C+S’s approach of TranslationArchitecture has been applied to HBB, and it is essential to understand this to understand their design. To further investigate this philosophy and the story behind HBB, I met with Maria Alessandra Segantini in New York who recently arrived from a flight from Italy while on her way to teach a studio at MIT.
Throughout our conversation we discussed the studio’s responses to specific questions proposed concerning the studio and HBB. The appreciation for the project, although noticeably visual, prompts one to delve deeper into the architectural firm’s thinking. The approach is beyond a single building. C+S are convinced that “process is what matters and not the final result of a predetermined model.”
There were many ideas, projects, and topics that were explored during our talk. For purposes of the article in relation to HBB, three main concepts arose that can be applied to architecture and design:
Infrastructure. Infrastructure is a word that is so fundamental to the built environment, that it may have been overlooked in our contemporary world. Maria Alessandra makes it clear that, as our built environment is increasingly produced by private capitals, infrastructures become a key concept as they are to be considered both as the “public” backbones to graft private development and a resource to give structure to urbanism and landscape. This is best represented in their Water Filtration intervention on Sant’Erasmo Island in Venice. When most cities build a water filtration project plant, they seek to provide the functional necessity, however are cities also considering the role a project can play in the larger context of a landscape? Are we devoting sufficient attention and design to our infrastructure?
Translation. Translation is best understood as a “medium” that C+S uses to describe the relation between the design act and the context considered in its complexity of social, political, geo-morphological, climatic, programmatic, historical, historical, economic features, as an opportunity to interact with. In the horizon, the architect is not a “hero with strong muscles” that imposes; rather s/he translates. C+S employs the thinking of potentiality of a space. “Humility helps to see the context, to listen, to best understand the memory of a place.
Culture. C+S believes that “culture reveals itself when shared.” An example would be a Chinese neighborhood in a city such as New York. A particular enclave is very Chinese in the center, although as one begins to move towards the edge, you can see this interaction and exchange between cultures. To understand translation, one is actively involved with the communication of peoples and ideas. The same phenomenon can be applied to places.
When asked about how the culture of Venice is reflected in her work, Segantini explained the necessity of working among disciplines. The DNA of Venice is water. Water meant trading and freedom (Venice is the city of no walls; Voltaire describes it as the city where different cultures meet). The city itself was often built reusing pieces of construction brought from other cultures: the wall on the Side of Porta della Carta in San Marco Square is the most revealing example of that. Maria Alessandra said that the modernity of Venice was the ability of assimilating differences and melting cultures.
The studio Alessandra is teaching at MIT is entitled “Writing Venice.” According to the class description, the studio “introduces students to the theory and practice of urban landscape and to the preservation of the environmental heritage of the context of the Venice lagoon.” The subject matter supports the idea of being “contextually responsible.” It was positive to see in the course description that students are required to “maintain a sketchbook throughout the semester and use it to record ideas, observations and experiences.”
It was interesting to hear about the differences between US and Italian schools. One point of interest that emerged was her commentary that US students see more importance in asking questions, sharing, and exchange. Maria Alessandra makes a comparison between the organization of C+S office and the way she teaches her studios in the Schools of Architecture. C+S is organized in two departments (research and design) who investigate the same topic from two different points of view feeding each other work during weekly meetings.
TranslationArchitecture by C+S emits an approach suitable for projects of varying scales including overlooked infrastructure projects. Below are the questions and responses of C+S that help us with translation and architecture. “No matter the SCALE, the design act is a translation of the complexity of the context.” -C+S Associati
JA. How did your approach of TranslationArchitecture emerge?
C+S. Working on the threshold between architecture, urban design and the design of the landscape, we are interested in reconsidering the complexity of the eco-logic system we are part of and we live in (we are not speaking of green or of the over-used ‘sustainability’), which relates to the study of all the conditions and relations of all the animate and inanimate forms of life inhabiting a specific place. Human beings, in the same way of other constituent elements of the earth ecology, are constantly exchanging among themselves and with the other parts of the system. As we interact with the complexity of the ecological processes and as we work within a discipline which produces signs and forms within that processes, we looked for a medium to represent the interaction of design with the ecological system. More than a systematic method, this is a suggestion we use to describe how we approach our work.
The art of translation, as a constant process of changing while exchanging, or following the re-definition of Lambert and Robyns as the “migration-through-transformation of discursive elements,” becomes a sort of metaphor through which we like to define the way we approach architectural, urban and landscape design, interacting with the complexity of the ecological system.
When we state that the context is always a ‘text’ to be translated, we mean that we need to learn how to speak the language of the specific place where we build, investigating the socio-political, geo-morphological, climatic, historical, programmatic or economical opportunities. We need to investigate materiality together with construction technologies and processes. We need to investigate memory stratified in the people’s habits and expectations. We need to find a way to ‘speak’ to those contexts even understanding the bureaucratic processes, which enables us to build in a specific site. In the ‘liquid modernity’ we live in, the same bits of information can travel very fast but the question is: is it translated in the same way everywhere? Whenever we work on a project we generally try to identify the opportunities of which the project becomes PROTOTYPICAL at the same time trying to project itself beyond its contingencies. Process is what matters and not the final result of a predetermined model.
