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Caterina Aurel: from Italian humanism to 21st century cities

Photo of Caterina Aurel

Meeting Caterina Aurel reveals a warm, discretely refined personality and a world evoking the noble values of the Italian Renaissance.

Caterina’s education and projects reveal a humanism defined by the ancient Greek Cicéron as: ‘culture that enhances a man’s natural qualities making worthy of this name.’ Values to rediscover and transpose onto our modern world.

Caterina, could you describe your path to becoming an architect and urban designer.

I was born in Tuscany in Italy. From a very young age I knew that my vocation was to be architect. I lived in the Tuscan town of Carrare, which has a very beautiful centre and is surrounded by spectacular landscapes. But, I also witnessed the construction of whole wave of very unattractive buildings on the outskirts and I often said to myself that something should be done to stop it.

I studied architecture in Florence. I left immediately after finishing my studies in 1992 to work in an agency in San Diego. I then went to Paris to do a masters in urban design at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. During these wonderful years I received a stimulating education based on classic classes and practical workshops, which demanded a very personal response.

For you, what was the main strength of this kind of teaching?

I think that the teaching I received twenty years ago in Florence is very different from the teaching given in French schools today. The approach was humanist, that is to say, more general with a mix of architecture, urban planning and design. It was only later that we chose a specialty. And, this is why I went to Paris in 1994 to study urban planning at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées.

Before working with Marc, what were your first experiences in urban planning?

I lived in Paris with Marc and really wanted to be involved in urban planning in ‘difficult’ areas. I’d heard about a vacant post in Marseille at the SCET (Société Centrale pour l’Equipement du Territoire – a mixed economy development network), a subsidary of the Caisse des Dépôts. So, we moved to Marseille and I worked for the company for seven years. During this time, Marc took on freelance projects. Then we started working together and my first big project was in Réunion.

Your partnership with Marc forms the basis of Aurel Design Urbain agency. How would you describe your different approaches?

We are very complementary as we each have a specialty. Each of us manages a different kind of project. Marc is more orientated towards designing street furniture, while I focus on re-designing public spaces. Having said this, we work together a lot. I’d say that my approach is more comprehensive and intellectual. I construct projects in my head, while Marc needs to draw his ideas. We have very different ways of thinking, but we often end up at the same place.

Which architects do you particularly admire?

At the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées I adored the work of Pierre Riboulet, who designed, among other buildings, the Robert-Debré Hospital in Paris. For me, he represents the humanist approach to architecture. He was a politically active architect who really had an impact on me. The Italian architect Renzo Piano is also an important reference point. Once again, he is someone for whom architecture is a craft and whose ideas are a world away from what I call ‘show-biz architecture’.

In your work, particularly the experimental Osmose bus stop in Paris, you show great sensitivity to individual well-being and improving social relations. Can you tell us a little more about this?

I certainly didn’t study to be an architect in order to choose between different colours. The city is at the heart of my motivation because in my opinion it reflects the degree of development and culture. The Osmose station was a first. In Europe there was already much discussion about the waiting spaces for public transport. Even if these issues seem of secondary importance, I think it’s interesting to question what it means to wait and to use public transport every day. I like the idea of changing our way of viewing these spaces, which are often pushed into the background along with the people that use them. I also think it is important to incorporate the notion of conviviality, quality and even pleasure to make people want to take public transport rather than it being an obligation.

Which project taught you the most?

I really enjoyed working in Réunion between 2002 and 2010. It was a fantastic experience. This project involved re-designing a shanty town that was going to be completely destroyed. We had to decide how to reconstruct the land redefining public spaces, the islets and the kind of habitat etc. It is very rare in France to be able to rebuild ten hectares in a city centre, so it really was an exceptional opportunity. This project also allowed me to follow projects in urban planning over an extended period of time from start to finish.

And finally, Caterina, how can you explain the political (in the ancient Greek sense of the word) vision that you have developed through your work?

One of the first things I learnt at architecture school in Florence, and even before that, was the idea that the city and public life are very closely linked. I’m from a generation that studied Greek and Latin, and I think that this education and the values inherited from our distant past had a huge influence on me. This is undoubtedly why I want to work according to these principles.

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