art galleries and residential. There is less [room for] compromise with residential and art galleries. Now I’m doing an art gallery n London tor Victoria Miro in St George Street, Mayfair. So yes, they are different challenges. In a way you have to sweat more on [galleries and museums] than you do tor commercial properties. My recent one was a restaurant in the Shard – the Renzo Piano building in London. It has been very successful. Some people say it is the most beautiful restaurant in London. I put a lot ol energy [into it]. There were a few compromises because of the nature of the business side of the commercial place
You did the interiors for the restaurant?
Yes. it is on the 32nd floor. If you go to London I highly recommend it.
Is there a building type you haven’t yet done, but would like to?
That has not been built? I did a meditation centre in Germary some years ago, but it didn’t get built because the clients went bankrupt. So that is something I like to do.. and maybe one day I will do: to make a religious [or spiritual] building. A religious building, theoretically, should not have any commercial compromises. It is just pure architecture. Just light, material and space. Theoretically, a religious building is the most pure – oven purer than a museum A museum must still have paintings, artificial lighting. In a religious building you get…
Not more freedom. more pure. Reallу elemental, to use the word you suggested before. Really elemental. No furnishings…
Just space and architecture?
Exactly. For this restaurant in London I made two areas: one is the formal restaurant; the other is the lounge and music area. I connected the two with a very long corridor. It is my favourite place because there s no furniture. Just pure architecture, purely elemental, in the sense that there are no tables, no chairs. and there is no food. So you reallу have the experience of the space and the material and the light. It’s very dramatic. So then you can really achieve the purity of the elemental.
And to get back to your quest on. I would also like to dо a stadium. I’d like the challenge of reinventing the football stadium. I like the idea of being innovative… to give something new, to bring something new to the fore. For instance when I did the Terra kitchen tor Minotti Cucine three years ago. I came up with the first 100% stone kitchen set-up. And Norman Foster gave me an award for it. First prize [Wallpaper Magazine Design Awards]. And the second kitchen I did for them is made of steps. It brings something new; its an innovation. You know my oval bathtub? Many famous architects copied it. It was 1.9 metres long, and 1 3 metres wide. That was done 22 years ago. It was the first and it completely changed the bathrooms of the whole planet. I changed the whole aesthetic of bathrooms on the planet. Before that all bathrooms were like 1970s era…
So the oval-shaped bathtub was your innovation?
Yes. In 1990. tor an American client, for his holiday home in France And then Boffi approached me, almost 10 years after to say: ‘Can we make into production your oval tub design and [can] you design a new bathroom collect on around it?’ And since then. Philippe Starck and all the others have coped it. They made a small change [to the design] but the most pure remains mine. Of course in a way, one side is my design, the other side is not my design – it is the design of everybody. Because when you use something so pure, it belongs to everybody. It is not arbitrary. I love archetypes because they belong to everybody An arbitrary shape belongs to the architect. But I like things that are platonic, of a certain geometric configuration, which is universal. And it you apply that in its most pure form it belongs to everybody. It is rot your own toy. That’s part of the challenge to transform this ancient archetype into something contemporary. For instance, for a bathroom company a couple of years ago I did a basin, toilets, a WC, in the shape of an egg. I made [a universal shape] into a contemporary element. I like this challenge of making things that have [stood the test of) time – that haven’t stuck to one particular decade, or century… that are timeless.
You mentioned earlier that you read a lot. What’s currently on your bedside table?
Right now and I brought it with mo on the plane – I’m reading the Power of Place, which is about the energy of planet earth. It’s about Stonehenge and other magical places.
It seems our time is up. On that mystical note we must leave it. Many thanks.