The website serves multiple purposes and is a work in progress. It is a database providing visitors of the exhibition Territory as Palimpsest: The Legacy of André Corboz with access to additional documents, such as audio testimonials collected from former colleagues, students and collaborators of Corboz. Offering a window into archival collections based in Mendrisio, the website serves as a window for future research. It is organized along a chronological axis and based on biographical and bibliographical data. Drawing from the wealth of textual and visual sources of his estate, various facets and themes of Corboz’s work are highlighted. While chronicling the form of knowledge production that was characteristic for this autodidact, the website also shows how Corboz designed and implemented his research projects and publications over time.

Impressum

Collaboration

Isabela Ferrari, Lucia Pennati

Design and development

Term of use

The website was launched together with the exhibition Territory as Palimpsest:
The Legacy of André Corboz, opened on November 3, 2022 at Teatro dell’architettura Mendrisio. Further content editing is ongoing.
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Territory as Palimpsest: The legacy of André Corboz

André Corboz (1928-2012) reached audiences over an extended historic period and in various disciplines. His subjects ranged from Palladio to the Territorial Grid of the United States, from planning during the French Enlightenment to postmodern Switzerland, transcending the scope of a historian. His metaphor of “territory as palimpsest” remains pertinent to understand the constructed nature of our environment as well as the meanings that we project into it. Problems addressed by Corboz during the 1980s and 1990s have since gained an even greater urgency – considering the polycentric, urbanised Swiss landscape and its shifting identity amidst a dramatic spatial evolution.

How to present a complex oeuvre essentially based on texts? This is the first exhibition ever to provide an overview of Corboz’s body of work as a cultural critic, writer and educator of historians and architects. His estate – personal library, photography collection, diaries and scientific papers – kept at the Academy of architecture Library since 2014 as Fondo Corboz, provides unique source material: Corboz indulged in meticulous forms of self-observation and notation, keeping records of most of his research projects, as well as his extensive travels. Although theorising the paradigm of urbanity in the information age, however, he resolutely opposed digital media and remained faithful to the analogue. This pattern allows us to take visitors into an intellectual laboratory and a trajectory that spans the second half of the 20th century.

Territory as Palimpsest: The legacy of André Corboz is structured along two main themes: “How to read the territory” and “Knowledge production and historiography” – emphasising contributions to the discourse of landscape and urban development on one hand, while illustrating, on the other hand, the evolution of this self-trained historian who travelled through multiple disciplinary fields. True to Corboz’s nomadic existence between countries, cultures and disciplines the presented documents utilise various languages: We aim to situate and contextualise an itinerant form of knowledge production that in itself constituted a performance.

Furthermore, this multi-faceted legacy is interrogated in numerous testimonials by practitioners, contemporaries and former collaborators of Corboz. Together with the exhibition a website is now launched. It presents additional layers of his work from the archive along chronological and thematic axes, Drawing from textual and visual sources, the website tracks how Corboz designed and implemented his research projects.

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Sector A

How to read the territory

By definition, the territory is form-less, without scale or texture. It becomes space by negotiation and relation. The territory is highly subjected to projection, appropriation, interpretation and representation. Analysing these acts was crucial for André Corboz. He understood inhabited territories as sites of an ongoing production and transformation of meaning, coining the metaphor of the palimpsest for this process in his well-known essay from 1983. Documented here are the extensive travels and many photographs that provided Corboz with first-hand experience. Furthermore, his photographic gaze onto man-made territories will be compared with Swiss positions in contemporary photography.

How to read the territory presents and situates his work from the 1960s through the 1990s. In this first of two exhibition levels we encounter some of the physical sites, environments and landscapes that he sought to understand and that, in turn, had an impact on his critical perspective and his methodology: from historic preservation to Swiss sprawl or the Jeffersonian Grid. Not only did Corboz address urban plans, cadastral and topographical maps as a historian. He was a keen observer of the present condition and the challenges that it posed to planning. Yet, in a time characterised by facile historicism, Corboz never considered himself a partisan of Postmodernism: legitimising contemporary architecture as a historian was antithetical to his thinking. Instead, his advice to students and practitioners alike was to learn to see and to deconstruct phenomena such as the fully urbanised territory of Switzerland.

