A tribute to Franco Possemato

by John James Pron

Professor Temple University, Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia

Several of us senior faculty on Temple’s main campus remember Franco Possemato as a young person enrolled in the Architecture Program: inquisitive, talented, thoughtful, hardworking, courtly in his manner – so much the elegant and eloquent European student in an American university. In his final year, he was elected president of TASA – the student organization – indicating the high degree of respect and trust given to him by his fellow classmates, who made him their leader. He was invited to work part-time in the architectural office of the founding chairperson of the department – a singular honor for a student to be chosen by a faculty member! And he continued with Knowles Associates in a full-time position upon graduation – mentored in an award-winning architectural firm and given prime opportunities to transform his student design skills to master the art of constructing fine buildings. Simultaneously, in that academically-based office, he honed his intellectual skills to analyze, critique, match practical decisions to firmly held philosophic intents. The student (both designer and leader) was on his way to becoming the teacher.
He left Philadelphia to get his graduate degree at Columbia University in New York City and returned to his native Italy to begin a family and to open his own architectural practice in the region where he was born. The professional office thrived with projects both urban and provincial, large and small, ranging from Naples to Rome and many small places between. But Franco frequently returned to Philadelphia to visit family and to reconnect to the faculty and the current architectural scene at Temple Architecture. He was a regular visitor, a strong visiting critic, and an important occasional guest lecturer.
When a teaching position on the architectural staff opened at Temple Rome in 1996, Franco Possemato was the easy and obvious choice. He knew the world of American education as well as the world of European architectural practice. He could easily relate to the experiences of the Temple architecture student (because he once was one of them), but with his graduate degree and his continental practice, he could open those young students to worlds of opportunity beyond. And he was as generous to them as the department chair was to him. Every summer Franco would mentor a handful of the most talented students, offering them paid internships to work in his architectural office for the summer, providing them with housing – a coveted professional opportunity for so many and valuable exposure to global practice.
His teaching style was fully defined by his personality. Franco was exquisitely sensitive to young people – always respectful of their character, background and values. Never one to impose, he was strongly committed to assisting them to develop their OWN thoughts and ideas, translating them into their OWN designs. This respect was fully integrated with the ethical underpinnings of his personal design methodology – to infuse students with a respect for the context: to design contemporary buildings yet fully appropriate to the heritage of Rome (or, when they returned, to Philadelphia), to be sensitive to a natural environment that is being dangerously abused (both in Italy and in America), to honor the integrity of materiality (be it masonry, steel, glass. Lou Kahn’s statement of “what does a brick want to be” was Franco’s value as well), and to never forget the needs and aspirations of the user – the people who will live or work or worship in the building. One’s designs should enrich the emotional life of the inhabitant, but simultaneously it should enhance the neighborhood, the community, the town or city. He supported the wishes of his students, but tempered their young egos to suggest that the art of architecture is so important to the world that it must function more than just to gratify of the ego of the designer. But Franco never “lectured” his students. He advised, inspired, demonstrated, nurtured them – across their drafting tables, of course, but equally over a capuccino in a neighboring café (his treat) or a plate of pasta on a field trip. To Franco – and probably to so many Italians – one’s professional work was never separated from living a full and meaningful life. Work and play, research and socializing, a glass of vino rosso and a discussion over the merits of a famed architect’s design – they all went hand-in-hand. And so, Rome and all of Italy was as much his classroom as the third floor architecture studio. His American students brought these values back to main campus and back to their homes – many fundamentally changed by Franco’s philosophy matched by Franco’s example.
There is no better space to memorialize Professor Franco Possemato than in this room. He designed the space (commissioned by Temple) and the architecture he created visibly brings together his two worlds of design: he preserved the original character of the Villa Caproni by restoring its beautiful brick walls and opening up remarkable views of the Tiber and the lungoteveres. Simultaneously, he has brought the old space into a new world of contemporary materials, fittings, furnishings and electronics. Not a choice, the Architecture Studio is both new AND old, respectfully honoring the past while simultaneously projecting a dynamic future.
And this is also the room where Franco taught – where he encouraged students to find themselves, to have confidence in their ideas, to translate their thoughts and dreams into the models and drawings of architectural space. This is the room where many semesters of architecture students entered as they were pulled between two worlds both new and old, both Roman and Philadelphian, work and play. This is room where they left having discovered the ability to subtly integrate what seemed to be conflicting dichotomies – both in their designs and in their lifestyles. Franco Possemato’s spirit infuses this room where he taught up until the very end, and future semesters of architecture students need this gentle reminder, mounted on the wall, of what enriched so many before them. They need to understand what they will miss.