In Dialogue with CINZIA FERRARA


“The problem is that people think of LIGHT as something that is given – they take it for granted. You can only understand the power of something when you don’t have it – light: it very much resembles freedom.”


Cinzia Ferrara.: My father was an engineer and it was funny for him to take me on site during construction. This is the reason why I don’t have any problems with construction sites: I know where to go and how to move around. I think I grew up with this pragmatic and technical component: solving problems because they will be anywhere you go. Even the best project in the world faces some problems and we have to solve them. There is another part of me that comes from my mother. She studied law so I guess I inherited a much more idealistic perspective from her side. It was obvious that I was going to go to university, so I went to study architecture. Then I started working on urban planning because I was fascinated by the multiple things gathered together: some kind of disorder all around. At one point I followed one master year in lighting design and I decided I was interested in this area because I couldn’t touch it or grab it.

Andreea Robu-Movila: As the result may only come after a long period of time.

C.F.: Exactly! I have always worked with light, be it natural or artificial.

A.R.M.: Do architects come to you and invite you to collaborate with them for their projects? 

C.F.: Most of the time there are architects who come to me because they want a professional to take care of lighting. There can also be developers who think that light can be very interesting in private or public spaces because life has changed a lot: we’re now doing so many things during night. This is why I like best because I enjoy the idea of working with people: I don’t like to work by myself, I like to exchange a lot of comments or ideas. A nice thing when working with architects is that even when you think they might be similar, they’re not… First of all you understand there is a process in order to get to a certain result, and then you can add your own philosophy because there is no way to do it from outside.

A.R.M.: You also have to understand the story of the project you have to work with. Do you have any sort of discussions with the author? Do they tell you what to do or do you have your own proposals?

C.F.: Architects are more influential in general. I must say that the biggest architects I worked with were more open-minded in the way that they didn’t explain anything. The important thing is to understand what the project is about and the client’s desires and ideas and translate them into lighting. One client told me: “Only two things are important to me: light and sound. Light has to be clear and well done”. I immediately made it plain I was not the person who liked decorative lighting. I like the understatement of lighting, it means that it is there but you do not have to see it. If you like the space that means the light is probably fine, but if you perceive something, it means something is wrong. For example, you know the light is good in a museum when you don’t just go out and talk about the lighting, you just feel fine and the works of art are in the centre of attention.

A.R.M.: What is your feeling about Italian architecture? 

C.F.: I think that we are going through a dark period because architecture is suffering from something that we all know – whoever has the money to build asks for some names, instead of getting someone who is able to connect things together and most of the projects are not that site-specific: they look like they’ve just been dropped on Earth from the moon. That is why I said the problem is with the clients.

A.R.M.: It should be interesting to live in a country where statistics show there are the most architects per inhabitant in Europe. As we perceive architecture in relationship with culture, we can consider it is a country of great culture, and actually is.

C.F.: Absolutely! We definitely have the most architects but not all of them do architecture: a lot of people just study architecture but have other professions.

A.R.M.: I perceive it as a good thing. I won’t worry about a too high number of people graduating from architecture schools because they will contaminate the society with their good taste and common sense. 

C.F.: Don’t forget that people who study architecture will become architects that will not get to make great things. I agree with you: I think that we have been very lucky to work on very creative things but now we have to get back to solving more pragmatic construction problems. Anyway, what I sometimes see in the schools of architecture and even design schools is that if you are not curious enough to study different things, your vision tends to diminish and your creativity has a lack of perception. I always say two things: “Why don’t you try to look very high as there is always time to go down? Look at the moon!”

A.R.M.: If you want to reach the moon, you might end up between the stars: an achievement on its own.

C.F.: Exactly! Moreover, you have to be confident that you do something that makes you happy. If you don’t, that means something doesn’t work. If you do something and you are not the first person you’d go to, something is clearly wrong.

A.R.M.: This is what you would advise a young architect? What other things do you consider important at the start of a career in architecture?

C.F.: Being curious for sure and being able to travel as well. This also applies to the clients because they are always talking about certain things and you must know what they are talking about. The other thing is going back to study the classical things: not because you have to know how they are made, but in order to understand why certain things were made like that. It is not the power of knowing a lot of things, but understanding how something works. Why does it work so well? What is it exactly? You have to be precise because the people you are talking to do not always understand your point.

A.R.M.: How would you perceive the “temperature” of the architectural area today?

