VENICE: Contested Terrains

The first year of the MArch operates at the intersection of architecture and the city. The studio is structured through a series of interlinked stages (ARCH401 and ARCH402 in semester 1 and ARCH403 and ARCH404 in semester 2), where students work through critical architectural projects that traverse the full range of scales, from the urban strategy to the design of an urban building, to its finest technical details.

The city of our focus for this year was Venice, Italy. We began semester 1 with an intense 5-day study trip, where we engaged with local architects, researchers, and activists; we visited architectural masterpieces; and we built our knowledge and understanding of this wonderfully complex city. Following the thematic title for the year, Contested Terrains, our investigations sought an architecture that mediates between the various oppositions that the city presents to us today: between locals and tourists, between humans and their constructed environment, between water and land, between nature and culture, between past and future. The 5 studios that run under this framework examined five different readings of the theme. Altogether, we considered questions of preservation of historical authenticity; of the scales of the city and its infrastructures; of the relationship between land and water; of the role of tourism in the evolution of the city; of the transformation of spaces of trade and production to spaces of leisure and entertainment; of the environmental challenges posed by living in close proximity to the water.

Alongside the studio, taught modules in Urban Design Theory, Practice Management & Contract Law, and Sustainable Construction and Management provided further support to students’ academic development, while Research Methods in Architecture prepared them for the writing of their dissertation in the second year of the programme.

Studio 1: Venetian Crowds / Dr Katerina Antonopoulou

Crowds: Mapping Crowds, by Felicity Joy Morris and Joseph Willoughby

This studio invited students to study Venice through its multiple massing phenomena and their movement in the city: the massing of boats in the canals; the trails of tourists and the alternative routes followed by the locals; the procession of food towards the city’s markets; the body of workers who come to the city early in the morning from elsewhere and leave in the evening; the football fans who march to the Pierluigi Penzo stadium, home ground of Venezia FC, whenever there is a game, etc. Crowds became our measuring devices for the city: they helped us decode the unique conditions of Venice and, conversely, we examined how a city with such spatial limitations manages to accommodate crowds much greater than its permanent population.

In the course of this year we looked at key places for the reception and the management of crowds, such as the cruise terminal and the train station, and we critically reflected on the infrastructures that support and organise complex systems of flow, movement, and exchange in the city. We developed strategies of infrastructural urbanism which creatively provided for the conditions we identified on-site, while maintaining the ability to adjust to shifting conditions in the context of the environmental challenges that surround us.

Studio 2: The Sacred and the Profane / Ronny Ford

Sacred and Profane: Projection of monastery of St. Gall on Cannaregio, by Christopher Stephen Matthew

The architecture of Venice is characterised by a mastery of light, of chiaroscuro, together with the water and its reflective properties both architects and artists have produced work that is specific and unique to the context that is distinct from any constructed on Terraferma.

Contemporary Venice is a complex array of urban forms that now transcends the historic centre and indeed the lagoon itself and although it is today a centre for the administration of the region of Veneto as well as industries of both banking and insurance, the city faces a series of possible catastrophes that threaten that city’s long-term survival. Whether this is the rising flood plain reclaiming its territories from which the city sprung or the insidious migration of the typical Venetian resident, there is now half the number of people living in the city than those who resided there in 1945.

Venice needs to rebuild itself to avoid the historical ruination of other cities such as Babylon, Petra, and Thebes. However, the sacred connotations of the given examples should also be noted. Desacralisation, further enhanced by the introduction of modernism, is a common anthropological condition and in the case of Venice, we can see the emergence and growth of the city from a cultural perspective in direct relation to the sacred. This studio explored the form of an enhanced contemporary re-engagement with the sacred that may provide a constituent line of direction and dialogue in sustaining Venice.

Studio 3: Cine-Urbanism / Prof Richard Koeck

Cine-Urbanism: Cinematic Mapping, by Callum Allison, Jess Alexander Arnold, Anna Harris

Venice has many stakeholders who show an interest in its territory; and there are arguably tensions between, for instance, the concept of local vs global, old vs young population, employment vs exploitation, culture vs commerce, heritage vs contemporary significance, or, because of its unique geographic location, built vs natural environment. What governs the “image of the city” today; who are its “key agents”; which visible and invisible forces are shaping the city today and in the future? Our investigation and subsequent architectural/urban proposition attempted to go above and beyond conventional architectural approaches and considered three distinct qualities of the city: Cinematography & Scenographic, Time & Rhythm, and Narrative & Space.

This studio focused on creating bridges between analogue and digital cultures; experimented with a wide range of spatial and/or time-based media e.g. film, cinema, game design and story-telling; and tested physical models, virtual models, mobile phones, digital maps, digital data, virtual/augmented realities (VR/AR), mixed reality headsets, real-time-engines, 360 degrees film, scanning or photogrammetry and more. Our ultimate goal was to formulate an urban proposition that is informed by a cine-urbanistic perspective on space, place and people and their active shaping of urban territories.

Studio 4: AuthentiCITY / Dr Francesca Piazzoni

AuthentiCITY: The Venice Paradox, by Lauren Marie Clancy, Emma Hartley, Kate Johnstone

This studio has explored how spatial and political dynamics shape Venice, a city where ideas of “the authentic” greatly impact the everyday lives of those who inhabit it. To some extent, Venice owes its very survival to the “authentic” landscapes that so many tourists travel to see. The iconicity of Venice, however, also marginalizes those who cannot keep up with its touristification. It is not only that construction of “the authentic” favour the displacement of long-term vulnerable residents—e.g., elderly, young families, people with unstable incomes. It is also that those people who do not look or behave according to tourists’ expectations become seen as “out of place” users who must be expelled. This is the case, for example, with immigrant street vendors, whom city ordinances have targeted for displacement and banishment since the mid-2000s. Our studio focused on the needs of these vulnerable groups, thinking through three corporeal and cognitive ways of sensing a city: trespassing, marketing, and inhabiting.

Students sought to mobilize the politics of authenticity, producing more equitable spatial arrangements throughout Venice. Alongside conventional representation techniques, they explored several methods of spatial engagement including thick-mapping, sketching, video-making, as well as individual and collective writing.

Studio 5: Imaginary beasts: ecosystems, scenic mazes and the monumental city/ Dr Rosa Urbano Gutiérrez

Imaginary Beasts: Welcome to the Lido, by Eden Harris, Scott Millington, Matthew Sharp

In a situation of accelerated transformations, cities favour unprecedented reinterpretations of old and new typologies, as well as the emergence of negotiations and synergies between architectural programmes and the natural landscape. Programmes can have an obvious link to production activities (use of natural resources) and an active support of the natural landscape, or can have less evident (subtler or unexpected) connections. The main goal of this studio was to intervene in the territory using an ecosystemic thinking, in which both the artificial and the natural parts work together as a single being. We used the concept of Imaginary Beasts for these new proposed architectures, which all together aimed to create our proposed architectural Bestiary, as a repertoire of architectures that reconcile “incongruent” elements. Bestiaries are books accounting, illustrating and describing both real and imaginary beings. In ancient bestiaries, each creature represented a Christian moral, so that every living being had its own meaning. Like in imaginary beings that unite parts of real functional animal anatomies with the most diverse mythologies, in this studio we sought to design structures that agglutinate urban typologies (artificial/cultural meanings) and natural elements to generate intellectually provoking architectural organisms.

Venice is a city in abundance of unique characteristics that make it exceptional but also fragile. We need creative and brave visions for the future of a city suffocated by tourism and threatened by climatic change. Students were encouraged to use the city as a playground for architectural thinking, and a scenario to test ideas.