Tony Luong

For Jorge Silvetti, Intl. Assoc. AIA, teaching and practicing architecture are nearly inseparable, two sides of the same coin. “I find there’s so much continuity,” he says. For 43 years, the architect has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design while also running the Boston-based Machado and Silvetti Associates with his longtime partner, Rodolfo Machado, Intl. Assoc. AIA. “When you’re a designer,” Silvetti says, “you’re always trying to explain yourself and spell out the design process and how you make decisions. Teaching is almost the same thing. And the way I run my office has a lot to do with the way I teach. We work in a kind of studio environment. Everybody has an opinion that is discussed. Of course, I usually win the argument!”

Silvetti, the winner of the Topaz Medallion, the highest honor given to educators in architecture, was born in Buenos Aires in 1942 and spent his childhood immersed in music, taking piano lessons three times a week beginning at the age of 6. His teacher, he says, “was a great woman. She was a big influence on my life—like a second mother.” He might well have become a professional musician if not for the fact that in Argentina at the time, “being a musician was frowned upon if you were a boy.”

At 19, Silvetti switched to architecture, but his musical education clearly left its mark. Classically trained musicians are steeped in both theory and practice, just as architectural education combines a deep study of the past with the hands-on learning of the studio, which Silvetti calls “a tête-à-tête with someone who knows more than you.” “In that sense,” he says, “studying architecture is very similar to studying music.”

At Harvard, where he served as chair of the architecture department from 1995 to 2002, and where he teaches design studios and lectures on history, theory, and criticism, Silvetti urges students to embrace “the culture and the history of our discipline” while “building for the future.”

“An important part of his teaching,” says former student Christian Dagg, AIA, now head of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University, “is his ability to bring in history, art, literature, and music, and to show how they might be turned into architectural ideas.”

Silvetti laments how technology has pushed out other, more basic, aspects of the design curriculum. “Architecture is not technology,” he insists, even while acknowledging that he’s “from another era”—that is, a pre-digital one.

“I still draw,” he says. “I love drawing. I think that’s one of the great losses in the profession. One of these days I’m going to try to bring it back.”

Other 2018 AIA Honor Awards: