Dossier #209. Beyond REpresentation. San Rocco Magazine

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INTERVIEWER: Andreea Mihaela Chircă INTERVIEWEE: Matteo Ghidoni IMAGES: San Rocco magazine

San Rocco magazine does not need a description overloaded with superlatives, but rather drawn with strong, bold lines and words, just like the project of this publication—radical, honest, clear. San Rocco speaks for itself, in drawing and in writing. This interview is an attempt to understand the meaning of this old-but-new visual language, to decode the meanings wrapped around the objects suspended in the air without context, without place, without time. Above the visual fascination generated by the finesse of the white lines figured on the black-inked ground, however, it is the opportunity to reveal a series of layers that show the depths and subtleties of the San Rocco project. Beyond representation it is the act of redrawing the grand objects of architecture, from all places and all times, generously and humbly placing them on the same enormous table, reducing them all to the same scale, to the same type of line and colour, at the same present moment — all for the purpose of constructing a critical discourse. Thus, we can let ourselves be seduced by the thought that we can be equal and contemporary with the great masters of architecture, as long as the representation allows us to. Matteo Ghidoni, architect, editor of San Rocco magazine and coordinator of Salottobuono office, offers us this opportunity.

AMC: “San Rocco is a magazine about architecture. It is written by architects. It does not solve problems. It is not a useful magazine. It is neither serious nor friendly. It will not last forever.” — this is your description of San Rocco magazine, mostly built on negations.  What was the background on which San Rocco appeared and what did it try to negate or position itself against?


MG: First of all, I would say that the negations were our ways of drawing boundaries. The most important one was that San Rocco will not last forever —  we wanted to define a project with a beginning and an end. That was essential to us because we wanted to assume responsibility in what we were doing and establish a goal. We declared that it was not a useful magazine (for us it was, of course) because we felt that the public would not find the utility they would expect as we were confronting a panorama of both academic magazines and purely commercial ones. In the years in which we started San Rocco, all of us were involved in editorial projects with the big names in Italian architectural magazines. We confessed that we felt a bit unfulfilled or disappointed in the sense that we observed the tendency to talk only about the latest projects thus shallowing the depth of the inquiry, the real investigation of projects and processes. Architectural blogs, digital publishing were emerging, coming stronger and stronger, faster and faster. So the tendency of print magazines was to keep up with that new speed and type of information, also starting a sort of second life in the digital format.


At the same time, the economic crisis of 2008 put its imprint in the publishing field, as paper magazines were on the verge of disappearing. We had the idea to start San Rocco exactly in those years. It was a very hard time, with limitations of all sorts, but it was also a moment of opportunity to re-evaluate and understand what we want to do. In this way, we thought that a magazine should be a project, not a one that goes on forever, in a sort of inertia, but with clear boundaries. We had a schedule and a guideline. The main necessity for us was to establish a discourse and propose a position on architecture with the ambition of creating a collaborative platform, with contributions outside of Italy and on the other part of the ocean.

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AMC: The matter of representation in San Rocco magazine has multiple facets. Although the drawings form an independent and autonomous field, the magazine is a whole package, everything is thought simultaneously, in relation to one another, graphics, text and the printed shape. The abstract sphere takes the physical form of an object that resembles a printed compact gallery of ideas, a portable and handy, tactile collection of thoughts. Can you tell me more about how you built the paper structure of San Rocco?


MG: It is hard for me to separate the aesthetic choices from the content and the kind of project we wanted to do, because it was a natural choice from the beginning. This idea of print publishing was certain, we never had a second thought about going against the digital type of publishing. The format of our magazine is similar to an architecture journal as we see it in the environment of American and English academic publishing. It is more like a series of monographic issues. This form was necessary for us because of its rhythm. We wanted to take this luxury of being slow, to take the time to construct the issues, to put together the ideas and the contributions. This is the opposite to digital production, which was fast, instantaneous and looking for novelty.


You said that San Rocco looks like a portable collection of ideas and it is true in the sense that we never strived to construct an a priori idea and theory to propose to the world. In a humble way, it is an archive, a collection of projects that we consider meaningful for some reasons. The form of the magazine is thus constructed according to this principle, with a quite simple structure (it may seem boring, because there are no big surprises inside, only subtle ones): one project after the other, treated in different tones. We also experimented with forms of articles that were not purely textual, sometimes they were only visual essays (drawings, photos). But even then, the imagery was carefully chosen, the drawings were limited. We treated the photographic material in a very subtle way, we did not point to pictures, we did not publish full-page colourful images. Almost all of them were black and white. There is an aesthetic quality but it is something very modest. There is a sort of humbleness.


Also, the choice of using a cover without text was maybe an idea of balancing the amount of text that is inside the magazine. San Rocco is mainly made with texts. The reader of San Rocco is someone interested in the texts mainly. Of course, you can buy it as an object and appreciate it for what it is, in its form, its surface and this is a completely different level.


