Fabio Todeschini was a tireless explorer of landscapes. As lecturer and head of the University of Cape Town’s School of Architecture and Urban Design and as a consultant and activist, he encour-aged fellow workers, students and fellow human beings in general to take notice of the landscapes of cities, rural areas and wilderness to understand these better. His death, quiet and unexpected on the eve of the formal approval of a comprehensive inheritance survey for Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, leaves a gap in the public space, but also a rich legacy of expert mapping and lasting influence.
In looking back on his life as an explorer and traveller through landscapes it seems as if this might have started early. Fabio was four years old when the Todeschini family walked their way out of the war in Italy to Switzerland and settled in Paarl. At school he was friends with the sons of Pius Pahl, another refugee and senior assistant to Mies van der Rohe who, in Stellenbosch, became one of the Western Cape’s leading architects. Pahl’s influence of on Fabio was decisive to his decision to become an architect himself.
In his subject, he came to focus on landscapes – on understanding the landscape and the ways in which new development could grow from older structures and patterns. His chosen field of study was supplemented by his travels, his interest in people and communities, and his broad background in art, music and culture in the broadest sense of the word. His eye fell on all the traces that people leave on a landscape. In his youth and also later, he took long walks through the Boland. When traveling to a new city anywhere in the world, he rarely booked his accommodation for more than one or two nights in advance. He would turn to public transport as soon as he arrived and walk through the city as widely as possible before choosing a neighbourhood and a place of residence for the rest of his stay.
He was a hard worker, enchanting and engaging, both as a lecturer and as a consultant – even tiring for employees and colleagues on account of his close attention, enthusiasm and long hours. Follow-ing retirement as a professor at UCT, he was still travelling continuously; lecturing at universities in Europe, South America, the Middle East, Africa, India and China, and acting as a consultant for authorities in many countries. Even when he knew an environment well, as in the case of Stellenbosch and the Winelands, he would start each assignment by looking for patterns that one might not be noticing any longer. He would study wagon trails on old maps and then walk those routes to un-derstand how and why people made particular choices in their use of the landscape. Books, letters and documents would guide his search for further understanding of developments to shape new plans. His understanding of landscapes and environments was both sound and subtle.
Even when he knew an environment well, as in the case of Stellenbosch and the Winelands, he would start each assignment by looking for patterns that one might not be noticing any longer. He would study wagon trails on old maps and then walk those routes to un-derstand how and why people made particular choices in their use of the landscape. Books, letters and documents would guide his search for further understanding of developments to shape new plans. His understanding of landscapes and environments was both sound and subtle.
His discerning analyses of landscapes and patterns were informed by respect for people. Both land-scape and people featured equally in his understanding of heritage. This understanding was gracious and spacious, with an emphasis on space for new development in the contours of time. He was curt when it came to development and decisions that were short-sighted and detrimental to the shared public space. He was equally impatient with conservationists who were too narrow in their desire to protect, without sufficient understanding of the dynamics of a historic landscape and the need for renewal and growth.
Fabio was a friend. In Cape Town and the Bo-Kaap, one was amazed by the collected knowledge displayed by colleagues and friends surrounding him, often visiting from elsewhere in the world. In Stellenbosch, the history of the town was a point of contact between us, as was the fact that our children grew up in a house designed by Pius Pahl. In Waenhuiskrans he was a regular guest at our home or at neighbours like fellow architects David Jack, Ron Kirby and Niel Grobbelaar.
In Waenhuiskrans we could view shows when Fabio returned from his travels. He sent plenty of photographs while travelling, but once he had organised these and commented on them, one could view well-known cities like Paris or Milan anew, and feel that far away destinations in Iran, Brazil, China, India or Africa had become known, as if you had been there yourself. His photos mostly did not comprise single, composed shots, but presented a continuous narrative of an environment, with small details of the place and the people. The few examples provided here presents a selection from almost thirty photographs that he sent on consecutive days while on a recent trip through Dali and Fenghuang in China.
Family, colleagues and his many friends will remember Fabio as a remarkable friend and fellow traveller.
Hannes van Zyl
31 May 2018