MDC Gallery opens at Piero Portaluppi’s Casa Corbellini-Wassermann

An apartment in the 1930s block has been transformed into a new base for the MDC Gallery. We met with Lorenzo Bini of Studio Binocle, who oversaw the “camouflaged” restoration project in Milan.

Galleria Massimo De Carlo, sede presso Casa Corbellini-Wassermann di Piero Portaluppi. Progetto architettonico di Studio Binocle, consulenza di Antonio Citterio, con l'autorizzazione della Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la città metropolitana di Milano, 2019. Foto Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti

It would be difficult to find someone who knows Milan but has not heard of the architect Piero Portaluppi or the art dealer Massimo De Carlo. But in the creation of De Carlo’s new gallery, in Portaluppi’s justly famous Casa Corbellini-Wassermann (1934–36), these two figures have been brought together for the first time. The MDC Gallery has opened following a ‘camouflaged’ restoration of the two-floors residence at 17 Viale Lombardia. The renovation took around three years of work, after the apartment had been left unused for almost fifteen years.

Launching the space is the exhibition “MCMXXXIV” (running until 18 May). This collaborative work with Francesco Bonami pays tribute to the year when the building was constructed, bringing together the work of contemporary artists with that of artists from the time.

After an initial visit to the renovated apartment, we met Lorenzo Bini, the head of the architectural project, which was completed in consultation with Antonio Citterio. Bini welcomed us into the cupola-shaped space housing his pratice, Studio Binocle, which was founded in 2011. Among its past projects are the Bastard Store in Milan (2008) and the MDC Gallery at Palazzo Belgioioso (2016).

The genre-defying Portaluppi, who switched between Art Deco, Rationalism and eclectic decoration, created the apartment block at roughly the same time as the Villa Necchi-Campiglio (1932–1935). Unlike that aristocratic home, however, Casa Corbellini-Wassermann was designed for today’s Città Studi district (at the time, on the outskirts of the city) for a middle-class family of pharmaceutical entrepreneurs. The project was therefore a hybrid between imposing home and rented house, an aspect apparent in the cladding use for the facades, with their restrained but never symmetrical design: grey and pink Ornavasso marble for the piano nobile, white plaster for the smaller apartments on the upper floors. The interiors of the gallery on the floor above reveal Portaluppi’s eclectic spirit both in the use of ornamentation, tied to the applied art tradition, and in the richness of the materials and their use. The basement level now houses the gallery offices.


How did your approach to the project evolve?
Some aspects of the history of the building were immediately comprehensible, while different types of survey and inspection were needed to detect other historical thresholds. Personally, I’m closer to an approach that takes the history of the building as more important than the original design. I wouldn’t have touched some of the non-original features if they still had historical value, unless they represented obstacles to the work. Ours was a very cautious approach, involving dialogue with and between all the parties involved: Massimo De Carlo, Antonio Citterio, the city authorities – as well as the construction company, the stonemason and the restorer. In the end, the key idea behind the route through the gallery was the connection of the rooms on the Viale Lombardia with the space behind, where we gained the two rooms with blue mosaics and the one with the striped marble flooring. We opened up a gap to do this, increasing the wall area available for exhibitions.

The external staircase of the residence, coming from the Casa del Sabato per gli Sposi pavilion, realized by Portaluppi with BBPR for the V Triennale of Milan (1933). Photos Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti
The external staircase of the residence, coming from the Casa del Sabato per gli Sposi pavilion, realised by Portaluppi with BBPR for the V Triennale of Milan (1933). Photos Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti

How did you tackle the colour of the walls in the exhibition space?
First of all, we made a room-by-room examination of the layers of paint covering the walls, and sampled the colours. We found that none of the rooms originally had white walls: they had all been painted in varying natural shades of earth green and ochre. In terms of the colour of the wall surfaces, the main focus of the conservation restoration, it has to be said that Portaluppi did not use particularly valuable paintings. These were principally water-based (except for the entrance room, which had a tempera design showing the Po Valley – Ed.). As a result, we didn’t have the problem of needing to uncover the original. If anything, the option was to reproduce the original colours we had sampled. It was decided instead to put the needs of the gallery as an exhibition space first, so we used the ivory colour of the ceilings, a choice that the city authorities accepted. They helped with the sampling work, which will be a useful tool if it is ever decided to return to the original colours. Of course, it would have been fascinating to see the apartment with the shades used by Portaluppi!

