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Giovanni Michelucci: the Architect of Happiness

In our first meeting in 1986, when I asked what it was to be an architect, he replied that all we want to hear is: “The architect must work for the happiness of mankind. I will build the church there, but first I have to be with you, see your homes, to understand your land.” So said Giovanni Michelucci, architect from Fiesole to the committee that wanted to commission the design of the church of the new district of Arzignano in the province of Vicenza. This statement, which has remained famous, contains the whole substance of this great man.

Giovanni Michelucci was an architect who has passed through our history for nearly a century. He did not want to be an architect, but in the architecture of churches he was the greatest interpreter of contemporary religious spirit.

His most famous church is certainly the one on the crossroads of the Autostrada del Sole between Florence and Rome, which is viewed by thousands of travellers each year. Hence the idea of the nomads of the desert, so the people of God in the eternal path leading to the design of “some poles with a tent over it.” A temporary shelter.

Was he a man behind the times or one ahead of his time? A man of suffering, he was permeated by the tension of the daily pursuit of a faith that he never accepted with certainty or believe its mysteries. And his design highlights this “nervousness”.

The outcomes are “chaotic filament designs that allow one to see, one within the other, more solutions to the same problem”. The design is not created at the table, but little by little from observation of the things and places, from being among people, from habits and stories heard, from understanding the real needs of men. His architecture is conceived and designed around people, not for the individual but for the community.

His designs were “non-design” meaning that there was no immediate precision and detail. In his search to be ahead of the time, often Michelucci was not understood at once, as in the church of Longarone, a town destroyed by the Vajont dam in northern Italy in the ’60s. The citizens were expecting a faithful reconstruction and a new identity with the tragedy that had struck them.

Instead Michelucci had internalized the pain; he made an elliptical amphitheatre, a new form to help rebuild a sense of the community. The great tragedy that had at the same time destroyed the wonderful natural beauty gave him the idea of a church that could represent life and death.

“Then I began to be born into an idea that would lead to the exaltation of life: the Theatre! I thought of a church designed as a theatre.” 


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