SOL sat down with South African Architect and Artist Lorenzo Nassimbeni.
Lorenzo's penchant for minimalism and Linear representation of the Environment spoke to SOL's own Minimal and soft Aesthetics.
The talented and Insightful Lorenzo spoke to us about living and working in the bustling CBD of Johannesburg, his love for mural work, "negative Space" and Carlo Scarpas' aesthetics at Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice.
This has been the longest SOL feature we have ever published however each answer is imprinted with a Deep-seated and Introspective essence that we felt any modification in shape or form would dilute the feature and be an injustice to Lorenzo.
You are both an Architect and Artist- did you always know that the arts would be your vocation?
There has always been a fascination and love for the physical environment in which I live. I have always seemed to interpret and relate to this environment through a spatial sensibility. Very often, I would and still do explore that sensibility through drawing, writing, taking photographs - any form of artistic recording. This is a way of exploring my own identity, through the depiction of the identity of a place. Perhaps this is why I love cities so much, and equally, nature. I see these elements as mirrors by which we can view ourselves and those around us. In my experience, if I look over a landscape, the image in my mind tends toward looking like a painting, or a photograph. I see proportions, spatial relationships, poetic essences. I see the world as if it were a drawing, with a particular conceptual message.
Simply put - rather than being destined for the arts as a vocation, I have had the arts as a part of my make up as a person, in the fibre of me, ever since I can remember. I have a photographic memory, and recall images and environments from a very early age. I suppose that in some people, artistic endeavour is more than a vocation, but a way of being. I am certain that I am one of those people, luckily.
Your earliest memory of an artwork or design that greatly impacted you?
It’s perhaps not my earliest memory, and strictly not an artwork or design per se, but I feel that my first visit to the city of Jerusalem at age 12, in 1987, has had most impact on my life, especially in terms of understanding my vocation. It was the first time that I had traveled significantly far from home, and the first environment other than South Africa that I had been exposed to. The design of the city, it’s layout, the texture, width and composition of it’s streets, all combined with the richness of history and spiritual charge - these are the things which I appreciated. Having received my primary education at a Catholic school, it was interesting to walk through the spaces of Jerusalem which marked certain seminal events in the religious narrative of my upbringing, and the history of the city itself. Perhaps more significant though, was the lesson which I was to understand much later on - that being the idea that it is not the specific singular architectural or artistic object which inspires me the most, but the idea of cities, of overall environments and collections of things, of spaces between buildings which inspires me. I am more interested in the way light touches an object and brings it into context, than the object itself. I am interested in notions of place and context.
Jerusalem has a very specific light quality, and the way that this light renders the spaces of the city, and in so doing binds the buildings to it’s historical narrative, is what stayed with me and formed future outlooks on architecture and art.
Aesthetics plays an important role in your work- what does Aesthetics mean to you on both a personal and professional level?
Rather than arriving at a certain aesthetic quality through a determined endeavour, it seems that the role which aesthetics play in my portfolio is somewhat ‘built-in’ or automatic. I think it is a natural sensibility to have an attitude to aesthetics which favours a language of simplicity and minimalism. Perhaps this is an extension of who I am in my personal capacity. I seem to gravitate toward experiences of calmness, quietness, gentleness. I am most at home in a peaceful environment, and I think that the aesthetic reflects this.
I purposefully keep very few possessions, and the things I do own, all have some influential meaning. In this way, it is the city or natural environment around me which becomes the most direct experience. There are no objects in the way between myself and environment. In professional terms, the attitude or outlook is similar. It is me, in context, experiencing and recording. The natural affinity for minimalism allows me to pare down things to an essence, a diagram, a picture of understanding. As such, the work is responsive to a place, and the code of simplification which I apply to an environment allows me to arrive at some sort of realization or learning - a discovery.
Architectural training, or my training at least, had an emphasis on ‘negative space’, the space surrounding an object. I think that had a great influence on how I see my environment. I tend to distil things to simple lines, representative of the essence of something. You would never think this if you were to see my latest body of fine art work. It is extraordinarily complex! However, within and between the layers of it all, there is an essential simplicity directing the ideas.
From above, when one looks at a city, it seems complex and layered. However, if one were to look at the design drawing according to which the city was built, it’s conceptual diagram, one would see a very simple linear representation. That is what I look for when I work.
Aside from architecture you pursue drawing, printmaking, mural work, surface design and sculpture. What is your favourite medium and why?
It is the mural work which I enjoy the most. The reason is that it combines all the disciplines which I engage with as a practitioner. Murals are architectural in that they are applied to a building or urban space, and thus interact with and become part of their ‘host’. Also, aside from paint, one can use architectural materials liketiles, bricks or concrete in creating a mural - bringing the work into the realm of building construction and sculpture. The murals are conceptualized architecturally, as a response to a context. This is the way I would design a building. The most important notion though, is that the process design material generated in arriving at the final design, and the technical documentation which is created, is all drawing-based. Drawing is the cornerstone of all the mediums I explore in my practice. So, in mural work, I am able to explore architecture, sculpture, and I suppose surface design (the mural is applied to or becomes a new surface), all in one. Further to this, there is an exciting relationship with scale. The murals are often large, and engage at an urban scale. This I find inspiring, especially since the initial conceptual sketch is usually created on a small piece of paper.
