The AE was founded in 2011 to generate a public discussion about architecture and the architect’s role in shaping the discipline. We have since gone on to explore a variety of topics in an attempt to make sense of the recent past and current preoccupations. Themes are advanced but not adhered to dogmatically. This website is an archive of our activities. 


Samuel Penn
Dr. Penny R Lewis

Prof. Neil Gillespie OBE
Dr. Cameron McEwan
Rowan Mackinnon-Pryde
Dr. Neil Burford

AE Foundation
33 Portland Street
Edinburgh EH6 4BB
United Kingdom

QUOTE OF THE WEEK “I’m not impressed by the way people classify postmodern architects, or not. I can understand that it’s possible to put me in the same group for instance with Stirling or Rossi and with other kinds of postmodernists, but I think it’s too quick to classify things like that. For me, in my mind what happened was continuity in the evolution of architecture that goes back centuries, not from modern or postmodern. And in Postmodernism, the thing I don’t like, the thing I don’t consider good, was not to say no to Modernism, or to say no to history, which is very contradictory, because they use architectonic elements taken from history, but to break the continuity which I recognise in the evolution of architecture through the centuries.” Álvaro Siza - Subversives, 2014 


︎︎︎Samuel Penn


I’m extremely happy to be able to introduce Luigi Snozzi today. Before I decided to study architecture my grandfather gave me a book on European Architecture which I treasured. Luigi Snozzi had a chapter and I used to look at his work and think how great and pure these houses were. It was really inspiring. I’m certain that today will be the same. Daniel has kindly agreed to translate.   

First of all, thank you for welcoming us and the opportunity to be here. Thank you for the introduction and apologies for not speaking English, but my good friend Daniel will be translating.

The title of this lecture is Long live the Resistance, Viva la Resistenza, in Italian. Twenty years ago I started my lectureship at the Lausanne Polytecnico, with these words: “We find ourselves today in a world whose survival is gravely threatened.” The symptoms are everywhere. The academic community has a share of responsibility for what is happening. It needs to publically examine human life from a moral point of view until academics can raise an intellectual consciousness that forms responsible and engaged citizens to complete the process toward a substantial democracy. This task needs to remain the main focus of academics and teachers. In this sense the purpose of architectural teaching is not so much to produce professionally capable architects, but critical thinkers with a sense of moral consciousness. With this introduction I emphasise the fact that architecture is not a neutral discipline in relation to society.

At the root of my thinking, teaching and designing there is always a political and ideological base, which fits with the socialist conception of the world in opposition to the efficient and utilitarian view. Within this ideological perspective, architecture must retain its disciplinary autonomy. The only way to attribute a political dimension to architecture lies in its own specific development. It is the only way architecture can have structural influence on society.

The lecture represents a synthesis of various issues and problems that are posed to the architect today: the relation between politics and architecture, the social role of the architect, the importance of ethics, the responsibility of intellectuals and hence also of architecture schools in relation to the problem of war in a society which defines itself as a democracy. I address the relation between man and nature and the repercussions of this with regard to the architectural project highlighting the importance of history in the context and place of architectural intervention with reference to several projects and concrete solutions are posed for the development of the contemporary city as the antithesis of the practice of contemporary urban planners and the issue of uncontrolled expansion of cites today. The lecture is partly based on a series of aphorisms written in the 1970s and edited in 1973 for my first year teaching at ETH Zürich and accompanied by the representation of urban scale projects for various places in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, and spanning from 1972 to 2006.

The aphorism says: “Don’t escape from your responsibilities. Work within the form. In it you will find man.” If I do not attribute a direct political role to the architectural project, I stand against any attempt to separate the disciplinary affect from political commitment. This implies that schools of architecture must defend their autonomy from the demands of professionalism so they can execute their critical function with greater freedom.

I try to summarise this issue with my students with a schema. On the left is architecture and on the right is society. Architecture tends toward the permanent. Society tends toward the ephemeral. Architecture is inefficient. Society demands maximum efficiency.