A1

Angelus Eisinger, Zürich

The weakness of the Swiss city
English 4’59’’
September 2022

Understanding Swiss urbanization

Corboz is an astute observer of the contemporary condition of cities and landscapes. Their codependency, both historically and in the present, is of particular interest to him. His writings have received broad attention among architects and planners from the 1980s on and have resurfaced in the recent debates on sprawl, mobility and identity. For the increasingly networked and developed territory of Switzerland, Corboz coined the term ‘hyperville’ – describing an increasingly fluid and continuous urbanization, while also pointing to the lack of perceptual techniques and the inability of political instruments to address this dynamic. In his lifetime the country underwent a profound evolution: his native Geneva experienced a period of extreme growth and speculation, with minimal zoning and rudimentary regulations for conservation.

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Jean Louis Biermann: Plan for highway access in Eaux-Vives, Geneva, 1959
(gta Archiv / ETH Zürich, Plansammlung Städtebau)

A2

Milica Topalovic, Zürich

An act of decentering
English 4’33’’
October 2022

Marie Paule Mayor, Geneva

Maps and the thick territory
French 5’32’’
October 2022

Landscape as an open work

Similar to a work of architecture or an urban composition Corboz, sees the territory as a construct and an artefact. To him, landscapes are products of manipulations: physical, planned, organizational on the one hand – and imagined, representational, projected on the other. Over time, these operations create a dense layering, famously subsumed by Corboz’s metaphor of the ‘palimpsest’ in his 1983 essay. By relating landscapes to acts of appropriation, representation and fabrication, Corboz is indebted to the concept of the open work – to an iterative, transhistorical reading of the inhabited territory. As a historian, he is keen to establish how enmeshed the urban imaginary of Modernism is with Romantic projections of landscape.

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A3

Catherine Maumi, Paris

The gaze upon the American city
French 5’52’’
September 2022

Utopia realized: the United States grid

The United States present a radical demonstration of a constructed landscape. In the case of Thomas Jefferson’s territorial grid, an Enlightenment utopia was projected onto the land in 1785. Corboz analyzes this encounter and identifies the young republic’s abstract matrix as a pivotal moment for the history of urbanization. The immediate experience of the grid has a profound impact on his later thinking and research.

During 1986-87, a residency at the Getty Center in Santa Monica allows Corboz to travel through California and the Southwest for the first time. Discovering the United States in their expanded territorial dimension means to fundamentally reconsider how cites and landscapes are perceptually organized. André and Yvette Corboz’s extensive travels also lead to an enormous output of photographs, subsequent publications as well as the photo installation North American Cities in 2000.

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Rockcreek Township, Wells County, Indiana, 1842
(Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress)

A4

Mobility, connectivity, continuity

In his readings of architecture and urban space, Corboz privileges the dynamic and abstract over the static and representational. Travel and photography are crucial as sources of inspiration to him. Often footbridges, fortifications, tunnels, staircases, galleries or roadways are the focal points of analysis. He investigates systems of circulation on different scales and in different eras ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day. Addressing mobility, connectivity, continuity, while also setting architectural mass in motion, his hypotheses reveal a modernist tendency. A hidden megastructuralist narrative even emerges when Corboz makes the case for “the city on two levels” in his eponymous 1991 essay. Here he discusses configurations that link as much as they segregate groups in urban environments. Overall, Corboz is a historian who spatialises his arguments, relating perspective, maps and signage to perceptual experience.

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Palazzo reale, Palazzo Madama, Piazza Castello, Torino System of interconnected residential and administrative complexes, 1682
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

A5

Bernard Zumthor, Geneva

The foundation of a method
French 4’15’’
August 2022

Inventing Carouge

Located on Geneva‘s outskirts, the small town of Carouge is pivotal in Corboz’s career. Invention de Carouge 1772-1792 is published in 1968, marking the transition from journalist and dilettante historian to an academic who draws on rigorous research. The case study covers the attempts of the kingdom of Savoy to install a trading post outside the Republic of Geneva. Although presenting a detailed planning history, the book also analyses visual codes of the 18th century, which Corboz will later pursue in his research on Venice and Canaletto.

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Preliminary studies for a river crossing between Carouge and Geneva, ca. 1790
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

A6

Lucie Morisset, Montréal

A legacy for Québec
French 3’37’’
October 2022

François Burkhardt, Berlin

‘Reanimation’ and the IDZ symposium
German 5’17’’
August 2022

Bernard Zumthor, Geneva

A lesser known Corboz
French 4’40’’
August 2022

From reuse to reanimation

In Geneva and, from 1968 to 1979, in Montréal, Corboz observes the effects of destructive development on historic urban centres. Yet his active participation in the debates on historic preservation and reuse during this period is less well known. During the first part of his academic career Corboz publishes widely on this topic and is also involved with the research group around Italo Insolera at the EAUG architecture school in Geneva.
In Invention de Carouge 1772-1792 (1968) Corboz already emphasized the systemic analysis of urban texture over the single historic monument – an attitude that also underpins the ongoing efforts by Giancarlo de Carlo in Urbino and Pier Luigi Cervellati in Bologna.

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Jean-François Chrétien: Political referendum for historic preservation in Geneva, 1980
(Bibliothèque de Genève)

A7

Stanislaus von Moos, Zürich

A retroactive visionary?
German 6’20’’
October 2022

Paola Viganò, Milan

The courage of the hypothesis
English 4’06’’
August 2022

Transitional spaces

To planners working on the territorial scale today, such as Paola Viganò, the conceptual legacy of Corboz remains relevant. Unusual for an art and architecture historian of his generation, he has access to the contemporary fields of planning, urban and landscape studies during the 1980s and 1990s. With his interest in ambiguous spatial configurations, Corboz is drawn toward transitional or incomplete spaces, edges and, most importantly, toward the entanglement of the urban and rural. As a manifestation of a network condition, the urban landscape is already an issue in his early research on Carouge, Palladio or Canaletto. Later, this perspective enables Corboz to insert himself in the emerging debates on territory, periphery and sprawl. He raises the question of identity and place in contexts that are physically compromised or disharmonious – while rejecting the urban historicism of nascent postmodernism.

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André Corboz: Martigny, 13.08.2001
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio)

A8

André Corboz

Die Geschichte des Städtebaus als Bedeutungsforschung
German 31’03’’
03.02.1981

Sylvain Malfroy, Neuchâtel

Una pedagogia per l’ETH / A pedagogy for ETH
French 6’30’’
October 2022

Urs Primas, Zürich

Fascinating entanglements
English 6’44’’
August 2022

Teaching the city

In April 1980 André Corboz takes up his post as Professor of Urban Planning History at the Department of Architecture at the ETH Zurich. He thus becomes a member of the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta). The head of the gta, Adolf Max Vogt, a friend of Corboz, has advised and supported him in his application. In contrast to the empirical urban research of his predecessor Paul Hofer, Corboz advocates a humanities approach that examines the city as a complex and multi-layered cultural construct. His teaching concept aims at an understanding of the city as process, gestalt and system of meaning, the latter in a variation of his courses previously taught at the University of Montreal.

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Reproduction of a historical map of Neunkirch from the Corboz Chair for Historischer Städteatlas der Schweiz
(gta Archiv / ETH Zürich, Historischer Städteatlas)

A9

Graber Iseli Pulver

Corboz’s impact on our thesis project
German 8’37’’
September 2022

Marc Angelil, Zürich/Los Angeles

Learning how to register layers and traces
English 10’19’’
August 2022

Recording and interpreting the Swiss ‚hypercity‘

Corboz maintains a distant relationship to spatial planning. Doubting the value of planning guidelines and scenarios, he argues instead for an understanding of the transformation processes in terms of game theory. In his reading, competing decision-makers drive urbanisation under conditions that can only be partially determined. While adopting the notion of Switzerland as a city from institutionalised Swiss spatial planning, he takes a critical stance towards the anti-urban tendency of planning models going back to Armin Meili.

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Poster for the presentation of the essay La Suisse come hyperville at the Ecole d’architecture de Strasbourg, 22.05.2000
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

B

Sector B

Knowledge production and historiography

Corboz’s core interest was how the imaginary manifests itself in painting, architecture, the city and landscape. Transgressing disciplinary boundaries, he addressed forms of representation in a wide range of scales and diverse periods. His research opted for a transhistorical approach and drew unconventional conclusions: interpretation as an open, iterative, transversal process all at once. Using a literary genre to instigate a free play of associations, Corboz drew on methods inspired by Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes, as well as surrealist montage and poetry. His historical analyses often have a reflective tone, the result of his background as an autodidact and an obsessive tendency towards self-observation.

Corboz found his vocation in the history of art and architecture after graduating from law school in 1952. He was already active as scholar, critic, poet, journalist and educator for over two decades before gaining his PhD in 1980. Lacking formal training as a historian, he went to great lengths to chronicle the experience of his knowledge production. Personal impressions, dreams, readings, research topics, especially his extensive travels through Italy, were documented in written form. Several of these records are presented on this floor, along with Corboz’s lesser known early research on Andrea Palladio (1972-1978), Hubert Robert (1978), Venice and Canaletto (1980), as well as the sequence of essays on his native Geneva that were published from 1963 on.

