topology and tracing paper

fala, 2023; cca, find & tell

We were not familiar with the work of Umberto Riva. At best, we could declare we appreciated the plans of Casa Miggiano, with its mysterious three-dimensional Kelly-esque cut out, and fetishized the fireplace of Casa Insinga. He was to us, as we believe he is to most, one of those illustrious Italian names that float in the architecture cosmos and end up mixed up with each other.

The invitation to take part of a “Find & Tell” on Riva’s archive was therefore surprising. First, due to our announced ignorance towards the author in question; and second, due to our discernable inexperience in any sort of previous archival work. Maybe our nature as “practitioners”, or the comparable scale in our built work, could be of some help.

Between the mysterious and heavy Case di Palma and the light and beautiful pergola of house Frea, a few moments captivated our attention; although we had seen them before, they had ended up lost in our individual and collective memories. As such, prior to flying to Montreal, we tried to find more information, to study and hopefully (even if superficially) understand Riva, to be able to put him on a map, to frame him in our bookshelf in the atelier.

While diving into the valuable materials supplied by the CCA, a theme almost instantaneously materialized: form. Not form in the volumetric or edifice sense; form as a negotiation of lines within his drawings. Form as an end in itself, not as a means to an end; form as architecture, regardless of its scale or medium. The tension between the orthogonal banality of his rooms and the geometric freedom of his elements led us to wonder: was within his formal expressionism something that we could discover? Could we build an argument around the idea of the drawing as an autonomous entity within the project, a recurring obsession of ours?

In an interview conducted by Hans Ulrich Olbrist for Pin-Up, Riva referred he found “points in common between his plans and his paintings” and how “his plans showed a certain degree of formal autonomy as a visual product”. Perhaps flimsy as a starting point, we assumed this could be our entrance door to Riva’s universe and a first draft of an idea emerged: finding a not circumstantial relation between his drawing’s autonomy and the autonomy of the drawings by names we had studied for the last decade and whose archives were stored at the CCA – Yoh’s, Eisenman’s, Siza’s -, specifically looking at a limited time period between the late 70’ and the early 80’s. By framing Riva amongst authors we were actually familiar with, within a theme we had studied before, in a limited period we come to comprehend, and towards which we could establish the argument, maybe Riva would allow for a grounded speculation, reducing our original distance to his work.

Pause. Crossing the Atlantic.

The first impression of the CCA is of an odd and efficient clock. Regardless of a certain imaginary we carried from far, the logical procedures and the hygienic archives provide significance to what we see now as a concrete reality of what an archive truly is behind the curtains. Inside the endless folders and boxes, architecture in its purest and uncompromising form: the thing per se, beyond gravity or the ordinariness of daily life. A formidable technical and human team makes the machine run. As it seems, within the document preservation community, one should not wear protection gloves while going through the tracing paper documents, since one would lose the sensibility of his toes.

Our selection happened after a first, more general and comprehensive, that resulted in the “Rooms you may have missed” exhibition, in 2014. Riva’s most recognizable and representative drawings within CCA’s collection had already been scanned and made available to the public. As such, our mission was not to make sense of Riva as a whole, but to make sense of a fragment, a layer within layers.

For four days in a row, in the kind company of Caroline, Anna, Geneviéve and Catherine, and with their valuable help and expertise, we opened the folders and went through all the available Riva’s materials, almost exclusively pencil made drawings over tracing paper. Maybe too impressionistic in our approach, in most cases, we spent just a couple of seconds looking at each page; in others, half a minute; in very few, we took notes.

Tracing paper.

We could divide the drawings we found in two main categories: execution details and insistent drawings. Once in a while, a few general plans; rarely, perspectives or spatial studies, or even material or color studies, as the photographs of his works and his paintings might had suggested. The initial sensation was of an archive of a furniture designer who was forced to deal with the space, and not the other way around.

Since we can’t believe in the immaculate conception of an architectural project, we are led to believe the archive we saw was incomplete, previously curated by someone else who decided on what to leave for anyone else to study. No architect would start his or her production at that stage; at least to us, it is difficult to conceive so.

Nearly all drawings referred to projects that were both small in scale and residential. Apartments and houses, mainly, with a remarkable attention to small moments that usually disappear as life unfolds. Commonly, gravity centers were defined: a fireplace, a stair, a cabinet, or a balustrade. Several pivot doors were flawlessly drawn, detailed, questioned, re-drawn again and again.

We like to believe scale doesn’t matter. Big buildings are often not great architecture; small buildings changed the course of history; a room is a small city; and a city a big room. Maybe we think so because it fits us, but we are convinced it also fitted Riva quite well, being declared at every line and intersection in the hundreds of tracing paper pages we saw. The scale of what mattered to him was measured in the clarity of each line, be it a wall or a table, not in the size of the edifice it would create.