If we are to list a series of currently renowned architects we would see that most of the well-known names are organic and functional within today’s society and whose first value is consumerism. We would find it difficult to find architecture from this schema. Architecture can only be in resistance to current society.

Another central theme in my work is the relationship between man and nature. Before I use my own aphorisms I will refer to two that are not by me. The first is by Carlo Cattaneo and the second is from my friend Paolo Mendes da Rocha, which summarise the relationship between architecture and nature. Cattaneo says: “A region is distinguished from the wild in that there is an immense deposit of hard work. This land is not the work of nature. It is the work of our hands. It is our traditional mother land.” Da Rocha’s is more drastic: “Nature is a piece of shit.” This is my favourite aphorism.

From the beginning of mankind, in order to gain his living space, a struggle began for the transformation of nature to culture. On one hand nature provides all elements for the survival of man. On the other it opposes man with all its hostile strength and force. Today the city represents the last moment of this struggle and can be defined as the natural home of man. Thanks to human efforts the city holds the fire of volcanoes, the sand of the desert, the jungle, the flora and the fauna, all of nature.

This dynamic concept of landscape stands in contrast to all theories of adaptation and integration. The theories that remain used in committees are for protection of historic sites and monuments as well as urban planning. It is not about architecture integrating into the landscape. It is about architecture constructing a new landscape. Not integration but opposition. The sailor is happy in the midst of the sea because he knows the city remains in the distance beyond the horizon.

When we talk about cities we inevitably think of historic cities. To this day historic cities represent the most significant urban event. The concept of the historic city and that of modern architecture are inextricably linked. Without modern architecture the historical city would lose meaning. It participates in the design of the new city. History becomes fundamental to architecture. I have an aphorism: “Nothing is invented. Everything is to be reinvented.”

Another important reference for design is the Modern Movement, in which much experience is gathered and which the main theme was inhabitation. Referring to the modern tradition always implies the rejection of vulgar functionalism of the time as expressed in the slogan ‘form equals function’. The aqueduct comes to life the moment it stops carrying water. The design project is the main instrument of the discipline. Before being a tool for the transformation of reality, it is an instrument for its acknowledgement. A good analysis is always part of the project. Against the consumerist view of the world, it is necessary to find new solutions that might reproduce lost values in architectural terms. I refer to the values of soil as an immutable common good, to cosmic values and to geographic values. The hanging of seasons, rotation of day and night, the primary elements for human values, sun, air, light, water, the values of history and memory, the values of human labour. Such expense and effort of energy to heat, to light, when all you need is a window. Every action requires some level of destruction. The aphorism relevant to this: “Destroy with wisdom. And joy.”

After these brief reflections I would like to spend the rest of the lecture by presenting some of my landscape and territory projects. What unites them is the search for a tangible response to the long evolution of the city and the problem of the uncontrolled spread of the current city: the so-called urban sprawl.

I’d like to present this housing project in Brissago, Lake Maggiore. It was an alternative to a project by a real estate company. I was part of the commission for natural beauty in Ticino, which examined all projects in the region and which evaluated them from an aesthetic point of view. All the different project entries for this competition followed the rules set by the commission and ended with bad projects. I disagreed with the rules set out so I decided to develop a project that overturned all the regulations.

Here is the location.

fig. 1
Housing competition site
Brissago 1972

The authorities had bought the site with a school built by the local authority and wanted to build eighty homes. There was an existing industrial building. There was a drawing by the authorities that set out the school, the street that comes to the area, the parking, a sports field, and a site separately for the housing development.

The authorities asked for the following rules: that all homes are concentrated into three housing blocks, each a certain distance from each other and a certain distance from the lake edge, the retaining wall to be disguised and the form of the housing to be articulated to reflect existing houses in the village, and that each block be different in height. Parking was to be positioned underground via a road to divide the site. I was against these design principles so I put forward an alternative proposal.

