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“Building” an architect: the experience of the Academy of architecture in Mendrisio

Mario Botta explains how the Academy of architecture in Mendrisio was conceived and founded.
The history of the Academy begins with an assumption, with an equation which – let’s say – cannot be proven; and this equation says that to address the complexity of the contemporary, to address the fast-moving transformations of contemporary culture, humanities, and not the technical subjects, are important, very important for the architect; so, we reversed the hierarchy of values given by the polytechnic schools. These institutes were, in fact, focusing mostly on the teaching of mathematics, logic, descriptive geometry, and all other scientific subjects, information technology… That was too much, too distant from our view. With those subjects one learns the tools, whereas we want to work with principles, with ideas.
A good school should not teach the tools, which will be taught anyway by the trade, by the market. Our job instead is to identify the issues. Therefore, we reinstated in the study curricula, in the project of the school program profile, the focus on certain subjects that we deemed
important: the history of thought, we started with five years of the history of ideas, of philosophy and of aesthetics; five years of art history; five years of the history of architecture; and the history and the culture of the territory. And with that we created a very strong buffer, which clearly draws from the past, from the great past, to create a first core element. Then we focused on the centrality of the project. Then the technical subjects, because they are required in our trade, we provided, however, a special interpretation; that is where we got great help
from a professor in Bochum, Sergio Albeverio, who we contacted and to whom we said: “Albeverio, you shall teach mathematics, because it is a European discipline, it is required by architects, but as a humanistic subject”. That is, we want our students not only to manage calculus, but above all to understand the underlying mathematical thinking, to enable them to dialogue with the engineers, with the specialists, because in our trade we do things with static engineers, civil engineers, traffic engineers, bio- engineers; I mean, we don’t want to resolve issues ourselves, which is what actually
happens in reality: we want to create a dialogue. And that is what Albeverio does. Then we found a very good structural engineer, who now teaches in Lausanne,
and we told him: “You will teach statics: the young student must understand why humans stand upright, why and where weights are laid to the ground; if the young student understands this, then he or she will also understand the role of gravity that needs to be shifted”. And so we did then with materials,
with the environment: we immediately called Albert Jacquard in Paris…
I had heard him by chance in Paris at a conference, and I told him: “Professor Jacquard, come and talk about the centrality of Man, of the human condition of being on Earth”. And he gave incredible lectures with great success – now he is deceased – but people came from Turin, from Florence, from Rome, to hear his thoughts… he was trained as a biologist. So, with this profile we created this new school, where we tried to focus on the centrality of Man.
What I mean is that it was something that was going to happen; so, the crucial fortune of the Academy of Architecture was indeed a success, though detached from Lugano, because Mendrisio is closer to Milan, because we wanted to look at Brera, at the Ambrosiana, that is, we want this relationship that is also physical with the Italian humanistic culture.
Interviewer’s question: “The Academy of architecture in Mendrisio. How can an architect be “built”?”
In this video, Mario Botta explains how the Academy of architecture in Mendrisio was conceived and founded: the assumptions upon which it was designed; the focus on certain subjects, such as the history of thought, the history of architecture, the history and culture of the territory; the humanistic approach to the technical subjects; the focus on the centrality of Man.
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Mario Botta: To Be an Architect

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