Architecture as network

Katrin Albrecht, Irina Davidovici

Around the kitchen table

With the occasion of Flora Ruchat-Roncati’s ETH exhibition in 1998, her long-term friend, teaching colleague and practice partner, Dolf Schnebli, lauded her multiple roles as “Architektin, Professorin, “Mamma mediterranea”. His address ended in an afterthought: “beinahe hätte ich es vergessen: Wie alle begabten Architekten ist auch Flora eine hervorragende Köchin”.1 In the same breath, this celebrated woman-architect was seen to exceed in her profession as well as the kitchen, her traditional preserve. It is tempting to ponder whether the speaker might have found his male colleagues’ culinary skills just as essential to point out. And yet, a more generous reading needs to consider the familiarity connecting speaker and recipient, rooted in hours, weeks, years spent around the same tables, in the atelier and, indeed, the kitchen. We are thus dealing here not so much with the spectre of gender stereotyping, as with an instance of its instrumentalisation. Embedded in a productive social practice, the traditional role of the woman as cook and hostess led, paradoxically, to a strengthening of her connections and eventually professional empowerment. Moreover, Schnebli’s remark is backed by many others who knew Ruchat-Roncati personally, and testify to the great value she placed in conviviality. Convivium - not in pursuit of a political agenda, but simply the gathering of work colleagues, teaching assistants, family and friends around the dining table. As Ruchat-Roncati’s daughter, Anna, remarked: „non ha separato le cose“: she didn’t separate things. In keeping with both cultural custom and personal history, the social expectation of playing hostess was an integral and productive part of her life.
At the symbolic center of the household, the dining table acquired an additional architectonic value. Ruchat-Roncati sketched and designed dining tables, had them built for her home, scribbled guest arrangements around them in her taccuini. Her daughter recalls “eine schmale lange Küche mit einem schmalen Tisch aus Walnussholz, den Mama entworfen und von einem Schreiner hat bauen lassen”, and a large table for weekend banquets in the living room.2 Aldo Rossi’s Scientific Autobiography, included on the reading list of Ruchat-Roncati’s students at ETH, indicates the essential value of this ritualistic aspect for architectural practice:
Architecture becomes the vehicle for an event we desire, whether or not it actually occurs (...) But it is for this reason that the dimensions of a table or a house are very important – not, as the functionalists thought, because they carry out a determined function, but because they permit other functions. Finally, because they permit everything that is unforeseeable in life.3
Ruchat-Roncati’s early lectures as ETH Professor in the mid-1980s used the one-family house, specifically the domus, to illustrate the continuity of social patterns, the consistent connection between historical and contemporary architectures.4 She presented the Roman house as a domestic plan integrated within the urban public continuum, a miniature reflection of society at large. Its social centre was the Tablinum, the eating and socializing area that mediated between the public and intimate, male and female sections of the household.5 Ten years later, as gender issues became more explicit in her teaching, Ruchat-Roncati lectured on “Die Küche – Metapher der Frau”, examining the rationalisation of domestic processes as a function of women’s emancipation.6 Her lecture on Madame de Mandrot, patron of the modernist avant-garde, addressed her ambiguous role as a liberated but passive actor of CIAM history. The description of de Mandrot’s oscillation “between vocation and resignation” allows us to speculate on Ruchat-Roncati’s thoughts on her own status as a host.7 In Zurich, meeting teaching assistants in the Weisses Kreuz restaurant in Stadelhofen was a more urban, anonymous manifestation of her characteristic conviviality.
The ritual of dining with guests played a central role for Ruchat-Roncati. In time, distinctions between teaching, work and family became more blurred, professional and personal preoccupations overlapped. This opening towards colleagues and friends was partly a matter of personal choice and biographical circumstance, originating in a young widow and working mother’s attempt to create a boisterous, family-like environment. This impulse was facilitated by historical conditions, since, after 1968, the ideal of living and working communities gained currency among intellectuals of the left. The resulting juxtaposition of work and social networks defined Ruchat-Roncati’s modus operandi for the rest of her career, enabling her to pursue a professional path at the same time as a social life.


