Italian architect Massimiliano Locatelli has had a successful career designing multi-million dollar apartments in Zurich, townhouses in New York, penthouses in Hanoi, and sprawling retail stores for clients such as Jil Sander and Michael Kors. But the offices he opened in early December 2014 in Milan for his architectural firm CLS Architetti is the Everest of his oeuvre. Within the cloistered nuns’ quarters of a marble-trimmed and lavishly frescoed 16th-century church, Locatelli erected a four-story, raw iron and glass structure that serves as HQ for himself, his two partners, Annamaria Scevola and Giovanna Cornelio, and their 53 employees.
Though the freestanding structure stretches 49 feet high, nearly grazing the church’s opulent, arched 55-foot ceiling (but never touching it), its sober black lines remain a polite intrusion to the formally sacred space. The glass walls of each floor of the structure are waist-high, giving an open-air view of the church’s richly painted walls that remained completely untouched. “Each floor offers you a different view of the frescoes,” explains Locatelli, taking a spin on the structure’s slick linoleum floors. “So you get to see different saints as you travel up.”
Locatelli’s own top floor office, which peeks out over the altar and into the nave, is open like a convertible car, where the architect can freely take in the magnificent paintings by Renaissance artist brothers Fratelli Campi di Cremona overhead. “It’s like being next to heaven,” the architect says.
The entrance to the offices is through the church’s formal nave, where guests are greeted with an unobstructed view of the vaulted ceiling, a marble altar cut with lapis lazuli and malachite, and a series of Apple computer–topped desks set discreetly behind a balustrade of alcoves. It is, without doubt, the best office reception area in Italy, if not the world.
“I’m not particularly religious and spaces normally never intimidate me,” says Locatelli. “But when you walk in here and see the altar in front of you—these extreme proportions, the frescoes, and something new built inside a historical place that was born for spiritual purposes—it really hits you.”
Getting permission to build inside a church is one of those rare streaks of luck that can only happen in Italy. The church has been out of religious use for over a century, after a man was shot and killed in its interiors. Since then it has been used intermittently for auctions by Christies, fashion shows by John Varvatos, and as a recording studio by the Italian singer Mina.
But no one dared to build anything inside the church—until Locatelli secured the lease and created a metal cocoon for his studio staff without ever touching a single church wall. The architect, who is well known for furniture including his modular West Lake and Garda Lake tables, also designed the desks and chairs with the same wax-finished raw iron used for the structure.
Working in paradise, however, does have its drawbacks. “I’ve become much tougher on my staff,” says Locatelli, only half-joking. “Now that we work in such an incredible space, we can’t do anything less than perfect. There are now zero compromises.”
– J.J. Martin
- Creative Director- J.J. Martin
- Photographer- Alberto Zanetti