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Tommaso Brighenti

Observation, Act and Form

The Teaching of Architecture at the Valparaíso School

Poetic act to open the Open City area, 1971. José Vial Historical Archive, PUCV, Valparaiso - ZOOM

Poetic act to open the Open City area, 1971. José Vial Historical Archive, PUCV, Valparaiso


For over sixty years, the Valparaíso School has represented a singular episode in the international architectural scenario, and constitutes one of the most significant and astonishingly creative cultural phenomena in Latin America today, acknowledged for its original ideas and a capacity to conceive its own language. In this article, an attempt will be made to describe the peculiarities of its teaching by relating three essential moments of its didactic approach: observation, act and form.

[...]En tanto me siento al borde de mis ojos. Para asistir a la entrada de las imágenes[...][i]

Through an analytical and perceptive method, Le Corbusier maintained that by annotating through a survey from life of spaces, works of architecture and landscapes, "it was possible to arrive at the essence of things, at their relationships with the city, at the ratios between the parts and the whole, at the building materials."[1].

These statements were to influence Alberto Cruz[2] and the teachers at Valparaíso in a decisive way, since they have always considered drawing a fundamental means through which the student is asked to observe carefully and to translate this observation into architectural terms, transferring it to memory through sketches and drawings, tools of analysis, and a means to discover what is intuitive. Thus, the student's experience must be based on dexterity in drawing, but it is above all, observation that constitutes one of the fundamental elements in the teaching of architecture for this school.

On examining some of Cruz' notes, a series of descriptions come to light. One of these reports the gestural expressiveness of a bus driver while driving. Cruz noted that he laid his hands on the steering wheel, and then pressed on the indicator, but to do so had to turn his arm in a certain way, and the former accompanied this observation with a series of drawings that represent the sequence of main movements made by the driver.

We might well wonder what it means to observe an episode of this kind, and what usefulness it might have in the training of an architect. First and foremost, observation is a methodological fact, which is not linked to one person but is a behavioural principle.

Unlike an attitude coming from an idealist culture, which maintains that the most important thing is to formulate the idea and then transfer it to the work, at Valparaíso the approach is of a phenomenological type, i.e., based on the fact that everything we see is the outer appearance of something essential. Precisely for this reason, great attention needs to be paid to what surrounds us and to what we observe, thereby freeing ourselves "from the concealment that our biases risk dropping the world into."

Thus, observing means looking at things beyond the visible, establishing a new sense in what seems evident: it is like "the seed of a small theory, a theory of space made in a determined circumstance,"[3] and this makes an understanding of the world possible by obliging us to construct a point of view of it. For this reason, inside this school, use is made of poetry in teaching, precisely because poets[4] are they who can teach how to observe the world.

José Vial Armstrong[5] taught his students that, when we look, we do so through a weave, a grating, a web, that we have all constructed since we were born. This sort of weave that we all have in front of our eyes is different because it depends on where we were born, on our origins, our parents, what we heard from them, on the school we attended, on our friends. All of which combines to give form to our way of seeing. Thus when we look, we see through this web, we see good and evil, beauty and ugliness, moral and immoral. This web is our way of being, of examining the world. Our origin.

But what does it mean to observe? To see the world without this web.

"I look at the city that surrounds me (indicating the city of Santiago), and if I hold the 'web' in front of my eyes I see only poverty, destitution, but if I suddenly remove it and try to observe, I see colours, I see the multitude of buildings that almost seem a picture by Piranesi, I can almost see a contemporary sculpture."[6].

But observation is only the first basic step on the long process to reach form which becomes concrete thanks to a new element: the act. It needs to be specified first of all that these three elements, observation, act and form, have a light side and a dark side. They are not something scientific, easily theorized on, they are not an axiom or a definition, but, nonetheless, they have a fairly precise meaning for this school.

Observation is the road to be able to conceive a relationship between act and form. This relationship is what lies at the base of everything done in the school. The Bauhaus theorized that form should follow function, in the sense that functions such as dwelling, eating, resting, working, took on a determined form through an irreplaceable relationship. For the Valparaiso School, this is not the case: there is in architecture a meta-function that is called act.

What is taught to the students is a closing in on this act, not a systematic procedure, but something that anticipates, that pre-forms in the mind, based on what is being observed. It is not yet architecture but the road to reach it.

"For example, humans do many things, they eat, sleep, drink, but some things, such as praying, could be done anywhere. However throughout their history, humans have created a way to pray, have invented the Gothic or Renaissance Cathedral creating a light to be able to pray better. They have created a space to be able to pray. And this is the same for many things created by architects or non architects. For example, a woman at Valparaíso is washing dirty clothes. And to wash better, she has built herself a small straw roof. In front is the horizon of the sea, and this city that surrounds you. This woman is there washing, suspended in a situation in which simple washing reaches a state comparable to praying inside a Gothic Cathedral. So, even inside a small space there is an act, in this case, the act of washing, which takes the simplest of daily gestures to a high level, takes humans into a superior state. And so you can wash shut up in a room, but I am telling you that that washing, under a small roof, possesses something architectonic, not yet a work of architecture, but possessing something architectural."[7].

So what is the act, then? The act is what comes out of experience and thus allows conception of form, it is the religious secret Edoardo Persico spoke of, the one in which the compositional process becomes concrete, which, in the case of the Valparaiso School, reaches its maximum level in its relationship with poetry.