Design becomes a system of exchange (not only energetic!) with of which the context is a part.
There are some forms which can be, at the same moment, considered synthetic SPECIFICATIONS of the place they are in and universal images of a broader landscape or of a more global culture. To make an example, the Venetian forcola is one of these. Its sensual form is the never-ending result of centuries of refinement of the simple oarlocks used in the Venetian lagoon. It is the expression of the possibility of doing a gesture in at least nine different ways, avoiding being locked but free in the movements (as is acting as a lever at first degree when one is pushing in the water to that of second degree as the oar is moving in the water keeping it in the same position but rotating it). In the same way this detail of the lagoon landscape is a synthetic description of the urban density of a city where long boats are moving in narrow canals and they can’t do that if the oars are not able to be used leaving open the possibilities of changing rapidly the movement of the boat, being able even to stop it quickly.
The forcola translates the complexity of the urban and landscape of the Venice lagoon and re-writes it in design. No matter the SCALE, the design act is a translation of the complexity of the context.
Finally, as we believe that some of the recent architecture was often an assertion of the worst formal effects of Capitalism where the architect, a hero with strong muscles, wins thanks to his force, we like to redefine within our discipline a component of ‘service.’ The translator (I’m speaking of Marguerite Yourcenar translating Virginia Woolf or Pavese translating Hemingway) puts him/herself inside the situation to exploit its potentiality and bridge it into another culture and another time, in an act of humility, serving both cultures, while pre-serving both of them. These are some of the suggestions we use to define our research TranslationArchitecture.
JA. How was having computers as the principal inhabitants of the space lead to something new and different to design for?
Usually we like to think at the spaces we design as ‘sensitive containers’ to be activated by the people using them. This time only few people were going to inhabit the building, only some occasional meetings were going to take place inside it. The real inhabitants are the computers, and they demand very little; they need only particular climatic conditions to work well (humidity and heat control). For the moment they don’t suffer or feel pleasure or have feelings. The idea is that of digging the ground, which is to create an optimal controlled condition for these ‘special inhabitants,’ at the same moment offering our major attention to the materiality of the space we inherited from the past.
A suggestion came from the Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako’s exhibition Mother’s 2000-2005: traces of the future. Miyako works on the concepts of loss and memory. The artist took photos of her mother’s body just before her death and of the objects that belonged to her just after her death, as if they were again just pieces of her skin. The artist’s work is not narrative or didactic, but creates works that ‘‘engage society and history as images” (Michiko, 2005).
These images are created by an intense and almost scientific observation: the wrinkles, the signs of the skin, the scars relate to the transparency of the underwear. In the photographs she has captured a skin that is constantly defoliating and regenerating before our eyes, metabolizing moment by moment, without an instant’s pause… (Michiko, 2005).
The wrinkles, the scars and brick-made walls have had centuries of stratification and transformations. The textures of the wood structure add a new layer, which is made of small transparencies, the photovoltaic cells.
Technology melts with memory. This layer is made of small parts which dance with the existing textures of the walls and the wood structure—the music of time passing. The new layer interacts intercepting the light natural movement and projecting different shadows during every time-part of the day which intensity (and efficacy) is also connected to the weather conditions. It produces energy and, at the same time, shadow.
Going back to translation, according to Haroldo and Augusto De Campos, who have a non-Eurocentric approach, translation is a unconventional act, a kind of ‘cannibalism,’ not considered in the Western culture meaning, but as an act of respect, an act of nutrition—absorbing the properties in a way which is very similar to that of Benjamin/Deridda, for whom the translation is a vital force necessary to the survival of a text. In this sense the translation/design gets rid of the sense of loss and becomes an act of joy and pleasure, re-contextualizing signs, bridging them into a different “time-scapes.”
JA. Why was corten iron used and what qualities lead to its selection?
Corten iron is a material that can often be found in the Venice lagoon. It is linked to the 19th century industrial memory, especially that of the ship making inside the Arsenale. But this is not the reason why we chose it. We are interested in the way materiality and the details we design to express its potentiality, can be representative of a process making, without thinking at a final shape or result, but letting it open. We are interested in working with the idea of instigating the subtraction of matter, a process that will be naturally continued by time. Corten iron is a material for which a process of oxidation has already started. It will continue interacting with the light and the aggressive environment of the Venice lagoon, so that the qualities it has in the moment it is put in place will be always different, time continuing its process of subtracting matter from things. With the same idea, but with a different material (concrete), we worked on the project of the WFP, [or] Water Filtration Plant. The four one meter thick walls are colored to fit in the landscape, but they are ‘disactivated’ and they expose parts of the mix design of the concrete soul (which we designed carefully) differently on their surfaces.
