NEW YORK — Gae Aulenti, a provocative Italian architect and designer who most notably converted a Paris train station into the Musee d’Orsay, died Wednesday at her home in Milan. She was 84.
Her death, after a long illness, was announced by her family. In a statement, President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy referred to her as a ‘‘leading figure of contemporary architecture’’ with an ‘‘extraordinary ability’’ to combine cultural and historic values with the urban environment.
Ms. Aulenti was one of the few Italian women to rise to prominence in architecture and design in the postwar years. Her work includes villas for the rich, showrooms for Fiat, shops for Olivetti, pens and watches for Louis Vuitton, and a coffee table on wheels that is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Ms. Aulenti was best known for her work on interiors, particularly those of museums. She designed museum renovations in Venice, Barcelona, Istanbul, and San Francisco.
In 1981 she was chosen to turn the 1900 Beaux Arts Gare d’Orsay train station, a spectacular landmark originally designed by Victor Laloux, into the Musee d’Orsay, a museum of mainly French art from 1848 to 1915. As part of the redesign she created a grand central aisle in a cavernous space that once contained train tracks under a dramatic barrel-vaulted glass ceiling. Original support beams were highlighted and new industrial materials such as wire mesh were used. Walls were redone in rough stone.
The renovated building opened in December 1986 and critical reaction was mixed. Holland Cotter of The New York Times called it ‘‘fabulously eccentric.’’ But Liberation, an Italian newspaper favored by the cognoscenti, said the museum had been ‘‘likened to a funeral hall, to a tomb, to a mausoleum, to an Egyptian burial monument, to a necropolis.’’
Ms. Aulenti noted that almost immediately, 20,000 people were standing in line each day waiting to get in. ‘‘As a culture, the French are opposed to change,’’ she said in an interview with The Times in 1987. ‘‘They are also not very progressive in their thinking about architecture, so that when new buildings are designed, they are usually opposed to them.’’
Her champions saw the Paris museum as a giant step for someone whose influence had been as an industrial designer and as a leader of a young generation of Italian theorists who had questioned the tenets of modernist architecture. In 1999, Herbert Muschamp, then the architecture critic for The Times, called her ‘‘the most important female architect since the beginning of time.’’
Less effusively, the architect Philip Johnson said, ‘‘Anyone who makes as strong a statement as Gae did is going to run into a buzz saw.’’
Gaetana Aulenti (Gae, as she was known, is pronounced ‘‘guy”) was born in the town of Palazzolo dello Stella, near Trieste. She told The Times that she studied architecture in defiance of her parents’ hope that she would become ‘‘a nice society girl.’’ In 1954, she was one of two women in a class of 20 to graduate from the Milan Polytechnic School of Architecture. She soon joined the staff of Casabella, a design magazine, and joined with her peers in rejecting the architecture of masters like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius. They called themselves the ‘‘Neo Liberty’’ movement.
“More than anything, we were trying to recognize our own identity,’’ she said.
She taught architecture at universities in Milan and Venice and started doing interior design projects. She went on to become a celebrated furniture designer, some of her work borrowing from Pop Art. Lighting was another specialty, which she drew on in designing sets for opera houses throughout Europe. She planned six stores for the fashion designer Adrienne Vittadini, including one on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. (She even designed the mannequins.)
Her work on the Musee d’Orsay led to commissions to create a space for the National Museum of Modern Art at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, the restoration of the Palazzo Grassi as an art museum in Venice, the conversion of an old Italian embassy in Berlin into an Academy of Science, and the restoration of an exhibition hall in Barcelona as a museum of Catalan art.
In San Francisco, she converted the city’s old Main Library into a museum of Asian art. As it neared completion in 2001, she lamented that her interior museum work drew less attention than the ballyhooed new museums being built, like Frank Gehry’s titanium-walled one for the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. ‘‘The drama can’t be seen outside,’’ she told The San Francisco Chronicle.
Ms. Aulenti was divorced twice. She leaves her daughter, Giovanna; and a granddaughter.
In her work in Paris, Ms. Aulenti said, she got her way with tough French construction crews by making them think of her as their mother ‘‘whom they must please.’’ She dressed conservatively, not out of indifference to fashion, she said, but defiance.
‘‘I don’t like to dress alla moda,’’ she told Women’s Wear Daily in 1971, using the Italian term for “in fashion.” ‘‘The moment it’s loudly announced that red is fashion, I stop wearing red. I want to dress in green.’’