Architecture and the Word by Flora Ruchat-Roncati

Flora Ruchat-Roncati (1937-2012) was one of the leading lights of Swiss architecture in the second half of the 20th century. Part of the new generation of architects from Ticino with Aurelio Galfetti, Ivo Trümpy, Luigi Snozzi, Livio Vacchini and Mario Botta, Flora Ruchat-Roncati was the first full professor of planning at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich in 1985. Her works include the schools in Riva San Vitale, the Bagno di Bellinzona (both with Galfetti and Trümpy), and the A16 Transjurane motorway infrastructure designed with Renato Salvi between 1989 and 1998, and her collaboration with the Beratungsgruppe für Gestaltung for AlpTransit.

To remember this critical figure ten years after her death, the book Memoria e trasformazione (Edizioni Casagrande, Bellinzona) collects a selection of her written work. We talked about it with editor Nicola Navone , vice-director of Archivio del Moderno and lecturer at the USI Academy of Architecture.

What materials have been included in the collection?

We selected seven of Flora Ruchat-Roncati’s writings and five interviews based on two primary criteria: that they were published texts, thus approved by the author, and that among the papers donated by Ruchat-Roncati to the Archivio del Moderno, we had the original Italian version and, even better, the "genesis documents" of the texts (which we have taken into account in the apparatuses). The final choice was made considering their relevance in relation to the main themes of her architecture and the overall balance of the volume.
How important were words in Flora Ruchat-Roncati’s work?

If we leaf through her notebooks, we are struck by the dense presence of notes, reflections, quotations, and reading notes, which sometimes take over from the drawings and attest to Flora Ruchat-Roncati’s intellectual curiosity. "Writing is at least as tiring as designing", she had said on one occasion. It is understandable how her confrontation with writing intensified after her appointment in 1985 as a full professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich: both because of the role she had acquired and because the word is an essential teaching tool (even if, in this volume, no texts from her teachings have been collected, which would deserve a dedicated publication).

Many of Flora Ruchat-Roncati’s works are characterised by a dialogue with the territory and the landscape. Does this dimension also emerge in her writings?

The relationship with the place and the role of architecture as a tool for constructing the landscape, including through the design of road and railway infrastructures, to which Flora Ruchat-Roncati has made a significant contribution, are two main themes of her reflection. Concerning the first point, Ruchat-Roncati considered appropriateness to the characteristics of a place to be one of the foundations of good architecture and hoped that every project would make itself "an interpreter of the place, in a broad, cultural sense", resisting the processes of fragmentation that were transforming (and continue to transform) the territory, while rejecting a mimetic and purely conservative approach. It could be said that a propensity for dialogue characterised her very way of doing architecture, often practised through confrontation with other colleagues (starting with her friendship with Aurelio Galfetti and Ivo Trümpy).

How did she view the architect’s profession?

In one of the published interviews, Flora Ruchat-Roncati ascribes to the architect, first and foremost, "the need to rediscover the recipient, to put it back at the centre of our reflections, both in the private and in the collective, to give precise answers to its needs, to its dimension, and to rediscover respect for the place, which also means renewing and reinterpreting it, but without shouting and noise, imitating not the language of history, but its appropriateness and order" (a programmatic declaration of her way of conceiving and practising architecture).

Flora Ruchat-Roncati was the first full professor of planning at ETH Zurich. Does she talk about this pioneering role in her writings?

It is a theme that emerges in the interviews, but somewhat sparingly. Flora Ruchat-Roncati considered it a scandal that at the ETH Zurich, until 1985, no woman had been able to be appointed as a full professor (and let’s be clear: not only in the architecture department, but in the entire academic body), but neither did she like her appointment to be associated with gender issues. Instead, she was keen to emphasise the difficulties inherent in the ’pluri-functionality of female discourse’, a term she used to designate the multiplicity of tasks she had to face, not least because of the cruelty of a destiny that had prematurely snatched away her husband, André Ruchat, to whom a relationship of great complicity bound her. Hence the need to reconcile life and work, motherhood and profession, without waiving any of these commitments, and at the same time shunning vicious social conventions.