Gianni Rigo’s Ca’ della Nave and American white oak

09 June 2011

Gianni Rigo’s Ca’ della Nave and American white oak

There can be few more complex restoration projects than that carried out by architect Gianni Rigo of Studio Rigo in the small commune of Martellago, 15km northwest of Venice, in Italy. He was dealing not with a building, but with a complex of buildings, of different ages and styles, at a former farm in the Villa Grimani Morosini, commonly known as Ca’ della Nave. And he was converting them not to a single use but to a wide range of uses while aiming to give a sense of coherence to the entire complex.
The buildings have become the new headquarters of the Banco Santo Stefano, including not just offices but also shops, a museum, a congress hall, a restaurant and an underground car park. Studio Rigo won the project following a competition launched by the bank in 2006.
The brief specified that the historical building should host offices characterised by luxurious comfort, and that the project also include shopping areas, a museum, a conference room, and a restaurant. Only two elements were listed as of historic importance, the chapel and the west wing, but Italy’s Monuments and Fine Arts Office was eager that the designs should preserve much of the character and fabric of the complex, which it valued as an early example of industrial architecture, built largely of reinforced concrete with brick infill. In addition, the brief called for particular attention to be paid to the courtyard, which gained its lively nature from the mix of buildings surrounded it. The bank wanted it to be animated so that it could form a focal point for the community of Martellago.
As a result of these requirements the architect came up with a solution which combined painstaking repair techniques with bold new interventions. So it used traditional Venetian techniques to plaster walls with ‘Marmorino’ marble-like finishes, and laid terrazzo floors. It strengthened failing concrete beams with the latest carbon-fibre technology, and knitted together the buildings with a circular glazed external corridor at first floor level, echoed by a round glazed tower on the opposite side of the courtyard, containing a spiral stair with a glazed elevator at its centre.
Internally, the architect was faced with a range of finishes in varying states of repair and structural integrity, and rapidly decided that an eclectic mix of treatments would be the most appropriate. In two of the key spaces, the board room and the auditorium, it has chosen to line the spaces with American white oak. Rigo likes to design spaces that use a limited palette of materials, rather than numerous clashing finishes, and for this reason, he says, ‘I often choose oak for my works: it is a type of wood which adapts to several uses, from indoor and outdoor fixtures to furnishings, from wall panelling to flooring, and may take different forms: the surface finish may be smooth, brushed, planed or serrated and coated with varnish, oil or wax. It may also be stained, with excellent results, even with a silver or golden finish. Moreover, it is neither hard to find nor to protect and is widely available, therefore it has an excellent value for money profile.’
The boardroom gives the visitor the impression of being inside a beautifully carved wooden box, with any hint of oppressiveness removed by the broad window on one side, part of the glazed end wall of the upper part of an existing brick structure. In addition, there are smaller windows at either end of the board room looking out through the open grillage of the brickwork. At night in particular, the board room is highly visible from the town, so that the design needed to look as pleasurable from the outside as it is as a place to occupy.
Having decided to limit himself largely to one material, Rigo has then made it work very hard, combining it with small quantities of other materials, and using a range of different finishes. The first element to strike the visitor is the oval horseshoe boardroom table, supported only on its inner side, so that it cantilevers towards the seats. The 19 individual places are demarcated by the alternating use of white oak and pale leather, the latter colour echoed in the pale finish of the swivel armchairs. The white oak panelling to the concave main wall of the room is broken up by thin horizontal strips of steel, which help to emphasise the length of the wall. A sliding door, cleverly set in at one end, continues the horizontal treatment, to give the effect of an unbroken wall. The oval ceiling raft echoes the form of the table, further enhanced by an elaborate but elegant lighting solution. The oak panels have been cleverly curved to follow the lines of the raft. American white oak is also used for the flooring. Set above the boardroom is the auditorium, under the original beams of the roof. This long narrow space focuses towards a platform, realised in white oak and accessed by three organic curved stairs, rising out of the oak floor. In this space the oak contrasts with lipstick-red leather used for the tip-up seating and also surrounding the long decorative panel of the front desk. Again the palate is limited, but livelier than in the deliberately sober boardroom. These rooms are in no sense restored to the way they would have been previously – and how could they be, since their functions are so different from their original uses in an agricultural / industrial complex? But the high-quality natural materials sit well with the restored building fabric, now celebrated in its pristine state and set around a courtyard that has been landscaped in an elegant but restrained manner. The complex benefits from the architect’s intelligent treatment which finds new uses for buildings that were no longer needed to serve their original functions. These two key interior spaces, so visible from outside, contribute to the welcoming appearance offered to the village, and help convey the message that, however much the functions of the buildings may have changed, they offer continuity combined with novelty as the complex enters on the next stage of its existence.