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Obituary: Gae Aulenti (1927 – 2012)

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Italian architect and designer, most famous for the Musee D’Orsay has died aged 84

Gae Aulenti was born on 4 December 1927, in Palazzolo dello Stella near Trieste. She defied her parent’s wishes by studying architecture, graduating from the Milan Polytechnic Institute in 1953.

After graduating Aulenti became art director at the Italian design magazine Casabella-Continuità until 1965. According to the MOMA’s website, the magazine’s editor Ernesto Nathan Roger fostered ‘her interest in art, philosophy and literature as well as architecture, leading her to believe that architecture is primarily an intellectual discipline and that specialism is wrong’.

She taught at the Venice School of Architecture between 1960 and 1962, and later at the Milan School of Architecture.

Like many architects working during the modernist era, she was heavily involved in furniture design, designing for Zanotta, Knoll and Artemide. Her most recognized pieces are the April folding chair and the San Marco table. Her Table with Wheels, designed in 1980, influenced heavily by industrial design, is now part of MOMA’s permanent collection.

But it is for her large scale museum projects that Gae Aulenti is best known.  The most famous being the conversion of the 1900 Beaux Arts Gare d’Orsay train station into the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, completed in 1986. Writing about the project in the AJ, John Harris said ‘Aulenti has indulged herself in an aggressive orgy of ornamental excess, and nowhere is it possible to escape from intrusions on the eye. The M’O is without a doubt the most tiring and frustrating museum in the world’ (AJ 04.03.87). Despite reviews like this, the project led to further museum and art gallery work including the Palazzo Grazzi in Venice, the restoration of a 1929 exhibition hall in Barcelona converting it into the Musea Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and most recently the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco completed in 2003. 

She was appointed to reorganise the fourth floor of Piano and Rogers’ Pompidou Centre in 1982 to house the increased collection of the French National Museum of Modern Art. This design was described in the AJ as enhancing the qualities of the building by ‘exploiting its potential for flexibility whilst maintaining its quality of openness to the outside world’ (AJ 03.10.84).

One of the few women practising in post war Italy, she is quoted in the Guardian as having said ‘I’ve always worked for myself, and it’s been quite an education. Women in architecture must not think of themselves as a minority, because the minute you do, you become paralysed. It is most important to never create the problem.’

Aulenti was awarded first prize at the 1964 Milan Triennial for her work in the Italian Pavilion, where her installation featured mirrored walls decorated with silhouettes of women from Picasso’s paintings.

In 1991 she received the Praemium Imperiale, an arts prize awarded annually since 1989 by the imperial family of Japan on behalf of the Japan Art Association and described as the Nobel Prize for the Arts.

Gae Aulenti passed away at her home on 31 October. She is survived by her daughter, fashion designer Giovanna Buzzi, and a granddaughter.

Musee D’Orsay, Paris by Gae Aulenti

Musee D’Orsay, Paris by Gae Aulenti

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Obituary: Gae Aulenti (1927 – 2012)

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