At Yale, each residential college has a ‘master’ with a clearly marked Master’s House holding publicized Master’s Teas: a special location and event hosted by the pater familias of each oxbridge-style dorm. Hierarchy, paternal control, and an era of widespread human bondage are latent in the name. But, you don’t have to study at Yale to see the naturalized use of the term master. As Alicia Pozniak (M. Arch II ’16) indicated in this publication last week (‘Who’s Your Master? A Pernicious History of the Master Bedroom’), the term ‘master bedroom’ is still widespread in the United States. Indeed, this seemingly ordinary label identifies a gendered space based on the nuclear family and the male head of household. Likewise, the domain for reproduction is clearly represented with the words ‘master bedroom’ and the familiar two-pillowed, marital bed. As Pier Vittorio Aureli would say, this is the nitty-gritty of the domestic. This is exactly what he challenges his students to reconsider: habits that are so deeply ingrained in our cultural and psychological frameworks that most people consider them too obvious to question.
To do this, he teaches a method in which the infinite permutations of composition, drawing technique, color palette and presentation are forgone for an emphasis on a precise verbal argument, paired with uncomplicated suites of line drawings and precisely cropped images. The panels are planned out well in advance and printed in even numbers on thirty-inch square panels. Needless to say, the almost religious adherence to a single format has a palpable power in an age of anything-goes virtuosity and complexity. Yet the format is not really optional, as the studio begins with group precedent research and final design work is unified by its presentation and method, presented in a book at the end of the semester.
While he doesn’t wear the dark master’s robe—opting instead for the professorial sweater and jacket combo—there is no doubt Aureli has a strong hand. He guides with a specific structure and clear political position. In light of this, the question emerges: Does Pier Vittorio Aureli run his studio like a master in order to critique the power structures represented by such a title? While I fear this question has no final answer, I can offer some reflections based on my time in his studio this semester.
Aureli’s students produce drawings and images with a coherent graphic appearance. After all, we use a master document, the thirty inch square, to format all our drawings for the semester. Aureli calls this non-compositional drawing, a method which allows many simple moves to be derived from an initial idea. But, to dwell on the look of the images—which are in fact justified by specific precedents ranging from Piero della Francesca to the New Topographics—may miss the point. It is true that the work produced is self-similar in its graphic appearance. This is the case for Aureli’s own work with Dogma and as he said during our midterm review, he teaches a simple technique. But, why the insistence on this method?
Our studio focuses on the issue of communal housing. While driving in a rented Nissan minivan on our field trip to San Francisco, we told stories. Pier Vittorio shared his admiration for Gianugo Polesello, one of his professors at the IUAV in Venice: ‘He would only let you design with a square, circle or triangle! I couldn’t understand, you know, why was this guy so obsessed with triangles? But, I think now, that he was definitely the most punk architect!’ We all pulled out our iPhones, eager to find some of the drawings by this punk master. In this anecdote, and in the many others recounted in the gray upholstered interior of our mini-van, 1980s Seattle punk music beats ticking in the background, I was reminded of something one of my good friends said about rock music when we were in college at Wesleyan: there are only two ways to be great. Either you try to reinvent everything and come up with something totally new, or, you take the tools and existing structures and boil them down, and keep driving them deeper until you get something really damn good.
We witnessed Pier Vittorio’s utter respect for a professor who dealt each student a platonic shape as the essence of their project. That’s right, he has respect for certain masters. He mentioned Polesello and Tafuri more than once—architects with a clear sense of aesthetic and political purpose. We saw him lower his eyebrows and nod his head to the stripped-down chords of early Nirvana, Fugazi, and one of his favorites, a band called Flipper. We saw his deep appreciation for the unabashedly hard-core, bare, uncomplicated architecture and music that doesn’t fuss over inventing new structures, but rather, lay bare the existing ones, using simple structured chords.
Like the hardcore tunes of 80s punk, Aureli eschews formal virtuosity, opting instead to shock with uncomplicated form and a clear political message. In an age of widespread fetishization of complexity, Aureli’s practice, Dogma, stands out. As Christophe Van Gerrewey argues in his article in the fall 2015 issue of Log, ‘Dogma shows that in order to be surprising, architects today can only sabotage the very notion of surprising architectural invention.’ That is, with so much noise, the most powerful method is to do something brutally restrained. This is especially effective when part of a series. The method also happens to lend itself well to teaching when a researched-based thesis is paramount. If students spent the majority of the semester on formal and compositional manipulations building labor-intensive models, a precise articulation of a thesis would be far more difficult. Instead, Aureli insists his students focus on the argument and a precise framing of their project.
Is Pier Vittorio a master? Insofar as a professor assumes certain power and responsibility, he is. Does he exercise this role with greater authority than others? Perhaps. But, he may simply be more convicted. Regardless, he’s not afraid to tell you plainly what he believes, sharing the power of a straightforward, rigorous technique.
Portrait by Abraham Lampert (MFA ’17)