Lessons in architecture

Remembering the master Luigi Caccia Dominioni, who sadly passed away, with a recent article published on Domus for his 100th birthday, when we met him at his home to peruse the details of some of his buildings that have become immaculate examples of good building practice.

Luigi Caccia Dominioni
This article was originally published on Domus 981, June 2014.


Much is known about the work of Milanese architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and many publications analyse his great ability in designing layouts, but I believe much remains to be said about his work.

Luigi Caccia Dominioni
WATER. The architecture is designed meticulously and in detail to protect itself against bad weather. As all architects are aware, water is one of a building’s biggest problems: infiltrations and acid rain are its enemies. Luigi Caccia Dominioni’s architecture turns these problems into design features that shape the building and the design of its fronts. There are oversized eaves, downspouts embedded in corners, expert work by tinsmiths, refined entrance canopies, copper on the roofs and intelligently shaped and milled stone, a ploy to eliminate rainwater as quickly as possible. Left: the grilled loggia on the facade of the Convent and Istituto della Beata Vergine Addolorata at Via Calatafimi 10. Right: detail illustrating the relationship between the two buildings and the differences in the eaves of Via Santa Maria alla Porta 11
Analysis of his layouts has revealed close relationships between Caccia Dominioni and his private clients but a look at the exterior of his buildings highlights his close collaboration with builders and artisans in a combined effort to find lasting, functional solutions to the many problems a piece of architecture may incur over the years.
Luigi Caccia Dominioni
Above: note the point of encounter with a building designed by Vico Magistretti, a great friend of Luigi Caccia Dominioni
Thanks to his focus on construction details – skilfully designed details, careful construction and discerning choices of material – many of his buildings are still in an excellent state of preservation. Caccia Dominioni also turned the successful outcome of his close relationships with workers into evidence of building excellence, thereby securing more commissions.
Luigi Caccia Dominioni
SUN. Sunlight is Caccia Dominioni’s second major focus and, again, he turned a problem into a useful design component. Shades become mobile screens that guarantee thermal comfort and bring the building facade to life: mostly on rollers, they fit into special copper housings above the windows. Often jointed with curved arms, they are unexpectedly expressive once mounted. When not in use, the shades are closed and merge perfectly into the architectural contours. Left: detail of the sunshades on the facade of Corso Italia 22-24. Right: the unusually curved arms that shape the sunshades of a building in Via Santa Maria alla Porta
On these pages, we have tried to read, with the architect’s kind assistance, different parts of his Milan buildings according to four themes: the design approach to the problem of rainwater; ways to shade from the sunlight; the creation of relationships between internal living and exteriors; and lastly, how to cope with the problems caused by damp ground.
Luigi Caccia Dominioni
Luigi Caccia Dominioni in a drawing by Roberto Sambonet
These are perpetual issues with which all architects ought to engage on a daily basis but that in recent years have been overshadowed by banal formal studies. In many cases, this has undermined the partnership with builders and given technicians the role of main interlocutor.
Luigi Caccia Dominioni
VIEWS. Sight trajectories from a building to the exterior are another design component. As crucial as layout movements, the views adhere to strict Functionalist rules but also give rise to new formal and construction inventions on the façade. A new window type is invented with intrados or extrados – thanks to the expertise of the craftsmen. Left: detail of a window in the Corso Europa building. Right: an assortment of structural inventions on the metal and glass facade of an office building at Corso Europa 10
The adoption of this selection of themes must not prevent us from duly highlighting Caccia Dominioni’s great ability to relate to the context by means of appropriate material and colour choices, characteristics that certainly distinguish his work without limiting it - his houses at Arenzano and projects in Engadine are clear examples of this.
Luigi Caccia Dominioni
GROUND. Caccia Dominioni buildings do not touch the ground, they commence from the ground. With the awareness of the true builder, he manages to fend off the damp ground by exploiting cellar and car-park ventilation and lighting. After designing sturdy metal gratings, he camouflages them with plant covering. These buildings are traditionally protected at ground level by local stone cladding, worked imaginatively and with inventive: scored, bush-hammered, punched and flamed local stone. Left: il dettaglio dell’ingresso dell’edificio di via Santa Croce. Right: detail of the service entrance of a building in Corso Europa
Today, in the absence of a true architect’s manual, these same buildings can be considered lessons in architecture and atlases of technical outdoor details, ready and waiting for curious eyes that are keen to see. They are not just technical details, but commonsense solutions that never force the hand of the artisan and that become pure invention thanks to the strength of skilfulness. They are details resolved with a certain naturalness, because the final objective of every choice is the creation of a piece “to the highest standards”.
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Luigi Caccia Dominioni
Left: garage and cellar ventilation grilles, softened by plant cover, are a recurrent theme in the architect’s designs, drawing light into basement areas while also helping to reduce dampness where the building and ground meet. Right: the entrance to the courtyard tower block of an apartment complex in Corso Italia

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