we understood that our identity was to be “citizens of every place”
the word “context” for me means building your own present, with freedom and without precise boundaries.
If there hadn’t been competitions, we would never have become architects.
We have always had a disruptive relationship with the common denominator South Tyrol; our projects may not be beautiful, but they are an intellectual “slap in the face”
Matteo Scagnol and Sandy Attia, more than just highly skilled and competent architects, are citizens of the world. A broad and branched formation has allowed both of them to transport many architectural suggestions and images, without stopping at tradition or context, and working with the right measure of freedom and freshness.
Let us start at the beginning: would you like to tell us about your training and what were the most significant episodes?
Matteo Scagnol: Sandy and I have different origins. I am Italian, I studied in Venice and worked in Naples for two years with Francesco Venezia, with whom I graduated. I later won a scholarship that took me to Harvard University to complete a post-professional master’s degree. Sandy, instead, comes from an Egyptian and American background; she spent her childhood in Kuwait and then returned to the USA, where she completed a bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia, before continuing her studies in architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 2000, which is where we met on the first day of the courses. And from there it was like a great love! After my studies, I didn’t want to stay in the USA, because I didn’t like the system, even though there was great potential. It was very complicated for young architects, so I immediately decided to go back to Italy, dragging Sandy with me first to Venice and then to Rome, because I had won an additional scholarship to the American Academy of Rome. I consider this to be the most important formative moment, because we lived together for the first time in a big city and in a spectacular place. In Rome we understood that our identity was to be “citizens of every place”; this is what allowed us to live in South Tyrol while at the same time, constantly looking outwards, “living” beyond, but being physically here. Our development, each far from the other, me with my classic Venetian, IUAV brand, with important teachers such as Manfredo Tafuri, Massimo Cacciari, Gino Valle and Vittorio Gregotti, and Sandy, whilst still classic, was American. We came together in Rome, united in our unique desire to relate to the classical world, far away in time, with the disenchantment of distant ideas that have been repeated in continuous cycles. We define ourselves as “water repellent” because we adapt to the conditions. We understand them, but we are not absorbed by them, neither by the culture nor by the “identity” of the places in which we live. In a concrete sense, this is to say that although many of our colleagues talk about the importance of context, of tradition and about the use of local materials, we are totally the opposite! We aim to do things in freedom, without paranoia or self-imposed constraints.
Sandy Attia: I have lived in vastly different countries and places; the word “context” for me means building your own present, with freedom and without precise boundaries.
From your profile we read that you have a “heterogeneous” approach to the architectural project. Would you like to briefly illustrate how this way of working translates into the practical act?
Sandy Attia: The heterogeneous approach is correct from a certain point of view, given that our works have always had many differences between them. But we always try to start from the same cornerstones, sometimes even a little banal. Basically, our works appear heterogeneous, because they are very “curious” and free, we follow with amnesia a thread of coherence, which in the end has a series of similarities.
Matteo Scagnol: We have always maintained a simple fundamental concept, which can be described through Nietzsche’s words or through our trip to California some time ago. We will tell you both versions. Nietzsche says that the human aspect is both Dionysian (passion and impetus) and Apollonian (precision, regularity and geometry); our works are dissimilar to each other’s, but have this “game” as their limit where every now and then one aspect prevails rather than the other, as in our human relationship, where every now and then he prevails and every now and then I do. At the base there is a logical, ethical and human content. When we made this trip by car from Los Angeles to Oregon, crossing the Big Sur, we saw trees that on one side, protected from the wind, grew beautiful and perfect, whilst those on the sea side were all bent, even if the seed that gave them life (the idea …) was the same, only that it was dependent upon the conditions in which it settled and grew.