To make my proposal I turned all the design guidelines on their head. While the authorities wanted buildings far from the edge, I put my building right on the edge. While they asked for three buildings at different heights, I did one very long building at one height. They wanted the wall to be hidden, so I made the wall the primary element of the design. They wanted parking underground, so I put parking on the roof.

This is the model of the proposal.

fig. 2
Housing competition model
Brissago 1972

The building is placed on the edge of the lake, and it reads as one space. This is a drawing of the site.

fig. 3
Housing competition plan
Brissago 1972

The marina is placed below the building with boats and you see the various access points, a bridge that connects two sides of the site, and the thick line here is the retaining wall of the road. My aphorism: “If you want to avoid monotony, then repeat the element.” The proposal sets out a series of identical volumes with gaps in between so you see views to the water and the landscape; the building contains Corbusier-like flipped accommodation. The access point is in the middle so you enter and go up or you go down.

Because the road is removed to keep the site open, access is on the far edge and you drive straight onto the roof. The point of arrival is at the most prominent area. You arrive and you see the views of the lake. The section highlights the volume of the town hall, the walkway in the middle that goes up and down, and the parking at the top.

The next project is more academic and for the city centre of Braunschweig in Germany, a city that was bombed by the Allies in World War II. I was invited by a professor to propose and lead a project. On the left you see the city centre of Braunschweig on April 4th. Here you see a map of the city before and on the fifth of April.

fig. 4
Germania un’Utopia before and after
Braunschweig 1979

What remains is forty-thousand cubic metres of rubble and ruined city. My suggestion was to design a new centre for Braunschweig in three days, from scales 1:10,000 to 1:1. The theme was not accepted.

I was in a hotel so I had time to think about this problem. I will show you my sketch proposal. Here you see a view of the Baroque city. Here is a sketch plan. My reaction to this situation is, I am Swiss, and like a good Swiss I like to clean things up! So I sweep the 40,000 cubic metres of rubble and push it to the city edge, creating thicker walls. The intention is to use the project as a monument to World War II. By pushing away the ruins to the edge, the debris, the plan of the medieval city comes to life because the basements are not bombed. The underground remains and that becomes the project. Some ruins are left. All the new city is built outside of the centre. All the roads lead to the city centre, to this void, where there is just silence. Finally a new city centre where commerce is not the heart of the city. In this section you see the new city outside the city walls. This model, you see the drawing of the city, an imprint.

fig. 5
Germania un’Utopia model
Braunschweig 1979

Moving to the next, this is a project for the protection of a group of volcanic hills around Padova, at the foot of which are small towns, and also historical baths. There was a proposal which was developed but not accepted by the authorities and I was asked for an alternative proposal, knowing my project for Monte Carasso, and thinking I can put forward something similar. There is an important element here, the canals and ports were built in the eleven hundreds. It means that you can still arrive from Venice by boat, if one wishes.

The previously existing proposal was based on defining places in the hills of the area and looking at the ways in which you can build. I did the opposite and say one cannot build on the hills and work instead with the surrounding planes. I cut out with scissors the shape of the hills and create a field of activity beyond. The hills are so different that to define a plan each hill needs to be divided into multiple regions within.

These are the sketches showing the principles of the project. The hills, the plane around the hills, the canals, which are broadened and made more explicit.

fig. 6
Piano di Protezione Collieuganei
Padua 2004

Gateways are positioned along the canals. The Romans have always been my friends for my projects, always reusing them. The concept is not to allow construction around the hills, but make a base for construction. Here a base is made and planted with flowers. If the village wants to extend, then the plan is to design outward in direction, not toward the hills. An existing Roman canal is extended around the hills.