JA. Texture is an important underlying theme in the rehabilitation project. Was it difficult to create a relationship with the pre-existing textures and the new textures? What process or approach led to the successful integration of the contemporary “lantern of light” into the “memory of the building”?
Writing Venice is working with the instability of the water, which the city is built from.
Water is the reflective surface which cuts light into small reflected and vibrating bits. The inside spaces where these bits are projected is activated thanks to their materiality. In HBB, the photovoltaic cells act as small pieces of shadow which cut the light of the glazed roof. They produce both shadows (changing position during every single moment of the day) and energy (the building is designed to be energetically off the grid).
BA. To eliminate the ‘matter’ is the act through which you usually begin a project, with its foundation. Here the void seems to maintain its ancient preeminent role – you have compressed the all the technological and terminal installations inside the new volume and in an underground space. Which is the meaning of the void in terms of space and, if there is some, in terms of symbol?
The Venetian lagoon is a suspended space between earth and water. It is hybrid, ambiguous, with hazy boundaries. For centuries it has been the main character of the story of a hard struggle to preserve a delicate equilibrium between the sea and the earth.
This liquid soil was dammed with precise boundaries, drawn in stone, with this Istria that lights the man-made boundaries of the Venice’s fondamenta (pedestrian streets near the canals). These boundaries are mocked, erased by a mere high tide, a poem about water’s taking back the land, as if the lagoon and the humans were locked in a power struggle.
The constructions of this landscape are blurred either by the sea’s tide and its indecision (the tide itself is the expression of a temporal flow as it grows every other 6 hours) and by the gusts of the wind that make the water’s surface shiver. They become opaque and undefined through the filter of the mist, which, like suspended drops of water, once again erases the boundaries that men have designed and built and which pull “the city outside of time, making it more a-temporal, erasing reflections and anything that has a shape…” (Brodskij, 1991). In this sense erasing is part of the potentiality to write the hybrid landscape of the Venice lagoon.
The other condition is building the void. The urban structure is written by a series of walls perpendicular to the streets (water or paved). This structure is visible outside by the sequence of the windows which are positioned near those walls. This condition allows us to define Venice as the ‘city of void’ as the sequence of void spaces is clear at a first glance.
When we get inside the inhabited space, we see that the very important part of the space is the huge portego (generally positioned in the center). This space is usually not partitioned and it is always described housing very light furnishing, it hasn’t a specific function, it is the main public space of the house and waits to be activated as a circulation or distribution space, as a meeting space, as a leisure space, sometimes even as a storage space. The same urban/structural condition describes also the spaces of work and production. Walls and void space wait to be activated.
HBB project re-writes the void of the space restoring the force of its materiality and introduces very thin glazed walls which preserve the view of the whole. These thin walls can be easily removed if they are no more necessary as if they were a temporary activation. The ‘relict’ in corten steel inside is the space where are compressed all the necessary devices to make that ‘void’ work in contemporary. A similar philosophy was used in the project of the TMM [Maximilian Tower Museum] where the design of the landscape introduces a ‘contemporary embankment’ to house all the service functions and systems to bridge the 19th century Tower monument into contemporary. This approach interests us as it traces a link between the larger scale of landscape design and that of restoration passing through the idea of infrastructure as a backbone to graft the new and the existing.
BA. Venice is one of the most beautiful venues in the world but one of the most fragile. Do you think it is possible for the historical town centre to keep up with the latest technologies such as photovoltaic cells and to install them in order to have self-producing energy?
To be honest with you, we don’t think of Venice as a fragile environment. Its unique condition enables it to resist and to accept modernity at the same time. And this condition was always present in the past. Just to quote one, we remind the refusal of Palladio’s project for the reconstruction of the Rialto Bridge as it appeared as a model not able to cope with the physical, social and economical conditions of that part of the town.
But to write Venice in contemporary, we think that we need to understand the Eastern thinking which Venice culture is much more linked to, in our opinion. Francoise Jullien in A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking describes the Western thinking as based on the principle of action, which means employing certain means with a view of achieving a given end. In the Eastern thinking the subject is not the centre of the action, [does not have] an aim to achieve.
In these circumstances one’s behavior does not result from an application but is determined by an exploitation—a transformation profiting from the potential implied by the given situation. The accumulation of potential tells the subject how and when to act. Every action needs not to be noticed, working in the reign of invisibility more than in that of forms.
We are interested in the work of the Chinese artist Liu Bolin where he melts himself with the landscape, becoming both the subject of his own photos and a part of the landscape itself, he manipulates his own image to become an interference using technological contemporary devices.
With this premise and going back to your question, we don’t think there are good or bad materials, good or bad technological solutions. It is the sophistication of the design process and philosophy which enables to melt the most contemporary technological devices to both landscape and historical contexts such as Venice, making them at the same time specifications and prototypical.