Venice Studio: finishing the 12-day super intensive studio program

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.

Getting started

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.

Development

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.

Production

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:

We began the design process by gathering our initial thoughts on creating sensory experiences in space. These ideas came out of the discussions on what creates a sense of belonging in space. This mindmap helped us share a common perspective on how we approach our design.
The study of precedents primarily focused on dissecting projects into key factors that are relevant to our project. Ideas such as qualities of light and shadow, interaction with water, materiality and scale, and the intensity of air, volume and sound, became important aspects to explore through our design.
Our analysis of Venice as a city consisted of four aspects: the harmony of gracefully aging materials, a sense of intimacy derived from seeing private life in public spaces, a patterned carpet made of streets, canals and land, and the variety of scales of spaces. This analysis made us reflect on how we seek an ‘authentic experience’ in Venice by intuitively wandering around the city for moments of discovery.
The site we worked on is a reclaimed land located between Santa Lucia railway station and Liberty Bridge where the water of the lagoon and the grand canal meet. The site is a product of the economic development and infrastructure in the 19th and 20th centuries that triggered the high influx of people resulting in the over-tourism of the pre-covid time. As we speculate on the future development, we considered how Venice can be a city to live in, not excessively depending on tourism. We believe that the site which has historically been a catalyst for change can potentially become a node for new neighbourhoods around the piers on the west over decades to come.
We produced a new mindmap to define the design directions. We decided to focus on creating spaces where local people can build a sense of connection with the place and communities. We believe that focusing on the human-scale sensory experiences invites people to embrace moments in everyday life.
The limited extent of design intervention allowed us to focus on the spatial experience and details at the human scale, instead of the master planning that tends to lose sensory qualities of space. Although the design is restricted within rectangular boundaries, we treated them as edges of the physical models we created, and not the physical thresholds on site.
The design consists of four zones connected by terrain, each having unique spatial characteristics and programs derived from our analysis. We have Terrain between the Water and Land, Pockets of Interactions, Sound Pavilion, and Where Light and Shadow meet.
We imagined what it would be like to spend time in these spaces as local people. Here are the stories of four Venetians.
As the train slowly came to a halt, Marco took a deep breath. Then, as he got off the train at Santa Lucia station, bathing in the warm morning sunshine, Marco headed to the staff office where he would have a cup of coffee.

Marco is a train driver who lives on the mainland. He used to live on the islands of Venice, but he decided to leave as his friends all moved out of his neighbourhood. So now, Marco visits the island only for work, crossing the lagoon via the rail bridge each day.

Marco’s daily routine is to spend time on the canal’s edge just around the corner from the railway station during the work break. Sitting by the stepping terrain descending into the water, Marco hears the water ebb and flow. Around lunchtime, when the tide is high, he observes the recessed channels bringing water that nourishes grasses and herbs on the land. The reflection of shimmering light brightens the structure clad in terracotta tiles that is constantly changing its shapes. Sometimes Marco would see children playing with water in the open sunken area, which reminds him of when he could swim in the Rari Nantes pool by the canal.
A moment of observing the water and landscape allows Marco to reconnect with the place he grew up.
Hearing sounds of laughter come from the kitchen, Antonio and Maria think back to their youth when they would run around the city freely, lie under trees, gaze at the sky and imagine their futures. the Venice they know today is much more condensed, green spaces a rarity and such spontaneous animated interactions hard to find.

They are drawn to the space with the traces of the city, moments when rainwater hits the terra-cotta roof and flows into the land valleys, light filtering through the tile and flickering on the faces of their friends and family, life growing between the cobblestones that extend to the city. 

Today Maria will teach a pasta-making workshop and Antonio will look for some fresh produce at the market. There is something for everyone here. There is a familiar laughter here as Antonio and  Maria see faces of past lives, familiar faces from their corner cheese shop at a stand in the market, each day a different kind of activity, each moment a different feeling. Perhaps if the day is nice next week they will come again with their grandchildren, perhaps they will see something different in the sky, and imagine their future together as they grow old, in a different Venice that is their own again and for the people.
Soft and light, the morning shade gently sweeps past the soft feathers of seabirds. Romeo, a retired composer, reached out towards his crinkled music sheets, densely scribbling the bars while the birds wonder. The trains moving and ships docking contrasts each other through their grounded and airy sounds. 

Distant and quiet, Romeo gazes across the plot where the aged and irregular bricks stand firmly under the emerging wind. A child runs across the crushed terracotta tiles where delicate but high-pitched tones arise and dissolve. It reminds Romeo the lightness of his childhood wandering across the alleys in the city, gestured by angular and curved terracotta brick walls. He stepped towards the entry.

Round and bright. The surroundings shelled his sightline but towards the neverending sky. The sounds of trains, ships, birds, wind, water and boats would flicker across one another. As Romeo approach the curved partition, a string trio amplified their chords and rhythm towards the thick and dense air. It was Romeo’s piece. Cello reverberates towards the ground as the rubato melts. Violin and viola bounces from sharp openings with tremolo. Notes from the instruments and the city reverberates towards the edge and releases from the centre. 

Intimate and tight, the crowd gathers. Sounds of crushed tiles intensifies as a part of the trio. The feeling of time suspends, yet the rhythm of the city continues.
In one of the shady narrow streets of Venice there is a window from which every morning a young woman Julia peeps out to greet the city that is about to wake up. She leaves the house for work, passing through the dark narrow streets and out onto the square filled with the morning sun. Julia is blinded by the bright and warm light, amazed by the beauty of the long shadows cast by trees and passers-by. But the square is already full of people, noisy and bustling, so there is no place for calm thinking and loneliness…

Julia considers Venice her home, because she was born, raised and stayed here despite the fact that all her school friends left the city in pursuit of a more comfortable life.
She works as an apprentice in a Venetian mask workshop, spending most of the day there every day. Coming to work, she enters a small room with a small window overlooking the courtyard and leaves only in the evening, when the sun’s rays illuminate the city with pink light. 

Returning home, she looks at the illuminated tops of the multi-colored buildings and their shivering reflection in the water, but the warm light is too high and she will not see the sun again today…But if only there was a place where Julia and other local could come at lunchtime, meet sunsets, admire the light and shadow in calm and tranquility, without being distracted by the noise of tourists.
In conclusion, we would like to say that the spatial impressions of Venice are expressed in the scale of its streets and canals, the play of light and shadow, reflections in the water. We wanted to emphasize these features and create similar experiences in a territory woven into the context of Venice.
It is also very important to create conditions for the preservation of the city’s population, its crafts and traditions, without harming the existing ecosystem, to create space not for temporary tourists, but for local residents.

Conclusion…

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s