The Architecture of Desire: Alessandra Cianchetta on mapping the psycho-geography of a nomadic lifestyle

    The creative wunderkind Alessandra Cianchetta is an award-winning architect and urban strategist boldly pushing the boundaries of her discipline, and she is committed to the creation of future-focused spaces that reflect every possible nuance of the human condition. The founder of celebrated design and architecture firm AWP Paris has a penchant for working on a dizzying array of complex projects all-at-once, and her trans-disciplinary practice focuses on mindful evolution in the relationship between the inner-self and the outer world– she is currently evolving a characteristically unique project that explores the psycho-geography of her nomadic pandemic experience, which will be shown at Lofoten International Art Festival. It’s notable that as a prodigious young talent, Cianchetta was awarded the French Ministry of Culture Prize for Best Young Architect, and her radical approach to her discipline owes as much to her passion for travel, self-exploration and style culture, as it does to her formidable academic credentials. Here, the outspoken creator whose designs have been presented at the likes of Cité de l'Architecture, Paris, MoMa, New York, and Maxxi, Rome, gives Culture Collective the lowdown on her latest project, and tells us why we all need to spend more time out in the world.

    As an architect, how would you define your ethos and outlook?
    I am working beyond the defined framework of architecture itself, pushing the boundaries of the discipline, and working a lot at the intersection of architecture and contemporary art. This is partially due to my explorative nature and endless curiosity, and also to external circumstances. What I like in architecture is the ability to view reality through a different lens, and combine aesthetic aspects with technological ones – to create atmospheres and build with elusive and subtle matters, as well as with construction materials. Architecture has so far been the framework to respond to specific needs and problems through beauty and creativity – to offer people a background space to be happier in. On a personal level, though, architecture, arts and life are closely intertwined, and the opportunity to travel and explore new fields, geographies, and environments is certainly a key element for me.

    What do you consider to be your greatest inspirations?
    My inspirations are a blend of different sources across geographies. They tend to be assembled in a non-linear, non-chronological manner – film, photography, visual arts, fashion, novelists, cities and the wilderness… travel is an endless source of inspiration, and travel is without any doubt what motivates all my choices. When I start working on a project, I often use mood-boards – assembling sources and key words in an iterative process. Over the last few years, there I have had a growing interest in photography, but generally references change following my mood, and the site and scope of a project.

    How were you affected by the pandemic?
    On a personal level, I found it very life changing in a rather positive way. Such an unthinkable disruption gave me the time, the relative slowness and the opportunity to reframe and reconsider my priorities. I happened to be in New York at the onset of the pandemic. I was teaching at The Cooper Union, and working on an art project in Lower Manhattan. I went to the Hudson Valley for a weekend early in March 2020, and I ended up stranded there for several months. I was extremely fortunate, though. I have spent the last two years immersed in nature, in big outdoor spaces – from the Hudson Valley to the Catskills and Cayuga Lake, but also even more remote places, such as an oasis down in the Sahara desert, close to the border of Libya, and various tropical jungles.

    What spurred you to travel to such far-flung places during that period?
    It all started as I was stranded in the US and wanted to see Tadzio, my 12-year-old son, stranded himself in the French countryside, and I had to get through the various restrictions in order to see him. I turned those restrictions into opportunities to explore different ways of living and travelling, at a time when nobody was travelling. My two years long periplus ended up supplying the material for my new artistic production, involving photography, film and other media. These were originally showcased at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2021, and they will be showcased at the LIAF international contemporary art festival in Lofoten, just above the Arctic Circle.

    Tell us more about the project you are working on for the Lofoten International Art Festival…
    The series is a visual clin d’œil to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Look at the Harlequins! in which fiction, reality, storytelling and doppelgangers are constantly intertwined. It’s the evolution of a series first exhibited at the 14th Istanbul Biennial Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms* and at the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2017. All the new drawings presented for the first time at the LIAF Lofoten International Art Festival combine cartographies both terrestrial and marine. The islands represented are scattered across the globe, and relevant to the author for mysterious semi-autobiographical events, which took place between 2020 and 2022, and they blend into one imaginary, dreamlike archipelago – for example, the orthogonal grid of Manhattan is combined with the curvaceous topography of Saint Barthélemy, French West Indies, and collaged with details of Arctic islands whose dramatic topography contrast with the flat archipelago facing downtown Miami and Quay Biscayne. All of these different worlds, climates, geologies, and atmospheres collide, combining different scales and accidents in a blurred super-position.

    How do you think architecture and design can best adapt to a world transformed by climate change?
    Well, I am currently working on a research project with Dutch engineer Jaap Wiedenhoof and his wonderful team at Quake. We looked at historical timelines and found out that the average person living in a developed country spends most of her/his time indoors, that indoor spaces are increasingly heated and cooled (depending on the season), and that all this has a negative impact on health. Our hypothesis is to use both traditional systems and the latest technological innovations to encourage people to spend more and more time outdoors and live and work outdoors, or in grey spaces (between outdoor and indoor), either in cities or in rural areas.

    What are you working on right now?
    A new project, to be produced in collaboration with Vienna-based artist Sonia Leimer is FIELDS/OBJECTS will be based in a forthcoming shared residency on a remote island in the Northern hemisphere. It explores the story of my own fictional/real architectural archive, which got lost in dramatic circumstances (unspecified/fire, earthquake, flood or war). In between sculpture, architecture and film, FIELDS/OBJECTS explores timely notions of archive, loss, identity and gender, and questions the ambiguity of all these categories both spatially and conceptually.

    Images (top to bottom): Portrait of the artist by E. Davidsdottir, 2021; In-Land Living, AWP Architects; Field of Lines, Venice Bienalle, by Roberto Orio; Poissy Galore, Observatory In A Park; Poissy, France,

    Interview by John-Paul Pryor