MArch Unit 5 take on Venice

MArch Unit 5 Leaders – Diana Cochrane and Adam Cole

Unit 5 is interested in architecture’s ability to be complex and ambiguous, to be strange and to tell stories. We think architecture is first and foremost a cultural practice, capable of representing more than its own silent self. Like songs and monasteries, architecture can be a repository for the fragile stories and conditions that would otherwise be lost.

This year Unit 5 is turning its attention south of the river to London’s shabby cousin, a hinterland of low-rise sprawl and failing housing projects. It wasn’t always like this. Historically, being outside the City of London allowed it to be a place of pleasure and freedom. It was where you came for bear fighting or music halls, theatre or circus.

Our inner psycho-geographers contend this version of South London is not dead but merely sleeping, It’s still there under the grain of the streets, in the collective memory, and capable of being revived. We will find these stories, draw them, model them. But to turn them into potent architectural strategies we need a catalyst, a counterpoint – that’s why we decided to visit Venice, where the tradition of the Grand Tour has profoundly influenced London’s architectural landscape over the centuries.

Scanning in Venice

The Tour took in many cities but Venice is unique in seemingly having the capacity to be all things to all people, to have the ability to make manifest one’s greatest convictions and to hold a mirror to one’s desires, to be capable of supporting multiple narratives within the same physical space.

We will use this power to develop our own emerging ideas to take back to London. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin went to Venice, finding there the embodiment of all he felt to be true in architecture. His resultant book “The Stones of Venice”, is our guide, but whereas he took a measure and pencil we took a 3D scanner to sample the fabric of the City. We selected and want to revisit in 3d in 2014 some of the elements of Venice that he chose. So we visited the current Fellows at the Venice Biennale British Pavilion and the University of Venice to share and learn more about the science of 3d scanning.

Back in London our unit projects will be stitched into multiple sites throughout Elephant & Castle & Walworth. Our briefs are concerned only with the reintroduction of pleasure, in all its forms, back into the tired urban grain. This won’t be an urban makeover or regeneration gloss, but deep surgery. Like a coral transplant into a dying reef, our Venetian strategies, if inserted with enough skill and conviction, might just heal the whole.

Noah Carter, 4th year student commented on his time in Venice:

“The two words most frequently heard when one mentions Unit 5’s work – concerned, geographically, with a piece of south London stretching the length of Walworth Road to Elephant and Castle – and our 11 day Grand Tour are: “why Venice?”

Noah’s sketch

On one level the awe of merely being in Venice, and its inexorable overload of sensory inspiration, is justification enough, but, like John Ruskin, himself spending his early childhood in Camberwell, and the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Grand Tourers before him, we also recorded, measured and analysed the city; where they used sketchbooks and etchings, we used 3D scanners.

Personally, I have always been an analogue person, understanding buildings by drawing them – a process which forces you to work out how they fit together – and there was plenty of opportunity to use this as a method of recording, but it was just one mechanism in our triumvirate of sketching, photographing and 3D scanning. It was genuinely exciting to be using the digital process of scanning, both with handheld devices and the sophisticated FARO scanner, in an almost unprecedented way which opens up a whole realm of architectural possibility yet to be explored.

We return, not only with the unique architectural experience of Venice, but also a library full of scans – both spatial and detailed, varying in scale from courtyard to capital – and an appetite for creating a new piece of city in Elephant and Castle as complex, daring and delightful as Venice.”

Lizzie Innemee, 5th year student said:

“Before coming to Venice, we were somewhat familiar with the work of Carlo Scarpa. We had seen the textbook pictures of his work; the beautiful proportions and intricately designed details. However, if were under the illusion that we fully understood Scarpa, then we were about to be proved wrong.

The most fascinating aspect of Scarpa’s work is it’s absolute marriage with place and context. His sensitivity towards combining old and new, careful manipulation of natural lighting, his use of water and framing views, gives each of his projects something so personal to it’s particular setting, that cannot be repeated anywhere else in the world.

Lizzie’s sketch

In the Fondazione Querini Stampalia museum, Scarpa willingly allows the canal water to enter the building, and with gradual steps he is welcoming the ebb and flow to become an animated part of the building. In a place where all efforts are put in to block out the flooding; doors are blocked, shops are closed, walkways are erected; Scarpa has done the opposite and embraced this characteristic of Venice as something beautiful.

His restoration of Castelvecchio playfully combines the medieval with the modern, casting dramatic shadows and teasing curiosity to draw people through to the next space. As well as being playful and daring, Scarpa shows his most sensitive side at the Brion Cemetery where he carefully frames the view of the tomb and distant landscape to give the viewer a moment of time to look and reflect.

Through the eyes of Scarpa, we have learnt how to appreciate details which may otherwise have been overlooked and has given us a richer and more intimate experience of Venice.”

For further information and to view videos and other images of their time in Venice, please visit the Unit 5 blog.