Giovanni Zuccon: “everything is for life”. Yacht design and project ethics

Professor and architect, Giovanni Zuccon, has a design ethic rooted in his deep-seated culture and in the modern, increasingly long-sighted vision he has of his work

by Carla Pagani

Giovanni Zuccon’s guests receive a warm embrace from elegant, linear and functional Marcel Breuer chairs. On a rainy Saturday in Rome, the pale wood of Zuccon’s desk, covered in sheets of paper, magazines and notes, illuminates his face. Next to him, a large French window overlooks the expansive, leafy courtyard of the apartment block in the historic Delle Vittorie district of the Italian capital.

The rooms of Zuccon International Project open one after the other along majestic early twentieth-century corridors, while shelves full of books, drawings and models showcase 46 years of history, work, success and innovation.

The coffee is ready, and sugar-coated pastries from a famous patisserie on Via Col di Lana accompany our voyage into the world of one of the most important names in global shipbuilding. Zuccon’s studio has worked with a huge number of shipyards – Baglietto, Ferretti, Bertram, CRN, Aprea, Custom Line, Sanlorenzo, Mochi Craft and Perini Navi, to name but a few – and continues to do so. Achieving one success after another, right from the outset. A forty-year-long collaboration with the European Space Agency, major city planning projects and much, much more.

CRN 74 m (IYBA)
Cloud 9

To date Giovanni Zuccon has designed more than 430 yachts. It would be impossible to list them all. The professor grabs a mechanical pencil and quickly sketches something, condensing a lot of meaning into just a few lines: an ark. He smiles, his eyes sparkling and alert, and explains his latest project to us.

I’m thinking about a new boat system. I want to reassess the relationship between the hull and the superstructure. There’s nothing older than that.

This is true, very true. Modern yachts are simply the evolution of something much older. I want to reinterpret the concept of an ark on a large boat. Noah’s ark was designed to preserve the human race and all the other living creatures. Zuccon’s ark has to preserve an enormous heritage of knowledge, skills and expertise. Although he has already passed on the baton to his children Martina and Bernardo, he continues to work as diligently as ever. Zuccon is a concentrated blend of knowledge, sensitivity, intelligence, perceptiveness and curiosity.

When he describes the major projects he completed with his wife Paola Galeazzi, his companion in life and in work for over forty years who sadly died a few months ago, a veil of melancholy clouds his voice and his eyes. But the Zuccon-Galeazzi tandem, with all its strength and energy and its ability to design the future and see beyond, is still there. After all, sadness can be an engine for change, if used in the right way. And Zuccon knows how to do this, thanks to his ethics. Or rather, his system of ethics, as he likes to call it, which comprises humility, study, research and relationships. These are the basics both of his work and his life.

Custom Line Navetta 42
Custom Line Navetta 42

It was 1618 when Cardinal Scipione Borghese decided to take a punt on Gian Lorenzo Bernini. And their partnership lasted a long time; for decades, in fact, with the shared objective of building something that would last. Professor Zuccon has a similar bond with each of his clients.

The most important thing for him is his relationship with the customers. I don’t like to call them ‘clients’. From me they are ‘princes’, for whom the architect has to build something that will stand the test of time.

So what is the secret to being a good architect? Doubt is the best weapon we have at our disposal, Zuccon says, recalling the early days of his fantastic adventure. Only by always debating everything can we truly design, create and transform. Certainty is not much use in our line of work.

Zuccon International Project
Sanlorenzo SX76

It all began in the late 1970s, when, along with his wife Paola, he won a competition set up by Cantieri Posillipo with the Technema 65. It was their first foray into the boat world – the Zuccon studio had been founded a few years earlier, in 1972, and until then it had focused on urban planning and architecture. We were very happy to win the tender. It’s the winning, not the taking part, that counts, Giovanni Zuccon says, amused and smiling, taking off his round Naples yellow glasses. It was vital for us to gain experience in other sectors. Crossover with other areas of knowledge is crucial. The ‘pluralism’ you hear so much about in shipbuilding today is nothing new.

Architecture and yachting have gone hand in hand for a long, long time. This clarification is also an indirect riposte to all those who think that design has only recently reached the boating world, as if design was somehow separate from the process of building a yacht.

We had to do a lot of research to win the competition. Even today I am still studying, seeking to understand. It’s an important thing to do. What were we saying about humility? There you have it. Giovanni Zuccon is not one for improvisation, shortcuts and easy solutions. He is man of research and processes, and of hard work, which is a rare attribute these days. We never thought about creating a design to celebrate Gianni and Paola. I hate self-referentiality. Also, you need to respect the brand and its history. Their children understood this from their very first designs.

