In Conversation: Stefano Massa

The Woolf talks urban narratives and creative concepts with a designer, architect, producer and curator of content.

Stefano Massa

Stefano Massa. Image courtesy: E. Stassi

“The crowd—I mean the crowd as one of the fundamental figures of modernity—was firstly recognised and understood by writers, philosophers and photographers, not by architects, sociologists or politicians.”

Firstly, let’s talk about you. Architect, designer, creator—what inspires you?

I am an architect, as background, even if I am working and researching also in fields which are not strictly related to the constructive aspect of design. I started this approach early during my studies, completed with the discussion of a thesis in urban design titled Crowd Space. It is a study on the relationship between cities and the crowds that inhabit them. Since then it was clear to me that I was much more interested in the relations occurring between elements of complex and dynamic systems rather than in the mere aesthetic or function of single buildings and design objects.

Speaking of inspiration, basically anything can be inspirational, really any kind of material (visual, textual, acoustic) and very diverse mixes of these ingredients. As I said, I am interested in the relationships that can intervene between elements, especially if coming from different fields and environments. I am interested in what happens in the void between them, so to speak. In the Japanese language this idea is very well expressed and defined by the word ‘ma’1 which can be roughly translated as ‘the space between two parts’ (or interval, or negative space) which implies the activity of the observer while experiencing what is happening in that space. This is why, I guess, as an architect I am much more fascinated with configurations and processes happening at very big scales or microscopic ones. Inspiration, in general, is triggered by a state of predisposition, or—as in a formula I particularly like—Pattern Recognition. It is an expression originally belonging to computer science, also recurring as the title of a novel by William Gibson and a song by Sonic Youth. Coincidentally two of my main influences.

I perceive something as a piece of art when it deeply intersects and influences the streaming forces shaping society.”

auklet flock flying

Auklet flock Shumagins 1986, Courtesy: Wikipedia

Certain domains or ‘territories’, in this sense, are particularly fertile and dense. I am thinking of crowded public spaces and border areas for example. Not only physical borders, also abstract and interdisciplinary ones, changes of state, transitions from order to disorder and back. In flow dynamics, which is something I had to deal with while studying the crowd modelling in urban environments, this condition is identified with the transition between a laminar, regular state and a chaotic, turbulent one. The idea is that the observation of natural phenomena can provide models for a better understanding of reality, life in artificial environments and technology. This is definitely something that fascinates and inspires me.

How do you see the relationship between art and technology?

I think they are fundamental to each other but not comparable, because of their different nature. In absolute terms, technology is the mastering of a series of techniques to achieve a result. Art is a state—of grace if you want—absolute and rare. I perceive something as a piece of art when it deeply intersects and influences the streaming forces shaping society. The theorisation of linear perspective in the Italian Renaissance is a very good example of this relationship.

The trim tab is a metaphor for a small, almost invisible device, which has a huge effect on the whole system.”


Trim-Tab. Courtesy: Wikipedia

In other words, it is what Buckminster Fuller—amazing architect, engineer and inventor—used to call the Trim Tab Effect. The trim tab is a metaphor for a small, almost invisible device, which has a huge effect on the whole system. And the system for us is a spaceship called Earth.

I have the impression that, nowadays, it is quite common to confuse art with any kind of creative process and technology with he cult of gadget. I am suspicious towards both even if totally surrounded by them. In my eyes technology is really working when it is invisible and functional to the quest and production of art. When it is ‘indistinguishable from magic’, to use Arthur C. Clarke’s words.

You’re fascinated by the interaction between people and the urban environment. Can you expand on that?

My interest started while I was studying architecture and urban design in Venice, where every day you can vividly experience the interaction of these two, apparently different, elements. Apparently I say, because from the point of view of an urban designer, the crowd and the buildings are the warp and weft of the city. They are deeply entangled, one the complementary negative of the other. When you start thinking in these terms suddenly you realise that you are observing two different states of the same matter. For me this is something very important to keep in mind when imaging and drafting a project. What it is also very important is the direct experience of the city, field research and observation.

The crowd, I mean the crowd as one of the fundamental figures of modernity, was firstly recognised and understood by writers, philosophers and photographers, not by architects, sociologists or politicians. I am speaking of Baudelaire, Zola, Edgar Allan Poe2, Walter Benjamin. People exploring and living the crowd from within. I think it is a an important topic because—as Don De Lillo wrote—”the future belongs to crowds”3 and it is very likely that most of us will be part of these crowds inhabiting hyper-dense urban environments4.

What is an architectural narrative?

Any project, in my eyes, is an architectural narrative. With a plot, a setting, primary and secondary characters, turning points, sometimes crimes. Designing is producing fiction, imaging scenarios, building a story and throw it into an unknown yet irresistible future. It can be told through visual story telling—most of the times it is—but that is not always the case. There are many architects designing with words instead of images, using hybrid techniques. At the extreme point a project can be described by the list of instructions to be performed to get to its completion, reducing it to a programming, non-figurative language, still able to tell a story.

Could give us some examples of buildings that attract you, and explain why?