C.F.: I think the profession is going through a crisis all over the world. Most of the professions lost a lot of their powers in terms of relevance and architects are a bit weaker in front of the clients. What is more, the “old world” is shrinking in such a way and a lot of architects went towards the new gem (the Far East or the Middle East). Some of the results were not so wonderful and architecture became more like a game of power instead of concentrating on doing something meaningful. When you work in the Middle East, most of the time you don’t get to be a part of the drawings because it is too expensive for them and they don’t know exactly how you work on the site and there are many other reasons. This means you’ll have no control over the final project, so whatever is being built will be different from what you have done. That’s why all the architects are pushing forward – we have to try to occupy more space in a nice way. But the problem is the market: it has nothing to do with other specific fields; this is how the world works now. Secondly, time schedules changed.

​A.R.M.: There is a lot of pressure.  

C.F.: You cannot have time for everything now. And let me tell you that a lot of big architects are very happy to work with different offices.

A.R.M.: The complexity of the projects skyrocketed exponentially.

C.F.: Anyway, as I said, it is the market that has really changed. What I have to do is actually find the best solution in order to make your project viable.

A.R.M.: Which aspect of the architectural profession brings you a lot of joy? 

C.F.: When I’m looking for balance and rhythm with my client: it is like music. You cannot make your own music, so you have to “play” with the architect. There is one moment I feel I understand what he is saying and that moment is very exciting.

A.R.M.: I would call light a power because it puts the spot on everything and there is a high responsibility to work with it. How do you feel about working with light? 

C.F.: Very powerful! [laughs] When I work with an architect I know and we don’t agree about something I always say: “Be careful! If you are bad, I will destroy your project!” [laughs]. The problem is that people think of light as something that is given: they take it for granted. You can only understand the power of something when you don’t have it – light is very much resembling freedom. That is why I think we have to work carefully and it is not a matter of money: it’s about creativity, sensitivity, innovation and technical competence.

A.R.M.: To what extent do architects involve you in their projects from the beginning, taking into consideration natural light? 

C.F.: I can give you two examples. Many years ago there was a building and somebody said: “I think the light inside the building doesn’t work for a certain reason. Can you do something?” In the end they changed something but it is a pity if it happens in the very last stage. If we go back to Venice, with Punta della Dogana we had to maintain the same surface and the requests were clear from the beginning. So it might happen to work with an architect from the start and this will render good results.

A.R.M.: I would militate for architects understanding how important it is to collaborate with lighting specialists from the beginning. 

C.F.: A lot of architects have an idea and want to follow it no matter what. In 2019 we have to be able to control what we are doing and to understand the process. The good thing about technology is that it can be used as a tool to achieve certain goals and not vice-versa. What happens sometimes is that people do some things and go back and use the technology in order to modify the parts that went wrong.

A.R.M.: Indeed, this is not the right way to work as it wastes energy on solving problems that could have been avoided from the beginning. Summing up, I would ask you, what is the best piece of advice you have received in your career?

C.F.: When I first started I used to work with an urban planner and although she was tough, she was fantastic. She was looking at cities like they were rooms, no matter how big they were. The attention, the details and the analysis of the morphology of buildings: all these shocked me. You feel a bit arrogant in the beginning, you think you know everything, but while I was working with this lady, who was very careful with all the details, I started asking myself: “Who am I?” What I have learnt about light, because I was born in Sicily and I am living in Milan, is that natural light is completely different from north to south. This can also be observed in art: the northern lights depicted in Tiepolo’s fresco or Canaletto’s paintings are diffused, rarefied light and when you are going south you think about Caravaggio who was very extreme with his shadows and sharp contrasts. I believe that the contrast between the two types of light has been on my mind for a very long time and succeeded to fascinate me. This is what you do with light: you look at the things from a different world in some way because you look at what light does with all the bending shadows and contrasts.

A.R.M.: I believe that many architects should understand the value of this field that complements architecture with grace and complexity. Thank you for your time!




Cinzia Ferrara is Founder of FERRARA PALLADINO LIGHTSCAPE – ITALY a lighting design firm based in Milan, Italy.

She trained and practised as an architect before deciding to focus on the special relationship between light and architecture. Concerned with dynamics of human space and the role that lighting can play, she works in a big variety of settings, interiors and exteriors of any kind, approaching lighting to all aspects combining creativity, technical know-how with innovative and original design solutions.

In more than 25 years of activity, she has been working on a wide variety of projects for both public and private clients. She has been President of APIL (Association of Italian Lighting Designers) from 2008 to 2014. She just completed the projects of interior and exterior of the Duomo in Milan. She has also been involved in the interior projects of Malpensa International Airport, Linate Airport and the International Airport in Venice. She also designed the interior lighting of two small terminals: Linate Prime Terminal renewal and Rome Urbe Airport New Passenger Terminal. Recent works are “Punta della DoganaContemporary Art Museum in Venice with Tadao Ando, “Palazzo Grassi” Art Exhibition Center renovation with Tadao Ando, “Shoah memorial” with Morpurgo in Milan, Railway Stations renewal in Milan, Rome and Florence. Her work won numerous international prizes worldwide.