The next project is for a touristic project in Sardinia, where I have taught for ten years. It’s a large area, thirty-by-ten kilometres. The authorities offered three zones where we were allowed to propose a project. The reason to propose tourism is to bring activity to a place, which is very poor. It’s the most beautiful part of Sardinia, with beaches and sands. The area is very flat, but to the north there are some rocks. When arriving at this area I was impressed by the vernacular buildings, which are very ancient tower-type constructions and are spread around. Nobody knows exactly what they are for. And the Roman churches in Sardinia are always out in the landscape, with very precise forms and built from stone.

fig. 7
Guida Commune church
Sardinia 2005

It is a holiday place where people come for a summer ceremony of eating, meeting, partying, then they leave and it is left empty for the rest of the year. Another element is the watchtowers, built by Genovese, which appear at regular intervals along the coast.

fig. 8
Guida Commune watchtower
Sardinia 2005

These four elements, types, have similar qualities: they are all built from stone, they have very precise geometric forms, and they are spread out across the landscape. The same characteristics are used as a new aspect into the landscape. The project is geometrically rigid, uses clear forms made from stone and is dispersed into the territory. Instead of three elements, five are proposed. They are simple long rectangular shapes. The retaining walls are made from stone. Here is a proposal for the port.

fig. 9
Guida Commune plan
Sardinia 2005

The project is defined by a wall that is five metres tall. At one end is a hotel. The height is seventy-five metres. Within the wall are the holiday home village typologies, a swimming pool and sports field. The long element is the parking, which is within the walls and this is also made very beautiful. A palm tree is planted for every parking lot. So you get seven hundred palm trees! You can walk from the wall and down to the sea. The section shows the hotel, the main shopping area, the houses, the parking area, the open field, and an outdoor theatre at an existing caved area. On the site there is available stone from quarries, with cut stones just abandoned. The houses are arranged as internalised. They turn toward the field. Only the upper part has views to the sea.

This is the final project; a Metropolis of Holland. This project was commissioned by Joe Coenen who invited us with Ciriani and da Rocha to critique projects undertaken over a ten year period in Holland, then give an evaluation. There had been much detailed analysis undertaken but without a concrete result. I was then invited to take part in the competition and I set myself one question: is it possible within this regional setting for people to orientate themselves as in previous historical cities? Holland has cities to its edges and more or less a void in the middle. The essential idea of the project is, because now in the modern city, sprawl is an issue, cities tend to merge with each other, the project stops this possibility. A limit is defined to each city, beyond which it will not grow. By doing so there is no metropolis but a group of different cities. The next part was to link each of these cities by an enormous viaduct of 40m high and serve as a physical connection with each city. Each city has two towers as a gateway. This sketch shows the concept of the scheme. You see the raised viaduct that links all the cities, called the ring, the void in the centre, the towers that mark the position of each city. The airport is positioned in the centre. When you land you see the towers and the whole of Holland. This drawing shows the project with the existing cities, plus three new cities.

fig. 10
Deltametropoli Olanda sketch
Netherlands 2001

The project was called fascist, I was called racist, and then I contacted Swatch and said I have a project for you: it’s a clock on a global scale that you can see from space! Then as I delivered the project, I thought it looks like the EU flag—laughs!

This is an aphorism. It reads: “architecture is empty. It is up to you to define it.” I thought this was not relevant for the modern city, maybe for the historic city, not the modern city, but then I rethought it. It is relevant so I changed the aphorism to exactly the same, but with capital letters: “ARCHITECTURE IS EMPTY. IT IS UP TO YOU TO DEFINE IT.”

Now to conclude. As I mentioned at the beginning all the projects I have shown try to provide an answer to the stretching time and space of the city and the uncontrolled urban sprawl. The planners of today, aware of the problem of urban evolution, take two attitudes. The first is to predict on the basis of hypotheses, a probable developmental program. Reality however, teaches us that in most cases these predictions do not come true. Faced with this reality they resort to the so called ‘open plan’. In other words, the plan that allows the city to act differently to what is expected. This also means not taking decisions. The best open plan is the absence of the plan. There are no stances to take on uncontrolled urban sprawl. I provide two alternative answers against these attitudes. On the uncontrolled urban sprawl of the city I find it necessary to provide spatially recognisable limitations to growth. Outside of these, as in the ancient city, the countryside; inside of them, to offer maximum density. In response to the long time of the evolution of the city I respond to projects within the short timeframe of architecture, with completed projects. This provides the possibility to evaluate in a very short timeframe, the value of the solution without having to wait in the long run to observe the success, or lack, of the plan. The design must be able to allow, within its set limitations, maximum flexibility. This means the futility of large-scale programmes destined to be a dead letter and allow the city to react when facing problems.