Finally we arrive at the form, which therefore becomes the last passage of this process, able to embrace the act, able to "wrap it like a specially wrapped gift."[8].

The theory of form was thoroughly described by Alberto Cruz in a project he called 'Cappella Pajaritos'. The chapel (cappella) was never built, but ever since its publication in 1954 in the Annals of the PUCV, the project has remained a fundamental reference, taking on the role of an architectural manifesto able to sum up the first concrete expression of the school's theories.

This project included a small chapel with its sacristy extendible outwards, and featuring a small temple destined to house an image of the Virgin. As well as drawing and sketches of the building, a text was written that "demonstrated the capacity of architecture to build its own theoretical discourse."[9]; this text is included in the Annals[10].

Here is clearly explained how the architectural work should be the result of a process of cognitive research and that architecture is not the result of an option within a formal repertoire but "a form conceived as the expressive result of a theoretical approach."[11]. Form and not forms, plural, as a convergence of physical, material and place elements that serve to construct the act.

From this project emerged a series of questions. For example, what should the form of a building for prayer be?

Perez Oyarzun wrote: "[…] questioning themselves on the most appropriate architectural form for prayer, the authors were inspired by a series of experiences conceived as acts, which were poetically transferred into drawing. Formally, the chapel was conceived as a cube of light, understood as the form of essence, a non-obvious figure. The apparent simplicity of the volume hid the complexity of a series of cubes of different dimensions, sometimes arranged symmetrically sometimes not, within a virtual prism, analogous to two cubes, one full, one empty. The cube of light acquired form according to how the interior was lit […]."[12].

Thus, as well as the problem of form, the notion emerged of a modern space, "seen as a sort of poetic and material substrate of a complex and contradictory life, in which are touched past and present, ordinary and extraordinary, popular and sophisticated." [13], a life which, citing Focillon, acts essentially as a "creator of forms", a life which is form itself, in which space is its domain.

[1]from Augusto Angelini, Poetry of the Amereida School, in Community/Architecture. Festival dell’Architettura 5 2009-2010, edited by Enrico Prandi, Festival dell’Architettura di Parma publishers, Parma, Italy 2010, pp. 115-123.

[2] Alberto Cruz Covarrubias (1917-2013), born in Santiago graduated from the Faculty of Architecture of the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso (PUCV), Chile, in 1939. In 1942, he became assistant professor in the Department of Decorative Composition at the Faculty of Architecture of the PUCV. Later, together with the architect Alberto Piwonka, he created the Curso del Espacio, a course that was fundamental in its approach to form and that was to develop into the activities carried on by the Valparaíso School. In 1949, he took part in the overall reorganization of the school's syllabus and, one year later, was nominated professor of the Taller Arquitectonico. In addition to his academic work, Cruz began training a work group in Santiago, where architects and artists embarked on theoretical studies of architecture, fine art and poetry. In 1952, he joined the Faculty of Architecture at the PUCV, bringing the members of this group with him and becoming one of the founders of the Institute of Architecture and Planning. Alberto Cruz was one of the most charismatic figures in the history of Latin American architecture, and his theoretical contribution was fundamental to the story of architectural teaching in Chile.

[3] Excerpt from an interview with Salvador Zahr Maluk by the author. 5 December 2013, Valparaíso.

[4] Poetry plays a determinant role at the Valparaíso School. The marriage between poetry and architecture leads to reflection on the human condition, understood by the school as a condition. The poet is seen as an "alchemist who uses imagination to transform the most sordid and prosaic events of reality into art," and, through words manages to associate the processes of transformation of the world that surrounds us with an interpretation of it.

[5] José Vial Armstrong has been one of the most influential teachers at the Valparaiso School, belonging to Alberto Cruz' generation, and contributing to the birth and growth of the School. Armstrong was one of the founder members of the Open City Amereida and the historical archive of the school named after him that is still functioning.

[6] Excerpt from an interview with Bruno Barla by the author. 16 November 2013, Valparaíso.

[7] Excerpt from an interview with Bruno Barla by the author. 6 December 2013, Valparaíso.

[8] Ibid

[9] Fernando Perez Oyarzun, Ortodossia / Eterodossia, in “Casabella” no. 650, November 1997, pp. 11-15.

[10] The essay is entitled, Proyecto para una Capilla en el Fundo Los Pajaritos and is to be found in the volume entitled Foundamentos de la Escuela de Arquitectura. Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso, 1971.

[11] Various Authors, Scuola di Valparaiso. Città Aperta, edited by Paul Rispa, with essays by Rodrigo Perez de Arce and Fernando Perez Oyarzun, Logos, Modena 2003.

[12] Fernando Perez Oyarzun, Ortodossia / Eterodossia, in “Casabella” no. 650, November 1997, pp. 11-15.

[13] Ibid

[i][…]Meanwhile I perched on the rim of my eyes/ to see how images entered […] in Vincente Huidobro, Alzator, Canto I.

Tommaso Brighenti, born in Parma in 1985, studied at Milan Polytechnic, graduating in the academic year 2010-2011 and currently attending a PhD in Architectural Composition there while assisting with teaching. Has taken part in national and international competitions and research projects, collaborating with some studies and Italian colleges and universities including Turin Polytechnic and the University of Parma.
Sketches and notes by Alberto Cruz on observation - ZOOM

Sketches and notes by Alberto Cruz on observation