In our buildings there are almost always three themes: the first is related to the embrace, where we translate everything into forms that resemble “Cs”, to try to embrace a condition; the other theme has to do with gravity, with which we like to play, therefore suspended volumes, overhangs, rotations; the last aspect instead, which for me is not yet clear, is linked to our “laziness” … There are many talented contemporary architects, specialised in details, innovative materials, who manage to create very complicated buildings; instead we are rather in love with all that architecture, linked more than anything else to the 70s, where there was a certain laissez faire, “that’s okay”, without this current craze where by now architecture has become nothing but a super cool detail, often losing the spatial aspect, which in our opinion is what matters. Laziness also means living without preciousness, which is not necessary; what is needed, more than anything else, is a place that offers empathy.
Do you find that the competition system is still a valid tool for carrying out the profession of architect?
Matteo Scagnol: When we started working it worked, now it’s madness… Let me explain better. As long as the competition was for the architect, mainly aimed at obtaining high architectural quality, without needing a myriad of consultants, documents, reports and requirements, then it made sense, now it doesn’t. We had the good fortune to win the first two competitions in 2004, two years after we had opened the studio, and they were quite significant competitions, which now you could only do if you met very stringent requirements. We won without experience, without requirements, and then we managed to build them! Now there are many more constraints, you have to organise the design team, fill in all the paperwork, write reports on the CAMs and on the technological systems that could very well be carried out later, also because almost all the projects entered into the competition follow the same line on these points, the choice is not determined by the architectural project.
Sandy Attia: If there hadn’t been competitions, we would never have become architects. We have built almost all our works, even private ones, through the competition system. Let’s say that the competition, if you take it as a sort of training and a form of stimulus to look, first of all, at yourself, and you get rid of the feeling of having to do “the best thing”, your best project, your best performance, it becomes a simple tutorial. Now, however, the ratings are much more quantitative than qualitative, linked to silly scores. If the contests continue like this, it will no longer make sense to participate in them.
While if the competition is raised to a cultural phenomenon, that is in addition to participating, you present it to the residents, then it assumes a social value. To make it clear that more than one answer can be given, but at the same time that they must choose, that there must be shared responsibility for the choice, as an act of qualified people who represent a community.
Here is a question that we will not ask only you but also other studios: why is it possible to more easily find high-quality architectural firms in the areas of Northern Italy, which border Austria and Switzerland, and in particular in the territory of Trentino Alto-Adige, than the rest in the country?
Matteo Scagnol: There are two fundamental aspects. As a first aspect, there has been for a long period a political determination of the province to use economic resources (which have been noteworthy for many years) to demonstrate the efficiency of the local political apparatus, using public funds efficiently, and the best way to demonstrate this is through architecture: building schools, hospitals, etc., and it has been a great opportunity for local architects. Furthermore, the Autonomous Province of Bolzano has taken a clear position, marking the cultural proximity not to Italy, but to Austria and Germany, using and choosing for its buildings an architectural language very close to that of these states, which speaks of efficiency, precision, solidity, etc. Secondly, the Province has given the go ahead to the use of the competition as a good practice, which is followed by private clients who have grasped the value of architecture as a vehicle for defining their identity. A short circuit was created, which made it clear that investing money in architecture gives a huge return on image, which mixed with the Nordic world’s passion for building to perfection, love for one’s home, for precision , for details, has produced an enormous stimulus in all the architects who have grasped this impetus towards architecture. This does not mean that South Tyrol is further ahead culturally or intellectually, even if it there are many very beautiful and well-made projects in its territory. We have always had a disruptive relationship with the common denominator South Tyrol; our projects may not be beautiful, but they are an intellectual “slap in the face”, because within us we carry the freedom we talked about before, which allows us not to have to dwell on just the detail.
Very often your buildings are characterised by a geometric experimentation, which translates into rather sculptural volumes. Where does this approach to the project come from?
Sandy Attia: We really like working with models, because it allows us to use our hands … Consequently, using this type of approach, it is easier for projects to turn out with more sculptural volumes and shapes. It is hugely different to working with a digital computer model.
Matteo Scagnol: Usually we sit at a table and start outlining some simple sketches that then transition into the physical model, so we can immediately find the right proportions. This leads us to manage the project in a sculptural way. Our architecture, in terms of visual aspect, are never too complex. And then modelling is the only moment of joy and freedom in our work, we really have fun!