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Aimaro Isola

Were we Maestros?

Enea e Anchise. Drawing by Aimaro Isola

Enea e Anchise. Drawing by Aimaro Isola


The author investigates all the fascination and ambiguity of the fragile and complex relationship between Teacher ("Maestro") and Student. And he does so with the real gusto, stature and lightness of a true maestro. The founding of a place and the training of the student become metaphors for one another. Here is [where] the teaching becomes common work. (...) recognition of the language and a common landscape in the space, but especially over time. Landscapes that understand us and that we must understand.

Here we describe the works and discuss the "young people" who were students of varied schools of architecture. Those who were their Maestros in some way, which means us, gaze on, spying curiously between the lines and images.

Perhaps this is also an opportunity to question ourselves on our having been Maestros.

But first we must be sure that we really were Maestros.

And then again: "What authorizes a man or woman to teach another human being? Wherein lies the authority to teach?" What should we fear today from Oedipus, or rather, how should we cheer him up when the myth and he himself are wasting away? (G. Steiner, The Lesson of the Masters).

And what in reality are we passing on, translating, i.e. dragging, from generation to generation, in the certainty of our rhetoric and our deceptions? These are silent questions that accompanied us behind the dais, but above all, plagued us when, among the desks, sitting on stools, we corrected, condemned, agreed with, and encouraged the young students’ work.

Our age, the many exams that we ourselves endured and suffered, the competitions, the books studied and read, experience, tradition, confirmed our role, urging us ̶ fortunately for us ̶ not to "create problems for ourselves".

Many people called us Maestros. Giovanni Durbiano, taking up Bruno Zevi’s irony, entitled a book that speaks about us, I Nuovi Maestri – (The New Maestros) (Marsilio); others pointed to our generation, or better, the one that preceded us, as that of The Last Maestros.

Many of us, at the end of the day, among friends, still like to call ourselves Maestros.

This has an old-fashioned flavour, of managing the building site, of guiding the workers: but nowadays, more than prestige, being Maestros would seem to confer security and comfort.

We often watched, Roberto Gabetti and I, with freedom from prejudice, what lay behind our being Maestros, and we seemed to see, just like the generation of Maestros ̶ if such ever existed ̶ them dying out. This weakening of the role of the Maestro, perhaps, goes together with, is a part of, a "disenchantment with the world". Disenchantment with tradition, with the idea of the classical, with exemplariness, with a truth already uttered somewhere. There was sanctity in the Maestro, but as in any sacredness also an ancient "violence".

As in a sacrificial rite, the Maestro had to preserve and parade certainties in order to impose them. He had to be, in the end, a sacrificial victim, in the time of emancipation, for his best pupils, who ruined him.

Roberto and I experienced, in hearing ourselves called Maestros, a feeling of discomfort that we often covered with irony. Irony and discomfort at seeing the student marked by the trademark of a certainty that we ourselves often doubted; discomfort because we were, Maestro and student, in a situation of asymmetry that ruined it.

Perhaps the Maestro truly becomes a Master the moment he or she feels able to withdraw (I have in mind St. Augustine, De Magistro).

By staking his all, he absents himself as a Maestro, he cedes his own space: it is then that his pupils can open up and occupy their own space, can become themselves.

Thus we too, Roberto and I, I believe, learned from Muzio, Mollino, Aloisio, Astengo, Rigotti, but also from Cavallari Murat and Pizzetti, from their teaching, at the moment when we broke free from their Oedipus figures, with love, perhaps, but certainly without hate.

(A. Isola, Roberto Gabetti: il collega, il Maestro, l’amico, Acc. delle Scienze, Turin.).

In the long time of disenchantment with the world, devotion and admiration for the stature of the Maestros, for new ones but also for the founding fathers, seem to be disappearing. The Sublime, no longer being at the height of the "strong" of the past, their teachings and their ethics, does not terrify us any more as it did the Romantics. Also the Myth, by now processed and reprocessed, and celebrating the exemplarity of the Hero (as Blumenberg teaches us) almost seems "by now completed"; or, perhaps, only degraded and made unrecognizable. The models, the examples, are in the media and in their protagonists.

To appear "in the age of irreverence, our idols must present a head of clay" fame and celebrity, authority and authoritativeness diverge more and more. The heroes, along with the Maestros, become transparent.

