“You can't learn architecture if you're not passionate about it”
The team of teachers at the Arts of Sciences Laboratory (LAPIS) has won the best teaching award for the architecture section. We spoke with the Lab’s head, Nicola Braghieri, and his assistant, PhD student Patrick Giromini, about their work.
(The main picture was taken before the rules for face masks.)
Braghieri and Giromini form an Italian-Swiss duo with a solid working relationship based on mutual respect. In 2013 they laid the foundation for LAPIS, which has since expanded to a team of 17 people. They were clearly on to something: this year the entire teaching team has won the best teaching award. What makes the prize even more special for LAPIS is that it’s also the first time EPFL – a science and technology school – has awarded it to an art-oriented lab. Braghieri and Giromini are the first to admit that some of their teaching colleagues deserve to be recognized just as much as they do.
The duo is known for being unconventional – if not a little rebellious. For Giromini, that’s reflected in his architecture-degree project at the University of Genova. Braghieri recalls: “It was a contrarian idea and considered almost absurd by Italian academics at the time. I was fascinated by his courage in making such a radical decision, and he gave an enthralling speech at the graduation ceremony.” That first break with tradition left an impression on Braghieri, who called him years later to help him set up LAPIS.
I try to help those who are discouraged, who lack self-confidence or who don’t yet have the necessary skills. With a little bit of extra support, they steadily gain interest in the class and end up with good grades. It’s really satisfying to see them graduate – it’s a sign I’ve done my job well
Braghieri’s rebellious spirit can be seen in his relationship with computers. “Mine was the first generation to start using software to generate architectural designs – and the last to create them by hand. Back then you had to enter vector coordinates into a table if you wanted to graph a vector line. That’s when I learned that computers should serve us and not the other way around,” he says. “And I hate modern software programs that simply contain ready-made buttons – you can’t customize them to do what you want or adapt them to your way of thinking.” Along the same lines, Braghieri has adopted a policy of recommending open-source software rather than off-the-shelf programs. That’s despite the predominance of those programs and the fact that EPFL students and faculty can use them for free, since the School pays for the licenses.
Time is a relative concept
Braghieri’s view of computer applications also feeds into his teaching. “I’ve learned that you can’t teach students how to use image-generating software and all its features in two 45-minute classes,” he says. So he takes a more pragmatic approach to teaching. More specifically, Braghieri selects a famous work of art and asks his students to examine its characteristics – texture, light, etc. – and then reproduce it using full-scale models and digital vector-based simulations. That requires students to work backwards, starting with an image and decomposing it into its core elements. According to Giromini, software in general, while useful, has made students lazy because it gives them answers right away. “Today’s students want ready-made solutions. They don’t care about the process of going from point A to point B, but that’s exactly what they’re in school to learn. Especially for architecture which, by definition, involves a lengthy process – building a building takes time,” he says. “Nicola and I were confronted with that in our teaching. But after looking carefully at our course evaluations, we eventually understood the problem. It was clear from students’ feedback that they wanted to learn, but at some point they stopped listening and enjoying the class. By paying close attention to the students’ free responses about how useful they found our class, we were able to improve it year after year and eventually found the right format and right teaching materials. Our course evaluations started becoming more positive, which motivated us further,” Giromini adds. In other words, they built up a successful class brick by brick.
Perhaps surprisingly, Braghieri is also motivated by the weaker students. “I try to help those who are discouraged, who lack self-confidence or who don’t yet have the necessary skills. With a little bit of extra support, they steadily gain interest in the class and end up with good grades. It’s really satisfying to see them graduate – it’s a sign I’ve done my job well. But if you aren’t excited about architecture from the outset, you won’t succeed. You can’t learn architecture if you’re not passionate about it,” he says.
Looking back and looking forward
What was a watershed moment in each of their careers? “When I came to EPFL,” says Braghieri. “I’d been teaching at schools across Europe, and EPFL was where I was finally able to take my time and create something, for the benefit of both research and my students. That was important.” For Giromini, the watershed moment was when he got the phone call from Braghieri to work together. “I’ll never forget the ensuing discussion. I remember every detail – we were sitting at my favorite table at Les Brasseurs in Geneva, discussing Nicola’s idea over a beer. I understood right away that it was a unique opportunity to create something together, and he was willing to give me an unusual amount of leeway. Since then it’s been excellent working together, which is also one of the strengths of our lab,” says Giromini, whose comments appear to resonate with Braghieri. Giromini’s thesis project on vernacular architecture will soon come to a close, but he and Braghieri still have many more constructive years ahead.