Design regains its alchemist vocation and transforms food into construction material. Riccardo Blumer transfers his personal approach to the study of form and material through teaching. Text by Riccardo Blumer. Photos by Paolo Mazzo - F38F.
Teaching is a way of learning, a different approach to work that is seemingly less direct but just as amazingly interesting. Teaching is a luxury. It is extreme freedom, a great opportunity to challenge oneself intellectually, explore and doubt what you know and believe and pursue even just slight intuitions about the discipline without “losing the client” and instead, paradoxically, providing the best possible service. Investigating non-knowledge via the discipline of research with the energy that the young always manage to express is a way of “developing muscles” and preparing a specific training ground for your professional discipline. It takes energy away from the work but it reconstructs and explores its meaning.
At the Academy of Architecture of the Università della Svizzera Italiana in Mendrisio, I am looking for the gateways leading to the world of architecture. I was appointed by Mario Botta, who is in charge of the first year, and in eager competition with Gabriele Cappellato and Bruno Keller, who lead parallel ateliers.
I imagined the first year as a journey beyond the Pillars of Hercules, with the sole certainty that a gateway is already the promise of what is to be. The year 2006-07 ended with the construction of a symbolic gateway to architecture. The students produced approximately 40 constructions in optical white polystyrene that evoked – in very small scale (the height of the atelier) – infinite spaces: their first architecture, as useless as it was essential.
In the experimentation developed in 2007 in the 3D Design course, part of the Industrial Design degree directed by Gaddo Morpurgo of the Università degli Studi della Repubblica di San Marino, the challenge was instead to create static load-bearing structures built exclusively out of foodstuffs. The research was based on the certainty of what I had studied and tested during other teaching experiences, i.e. geometry, as well as material, is the foundation of statics and the conviction that this rule can be a foundation of design. Recontextualising and taking materials to new – not chance but necessary – levels has become a method.
I proposed that my students take a step back from the artificial to the natural to better understand the artificial, in open dispute with those who believe that new ideas and research only come via the discovery of new materials. There is nothing new, only different physical aggregations. Otto Frei reminded us that nature constructs everything out of just a few elements, primarily calcium carbonate. Then geometry takes over. During our experiments, observation and practice showed that the geometry of compressed puffed rice is similar to that of polystyrene; isinglass reinforced with strips of liquorice root is comparable to any carbon fibre epoxy compound; dry bread spread with animal glue can resemble a plastic, box-like structure. On a threemonth journey, the students constructed chairs, bookcases, stools, hammocks, armchairs and storage units. The condition was that they all had at least to support my (not inconsiderable) weight, using puffed rice, isinglass, bread, seaweed, liquorice root, crackers, grain, carobs, rusks, breadsticks and leeks. These real objects could only be achieved by working on the ratio between mass, strain and a material taken to the extremes of its efficiency.
Otto Frei called this recipe nature; I will take the liberty of extending that to beauty. These recent teaching experiences of mine, which include the Furniture Design and Technology course at ISAI in Vicenza, the “Esercizi fisici di architettura” (Rome, Venice), “Blumer and Friends” (Milan, Zagreb...) and “Il laboratorio di S. Giovanni” (in Casciago, at my studio) stem from the need for “gymnastics” and “coaching” in design. It is increasingly clear to me that true, invaluable and indispensable research is that which leads me towards freedom. A matter of direction and time.
Puffed rice and rice glue for the chair by D. Paganelli, A. Putti, N. Ricci, M. Rocco
End of year work 2007 for the first year of the Mendrisio Academy of Architecture
Kombu seaweed and fish glue in gelatine leaves for the stool by A. Facchin, N. Andreatta, T. Ferrari, P. Manieri
00 grade flour, water, salt, malt, brewer’s yeast, fish glue in granules for the chair by U. Bosco, E. Papili, F. Paternò, L. Sanges
Liquorice root and fish glue in gelatine leaves for the chaise longue by E. Fiocchetti, M. Forlucci, C. Ronchi, A. Zampieri
M. Belucchi, D. Betti and E. D’Amato used crackers welded with liquid caramel. M. Corbellotti, M. Ferri, T. Monaldi
D. Ottaviani built their hammock with carob and liquorice fibre
Materials used to experiment