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Massimo Alfieri

Alberto Cruz at the Valparaiso

Observation and Distraction

Godofredo Iommi and Alberto Cruz with students of the School during a poetic act in the middle in the Pacific Ocean, 1964. Archivo Histórico José Vial, PUCV, Valparaíso

Godofredo Iommi and Alberto Cruz with students of the School during a poetic act in the middle in the Pacific Ocean, 1964. Archivo Histórico José Vial, PUCV, Valparaíso

The Ciudad Abierta at Ritoque in Chile founded in 1970 is closely linked to the PUCV Faculty of Architecture in Valparaiso. In creating the works built in this “city” a pedagogy was tried out with a particular approach to and construction of the architecture that has maintained its validity and fascination for many years. The teachings of the founders of this school still constitute a provocation for all those interested in architecture as well as those who practise it. In particular, the figure of Alberto Cruz Covarrubias, recently deceased, still seems able to stimulate imagination and creativity through his writings and drawings, in line with what he believed in: “ultimately, the only thing a professor can do for his students is to give an example”.

The Faculty of Architecture at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica di Valparaiso (PUCV)1 created and perfected some original ways of teaching that were peculiar to it, but which gradually influenced teaching practices at other Faculties of Architecture all over Chile.
This faculty was founded in 1952 by a group of architects who gathered around the charismatic figure of Alberto Cruz Covarrubias (1917-2013) who, after studying at the Faculty of Architecture of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica (PUC) in Santiago, began to teach there. However, this was abruptly interrupted by his expulsion due to irresolvable conflicts with the traditional line of teaching still used there. Back in 1949 a student movement had begun that requested a change in curriculum which culminated in a strongly symbolic act, namely, the lighting of a bonfire on the patio of the faculty onto which were thrown the books by Vignola that were the basic text for teaching at the time.
Right from its foundation, the new Valparaiso School was characterized by a radical rethink of research and teaching. In particular, the members of the school did not consider architecture as the result of a set of absolute principles applied to a specific problem, but as a research field focusing on the production of new knowledge. Within a very short time, the group of teachers had changed their pedagogical approach. Modernity was conceived as a new state of consciousness connected to the work of Baudelaire and the French “accursed poets”, i.e. conceived as independent from functionalism and the technical. The founders borrowed Rimbaud’s expression: “do not change life, change your life”. The innovation they proposed for architecture had to begin from their own lives and not from generic proposals relating to society or the universe. The application of these ideas took a concrete turn in the decision to all live together with their families in a group of houses in a part of Valparaiso called Cerro Castillo. The physical closeness meant that the pedagogical work and the research could continue outside the classroom, and frequently well beyond the fixed timetable. Clearly, this type of choice presupposed the involvement and willingness of the teachers’ families, who supported the achievement of these goals. To this was added the conviction of the writings of François Jacob (a French biologist and winner of the Nobel prize in 1965) who in his autobiographical work The Statue Within2 had split science into two aspects: Day Science, characterized by the more conventional notion of science, and Night Science, characterized by the intuitive components that complete the former in a mysterious way and are born from the confused areas of our psychic reality. This is an experience we have all had, that of falling asleep in the evening with the regret of not having solved some problem or other, and waking up in the morning with a clear awareness of the solution. Using other words, René Magritte said: ‘If we look at a thing with the intention of discovering what it means, we end up no longer looking at the thing itself, but thinking of the question that is being raised.’
I have already spoken of Alberto Cruz but I must add that one of the most influential personages in the group that founded the school was Godofredo Jommi (1917-2001): an Argentine poet who had come to Chile to get to know Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) an important Chilean poet he admired. The figure of Jommi is key since one of the cornerstones of the Valparaiso school’s pedagogy was to become, with his help, the close link between poetry and architecture.
Alberto Cruz and Godofredo Jommi had understood that modern poetry was not merely about writing verses but was to do with a vision of reality intrinsically linked to questions of language and knowledge. In the original sense of the Greek word “poiesis”, action and doing are intrinsic. To get a better idea of how poetry came into play in making architecture, we might recall the way in which the so-called ‘poetic acts’ were carried out before the building of every work at the Ciudad Abierta. The students met at a chosen place and following the words and movements presented by Jommi, in turn drew forth words that were then put back together in a fresh way, thus following the suggestion of the French poet Lautreamont: that poetry must be made by everyone. These poetic acts thus became, so to speak, a choral production without “soloists”.
The multidisciplinary nature of the school’s pedagogy immediately meant the presence in the group of teachers of other figures, of note the Argentine sculptor Claudio Girola (1923-1994), as well as other poets and philosophers who collaborated with the architects.
I mentioned the Ciudad Abierta earlier. This was an extraordinary initiative that began in 1970 from the foundation of the Amereida Cooperative among the school’s teachers, and the associated collection of funds to self-finance the purchase of a vast area of around 300 hectares just to the north of Viña del Mar, in the Ritoque area, divided into two portions by the “Camino Quinter”. The first one to the west features high sand dunes perennially shifting because of the strong wind, and ends at the shore of the Pacific Ocean. Instead, the area to the east of the road is characterized by hills that rise to an impressive height and are scored by deep cracks in the rocks (quebradas). Although they are two separate entities, the Faculty and the Ciudad Abierta began to interact immediately on the pedagogical programme and the various constructions created over time, which have all been the result of direct action by the students and teachers. Of course, the Ciudad Abierta cannot be considered a city in the current sense of the word since it lacks, amongst other things, any infrastructure, apart from the unpaved paths to move around inside it.
The works created using poorer materials, above all wood, translated the poetic acts to a T in their materials and spaces with a working method known as “trabajo en ronda” which it seems to me appropriate to translate with the sporting image of the relay race, where everyone has to run their leg to the best of their ability and then pass the baton to their companion who carries on grasping the “token”.
In my opinion we could say that this pedagogy implied drawing back from the confines of the discipline to look at it and practise it from outside the traditional disciplinary constraints, thereby adopting one of the school’s fundamental recommendations, namely “volver a no saber”, which we could translate as the return to a virgin mind empty of preconceptions.