In addition to these two alternatives, I refer to my aphorism: “Architecture is empty. It is up to you to define it.” If this aphorism is understandable for the historic city, just think of the streets, roads, alleys, defined by buildings of historic context, the public space, parks, land, it seemed questionable for the present city, which is the diffuse city, where the gap between buildings is meaningless and is simply left-over space. For this reason, in the absence of a meaningful context, current architects often take refuge in the object itself using formal invention at all costs and originality with the intention of proposing it as a monument. In the absence of a meaningful context, in which the monument was referring to the historical city, what we end up with is nothing but a summation of individual buildings and does nothing but contribute to the monotony of the current city.

In my projects I propose again the importance of the void, even in today’s city where the void is not so much defined by buildings but by roads and rail infrastructures, which take on ever-larger dimensions. For this reason I rewrite my aphorism as follows: “architecture is void. It is up to you to define it.” But this time written in capital letters for if before I thought it made no sense, today after my latest design experiences, I maintain it has gained even more strength. I’ll finish the talk in the same way that I started it, with a quote from my inaugural lecture at Lausanne. Max Frisch, in his speech for his seventy-fifth birthday and referring to the failure of the Enlightenment said: “A science, void of its moral reason is consequently a scientific research, the results of which, no one can claim as their own, resulting in the perversion of the Enlightenment, which was intended to make us aged.” Today, instead, Enlightenment is a revolt against the blind faith in technology, which makes man primitive and leads him to powerlessness in front of technology itself. At the end of the Enlightenment we do not find, as Kant and the other philosophers had hoped, man becoming wise. I feel solidarity with all those here and elsewhere in the world who practice resistance. Resistance against law intended as a rouse, opposition whose aim is the affirmation of the spirit of the Enlightenment before it is too late but not as a repetition of history, but through historical experiences reaching toward attempts for wiser people to live together. I fear that without an opening to moral reason, which can only come from resistance there will not be another century. An appeal to hope is also an appeal to resistance.

For me the projects are situated somewhere between an art project, a provocation, and a realism. For example, we can think of the city centre project for Braunschweig and see this quite realistically as a monument to World War II. It is interesting that you chose not to show the single family houses, which we are perhaps more familiar with, and which have a specific language and formal approach. So this lecture seems intended as a provocation and perhaps as an invitation for a younger generation to engage in a larger scale of architectural thinking on how one might practice in the highly commercialised industry today. I want to ask why you started teaching and how your teaching came about, how it helps and also the relation between the city and the house, given that the majority of your built works are single family houses or larger urban blocks; social housing.

One of the reasons I started teaching was a way to organise my thoughts and experience of architecture and communicate it to others. Teaching helps to clarify a viewpoint on architecture and society. It then led to an attempt to reduce the years of teaching experience into aphorisms, of which there are thirty. Over time I wanted to add to the aphorisms, but haven’t, although I often question if the aphorisms are still relevant, as I have mentioned. Teaching helped to clarify and organise a way of thinking about architecture and the role of architecture in society.

What is interesting about your teaching is that you say you teach only year one students, because once they have two or three years teaching they are already ruined! You want them at the beginning. Instead of giving them a small scale projects as one imagines one will do with year one students, you give them a piece of city to design, an urban project straight away. I’d like to talk about that.

