Should they be seeking inspiration, architects at Milan-based practice CLS need only look up. Above them, frescos of cherubs, deities with lutes and warring soldiers are enough to kick start anyone’s imagination. Painted by the venerable Campi brothers in the 16th century, they cover the walls and ceilings of the Chiesa San Paolo Converso in central Milan.
Those in the city’s fashionable circles are familiar with the Baroque building. As only one of three deconsecrated churches in the city, it was used by Napoleon as a warehouse. In the 1930s, it was renovated by the architect Mezzanotte, and thanks to its excellent acoustics, hosted concerts. (Artists such as Maria Callas and 1960s pop legend Mina recorded there). More recently, it was an auction room for Christie’s, and a hotspot for fashion shows, concerts and art installations.
Last year, CLS architects inserted a free-standing black iron box into its core. Fifty people now work in the four-floor studio, whose simple frame form – inspired by Italian oil refineries – stands in contrast to the ornate decoration of its surroundings.
Specialising in private houses and stores for the likes of Michael Kors, Pinko and Coccinelle, CLS saw this as a not-to-be-missed chance to re-use an existing building. Upstairs, glass meeting rooms nearly touch the ceilings; downstairs is a kitchen where all staff eat together, and in the crypt is a ‘table of ideas’ where blue-sky projects are dreamed up. Open on all sides, the iron studio touches lightly on its site, without impacting the building’s rich fabric.
For CLS founding partner Massimiliano Locatelli, acquiring the site was fate. ‘I did not find the church, the church found me,’ he says. ‘The people running it asked me if I wanted to take it over. I was not convinced because the beauty of the Baroque art within was so extreme and so powerful. Then I visualised a monolithic structure in iron and I realised it could become our studio.’
Locatelli has no shortage of space since the rear of the church, where the studio is situated, was once a convent. During last week’s Salone del Mobile, he exhibited a series of glass tables in front of the high altar, a Baroque masterpiece designed by Giulio Galliori and Ambrose Pedetti, alongside four displays of dining tables and tableware.
Aware that his is no ordinary studio, Locatelli is keen to share his space and collaborate with others. Swedish singer Lykke Li performed at the opening of the studio, and next month, five artists will come together for a show entitled Angelic Sisters. Each will pay homage to the history of the church, combining visual and performing arts, music, literature and architecture. Locatelli says: ‘Working here is stimulating. Maybe it makes me a little more rigorous. I am happy to make past, present and future live together.’