Design Driven Research: Fragility as Agent of Innovation
“Designer are always understood as solving a problem. Artists, intellectuals, and writers are expected to ask questions, to make us hesitate, to see our world and ourselves differently for a moment, and therefore to think. Why not design as a way of asking questions? Why not design that produces thought-provoking hesitations in the routines of everyday life rather than simply servicing those routines? Why not design that encourages us to think? Design as an urgent companion species have become?” (Beatriz Colomina & Mark Wigley, Are we human?, Lars Müller, Zürich 2016/18)
We intend to take into the Final Thesis Studio themes that are already under observation in our School and University, considering the ending of the Master a gate open to the practice of architecture and also to research activities to be driven into academic and not academic institutions. In these years, our department of Architecture and Urban Studies (DAStU - Polimi) is developing a large research program called “Territorial Fragilities”, which gathers a large number of researchers and candidates of the doctoral programs PAUI (Architectural urban and interior design), UPDP (Urban Planning Design and Policy) and CBA (Preservation of Architectural Heritage).
What is fragility? It is “the quality of being easy to break” (Cambridge Dictionary); fragile means “a: easily broken or destroyed; b: constitutionally delicate: lacking in vigor” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). That is, fragile is something, or someone, which tend to evolve into a state of alteration, or to its destruction. Then, fragility means that the status quo is no more stable and it has to, or it is going to, change: this is a perspective that embodies destruction and regeneration, catastrophic and cathartic events, but also, and it is equally important, it suggests a possibility of evolution, of a better status.
In other words, fragility can be assumed as a relevant factor of innovation. Since that, it should be easy to come to the point that everything is fragile, but for the ones who study territorial transformations, it is convenient to imagine that we look at places, settlements and constructions where the levels of fragility have some evidence, or where is ongoing a process of weakening, of “fragilization”, which is a threat, an attempt to forcedly change an existing state, a situation.
In the Italian context, Fragility is mostly the weakness of the underpopulated and abandoned villages and countryside on the Apennines, where agricultural activities are no more profitable, and where people prefer to leave their homes and fields to reach the coasts and the cities, looking for a modern and comfortable life.
There is a large debate about the different strategies that could revitalize these regions, but, of course, there is no recipe to solve a problem that last from a century, at least, and that is evolving along many different perspectives. Arts and crafts enterprises, biological agriculture, migrant hospitality, green tourism, accommodation for elderly people, are just some of the many ideas and projects which sometime success in giving a new life to environments suffering of process of abandon and decay.
For us, the question is: how can architecture elaborate answers for these areas? How can we imagine a new future, new settlements, new facilities and lifestyles? How to give a promise of a better horizon, a vision of growth and health, of social and economic wellbeing?
In this frame, we want to test an option based of the capacity of architecture in transforming the environment, in giving new life and energy to places, in establishing new points of interest, attraction, and production. So, the goal is to define a set of tools that, in different conditions, can be used to reclaim and transform neglected, ruined, abandoned places.
In a way, we think that we can take out of the city some of its characters, in terms of density, of visual impact, of quality, of appeal. Our challenge is: how to express this intention in practical design terms. We can choose among so many references that we decide to go straight to a sample that, under many aspects, is a perfect representation of the city without the city, embodying all its symbolic and political elements without the real matter of it.
This sample is the Acropolis of Athens, maybe the most relevant architectural place, in Europe, and the clearest representation of how architecture can fix a centrality, a point of reference, for an entire territory (that, in this case, is the entire western civilization). Then, looking at the august acropolitan sample, we can decipher some guidelines that can be used to establish a program, a generic one, that can be applied and developed in many different situations.
The most important character of the Acropolis is that it is composed of three buildings that are completely different and specific, under any profile. The Propylaea, is the more urban of them, a building that is a gate, a point of transit from the wilderness of the mountain, located in the center of the city, and the monumental architectural compound on the top of it. The Erechteion is the more introflexed, a complicated and stratified sum of parts, of different ages and destination, with a relatively low impact on the surrounding, with the exception of the sculptural presence of the Cariathidis. The third is the most iconic, the Parthenon, that is the landmark that keeps all buildings and space together and that represents the possibility that is relevant mostly for the effectiveness of the spatial relation with all that is around it.
Simplifying at the extreme, these three buildings create a pattern, a model of settlement, that can be taken and repeated in whatever situation, in any place that needs a new centrality, new quality, new public space and architecture. Therefore, the Studio will start from this double reference: the Acropolis as a model, the internal depressed areas as project sites. In Italy, there is now a strong attention on these problematic areas and a consistent bibliography, that, unfortunately, is rarely in English. Then, we’ll provide accessible information and data about this, and we are also open to include, as site areas, places out of Italy, if the proponents can take an acceptable information about it. On the other side, we’ll give some critical views on the Acropolis and its buildings, focusing on the process of synthetize their qualities in an architectural system to be applied in the aforementioned sites and conditions.
The students, after an initial briefing, will choose the site, among a list of selected possibilities, and will develop their projects following this acropolitan system: three main buildings and a landscape system of open spaces. We encourage teamwork, with a maximum of three students per group, and we ask to elaborate architectural projects fully developed at all scales and represented through drawings and models: the positioning into the site (1:2000/1:1000) masterplan and landscape (1:500), architectural design (1:200/1:100) and details, mostly of the facade, at scale 1:50. We plan to have some initial lectures and then regular weekly reviews, with a midterm check, approximately after the first two months, and a final review at the end of the semester.
The studio will be divided in three main sections, with three specific assignments regarding the comprehension of the site and the elaboration of the program (1), the preliminary project (2), the final project (3):
1. a first assignment is the presentation of the analysis of the chosen site, with a complete drawing of the existing physical situation, with site plan, model, sections, and all the necessary documents, and a clear program for the architecture to be designed.
2. a second assignment is the presentation of the concept of the project, with diagrams, models, references, and all the other useful documents.
3. a third assignment is the presentation of the project, to be made at the end of the course. This is intended as a proof and a preview of the exam presentation, and has to be composed of all technical drawings and models at the adequate scale.
Also the contribution of the course of representation (COMPUTATIONAL DESIGN AND REPRESENTATION TECHNIQUES, prof. Andrea Rolando) will be developed in three phases, referring to critical analysis of specific study cases:
1. Initial brief. Site analysis and design intentions: techniques of analysis of the site of project, addressed to outline the characters of the place and the landscape in which it is immersed, that can be used to develop a site-specific design proposal (sketch book, diagrams, maps, plans and sections of multiscalar territorial references);
2. Midterm review. Design development: drawing techniques to address a correct and clear representation of the project, with specific suggestions about the possible strategies and tools to be used to translate the design intentions into a design proposal, also in terms of communication of the process (sketches, maps, elevations, sections, isometric, renderings and perspectives, maquettes);
3. Final review. Design Presentation: comments and hints to achieve an effective communication of the final solution of the project for the exam (presentation of the project in three slides).
Specific references from contemporary design experiences and study cases will be given during lectures.