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Restoration

Designing with soul

His quest to make the world a more beautiful place has seen entrepreneur Brunello Cucinelli transform the medieval hamlet where he lives and works. Andrew Manns finds out more


In a way, Brunello Cucinelli seems like a remnant from the long-past days of Renaissance Florence.

He first catapulted into global fame – and gained his playfully regal appellate ‘The King of Cashmere’ – almost a decade ago, when his homegrown fashion company metamorphosed into a billion-dollar empire.

Since then, Cucinelli, the self-described son of peasants, has publicly emerged as a thoroughly Medicean figure, one who has lent his hand and heart to artistic and cultural endeavours aimed at promoting what he has called “humanistic values”.

His ethics-based philosophy, a mixture of romantic idealism and real-world pragmatism, is perhaps best exemplified by Cucinelli’s ‘Project for Beauty’, a public-spirited scheme that has seen Cucinelli and his collaborator, the architect Massimo de Vico, transform the picturesque hamlet of Solomeo in rural Umbria into a miniature Athens.

The project, which took 30 years to complete, was a labour of love. In his book, Il Sogno di Solomeo, Cucinelli called the village “the homeland of my soul”. His passion for it, he maintained,  “symbolises the winning back of my serenity.”

From this feeling of serenity was born “a love for the village and a desire to restore it, protect it, and embellish it.”

A PLACE OF HEALING
In this sense, Solomeo has a healing value for Cucinelli, who, during his youth, watched his father endure years of denigrating and unfulfilling factory work. As his fashion business became a success, he vowed to create high quality amenities for his workers and the residents of Solomeo.

When approaching the restoration and rebuilding of Solomeo, Cucinelli and de Vico used the idea of “for eternity” as a starting point, and constructed a number of leisure and educational facilities that would take on a soul of their own and withstand the ravages of time.

“It would be great if today’s men left as a legacy for the future some architectural and humanistic monuments for the next hundred, three hundred, one thousand years,” says Cucinelli.

“We have looked to the great thinkers, philosophers and poets – rather than architects – of the past, not as scholars but rather as passionate readers of ancient works. Each of them had left a beautiful landmark, a warning sign of the value of history and heritage.

“These landmarks can be found everywhere in the world and still remind us that the past should not go to waste, but is rich in fruitful seeds.”

CREATING A NEW SOLOMEO
Cucinelli’s vision has seen him restore the 800-year-old village of Solomeo, rebuilding squares, repaving streets, removing industrial eyesores and adorning the land with olive trees, wheat, and flowers.

Together with de Vico, Cucinelli has also built an amphitheatre and 200-seat performance hall (known collectively as the Forum for the Arts). An oval space opposite the theatre hosts music festivals and shows during the summer, while a terraced garden – named the Garden of Philosophers – is devoted to “meditation and nature contemplation”. 

The final part of the forum, the Aurelian Neohumanistic Academy, features a library and meeting rooms. The areas comprising the Forum for the Arts are linked by parterres, fountains, and a pergola, all of which overlook a nearby valley.

Other facilities that bear the mark of Cucinelli include a sports pitch and an 100-hectare garden park set with a travertine sculpture – designed in the neoclassical style – entitled “The Tribute to Human Dignity”. The monument, which opened last year, stands on a circular base and is inscribed with the names of all five continents.

“Architecture needs to symbolise higher meanings besides serving a material purpose,” says Cucinelli.

To Cucinelli, whose idols include cosmic-minded but down-to-earth leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and Marcus Aurelius, this spirituality also manifests itself in his dedication to the genius loci – the “spirit of the place”.

“I know that beauty can emerge anywhere, as it’s in the eyes of the designer and the spectator, but if the designers are not bound to the places they aim to restore, harmony and authenticity could be weakened along the way,” he says.

“The restoration work in Solomeo is a monument that will convey our ideals to the future. For this reason, it needs to be conservative and comply with the harmony and authenticity of shapes slowly built by history.

“I would, therefore, welcome a widespread restoration of medieval hamlets like Solomeo to bring back real life to them, not to turn them into tourist attractions.”

Transforming Solomeo

Cucinelli’s project to transform Solomeo has seen the restoration of a number of ancient buildings within the village, the rebuilding of squares and repaving of streets. He has also created a number of new recreational buildings including:

The School of Arts & Crafts
A building in the classical style was rebuilt to house Cucinelli’s School of Arts & Crafts. Opened in 2014, it offers workshops in tailoring, the art of knitwear and textile, agriculture and masonry.

Forum for the Arts
Inspired by the open spaces surrounded by architectural buildings of ancient Rome, the Forum includes a theatre, amphitheatre, a terraced garden devoted to ‘meditation and nature contemplation’ and the Aurelian Neohumanistic Academy, featuring a library and meeting rooms. The areas are linked by lawns, fountains, and gardens.

Theatre Cucinelli
At the heart of the Forum for the Arts, this Renaissance-style theatre features a 12m by 8m stage. Since its opening in 2008 it has hosted national and international artists including Charlotte Rampling and Peter Brook.

Amphitheatre
Located opposite the theatre, this oval outdoor space hosts music festivals and shows during the summer, while a terraced garden – named the Garden of Philosophers – is devoted to ‘meditation and nature contemplation’.

Tribute to Human Dignity
The latest part of Cucinelli’s Project for Beauty, this travertine monument measures around 16ft by 80ft and stands on a circular base. It is inscribed with the names of all five continents, with Africa located beneath the central arch to ‘commemorate man’s original home’.

Once the village had been restored, Cucinelli turned his attentions to the land around Solemeo. Today the 100 hectare land has been divided into three parks: the Industrial Park, which includes the company’s new headquarters; the Laic Oratory Park, surrounded by six hectares of land intended for recreational use and featuring a small stadium; and the Agrarian Park and the Park of Dignity, completed in the summer of 2018.

The Brunello and Federica Cucinelli Foundation
From the designer

The Brunello and Federica Cucinelli Foundation was established in 2010 with the purpose of spreading and translating into practice the ideals that have fed the humanistic goal of Solomeo. The purpose of its agenda is to support any initiative enhancing knowledge, protecting the land and its monuments, highlighting the value of tradition and promoting the spiritual and daily values of mankind.

The Foundation, in its conviction, "that the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours," aims to put human beings and their ideals at the very core of everything, both in their glorious prime and also in the weakest times of old age, youth, sickness and loneliness. Its ambition is to restore human dignity both in life and work environments, placing a special emphasis on the local area and in particular on any kind of outskirts and peripheries, in line with the expectations of a happy life as conceived by Brunello Cucinelli.

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Company profile: Robert D. Henry Architects + Interiors
Robert D Henry Architects (RDH-Architects) was founded in 1990 in New York City by Bob Henry, known as the “sensuous architect of serenity.”
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