Yona Friedman: Roofs

The volume Tetti (Quodlibet) gathers 20+ manuals by Yona Friedman: they comprise an epic score of architecture, whose song is handed down through small drawings and suggestive notes. #fridayreads

Yona Friedman, Tetti, Quodlibet, Macerata 2017
Yona Friedman, Tetti, Quodlibet, Macerata 2017. Edited by Andrea Bocco (The book will be published in English within January 2018).


A flood destroys a small village lost in the middle of a vast plain. No one is harmed. An expert, gentle man is sent by an international organisation to coordinate the rebuilding. He gathers together the village’s men and women and explains that, thanks to all their work, they can build new homes that are better than the ones destroyed. The kind man isn’t a politician; there are no experts, lawyers, engineers, or doctors. There are no building permits, tax stamps, authorisations, or documents to sign. The men and women are skilled in building solid walls. But the gentle man explains that the roof is the most important and delicate part: it must withstand many things, is vulnerable to bad weather, and it has to be insulated properly. The reeds and branches torn down by the flood are gathered, cut and assembled. They will be used to build different kinds of roofs that the village women and men may copy, with a few suggestions from the gentle man.

This is how I imagine the educational activity Yona Friedman embarked upon for many years in the poorest and remotest sections of southern India. Few gestures aimed at simple people to describe some basic building techniques, collected around the globe and then re-elaborated and spread through photocopies and duplicating machines to be built by those who own nothing except the strength of their hands.


The volume Tetti gathers together over 20 manuals on a single topic, issued by UNESCO and the European Council starting in 1976, which occupied most of Yona Friedman’s career until the late 1980s. As can be inferred from the impressive essay edited by Andrea Bocco, Friedman’s manuals began in the late 1960s, when the graphic language changed, borrowed from notes on blackboards. However, it was only in February 1980 that his manuals were published in India in the magazine Invention Intelligence with the title Immediate Education for Survival. Thanks to this, Friedman got funding from the United Nations University to create posters to hang on village walls. Here, children – those few who knew how to read and write – would spread the concise instructions contained in the publication. With the success of these initiatives, the University of the United Nations – and the participation of the International Council of Scientific Unions, the scientific support of the French and Russian Academy of Sciences, and political support from India – financed the birth of the Communication Center for Scientific Knowledge for Self-Resilence (CCSK) that aimed to improve living conditions in “Developing Countries”. The headquarters would be in Friedman’s home in Paris, where he himself was coordinator with Eda Schaur as vice-coordinator.

The book offers, for the first time in Italian, the collection published by UNESCO in 1991, with the title Roofs part 1 e Roofs part 2. Local Materials, Simple Technologies, Sophisticated Ideas, containing the majority of manuals issued as booklets during the 1980s by the CCSK, coordinated by Friedman. Since the original drawings are not yet available – in all likelihood they are found at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles – the sketches in this Italian edition are taken from previously published versions and optimised for printing by Luisa Montobbio. Instead, the caption lettering is the work of Laura Trovato, with cover design by 46xy.
Tetti is part of the West’s grand tradition of architecture manuals begun by Vitruvius in 15 B.C. with his De architectura, a unique document that has come down to us from Antiquity; published for the first time in Rome in 1490, excellent examples followed during the Renaissance that have reached us today. But Friedman’s treatises, just like most of contemporary avant-garde ones, are not intended for princes but rather “commoners”: for example, the TuTa (a neologism derived from the French tout-de-même, “all equal”) paper patters and instructions found in the magazines published by Thayhat and his brother Ram beginning in 1919 to describe a new kind of inexpensive “unisex” garment, for all seasons, that could be made at home by optimising T-shaped cuts on local fabrics. The treatises for “humble princes” resemble a story that animates materials by lifting them out of poverty and into poetry, as an expression of a universal entity made of nothing, obtaining the greatest value (social, economic, aesthetic and poetic) with the least amount of material means.
Img.10 Yona Friedman, Tetti, Quodlibet, Macerata 2017
Img.10 Yona Friedman, Tetti, Quodlibet, Macerata 2017
Through his writings, Friedman composes an epic score of architecture, whose song is handed down through small drawings and some suggestive notes. We imagine hendecasyllables, written for illiterate princes in the grips of self-survival. In fact, Friedman’s lyrical, intuitive nature leads him to understand the logical, elementary and empirical principle that lies at the heart of technical architectural knowledge, allowing the possibility to experiment sophisticated structures with simple materials, exposing the basic needs of life safeguarded in the homes of men. Since, after all, the material cost doesn’t determine the value of a poetical work, we ask ourselves if the same can be said for the roof over our heads.
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