Metin Arditi spent the first seven years of his life in Istanbul with his family. He then attended an international school in Switzerland as a boarder, and then at age 18 went on to study at EPFL, where he earned an engineering-physics degree and a post-grad degree in Atomic Engineering. He continued his studies at Stanford University, where he obtained an MBA. After spending two years at McKinsey, he returned to Switzerland where, at the age of 27, he set up his own business and developed his activities in the real estate sector. At the same time, he taught three subjects at the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne: physics, economics and literature. At the age of 50, he turned entirely to writing. Metin Arditi has also chaired the Orchestre de la Suisse romande, invested in the construction of the Bodmer Museum and created the Arditi Foundation. His view of the place of culture in life is as illuminating as it is luminous.
My parents were not intellectuals, but self-taught people who were very respectful of culture. At home in Istanbul, we spoke five languages. It was an extraordinarily cosmopolitan city. My three mother tongues were Turkish, Spanish and French. At boarding school, there were 25 or 30 different nationalities. Until my teenage years, I was immersed in extremely and harmoniously mixed environments.
From the age of 7 to 18 two things stood out for me: first, in boarding school, I had a lot of time on my hands. So I did a lot of theater, a lot of writing. These artistic activities fulfilled me because the arts offered emotions that were the closest to those felt in a mother’s arms. The arts embody beauty and love. When you’re lonely, the arts are there for you… Just read a book or go see an exhibition. Happiness is in the meadow…
The second thing that has greatly influenced my life is boarding school. You learn what solitude is, it becomes a kind of drug that you seek, that you claim. The relationship between teachers and students was very different from what it is today, the former could afford all sorts of injustices. We were often revolted, and this mixture of unacceptance of injustice and loneliness has forever defined my rejection of any hierarchy.
Absolutely! I was and still am incasable. So I became independent very early on. I made a decent living until I was 40. I then sold everything I had. I hate taking orders, I also hate giving them. I was not made for a hierarchy, even if I was at the top. At 40 I finally asked myself the right questions: in what open field, without limits, could I express myself while remaining largely solitary (one is never quite solitary, of course)? And I discovered that it was real estate.
Two things have helped me with this. The first is writing. I have been writing for 25 years. The second is that as the years go by, you gain perspective. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do these analyses.
Yes, but that pathway has an awful lot of obstacles. You learn by making mistakes.
It gave me the opportunity to build, transform, renovate. This is what is broadly called “commerce”, the exchange with others, finding people face to face who are not in a hierarchical relationship. I loved what I did. Everyone has their own way of doing real estate, but our industry is so complex and difficult that any cultural input can only play a major role.
Culture is there to help you understand others. Theatre, reading, music, painting develop your sensitivity. They are moments of pleasure, of beauty. The purpose of all this is almost spiritual. And understanding others is absolutely central to any business activity. It is the key. It’s what allows you to put yourself “in the shoes of”When a couple buys a house or an apartment, they are making a major decision on an economic level, but one that also involves a lot of passion and emotional elements.
Culture allows you to distinguish right from wrong, to have ethics, the necessary element to guarantee yourself long-term success in business. Ethics can sometimes hold back short-term success, because we set rules for ourselves. You don’t take chances. But you keep your dignity. That is to say, your strength. You set yourself goals and you stick to them. This gives consistency to the work. You make decisions with more determination. And in the long run, that consistency and the reliability that comes from it makes people like working with you.
This is a rule my German-speaking father taught me: “Leben und leben lassen” (live and let live). That is to say, win and let win, which allows for bonding. It’s similar to La Fontaine’s Heron fable, whose moral says, “the most accommodating are the most skillful“. The risk of success is the vanity it generates. I try to preserve myself from vanity as best I can; it’s a daily struggle. But everything cultural brings you back to humility. Especially novel writing. It’s so hard to capture the character of the characters! You’re constantly failing. It’s never over.
And work. There is no substitute for work. Today we live in a leisure society, with a lot of self-dispersion. So having time is an opportunity.
