by Napoleone Ferrari



Whatever Carlo Mollino did in his life, he always approached it with the mindset of an architect; whether he studied how to ski, take a photograph, design a car or an aerobatic figure, each one of his activities constituted a rigorous and controlled ‘construction’: a project.

Mollino identified himself as an architect, beginning with the protagonists of his autobiographical novels written in his youth, Oberon and Faust,[^] and architecture was his job, the sole activity he continuously pursued throughout his life.

Architecture for Mollino meant Modern Architecture, that is, an original expression of modern times, his own time. Mollino recognized that the Modern Movement embodied authentic modern architecture, but he also believed that for the first time in history, in the 20th century, a dichotomy had been growing between architects and artists on the one side and the public on the other.

The Modern Movement was not recognized by the majority of people but rather existed as a quantitatively marginal phenomenon. For this reason, it was clear to Mollino that the challenge to be faced was not the competition among the different poetics of modernity, the different ‘isms,’ but the fight against both the predominance of merely speculative architecture for financial gain and architecture incapable of meaningful expression, which rendered cities on every continent ugly. In an essay titled “Esiste l’architettura moderna?” (Does Modern Architecture Exist?), Mollino wrote:

“The inspiring condition of the authentic modern architect is to escape to a new, hoped-for world that does not exist yet; one that is not simply a nostalgic reenactment of a lost condition. Therefore, it is the expression of an elite, obliged to remain as such, in more or less open contrast with the majority… Ideal worlds… These exceptions exist on paper, very rarely in reality, only through the demiurgic dreams of those who conceived them, and in the most divergent directions. Perhaps thanks to these dreams, the unconventional and obstinate sect of architects still exists and tries to operate.” [^]

Carlo Mollino, "A shell and Ionic capital volutes," drawing published in Architettura. Arte e Tecnica, 1947. Carlo Mollino Archives, Polytechnic of Turin

Oberon: A manifesto

When Carlo Mollino graduated in 1931, he had already participated in the design and construction of several buildings[^] of diverse typology under the guidance of his engineer father, who at that time was on the eve of building the largest hospital in the city. Work was not lacking, and his father Eugenio vigorously complained about Carlo’s inadequate presence in the office,[^] who, in his turn, was absorbed in other activities.

In this context of remunerative and prestigious construction activity, Mollino was enjoying writing a novel, “Vita di Oberon” (The Life of Oberon),[^] whose protagonist was the architect Oberon. Giuseppe Pagano, director of Casabella, the most authoritative Italian periodical on modern architecture, welcomed its publication in the summer of 1933.

Oberon never existed except as a character personifying Mollino’s life program, which could be synthesized using Oberon’s own words as “his pragmatic way of ‘living poetry.’”[^]

Accustomed to the practice of an engineering studio, Mollino was completely at ease with the technical aspects of building and rather attracted by the ‘lyrical’ ones (to use a term in vogue in Italy in the 1930s to define the eminently artistic aspects of architecture).

Mollino was thus in the position of demythologizing the emphasis on functional and technological elements typical of the ‘heroic era’ of the Modern Movement and ready to create his own new mythology of which Oberon was the first chapter in a lifelong-lasting work of construction:

“Oberon passed through the human condition and endured its hardships and death, while always working strenuously in favor of the group that exalts him, and continuing to act from the tomb. The founders of colonies and the restorers of cities fall within the category of heroes.
Hesiod already placed the hero midway between gods and men, his relics, true and fictitious, forming the radiating center of his power and an effective guarantee for the group possessing them. In Maori mythology, he is completed with the attributes of the ‘creator genius.’ This demiurgical nature of Oberon the architect was expressed by his serenity, the way he acted within the passions of people and things with self-assured detachment, and the way he accepted and employed those passions according to the laws also in the struggle imposed by God, a struggle that is nature’s harmony.”[^]

Through a literary-metaphorical depiction, Mollino-Oberon defined a philosophical position recognizing Nature and History as the environments in which architects operate. But what really puzzles us about these words is the narrative created by Mollino. Why would a modern architect speak in these terms, in 1933?

Here lies a crucial aspect of Mollino’s work and personality, one of the most difficult to make clear. While it is not really possible to rationalize it, the closest we can get is to simply say that Mollino was just like a writer, who finds pleasure and the reason for his being in creating and telling stories.

Yet the unexpected outcome was that if Mollino initially used words to tell his tales, as one would expect, he then stopped writing and went on to create a narration through his architectural work. This is the reason why one of his pieces of furniture may evoke a prehistoric skeleton or one of his buildings might suggest a flying device… Mollino constantly tried to sublimate the functional-structural components of his designs into an expressive narrative.

So Oberon represents a manifesto in a double sense: on the one hand, it was a program for Mollino’s life; on the other, it coherently embodied his message in a playful way and through a creative narration.

Mollino purposefully eschewed the distinctive manner of avant-garde architecture and art manifestoes, which were in the prosaic form of programmatic points and prescriptions intended to indicate a path. In so doing he established his original position in modern architecture history without ever intending to establish a ‘Mollino school.’

