City and Life: urban interventions by Alessandro Mendini
“Poetically man dwells”, wrote the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. And, looking back over the work of Alessandro Mendini (Milan, 1931-2019), one might add that man also dwells with light-heartedness, humour, and emotion. Mendini upended the long-established idea of beauty and of good design, introducing highly original artistic and figurative codes. His guiding norms were commitment and surprise. The designer Andrea Anastasio well captured Mendini’s approach in a recent recollection: “While architecture and urban planning were viewed as important, fundamental elements that revolved around lives and individuals, here [in Mendini Author’s note] the reversal is complete: it is lives that make cities, clothes that make cities, thoughts, things, and activities that make the city.”
With Mendini – an architect, designer, artist, and intellectual of extraordinary vivacity and intellectual curiosity – the city and life are one. The city is the great theatre of the world, and the objects are the urbanised actors “of a tragicomedy” on the stage of our everyday domestic lives. Mendini’s approach to design – which was able to take up the lesson of Radical Art, only to become Post Radical, to look to the Modern Movement and become Postmodern – always ranged from the micro to the macro, constantly inspired by a utopian desire to design a whole world. It is no coincidence that Mondo Mendini, the great anthological exhibition that opened at the Groninger Museum in 2019, was his last “work of total art” – an assortment of his own works and of the things and works he loved. That’s it: things. What is still striking about Mendini is his ability to look at things with the same methodical attention – be they lofty or humble, sophisticated and precious, of great craftsmanship, or kitsch, modest or mundane, but all with great emotional impact, history and memory. His artistic statement and his idiosyncratic interpretation of Italian design, and of its history, can be seen in Quali Cose Siamo, the exhibition he curated for Triennale Milano in 2010. Mendini was very fond of Triennale, as we see in his Architettura sussurrante installation of 1979, Lo spazio audiovisivo – Spazio reale-spazio virtuale or in the Pulviscoli exhibition of 2005, in Quali CoseSiamo, mentioned above, in Teatro dei Burattini – designed with his brother Francesco in 2015 for the Garden – and in the Atelier Mendini.Le architetture exhibition of 2018. And Triennale has a collection of Mendini’s works, including the iconic Poltrona di Proust of 1978, a pulviscular dematerialisation of an armchair in a painting and vice versa, the Mobile infinito of 1981, a fine example of his collaborative approach to design – and his drawings – an extraordinary corpus with his unmistakable touch, drawing as much on the avant-gardes as on Saul Steinberg.
It is indeed his drawings, “thoughts in embryo”, that help pick out all the key aspects of the “Mendini Code”, which has been reduced to its essentials by Fulvio Irace: “pictorial design”, textures, universal make-up, re-design, decoration as an autonomous theme of design, bio-graphic elements, the anthropology of objects, the “fiction object”, Proust, the Gulliver effect, and so on.
On many occasions, Mendini took on the urban dimension, in works such as his proposed project for the Piazza Plebiscito in Naples and his countless designs for bridges, street lamps, niches, dolmens, temples, arches, columns, and portals. These often remained on paper, though others were indeed made, such as the Busstop Steintor of 1992 in Hanover, designed together with Francesco, with the aim of creating “a system of highly emotional nodal points” in the city in the form of shelters. Then there was the redevelopment of the Villa Comunale in Naples, in 1999, the Salvator Rosa and Materdei stations of the metro in Naples (designed 1999, but built in 2001 and 2003 respectively – perfect examples of a fusion of the arts, with contributions from internationally renowned artists), the Dinosaur, a sculpture and Bisazza mosaic fountain (Dinosaur Museum, Katsuyama, Fukui, Japan, 2000), Torre del Filosofo (for the Arti & Architettura exhibition curated by Germano Celant for Genoa Capital of Culture 2004),the Hortus Conclusus kiosk and stage for Mimmo Paladino (for the 26th Benevento Città Spettacolo festival, Orto di San Domenico, Benevento, 2005) and the seafront promenade in Catanzaro Lido in 2013. And the Giardino volante: Pagoda in Pistoia of 2015, which has a look that is also playful, blurring and mingling the boundaries between a playground and environmental art.
Talking about his works in Naples, a “nebula of never-ending pulsations” in which he hoped for an integration between the “city of communication” and the “city of vision”, Mendini stated: “What matters most today, in creating a fertile relationship between architecture and public art is to make them speak together, within a single project. Assembling rather than fusing together: this is the dynamic characteristic of today’s metropolis, which is made up of fragments.” From Baroque gardens to the fountains of Rome, through to medieval squares: Mendini’s “small architectures” found multiple sources of inspiration in art, design, architecture, graphics, performance, fashion and criticism for their disciplinary hybridisations.
“The word ‘Mendini’ derives from ‘ram-mendini’ (a ‘mend-er’, also in English), the name of a humble profession in the Middle Ages. Someone who fixes, mends, and creates something new by assembling parts of the old. Harlequin’s attire is typical of this: a fresh new energetic look made from rags cut into triangles. That’s where my love of fragments, of details, of patchwork and directing comes from. In short, Harlequin’s mask could well be my manifesto: ironic and tragic.”
The public square – by definition a place of transit, interaction, and relationships – and the monument play a central role in Mendini, as we see in his design for a monument in Piazza Diaz in Milan, of 2000, entitled L’architetto, clearly a self portrait, or in the reversal of the internal/external perspective in his transformation of the exhibition space for the Swatch Emotion show at the Lingotto in Turin in 1999, into an immersive, experiential piazza, at the centre of which stands a majestic Monument to the Swatch.
Everything was potentially a monument for Mendini, through his brilliant shifts and changes of scale and his theatricalisation of the object: a Ferragamo sandal or a Campari bottle could be magnified to the point of resembling a life-size copy of Michelangelo’s David – a further contribution to considerations about the reproducibility of the work of art, and on uniqueness and seriality – as is the case in Quali Cose Siamo. Once again, an interior and an exterior, and their opposite. Working closely with the French designer Pierre Charpin, Mendini set a large yellow basin in the central hall of the Triennale Design Museum, filling it with a wide selection of very different works, creating a sort of Lilliput effect.
Two years on from Mendini’s death, the loss of his clear-headedness, his vision, his spirit, and his acumen is felt all the more. We can nevertheless hope – and Triennale and its Presidency will work hard to achieve this – to see the one of his urban projects being created in Milan, even though posthumously, or, at least, a street or a square being named in his honour. A tribute to a giant of design, who knowingly and wittily joked about the etymology of his surname: “The word ‘Mendini’ derives from ‘ram-mendini’ (a ‘mend-er’, also in English), the name of a humble profession in the Middle Ages. Someone who fixes, mends, and creates something new by assembling parts of the old. Harlequin’s attire is typical of this: a fresh new energetic look made from rags cut into triangles. That’s where my love of fragments, of details, of patchwork and directing comes from. In short, Harlequin’s mask could well be my manifesto: ironic and tragic.”