B1

François Burkhardt, Berlin

My uncle’s passion for Italy
Italian 6’06’’
August 2022

Synthesizing past and present-day: Italy

Corboz travelled extensively in Italy, documenting his itineraries with meticulous notes, photographs and sketches. Beginning in the 1950s, these trips, undertaken by car with his wife Yvette, are methodically prepared and organized along thematic routes. He is drawn to Italy in two ways: to the physical sites of its towns, landscapes and artifacts and to the architectural criticism and historiography practiced there. Towering above all the other figures is Bruno Zevi, whose Saper vedere l’architettura (1949) impresses him profoundly.

Eager to introduce Zevi’s form of historiography to France, Corboz offers his translation of Zevi’s Architettura e storiografia (1950) to various French publishers in 1960.

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André Corboz: Santa Maria del Torresino, Padova, 1972
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

B2

Bernard Zumthor, Geneva

Research and self-interrogation
French 5’22’’
August 2022

Self-formation / self-observation

André Corboz kept various diaries and work protocols. Meticulously recording his activity, he amassed a vast archive where professional experiences, research projects, reading experiences and personal observations are documented. Together, these journals represent a comprehensive act of self-observation. In their literary quality, two diaries stand out particularly: Flèches and Journal de Voyages. The former is a collection of reflections with a projective character: ‘arrows’ that send thoughts in a certain direction. The latter chronicles a life spent in permanent motion: travel experiences that reach from his time as a Geneva law student to his final years as professor emeritus. Journal de Voyages shows how Corboz comes to understand traveling as a metaphor for his process of self-formation, but also as a metaphor for his own transhistorical and transdisciplinary style thinking, the result of not being affiliated with a particular field or academic convention.

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André Corboz: excerpts 5.1.-23.1.1976, from: Flèches
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

B3

Paola Viganò, Milan

André Corboz and his texts
Italian 4’37’’
August 2022

Writing as montage

In his writings, Corboz promotes the figure of a disciplinary ‘nomad’. Trained as a jurist, active as poet, translator and journalist during the 1950s and 1960s, he often produces texts with a literary quality. They engage the reader in a process of reflection that questions the act of writing. For Corboz self-observation, self-doubt and speculation are part of a method that emphasizes the transdisciplinary and open character of interpretations. As a historian his approach is informed by his autodidactic education and literary leanings, demonstrated in an ongoing interest in the ‘surreal’ montage of themes and references. Recurring references to memory and the subconscious in spatial representation show how his thinking is conditioned by poetry, psychology and phenomenology. Examples of this background are the urban archetype or the metaphor of the territorial palimpsest. They allow Corboz to set up transhistorical hypotheses that transcend disciplinary conventions and lead to unexpected conclusions.

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André Corboz: pages from the Agendum (“P” = published projects), 1963–64

(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

B4

Stanislaus von Moos, Zürich

Palladio and the beginnings of Archithese
German 6’58’’
October 2022

Hidden elements in Palladio

Although he focuses on Canaletto and the representation of the Venetian urban landscape during the 18th century, Corboz also directs his attention toward the Veneto. Here, on a territorial scale, another research topic emerges: Palladio. He travels widely to visit Palladian villas throughout the urbanized landscape of the Veneto in the early and mid-1970s, while presenting various papers at the ‘Centro internazionale di studi Andrea Palladio’ in Vicenza. His essays from this period reveal numerous interpretations of Palladio. On the one hand, Corboz addresses a modernizing, rationalizing dimension of the territory, similar to the open urban structure of the plan for Carouge. He relates typological organization to spatial dynamics, while pointing to the implicit networks and constellations that inform both Palladio’s villas and his urban interventions.

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Superposition of the Durgatiparisodfiana mandala with the plan of Villa Rotonda, from: A. Corboz,”Per un analisi psicologica della villa palladiana”, published in: Bollettino del Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio di Vicenza, XV, 1973
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

B5

Canaletto's urban imaginary

André Corboz assigns a privileged role to Venice, identifying it as a place particularly rich in meanings. Its morphology has unique qualities, which have enabled it to retain its original urban layout almost unchanged. Among the various pictorial representations of the city, Corboz dwells above all on the analysis of those produced in the eighteenth century, since they represent the urban iconography of Enlightenment Venice.