Ruchat-Roncati’s investment in networks of support also recognised the collective aspects of architectural practice. Most of her built work was produced through collaborations, not as part of a deliberate strategy, but as something absorbed from her formative environment. The Ticinese architecture of the 1950s, as experienced through the work of her father, as well as teachers and older experienced colleagues such as Rino Tami, Peppo Brivio and Tita Carloni, provided a crucial influence for her way of working. As Paolo Fumagalli noted, „Flora ist nicht ein Robinson Crusoe auf einer Insel, sie hat Väter und Brüder”.8  The connection to other Ticinese architects, consolidated while studying at ETH, was instrumental in the formation of her first official partnership with Aurelio Galfetti and Ivo Trümpy (1961–70), shorter collaborations on specific projects, such as the group entry for the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale Campus in Lausanne (1970), with Tita Carloni, Mario Botta, Aurelio Galfetti, Ivano Gianola and Luigi Snozzi, other competition entries, as well as long-term partnerships, with Dolf Schnebli and Tobias Ammann (1990–1997), and Renato Salvi on the Transjurane (1989–98). In addition, she took part in consultative mandates, in Rome in the Consorzio Nazionale Cooperativo d’Abitazione (1975–1985) and for the SBB-AlpTransit Gotthard (from 1993), which demanded cooperation at different levels. Like other Ticinese contemporaries, Ruchat-Roncati’s trajectory linked the traditional Modernism explored by a previous generation, in particular the fascination with Le Corbusier, with the methodology and architectural references of the Italian Tendenza. This interplay is visible throughout her built work, emerging in the rationalist concrete frames of the Riva school, the emphatic texture of the Ruchat House in Morbio Inferiore, the string of ‘Unités’ of La Colasiderta in Taranto, and the sculptural forms of the Transjurane.This great array of activities relied on a remarkably fluid operational model, based on dynamic networks of people and the overlap of professional and social connections:
„Es [das Büro] hat so mit Lio Aurelio Galfetti, Ivo Trümpy und der aufwachsenden Anna angefangen, (...). Andauernd fügten sich neue Erfahrungen hinzu, Arbeitsgemeinschaften, die aus dem Tessin, mit der frischgeborenen Elisa, nach Rom verlegt wurden, nach Zürich zurück und dann in den Jura, ohne sowohl das Tessin als auch Rom zu verlassen.“9
Ruchat-Roncati’s teaching followed a similar pattern. The ETH model of the Professorial Chair – reliant, like design, on a synthesis of collective efforts – was suited to her approach. At an institutional level, the network that had first helped her, as student, develop professional connections to other Ticinesi active in the Zurich school, was a mechanism that she continued to propagate herself, as visiting and, later, ordinary Professor. Her Chair at ETH created an intimate ecology of students that would later became assistants, work collaborators and personal friends.
The overlapping professional, social and private networks present throughout Ruchat-Roncati’s works are moreover rooted into a shared intellectual network, which would go on to have a great impact on the subsequent Swiss architectural generations. This shared discourse combined the theoretical background of Italian post-war literature (Bruno Zevi, Ludovico Quaroni) and the rationalist architecture of Giuseppe Terragni, Luigi Moretti, Mario Ridolfi, BBPR, Adalberto Libera, which Ruchat-Roncati often used as examples and treated in her lectures, alongside – of course – Le Corbusier, Mies, Wright and Aalto. In the case of the latter, one could also speak of a generational continuity in Ruchat-Roncati’s teaching, whereby she passed on to her students what she had learned from her teachers at ETH, Alfred Roth, Moser and Waltenspühl, themselves directly shaped by their experiences with Le Corbusier, Wright and Mies.
For Ruchat-Roncati, collaboration was more than a means to an end, it was a way of being. As a result, a certain degree of heterogeneity hazes the clear outlines of her personal preoccupations, sense of form, design as well as teaching approaches. To grasp her legacy, it is therefore essential to acknowledge less quantifiable issues than a strictly defined teaching methodology, or formal and stylistic consistency in design. Established methods of architectural historiography, reliant on the neatly divided categories of conventional scholarship, fail to arrive at a full picture, which might be better suited to the emerging methodologies of social networks theory. The notion of convivium might be a concrete step in understanding Ruchat-Roncati’s life and work. The concrete dimension of her praxis can be approached through the metaphor of the dining table and surrounding chairs: a physical framework for the fluid, less traceable movements of those that occupy them, a few hours at a time, over many years. For Rossi, architecture was the framework for unpredictable events. Ruchat-Roncati established such frameworks through convivium. Anchored by the permanence of dining and restaurant tables as contemporary versions of the Tablinium, the fleeting and unique exchanges she enabled built up to a lasting horizon of shared ideas, striving to materialise into architecture.

1 Dolf Schnebli, “Laudatio”, in: Ruchat-Roncati, Flora,Flora Ruchat-Roncati. Zürich: Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Architektur, 1998, 33.
2 Anna Ruchat, Volo in ombra, 2012, 26–27.
3 Aldo Rossi, A Scientific Autobiography, Engl. transl. 1981, S. 3. „Mit den architektonischen Mitteln fördern wir also ein Ereignis – unabhängig davon, ob es eintreten wird. (...) Deswegen ist die Grössenbestimmung eines Tisches oder eines Hauses sehr wichtig. Nicht so, wie die Funktionalisten meinten, wenn sie allein an die Erfüllung einer bestimmten Funktion dachten, sondern, um mehr Funktionen zuzulassen – oder um all das zu ermöglichen, was im Leben unvorhersehbar ist.“ Wissenschaftliche Selbstbiographie, 1988, S. 15.
4 Flora Ruchat-Roncati, “Von der Domus zum Reihenhaus”, “From the domus to the terrace house”, in: Eisterer, Horst, Geissbühler, Dieter, Ruchat-Roncati, Flora, and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule. Lehrstuhl Für Architektur und Entwerfen Professor Flora Ruchat-Roncati. Vorlesungen Im Sommersemester 1986. Zürich: ETH Zürich, Lehrstuhl Ruchat-Roncati, 1986, 27.
5I bid, 28-29.
6 Flora Ruchat-Roncati, “Die Küche, Metapher der Frau”, in: Die 20er Jahre und die ‘Neue Frau’, Petra Stojanik (ed.), Beiträge zum Diplomwahlfach “Frauen in der Geschichte des Bauens”, vol. 2, ETH Zürich Wintersemester 1994/95, Zurich: ETH, 1996, 105-117.
7 Flora Ruchat-Roncati, “Die Rolle der Mäzenatin. Zwischen Vokation und Resignation. Madame de Mandrot”, in: Die 20er Jahre und die ‘Neue Frau’, Petra Stojanik (ed.), Beiträge zum Diplomwahlfach “Frauen in der Geschichte des Bauens”, ETH Zürich Sommersemester 1994, vol. 1, Zurich: ETH, 1996, 87-95.
8 Paolo Fumagalli, speech Buchvernissage Ausst. Kat. 1998, see document gta 01-S-246-1-154-130.
9 Flora Ruchat-Roncati, exhibition vernissage speech, 1997, see document gta 01-S-246-1-154-127.