Interview #65

Giovanna Silva

* The following text is an excerpt from an interview made in 2016. The original version is published in PANORAMA (DIORAMA editions).

Giovanna Silva (Milano, 1980) studied at Politecnico di Milano (Milano). Her work was featured at 10° Biennale di Architettura (Venice). Among her personal projects, Desertions, Narratives/Relazioni: Baghdad, Green Zone, Red Zone, Babylon and Orantes. She is publisher of Humboldt Books and collaborated with Abitare, Domus, Doppiozero, San Rocco.

You are the founder of Humboldt Books, publishing house specialised in travel narrative inspired by the scientific exploration of the XVIII and XIX century. When was your passion for traveling born? And how did you then linked it to photography and, finally, publishing?

I’ve always travelled since when I was a kid, with my parents, in pretty exotic places. Obviously I suffered it, up to a certain age. I wanted to go to the beach like the other kids. But, in retrospective, it was the greatest gift that they could give me. Because for me traveling is resting. I rest my mind and, at the same time I change. Then, around my thirties, I realised that what I was really interested in was transforming traveling into a project, and this project looked like a book.

During the studio visit you mentioned your training in several disciplines which were very different from each other, what were they exactly and how did you find yourself taking such an unusual path?

Since when I was a kid I was passionate about architecture. I remember that I was designing and re-designing my bedroom – and I was so disappointed when my parents involved a real architect to redesign the house, already at the age of 5 I felt ready to wear a helmet and follow the demolition works – and I thought that architecture would have made me travel and discover new worlds. Sure, there is an architect on a million. Anyway I studied architecture, they were the best years of my life and I learned a key thing: the importance of team work in a project. Once I graduated in architecture, after my state exam, I enrolled to Anthropology. At that stage I was missing more humanistic studies. And there I found out about travel narrative with a dissertation on Alexander von Humboldt.

In 2016 you published Giappone 1970, Carlo Mollino, about your trip to Osaka for the Universal Exposition, that includes stops in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Kyoto. Molino took the images of a Japan made of women, temples, gardens, pagodas, but also new architectures. How was this project born and how did you get close to Molino’s work?

I discovered Mollino during my university studies, he’s always been a frowned-upon figure in the academic world, maybe he would define himself an outsider. The only one who talked about him in Milan’s Politecnico was Corrado Levi, who always was brave enough to bring something new in the often stagnating world of university. I rediscovered him through Fulvio Ferrari, of Casa Mollino, in Torino, for the Nightswimming project. In fact Mollino designed the Lutrario, one of the first discothèques in Italy. I knew that Mollino had left everything to the Archive of Turin’s Politecnico, I arranged a meeting, I browsed through the various boxes and I found these travel photos. Sure, they were different from Mollino’s photographs that we all know, they weren’t posed, they weren’t studied as his famous Polaroids. I was interested in their dynamic as travel notes, they are photos taken quickly.

You collaborated with Mousse to a series of publications about war zones or areas undergoing great crisis, with your shoots in Baghdad, Libya, Cyprus… What brought you in these areas and how does your practice differentiate when your are in areas with a certain political/economical tension?

Pure chance. I was working for the magazine Abitare and the asked me if I wanted to go to Afghanistan to photograph a school designed by 2a+p/A and Ian+ (Rome) for Grazia Cutili, a journalist for the Corriere Della Sera who was killed in Afghanistan in 2001. I accepted and it was a unique experience, there I met Antonio Ottomanelli, photographer and former architect. We left for Iraq together the next year. The second title of the series Narratives with Mousse was Libia, a trip that I strongly wanted, hard to organise, for reasons that you may imagine, but I had been obsessed with the figure of Gheddafi for years. Then Cyprus came naturally, through my friendship and collaboration with Christodoulos Panayiotou, artist and friend of Limassol’s.
It was definitely very different working in war areas, or where physical safety is lower anyway. I never felt in danger though, paradoxically I found myself less comfortable in situations of normality.

We are in via San Marco, with a panoramic view over Milan. Your studio, with its furniture and decorations, seems to have stopped in time where the house is lived by your family. Why did you turn this apartment into your studio and what spaces you use more for your work?

The apartment you see was my grandmother’s house. She had it designed by an architect in 1952 and it hasn’t been modified since. When she died she left it to me and it was so beautiful, like time had stopped. Living there would have been a little difficult from a maintenance point of view, each object requires an obsessive attention that I cannot provide myself in my everyday life, so I turned it into a sort of museum. We, the girls of Humboldt Books, are all hidden in a room behind our computers. But looking outside we can see Milan transforming…