Italy is home to some of the most beautiful things on the planet. From cars, furniture and appliances to cities, paintings and natural landscapes, something that bears the emblem ‘made in Italy’ is almost always a breathtaking, head-turning masterpiece. Even the people are wont to do, say and live with beauty. “When you’re born in Italy, you’re surrounded by so much beauty. So you develop a sense of creativity without even thinking about it,” says Andrea Destefanis, an architect with more than 20 years of experience and a co-founder of Kokaistudios.
The 48-year-old remembers being immersed in arts and culture right from the beginning, as he travelled all over Italy as a child with his parents, whose work was putting on arts and theatre programs for children. “The way I approach architecture and interior design, in particular, has a lot to do with my background – storytelling, certain sensibilities to colours and materiality,” Destefansis says. “I didn’t fully understand it when I was younger, but now that I’m older and look back, I do – it comes from my parents.”
After graduating from the Università Iuav di Venezia, one of the first architecture schools in Italy, Andrea Destefanis co-founded Kokaistudios with Filippo Gabbiani in the year 2000. The architecture and interior design firm, which set up its headquarters in Shanghai in 2002, has a portfolio that includes retail, commercial, hotels and cultural projects for clients all over the world – one of which was the transformation of Bukit Bintang icon Starhill Gallery into The Starhill. He was recently in town to join in the launch celebrations of eslite spectrum, which occupies the entire first floor of The Starhill, and is emblematic of the mall’s change into a welcoming, comfortable boutique environment in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
The best lesson Andrea Destefanis learnt from his parents, and its impact today
One thing my parents always taught me is travelling – it’s the way to learn more about many things. In every place we were, it was important not only to visit important museums but also small museums and to find hidden treasures. This strongly influenced me, because it’s extremely important for my line of work. In architecture, you will never understand if you just look at picture. It’s the same with interior design – you need to live inside, you need to experience spaces.
You moved to Venice to study. What’s your favourite thing about the city?
Venice is probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But it’s also extremely fragile. Whether it’s the rising waters or too many people visiting, which is its biggest threat now, Venice is always fighting for its survival. So it’s this very fragile yet beautiful space that needs to have a very good relationship with nature and also with people. I think Venice is the manifestation of sustainability – the only way to survive is to be sustainable, or it will disappear. I really like these two parts. Sometimes you see Venice as only beautiful, but sometimes you see her suffering. I like dualism in general, so Venice represents that very well too.
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In architecture, one often has to balance opposite elements – whether it’s creative expression versus client expectations or it’s budget constraints versus the heights of your imagination. So how do you balance all of this?
Actually, I really think the reason why I’m doing architecture are those elements of dualism and finding balance. When you’re an artist, most of the time you do it because you have a personal need, and there’s something you want to express. It’s a very personal work, which then becomes public. But as architects, we have a very different responsibility. You design not for yourself but for others. All of the constraints, sure, they’re difficult to overcome, but it’s the real nature of being an architect – because you need to understand what the city needs, what the people that will live in there need.
So every time we speak to our clients, we always say that we don’t really work for them – we work for their clients. The final user, the people, are the real objectives. Also, you have such a strong responsibility to the environment when you’re an architect. That’s something you always have to keep in mind when you do this kind of job. Finding the solution to balance these two requirements is my favourite. If I just sat in front of a blank paper with no constraints, I will not be very good! I need some constraints to be more creative.
As someone in the arts, who also has a background in digital illustrations, what do you think about the emergence of Artificial Intelligence in art?
Modern technology is incredible and helps a lot. You can do incredible things with digital art. And when we come to AI, the question is always the same: can machines have feelings? I think that there is a big percentage of feelings in creativity. I’ve tried the AI tech before, but they still ask you questions and profile your feelings, so you’re still involved. Machines by themselves have no feelings, so how can they create art?
You and your co-founder set up your headquarters in Shanghai. Why?
Shanghai is a very unique city. It’s not a traditional Chinese city. There is a lot of contrast between old and new in Shanghai. It’s one of the few cities in Asia where historical culture has been preserved. There are parts of the city where you’re in the future, and some other parts where you’re still in the past, like maybe there’ll be a skyscraper beside old lilong houses. This contrast really drew me in completely. Every corner you turn in Shanghai can be a surprise.
Was there any culture shock for you when you first moved?
Chinese and Italian culture are much closer than what you think from the outside. There are many basic points where we’re both similar: we’re both millennia-old culture, we care about our heritage a lot, and there is also the matter of how you relate to people, particularly in business, and the importance of not losing face. Both countries also care so much about food. There are many, many things that are different, but also we’re not that far apart.
Why you should visit or even live in Shanghai, according to Andrea Destefanis
Shanghai is so much more of an international city now, but during my first few years living there, a lot of my friends asked me, ‘Why live in shanghai?’. But they usually only say that on the first or second day when they arrive in shanghai. But after three days or more, they start to understand the power of the city. Yes, Shanghai is not a beautiful city conventionally and there are many places that are really sketchy. But the energy of the city is completely unique. It’s the kind of energy you also find in Southeast Asia, like in KL, which is something I really love. Shanghai is a city you need to live to fully understand.
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Finally, do you have any regrets so far in your very impressive 20-years-and-counting career?
I will never go back to any moment of my life. I try to live every moment as much as I can. Sure, I’ve made mistakes, but I will not change them because maybe that will bring me to a different direction that is unknown. So, no, I don’t have any regrets. I try to have as few regrets as possible. I always look at what’s next and not what’s in the past.