One of the most accomplished and prolific Italian architects of the 20th century, Gio (Giovanni) Ponti was not only an architect but also a poet, painter, ceramist, graphic artist, and designer of exhibitions, theater costumes, glassware, tableware, furniture, lighting fixtures, and ocean-liner interiors.
Ponti graduated with a degree in architecture from the Milan Polytechnic in 1921. That same year, he set up a studio with architects Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia. Later, he went into partnership with Lancia—forming Studio Ponti-Lancia (1926–33)—and then with engineers Antonio Fornaroli and Eugenio Soncini—forming Studio Ponti-FornaroliSancini (1933–45). This became Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Rosselli in 1952, when Alberto Rosselli became a partner. After Rosselli’s death in 1976, Ponti continued work with Fornaroli.
Ponti’s early works, such as the house he designed for himself and his wife (née Giulia Vimercati) at no. 9, Via Randaccio (1925), in Milan; Villa Bouilhet, Garches (1926), in Paris; and the furnishing for Palazzo Contini-Bonacossi (1931), in Florence reflect the Novecento Italiano’s neoclassic revivalism that was prevalent at the time.
The creation of the Movimento Italiano per l’Architettura Razionale (Italian Movement for Rational Architecture) in 1927 presented Italian architects with the opportunity to discard their reliance on the classical effects of arches and columns for a new approach to architecture, one that took into account new developments in building technology. Through his architectural work, his writings in Domus magazine (which he founded in 1928), and his involvement with the Triennial Exhibitions of Milan, Ponti promoted a renewal of Italian architecture and decorative arts and transformed the “classic” language into a rationalist vocabulary. In his articles and books, such as La Casa all’Italiana (1933; House Italian Style), he imparted his conviction that architecture must always preserve some national characteristics.
In the 1930s, Ponti produced the Domuses, or “typical houses” (1931–36) in Milan; the Universal Exhibition of the Catholic Press (1936) in Vatican City; and the first Montecatini Building (1936) in Milan. In these projects, he gradually abandoned the neoclassical conventions and replaced them with a rationalist system of aesthetics. The first Montecatini building also marks his first integrated project. Here he designed not only the building but also the fittings, appliances, and furniture.
During the 1940s, Ponti’s efforts were dedicated to writing, painting, and industrial design, but during the 1950s, Ponti was very productive architecturally. He traveled to Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, the United States, and the Middle East. He carried out a series of projects in some of these countries, such as Villa Planchart (1955) and Villa Arreaza (1956) in Caracas, an auditorium on the eighth floor of the Time and Life Building (1959) in New York, and a building for government offices (1958) in Baghdad.
It is during this decade that Ponti produced his most renowned building: the Pirelli Skyscraper (1955–58) in Milan. An office block of over 30 stories, it was at one time the tallest building in Europe and still is one of the world’s most refined and elegant tall buildings. Lessons inherent in the design of this building have been absorbed all over the world. Pier Luigi Nervi, acting as structural engineer, contributed to the building’s elegant stature by designing a structure based on two full-width reinforced-concrete diaphragm walls that reduce in size toward the top. The thickness of the floors was dispensed with by making them taper at the edge. This allowed Ponti to design a facade that does not have the arbitrary repetitiveness of curtain walling but, instead, one that emphasizes the finiteness of the building and creates the illusion of lightness.
The quest for lightness in mass was an underlying element in Ponti’s architecture. The concept of using walls as screens to give a sense of transparency first appeared in his competition project for the Palace of Water and Light at the “E42” Exhibition (1939) in Rome. The idea was further developed in the Pakistan House Hotel (1963) in Islamabad, the Church of San Francesco (1964) in Milan, the Church for the Hospital of San Carlo (1966) in Milan, and the facade of the INA building at no. 7 Via San Paolo (1967) in Milan. It culminated in the Taranto Cathedral (1970) and the Denver Art Museum (1971) in Denver, Colorado, where the walls are purely an enclosure surrounding the volume within.
Ponti’s 60-year architectural practice was paralleled by a host of other activities. Commencing with his public debut at the Biennial Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Monza in 1923, Ponti became involved in the organization of the subsequent Triennial Exhibition (known as the Ponti Triennale) in Milan as a member of the executive committee. From 1923 to 1930, he worked at the Manifattura Ceramica Richard Ginori in Milan and Sesto Fiorentino, changing the company’s whole output. From 1936 to 1961, he was professor on the permanent staff of the Faculty of Architecture at the Milan Polytechnic. In 1941 he resigned as editor of Domus and set up the magazine Stile, which he edited until 1947. In 1948 he returned to Domus, where he remained editor until his death. He also wrote an article in every one of the 560 issues of the magazine. He designed fabrics for the Jsa factory from 1950 to 1958. In 1957 he created the Superleggera, or Ponti-chair, for Cassina. Light enough to be lifted with one finger, the Superleggera chair has become a universally classic feature.
Ponti’s vitality was proverbial among those who knew him. He worked relentlessly to promote Italian culture and over the years produced work that maintained the freshness of experiment and influenced generations of Italian designers and architects.