Francesca Torzo
Francesca Torzo (*1975 in Padova, Italy) established her own studio in Genova in 2008. She has studied architecture at the TU Delft, ETSAB Barcelona, AAM in Mendrisio, and the IUAV in Venice. She has been working for Peter Zumthor in Haldenstein and Bosshard Vaquer in Zurich and has been a teaching assistant for Atelier Bearth at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio in Switzerland. Since 2017 she is holding a professorship at the Bergen School of Architecture in Norway and in 2020 at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio.

Torzo has been part of the 16th architecture Biennale in Venice, Freespace curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara in 2018 and was appointed chairman of the Maarten Van Severen Foundation in Ghent between 2018 and 2019.

She received the WA Moira Gemmill prize in 2020. Her project for the extension of the Z33 in Hasselt has been awarded with the International Piranesi award in 2018, as well as with the Italian Architecture prize in 2020.
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Portrait of Francesca Torzo (© Liaohui Guo)
When you were a child what did you want to be when you were older?
I did not figure the future, neither I do now.
What was your favourite subject at school?
I was omnivorous during my studies and I have been fortunate to have met, in my early education, teachers who were generous and challenging in sharing their knowledge and in flavouring their rigour with a sympathetic humour for life.
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Casa Due, Sorano, Italy, 2007-2010 (Ph. © Gion von Albertini)
What was your educational path?
I would say it was peripatetic.
I learnt to write and read in America, in a small town in Pennsylvania named State College where my family lived due to my father’s scientific career. The compulsory years of study were in Padova, with the background of the soft hills of Colli Euganei.
University studies began in Venezia, followed in Delft and Barcelona, and ended between Mendrisio and Venezia.
I loved studying and I devoted many hours to dance, every now and then I played the Moeck recorders and in all countries I lived a “tasting” of different kinds of jobs like many people do, from reading novels to blind people, to being a bartender.
When did you realise you wanted to study architecture and become an architect?
I may have thought I would become a writer or physicist, but having as a father a physicist and as a mother an Italian literature and history teacher, I thought it would be more balanced to change orientation.
The choice to study architecture meant postponing a choice, due to the wide range of disciplines that the study plan offered, combining theory and practice.
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Chaosmos, Triennale di Milano, Italy, 2020 (Ph. © Julia Nahmani)
When and how did your career start?
I do not feel I have a career. I live and do my work as best as I can.
What is your approach to architecture?
The main concern of my daily work is that of observing and trying to understand the “cultural structure” of a place, meaning that set of permanencies in the form of spatial relationships that allow creating a harmonious dialogue between the past and the future.
I am interested in searching for a cultural continuity beyond formal mimes, and in offering people an ease to live where they may encounter familiar memories and new desires. Sometimes, jokingly, I say I am a technician of souls and spaces.
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z33 Gallery, Hasselt, Belgium, 2011-2019 (Ph. © Gion von Albertini)
What was your first built project? How has your architectural practice evolved since then?
My first built project was an experimental stone structure that I developed for my diploma in collaboration with eng. Jurg Conzett and HTW in Chur; it was a dry construction of slabs of Trachite zovonite built as a castle of cards.
At our first solo exhibition “Chaosmos”, staged last Spring at Palazzo dell’Arte by Giovanni Muzio in Milano – the Triennale, I was surprised to see together fragments of a body of work 20 years long. Each project, realised or not, has its own specificity though there is a familiarity among them. I am still reflecting on what is the essence of this familiarity.
Under the profile of the practice, the work of the studio changed after winning the Belgian competition for the extension and renovation of Z33, house for contemporary art design and architecture, in Hasselt.
I had to learn how to manage a complex process, while doing it, by inventing a discipline in the work and tools to communicate with other actors involved. I also had to learn how to guide a small team of young professionals, tuning a cognition of responsibility for the assignments with an understanding of their own individual growth.
What particular aspects of your background and upbringing have shaped your design principles and philosophies?
I have been fortunate to experience multitudinous cultural contexts and people.
Being a traveller, which includes the intimacy of travelling through reading and listening to music, has grown in me a sort of empathy for beings which soothes impatience.
It does take patience and an open-mind curiosity to overcome ones’ own individuality and be able to read, as well as, to learn from the contradictory experiences of others’ lives and culture.
Our profession offers us the possibility to arrange spatial dispositions which reflect these experiences, thus belonging harmoniously to the slow phenomena of human culture, that unravels far beyond the lifetime of a human being.
We trace these narratives by stitching the primary spatial relations and then it is our responsibility to take care that the promises are no compromised, so that people may live the authenticity of an experience.
