Light and Architecture
Piero Castiglioni started his career in the 1970s, working together with his father Livio, at a time when the first halogen light bulbs were being introduced on the European market, raising a lot of curiosity and interest around sizes and performances previously unheard of. An analysis of these new sources led to the development of the Scintilla lighting system; lighting projects, luminance calculations, custom production of lighting fixtures for art galleries, shops and living spaces were all done in-house at this time. The simultaneous approach to designing, producing fixures and installing them combined craftsmanship and research, experimentation and on-site testing, becoming a legacy and a defining characteristic of all future work. Commissions to design the lighting of important museums, historic city centers, new urban developments, monuments, parks and gardens have led to collaboration with other architects, to the development of new lighting systems and to their production and marketing by industrial manufacturers: the Scintilla system was followed by the Sillaba, Palio, Cestello, Radius, Platea, Light-Shed, Glim Cube, Diablo and Dogma, all designed to meet specific lighting requirements and in the absence of suitable models on the market. This is perhaps why Piero Castiglioni likes to call himself an electrician rather than an architect.
R: …So, Piero Castiglioni, “born into the profession”, starting as an architect you ended up becoming a lighting designer…
C: No, not a lighting designer, an architect who works with light!
R: Isn’t that just a technicality?
C: No, it’s a cultural difference: architecture is the culture of manipulating space, thus the history of architecture is also the history of how light has shaped spaces and vice versa. A lighting project is much more than just a technical matter, it starts with a question, “What needs to be done?”, where the “what” is a moral aspect, not a formal one; the “how” comes later.
R: In your work today, how do you deal with these moral choices?
C: Well, for instance, putting the “what” first may mean that the “how” doesn't appear: for
instance, lighting a space without showing where the light is coming from, subordinating the technical aspect to cultural choices. For example, to light an urban space without completely changing its character, one first needs to understand what its character is.
R: What kind of qualities do you always aim for in your projects?
C: Well, moderation and precision perhaps; a good project should follow one or two ideas at the most; when you have three, things already start getting messy. The main characteristic of a good architectural composition - and therefore of a good lighting project - is to have few “strong and lightweight” ideas. What I mean is that, by contrast, a mediocre project is one that consists of “weak and oppressive” ideas.
R: In which of your projects has this union worked best?
C: Well, I should say in all of them, however I feel particularly proud of the work done at the Musee D’Orsay, where the strong idea is that the lighting isn’t there, or to put it better, it's there but you can't see it, no lighting fixtures can be seen because it is the building itself which controls the light,
as if it were a gigantic lighting fixture. The lightness is in the fact that the light has no recognizable source.
R: Is being economical part of the moral aspect of a project?
C: I am only interested in being economical if it leads to interesting solutions. I remember that in Genoa there used to be a fantastic water-powered cable railway; it connected Corvetto Square to the ring road on the hill. Only in Genoa could they invent such a thing! It used the water of a sloping stream. Under each of the two cars there was a caisson. The descending car would be full of water which was then emptied upon reaching the bottom. The other car would go up empty and fill up at the top. In this way, the system only used gravity and nothing else. It wore down the brakes but it didn’t make any noise and it didn’t pollute…
R: Why is it that all the Castiglionis love setting off firecrackers? What do you see in them?
C: …Ah, firecrackers! Well, in a firecracker there is light and sound, it’s a basic audiovisual form… a basic audiovisual technology used to generate surprise.