When we felt that the structure of San Rocco was a little rigid, we wanted to go outside the format, we organised workshops and exhibitions that tried to add and expand the content in different formats.


AMC: The next questions are the most obvious ones. How did you develop the visual identity of San Rocco? What is the charge of meanings you invested your axonometric depictions with?  What references did you turn to? You have found some seeds of inspiration in James Stirling’s and Oswald Mathias Ungers’s drawings, in John Hejduk’s Diamond House and other types of representation used in the 70s-80s.


MG: Above all, I must say that we didn’t invent anything, these methods of representation were available and very popular in the ’70s and the ’80s. Of course we had all these references, Stirling, Hejduk and many others. With the success of renderings, axonometry became less used as renders became much more effective in communicating some aspects that were not present in the axonometric. But rendering actually fakes transparency, you can make people see what you want. They just pretend to be more accessible and more democratic, because everybody can understand it, they offer the viewer what is supposed to be the exact reality.


In a moment when it was still not very fashionable to draw axonometric line drawings, we explored this type of exact drawing in opposition to a sort of impressionist communication of architecture. For us, drawing was not about communication, it was about the essence of architecture itself, it contained a lot of information which are not only for marketing, but for understanding and manipulating a project. The choice was also quite natural, because when we sketch, we sketch axonometric, not perspective. Honestly, it was our code, our language and we found it completely natural to use it.  In those years working on San Rocco, when we took part in competitions, we used that specific kind of drawing. Everybody tried to impress with colourful renderings, while we were much more in favour of measurable drawings, a drawing which is exact, that doesn’t lie about the project. In a certain sense, it also lies because this particular axonometric depiction, the monometric, the Egyptian view — these produce an image which is sometimes difficult to interpret, to connect with the actual project. So it acquires a quality in itself, it becomes a sort of precise and autonomous object.


Besides the already developed use of drawings in our practice, besides the wish to construct a recognisable image of the magazine, I would say that there was another particular motivation, probably the most important one. Since we were talking about buildings of the past spread all over the world, about projects that were produced in the ’60s, ’20s or the Ancient times, from Rome or Egypt or any other place, applying the same method of representation to every object was a way of making all of them contemporary, to make them all present and productive in this moment of time. If you use authorial drawings (like sketches or perspectives), that drawing immediately sets the project in its specific time and its specific moment, which puts a series of other questions. Our purpose was to have a series of different objects all together on the same table so that they could be compared. We wanted to build an archive of comparable objects, to construct a taxonomy. In order to construct a taxonomy, you have to make a series of diverse objects to be homogenous, you have to use the same method of representation.

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AMC: So you intentionally brought Bramante, Scamozzi, Aldo Rossi, Toyo Ito and many others at the same table, in a sort of continuation to your idea of Collaboration (which was also the main pillar of San Rocco).


MG: Yes, our magazine was a collaborative project between a number of people and offices, but this idea of collaboration was also developed on a mental level. The main topic of San Rocco was always the collaboration in architecture. This can be synchronic or diachronic, in the same moment in time or they can happen through time, constructing a dialogue with architects that produced architecture before you.



AMC: This practice of critically re-drawing architectural objects is a separate, autonomous field in the vast terrain of representation, and it started developing not so long ago. Two of the most important figures who brought the history of architecture to the drawing (and modelling) table, critically revisiting the grand buildings of the past were Bruno Zevi and Luigi Moretti (so we remain on Italian ground with our discussion). Re-representing a building which was not designed by the drawer implies a distance, as well as a critical interpretive position. This is also part of the slow-process that you were talking about earlier, because the gesture of redrawing triggers mental mechanisms to better understand a building and manipulate it in all sorts of ways. 


MG: Yes, all these attempts to introduce the drawing into the analysis of a certain historical building and the history of architecture are meant to use drawing as a critical tool. The idea is that you can talk about architecture analysing its spatial qualities. The spatial qualities can be represented by the drawing in a quite exact manner, because there are many possibilities of organising a critique on architecture — it can be based on ideology, on historiography, on many things. You can observe many aspects. Maybe we always wanted to put the attention on a certain spatial quality of the architectural object. And in doing so, we also wanted to show the generosity of a specific project, in the sense that some of these projects offer different kinds of uses depending on the specific period of time, but somehow the spatial quality never changes (if the building was not altered, of course).


For us, it was important to have this humble approach without putting ahead an ideological conception. We tried to observe, describe and render the spatial quality of a project. Through drawing, you can take an authorial object and make it your own. And you can start manipulating it, take something out of it and this way it becomes operative. So the first act of redrawing the objects of San Rocco was an act of appropriation, a moment of re-elaboration of the information the project offers. This kind of relationship with this project was less passive.


AMC: I would say that your idea of representation develops on two axes. It is the horizontal approach (intentional and not just a result of a visual convention) in which you bring all the objects on the table, at the same scale, at the same level. And it is also the vertical one, inevitably appearing along with the choice of axonometric depiction. You position yourself above or below the object, detached from it, as a distant and critical viewer, conquering and manipulating the object according to your desires.


