Published  01/03/2016

Andrea Ponsi: ‘I draw, therefore I am’

Andrea Ponsi: ‘I draw, therefore I am’

The architect, designer, writer and painter on how he went from building his own shelter in a South American palm grove to building furniture from copper piping, why the role of an artist or architect is to create harmony, and how drawing is the foundation of his work


Andrea Ponsi (b1949 in Viareggio) is an architect, designer, writer and painter, who lives and works in Florence. He studied architecture in Florence, London and Pennsylvania. His architecture is committed to sustainable forms of building and design and with establishing a harmonious relationship with the landscape. He designs products and furniture, and has authored books on theory and on drawing directed to designers and architects. In his books on Florence and San Francisco, he uses perceptual sketches to capture the character of each city. He describes Florence in an original and intriguing manner that comes from his inveterate need to explore, and to express ideas in words, drawn images, design forms or as architectural schemes. An English translation of his major work, Analogy and Design, was recently published by the University of Virginia Press. In it, Ponsi considers the history of architecture through a series of examples that demonstrate the value of analogy as both creative technique and didactic tool. I visited him in his studio on Via della Fonderia by the Arno river in Florence.

Janet McKenzie: It’s great to be back in Florence after a long absence, and to discover that, in spite of significant changes, the city remains as beautiful and inspiring as ever. Can you describe how you came to write and illustrate your personal, but highly informative book Florence: A Map of Perceptions?

Andrea Ponsi: Several years ago, during the month of August, Florence was hot, deserted and silent and I decided to explore the city, but instead of going around with a sketchbook, I chose to carry just a pen and a notebook. I wanted to test myself by seeing if writing about the city, its townscape and street life, would be as fun and satisfying as it has always been for me through drawing and sketching. At the end of the day, I realised that it had been a good experience and one worth investigating in greater depth. By writing, I could consider aspects of the city that were almost impossible to convey with drawing. I could report sounds, smells and the sense of touch transmitted by the surfaces of the buildings. I could describe thoughts about history and cultural habits, or sensations of a more emotional nature in writing that would not be an easy task to communicate by drawings. It was only when the book was already written that I added a selection of my drawings and watercolours of Florence

JMcK: It would seem a tall order to create a new architecture or art form in a place as rich in visual art and architecture as Florence. What do you see as the role of the architect today?

AP: There are very few occasions to design and build contemporary architecture within Florence. The historic town is already built up and the few available commissions are generally given to well-known international architects. The periphery of the city, where most of the new work is done, is really another, quite banal and badly built, city, and it conserves little memory of the historic centre. The few architects who dealt with the central areas of Florence have made interesting projects, such as the new exit for the Uffizi by Arata Isozaki, but 90% of the proposals are never carried out.

Florentines are quite conservative and the city administration is generally afraid to go against the mainstream majority. Yet I consider Florence, as well as most Italian historic centres, a unique school for contemporary architecture. I keep learning from historic cities because the pre-industrial and pre-car towns have qualities that the modern town has been unable to recreate. Here, I am talking about human scale, healthy environments and social cohesion. That’s why I came up with the idea of an “analogous architecture” approach, where we may take inspiration from existing and historical models, and translate them into a contemporary language based on a flexible use of modern materials and technologies. Most importantly, analogous architecture may imply the use of a formal language that includes the outputs of the 20th century’s modern art, design and architecture, with their recourse to abstraction, expressionism or minimalism.

JMcK: As a young artist, Francesco Clemente felt that Italian culture of the past was so powerful and awe-inspiring that he needed to seek creative energy from other cultures: India and America. You seem, by contrast, to have been fully nourished by Italian culture. Is that so?

