Ilaria Mazzoleni: Splitting Her Time Between Italian Village and L.A.

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Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks: How did you, or your family before you, wind up living in Los Angeles?

Today, he speaks with architect, professor, and author Ilaria Mazzoleni:

"Telling L.A." premieres December 5, 2017.


"I grew up in Sottochiesa, a village in the Italian Alps in the province of Bergamo. My family still lives in the same village. It's a very settled-down lifestyle. Generally speaking, Italian families are less mobile than the typical American family.

Sixteen years ago I came to L.A., by myself, to study. After completing my undergraduate degree in architecture at the Politecnico in Milano, I wanted to study more, to learn English and to see a little bit of the world.

I applied for schools -- I was lucky enough to get a scholarship from an Italian sponsor and the opportunity to come to the U.S. and study at USC*, where I did my Master in Building Science.

I also would say that I haven't ever really completely left Italy because I go back often. My family is all still there, and they will never leave! There are several reasons that bring me back to L.A., so I would say that I live between two places. I spend time here but I go back to Northern Italy two times a year.

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I remember the day that my brother Alberto and my cousin Carla got me to the airport in Milano. I thought I was coming only for one year so I didn't have this "good-bye forever" type of feeling.

I arrived to L.A. on a Sunday night and Monday was the orientation at school. I showed up with my suitcases. Everybody had come earlier but I had thought, 'Well, I've been in school for a long time. I don't need to arrive earlier to set up.' It didn't occur to me that I was going to be in a very different, unfamiliar, environment!

Everybody else had arrived earlier and kind of knew their way around already. My English was very limited, so fortunately there was another Italian student, Dario, who took me around and explained to me a little bit how the American campus lifestyle works.

The first days here were very intense. I got set up in my university housing and from there I created in a very short time a group of friends that became my "family". All these years later, I'm one of the few that is still in L.A., but we continue to remain in touch and meet at least every couple of years.

Many of these friends are Indian. So for me, coming to the U.S. was first about learning about Indian culture. For example: there was not really 'American' food, but rather Indian food in America.

Ilaria and Alberto Mazzoleni with their mother. Photo by Carlo Fraschini. Photo courtesy Ilaria Mazzoleni
Ilaria and Alberto Mazzoleni with their mother. Photo by Carlo Fraschini. Photo courtesy Ilaria Mazzoleni



In L.A., I live south of Hollywood, in the Melrose and La Brea area. I've been in this neighborhood for over ten years and I feel at home here. I like being in the middle of the city -- it allows me to move around quite efficiently.

Obviously, there are major differences between living in L.A. and in my native village, Sottochiesa. However, I find L.A. to be very similar in certain aspects to Milano. They both are cities that one needs to discover, where everything is hidden and where things are not really coming at you -- one has to search for them. Both places offer a lot, both culturally and socially. Both are places that well suit the creative mind!

They are not maybe the most comfortable places to live in. And there is a lot to complain about -- or at least, a lot that many people like to complain about. I find the city quite comfortable, and I think L.A. actually offers so much to someone that is creative and continuously interested in learning about other cultures. Moreover, having so many prominent academic institutions, this place really offers everything one may desire, from technology to science, from literature to art; innovation and tradition are found and fused in a continuum.

And then there is the other aspect very predominant in L.A.: nature! We have the plain, but also the ocean nearby and the hills and the power of the deserts. Where I come from, it's obviously very vertical. The Alps are characterized by narrow canyons and mountain peaks. So there is much more a feeling of compression there and here it's much more open.

I love the contrast when I go from one place to another. I can kind of go back to discover a little bit of the nature of the seasons in Northern Italy -- the winters and the summers and the wild flowers blooming season. All this has become part of my work: the observation and learning from nature.

I love the Mediterranean weather of Los Angeles. I love the sun and I love the bright sky most of the time. It's quite different. Southern Italy shares the same Mediterranean climate, and is very similar, but I'm not from the south so I never really had the fortune of living that before coming here.

Sottochiesa, Italy, in the Taleggio Valley. Photo courtesy Ilaria Mazzoleni
Sottochiesa, Italy, in the Taleggio Valley. Photo courtesy Ilaria Mazzoleni



I teach architecture and biomimetic designat SCI-Arc. I just published a book: "Architecture Follows Nature -- Biomimetic Principles for Innovative Design," a collaboration with UCLA biologist Shauna Price, edited by Yoseph Bar-Cohen, a JPL scientist. The book really speaks to the network of knowledge that pervades the city -- people here are very, very generous and open to collaboration.

So if you have an idea or wants to conduct research, you can seek out opportunities with other people and it's not that difficult to find someone who has been a leader in that specific field for years. It's easy to create this network of excellent specialists. The city really attracts a lot of talent. [To learn more about Ilaria Mazzoleni's studio, visit this page.]

There is tremendous complexity to interdisciplinary research and it requires long term commitments. For the book, for example, we had been working together for four years before we thought to write it. Interdisciplinary work demands that the participants use the same argot; this can be read also as a metaphor that demonstrates how great diversity brings complexity to the society as a whole.

L.A. is really a fusion of cultures that produces a particular and unique diversity. It always enchants me that there are people here that don't speak any English. It's interesting how someone can live in Los Angeles and speak only Russian, Korean, Italian, etc. all her/his life -- this is possible because there are enough people from one's own country, which allows one to sustain that life. And still, we all co-exist in a pretty peaceful, yet enriching, way.

That is even while we don't have much of a street life evident in the city. I lived in Valencia, Spain as well as Milano, Italy. Especially in Spain, everybody goes out at night without setting up a meeting. You go out to the center streets, and surely you'll meet someone you know there and spend some relaxing time together.

In L.A., I think these social relationships are much more formalized. But this sense of privacy and respect of other people's privacy I think is, at times, a missed opportunity to create a more supportive community in a very flexible, natural, and less constructed way."

- Ilaria Mazzoleni
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)


Top: Self-portrait. Photo courtesy Ilaria Mazzoleni

*=Jeremy Rosenberg is employed there.

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com.

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