October 12, 2016

Architecture in Rome 2016

AIR16_1Lauren McWhorter and Audrey Reda are the two M.Arch students in the Architecture in Rome program, joined by 24 undergraduate students. We have decided to tag-team this first blog entry on our first week in Northern Italy before we travel to Rome to spend the next 2 months.



Audrey: From the train window Venice rises out of blue waters, hovering just at the line of surface tension. After spending a two weeks traveling before the beginning of the Rome program, this city was a first introduction to the sights and sounds of Italy.  I wasn’t sure what to expect of this famous place I’d heard about since I was small: a city where the streets are all water, a sinking city, a city unlike any other in the world.


Lauren: Stepping off the train, we instantly knew we weren’t in Austria anymore.  There were people rushing here and there with big suitcases, and lots of men with carts ready to take your stuff to whatever hotel you were staying in (turns out, roller bags and all the canal bridges don’t mix well…)  We were bombarded with men trying to sell us selfie sticks and other knick-knacks while we were just trying to find our hotel on the map.  Needless to say, it was overwhelming, but then you see the Grand Canal, the boats going by, and the beautiful architecture, and you’re like, “Yeah. This is Venice.”


Audrey: Something about the Venice inspires a childlike fascination.  Every bridge becomes an unmissable moment. Every ally and narrow, mysterious lane is a chance for discovery.  Getting lost in Venice is easy and intrinsic to discovering what it means to actually be in Venice.  Turning down a blind corridor and backtracking once you’ve realized your path ends at water becomes second nature. There is no wrong direction, just another way of finding a path.


Lauren: I studied Venice briefly in an undergraduate studio I took, so I knew about the canals, the bridges, all of the boats, and the way the streets weave in and out, but it doesn’t compare to actually being there.  Reading about Venice can’t prepare you for the way the streets beg you to get lost in them, the way the dark narrow “alleyway” type streets suddenly open up into a large sunny Campo, or how some streets just end at a boat in the water, where someone has parked it to grab groceries.  It’s a place you can’t really describe or experience until you’ve gone, a place that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Our first day in Venice, we were divided into seven groups and each given a part of the city to explore and analyze.  My group was assigned a piece in the northern part of the city, a quieter part of town full of mostly residential areas.  It’s not a part of Venice that many tourists would ever visit, and that’s why I enjoyed it so much.  I got to spend most of my day sitting in a quiet Campo, sketching and painting, and watching the normal everyday life of the secret Venice that not many people know about.


The next two days we spent at the Biennale Architettura, which is the biggest Architectural exhibition in the world.  The Biennale started in Venice in 1895 as an art exhibition and quickly became an international affair; the first Architecture Biennale was in 1980.


Audrey: Describing the Biennale Architettura is like trying to describe a twenty course meal.  Pictures and words can help, but the essential nuances can only be experienced firsthand.  Entering the Arsenale felt like falling far from the bustle of Venice and arriving in a completely different world.  If I spent an entire month exploring I know I’d still find moments within the exhibits I’d missed before.


Lauren: In a few words, the Biennale was overwhelming in the best way possible.  Never have I seen so many inspiring projects in one location.  Only having two days to see 50+ projects, I was unable to really absorb the depth of each one, but I left feeling re-energized about the architecture profession.  It reminded me that inspiring architecture is happening all over the world, and there are people everywhere that are just trying to make their little corner of the world a little bit better.  Yeah, it was cool.

Audrey: So many expressions of one simple idea woven through the entire Biennale: architecture made for the public, to be enjoyed and used.  Architecture in action.  I won’t deny that I was unable to immerse myself in and take the time to appreciate every one of the many fine exhibits.  From those I did observe, the project by Rural Studio of Auburn University was inspiring.

Having lived in the Georgia and witnessing firsthand the devastation poverty and lack of public space and wreck on a community, it was moving to learn the story of the town of Newbern and how each new space created (from the town hall to the library) positively influenced the resident’s lives.


Additionally, the various element of the Rural Studio exhibit will, upon being disassembled, be donated to a local shelter and reused to create beds and space for the homeless in Venice.

The second day of the Biennale, the Giardini, flowed into the first as each pavilion presented a continuation of the previous theme and stimulated and delighted the senses.  Another day spent exploring each pavilion and wondering at the depth of knowledge presented like an elaborate gift to the world.  Being overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and tactile nature of the event is the minimum standard when some of the world’s top architects and designers are attempting to showcase their work.



However, I found the most successful exhibitions focused on presenting simple ideas in expressive forms.  The Swiss pavilion presented an amorphous, hollow white sculpture within which visitors could climb and discover the beauty of incidental spaces. The Australian pavilion offered a moment of respite with the architecture of the pool, and focused on community building and the social and transformative nature of water.

The Biennale offers so much, and yet like a feast you can never try everything presented at the table.  Even a small bite of each food will quickly fill you.  The exhibitions are rich with ideas and the experience itself leaves you longing for more than just a few hours more to look and touch and sketch everything you might have missed.  Days could pass wandering through the exhibits and still discover more every time you explored.



Audrey: My first introduction to Verona featured two doomed lovers.  Not necessarily the best start, but the story of Romeo and Juliet created an elaborate, dramatic mental stage in which Verona stayed perpetually consistent with the Shakespearian play: cloaks and codpieces included.  The reality is richer and more intricate as old and new mix and melt together.  Roman soldiers attract fanny-packed tourists visiting from around the globe and in the market vendors sell maps, fruit, fans, hats, bread and an assortment of other souvenirs and trinkets.