But even the Maestros, it has to be be said, are willing to repudiate and distance themselves from those pupils who were once the beloved; already Augustine wondered, and this is a question we have often asked ourselves, whether the Maestro is responsible for the conduct of his students.

Teaching can be "a terribly dangerous enterprise"; each educational theory always refers to free will; in fact, we all believe that true students can only be people who learn to follow themselves, namely their libido sciendi, their own curiosity.

Right from the beginning, a strange bond seems to hold together the foundation and design of a place (city, house, or structure) and the training of the pupil. Sacredness was an attribute of the Maestro, the cult and the rite in some way presided over the preservation, dissemination and protection of knowledge, hence, the training of the pupils. In the same way, the gesture that founds and shapes the constructed space, that marks limits and traces roads on the ground, belongs, in time, to the sacred.

Formativity (Pareyson would say) and Bildung, seemed yesterday, but also today, to invoke a possible transcendence. The building, the town and the world, what is built "artistically" retain their charge of emotion, of mastery, of exemplarity: in the same way what is taught brings form, i.e., architecture, to students’ personalities, must seduce them, build them, "inhabit them", almost as if the Academy itself reflected the character of the city.

Living and being intertwine at the time of their advent.

A sacred origin conveys in time, emotions, seduction, eros , but also that violence that unexpectedly emerges today in knowledge and places. (A. Isola, Violenza nell’Architettura, Aion).

Fences, concealments and rituals govern disciplines and departments; constantly revive the esoteric defence of Pythagorean theorems. Aristophanes still laughs today at Empedocles kicked out of the city he wanted to govern as a philosopher. The dissemination of science must be preserved: "Knowledge can be dangerous".

Since time immemorial, not only are the "true Maestro" and his knowledge questioned, but he himself begins flaunting his doubt. Like the Oracle of Delphi, by professing ignorance, Socrates sought to create, through deceit, a state of insecurity in the pupil (but, in the end, only he would give the solution to the quiz).

The uncertainty of the Commandments is aided by the ethical exemplarity of the Maestro who offers his own corpus as a model of life. The word and the gesture mark and emphasize the value of oral knowledge over that of the written word.

Something, therefore, escapes the rule, the commandment, the law, the book. (If Antigone uselessly invokes the Laws not written by the gods, then even Christ, "it is said", like every good teacher, remained a Maestro, but not a Professor because he never published anything).

The adventures and prestige of the Maestros are described differently depending on geographical area. By now we are hybrids. Our Maitres à penser ancestors seem almost to have disappeared or are suspected to be "Bad Masters".

The German Meister frightens us a little. Goethe, Mann, Hesse, and Freud warned us about them. Nietzsche ended the Time of the Maestros in desperation. With no more students, Zarathustra proclaims the necessity and inability to have students: "The best essential things must not be made public". The true student can only be the one who "will learn to follow himself". Just as for Wittgenstein, "The superior virtue of the Maestro is to give a gift that must be rejected." Only after the sacrifice of the Maestro, does the “hope of the great rest" come.

The French, who were very careful to qualify the "seriousness" of their cultural institutions founded during the Enlightenment and in the Academies, helped to redefine the intellectual as a "clerc", a cleric of secularism, with a meaning that has become widespread in modern times (G. Steiner).

Today we are a cross between the West and a transatlantic culture, within which European mythology seems to have dissolved; the sense of discovery, adventure, self-made non-doctrinaire commitment, are open to creativity, but also to improvisation.

Certainly, at times, prestigious figures, gurus of culture in universities and research centres incite strong migration of students. The way of working is always that of workshops, seminars and laboratories, which afford room for the group. What counts more is the method rather than the guide, and the method means recalling and hiding significant figures to resist cultural entropy. Science too detaches itself from the personalities who practice it. Not "the end of the Maestros", therefore, but Maestros all over the place, disenchanted, made into new myths and overexposed by the media?

Critics and the press are now careful to scrutinize the architectural horizon to take advantage of any trends and the emergence of new and old players. I am not, of course, capable of making a contribution: I admire Franco Purini who is increasingly good at drawing "geo-architecture" so that it gives us back the panorama of the schools, the links, and the roots that govern our practices and our knowledge.

I am afraid, however, that the time has come to ask myself and to declare what my teaching actually consisted of. And I think this is what I wonder.

