Gae Aulenti (1927-2012) was an Italian architect and a prolific designer of furniture, lighting and theatre sets. Aulenti was one of the few women working in architecture and design in postwar Italy and her talents found a vast range of outlets, from showrooms for Fiat and Olivetti to sets for La Scala, the opera house in Milan, to private villas for the rich. But it is for her work in museums and exhibition design that she was best known - and for her largest project, which also proved to be her most divisive.
She was chosen in 1981 to convert the Beaux Arts-style Gare d'Orsay railway station in Paris into a new home for impressionist art. Her proposal transformed the cavernous central hall, a magnificent barrel-vaulted train shed lit by arching roof lights, into an open exhibition space, with the insertion of modern industrial materials. Original cast-iron beams and plaster rosettes were contrasted with wire mesh partitions and new rough stone walls, on which the collection, of mainly French art from 1848 to 1915, was daringly hung.
Her defiant disposition was evident from the beginning. Born in the town of Palazzolo dello Stella, near Trieste, Gaetana Aulenti decided to study architecture as a form of rebellion against her parents' desires for her to become "a nice society girl".
On graduating from Milan Polytechnic in 1954 (as one of only two women in a class of 20), she joined Casabella magazine and quickly became part of the "Neo Liberty" movement. Reacting against the dominance of modernism and the monotonous legacy of the Bauhaus, it argued for a revival of local building traditions and individual expression - something that Aulenti pursued in all aspects of her life, as a fierce opponent of fashion.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, Aulenti produced furniture for Milan's major design houses.
In the early 80s she was the artistic director at FontanaArte, creating timeless lamps and furnishing elements for the company that are still in the catalogue.
One of her most famous pieces, a coffee table in the form of a thick square of glass supported on four black casters, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The houses she went on to design in the 70s and 80s shared a similarly postmodern sensibility. With echoes of buttresses and primal pitched-roof forms, they reveal a taste for references to pre-classical architecture and a sense of elementary construction. In many ways they are a strong reflection of her character, described by the Italian writer Alberto Arbasino as "a cross between bucolic charm and the solid mentality of an engineer".
Such a combination was perhaps a necessary weapon in such a male-dominated profession. Aulenti said she managed to get her way with tough construction crews by making them think of her as their mother "whom they must please", and she had an equally commanding approach to working with existing buildings by revered architects.
Aulenti enjoyed what she called the "double ambiguity" of working in existing contexts, juxtaposing elements of the past with the present. As well as the Musée d'Orsay and the Palazzo Grassi, she designed the permanent collection galleries of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Palacio Nacional in Barcelona and, most recently, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
"There are plenty of other talented female architects, but most of them seem to link up with men," said Aulenti, who divorced twice. "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."
During her lifetime she received many prizes and awards, including: "Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur" (Paris), Honorary Member of the American Institute of Architects; Praemium Imperiale for Architecture (Tokyo), "Knight Grand Cross" of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (Rome), honorary degree in the Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, USA).
Source: The Guardian