Lauren: Before we went to Vicenza to stay for the night, we drove out to Verona to spend a few hours and visit Castelvecchio.  Castelvecchio (Italian: “Old Castle”) is a medieval castle is situated right on the river just inside the old city walls, which Carlo Scarpa restored in the 1960s.


The castle has obviously undergone a lot of change over the years and is now an art museum.  In the late 50s, Scarpa (a Venice native) was asked to renovate the museum where he cleverly balanced both old and new, knowing when to expose the history of the castle and when to intervene with new additions, with special emphasis on doors and passageways.


Audrey: Perhaps most impressive is the Castelvecchio Museum, located within the Scala fortress.  The renovation by Carlo Scarpa is both obvious and subtle, the clean lines and dramatic use of light and shadow mixing well with the original architecture.  Venturing inside it is simple to note Scarpa in the details of the building: delicate railings curving just so along the stairs, precision formwork, and combinations of wood and stone and concrete.  Rather than a rude intrusion on the old, these newer particulars fit so well within the 1350’s castle you are left thinking, “of course it looks like that, how could it possibly exist in any other form?”


Lauren: As soon as you come across the old bridge, you can look into the castle and see the horse.  Audrey & I, looked at each other and smiled.  Scarpa masterfully organized the progression of the museum to dance around this statue.  You emerge from the first floor underneath the statue, only seeing it if stop for a minute and look back.  Then you climb some stairs and emerge again on the wall, far above the statue, and then finally you have the chance to see it up close, but slightly underneath, as if to appreciate its grandeur.


Audrey: Even the precarious placement of the equestrian statue of Cangrande I is dynamic and fundamental when observing the garden and the museum.  Visible from various locations on the site, the statue is placed high atop a cantilevered ledge, slightly off centered, as if waiting for one last nudge.  The horse and rider are settled, yet poised for charge.  In the museum, like the city of Verona, there exists a tie to the past and present, while accepting the possibility of change in the future.


Lauren: Vicenza, otherwise known as “Palladio’s City”, is home to many of Palladio’s works of architecture.  Palladio is one of those guys that you know from architecture history class.  I knew that he wrote the “Four Books of Architecture” and his famous “Villa Rotunda”, but I didn’t really get it until I was there and I saw it.


Audrey: Ah, Palladio!  Swoon.

Upon my entry into architectural study I’ve been hearing and learning about Palladio, the Villa Rotunda, and the perfection of the Palladian design.  I doubt anyone taking an architecture theory or history class can escape hearing his name or a reference to at least one of his buildings.  In the beginning I associated the famous architect with the pale shadows I’d seen copied into Floridian McMansions.  However, as I learned more about his works, the theory behind the designs, the simple, elegant conclusions drawn from the observation of form and space my admiration for Andrea Palladio grew.  I am an unrepentant Palladian fangirl.

Visiting Vicenza and seeing the buildings of Palladio in person clarified and expounded upon everything I’d ever read or seen in books.  Actually standing in the Villa Rotunda and walking through the rooms is an experience I will never forget.  How a place can be both bigger and smaller than I’d imagined is beyond my ability to explain.  As many times as I’ve read how inspiring his architecture has been for generations, nothing truly prepares you for the reality of Palladio’s work.  There’s a reason tourists and architects keep returning to his buildings, a reason why they’ve lasted through centuries.  Words like classic and timeless come near to describing it, but somehow enduring is a more apt descriptor as each generation appropriates and accepts that good design lasts and is worth holding onto.



Lauren: Siena is a beautiful hill town in Tuscany.  It has this huge central piazza that slopes like an amphitheater toward the town hall; one of the best uses of public space that I’ve ever seen, and it seems to have a magnetic force pulling everyone toward it.  Someone in our group said they tried to walk away from the piazza, to explore the streets further out, but it just didn’t feel right.  They had to go toward the piazza; it’s the only way to go.


Audrey: The first thought that popped into my mind concerning Sienna was, “Wow, that’s a gigantic fortress.”  My second thought was, “There are so many hills, but the café’s with outside seating on little decks is awfully cute.”  My third thought was, “Why is the big piazza slanting downwards?”  The answer is, of course, because a slanting piazza is the best type of piazza.  Horse racing in the heart of the city, children’s yoga, karate lessons and weary travelers looking for a place to eat gelato all find a home in the large space.  Sienna is a medieval city with a modern heart.  Like Venice, Verona and Vicenza this city remembers and embraces the past, savoring the richness and depth brought on by seasoning.


The architecture is striking and the dense urban fabric is ornately decorated with history.  From the Duomo’s stripped cladding of white and black stone, to the Fonte Gaia within the Piazzo del Campo, every corner holds a story and history passed down through the years. You can’t help but wonder at the length of the city’s memory.

Lauren: We went to the Santa Maria Della Scala Museum which has exhibits down in the old medieval underground tunnels, which in itself was really cool.  Another interesting dichotomy between old and new, using light and dark to really make you feel underground, while also adding new walkways and interesting ways of displaying the artifacts of the museum.


We were pretty happy to spend most of the day in the piazza, observing the people, painting, and sitting in the sun, gearing up to go to Rome where we’ll move into our apartments and stay for two months.  Life on the move is exciting, but I think it’s safe to say we’re all ready to stay in Rome for a while.