Over our discussions while navigating the archive, a certain kind of topology came to mind. Every detail, and every form, had several iterations. Precise variations, often quite close to one another, as if the decision they represented was made a priori and the drawing was a trial and error on the exercise of translating them into paper.

Most drawings were repeated five, six, seven times. In the same scale, occupying the same space on every page. Insistent drawings, often re-drawn over each other in an attempt to assert or confirm their validity. The weight of the author, and his struggles over the pages, was evident.

There were little or no variations of the proposed spaces. Rooms were defined, as if in stone, and only the pieces and objects inhabiting them were allowed to flirt with one another; a few inner elevations here and there, mostly to frame a specific shelf or staircase, and little inventiveness on the volumetric aspects of such rooms.

Even plans could be discovered occasionally, and despite the secondary yet frequent drawings of each of them, no true experimentation was to be found. Like the rooms they represented, plans were static, immutable. One could even think these were all renovations of old palaces whose walls were not to be touched. As former students from Porto, as much as we prefer to avoid identifying as such, this was an uncomfortable set of drawings, as if a provocation to the idea of spatial definition per se. If form was where we had assumed we would start, a very different understanding of form was where we found ourselves. At some point the thin separation between space and furniture, and the drawings that referred to each, was to be ignored for us to proceed.

Technical notes.

All the drawings we saw were made by hand, with pencil, even the most recent ones. The small signs of scotch tape in the corners, together with the long pencil lines, proved their genesis at a drawing table with the support of parallel bars. All done in the same style, with the same precision, almost as if all prepared by the exact same person over a 40-year span, with no inventiveness in his or her working process. We found very few free hand drawings, as if the rigorous precision of a ruler was mandatory at all moments. In a few of the pages, small text annotations referred to measures and material references.

Contrary to what the images of the built projects suggested, color was almost not to be found in the drawings we visited. With very few exceptions, a couple of highlights were visible in specific elements, although the color used was not meant to be the color they would later have in their built tangible form, being once again a diagrammatic expression. Looking at the available photographs of the built works, we are led to assume the paints, hues and shades were decided on site, during construction; perhaps even the use of color at all being in limbo until such moment.

It was felt that each drawing took a long time to be done, probably with lots of cigarettes in between. The exactness of each line, and the lack of variables between versions, suggested so. Each page was dedicated to one kind of drawing and the following pages would refer, reflect, and repeat the same drawing. Here and there, some xeroxed copies were to be found, just to, once again, be redrawn over themselves once more. Frequently, tiny textual annotations conveyed the multiple dimensions of the details being drawn – steps, handrails, shelves. As refered, very rarely, a perspective would support the main reflection on the page, appearing in a discrete manner in a corner; contrary to Siza’s, Riva’s pages were “closed” once the drawing they were supposed to present was done.

Speculation. “A composer.”

The available layers of the Umberto Riva’s archive we navigated through is an ultra-consistent group of drawings. Constant in their format, in their means, maybe even in their goals. It is a portfolio that refers to a very specific project methodology that was experimented with and repeated over decades with no apparent contradictions. It is conservative; if one was to take just one random page from a random folder, it would be difficult to guess to which time or project it would belong. Maybe that is a great achievement, a kind of all-encompassing consistent inconsistency.

Perhaps, Riva’s projects have no age, and don’t belong to a specific time. From the quasi-brutalist early vacations homes until the light steel staircase of Casa Righi, all could have happened in the early 60’s, in the late 90’s, or somewhere in between. The deeper one dives into his drawings, the clearer that idea becomes.

Going back to the start, form – in its most direct expression - was there, that is evident. But the autonomy Riva referred to, was not the same we were looking for, or at least not in the same way. Indeed, forms through his drawings were freer than most, but were still a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Each angle, and the intersection of such angle with a careful curve, was there to provide a shelf and bring the frame of a window a bit further, not to be just “a drawing” as we had naively assumed.

Riva was a composer. From the available materials, it is difficult to imagine otherwise. No strong concept or one main idea driven architecture would produce his spaces and objects. His instinct had to be there, making him fundamental for the whole process, the constant. We have to wonder about his theoretical basis for winning arguments (with clients or with collaborators in his practice): where there some? Some drawings leave an idea of a highly precise accidental method, if such could exist. His way of developing a project was depending on his own intellect, and probably very hard to pass on to his sucessors as a method. Maybe, we wonder, that’s why his architecture has been less known compared to the architecture of others from his generation. His built projects were the final stage of his work, allowing for contemplation over rationalization. He kept insisting on each drawing, even if we couldn’t distinguish between the endless iterations; but maybe that was our problem, not his.