I would like to refer to what my "pet" students have said in these pages.

More than faces and names I recall beautiful and extremely arduous projects, absorbing discussions. Today it is their turn to be Maestros, and with many of them I have been happy to share, over time and to different degrees, work and knowledge. Certainly their interventions excited me and also partially surprised me. I owe so much to them. If I have taught anything at all, they were the less teachable things. It may be banal, but designing and constructing places and buildings, also means constructing ourselves. After each job we erase a good part of what we used to think. As a result, after each job we are different. Thus with many young and not so young people, we have gone on the adventure of construction together indicating the perils to each other and possible ways forward, bringing to the drawing board a common heritage, what we already are and what we already know.

We have dealt "as one" with real problems and issues, declaring our limits, those of discipline and culture, but also our responsibilities with respect to what there is and what there could be, without hiding those risks that the desire for power masks in each project. Too many times we have spoken of "games" and "narratives"; what there is and what there could be are not just stories: here the book cannot be closed when we are fed up, our interventions always leave scars.

But, each time, it takes courage and irony for ourselves and places to re-enter the fray: even weakness and doing nothing are often faults.

We need to know how to work in a group (starting from the school benches) respecting our own disciplinary specificity, but also others'. Above all recognizing that everyone, ignoring their different roles (technicians, contractors, clients), have today, fortunately, a Kunstwollen , a desire for art at least as strong as our own, which is to be welcomed and thrashed out. We can no longer hide behind disciplinary faiths, archetypes, immutable laws. In other words, we need, as they used to say, "to put ourselves in others’ shoes", but without falling asleep in them.

If for some time now, I have insisted on the theme of the landscape, the heuristic but also effectual value that the ambiguity of the term conveys, this is because I seem to read through it, the history and the putting at stake of the adventure of modernity and its fulfilment. It is precisely from the void that violence has created on our landscapes in the past but also recently, that we can open up the tormented space of a redemption that progresses in time. "There where the danger is stronger, there, there is also what saves."

Landscape involves the koinè not only of languages, but also of generations, of roles, of pupils and Maestros. Landscape that extends into our body as our bodies distend into the landscape.

Corpus, plural, not merely organic, but a link to res extensa and res cogitans. Here is the beyond of a modernity that arose in disenchantment, from a knowledge and secular curiosity: a search for continuity through the contradictions ̶ that plough space and time ̶ between ourselves and reality, between thought and world, between words and things.

Continuity and responsibility that extend beyond the past generations, but even beyond those of the future. Here is where the teaching becomes common work. Thus, the paideia collects in itself the ancient sense of philia, understood not as a generic altruism, solidarity, but recognition of a language and a common landscape, in space, but especially in time. Landscapes that understand us, and that we must understand.

In this way, the asymmetrical relationship between Maestro and pupil seems to spill over into that apparently symmetrical, intimate one given in friendship: in philia we find 'the other as ourselves", the opening of the I to the Thou and the Thou to the I.

Derrida (Le politiche dell’amicizia ̶ The Policies of Friendship, Cortina.) lets us see how the apparent symmetry of friendship conceals an intemperance, an imbalance, a continuous questioning that opens up to a new measure directed to the outside world, to the Other. Tension towards doing, towards a happiness that was once called eudemonia, the construction of the polis.

Perhaps we are leaving the old city to reconstruct, with the ruins of the old, new and different spaces.

So let us look at the world with irony and pietas – which is respect for our ancestors and the Maestros, but which can also be friendship and esteem for sons – pupils.

Finally, I would like to draw, as a footnote, an Anchises tombé en enfance, piggybacking on the shoulders of a son setting out to build new cities, to seek new adventures. The old man has turned back towards Troy that is burning. I do not see tears on his face, but a wink, an ironic, liberating smile (Klee's Angel?).

Aimaro Isola. Previously Professor of Architectural Composition and Urban Design, and Professor Emeritus at the Polytechnic of Turin and Academic of San Luca

Roberto Gabetti, Aimaro Isola, later Isolarchitetti, Plan to recuperate the former Fiat Novoli area, and interventions as part of the Plan. Florence 1998-200

Roberto Gabetti, Aimaro Isola, later Isolarchitetti, Plan to recuperate the former Fiat Novoli area, and interventions as part of the Plan. Florence 1998-200