Themes & Variations

On looking at all Mollino’s architectural projects and buildings, it is not immediately evident that a single author lies behind them. Depending on the context and building typology he could come up with quite different solutions and forms. It is sufficient to compare the first three buildings he designed (the Farmers’ Federation, the Horse Riding Club, the Lago Nero Sled Station) to note significantly different approaches.

Similarly it is intriguing to follow the evolution of one of his projects from its first design to its final realization, which often turns out to be significantly different (see the Lago Nero drawings here beside).

On the other hand, sometimes it is possible to follow the same single architectural idea repeating and evolving over time in different variants in order to adapt to different locations and functions until it finds its final building stage (one of the most interesting examples in this sense is the project of Casa Cattaneo).

That said, it is in any case possible to delineate a number of conceptual themes characteristically belonging to Mollino’s oeuvre and this has been done in the Works section. In a more empirical way, a number of personal traits in his nature can also be traced that shape a distinctive Mollino taste.

Among these traits we find, for example, a sensitivity more akin to the female than to the male character: Mollino was interested in qualities such as elegance, mystery, sensuality, and emotions; his mind worked in a holistic way, which neuroscience recognizes as being more distinguishing of women while men are more inclined toward a determined logical-rational sensitivity. Women host life in their bodies, they welcome and generate relationships, which Mollino did by contaminating different worlds, constantly trying to unify and connect rather than to disrupt. Without forgetting that it is not by chance that ‘the feminine’ was an essential component of Surrealist culture, which profoundly influenced Mollino.

Another typical feature of his architecture is the quest for volumetric movement, aerial suspension, and overhanging structures, a search for lightness and dynamic tension.

Related to this is a constant search for depth of surfaces and volumes. Mollino achieved such depth with different strategies: the treatment of surfaces with an extended use of textures made of rough materials, different finishes, and colors; he systematically placed the surfaces of volumes at different levels in space with protrusions and recesses and he made use of curved surfaces.

The kind of depth he made use of was also conceptual, in the sense that his projects brought together a quantity of cultural, literary, psychological, functional, structural, and evocative references. Mollino preferred complexity[^] over simplicity and clarity, which led to his works being three-dimensional,[^] pertaining to the complexity of life and often not easy to disclose.

It must also be noted that one of his favorite settings for his buildings were the mountains, an environment congenial to his feeling for nature and a vivid scenario.

Finally, it should be emphasized that in the context of architecture Mollino did not allow himself the same exuberance and formal freedom used for interiors and furniture design, eminently private spaces; instead, he recognized architecture as a specific arena in which a more controlled and austere language should be used.

List of buildings

The Carlo Mollino Archives at the Polytechnic of Turin contain 123 different architectural projects designed by Mollino between 1930 and 1973. Only 14 projects were actually built. Here below is a list of the most significant projects, both built and unbuilt.

  • 1933 federazione agricoltori cuneo farmers federation carlo mollino
    Sede Federazione Agricoltori
    Offices of the Farmers’ Federation
  • Rivetti
    Società Ippica Torinese
    Horse Riding Club of Turin
  • 1942 casa collina house on the hill carlo mollino domus
    Casa in collina
    House on the Hill
  • 1943 44 casa sullaltura house on the heights carlo mollino stile
    1943-44 Casa sull'altura
    House on the Heights
    Southern Italy
  • 1945 47 monumento caduti fallen turin carlo mollino
    1945-47 Monumento ai caduti per la libertà
    Monument to the Fallen
  • 1945 54 casa del sole carlo mollino cervinia
    1945-54 Casa del Sole
    Casa del Sole Apartment Building
  • 1946 47 lago nero sled station carlo mollino
    1946-47 Stazione Lago Nero
    Lago Nero Sled Station
    Sauze d'Oulx
  • 1946 54 casa capriata truss house carlo mollino wooden
    1946-54 Casa Capriata
    Truss House
  • 1947 48 casa sanremo apartment building carlo mollino
    1948 Casa a Sanremo
    Apartment Building in Sanremo
  • 1950 auditorium rai turin carlo mollino
    1950-52 Auditorium RAI
    RAI Auditorium
  • 1951 53 casa aosta apartment carlo mollino
    1951-53 Casa ad alloggi sul viale Maternità
    Apartment Building on Viale Maternità
  • 1952 casa cattaneo agra carlo mollino
    1952-53 Casa Cattaneo
  • 1959 palazzo del lavoro carlo mollino italia 61
    1959 Concorso-appalto Palazzo del Lavoro, Italia '61
    Palazzo del Lavoro Exhibition Hall for Italia ’61, Competition
  • 1963 casa garelli rascard taleuc champoluc carlo mollino baita
    1963-65 Baita Taleuc
    Taleuc Rascard
  • 1964 carlo mollino camera di commercio Torino chamber of commerce Turin
    1964-73 Camera di Commercio di Torino
    Chamber of Commerce of Turin
  • 1965 teatro regio opera house turin carlo mollino
    1965-73 Teatro Regio
    Regio Opera House