Piero Lissoni

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen



A conversation with the world-renowned designer and architect who created an architectural masterpiece in Amsterdam, the Conservatorium hotel, by combining history with contemporary design.

Mart Engelen: What was the challenge for you when you accepted the commission for the Conservatorium hotel in Amsterdam? And were there any guidelines or demands from the client?
Piero Lissoni: I hope you like a diplomatic answer.
ME: I’m not sure if I do like diplomatic answers. (Laughs)
PL: It’s a diplomatic answer anyway because I am more or less quite diplomatic. My first concern, in front of the building when I saw it for the first time, was to save the atmosphere. At the time it was a music school; it was full of uninteresting modifications inside and outside. The building was a bit neglected, probably because it was a public space. And they had not invested very much in the last years. But the atmosphere was young, very energetic and at the same time full of music. And second, when I started to look round and tried to focus on what was happening, you know, dimensions, spaces, light, old things and the modifications. When I started to think about that and when I was talking to the client, I said, “It’s a wonderful treasure but you’ll have to be brave. You’ll have to be respectful but at the same time you’ll have to do something”. It’s too easy to be completely respectful. You clean it and inside you put it back exactly as it was. That would be too simple for me and also a bit ridiculous. We opened the hotel in 2011 but we started to design it in 2005. Can you imagine starting in 2005. I don’t like to turn back the clock, a life of a hundred years, to make something fake. That was part of the discussion. The client also said, “You have to design a hotel not only for the guests but also for the community, the city”. The client was full of pride: firstly about the building, secondly the historical elements inside and thirdly the idea of combination and—if you like—of using ‘contamination’ between
modernity and the old and antique.
ME: What words come to mind when you think about this project?
PL: ‘Brave’, ‘respectful’ and last but not least ‘elegant’. The last one is like you are adding salt and pepper. The simplicity of just three different ingredients and at the end you add the last one. When you design a creation like that you first have to think about the special glue or—if you like—the special ingredient. To my mind, that was the simplicity. Simplicity faces a lot of complexity, but when you offer a space like this you have to be elegant. Don’t forget that for many years Amsterdam was the capital for art; ceramics, porcelain, paintings.
ME: You work as an architect and a designer at one and the same time. At what point does architecture meet design? And when do they not meet?
PL: That depends first on the measures and proportions. But, in the end, they are both in the same field. When you are an architect and in the Italian school, you have to be able to be a designer, when you are a designer you have to be able to be an interior designer and when you are an interior designer you have to understand about decoration, light, flowers, etc.
ME: I noticed that in the past I have seen wonderful designs by architects but when the building was finally completed it didn’t really look very nice, for example because of the use of cheap construction materials and compromises with the client. What do you think about that?
PL: I’d like to be very precise about this. First, you have to choose the client. If the client immediately becomes difficult, it is better to stop. It’s a hard thing to do; you have to be brave, you have to be clear, you sometimes have to be uncomfortable but if you want to do something well, it’s not possible to accept compromises professionally-speaking.
But at the same time you know the limits of the compromise. You know, we spent six years discussing the project. We discussed what was possible and what was not—but then you know the limits. The limits can open the client’s mind or close your mind. But it is really important that you first choose the client.
ME: What do you think about architecture today?
PL: I think there are many great architects today. About ten years ago, there were a hundred, maybe two hundred, great architects. Now we are talking about a thousand or two thousand very good architects. But at the same time our category is also full of horrible people. Horrible people with horrible qualities and cautiousness. But the quality today is much better than it was, for example, twenty years ago.
ME: Did you have any architectural heroes when you were a student?
PL: OK, ignoring the obvious ones, the first was Andrea Palladio. He was one of the giants of Venetian Renaissance architecture and created the most beautiful villas, palaces and churches. Palladio based his designs on the values of Greek architecture and the traditions of Roman architecture as outlined by Vitruvius. His style of architecture—a blend of Greek, Roman and Renaissance art, later known as Palladianism—was in effect an early form of neoclassical architecture. After that Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a Prussian architect. His most famous buildings are found in and around Berlin, including the Schauspielhaus on the Gendarmenmarkt and the Altes Museum on Museum Island. He also made improvements to Schloss Charlottenburg. The third was Giuseppe Terragni, one of the masters of New Modernism, who started working in Italy after the First World War and pioneered the modern movement under the rubric of Rationalism. He was a real inspiration for me. But Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier were also important to me.
ME: You are called a minimalist master but how would you describe your work?
PL: It’s a label. I think it’s a good label but at the same time I am a little more complex. Minimal is another open word. I would prefer to say: simple and elegant, sometimes minimal, sometimes not. Open mindedness is also important, I never follow ideologies. I don’t like religions, theologies. I like to be free in my mind. I like to be ideological in my work.
ME: What inspires you at this moment in your life?
PL: Everything! Life is a good excuse to be inspired. Beautiful paintings or a simple commercial on TV, so many things. I continuously feel I want to be humanistic in that way. Culture is not one-way; a one-way culture is a dictatorship. I think with an open mind.
ME: Do you have a special relationship with Amsterdam?
PL: Oh yes, I started to visit Amsterdam many, many years ago. One of my first trips in Europe after Paris was Amsterdam. I think I visited Amsterdam for the first time when I was twenty-one years old. I was at the university during the summer season and travelled between Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague. Over the years, Amsterdam has changed a lot.
ME: In a good way or a bad way?
PL: In a good way! Some people say forty years ago Amsterdam was very original but I was there and to be honest the city was dirty. Today, people have a much better quality of life. Of course the spirit was more liberal. Now it’s more conservative. But generations change and they will change again. Globalisation or not, the world is changing.
ME: What do you consider as your magnum opus so far?
PL: I don’t know, I will discover that tomorrow morning. (Laughs).
ME: Thank you for this conversation.
PL: Thank you.

—Copyright 2016 Mart Engelen


Staircase Rijkspostspaarbank, Amsterdam
1931 today Conservatorium hotel.
Collection Historical Archive ING
Photo’s by: Mart Engelen