“The Five Senses Aligned: Designing for the Bella Figura” Trebuchet Magazine


Designing for the Bella Figura

Clean lines and fantasy beach house palettes populate the promotional imagery which goes

with Robin Monotti Architects’ emotional branding. It is the stuff of dreams –infinite vistas,

the echo of sea upon shingle, the contrast of nature and form. Born in Rome and taking

from the eternal city an eye for the bella figura, founder Robin Monotti combines the

practice ofarchitecture with a role in its development –lecturing and examining on the

subject at universities across Europe. Tellingly, a formative architectural experience in

Monotti’s past involved the transition in temperatures between an Alpine valley and a

church located therein. That observation that architecture is a matter of all the senses,

not merely the visual, projects through his designs, as well as through his musings on

the architect’s craft.

Describe architecturally the sort of building you grew up in.
I grew up in a 1970s residential block raised on concrete columns, overlooking a nature

reserve on the edges of Rome, a very Corbusian project: concrete pilotis, nature, and

cars hidden in car parks underground. The block, however, was faced in terracotta tiles,

giving it a more Roman feel. The architect and developer lived on the top penthouse flat

and we lived a few floors down from that. We would be invited upstairs for special events,

in that way the situation is reminiscent of the hierarchy  described to its extreme version

in JG Ballard’s High Rise.

Considering famous buildings, how do buildings become iconic, or even take on

importance,  and is that status separate from architecture?
A building becomes iconic if its formal characteristics are easily recognisable to the people

observing it, and if it reminds them of something else. Analogy has an important role to
play in making a building achieve the iconic status. Of course, we have to remember that

icons were representations of saints. Icons in architecture tend to refer beyond themselves

as buildings to something else that is easily understood by the public.

Is there such a thing as an ideal commission?
There are ideal clients, intelligent and educated people who want to partner with the

architect in building something that embodies shared values, clients who want to build

something either ordinary or extraordinary, and are clear which one of the two they

want. Then for an architect most commissions can be seen as ideal. It is really about

the client, but also about the site, the potential it embodies even before there is a

project there.

Is there a particular design process that you use?
I start by visiting the site, getting to know it, draw it, model it, and then start trying

different options on it. To decide what to try first, I look at precedents of projects

that have fulfilled similar requirements, to similar building types to the one I have

been asked to deliver, and try to learn from them too.

Does the architect’s role end with the design?
It usually ends with the handover of the building to the client. It is very difficult

to have any control after that, so it is best to relinquish control once the building

has been handed over. The architect can still learn from the building after that, though.

How do clients react to the notion that once functional and behavioural needs

have been satisfied, only then can architecture begin?
I think it’s the other way round, architecture is what allows a wide variety of behaviours to

take place, it does not define them but allows them. Progressive architecture is the one

that does not set obstacles to the way it can be used. The important initial decisions are

usually to do with defining what is public and what is private space, but after that the

architecture should  mainly respond to the site rather than to a predefined brief that may

change during the building’s lifetime.

Is the quest for ever-smarter high-tech materials a smokescreen for a lack of

genuine innovation?
I don’t think so. We’ve been making architecture for thousands of years and the innovation

has always been related to innovation in materials. Think of the pozzolana cement used in

the construction of the Pantheon. It was a Roman innovation, hence the Pantheon could be

built. Or think about glass and steel, they led to the building of skyscrapers. It’s in

materials that the real innovation lies.

Can we ever reconcile our need for building shelters with our emotional

requirement for green spaces?
I would like to build a building in an urban centre entirely covered in plants.

You could then use terraces and roof terraces as outdoor green spaces.

Is architecture a form of expression or an aesthetic reaction to human

needs and limitations?
Architecture is a ritual of seeking the appropriate answer to a question that is being

asked by the place that it is meant to occupy.

When did architecture first capture your imagination? Was it a grand

skyscraper, chapel or something more humble?
A small church in the Alps in Italy, the transition between the temperature of inside

and outside, the definition of an internal space and how it contrasted with the

envelope of a valley surrounded by mountains. A different scale of enclosure than

the one offered by nature.


Trebuchet Magazine, Issue 2, Structure and Architecture, 2017

Issue 2: Structure and Architecture