Italians abroad: the Q&A firm in Shanghai - ISPLORA

Italians abroad: the Q&A firm in Shanghai


References, contrasts and material take shape and explore urban China

A few days ago in Turin we met architect Michele Armando, the founder with Gianmaria Quarta of Q&A Architecture Design Research, based in Shanghai. The Q&A firm works across different disciplines constantly trying to find innovative and original answers to the questions connected to architectural projects. Answers which are always specific, connected to the context they are located in, rooted and immersed in the Chinese urban context but which also carry a “Mediterranean” idea and atmosphere, a Latin matrix which stems from the Italian education and origins of the two founders. The relationship between the design activity of the Q&A firm with the space of urban China is actually one of the many interesting topics we explored during our chat with architect Michele Armando.

First of all we should start from the beginning, what reasons led you on your journey along the Silk Road taking you to China? What context did you meet? How was your firm born?

The main forces which led us to China were undoubtedly impatience and the wish to put ourselves on the line. We wanted to see our ideas come to life as soon as possible, and that led us to bet on a country that showed our same impatience to grow and change. Here we were immediately held in the highest esteem in the firms we were working in and we were soon given a team to develop projects with nearly total freedom. This clearly also implied responsibilities which at times seemed larger than our abilities, but overcoming the different ordeals, learning the pros and cons of this thousand-year-old and unique culture we were able to stand on our own feet and consider the idea of taking the plunge and starting our own firm.

The first project we were assigned was the one which gave us the courage to start our own practice, the restaurant Saltimbocca in the city of Wuhan. The client immediately believed in us and our ideas and actively took part in the design process, also giving us the opportunity to create our own language in terms of architectural project and process.

While we were developing this concept we had other interesting opportunities, first of all the project of the Brazilian bar Barraco, which was applauded not only in Shanghai. This gave origin to collaborations mainly in the field of Food & Beverage, offices and Space Concept for temporary events connected to the world of fashion. At the same time some opportunities developed in the field of education, giving us the chance to organize workshops and lessons for students and people interested in architecture in Shanghai, Chengdu and Qingdao.  

Saltimbocca - Wuhan / Cina / 2018 Saltimbocca - Wuhan / Cina / 2018

A growth path made of small steps where all your projects seem to tell many stories, staging design solutions which are constantly different, showing a good command of architectural language and building materials. In this regard, which are the goals and method behind your work?

Although the results of our projects might seem “eclectic” and not always cohesive, they all share one great element: the process.

During our short experience we outlined a sort of guided creative process which our client is constantly involved in, and through timetabled meetings we reach a positive result for all the parties involved, in a relatively short time (an issue which is very important in China). Clearly, the first input always comes from our client and as a consequence we must guide, arrange (or disarrange), amplify his ideas and obtain the best possible solution.

Let’s take Barraco: the client had asked us to recreate the atmosphere of a Brazilian slum, a favela, with similar materials and colors, but our fear was that customers might simply interpret it as an abandoned and messy place. Starting from here, we tried to put everything that represented an informal situation – typical of a favela – at the level of the dropped ceiling while on the ground, instead, the environment is that of an elegant bar on the beach. The two contrasts coexist harmoniously meeting both the client’s requests and his customers’ wishes. A similar story is that of the wine bar Tre Vin, here the owners wanted to recreate a Mediterranean environment with clear references to Italian, Spanish or Greek tradition and culture. Our operation consisted in covertly including different references: the carpet of shards recalls floors of the Spanish coast, the lava stone lamps recall the volcanoes of southern Italy, the Turkish marble, the walls to display wine bottles designed by half cylinders which recall Ionic columns of ancient Greece.

Barraco - Shanghai / 2017 Barraco - Shanghai / 2017

Contrasts, references which are more or less explicit and recall your education, which took place in Italy. In this regard, what elements of Italian tradition did you take with you? Is there a sort of “Italianity”, a way of designing that can be exported and is recognizable outside our country?

Now it is quite difficult to link a geographical belonging to a particular architectural style, mainly in the field of interior design. What we certainly carry with us from our Italian education, and here is especially appreciated, is a way of dealing with projects and solving technical problems in a creative way, through new ideas and visions. Take for instance the project of Saltimbocca, where the ventilation systems of the kitchens certainly represented an important technical and aesthetic problem: instead of clumsily trying to hide them we emphasized them turning them into over-sized lamps, visual connections between the different floors. This way we took what was a “weakness” of the project and turned it into its most significant element.

Tre Vin - Shanghai / 2018 Tre  Vin - Shanghai / 2018

What instead did your working experience in Shanghai teach you? Which is the role of architects in China? And the relationship with their clients?

100 definitions would not be enough to describe it. If on the one hand it can certainly be unsettling at first, on the other hand having to deal with a very dynamic and fast-moving work environment forced us to leave behind the many inhibitions inherited over the years. Although Italian universities provide a good basis of technical and theoretical knowledge, there still is quite a lot of rigidity in the way of interpreting innovation. The role of architects, in China as well as in Italy, is getting weaker and weaker as we are authors of spaces which are done and dusted, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Personally every new project marks the beginning of a relationship of intellectual exchange with clients, consultants and cooperators which, although might at times become chaotic, keeps on instilling in me a unique energy, essential to the creative process. 

Today we might consider you the same as successful migrants of the world of Italian architecture, do you have any advice for other professionals like you?

An experience abroad can be useful, but it is certainly no guarantee of success per se. What counts is your drive and enthusiasm and passion for what you do, you either have it or you don’t. 

China has certainly taught us to be a bit reckless, so my advice, even if rather obvious, is to not be afraid of entering the fray wherever you are, besides “practice makes perfect” … (he laughs), our grandmothers also told us so.



Barraco - Shanghai / 2017

Tre Vin - Shanghai / 2018

Saltimbocca - Wuhan / Cina / 2018

Greencode - Shanghai Fashion Week 2017

In the works:

Gelateria Allora – Shanghai

LA Prime – Shenyang

Barefoot Photo Studio - Shanghai  


Q&A – Quarta & Armando Architecture Design Research Q&A  – Quarta & Armando Architecture Design Research


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