L’architecture et l’homme. Una breve trattazione sugli architetti scalzi

Il faut décourager les arts. Gio Ponti, in 1957, firmly maintained that “architecture becomes all the more beautiful the more the architect’s means are limited. Then one works out of desperation and miracles are achieved. This is the ‘poor birth’ of Arts, and everything is mysteriously very rich”.

In the 1980s, Yona Friedman began writing an essay that was published twenty-five years later, perhaps never ceasing to believe that architecture of survival, guarded by barefoot architects, was «utopia, and necessarily, already a reality”.

The ‘enchanting, manual generation’ of architecture

In Love architecture, Gio Ponti writes:

The ARCHITECT should learn from the craftsman how to love the craft: how beautiful it is to make for the sake of making. Art for art is there, it is not in a form without content, but in the happiness of creating it.

[…] Today’s ARCHITECT, the university Architect, should learn from all craftsmen: from the marble worker. Learn from the carpenter, the plasterer, the blacksmith, all the workers and craftsmen

(it’s beautiful).

Learn things done by hand. Nothing that is not in the hands first.

Wall with tools for working wood

Barefoot architects, mentioned by Friedman, “existed well before the appearance of the experts” and today, especially in the rich world, “find themselves in the need to relearn a part of their profession”.

As carefully pointed out by the author, in the manuscript there is no intention to attack or confront classical and modern architecture, but rather the need to pave a different way of conceiving structures that must accommodate inhabitants in the different territories of the earth and in the most disparate situations. Friedman’s career has largely focused on the anthropic landscape of the so-called Third World; experiences and studies that provided important answers and alternatives for a reality with an increasingly complex relationship between man and environment.

The architecture of survival

In Brief treatise on involuntary art, Gilles Clément asserts:

A part of the architecture belongs to the architects. Another eludes them, it resists the client’s project and spontaneously unfolds on the territory of everyday emergencies. This architecture of ‘elementary constructions’ is up to the individual. It appeals to the legitimate desire to feel enclosed and sheltered. It uses materials specific to each place and it reveals everyone’s ability to build a useful building without means.

Wall with hanging cultivation tools

The attitude to conceive, present in every man, and the need for “useful and essential building” are two fundamental aspects in the study of self-planning, developed by Yona Friedman as a real manual to bring individuals closer to an effective awareness of the possibility of designing one’s own ‘living spaces’.

Once inhabitants have assimilated this method that helps them design the project of their home, they have therefore become their own architect: they have become self-planners.

[…] With self-planning we are in the presence of a different attitude: it is the inhabitant who makes the decisions, after having learned a language. Neither the grammar nor the teacher take part in the decision, in the same way that language teachers are not present when their former pupil makes practical use of their knowledge.

The architect-grammarian-teacher is therefore like a language teacher, and the architect who applies the participation of the inhabitants is like an interpreter.

The grammar of the architect

Self-planning is based on the knowledge of a language. This allows future users of a building to identify the properties inherent in the conception of their plan […] according to the way of life they intend to have. This language is the basis of a dialogue between the inhabitant and the house.

[…] It is important to provide the inhabitant not with recipes or examples, but with the knowledge of a language. Once this knowledge has been acquired, it is up to the latter to lead the dialogue.

Friedman describes one of the very first functions that, in his opinion, should belong to the profession of the architect: writing a grammar and starting to teach it, so that regardless of the choice to rely on a professional, a new awareness of living and enjoying the world is created.

Awareness and care inevitably pass through knowledge.

An old press

Barefoot architects and a ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the environment

Architecture, in the eyes of a Westerner, has nothing to do with survival […] The research theme of survival architecture is human habitat, in the broadest meaning of the term. An architecture can be considered of survival if it does not make it difficult (or rather if it facilitates) the production of food, supply of water, climate protection, organization of social relations and the aesthetic satisfaction of each one.

There is no long-lasting traditional architecture that does not respect these criteria: the Mediterranean village, the oceanic island […]

At the end of the discussion, Friedman briefly mentions two professional experiences that show what was stated between the pages of the book:

Some time ago I was asked to propose the teaching program of a new building engineering faculty in a poor country. I proposed to include in the program the knowledge covered in this book: communication techniques, local construction techniques, gardening and agriculture techniques […]

This country has one of the largest shanty towns in the world and will certainly need to train its barefoot architects. They will be the indispensable complements of today’s classically trained architects; the two professions are complementary (their audience is different), but the faculty of barefoot architects will actually have to train ten to twenty times the number of students of the current faculty, given the incredible number of those who need help.

An old wagon wheel

Regarding the second experience, the author writes:

The same country has also asked for international technical support, which usually comes from industrialized countries. This time, at my suggestion, the reverse attempt was made: some countries of the neighboring regions (even less industrialized, but which have preserved traditional knowledge better) provide basic technical help, sending simple craftsmen, who are highly specialized because they know how to build with dried mud, create water collection systems and cultivate land (and gardens).

[…] Survival architecture is already happening.

Throughout his life, Yona Friedman narrated and theorized ideas and ideas that derived from a direct relationship with “the spaces of the world and society” that participated in his projects.

As Gilles Clément would say:

I have a huge treasure trove left from that era. This accumulation had an entire laboratory in the soul. 


The text collects photographic repertoire from the rooms of the “Dino Bianco” Museum of Peasant Civilization, at the Caracciolo Castle in Sammichele di Bari. This Institution collects one of the largest Italian collections of objects and tools belonging to the world of craftsmanship, for a time span ranging from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. It is in fact in these small rural realities that it is possible to trace, up to most recent times, traces of coexistence of sector studies and archaic ‘manual’ knowledge.

On the cover: courtesy of Giuseppe Negro, “Bread and diamonds”, 2019, bread, burnt wood and pigments on wood; 49x60x10 cm.


G. Clément, Breve trattato sull’arte involontaria, Quodlibet, Roma 2019.
Y. Friedman, L’architettura di sopravvivenza. Una filosofia della povertà, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 2003.
G. Ponti, Amate l’architettura. L’architettura è un cristallo, Rizzoli, Milano 2015.