Lucy and Olivio Ferrari

A Film about Architecture and Life by Shelley Martin

Interview by Ethan Bingeman and Austin Ledzian
Article by Austin Ledzian
Photographs courtesy of Shelley Martin and Lucy Ferrari


Lucy and Olivio Ferrari contributed greatly to the betterment of the School of Architecture
+ Design through their unique and inquisitive methods of teaching. Shelley Martin, an architecture professor taught by Ferrari, became interested in film when she was a student shooting landscapes on a little Swiss Bolex camera. Layer by layer, she has assembled a visual document of the stories of those who have known Lucy and Olivio. It seems that even through brief interaction, people have a story to share. Over the course of its development, the project has come to tell the story of our school just as much as the story of the Ferraris.

The film takes two approaches: one of their professional world and one of their personal world. In the personal realm, Lucy and Olivio had a deep love of American ideals: democracy, the idea of the individual, the character of Appalachia. Lucy collected quilts and locally crafted objects. Olivio could learn just as much from a simply crafted desk as from a modern Max Bill print. Both felt there was merit in learning from objects that could then be applied to their own work. Objects made by craftspeople, not just architects or designers, could be equally relevant.

As an architect, Olivio felt responsible for his environment at every level. He greeted everyone
good morning and treated everyone equally: the faculty, students, staff, the custodians and the shop technicians. In one instance, he was mistaken as custodial staff because he was sweeping the floors. He always looked for ways to improve your thinking, saying things like, “it would be very easy to correct a Le Corbusier house.” He would challenge canonical architecture as something you could learn from, not as an absolute truth. “The students were charged with maintaining a critical atmosphere,” said Shelley, “the challenge to construct and maintain questions and operational outcomes was infectious.”

Lucy Ferrari, a former Director of the Center for European Studies and Architecture, is an accomplished weaver and photographer, speaking seven languages and stressing to students the importance of travel to their education. “She equated how travel should be understood as a cultural pursuit, so you could understand the language of how to build, so that you wouldn’t be a tourist,” said Shelley. As an example, she taught German to students so they would understand their architecture a bit better. She was, and still is masterful in her way of doing that.

Dress woven as a single tube By Lucy Ferrari  

Dress woven as a single tube
By Lucy Ferrari

Ferrari Paintings in Ciona.jpg
Ferrari watercolor.jpg
Ferrari at Robie.jpg

Olivio brought ceramics, photography, filmmaking and graphics studios into the school, aware of how they could enhance the education of an architect.Though seemingly unrelated, how a wall meets the floor can translate into the section of a bowl. The student can feel the section physically and feel when a bowl is too thick. The lessons film and photography teach to the architecture student are many: the most significant being how to first see and understand the world before you; and then to transform that understanding into precise images that convey an idea through visual means. In the graphics studio, students learn about interaction of color, layers and the deliberate action of printing ink on paper. These practices are exacting and bring about a higher level of awareness and precision, broadening the definition of architecture.

When interviewing the Ferrari’s past students, a common theme rose to the surface: questions,
complex questions. For him, the questions were more important than the answers. Olivio had the ability to identify what a student was after rather than simply expressing his opinions. He had a talent of teaching the individual, critiquing students against their own standards instead of his own so as to catalyze rather than conform. The process was more important than the outcome. To find an individual way of thinking and to find oneself is a journey that begins in the foundation year.

Shelley shared with us a story from when she was a student in the architecture program here.

In studio I was working on this precious little house and the roof was a little bit complicated, it was kind of ignored. Ferrari gave me the keys to his truck and said to me, ‘ Take the keys, here’s the truck, just go out to Glade Road, you’ll find it.’ His house was being roofed with standing seam copper at the time and I got up on the scaffolding to watch Mr. Noonkester use his beautiful old tools and crimp it again and again. Ferrari knew that I had to understand how it was really done, rather than just drawing pictures of it.

The film has evolved beyond a documentary, transformed into something more visually and conceptually complex. Such complexity speaks to the way the Ferraris taught and lived. They have become teachers of students, and teachers of teachers.

Shelley Martin makes films about landscapes. She is a faculty of architecture at VT SA+D, teaching foundation, filmmaking and drawing classes. She practiced architecture in New York, and was once— and remains—a student of the Ferraris.

Ferrari with Pearl S. Buck.jpg

[The text and images from this post have been edited and formatted for blog from the Lucy and Olivio Ferrari story of Volume 3]