Michele Molè.  Photo © Luigi Filetici
Michele Molè. Photo © Luigi Filetici
At the heart of Expo Milan 2015, the stunning architecture of the Padiglione Italia – the only pavilion not to be dismantled after the event – has already become a symbol of the Italian excellence, modern creativity, and technological innovation.
Designed by Nemesi Studio, the spectacular forest-like structure is 13,000 square meters in size, made of energy-efficient photovoltaic glass and bioactive cement that purifies the air from polluting agents.
In the following interview, Roman architect Michele Molè – a PhD in Contemporary Architecture, founder and creative director of Nemesi – discusses the qualities of this latest landmark, which adds on to Italy’s vast collection and invites to look forward after the economic crisis.
What is the meaning of the “urban forest” that you’ve created?
Even if working to a tight deadline, our main goal was to create a Padiglione Italia that represents the excellence of Italian architecture, design, and creativity. Italy’s good reputation worldwide is based on our creativity, innovation, taste, and art. That is, our ability to create beautiful things. In order to fulfill this main goal, we tried to design a project rooted in our tradition and history, for Palazzo Italia to become a product not only of Nemesi but also of our Country as a whole.
Another important goal was to update Italy’s great history and extraordinary memory, to look at the future. Far from old-style architectures that only remind of unmatchable past glories, we wanted to make tradition modern and to show once again how Italy is capable of generating innovation, quality, artistry, beauty, and of keeping up with tomorrow’s challenges.
A third goal, relating to Expo’s theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” was connected to nutrition and sustainability. In fact, Palazzo Italia has nothing to do with energy consumption or environmental impoverishment; on the contrary, it enters the natural interchange with the surroundings, becoming a new example of sustainable building.
Let’s begin by talking about the idea of a “modern beauty.”
Our project was inspired by some of the highest moments in Italy’s art history, from the silently powerful figures of Michelangelo’s Mannerism to the dynamic dialogue between the inside and outside in Bernini and Borromini’s Baroque works, up to Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro that overcame formal figurative standards to describe the indescribable through lights and colors. All of these have combined in our primary search for the profoundness, complexity, and richness that life as well as the urban and architectural environment are made of. Palazzo Italia was meant as a continuation of such a history and as its contemporary interpretation.
Inside Palazzo Italia there’s a piazza. Is it a social message from architecture?
An essential element of our project was the Italian idea, throughout history, to build up small or large villages that are not only urban settlements but also real communities. The piazza, the village’s center, has always been the place where Italians gather and feel part of this community. So we have recreated a piazza in the urban architecture of Padiglione Italia: an empty space 35 meters high, representing a meeting point for the Italian community as well as one of our oldest social traditions. Another one is nutrition, Expo’s main theme.
The architecture of Palazzo Italia was designed according to sustainable criteria, using photovoltaic glass and bioactive cement.  Finally a new, different building philosophy. 
The extraordinary bio-cement made for us by Italcementi after a 12 thousand-hour research is made of recycled materials, which don’t use any raw materials but only the residues from previous productions, such as dust from Carrara’s marble quarries. So the white color of Palazzo Italia reminds us of the Italian marble sculpture tradition, of Michelangelo and the Renaissance great cathedrals. Contemporary constructions don’t exhaust the landscape any longer, but rather become part of it. This is the idea behind our “urban forest:” architecture becomes a tree, a mass of logs that touch the ground and draw nourishment from it, and a twist of branches that aim at the sky, shaping the spaces and volumes of Palazzo Italia. All of this is covered by “leaves,” which give back energy to the environment like real trees do. Photovoltaic panels produce all the energy that Palazzo Italia needs, making it zero impact and capable of breathing with the environment. One of its most innovative features is the photo-catalytic bio-cement that reacts to sunlight and transforms pollution into clean air, keeping also the building’s walls white and clean.
Do you believe that the best of design is still Made in Italy?
It certainly is one of our distinguishing features, an example of the Italian excellence and creativity, as Italy’s varied culture and beauty become somehow part of our DNA at birth. And yet, intellectual creativity needs to be matched by state-of-the-art production, in terms of know-how and high quality craftsmanship. This is still clear in the fashion industry, but not so much in regards to city planning and architecture. Palazzo Italia showcases the Italian excellence in both design and production, but then the Institutions are responsible for its promotion.
Palazzo Italia was designed in 7 months and completed in only 14, a strong sign of efficiency and quality in the world’s eyes.
Companies the likes of Italcementi and Styl-Comp, the creators of Palazzo Italia’s unique façade, or Stahlbau Pichler that realized the amazing high-tech roof, are great examples of know-how and expertise. We worked together with passion and enthusiasm to turn our dream into reality. Palazzo Italia testifies that, when the best Italian forces are supported and allowed to work without the red tape to frustrate them, our Country is still capable of creating extraordinary things. I wish that Palazzo Italia would become the first step to restore beauty’s place at the center of Italy’s public policy.
In your opinion, what is Italy’s great beauty?
It’s the value that Italy has created throughout its history and is known for all over the world. Traveling to South and North America, Africa, China, and Russia, I can see there’s a high demand of Italian beautiful products and extraordinary way of life. This is how Italy appears abroad, but we need to make sure that it’s relating not only to our past but also to our present and our future.
Receive more stories like this in your inbox