(Design Studio) at the Accademia di architettura di Mendrisio

Afin d’explorer les pratiques académiques qui marqueront les futures générations d’architectes, plonge dans l’univers des ateliers de projet à la recherche de méthodologies novatrices. Pour cette première expérience, l’architecte hollandais Anne Holtrop (1977, NL) revient sur ses deux dernières années à Mendrisio: un laboratoire d’art et de matière.


Il existe autant de manières d’enseigner l’architecture que de façons de la regarder. À l’instar des styles architecturaux qui influencent la productionles concepteurs de tout une époque, l’univers des ateliers de projet est souvent le reflet le plus naturel de ce monde extérieur. Une réalité à échelle réduite où se concentre une multitude des variables inhérentes à l’architecture.

Au sein de l’ATELIER ANNE HOLTROP, la matière est une science au service de l’art. Parmi les différentes approches présentes à l’école de Mendrisio, celle de l’architecte hollandais réduit la pensée architecturale à son essence la plus physique et tangible. Pendant tout un semestre, chaque étudiant est poussé dans une exploration scientifique où l’espace n’est pas un désir mais plutôt une conséquence : l’effet d’un processus de transformation empirique de la matière.

Conscient que les paramètres qui régissent de nos jours la conception des espaces ne sont plus statiques, son savoir académique se tourne vers de nouveaux terrains moins explorés, comme la géologie ou la science des matériaux. Derrière cette vision, l’influence intellectuelle des techniques artistiques est palpable. Il n’y a qu’à voir l’un des manifestes « pratiques » accrochés dans un coin de l’atelier : la VERBLIST de Richard Serra (1967-68). Une déclaration en faveur de l’application engagée d’une action, peu importe qu’elle soit ou non délibérée.

Après deux années de pratique en Suisse, nous l’avons rencontré en ce début d’été au Tessin pour faire un bilan de sa première expérience helvétique avant de prendre son envol vers un nouveau défi national de taille : lETH de Zürich. Can you explain in few words the aim of your course?
Anne Holtrop: Basically, we explore the gestures of making in relation to a material, where the reality and meaning of the work lays within the material, the form and the act of making. The architecture that results from this approach does not reference or represent something, neither is it an abstraction, but simply attempts to exist as a physical reality. This is what we call MATERIAL GESTURE. The main topic of our teaching cycle in Mendrisio.

What are the basic information students get at the beginning of the semester?
They get to understand the meaning of MATERIAL GESTURE through some writings like texts from Roland Barthes, Bijoy Jain or Philip Leider. Then we also gave them a little introduction with some hints related to the subtopic of the semester.

As I knew I would stay in Mendrisio for 2 years (4 semesters), I developed a subtopic for each semester in order to work on different possibilities of the MATERIAL GESTURE meaning and explore more deeply what can be brought out of this idea or how can I take it over. Then, at the end of the semester, the main outcome produced by the students are models in scale 1:15 supported by drawings, photos and few schemes of the construction process.

How do students work?
I ask students to understand in a precise way, the material they are dealing with. They have to learn where does the materials comes from, how can you work with it or which are the technics or tools that can be used to transform it.

Like I do in my own practice, we want to open up new possibilities of doing things, finding new applications for any kind of material. But for that we need to know very well the properties of things. Therefore, you need to have basic knowledge of building, construction or structure before you can make the right steps.

It looks like you are rather focused on the process than the result. Do you conceive the final projects as prototypes or finished products?
From my own background, I consider them to be final works. This is the reason I request them to work with the same material that they think the architecture will be made of. For sure, in an architecture school, you always have to deal with the fact that you can only imagine things to be on the realm of architecture but during the process of doing, we learn a basic knowledge that is common to any scale. It is a big material sample in the form of a real project.

Why do students represent architecture by means of 1:15 models and how do you deal with computers technologies?
We believe in the physical reality of things and models give us this feeling. A computer is a perfect tool to produce drawings, photos and gain knowledge about things but it does not replace everything, it is rather an addition to things we were already doing.

The type of models we produce are quite different from most of the ateliers where they just produce models that gives the best appearance of a material or a landscape, no matter how the model is produced. Like a painter that wants to give you his own view of a certain place through his painting. Instead, we are rather doing a scientific research, testing real materials that you can only do through its own physical presence.

Somehow, are you trying to liberate students’ minds from conventional solutions?
I definitely like to question architecture itself. What can architecture be today. But not in a conceptual or idealistic way, rather following a consequential process. It means, we do not imagine or formulate in advance the end result of a project, but we follow the consequences of a research making a step-by-step process where the reality of a project emerges by itself. It is a kind of back and forth process within this research.

In that way, we try to challenge the conventions because we are never trying to reach the best house or the most functional one. We just follow an action. The act of doing, whether it is purposeful or not.

How do you deal with references during your courses?
I do not allow references in my studio. The very first week of the semester, I ask them to bring a project they have done themselves and something that they really like. It helps me to understand who they are. Then, I tell them: “from now on, I do not want to see any other references”. Because I want students to follow their own research. The problem with references is that we determine on forehand what the outcome should be. We build a preconceived idea that locks down every new possibility to invent something new.

Do you conceive the atelier an extension of your office or an experimental field detached from your professional activity?
It is definitely related to my own experience. I worked for a long period in the art world, assisted an artist, and most of my thinking about the MATERIAL GESTURES comes from the art world because most of it is about the act of doing something. In that way, the atelier relates very well to the practice of art. But on the other hand, it is not only about that, because we also want to get closer to science.

Your semester trips are never oriented to visit architecture buildings. How do you plan them?
I bring them to factories, industries or any places of production to get them familiar with the world they do not often know. Concrete is not just something we order to a factory. It is made of many components and produced in a specific site. You have to understand the processes of materials if you want to work with them in a particular way. So basically, the journeys are orientated to help students with their own research...for example, how do we cast glass...

What is your next step?
I will continue this research at the ETH in Zürich. A school surrounded by many departments able to support this research, something that represents a big opportunity for me.

The topic I will pursue for a longer period is related with my 3rd subtopic -SITE-. Because the understanding of geology is the understanding of our time. For instance, the stratification is literally a time document of our history and our way of living in a place. And at the same time, the geology is the understanding of the sourcing of building materials (stones, minerals, earth, water, etc.). Everything we construct with. This creates so many possibilities for further research...

Finally, what do you appreciate the most from a student?
During my 3rd semester in Mendrisio, I had a student who worked on a project made out of metallic sheets that would drill into the ground in order to feel the vibrations from a volcano and make the sound visible and audible. Recently, I heard that she was so interested in her project that she kept furthering her research, getting in touch with a Volcanic Institute back in Sicily and finding out if she can make this project for real.

For sure, the best results I get are from students who really want to understand how things work.