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Primordial caverns


Mitchell Oakley Smith on Cardillo’s House of Dust project

Mr Oakley Smith


As one of the world’s most exciting architects, Antonino Cardillo draws on classical and ancient architectural forms to create spaces that feel entirely new. House of Dust, his latest residential project in Rome, reveals a yearning for primordial caverns. Architect Antonino Cardillo was not being ironic when he named his latest project—a 100 square metre apartment in Rome, Italy—House of Dust. Here, the ceiling and upper half of the rooms’ walls is covered in a raw plaster the colour of bare earth, giving the space a cavernous quality in combination with carved-out windows. It’s not a common style in contemporary design practice—indeed, the closest thing to this I can recall are the concrete bagged walls of my high school, and how hideous I always thought them—but the effect in this context is rather profound, almost sacred in its allusion to classical religious tombs. Of course, this can only be expected from Cardillo. The young Sicilian-born, Rome-based architect has built a reputation for exploring the boundaries between ancient and modern languages, fusing cultures and traditions in his designs spanning urban, residential and retail spaces. With the employment of classical techniques, Cardillo rightfully earned a place on Wallpaper* magazine’s list of the top 30 architectural practices in the world, a detail confirmed by editor Tony Chambers in his statement that he is “one of the most significant architects of our time.” He may work alone—Cardillo rarely employs additional staff—but his output, both in the number of projects and their cerebral depth, is prolific, testament to his constant personal quest for information. I first came into contact with Cardillo’s work via a one-off project he created for Italian footwear label Sergio Rossi in 2010, which features in a chapter on retail architecture in my forthcoming book Art / Fashion in the 21st Century (Thames & Hudson). Commissioned by Wallpaper* as part of the Salone del Mobile, Cardillo was commissioned to create a temporary men’s boutique within the brand’s permanent store in Milan. Cardillo’s design centred on the concept of superimposition, the insertion of one building into another, a recurring theme in architecture of the past. For the first incarnation of his temporary structure in the Sergio Rossi boutique, Cardillo made use of the existing store space, articulated by a grille of exposed wooden beams to create a rhythmic sequence of vertical planes suggestive of cathedral vaulting, employing light grey tones and velvet curtains in the décor. A marriage of the sacred and profane, the design was intended to disrupt the reverence with which fashion products are presented and viewed in shops. The shoes themselves were displayed sparingly on plinths, lit theatrically with downlighting, emphasising the museum-like quality of the space and bringing additional gravitas to the shopping experience. Other recent commissions have included London Design Festival and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and his work has been exhibited at the International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam and the Artindex of St-Petersburg. Cardillo has reached a point in his career that many clients are happy to charge him with full creative direction, providing him a viable platform upon which to experiment with ideas and concepts, such as with House of Dust, created for Massimiliano Beffa, a return client Cardillo has known for over a decade. A functional brief was provided, but the architect was “totally free.” Long interested in classical architecture—my first in-person meeting with him, in Rome in 2012, included a tour of some lesser known but nonetheless remarkable historic ruins near to the Colosseum’s sprawling footprint—Cardillo aimed to create the feeling of a primordial cavern. “It’s a reference to the underground as a physical space, an anti-mainstream space of mind”, explains Cardillo. “A kind of escape from the glass houses that fill the pages of architectural magazines today.” With Rome heavy with tourists, an escape is important for its fulltime residents. The clever duality of this interior is that while it feels somewhat raw and stripped back in texture, it simultaneously has a feeling of encompassing cosiness care of the references to Renaissance-type grotesques: arches etched into timber, an ode to fourteenth century Italian painting, disguise doors and cupboards. “I attempted to include many archetypical elements, reducing them to ideas”, says Cardillo. That these elements don’t feel stuffily historic or precious is a result of the modern elements that offset the architectural framework: pink glass doorknobs are an entry to the soft pink bedrooms and bathroom, creating a separation between the shared and private spaces of the home, while a sparse amount of furniture and no hanging artwork is present. Is it liveable? “House of Dust invites a frugal experience of life”, says Cardillo, “but then life is more than these consumer objects. Life is about beauty. We deserve more than objects… the main actor in the house is the light.” Cardillo is specifically interested in not imposing a concept, but generating an emotional response from his space, and his client and his guests have the option to read into the stories the walls tell or not. “The space is cohesive but full of visible and invisible meanings, brought together by the architecture.”

House of Dust

Antonino Cardillo, House of Dust, Rome, 2013. Photography: Antonino Cardillo


  • Mitchell Oakley Smith, ‘House of Dust’,[↗], Sydney, Aug. 2013.