Venice — in the flesh and on the Web
Architecture students share study abroad experiences using Internet technology
|This is one of the ‘virtual Venice’ design projects created by students in the Architecture School’s study-abroad program. An exhibit featuring the students’ work will be displayed in the school’s Elmaleh Gallery Jan. 19-26.
By Jane Ford
As the fall semester came to a close, architecture professors William Sherman, Peter Waldman and Earl Mark sat together in the Naugahyde Lounge just inside the School of Architecture’s entryway. Sherman’s laptop rested on the table in front of them, about six feet away from a 52-inch TV monitor and a camera focused on the three. The professors were engaged in thoughtful conversation.
However, they were conversing not with one another but with 16 architecture, landscape architecture and architectural history students located more than 4,000 miles away. The group was participating in the school’s semester-long program in Venice, Italy.
As they discussed their work, Sherman called up the Web log pages (http://www.arch.virginia.edu/venice) where the students posted the progress of their design projects throughout the semester. Through the computer broadband feed to the TV screen, the professors and students and Venice could see and hear one another.
The virtual conversation was part of a semester-long experiment that allowed the students abroad to remain in contact with Charlottesville faculty and students and to critique and talk about their projects. In addition to the Web log postings and conferencing, the school also set up a dedicated computer kiosk at U.Va. where professors and students could view and comment on the progress of each Venice student’s project throughout the semester.
U.Va. students have been traveling to Venice to study since 1979, when then-architecture professor Mario di Valmarana set up the study-abroad program to introduce students to the architecture of his native city and the works of 16th century architect Andreas Palladio. Palladio’s use of proportion, color, light, form and movement in Italy had a profound influence on Thomas Jefferson’s design of the Academical Village.
This past fall, students in the Venice program also helped to contribute to the ongoing research about the city and worked with those who are planning its future.
“In Venice, the issues of architecture and landscape architecture are inseparable,” said Sherman, the Mario di Valmarana Associate Professor of Architecture and chairman of the School of Architecture’s recently combined architecture and landscape architecture program.
“The uniqueness of Venice brings issues to the surface that may not be readily evident with another project,” he added. “The students are looking at it as a living city, not just history.”
The virtual experiment took the experience abroad to a new level and fostered “further integration of technology into the curriculum,” said assistant professor Nicholas de Monchaux, who, with assistant professor Cammy Brothers, accompanied the students to Venice. Brothers, an expert in Italian Renaissance architecture, focused on the city’s architectural history, providing the students with a foundation for their
research. De Monchaux, whose own work centers on urban design, ecology and digital media, led the design studio.
Integrating technology into the curriculum is a priority at the school. The program combined the students’ computer skills with Web log software technology that is the next wave in allowing people to communicate using images and text.
Students posted their work on their personal Web log page and received online comments from teachers and fellow students in Charlottesville and elsewhere. “It’s like a book that everyone can write in and see everything as well,” de Monchaux said. “The students really
appreciated that give and take.”
Unlike other study-abroad programs, the Venice program has no fixed physical structure in the city. Since 2002, students have had a designated studio space where they gather and work. They live in apartments in a residential area near the Piazza San Marco and, although they are integrated in the life of the city, they often feel isolated from real issues confronting the unique urban landscape of Venice, where the man-made and natural worlds are in a constant tug of war.
With the full support of the school, de Monchaux set about to remedy this. In addition to “virtually” opening up their work to their faculty and peer community in Charlottesville, he also helped foster new relationships among Italian students and Venice’s professionals to further invest the students into the city’s architectural and planning issues.
Students met with more than 40 governemnt officials, citizen’s groups and all parties reviewing the ongoing projects in the city to which the students contributed design research.
For their design projects, students adopted one of two issues facing the city, which allowed them to research community-based problems now confronting the local professionals. One project tackled the problem of navigation and tourist transportation on the canals and waterways that are the vehicular thoroughfares of Venice, which is a major concern in a city of 60,000 inhabitants that attracts more than 12 millions visitors each year.
The second focused on the design of a planned national park, which would provide tourism options and protect the lagoon.
“I am proud of the way they became citizens of the city and the program,” de Monchaux said.
As the students and faculty return to U.Va. for the spring semester, the connections and friendships they made will continue. An exhibit featuring the student projects will be displayed in the schools Elmaleh Gallery from Jan. 19 through 26. On Jan. 21, students will have their final design review with faculty in Charlottesville, and invited professionals in Venice, Rome and Delft, who will participate using the schools technology. A print publication of the student work will be sent to those involved in the projects in Venice. A virtual conversation about the publication will take place later in the spring with participants in Charlottesville and Venice.
“The program is fulfilling a true cultural exchange there,” Sherman said. “It’s something we have always wanted to do and plan to build on each year.”