The idea is to inspire in the students a love for the city. By the end of one year of urban projects and thinking about the city, they will. In contrast, final year students get a single-family house because that is the hardest project to do. In architecture schools, students lose time because they are asked to engage with lots of analysis, which takes weeks and months and they don’t have enough time to do their design. I am convinced if one approaches a problem, a project, a resolution of a problem, which is every project. When you arrive at the site and the context of the place of the project, one needs a clear idea of the question. To ask one single question, it might be possible to respond intuitively and arriving at a solution. For example how can we do analysis on a project like the Deltametropolis? You need ten lives of an architect to do enough analysis—laughs! If you clarify what the important question is, then maybe you visit the site and half an hour is enough to respond to the situation. This is true not only for the metropolis, but also for the single family house. As a way of finding the important question to take with you while visiting the site, my way of working is to reduce it, to treat the question in an abstract way. To help define the important issues, it is possible to start without visiting the site. A concept can be elaborated before visiting a place and verified upon visiting. The project is there before. You need to find the question.

What are the themes that influence the question? Is the definition of the limit one?

Each project has a common theme. For example, in Brissago there was already a field, but the question is how to end with a larger void than at the start. So the question is both to maintain and extend the void. At Pordenone with the hills, you need to define the spatial limits so there is the void defined by the street with the trees. This gives a new value. It was necessary to place the hills on a pedestal. If the hills are to become a monument, they need a pedestal. For the villages in Sardinia, it was defining a new fifth element that was related to the four existing typologies. At Deltametropolis, the question was is it possible for people in the modern metropolis to have the same sense and mechanism of orientation as in historic situations?

Does the void necessarily mean an existence beyond the void?

Our task is always to define the limit of space. For example, we are here now having a conversation defined by this room, within these walls, that window, that door.

Why do you need so much emptiness?

Because this is the centre of architecture. Man needs emptiness.

If we say the demarcation of space is a reason of architecture, giving measure to nature. Do you agree?

Yes, you can think of the work partly from this point of view.

This is a more political question. Why and when do you think we arrive at a moment when to assert human will by making a circle became associated with the right wing and reaction, rather than progress and human possibility? When, from the experience of your own work, did that take place? The circle is the expression of human will which is what the Enlightenment was about and was seen as progressive, not reactionary.

This is the case. Yes, in certain moments in my lifetime we can feel that.

Can you say something about your time at the ETH in Zürich?

This was a time teaching with Rossi. He was reading from his book in German, and his German was terrible. But we went to his lectures because they were interesting. Sometimes we were at reviews, but Rossi would not say much. Sometimes he said something about the drawings, like: “the clouds are not good. Can you do something with the clouds!” Rossi did not need to say anything. It was just the presence of Rossi. Sometimes in teaching it is not necessary to speak.

Your forms are associative and make me think of Gestalt theory.

There are different ways of interpreting form.

With your time in Sao Paolo and your close relationship with Mendes da Rocha, what are the differences between you and his practice, experience and politics?

We have many similarities and ways of thinking. But for sure his architecture is different. Although in certain moments we come very close, but we express ourselves in a different way. I respect da Rocha because he says many things that other architects will not say. He talks about verticality, towers, campanile, but he finds a way to express typical situations in a different way.

What is the approach to finding one single question? Is it a modesty?

To have modesty is often an ugly aspiration to have for an architect!

Can you clarify what you are resisting? It is too easy to say you are resisting commercialisation, and I feel it is more sophisticated.

It is general resistance. Against everything; society, contemporary architecture. Resistance is the only way to react against the current situation and is perhaps the only way to make a change.

Is it possible to offer resistance and be orientated to the future? Most architecture today is orientated to the past. Is it realistic?

Without it there will not be a next century.

I have a last question. What would your advice be to the students who are now about to leave school?

To go to a city. Go to a tough city, with contradictions, energy, and not a city that is too beautiful. I love all cities, but the ones that take a while to get used to, like Milan, are the best. Every city has had continuity and also ruptures. Take Venice, which is a beautiful city, and Le Corbusier’s project for Venice, which is everything that Venice is not. It is an anti-Venice, yet it is somehow more Venice than Venice itself.