MG: It is a very good analysis of what we are trying to do. Also, I think that the choice of the kind of representation was not always the same because there was a certain quality, a special aspect we wanted to show. Some views are from above, some from below. And sometimes we represented only a part of the building. That was a series of choices, it was not an automatic gesture, we didn’t put the buildings in the axonometric machine and produce the drawings. There was also a certain contradiction in what we were saying about the drawing as a first step into the critical approach to a project in a sense that, after all, the drawings were almost all drawn by Michele Marchetti, but there was a participation into the editorial board. A collaboration.


Also, with my office Salottobuono, we had a long collaboration with Abitare Magazine in which we did an in-depth analysis of the projects published in the issue, through exploded axonometric and a set of information (we called it infographics, but they are really architecture drawings). This was also a crucial exercise for us to understand architecture by drawing.


AMC: Your choice of representation became very fast an iconic visual formula. The architectural artefact depicted on the cover became a sign, transforming the whole object of the magazine into a somehow hermetic construct, accessible only to the cognoscenti…  


MG: We wanted to be memorable and recognisable, to create an identity of the magazine. The image would have to last for a long time. San Rocco was not a magazine that you consume in one month and then you forget about it. At the same time, we never tried to make it precious artificially. We never wanted to be exclusivist or construct a rare object. We never had the intention nor the impression of having produced a drawing which was too obscure, or too cryptical, because for us it was a normal and honest language, a code we used everyday in our practices. We always think this is the best way to draw a project. Some of these drawings might seem a bit exaggerated in proportions, but when you measure them, they are exact.


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AMC: Can you tell us more about the collaboration between the visual material and the text, as they are obviously symbiotic? It is true that they have a life of their own and they can live happily ever after as independent entities, but to extrapolate a little, this hybrid construction of San Rocco also expresses your critical position regarding the division between writing, drawing and practising architecture.


MG: San Rocco is a hybrid form of critical thinking. The different visual materials collaborate with the text, in order to comprehend and produce the right specific codes of every method of representation. We wanted to talk about objects and subjects that belong to the past but are still productive and relevant, that can be used today to construct something about architecture. After all, San Rocco was made of practising offices. We really believe in this role of architect-thinker. I do think that the separation of these two figures, the architect and the (academic) writer/critique, is something that comes from the division of labour and it is artificial. The practising architect has to be a thinker. The readers of San Rocco, as well as its makers are architecture thinkers, they produce architecture themselves, they participate in the biennales, they take part in conferences around the world and they teach around the world. It is this kind of hybrid figure.


Also, we do believe that the text cannot be just a bureaucratic act. We tried to write in a way that was not practised anymore at the time because of the speed of digital publishing that was reducing everything to very shallow contents, so we had to respond to it somehow, to deal with the time we are in. You cannot avoid it. I think the writing in San Rocco influenced some critics, some writers who started to introduce a little bit of irony, to expose themselves a little bit more in the judgement and taking advantage of the possibility and freedom of labelling something as good or bad.


AMC: I was wondering if, in your pedagogical practice, you have a certain way of encouraging students to develop a visual identity of their own. Also, how do you train their mind to critically understand what certain representations mean, in order to make use of them according to their projects and ideas, and not just copy paste a trend?

MG: For many years I proposed this title for the courses that I do which is called “Beyond Representation”. I always try to explain what we produce (drawings, models for the projects) in terms of critical approach, in order to make the students understand why they are using a certain type of representation, what is the reason and meaning behind it. Honestly I am thinking a lot about this subject today because I want to explore something else — the possible new role of hand drawing. I studied in a moment in which the digital drawing was beginning to take lead. I was lucky to be in-between. When you were a student at the time, you fought against the idea that you had to draw by hand. Some of the teachers were really against CAD drawings, so we were forced to produce hand drawings, which generated a rebellion among the students.


Now, 20 years later, I am really reconsidering this. I understand that there is a difference between my generation and the students nowadays, they were native digital. There is a gap of communication between these two worlds. So now I am planning to explore hand-drawing much more. It seems to be outdated and I am aware I might sound nostalgic, but I am not, I am really thinking about re-learning how to connect your brain to your hand, which is very different now from what we would have produced 20 years ago. That is the current state of my idea about representation and pedagogy.

Project: San Rocco Magazine; Editor: Matteo Ghidoni; Editorial Board: Matteo Costanzo, Francesca Pellicciari, Giovanni Piovene, Giovanna Silva, Pier Paolo Tamburelli; Graphic Design: pupilla grafik, Salottobuono, Paolo Carpi; Drawings: Michele Marchetti;

San Rocco is an idea by: 2A+P/A, baukuh, Stefano Graziani, Office KGDVS, pupilla grafik, Salottobuono, Giovanna Silva


Interview published in the Dossier of igloo #209 / Reprezentation in Architecture / August-September 2022

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