Making this feasible, negotiating the paradigms of conventions and the automatism of building actors’ ventures, takes an immense work which from my experience demands a certain degree of pragmatic humanism, a multidisciplinary competence and a tint of humour.
I am thankful for the time I spent since childhood in laboratories and workshops, where I could learn from intelligent people a custom of seeking for “economical solutions”, meant as solutions fulfilling the task with the least effort, and an honesty in facing facts.
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z33 Gallery, Hasselt, Belgium, 2011-2019 (Ph. © Gion von Albertini)
How do other creative fields influence your architectural work?
I think it works for me as for other human beings. It seems to me that the mind of people is “hungry”, it needs continuous nourishment and an imperceptible unaware swing between distraction and concentration.
How do you remember yourself as an architecture student?
It may be more interesting to direct this question to these who met me when I was a student.
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Freespace, XVI Biennale di Venezia, Italy, 2018 (Ph. © Antoine Lebot)
The key features of your architecture
The discipline and the contradiction, the sensuality and the measure, the calmness and the wonder.
How do you remember your time working at Atelier Peter Zumthor?
The atelier collected extraordinary people, all joined by a genuine passion for the complex process of making buildings and by an innocent trust that anything would be possible. All hard-working people. Peter Zumthor was able to see these qualities in people and somehow reveal them.
The experience has been a privilege, even if my judgement on my own work is negative. I was not a good collaborator.
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Maniera larga, Bruxelles, Belgium, 2020 (Ph. © Julia Nahmani)
From 2009 to 2017 you taught as assistant to Atelier Bearth in Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio and since 2017 you have been professor at Bergen Architecture School in Norway. What does teaching architecture represent to you?
Teaching is such a difficult profession, as you have to be attentive in having the right timing for feedback and not superimpose your individuality to that of another.
It also demands a constant process of research and daily critical process in order to achieve a shareable clarity and eschew the deceptive comfort of certainty.
Teaching means listening to another person and, thanks to a broader experience and knowledge, support that person in building a trust in his or her own means and questions in order to be autonomous.
In my view a design atelier is a human place where you collaborate, and collaboration needs roles. My responsibility is to stimulate students, to sharpen the awareness of each one’s individuality and to oversee that they build honestly a solid competence.
How does your teaching activity influence your work?
The teaching and the academic research, the collaboration with builders and the design practice challenge and influence each other in the perspective of building a public discourse, whose core is a curiosity for understanding our way of living and taking responsibility for it through competence and honesty.
They all are eurhythmics of training a clarity in formulating questions.
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Casa Due, Sorano, Italy, 2017-2010 (Ph. © Gion von Albertini)
A project or building you would like to realise
I have always encountered experiences without planning or preconceiving them and I wish it continues so.
I am curious to see the start of our near-future building sites in Italy and China.
Along the way, what is the best advice you have received, and is there one piece of advice in particular which you would share with young architects and architecture students?
When I was developing my diploma, a long time ago, I received a cut-edge criticism: “You are not able to choose”.
It was true and since that moment the seeking of clarity in making choices has become my foundation.
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Maniera capretta, Bruxelles, Belgium, 2020 (Ph. © Julia Nahmani)
Is there a book which is of particular importance to you as an architect?
Writers and poets are able to give voice to the people who remain invisible and in that way they reveal, or awaken in us, the sympathy for something we lived or we may recognise.
I interpret our profession as a director of fiction, meant as a weaver of narratives at the disposal of people’s experience, hence reading is an ineffable source to collect experiences and imaginaries which belong to individuals as well as to a collectivity.
Who was particularly influential to you in your architectural education and why?
All people I met in my life have influenced me, thankfully.
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Archivio delle acque, Padova, Italy, 2001 (Ph. © Julia Nahmani)
An instance of architecture important to you
All the ones where you wish to go back to.
The ones that remind you of other people, stories and cultures.
The ones that make you think.
A piece of art important to you
The Chiostro Verde cycle of frescoes by Paolo Uccello.
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Maniera dondolo, Bruxelles, Belgium, 2020 (Ph. © Julia Nahmani)
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Maniera kimono, Bruxelles, Belgium, 2020 (Ph. © Julia Nahmani)
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Chaosmos, Triennale di Milano, Italy, 2020 (Ph. © Julia Nahmani)
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z33 Gallery, Hasselt, Belgium, 2011-2019 (Ph. © Gion von Albertini)
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Maniera pesto, Bruxelles, Belgium, 2020 (Ph. © Julia Nahmani)
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z33 Gallery, Hasselt, Belgium, 2011-2019 (Ph. © Gion von Albertini)
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