Image: Wikipedia

A huge crowd gathers outside The New York Times building in Times Square to hear play-by-play bulletins of the World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Brooklyn Robins on Oct. 12, 1920. Image and excerpt: Wikipedia

At the moment, I am researching and focusing more on cities, macro- and infrastructures. We usually conceive a metropolis as a built environment, but on a more general level you can see it as an infrastructure for the crowd. High-speed trains covering thousands of kilometres in few hours are inhabitable pieces of extensible, interconnected cities. Their inner spaces look like hotel lounges, spas, offices. They are not buildings literally, yet definitely architectural spaces. I am attracted by these strange cases, by the anonymous pieces that make the whole machine work, by the data centres hosting Google and Facebook databases.

Any project, in my eyes, is an architectural narrative. With a plot, a setting, primary and secondary characters, turning points, sometimes crimes.”

Other very interesting types of ‘buildings’ are concert stages. Starting from Pink Floyd in the 70s, stage design has become more and more an influential branch of architecture. Even though ephemeral and vain, in terms of visibility and collective imagery a stage like the one designed by Mark Fisher5 for The Wall Live (Pink Floyd) is much more influential than most of the traditionally celebrated buildings. I mean that the impact of The Wall, especially when represented to commemorate the fall of the actual wall dividing Berlin is a force that shapes an idea of society6.

My third pick is Arcosanti7, again a non conventional project. Arcosanti is an urban laboratory in the desert of Arizona, started by the italian architect Paolo Soleri in 1970. I had the chance to live there for a while. It is many things at once, it is difficult to describe but that is what makes it so interesting as an experience. From the architectural point of view it is something between a giant building, a piece of landscape art and a miniaturised city. In the idea of its founder is a prototype for a possible different urban development which cares for human well being, according to strong environmental principles and lean practices.

Why Zürich? And what are your favourite places in this city?

Oh, there are many. Zürich is pretty amazing when it comes to great places and diversity. I really like Kreis 4, which is also where I live. It is a vibrant neighbourhood, facing now a lot of development and changes. For an architect it is the perfect place to get the pulse of the city and monitor its growth.

For coffee (basic need) Café Noir. For working on the fly and meeting interesting people definitely The Hub in the Viadukt. For the atmosphere the café-bar of Rote Fabrik on Sunday morning. Last but not least, there is a remote wooden platform on the lake, a relic tucked in nature. It is a very special place known by few, ideal for being, for once, away from the crowd. But of course, I am not going to tell you where it is.

I didn’t choose Zürich as a city, I rather chose a specific job opportunity at the time without knowing much about it. But here I found a unique and interesting environment and, most important, a network of people willing to learn, share and participate. I think culture, diversity and social engagement are the main resources that Zürich needs to develop in the future.

What are you working on at the moment?

digitally generated image by Stefano Massa

Field-0002. Image: Stefano Massa

I can’t keep myself from exploring different domains and experimenting with remixes. Together with my work as an architect and graphic designer I keep studying programming, web design and scripting languages, with the idea of integrating them more and more in the workflow.

I am also curating an archive of materials about urban environments, crowd behaviours and dynamics. The web manifestation of this research is split into two channels.

One is for fast consumption and visual flare (, the other one for layered thinking and meditated words ( The attempt is to review, organise and update all the content so far collected, in order to make it available as a useful resource for me and the crowd out there.

It is difficult to define but I am engaged designing for screen, paper and space, filtering and trying to keep a consistent language and identity across the different media. It is an active practice of building a sense out of the huge amount of information to which we are constantly exposed, out of a world that most of the time doesn’t make sense at all. If I was a writer, I guess I would say “finding my own voice”, but since I am not I will stick with the idea of a daily search of what makes us unique among the crowd.



2. Don De Lillo, Mao II, 1991.

3. The Man of the Crowd:

4. By 2050 it is predicted that 64.1% and 85.9% of the developing and developed world respectively will be urbanised. (Source:

5. Mark Fisher is one of the most important architects for events and stage design in the world. Probably you don’t know his name but there is a good chance that you know his work very well:

6. Here I am quoting another architect, friend and mentor, Antonio Scarponi and the Triangular Design Manifesto (

7. Beyond Form, an introduction to Arcosanti:

Bibliography Fragments

Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language which Generates Multi-service Centers, with Ishikawa and Silverstein, Center for Environmental Structure, 1968.

Roland Barthes, The Empire of Signs, Skira, Paris, 1970.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Buchet-Chastel, Paris, 1967.

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition, Penguin Putnam, 2003.

Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, Garden City, Doubleday, N.Y., 1966.

Edgar Allan Poe, The Man of the Crowd, 1840.

digitally generated image by stefano massa

Image: Stefano Massa

You can find more of Stefano’s works and curations at the following sites:

Author: J.J. Marsh

Writer of The Beatrice Stubbs series, founder member of Triskele Books, columnist for Words with JAM magazine, co-curator of The Woolf magazine, Bookmuse reviewer, blogger and Tweeter. @JJMarsh1

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