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San Basilio urban strategy

Part 2 Project 1998
Sarah Bickford
University of Edinburgh Edinburgh UK
Group project with

Graham Ryder, Philip Crowe, Kate Mallet

San Basilio, to the south-west of Venice, has a number of important urban characteristics. A massive brick wall (which thickens in areas to allow inhabitation) snakes across the site dividing it in two parts, one half dominated by the warehouse buildings of the Stazione Marittima, the other consisting of traditional (although dilapidated) Venetian campi, houses and churches. To the south a wonderful waterfront, formed from the raised plateau on which the warehouses sit, overlooks the Giudecca Canal.

To develop an urban strategy plan, a series of intensely analytical exploratory exercises were undertaken focusing on the area's urban, historical and social fabric and the potential of the wall, waterfront and other elements. Complex horizontal and vertical relationships were studied in an effort to interweave the area's existing and possible future characteristics with proposed activities, buildings and public spaces. Thus a multi-dimensional framework was elaborated to guide the proposals.

Four small-scale projects (an Orientation Centre, a Scottish Universities Institute, a Hotel and Clinic
and an Arts Cinema) tested the urban strategy. Each developed in view of the programmatic distribution that had evolved from studying the possible routes across the site and their articulation with the city beyond. The promotion of social interaction and the use of public space was a constant concern.

The building for IUAV (an international competition) was the culmination of the thesis, and terminated the island of San Basilio physically and psychologically. It has three principle elements: (i) the ground plane (sculpted into layers which are integral with the new building, and which disintegrate toward the western end [the erosion of the concrete plateau as it meets the city]); (ii) two linear blocks that relate to the warehouse buildings and which are interwoven with (iii) a timber structure that develops the brick wall running through San Basilio and which performs various functions - circulation space, floor, cladding, sun shading, bridge, etc. It is prominent when it is needed and disintegrates when it is not. The resultant building incorporates a complex array of internal, semi-internal and external spaces, reflecting the rich urban patterns of Venice. The building is a microcosm of the city.
Sarah Bickford

This group project is one of the strongest and most complex that I have seen produced by students. I consider it exceptional. The images that accompany this submission show only a fraction of the material produced.

The innovative nature of the analytical tools developed for studying the site is immediately striking. 'Analytical' is already too weak a word; the students maintained a great sensitivity to the productive aspects of their studies. The various models and constructions already, even as they analysed the site, gestured toward ways of engaging it architecturally. This productive momentum is evident throughout their studies. It develops into a collective work, which is genuinely a thesis - it elaborates and substantiates a proposition, about the site and its relationship with the city. The programmatic elements are not simply 'givens'; they too are developed as part of the argument.

The group started by mapping the site in various ways: the play of light across it, the effects of the dividing wall, and social usage (by giving one-use cameras to types of inhabitants). They constructed interpretative models of the waterfront; of strips of buildings on either side of the wall; and of strategies for 'breaching' it. They developed 'archaeological' studies, examining the play of solid and void; and they studied potential routes of varying velocities and characters ('garden paths' etc). This opened onto a strategic programmatic dispersion within which specific sites and relationships were anchored. A remarkable model was built to investigate this. Four small projects were developed based on sites within the programmatic field; finally a design was produced for a new IUAV building (the school of architecture in Venice).

The critical stance that the students took up was constantly alert. What was at stake was finding an architectural approach that was adequate to Venice itself; and this meant constantly forgoing many of the usual pieties. More than simply an interpretation, the project confirms Venice in its extraordinary complexity. The scheme, taken as whole, has a vital, socially engaging open-endedness; and this is achieved not through reduction but through a constantly stimulating and enquiring elaboration.

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