The USI Teatro dell’architettura Mendrisio was inaugurated in October 2018 with an exclusive exhibit on the architect Louis Kahn. The multi-purpose building, designed by Mario Botta, represents an important milestone for the USI Accademia di architettura. Riccardo Blumer, director of the Accademia, tells us more about the new venue and about himself and his projects.
Botta says that the new building is like a ‘thorn in the side’ of the Accademia, or like a beating drum keeping us awake and aware of our surroundings”. Could you explain this concept and its intrinsic meaning?
To answer the question, one must first consider that public schools, contrary to what we would normally be inclined to believe, are ‘closed’ institutions, open to students and teachers for the main purpose of learning and teaching, but not necessarily to the public. Teachers and professors should be the point of contact students have with the world, but this relationship is essentially held in a private context. So in what ways does a school or a university open to the world, and to the public? Generally, through conferences or by publishing scientific articles, two activities which are perhaps the most obvious, or by engaging with the business or industrial world, which is what we already do at the Accademia. Nevertheless, even though a university is a public institution, it is essentially a place of study, and therefore it could be considered as a "private" environment. So how and where can this public entity measure itself with the world, directly? (Indirectly it does, through its students and their post-graduation professional lives.) The idea behind Teatro dell’architettura is to address this issue through an open dialogue between the university and the public. I believe that measuring oneself with the public is one of the most interesting exercises one can do at school. In my yearly mise-en-scène, I always bring my first-year students, which are around 140, in front of a live audience – that is the moment when one understands what this exercise means. As human beings, we exist by reflection, and the biggest and most important reflection is the public, and in life there is always a moment when one will have to measure his/herself with a real audience. This ‘real comparison’ is what keeps one awake – and aware – but not in a closed area, because the public is not like a closed circle. When architect Mario Botta says the Teatro is like a thorn in the side, he means of the Accademia, which constantly needs to measure itself with a non-specialist audience – the public.
How do you see the role of the architect of today, its independence, referring to issues in the private and in the public sector?
The architect is increasingly responsible for the work he or she is commissioned to do, in the sense that the client does not have the right to buy your soul. The architect must learn to be respected and must learn to be indispensable, to the extent that he or she is able to create architectural, and therefore cultural, visions that the client does not possess. A good architect should be able to teach and learn at the same time, and the real problem arises when the client is unwilling to adhere to this learning process. In this case, a good architect will reject the project. When the architect fails to see the possibility of creating the Project (with a capital P), when he or she does not see something that gives meaning to being an architect of this society, then the architect will drop it. Like Mario Botta, I myself have often refused many projects, because I felt that they did not lead me to an area of knowledge. Each project brings new knowledge, through a comparative process, which we as architects imagine as an ascending line, of attribution of experience, of knowledge. In general, any job should entail knowledge, even that of the post office clerk. The work of the architect, in particular, can be complex because of its ‘public’ nature, in the sense that every time you perform an architecture, society recognizes or denies itself in that architecture, even if it is commissioned by a private individual.
Generally speaking, I do not see much difference between a project commissioned by a public entity or a private individual. Perhaps in the private sector things seem ‘easier’ because there is no need to measure with other parties, or the public. Nevertheless, this is not entirely true, because when you see a building, you usually attribute it to the architect who designed it, especially when you dislike it. Here we have the typical paradox: a building designed by Snozzi, Botta, etc. does not belong to the architect, it is not a ‘Botta building’ – it is a building of, say, Mr. Bianchi or the City of Lugano – but in general we tend to associate the construction with its designer, not its true owner who is ultimately responsible for it. In this sense, therefore, public and private projects are no different. The architect realizes this, and should have the capability and the responsibility to engage in the project at this level, giving therefore meaning to his own existence as an architect.
Your career path began with a degree in architecture at the Politecnico Milano. When did you understand and embrace the ‘humanistic’ approach to the discipline, which is the defining element of the Accademia?
The Polytechnic University of Milan is not really a ‘technical’ university; it is extremely infused with humanities, to the extent that it almost completely lacked that sense of measure with the expressive technique of design. There was no combination between humanistic and technical training. Consequently, the Politecnico Milano has churned out generations of architects with refined minds but rough hands – and I was at risk of becoming the same. In the 1980s, when I was enrolled, I was clearly skewed towards the intellectual part, rather than a technical one, which had its advantages but also its limits. This meant having great ideas, great project abstraction, but very little exercise in design. My generation and those before me have suffered for this. I was lucky enough to have eventually joined the Botta studio, where I met with people with more polytechnic education, in the Swiss sense. They completed my training, essentially, also through comparison and discussion.
The Accademia represents a beautiful balance between these two worlds. When we say 'humanistic', it is true that... it is not true. The Accademia di Architettura is indeed humanistic, but at the same time, it provides students with great technical exercise. In general, we are no different from the ETH in Zurich, for what I understand. Nevertheless, technology is important for architecture, but it is a means to an end, therefore not exclusive. For what I have seen at the ETH, in fact, sometimes technology is something you can develop even without an architectural purpose. In Zurich, I see how they enjoy making machines that make buildings without really knowing their purpose. They like to calculate all the ballistics to make bricks fall in the right place. Instead, I am more interested in what you do with those falling bricks.
The prestigious MoMA in New York has two of your design chairs on permanent exhibition. Do you consider yourself more a designer or an architect – or both?
I would like to have been a good architect; instead, I became a good designer… Over the years, I have understood the reasons behind this. When I am in ‘designer mode’, I am in direct control of the construction phase. Designing relieves me of all that abstraction of calculation and time management of the various work phases that architecture requires, because it is something direct, it is physical. Building my own chair, for example, is something I enjoy, something I really want to do. I like to measure the relationship between the weight and the resistance of the chair object, without reverting to the results of a theoretical study.
You are known for your daring projects with your students, like the Via Crucis at the Funicolare degli Angioli in Lugano, in 2016. Tell us a little more about your latest student workshop “Inflatable cemetery”.
I have changed the name of my new student-project because, indeed, the word ‘cemetery’ sounded a little intimidating. Now the project is called ‘Inflatable nomads”. If you combine ‘nomad’ with ‘inflatable’, you create a contradiction of sense. Nomad refers to something you can move, as opposed to a monument that by nature is eternal, fixed and precisely located – just like the pyramids in Egypt. Making a monument that can be carried around is already a strange concept, even more so if it is inflated and deflated, which means that it is made of a very light material.
This is a method that I often adopt at school, I like working within a paradox. To understand what a monument is, to build one, you need to work on characteristics that do not belong to it. Inflatable and mobile, for instance. This takes you into a very interesting place where nothing is taken for granted. It requires understanding the experiential way, by doing the exercise, which is something I have done many times. Like, for example, making a houseboat on the surface of the water, but where you actually live in the water. This is a provocative concept, in an exasperated way. In my opinion, our school of architecture is beautiful precisely for these things. Another example: when a scientist says that time does not exist – it was initially an intuition – but then someone figured out a way to measure it. It is the constant dialogue with culture, with civilization, which has an idea of time that is constant, and then suddenly there is someone who says that it is expandable. I like working this way, and the fact that we live in a society in which contemporary art often adopts this method. A lot of contemporary art should be seen in this perspective, as an exercise.
The original version of this interview is published in Ticino Welcome magazine n. 060 (December '18-February '19), pages 6-7