The aim of the Architectural Design Studio 1 is to research “on the field” the relationships between the physical metamorphosis of an existing urban landscape and the changes in its environmental qualities and social relevance.The chosen site for the design exercise is located in Milan’s urban fabric. Although sited in context which shows a clear urban structure, produced by a series of facts in time which determined its shape and architectural substance, the area is waiting for a new program and role, respectful of its features but responding to the values and needs of a contemporary metropolis.
The design program will include a number of different functions of different nature, capable of generating a building complex enhancing urban life, plus the creation of a meaningful public open space in the form of a new square or urban garden. The design task covers a quite demanding range of scales and themes, from the urban design level and the design of open spaces to the precise definition of an architectural artefact at rather detailed scales through drawings and models.
The Studio will offer visits to Milano’s post-WWII architecture, lectures on specific subjects by the teachers and guest critics, and reviews of the student design work, alternating individual moments with collective ones.
1.1 Permanence and change of urban structures
What we call urban design could be seen as an act of “grafting” a new organism onto an existing one, introducing a new physiology in an existing pattern. Rather than the mere application of an abstract model, a new urban intervention is the result of a complex interplay between the typological and morphological paradigms that a design culture feels appropriate in a point in time and the conditions and limits of a specific place and its context.
As in biology structures and organs change to perform new roles, so the topography of an existing environment creates a number of physical constraints and resources which can in time host unexpected activities and lifestyles. In the occasion of an urban transformation, what exists (in a physical sense, but also seen as a “habit”, a “custom” or an expectation) interacts in more than one way with the projections of possible new words onto this background.
Starting from an interpretation of the area chosen for the studio project, the course will propose a reflection on the complex relationship between spaces and uses, taking into account the different ways people transform and appropriate urban spaces in their daily activities. This relationship will be discussed at different scales and for different types of urban actors, with reference also to modes and rhythms of use, in a dynamic perspective of urban change.
1.2 New urban environments
While treasuring the experiences of good design practices of the recent past, the conditions and goals of today lead us to reflect on the urban phenomenon in an innovative way. The new demands of our society – the blurred borders between living, working and leisure spaces, a collective sensibility toward ecological issues, the need to redesign modes of transportation in the modern metropolis, the questions raised by multicultural society - do not act as a “program” onto which construct from scratch, but should rather be used as a “check” of a tentative spatial hypothesis pursued through culture and innovation. As opposed to the approach of the first modern age and its obsession for the “degree zero”, a contemporary designer should to be aware of the complex resonances every act or spatial decision can create, recombining known events in unseen configurations.
How can we design collective places today, and the in-between spaces which act as “buffers” or mediators between the individual dimension and the public one? Today’s metropolitan dimension - with an increasing “transient” population whose social focuses or modes of aggregation are often quite far and independent from their physical neighbours - adds a problematic side to the design of shared spaces.
The design of contemporary public spaces can today be seen as the intersection between a “spatial” dimension – determined by the geometry and the surface quality of the architectural envelopes which surround – and “environmental” one, relating to the texture of the surfaces we walk or sit on, the colour, smell and texture or the plants, the radiation of the sun, air temperature and humidity, the way spaces reflects or absorbs sounds and the movement of people in them.
1.3 A recursive design method
The overall philosophy of the studio is that a form is not logically contained in a program, and it cannot be mechanically derived from it through a deductive logical process. We can only work by guessing a draft hypothesis on the base of our insights and culture and quickly subject it to intense criticism by confronting it against experimental data. As Christopher Alexander says, we can only check “misfits” or “malfunctions” on a first hypothesis and ameliorate it until they reach a satisfactory state.
In this sense, rather than deducting the scheme from the site itself, we have to confront our formal “prejudices” (an intentionally disturbing way to name our models) with the limitations of the place.
Fragments or deformations of existing paradigms, both at the urban and architectural scale, can be freely used in the actual design phase, and this “sampling” method is welcomed; but the student is responsible for the choice of which one to pick and the transformations needed to fit the requirements of the program and site. This proposed “recursive” mode appears to constitute a contemporary alternative to the “modernist” one, treasuring its functionalistic attitude without ignoring the resilient capacities of existing forms.
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