I think I was about fourteen when I realised that architecture which makes you feel something is real architecture. Anything else is merely building. The Teatro Armani is, by this and any other definition, architecture – a series of masterstrokes executed by a master. It is also further confirmation of the significance of the fiefdom of Armani in Milan – a fiefdom trumpeted by the vast Emporio Armani sign which dominates your arrival on the tarmac at Linate.
Mr Armani has become a patron of art in the great Italian tradition and the wisdom of his choice for this most recent commission is immediately evident - Armani got the best out of Tadao Ando and Ando got the best out of the building. This was always an interesting alliance between two essentially private men whose businesses started within a few years of each other. Both are perfectionists, obsessed with detail, whose work is characterised by a pristine modernism and an absence of cheap tricks.
Teatro Armani is far more than an exquisite catwalk. It is a mark of permanence in the generally transitory world of fashion and a global stage for the Armani brand – a brand already reinforced by such diverse platforms as collaboration in popular films and a groundbreaking show at the Guggenheim. Nor is it, either, simply a stroke of marketing genius. Armani once said that ‘I always try to draw upon dreams.... this is where real fashion is made, for me’. He has succeeded in commissioning the perfect place in which to dream.
This is Ando at his most refined and exciting. To enter is to step outside the normal frames of experience. Here there is much that is familiar from his previous work – the architectural vocabulary, the palette of materials, the preoccupation with the way surfaces meet and walls contain. Alongside these elements which provoke a sense of recognition, however, there is an absolute and lyrical strangeness, a synthesis which is utterly new and which has to do with Ando’s rigorous approach to each successive commission -
‘The serious designer must question even the given requirements, and devote deep thought to what is truly being sought. This kind of enquiry will reveal the special character latent in a commission and cast sharp light on the vital role of an intrinsic logic, which can bring the architecture to realisation. When logic pervades the design process the result is clarity of structure, or spatial order – apparent not only to perception, but also to reason.
The theatre is located in the Porta Genova canal district of Milan, south west of the city centre. The new architecture has been slipped inside the skin of what was formerly a NestlÈ’s factory - the faint scent of chocolate still hangs about the place. When I arrived, I had a strong sense of a space in waiting, a place to which people will come to be seen, as they once went to the opera. I could imagine the cars drawing up in the wide, tree-lined street, the paparazzi waiting on the pavement to catch the stars as they ascend Ando’s ambulatory, like actors approaching the stage in a traditional Noh theatre, the anticipation of the show brilliantly intensified by the architecture.
The scale of the ambulatory is breath taking, the gentle upward slope enhancing the already dramatic perspective. A series of columns whose tops stop short of the ceiling punctuates the space. The corridor itself is shadowy, but there is light at its end and one is drawn towards this rectangle of brightness marked with a dark cross. Light bands, set along the edges of the passage, cast a luminous haze upwards across the blocks of concrete, whilst threads of light catch in the minute gaps between the floor slabs of Tuscan limestone. Further in and to the right, the lower section of a wall is glazed, giving a glimpse of water.
The columns, like markers, continue beyond the threshold of a lofty atrium dominated by a great curve of concrete, canted like Serra’s huge steel sculpture at the Venice Biennale. This curve is unsupported, appearing as a fragment of some giant sphere, resting on the floor. Everything is larger than life. Two massive zinc-clad columns – vast totems – pierce the ceiling without appearing to touch it. Three huge, luminous volumes of milky glass, set in clear glass boxes, seem to hover a little above the floor.
At any of these Kuramata-like light desks, coats are handed over, to disappear into one of three openings in the concrete curve, which also conceals the washrooms. The blindingly white men’s room is particularly memorable, with its waterfall urinal, reminiscent of Philip Johnson’s sculpture in Houston and a facility which, I suspect, it will feel something of a desecration to use. Everywhere, the quality of the finishes and detailing is astonishing. The skill of Italian craftsmen is well-known, but I wonder whether the fact that Ando has held a licence to box professionally is relevant – he has been known to take a swing at a less than satisfactory workman.
From the atrium, one passes into the theatre itself. With the great and the good filling the raked seating, a gantry crammed with photographers and exquisitely draped forms processing down the illuminated catwalk – T-shaped and designed so that it will glow either red, green, blue or white – the space will doubtless come to life. Without these things, like all theatres between performances, it possesses a faint but unmistakable air of desolation.
The cathedral-like refectory is my favourite of all of Ando’s five spaces - fifty by one hundred feet of perfect proportions and luminous white planes of crushed marble plaster and the only place where you are reminded that this is new architecture slipped into an old building, a gap in the centre of the new ceiling vault affording a view of the original timber and steel truss roof structure.
People are forever talking about walls which appear to float. All too often this is the intended rather than the achieved effect. Here, the long wall which divides the refectory from the theatre really does seem to float - I was sure I’d see the floor of the theatre when I bent down, instead finding the biggest shadow gap I’ve ever seen, so deep, you can’t see the back of it.
The refectory is, for me, the heart of Ando’s immaculate cocoon. Here is architecture which acts as a filter, refining the experience of being alive. Within this enclosed world, Ando allows us, in accordance with Japanese architectural conventions, to feel the presence of nature, but nature as a series of isolated elements, rather than as landscape. A glazed slot running the length of the ceiling reveals a band of sky, whilst the wall which borders the enclosed courtyard stops short, just above eye-level, so that all you can see looking down is the reflective surface of the water.
Spare, subtle and rich – the Teatro Armani is testament to the discipline of pushing simplicity and clarity to their limits. Part La Scala, part Galleria, with a little of Hadrian’s Villa and a lot of Japan, its final achievement is in being exactly like nothing but itself, and, consequently, able to say something new about Ando, his patron and perhaps, even, about fashion itself.
© John Pawson 2001