In August 2015 a group of students and professors of architecture from USA, Poland and Italy discussed eco-friendly design over “aperitivio” on a terrace overlooking the rolling hills of Tuscany. Just below, directly beneath the medieval defensive wall, laid the ruins of the Roman Theater from 1st century BC. The site for the project was immediately behind it.
The group was in Volterra for the International Design Workshop.
The workshop was organized jointly by the UDM SOA and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation on July 29 – August 8, 2015. In addition to the host team from UDM SOA, students and faculty from three other academic institutions participated in the workshop: University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (USA), Warsaw University of Technology (Poland), and University of Pisa (Italy). Architect James Timberlake from Kieran Timberlake in Philadelphia also attended as a special guest of the workshop to provide the intellectual leadership and connect the students with the most progressive ideas in the architectural profession.
The theme of the workshop was “Society and Technology: Water, Food, Waste, and Energy”. The workshop consisted of three interwoven components: pre-workshop research, a lecture series, and a design challenge.
At the core of the workshop was the unique opportunity for everybody to collaborate over an architectural design problem. The city of Volterra is a wonderful urban laboratory, presenting a great balance of the medieval city scale, form and tradition, contrasted with problems resulting from the needs of a living city organism. The site selected for the design challenge lies just outside of the city’s medieval walls, alongside the ruins of the Roman Theater. The 1st Century BC theater is just one of many structures which remind of the city rich history. A perfect example: on the fourth day of the workshop a discovery was made in Volterra, completely by accident, of a large Roman ruin, most likely an amphitheater from 1st century AD. If confirmed, it will be the first discovery of this kind in Italy in a hundred years. In Volterra an archeological find is almost a daily occurrence, but certainly not at this scale. The history and today are very much entangled in the city: the workshop participants ate every day at a restaurant where there was a roman cistern below their feet, and an Etruscan water well next to the bar. And Massimo – the owner of the restaurant – held with confidence that there were many other cavities behind the walls, probably more ancient spaces nobody ever explored.
Besides its beauty, Volterra, with its close-knit community and small urban scale, offered the workshop participants a very strong sense of connection and contribution to the city culture. The Mayor of Volterra, Marco Buselli, took time to officially welcome the group to Volterra. The meeting took place in the beautifully frescoed Great Council Room of the Palazzo dei Priori, the oldest town hall in Tuscany. Marco, together with other members of the City Council and many residents of Volterra came to the reception and exhibition of the final projects on the last day of the workshop. Students work presented there generated significant amount of interest and discussion among the city officials and residents. The site and its current use is a matter of significant public interest in Volterra. The work presented at the exhibition has been seen as a valuable voice in the discussion about potential directions for future development.
One of the most beneficial aspect of the workshop for the students was the teamwork and collaboration they engaged in. Over the course of ten days, the students had the opportunity to share and confront their ideas and skills in the continuous dialogue with their colleagues and faculty mentors. After all, the most valuable quality in the architectural practice environment today, and one which can be built only through a genuine and continuous collaboration is – in the words of James Timberlake – “the collective intelligence”.