Canaletto. Una Venezia immaginaria is his doctoral thesis, submitted in 1980 and published in Italian in 1985 by Electa. Reversing the firmly established critical postulates, which presented Canaletto’s views as “objective” representations (faithful, topographical and photographic) of the city of Venice, Corboz demonstrates the Venetian artist’s masterly skill in manipulating urban space. To him, Canaletto modifies or recomposes architectural or urban elements in keeping with a specific project that draws on the same imaginary that ideal cities nurture themselves with.

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André Corboz, analysis of the various perspectives constructed by Canaletto in Piazza San Marco, Venice, s.d.
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

B6

The Enlightenment: new spatial imaginaries

As an architecture and art historian, Corboz left a body of work centered on the 18th century. Similar to Adolf Max Vogt, Manfredo Tafuri or Jean Starobinski, Corboz saw the Enlightenment as more pivotal than the 19th century in preparing for 20th century modernity. The plan of Carouge, Canaletto’s urban views, Hubert Robert’s fantasies, Thomas Jefferson’s territorial grid, L’Enfant’s design for Washington D.C. – in each case the Enlightenment serves as a frame of reference for Corboz. Following his research on the enlightened urban planning and civil architecture of Carouge, he plans a comprehensive publication on Neo-Classicism. However, this book project is abandoned by the mid-1970s, as he redirects his attention to 18th century painting, thus demonstrating his historiographical versatility. Corboz draws on various media to demonstrate fundamental changes in the concepts of history, nature, territory and hygiene. To him, the accelerating production, exchange and appropriation of ideas, technological and economic innovation and a rise in new subjectivities all contribute to a re-organization of spatial imaginaries during the Enlightenment.

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Comparison of tunnel themes in the work of Hubert Robert and Etienne Louis Boullée, from: A. Corboz, Peinture militante et architecture révolutionnaire: à propos du thème du tunnel chez Hubert Robert, Basel: Birkhäuser 1978
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

B7

Geneva, city without a plan

André Corboz devoted some twenty essays to Geneva. With La formation urbaine de Genève (1963), he considers the architecture of the historic city in its plastic and perceptual values, following the example of Bruno Zevi. Subsequent essays will identify specific places and architectures, each time characterized by a precise spatial, geometric and material relationship with the fortified walls. If, in his 1968 publication, Corboz studies Carouge as an open urban structure, sprung from a plan, Geneva interests him for the opposite reasons: a “city without a plan”, sprung from a “sedimentary urbanism”, and endowed with clearly defined boundaries. This architectural interpretation rests on an economic analysis: Corboz defines Geneva as “a city without a territory” whose riches, in the absence of a hinterland, historically come from its position as an international centre: first the centre of markets and banks, then of knowledge (with the creation of the University in 1559), and of world diplomacy in the contemporary era.

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André Corboz: Geneva seen from Mont Salève, February 9, 1997
(Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)

B8

Angelus Eisinger, Zürich

Three major contributions
English 2’25’’
September 2022

Stanislaus von Moos, Zürich

Complex multidisciplinarity
German 2’53’’
October 2022

The urban form: iconology versus typology

Spatial archetype, analogy and metaphor inform Corboz’s work: this overarching interest appears in Urbanisme et psychologie, an early publication project from the late 1950s, or the theme of the Imaginary Venice, his dissertation on Canaletto that is supervised by the anthropologist Gilbert Durand in the 1970s. Addressing underlying, archaic imaginaries means leveraging the subconscious for an analysis that is often transhistorical and at times surrealist. Moreover, the imaginary enables processes of montage and overwriting that, as a figure of thought, ultimately lead to the palimpsest. Corboz maintains this conceptual openness even after his field is ‘reduced’ to the history of urbanism, when he is appointed to the new chair at the ETH at the age of 51. His subsequent teaching and research draw heavily on urban iconology – while keeping a distance both from the contemporary positions of typology-morphology and from the play of signifiers that is increasingly popular with Postmodernism and New Urbanism. Remaining isolated from the design positions of the Eighties, Corboz is drawn toward a discourse on the territory and the evolving imaginary of cities and landscapes. This contemporary context is where he will leave his mark and provide inspiration.

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André Corboz, Plan comme zodiaque + flèches-rayons, 01.02.1979 (Fondo Corboz, Biblioteca dell’Accademia di architettura Mendrisio USI)