Not quite. I always kept a contact with knowledge. At the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne, at different periods of my life, I taught in 3 fields: physics, economics and literature. This is my great pride. And hop, you see, I get conceited (laughs).
that’s just the way it was. The fields were added to each other, but I did not “butterfly”. In 2006, the Le Poche theatre and the Vidy theatre in Lausanne staged a play I had written: “Last letter to Theo“. One day, I was having lunch with Françoise Courvoisier, the director of the Le Poche theatre, and she said to me: “I’ve been in the Geneva theatre scene for 30 years, I’ve never come across you anywhere, but you talk to me about theatre like a professional.”This destabilized me: I understood that I had cut ties, I had drawn a line. I was in my own business.
Patronage came later. Music was first of all a civic act: the OSR had problems, I felt it was my responsibility as a naturalized citizen in Geneva to do something, as long as I was invited. I was called because in 1995, in the midst of the real estate crisis, the magazine “Bilan”, had devoted a large 7-page article to me. The people in charge of the SRO, at the time, must have thought: why not him, he’s doing quite well in culture and in business…
Yes I had done a lot of music as a teenager and I thought I was crazy lucky to be called upon. I started by creating the sponsorship and patronage committee. Then I became vice-president, and then, for the last 13 years, president. I spent a total of 18 years there. The same year I joined the OSR, I started writing. This was done in parallel.
It was eye-opening and allowed me to regain some freedom of thought from my own weaknesses. A few months earlier, there had been an article in Banking and Finance magazine. Before it was published, I discovered that they mentioned that I had done some acting. I asked that this passage be removed, because I was afraid of what the “business world” might think of it. Today, I multiply the columns in La Croix where I wish that theatre was compulsory in all schools. I see this art as a possibility for everyone to acquire freedom, ease, and understanding of others.
In so-called literary writing, there is no pattern. One is left to discover one’s characters. These speak by default. Sometimes I think of a scene; I write it, and when I read it again, it sounds wrong. So I have to rewrite it. The character is not going to talk to me in my sleep, I’m not going to hear voices. I’m not going to hear voices. It’s just that writing the character’s behaviour correctly doesn’t happen on the first try. Sometimes you have to go over it fifty times, and that’s not an exaggeration. And there’s no way to make it shorter.
That’s right, we find ourselves totally out of control. That’s part of the job, to give the reader both a big surprise and the conviction that things couldn’t be otherwise. I often use as an example an old TV series called “The Last 5 Minutes” Commissioner Bourrel, played by Raymond Souplex, had a crime to solve every time, and five minutes before the end, he would slap his forehead and say, “Damn, but it’s sure”! “Damn” meant, “that’s a surprise” and “that’s for sure” meant “it’s obvious“. This is what novel writing is all about.
I oversaw the construction of the Museum. It was an immense privilege and no less an immense pleasure: books, culture, real estate… Working with Botta was a great experience, pleasure too. I left the Bodmer’s board of trustees a year after the building was completed.
Of course. Exchanging with readers is the bottom line. The other week I was at the Cercle littéraire de Lausanne. The room was packed (there it is, I’m getting vain again…), at the time of the questions and signings, people were questioning me, they had read, they knew some things about me that I myself did not know. It was, as always in these cases, very moving, gratifying.
Constantly. Thanks to them I understand what I didn’t understand. Someone is putting a light where there was none.
Two times. My text on La Fontaine was adapted by Alain Carré and I played the role of the author, at the Crève-cœur theatre. I also wrote and performed a play called “Maestro” for the French-speaking Swiss Radio. The monologue of a conductor: I loved it. My novel, “Juliet in the Bath,” will be edited into a film, and I’ve already told the director that he’ll have to find me a small role. I told him it was just for fun, but in reality I’d be very interested… (laughs)
It’s very variable. The novel I’m finishing, I’ve had in mind for eight years. And I have another one that is a form of sequel, though it takes place 8 centuries apart. It’s hard to catch a good subject. Certain themes come up again, like filiation, the arts… They impose themselves.