What is an important element that must never be amiss in a space?
it occurs to me, more and more that in architectural practice, we need to design spaces that consider people. You will find plenty of literature that atests to the necessity for environmentally sensitive design, the inclusion of ample light, a well considered interface between interior and exterior - these things always will be and still are relevant. However, these things should be there to support human life. Human-centric and human-scaled design is still underdeveloped in my view. It starts at the conception of a building. Why do we need to create this building? If the answer lies in the improvement of human life and experience, then I would advocate the design of the building. In an age of digital dominance and artificial ‘intelligence’, the human touch is being forgotten. The essence of human life must never be amiss in a space.
You have Italian heritage, has that come to influence your work at all?
Fundamentally, yes. Again, I return to the notion of innate essence. I can’t help but think that during the Renaissance, practitioners created across many disciplines, and drawing was a cardinal medium. Architects were painters, sculptors, engineers, muralists, inventors, scientists - all combined - with the quest for conceptual strength and discovery as primary concerns. I see Renaissance therefore, and in those terms, as a formative aspect within my heritage. Without seeking out to be a multi-discipliaery practitioner, it sort of just happened, and I am quite certain that it is the Italian gene to which I owe this aspect of my creative endeavour. Further to this , there is an inherent strong, cultural link between architecture and art in Italy. The 2 disciplines are intimately linked, and their relationship has been positively influential on the sensibility of many of the country’s citizens. The culture was built upon considerable architectural and artistic wealth, which formed the spatial and cultural context of the country. This has influenced me, even from afar.
Similar to the Jerusalem experience of 1987, whilst spending a year in Venice in 1999, I was able to experience again the idea of context and urban ritual being more important than the architectural object. I know that this time in Italy formed me as an architect and artist, and instilled a love not only for architecture and art, but for the relationship between the 2. It might well be that the Venetian waterline has been influential in me gravitating toward aesthetic essence and simplicity. The water seems to calm one, and allow for excess graphic noise to disappear.
Most of all though, is the Italian relationship to the landscape of emotion which has served me most. The architectural element in my portfolio represents the rational, and the artistic, the emotional. The Italian heritage allows me to access the emotive realm of myself, freely and without question. Sometimes this is a tricky experience, especially in a conservative space such as South Africa. Nonetheless, I am most grateful for this aspect of my heritage.
When I look at a landscape, I am filled with an emotional response. That response is then processed via an architectural method, to become a mural for example. I have Italy, and my spiritual home, Venice, to thank for that initial response. Without it, the lines of the mural would have no heartfelt meaning.
You live and work in Johannesburg, are there any spaces that are particularly interesting architecturally or design-wise that you would like to mention?
I have lived and worked mainly in the CBD of Johannesburg. As such, my experience has been largely of gritty, hard, built, unrelenting, almost unforgiving urban space. It was a space of city skyline and monolythic concrete freeways, urban readymades. There are many design icons in Johannesburg, some of which I will mention, but I think it is the overall modernist grid of the CBD which is most enticing to the viewer. The rawness of the built form of the city in the context of a dry, almost desert-like landscape is particularly striking. In the atmosphere of a white winter sky, one could be forgiven for feeling as though one is at the edge of the earth, or the end of time for that matter. Within that, there are moments. If one goes to the top of the Carlton Centre, one can look down upon the city, and get a sense of it’s concrete edge to the desert, as well as the green lanes of trees which try to soften it’s relationship to both ground and sky. On the ground, the Constitution Hill Precinct is important to visit. It makes an interesting link between Braamfonteiin and Hillbrow, and is a figurehead of South African political history and future aspiration. On certain nights, look out for the Flame of Democracy, an architectural installation in the form of a shaft of light emanating from one of the glazed towers of the Constitution Hill former holding cells. Designed by Urbanworks architecture and urbanism, I find it to be the finest piece of architecture in the city. Juta Street in Braamfontein is a hive of design and art, visit 99 on Juta. The Centre for the Less Good Idea at Arts On Main, Maboneng, an initiative by Wilkliam Kentridge, is a wonderful and fresh addition to the local art and theatre space.
The galleries in Braamfontein and Rosebank (Jan Smuts Avenue and Keyes Art Mile) are wonderful. Keyes Art Mile in particular has a good initiative called ‘The Emporium’, which explores the relationship of design and art, curated by Lucy MacGarry. The Apartheid Museum and Hector Petersen museums are valuable cultural assets, as is Soweto, as an urban space.
Johannesburg is complex, harsh, moving and beautiful. Most of all it is a human landscape. Go there for the people.
Where Can one creep on your work?
Collaboration is an ongoing trend in the creative fields- are there any artists or designers you would love to work with?
I’m most fortunate to work and collaborate with the creative practitioners whom I work with presently. I would have loved to work with Enric Mirrales, Carlo Scarpa and Bruno Munari. Alas, that will have to wait for another life. I like to work with creative people who focus on the junction of architecture and art. My colleague, artist Rhett Martyn of Johannesburg is a good example, and I hope to formalize that working relationship in the future. Similarly, the work of Gaelen Pinnock has a wonderful thesis as it’s conceptual driver. I would like to work with him. There is a gifted architect in Milan, Matilde Cassani. Her work is conceptually explorative and interesting, I would like to work with her. The architect Francesca Torzo does wonderful work, it is architecture and art at the same time, in my opinion. I would love it if Peter Zumthor showed me his conceptual drawings and models. I am fascinated by Julie Mehretu’s work, and would like to meet her.
Finally if you could be summed up in one design piece what would it be and why?
I see myself in the garden design and interior at Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, by Carlo Scarpa. There is a serenity there which I aspire to, and a relationship between detail and overall city which I value as a principle which I like to apply to my life. It has water, trees, hard building material, sky, and the promise of a city and the sea beyond it’s walls. It is a jewel, part of a larger picture, which one can feel, but not immediately see.