These latter observations allow us to highlight the importance of the phenomenological root of Chilean culture, of a rather north European stamp (it should not be forgotten that, unlike Argentina, immigration to Chile was mostly from Germany and the Basque countries). The phenomenological approach stresses the fact that every phenomenon, even the most negligible, contains something essential within it. On the contrary, the idealistic Mediterranean culture suggests we speak and act on the basis of what we know, ideas we accumulate with knowledge and research and retain in our consciousness.
It is clear that a novelty may be born out of one or other approach, in fact also the idealistic one re-elaborates and recomposes know-how every time an event is reconsidered or constructed. Accordingly, in the years that I collaborated with Chile in research and teaching I was able to appreciate these two different kinds of thinking without claiming to fuse them: which would be counter-productive.
The approach I spoke of can be applied firstly in practising “observation”, which ends up becoming a behavioural habit. Beyond the current meaning of the word it must be added that in our case this means observing beyond the point we are convinced of having already done, and to do so also concentrating on occasional facts which, at first sight, have nothing to do with our own professional interests.
In his teaching and personal habits Alberto Cruz himself provided many clear examples in line with his conviction: “the only thing a professor can do for his students is to give an example (lo unico que puede hacer un profesor ante sus alumnos es dar el ejemplo)”. An important collection of Alberto’s work was published in 2005 by Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaiso entitled El Acto Arquitectonico3.
This book is full of manuscripts in minute neat handwriting, as well as sketches accompanied by comments, everything arranged in a layout that is presented on the first page.
These texts are expressed in a language that the students at the Valparaiso School get to know at the beginning of their courses. A language which for us is unusual and often difficult to understand but nonetheless applies to architecture and begins from observations that are initially rooted in the everyday: always different, always new.
Supplementing the writings on every page are sketches (croquis), and Alberto explained why from the start: “We well know that drawing – by itself – opens up to and recalls something else which goes beyond what the writing says (bien sabemos que el dibujo – de suyo – es expansivo y lleva a unos màs-allà de lo que quiere dècir la escritura)”4. Beneath these words is a drawing of Alberto’s glasses lying on the desk in front of him, in whose lenses he can see a refection of his hands writing.
The relationship between the two parts is not direct, in fact, often the sketches seem the result of a sort of distraction, precisely as the sculptor Claudio Girola wrote: “The order one feels inside oneself is the need to return to the desert. This metaphor must not be misunderstood. It is not about the ingenuousness of believing that the know-how one possesses needs to be thrown away to make oneself a caveman again or a super ascetic of peace, so that the spirit descends within. On the contrary, I believe we need to forget, but not in the sense of amnesia, not like someone who has lost his memory, not in the sense of lack of attention, not like omission or negligence, a void, abnegation, absolution, consolation, ingratitude or disuse (of knowledge ed.). Forgetting like one who wishes to forget, forgetting through distraction, in order to see.”
In Alberto’s book the examples multiply, such as the hands of the driver that move in a sequence of gestures according to the manoeuvre being made5. The volume is designed so that the original page appears on the right, while on the left is a transcription.
To me it seems interesting to comment on page 60. On the right four sketches, each accompanied by a brief comment. In order: “In the middle of the road among the traffic the solitary little flower aware of nothing in its being there - the new foliage sprouting from the trunk is not even aware of the tree - foliage of the old outskirts which, without realizing, manages to suspend the limits of its little houses - foliage in the semi-darkness not aware of its intact circles of light”6.
Then at the bottom of the page a passage marked number 2 which could be translated thus: “Poetry poetizes – we hear from the poet – in the greatest unrest, everything in him is restless when he listens to the poetic word irrupting inside him. The art of architecture, it seems clear, is not permitted this heroic suffering; certainly this sunbeam is asked of it that allows the shade to shelter the herd. This allegory definitely does not refer to shadows nor animals but to the detachment between restlessness and moments of acute diffuse tribulation”7.
It is clear from all of this that at the Valparaiso School one always moves around the work of architecture continuously practising observation with an empty mind. But architecture does get made!
To understand how, it is enlightening to read the story of the construction of “Casa Jean Mermoz” created by Fabio Cruz (a cousin and close collaborator of Alberto) with the participation of the school. The history of the house (demolished some time ago) with photographs was published in issue 16 of the Chilean magazine ARQ on August 1991.
A schematic chronology is given that begins halfway through 1956 with the works to be done on an area of around 16 x 30 metres. Here are some extracts: “This work was begun without a definitive project, without an overall design. Within a general idea (espiritu), each part would have its value, progress was step by step, learning from the terrain itself. How to do things would be invented. To date this is what has been done…” Then, at the end of this concise story we read the more explicative, and more provocative words: “Let’s say that the volume of the work is taking a break, by now it is finished. Its borders are finished. But for a few exceptions it will not grow beyond those. Now, imperceptibly, in the continuum of time, a new stage begins: making this construction inhabitable (in the proper sense of the word), transforming it into what is called a house”.
I would say that these last words are provocative in the sense that the objective the architect normally sets from the beginning of a project, obliged also by the laws and regulations as well as economic constraints, i.e. designing a house, comes at the end in Fabio Cruz’ example, is almost accessory. All of this moving around the work of architecture, with poetry, with protracted and persistent observation, with the putting together of materials, learning from the ground what to do, all of this effectively leads to the work of architecture, but only at the end of this process is it made inhabitable.
I am sure it appears clear from what has been said that all the phases of working at the CA and the PUCV School of Architecture are marked by playful activities. Every week, not for nothing one day is dedicated to physical activity and play at the CA. In addition, every year, the students must invent gaming machines and games that are then played in the city on a particular day. Jommi wrote about this: “What is of interest here is re-originating games by removing their specializations and conventions. Conventional games have lost their ability to surprise; it has therefore become necessary to go back to inventing these ingenuous rites that humans play with”.