AP: I have always been a compulsive traveller. As a teenager, I took several European trips, mostly to England and Greece; as a university student, I did two long trips to South America. In my seven-month long second trip there, despite the fact that I was a recent graduate from the University of Florence School of Architecture, I was not much interested in looking at architecture. Nevertheless, I still consider that experience the most important source of inspiration for my design work. I spent months living on beaches and mountains and in far away villages, taking full advantage of not having to follow any programmed schedule and relying only on my sleeping bag. I perceived time and nature as part of an active and serene harmonious flow. Thereafter, I realised that my most important goal should have been to create objects, furniture, architecture and urban plans that were dedicated to create a serene existential experience.

I also owe a lot to some of my readings from the oriental tradition. A subsequent short trip to Japan, many years later, confirmed to me that the architecture developed on such principles was what I was looking for. However, I am also totally embedded in the culture of Italy and the Mediterranean region. I do not feel overwhelmed, as Clemente does, by such a condition. I admire the classical culture of the Greeks and the Romans and how those principles were reinterpreted by contemporary Italians: writers such Cuzio Malaparte or Italo Calvino, artists such as Fausto Melotti and Mario Sironi, designers such as Bruno Munari and Achille Castiglioni, architects such as Giuseppe Terragni, Franco Albini or Carlo Scarpa. I have also to mention the impact of living for more than 10 years in the United States. My total admiration of Louis Kahn brought me to study at the University of Pennsylvania, and my search for enlightening uncertainties made me live for 10 years in San Francisco. There, I was exposed to a contemporary view of the world embedded with a continuous enquiring, intelligent social transgression and search for existential harmony.

JMcK: You express ideas in a range of ways: architecture, the design of furniture and objects, through teaching, writing and drawing. How did each evolve in relation to the other?

AP: I probably owe such a variety of interests to my upbringing in Italy. In Italy, we are not fond of strict disciplinary boundaries. We like to explore connections among different fields and, historically, we had always to operate with a high degree of flexibility. In my university years in Florence, I did not work on many architectural projects. The end of the 1960s was a period of turmoil and all we wanted to do was explore alternatives, propose changes in all aspects of human society. Instead of designing buildings, somehow an irrelevant task from a revolutionary point of view, we confronted ourselves, for example, with contemporary art forms such as land art, performances, conceptual art; instead of acquiring the skill of drawing formally beautiful plans and sections, we wanted to investigate how to change the world by proposing, in my case, an ecological approach to design and an alternative use of energy. That was the subject of my graduation thesis in 1974. Therefore, instead of getting ready to go and work in an architectural office, I was more interested in seeing the world by hitchhiking or building up my own shelter in a palm grove. At the end of my South American travels, I realised that I wanted to become a more proficient designer and architect.

I went back to Italy, publish a book on solar energy in architecture, and continued my studies in graduate schools in England and the US. In San Francisco, I got to work in offices for six or seven years before I opened my own small practice. In those years, I developed a specific furniture design system. I needed to furnish my own studio space. In a hardware store, I saw a case full of copper joints and pipes used by plumbers. I bought a bunch of them, went back to my studio and built a chair. Then I made a coat hanger, a bookshelf, a lounge chair, a couch, and so on. It was 1987. I have never got tired of using copper pipes and joints to make everything: objects, furniture, light fixtures, systems to enclose spaces.

JMcK: I am amazed to see your drawings, particularly the large works that use ink and watercolour. They resemble musical scores with pictograms and multifarious references to landscape and to memory and time. Can you explain how you came to work in this way?

AP: I consider drawing the foundation of all my work. Actually, instead of “drawing”, I should say “ line works”. Line can be conceived in a very wide sense. For example, it implies the idea of a “line of thought”. Because it is the result of a pen or a pencil, is also something related to writing. Even music can be represented through a series of lines, including the ones that constitute the base of the pentagram.

I have always kept journals. As it happened, for the book on Florence, I started years ago to make line works, which were a hybrid between drawing and writings in the form of a visual journal. Because these “notations” consist of a set of parallel lines on a sheet of paper, they also recall the idea of a musical score. This system of notations was a perfect way to link my passion for drawings with the action of writing. Furthermore, this unified physical form of expression allowed me to add colour (watercolour), while calmly following the flow of time in a sort of brainstorming narrative.

