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Published in The Plan (015) Jul/Aug 2006, pp 117-121.
35-year-old Marco Guarnieri is one of a rare breed of young Italian architects who have established their practice and home in London. In fact, you can count their number on the fingers of one hand. This pivotal position enables him to enjoy the best of both worlds - the more peaceful coastal city of Trieste where he was born and the cultural stimulation of life in metropolitan London which has already deeply inscribed its influence on him.
He first came to London in 1996 on a six-month scholarship at the Architectural Association where he found that the most exciting Diploma Unit was being run by architects Alejandro Zaera Polo and Farshid Moussavi, co-directors of Foreign Office Architects (FOA). After studying architecture at the University of Venice (IUAV) for four years during his year out in 1998 he worked for Zaha Hadid before returning to the AA to become a student in FOA's AA Unit. Developing techniques for spatial and material organization such as recategorising programmes and differentiating geometries through specific conditions, was its hallmark. FOA invariably hire their own most talented students for reasons of continuity, and on graduation in 2000 Guarnieri joined them. The experience allowed him to further develop, this time in a professional environment, some of the Unit's principles, working on projects in Japan, Korea, Spain and the Netherlands.
Seeing its potential for local business in new housing and other developments, Guarnieri moved to Bermondsey, a rapidly regenerating central district south of the river near Tate Modern. He thrives on its lively cultural outlook, enjoying the fact that it feels like 'living on a construction site'. It is here that in 2003 he established his practice with former partner Lea Katseli, building a company headquarters and retail outlet in Tel Aviv. Now operating his own business, he is building a local network, working on projects including an office building in Trieste - and competitions - in the UK for a tower, and a major urban scheme in Basel together with Swiss architect Ariel Arthur Dunkel, also an alumnus of FOA's Diploma Unit at the AA.
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The company headquarters for Pack Line, a company selling packaging machines for the food industry, located in Holon, an industrial zone in Tel Aviv, was the first scheme designed and realized by Guarnieri and Katseli. Two buildings, one each accommodating the production floor and offices, sit side by side, connected by a glazed passageway, with a small concierge's box at the front gate to the site. All three, like members of a family, are faced in aluminium in a large chequerboard pattern that gives a sense of aesthetic continuum and coherence across their envelopes.
Together with the client the designers studied the way the company arranged the process of production through assembly, testing and loading, and organized the production unit space around its needs. In the office building the architects establish an aesthetic correspondence to the treatment of both buildings' façades via a mechanism that radically organizes and affects the quality of the working space. Dividing the formal and informal spaces of the offices across two floors is a long (30 metres) service wall inserted along their middle, containing archives, filing, air conditioning and lighting. It serves both sides which are differentiated into a desked, formal office and open office space, each 3.5 metres wide.
This spine-cum-storage wall does not subvert the normal way in which offices are laid out, but makes the entire space stronger, giving the room a strong identity. Against a mirrored back wall is a cantilevered vertical sequence of capacious drawers and cupboards in polycarbonate and timber with a grey and black melamine finish. Arranged in a composition suggestive of an minimal art work, they give both sides an identical face, a good sense of horizontal rhythm and individual identity. 'One single move organises the space', says Guarnieri. The designers avoid any hint of cellular space by making the spine permeable with four sliding glass doors at intervals, each with a series of matt horizontal bands. The spine was assembled off-site, with acrylic surfaces suffusing back lighting in an effect that emphasises the luminosity of the assembled forms.
At the far left end this unusual structure changes its identity. It becomes higher, supporting an aquarium at first floor level. At the other end it 'spears' its way through into the entrance lobby where, at its very tip - visitors' and workers' first point of contact - is a rectangular ceramic pool of water with a 'waterfall' of angled, banded glass over two floors. Its role is pivotal within the company on the route to the production floor and the entrance to the open office. The freeform aspect of the whole space is additionally accentuated by the designers' striking 'cracked earth' floor pattern, achieved by creating two layers of paint, one stable, and the other more unstable that contracted before receiving a surface of epoxy resin.
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The façade of the two buildings is a relatively conventional aluminium cladding applied in an interesting way that creates an instantly recognizable, abstract visual language for the company with a strong materiality. The client favoured this material because of its strong performance and longevity. The architects decided to use perforated panels over the windows on both floors to provide sun screening as well as to avoid any discontinuities in the façade. This veil-like treatment 'simplifies the façade, reducing the number of details and making it consistent', says Guarnieri. They found a solution for the buildings' corners and doors that increases this consistency so they seem to share the same DNA in spite of their different size. A plate of aluminium was bent at a 135 degree angle so that it had a 45 degree angle and shaped according to the profile of the panels, also at 45 degrees. This keeps the designers' layered façade pattern seamless, and avoids the need for a frame. This treatment of aluminium cladding, Guarnieri feels, is rather different by SANAA in their design for S-House in Okayama, Japan (1997) which has a façade with open slots, so its corner detail establishes a certain system.
Consistency is the system at Pack Line, and the designers' landscaping features on the peripheral walls closely continue the theme of the patterning of the spine and the façade. There is a vertical series of wall mounted plant boxes with integrated lighting, and plants climb up the inside of the underlit, iron mesh peripheral fence. On the street side, the fence's vertical strips are alternately lit, accentuating the chequered pattern from a distance in the streetscape.
For the fashion retailers FM (Free Move), a retail scheme in the Givatayim Shopping Centre in central Tel Aviv, the duo were created a design strategy giving the client scope to create more than one shop if he wanted. The decision to be very playful with the design matched the youthful line, cottonware and jeans by four major brands for 15-25 year olds.
They developed the concept of a landscape with different identities: forest, desert and oceans, from which they evolved a visual and spatial language, including the rippling of the water's surface and the cracked earth of the desert. The forest scheme implemented introduces a characterful and mysterious spatiality to the small boutique. The line of the counter display and the changing rooms produces a facetted profile that respects how much space each one needs. Each one is a different tree pattern, so that, like a game, people change inside a tree. To evolve these structures, the designers made geometry drawings, unfolding the trees on a plane. The fitout is made of plasterboard and metal stud, with fluorescent tube lights set in a niche in each branch of the facetted tree structures which give a warmth and depth to the shop's geometric planes. These are made of Barrisol, a quick- to-install fabric that absorbed the tolerance of the tree forms. To extend the metaphor of an outdoor environment, 9mm diameter stone carpet made out of gravel mixed with resin was used, punctuated at intervals with small stools. The combined effect of texture and scale is gently suggestive of a forest undergrowth.
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Guarnieri is a pragmatist concerned with a close coincidence between the functional and the aesthetic, a contemporary preoccupation he shares with many younger designers and architects. With Pack Line, for instance, 'we had no preconceived idea of what to do. We exploited in a very pragmatic way a set of opportunities that were there'. He's keen to tackle projects on an individual and localized basis, creating solutions that fully process streams of different information and integrate different systems, an identification with the approach of FOA, and, like them, as both his first completed projects show, his obvious design flair is disciplined and focused on finding a good resolution. While he's interested in solving problems technically, it is vital for him to wrest coherence from layers of information, reducing architectural elements needed for performance, 'not for the sake of it, but more to find the least arbitrary decisions'. Driven by this aim, Guarnieri's completed work to date reflects a design judgement of considerable maturity that should stand him in very good stead in today's demanding conditions.
© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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Metropolitan Landscapes Marco Guarnieri website
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