28 September 2020
by Marco Romanelli
When a master dies, a light goes out. Cini Boeri, who died on Wednesday 9th September, was one such master. Hers was a rigorously masculine approach for a woman who had been and still was, at 96, a great beauty. Cini fought hard against the prejudices of her time, which now seem ridiculous but were then insuperable, to become an architect: architecture was a man’s job. And what about design? That too! But she made it. Her design was rigorous from the start, never casual, but underpinned by a very precise method (one of her fundamental books of 1980 was entitled Le Dimensioni Umane dell’Abitazione: appunti per una progettazione attenta alle esigenze fisiche psichiche dell’uomo/ The Human Dimensions of the Home: notes for designing with the physical and psychological needs of people in mind). Her projects were put together rationally, largely based on plans and sections. Distribution was at the heart of her work: functional, severe, but always driven by the needs of the “inhabitants:” “They entrust me with their privacy, the shadows of their neurosis, their progressive aspirations and the misery of their habits.” (C.B., 1976). Her non-flashy projects often turned out in “black and white” in the end. It wasn’t just an architectural style, it was a lifestyle – no frills – sometimes, as in her beloved Sardinia, it could almost be described as spartan, with striking site-specific houses and features. She designed a house at Punta Cannone, on the island of Maddalena, in 1966. Standing on extremely rocky terrain, the house is built to a circular plan with small apertures to the outside and a large patio in the middle, a real outdoor sitting room, off which the rooms open directly. The rough plaster on the exterior was obtained from finely-ground local granite. This was followed a year later by the “Bunker” house at Abbatoggia, buffeted by the wind and within easy reach of the waves. The house is made up of hefty reinforced trapezoidal concrete blocks. Similarly, albeit in an entirely different setting, in 1969 Boeri designed a house at Osmate in the woods bordering Lake Maggiore. Built of exposed reinforced concrete, the house was set into the landscape so as to respect the existing trees. The colours inside are those of the materials (stone, wood, white plaster): there is no decoration and no furnishing (the mattresses are laid on top of raised steps, the wardrobes consist of hanging rails in alcoves). Her model is deserving of careful study, especially nowadays when quite the opposite - unthought-out decorativism – seems to be the order of the day.
In design, too, while adhering to the companies’ demands, her approach verged on the Franciscan. Take for example her 602 and 1098 lamps for Arteluce in 1968: a series of industrial-grade PVC tubes inserted into each other (including the “elbows”) so as to form a “periscope.” Then there’s Botolino, a small armchair held up by three totally out-of-scale metal cylinders: as anti-gracious as it is recognisable, not to mention the famous Strips (Compasso d’Oro, 1979) – sofas, armchairs, beds – with quilted covers (an explicit reference to sleeping bags) zipped to the base. Incomprehensible for the times and still revolutionary today. Then again, in Ridley Scott’s unforgettable film Blade Runner, Harrison Ford poured himself a tot of whisky into a Cibi glass, designed by Boeri in 1974 – 8 years after it was designed, it still best represented “the future” (don’t forget, the film is set in 2019!). We must not forget, however, that minimalism was not the only trick Cini Boeri had up her sleeve – her 1964 Borgogna armchair for Arflex was well ahead of the times. More than a seat, it was a command centre (now we’d call it a workstation): the arms are equipped with a telephone, reading lamp, pull-out bookrest, ashtray, side pockets for documents and a small drawer. An armchair as portrait?
Farewell Cini, farewell, we’ll miss your radical elegance.
P.S. I would advise anyone really wanting to “enter” Cini Boeri’s world to read Cini Boeri Architetto e Designer, edited by Cecilia Avogadro and published by Silvana Editoriale in 2004. It is a first-person confession – intimate, intense, ironic and intelligent.
Top image: courtesy Fiam
Home page: Photo by Chris Moyse
Photo by Chris Moyse