JMcK: What role does perceptual drawing play in your architecture and design?

AP: Like music, architecture is experienced as a sequence of sensations in space and time. Architecture, however, implies the physical presence of matter, colour, technical constructions and details. The body itself becomes an integral part of the experience, which includes the sense of sight, smell and touch. How could it have been possible to transfer all these perceptions in a drawing? My answer was to consider drawing as a narration of a personal experience derived from instant or memorised perceptions. In the type of drawings that I call “subjective maps”, I can pass without interruption from a plan view to a perspective, from a section to a bird’s-eye view, as if I had in my hand a video camera. The advantage of this kind of drawing is that I can jump, without interruption, from one subject of perception to another, enter within the rooms of a building or fly high above the city. I can draw transparencies, show the objects within an interior space, insert element of scale, such as the figures of people; in other words, draw anything that comes to my mind. This is not an easy task even with a video camera.

JMcK: Can copper tubing in your creative practice (architecture, furniture, objects) be described as a sculptural and spatial drawing element?

AP: A pipe is like a line. Whatever I can do with a line in the space, I can probably do it as well with an actual metal pipe. There are some famous photographs of Picasso making drawing by moving a small light bulb in space. That’s what I try to do with my copper pipes. Yet I am also including in these special drawings something more ordered, based on my interest in proportion, archetypical geometries and structural and functional integrity. Even if I give myself strict limits, to restrict my construction to the use of a T joint and a pipe is one of them, I am always ready to transgress them. It is an attitude possibly linked to some kind of Zen philosophy or, more likely, explainable by my Italian adaptability and somewhat unstructured roots.

JMcK: How did you come to use copper tubing so extensively, in design and architecture?

AP: As I mentioned earlier, it all started when I saw a bunch of copper joints for sale in a large hardware store in San Francisco, almost 30 years ago. They immediately attracted me because of their beautiful colour and their clean, smooth surface, much nicer than those plumbing connectors I used to see in many DIY furniture manuals. I never liked that kind of furniture. My first thought was therefore to dismiss the idea. On a second thought, I told myself: if something has been already done, you can always do it again in a better way. I bought a bunch of joints, a few yards of copper pipes, some solder and a gas burner and went back to my studio. After I built my first pieces of furniture, I realised that I was already in love with copper. I liked the material because it is ancient and at the same time very modern. It is, in fact, used in solar collectors, computers, electrical cables and so on. Copper does not rust; it is perennial, even if it continuously changes its patina with weathering or the touch of the hands. It is soft enough to be easily worked on by a craftsman with no special tools, and hard enough to make a solid piece of furniture. Also, I fell in love with copper because, at least in the 80s, it was a material frowned on by avant-garde and modernist architects, who preferred the use of relatively new industrial materials such as stainless steel, glass and reinforced concrete. Copper and brass, on the other hand, were mostly used by very traditional furniture companies. I convinced myself that it was important to show how copper could be used in different ways by employing a contemporary, possibly more elegant language. That’s why I got the sponsorship of various copper institutes around the world that promoted my books and shows. That was another good reason to keep working with copper.

JMcK: Can you explain your term “utopistic harmony”?

AP: I believe in the challenge of creating harmony, if not in the entire world, at least within yourself. Despite the formulas given by religions or ideological creeds, it is not at all easy. However, what else should be our role as artist, architect, or human being, if not to find a way, indicate a path and, where possible, to build the conditions to induce a tranquil state of mind, even if that is sometimes melancholic? I once titled a series of drawings “The architecture of peace of mind”. Definitely an “utopistic” wish: such harmony can be drawn, represented, translated into music, drawing, painting, but this does not necessarily means that it becomes an integral part of our lives. I admit that, like everybody else, a part of me is quite cynical. When we consider world affairs and how individual egos dominate any notion of “shared harmony”, I feel less optimistic.

JMcK: How important is the process of drawing for your thought processes in intellectual terms and also for you emotional wellbeing?

AP: I draw, therefore I am.


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