Bernardo and Martina Zuccon
Bernardo e Martina Zuccon

It’s because they have absorbed this vision that my children are so good at what they do. They know there’s no space for the architect’s ego, they know that the history of the brand is absolutely vital, and they know you need to study, that you can’t just improvise. The new arrivals in 2018 have astonished everyone: Latona 50, CRN’s new flagship boat, Custom Line Navetta 42,the largest ever built in the series, Sanlorenzo 102, the first asymmetrical yacht, and the new range of craft for Bluegame.

Returning to the idea of crossover, Giovanni Zuccon argues that the aspects specific to yachting should be protected. I find transferring solutions wholesale from another environment to a boat, which is common practice nowadays, unthinkable. It’s ridiculous to even consider imposing alien concepts onto a boat.

FERRETTI 780 Giovanni Zuccon

Basically, a boat should remain a boat. A yacht should never look like a house, skyscraper or a car. It shouldn’t imitate anything. Current fashions say otherwise, and are increasingly giving us boats that emulate, simulate and ape unrelated things. Zuccon has the same distaste for minimalism: I can’t stand it, although I appreciate the simplicity.

Simple does not necessarily mean easy, because simplicity stems from the challenging job of removing everything that is useless or redundant. It is certainly not child’s play. Only the best can do it successfully. And Giovanni Zuccon is one of them.

Every feature must have a meaning, and be required in some way, otherwise it is just superfluous. Plus the interior and exterior must be in harmony with one another, he adds.

It is no coincidence that he gains a lot of inspiration from the architecture of the great Frank Lloyd Wright. His house built on a waterfall, and other designs too, went down in history for the unrivalled balance they offered between home and nature, between interior and exterior, and between human and natural space. And the same must apply on a yacht. We should never forget that a boat is a place, not an object. A completely unique living space. It’s not like a house. A boat is a boat. The only thing it has in common with a house is its inhabitants: people. Then there’s the sea, the great outside space, the natural world.He quotes Christian Norberg-Schulz, who in the late 1970s argued that architecture should respect the place and integrate with it, or with its ‘genius loci’.

It is therefore important to design in a way that matches this natural space in which the boat is immersed. It makes no sense to design a completely open stern that exposes sailors directly to the dangers of the sea. An open stern is not practical for taking a child onto a boat. If I want a direct relationship with the water, I can have it when the boat is stationary. And then there are corners. How can you even consider having corners at sea? One should never forget that a boat is a moving space. There should never be any corners, either inside or outside. Safety and stability are of fundamental importance for Zuccon.

Custom Line 108

The hull is the most important part, because it is the element that gives the boat strength. It is precisely due to Cloud 9’s imposing hull that Zuccon considers it one of the best boats he’s ever built. A new version is coming out soon, with an even larger hull. Nowadays there is a tendency to reduce hulls to the bare minimum to prioritise a direct relationship with the sea, and then too many openings are made in the hull. It always seems that we have forgotten that a boat’s identity resides in the very fact that it moves through the water.

Does he have any regrets? He still has lots of ideas. I would have liked to found an architecture school. But I still ask myself every day what I want to do when I grow up.How could it be otherwise? My mother always said that we are never happy in life because we are never content with our lot. Perhaps that’s the ultimate meaning of research. But what is research? Putting things together, creating a structure, a system of relationships. Even a boat is nothing more than a system of relationships between different elements. The same goes for life. And for relationships with others. That’s the only way to create other worlds.

Like in Mina and Frank Sinatra’s songs, he tells us with great satisfaction, recalling the notes of his favourite singers. And to build relationships you need care, attention and dedication. That could be why Giovanni Zuccon’s counts some school mates amongst his best friends: he has an ability to create dialogue, build bridges, forge relationships and bring structures to life. Long-lasting ones.

Everything is made for life. This summarises Giovanni Zuccon ’s system of ethics: a system with an ancient feel, far removed from the ephemeral nature of the modern world. A system that is, in a way, ‘revolutionary’, based on the ability to establish genuine, real contact with people and with one’s work.

Professor Giovanni Zuccon is all of this, even when he is just sat talking at the desk in his studio, which, incidentally, he will soon be leaving: his children are designing a new work space surrounded by greenery, a true creative workshop. The Zuccon International Project will move to Montemario, a district in the Italian capital with a splendid view over the entire city.

CRN Latona 50m d
CRN Latona 50m

Before saying goodbye, we ask him which work he thinks is his best, or which gives him most satisfaction. My best design is the one I will create tomorrow, he says. In the meantime, the sun has come out, and the warm ochre-coloured buildings that face onto the courtyard are gleaming. And a single handshake contains an extraordinary amount of humanity.

(Giovanni Zuccon: “everything is for life”. Yacht design and project ethics – – December 2018)