1 For a deeper look at Ciudad Abierta and the Valparaiso School plus an exhaustive bibliography see Alfieri, M. (2000). La Ciudad Abierta. Roma: Editrice Librerie Dedalo.
2 Jacob, F. (1988). La statua interiore. Milano. Milano: il Saggiatore.
3 Cruz Covarrubias, A. (2005). El acto arquitectonico. Valparaíso: Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso e[ad].
4 Cruz Covarrubias, A. (2005). El acto arquitectonico. Cit., p. 4.
5 Ibidem, p. 10.
6 Ibidem, p. 60.
7 Ibidem.

Massimo Alfieri was a lecturer in Architectural Design at the Faculty of Architecture of the Roma Tre University from 1992 to 2012, and was previously a lecturer in the same subject at the Faculty of Architecture of La Sapienza University, again in Rome. Between 1992 and 2012, under the auspices of the Rector, he made many trips to Chile engaging in exchanges with the Faculties of Architecture of the PUC in Santiago, the PUCV in Valparaiso and the University of Talca. He ran laboratories, workshops and courses at these institutions and collected documents and testimonials that formed the basis of his book “La Ciudad Abierta” published in 2000. 
Hospederia la Alcoba, sketches by Massimo Alfieri study

Hospederia la Alcoba, sketches by Massimo Alfieri study