Studio Binocle, MDC Gallery at Casa Corbellini-Wassermann, Milan, Italy, 2019. Photo Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti
Studio Binocle, MDC Gallery at Casa Corbellini-Wassermann, Milan, Italy, 2019. Photo Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti

So did you find yourself becoming more of a conservator than you expected?
There’s a bigger issue in this type of intervention: installing functions that require an invasive technological structure in restricted spaces. Here we had the good fortune to have the basement, first because we could use it as a “lung” for the systems servicing the space above, and second because it allowed a comfortable temperature in the exhibition area. The real difficulty with these projects is adapting the spaces to a whole series of modern systems – heating, air-conditioning, ventilation, sprinklers, data network, smoke detectors – and objectively this is not always possible. I think it would be more correct to argue to the contrary – to start by asking what a building could become, taking its features and age as starting points. A project is adapted rather than transformed, or better is transformed through adaptation.

How did you resolve spatially the problem presented by this infrastructure?
Everything on the upper floor is routed from the lower one, where the gallery offices are located. For each specific element, from the fan coil unit to the lighting tracks, we had to find a way to allow it to pass above from below. The fittings that we designed for the lower floor are partly bookcases and partly technical infrastructure: the installation design was tightly controlled through these elements. The requirements of the heating and power systems need to be coordinated via the architectural design and sometimes it can be very difficult to integrate them.

The apartment before the restoration and philological restoration by Studio Binocle. Photo Lorenzo Bini
The apartment before the renovation by Studio Binocle. Photo Lorenzo Bini

Your approach to the exhibition space with the blue mosaic flooring, where the original parts “float” among those that appear to be traces of an earlier system, seems clear to me. I had the impression that you took a bespoke, room-by-room approach to the intervention, but that this becomes explicit in the exhibition space in particular. Is that right?
The flooring you refer to, which dates to the 1930s, seems to have been laid by hand, which was the way service spaces were finished then. The floor is eye-catching, so it would perhaps be going too far to do archaeological work on it. In fact, these rooms emphasise the original fragments, compared to the larger rooms, where the original appearance dominates. Also, as fragments in an impersonal space they take on an explanatory value, summarising the approach to the project by acting almost like captions. There was much to conserve too. You understand some things by doing them – the mosaic is a case in point. We assessed various options, but leaving them as “islands” makes it immediately evident that they are original.
In particular, in the first days after the gallery was opened, visitors showed almost a need to know what was original, to see the “2019 layer” as clearly distinct from that of 1934. The signs of the restoration are not always evident to the average visitor. This is a “camouflaged” restoration, in fact.

Set up for the exhibition “MCMXXXIV”, in collaboration with Francesco Bonami. The exhibition pays tribute to the year of the beginning of the construction of Casa Corbellini-Wassermann. From 8 March to 18 May 2019. Photo Roberto Marossi
Set up for the exhibition “MCMXXXIV”, in collaboration with Francesco Bonami. Photo Roberto Marossi
Massimo De Carlo Gallery – Lombardia, venue at Casa Corbellini-Wassermann by Piero Portaluppi (1934-1936)
Viale Lombardia 17, Milan, Italy
art gallery
Architectural design and construction supervision:
Studio Binocle/ Lorenzo Bini
Design team:
Diletta Buchetti, Giulio Giori, Andreas Noussas, Anna Pierotello, Luca Pisaroni, Shoji Ishijima, Marina Tangari, Cristina Tullio
Architectural design consultancy:
Antonio Citterio
With the permission of :
Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la città metropolitana di Milano
Lighting design:
Metis Lighting S.r.l.
MEP engineering:
Studio Tecnico Fumagalli
Electrical engineering:
Studio Tecnico Locatelli
FV Progetti
Fire engineering:
Security coordinator:
Studio Demichelis
General contractor:
Custom lighting manufacturing:

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