Schmitt Shoots!!






Many architects are fond of saying they were born with a pencil in their hands. In Francisco Sanin’s case, it’s almost true. “I’ve always wanted to be an architect,” says the School of Architecture professor, who specializes in urban design and urban theories. “I’ve been drawing since I was a small boy—my father had a collection of cast ancient Roman sculptures. I grew up surrounded by those things and I drew them all.”
      A native of Colombia, Sanin earned an architectural degree from the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellin in 1979. A week after graduation, he and his wife, Angela, who studied philosophy, headed for Europe to expand their horizons in their respective fields. The couple had one-way tickets because they couldn’t afford round-trip. “We stayed for 14 years,” Sanin says. He eventually began working for a well-known architect, Leon Krier, in London and Belgium. Krier introduced him to some professors at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, and Sanin began to get requests to work with students in studios. That’s when he caught the teaching bug. “I love teaching,” he says. “I have the opportunity to test ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. The students ground me, but they’re also willing to take risks, at least the best ones are. I like that.”
      Sanin came to SU about five years ago, after teaching at Princeton and the Architectural Association in London. While he teaches a variety of architectural design and theory courses, his main interest is urban design. “I’ve always been passionate about cities and urban life,” Sanin says. “It’s very self-indulgent for me because I like cities—I like living in congested places. But I’m also interested in the social and political dimensions of the public realm.” Understanding the culture of a city—the differences among its people—is important to an urban architect, he says. “I tell students the value of the city is not always that it’s a nice place, but it’s always a place to be with other people, where you have to negotiate your presence and your values with other people. It’s a place of political, social, and cultural transactions.”
      His extensive research of urban design includes the development of London from the 17th to the 20th centuries. “London is a fascinating city,” he says. “There are cities that you see from the air and you sort of understand them. There are cities where a center represents the rest. But London is endless. It’s so complex, you can live there all your life and always have something new to discover.”
      Sanin says it’s important for students to understand that many kinds of cities have existed throughout history. “There hasn’t been ‘a’ city,” he explains. “They’ve all had their own logic, their own dynamics, their own pressures to respond to inhabitants.” He tries to show his students the many difficulties that arise if you try to impose your own visions of perfection on a city. “Part of the discussion is how to build a city that is vital and creates conditions where many things can happen without perfection being the measure—something that can develop and change and be inclusive of many different people’s views and conditions.”
      Sanin teaches his students how to “read” a city, seeing it not only as real estate, but also as a place of social discourse, representing different values and cultures. Reading those things, an architect can better incorporate a project into the fabric of the city’s life. “We need to work with the existing construction and bring it to another level, as opposed to what they did in the ’50s,” he says. “They would erase half of downtown and construct a beautiful little place that would never be a vital part of the city. Instead of trying to create a perfect place, we could use that potential to make it meaningful and rich.”
      The best cities, he says, are those that have managed to grow literally on top of their predecessors. “The tragedy is that we’ve created a vicious circle,” Sanin says. “Each generation feels the need to create a city to reflect its own particular view of the world at the exclusion of the others.”

—Gary Pallassino


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