In early January, I was fortunate to be offered a spot in the intensive studio program called Venice Studio. Venice Studio consisted of a series of design studios led by 19 architecture firms, and I got into the one run by Paris-based firm Moreau Kusunoki.
There were four of us including myself in the studio from three different cities: Melbourne, Paris and Ufa in Russia. The main means of communication was Zoom / Teams sessions that started around 11pm/12am each day until 2am Melbourne time. Before I accepted the offer, I could foresee what would happen at the end of the program – sleep deprivation while juggling it with my new 9-5:30 job – but I thought it would be worth it.
I was excited to work with students from other countries who have unique experiences, and it was amazing to find out that we all shared the same interests in sensory experiences and phenomenology. Anyone who has done group assignments knows, that having great teammates is the greatest luck you can have.
The provided brief was very much open-ended; while the focus of the final outcome was on human scale spatial experiences, there was no set programmatic requirement specified. This later became a challenge, especially since we only had a week and a half to resolve our design to present.
Research & Analysis
We began the design process with precedent research and context analysis. Precedents we selected (mostly the places we have individually visited in the past) featured spatial qualities we were interested in exploring – use of light and shadow, the tactility of materials, proportion and scale, the interaction with the landscape, responding to the heritage of the place, etc. Studying Venice as a city largely explored what makes Venice Venice; as I reflect on our work, it’s a surprise that we didn’t pay much attention to iconic buildings or building typologies. Clearly, we all had subconsciously agreed on looking into the morphology of the city and its characteristics that invite people to wander the local neighbourhood intuitively.
We were provided with such an interesting site (it was called “Rari Nantes”, the former name for the swimming association that established a pool located within the site) located on the north-west edge of Venice (the historic islands). The layered historical contexts of the site and its isolated nature gave us ideas for how we can activate the space.
After the discussions based on the initial research and analysis, we felt that we need a clear design direction that directly responds to the site context. The first mindmap appeared “too pretty” according to studio leaders – we agreed that we need something that is beyond a mere “sensory experience”, something inherent to the place. The development of this mindmap throughout the process reflected how we evolved our ideas and eventually clarified what we were trying to achieve. Another feedback we received was to speculate the future of the site and surrounding areas. It made us broaden our attention to the issues and challenges local people are currently facing – namely, over-tourism, the heavy economic dependence on it, and the subsequent loss of the local population. We also considered climate change and the sea level rise, but we didn’t want to respond to them with engineering solutions.
The future speculation led us to believe that one way to combat the issues is to make the site another “catalyst for change” – to be the place for local people to gather and eventually to establish neighbourhoods in the nearby piers and industrial area over time (just like piers in Amsterdam). Since the formation of the site WAS the catalyst for change – a product of economic development and infrastructure, leading Venice to become a mecca for tourists – we felt that it can be a place that empowers local people in the future.
Now, the biggest challenge was balancing the scale of design. The brief was not about master planning, and we wouldn’t have had enough time to resolve a master plan into human-scale details. However, at the same time, we were still struggling to define the scale and extent of the design intervention that wasn’t too small and didn’t appear responsive to the site contexts.
We then attempted to define zones with different identities and how they are woven into one. Here, the challenge of identifying programs came in. Is “a place for contemplation” too vague? Can it be a temporary workshop space, flexible and adaptive for different activities, or is it too undefined? Can it be a shell and modular spaces inside? The open-ended brief originally seemed like freedom, but eventually, we realised that it is one of the hardest decisions to make.
Due to the time constraint, studio leaders proposed setting rectangular spatial limits to four zones (one zone per student), located next to each other to form a linear shape. We spent a fair bit of time trying to understand what those spatial limits mean – they are not “hard boundaries” or physical separation from the rest of the site, rather they are the “samples” of how the site is used. From that point, we could move on to developing individual designs at a human scale, re-calibrating our focus to spatial experiences.
One of the favourite aspects of this studio was that the final deliverable was a series of physical models, photographed and stitched together. It was the first time I didn’t produce any presentation orthogonal drawings – it was so thrilling that physical models were all we had to communicate spatial compositions, programs and sensory experiences. We also decided to overlay illustrations of people and plants to suggest what it’s like to be there.
Model making is one of my enjoyment. Since I had a little amount of time for making a model, photographing and polishing the images for presentation (Sunday all day & after work on Monday night), it was a bit more hectic than I had hoped… Many trials and errors for finding the right materials (there were a few “yeah nah” moments) while forgetting to eat.
Below is the process of making my part of the model:
Wrap up & Presentation
One thing we as a team loved was to tell stories about local people visiting the spaces we designed, rather than to rationally explain how spaces work. We didn’t want it to be yet another monotone, linear communication of ideas (concept – development – rationalisation (and occasional post-justification) – “and here it is the final outcome”), but also we wanted the audience to feel like they are there, or like listening to someone reading a picturebook.
Below is our final presentation:
PDF version for zooming into details (scroll down the article for slides with spoken words)
With spoken words:
Lastly, I’d like to thank team members, Lee, Ariadna and Johnathan, and studio leaders, Hiroko, Nicholas, Angelica and Ariane, for such an exciting and rewarding experience! The program was certainly challenging (both physically and mentally), but it provided me with a different perspective on how to approach design and how to communicate design considerations for people.