6th Jul 2021 — An Italian Workshop in the time of Covid: Milan…

An Italian Workshop in the time of Covid: Milan International Design Studio (MInDS)

A year ago Milan had been a centre of the Covid epidemic in Italy. The planned workshop had been postponed for 15 months while both our countries struggled to gain control over the pandemic. I arrived in Milan as the lockdown eased, both here and there. I left it to the last minute to decide to travel there in person. When the government’s 17 May announcement permitted transit to amber countries, I took my chance to escape…. to warmer climes, the company of people and a project free from the bureaucratic roadblocks found in practice.

Students working in the open-air hall of POLIMI architecture department

The Politecnico di Milano (POLIMI) lies to the east of the city centre in a campus absorbed by urban growth. Architecture is housed in a building by Vittoriano Viganò (1970-83), originally intended as an exhibition building. The open air basement, configured as a triple-height forum, provides a cool collective workspace for students seeking respite from the heat of summer. I wondered how it worked in winter, when snow lies on the ground.

Map of Milan indicating key landmarks in orange and in green, the site (bottom) and POLIMI (top)

I was one of eight architect teams invited to run a two-week workshop with graduating Masters students, the culminating class of their final year. All studios were given the same brief: to design a regenerative masterplan for the site in Porta Romana destined to be the centre of the Athletes’ Village of the 2026 Winter Olympics.

Introduction to the studio project
Map of Milan rail yards, with the site highlighted

Formerly a two hectare swathe of subterranean train shunting yard on the city fringe, the site is already the focus of regenerative potential stimulated by the Prada Foundation’s location immediately to the south. Milan has developed ambitious plans over the past twenty years, seeking to consolidate its position as one of the most vibrant creative manufacturing economies of northern Europe. Locations such as City Life to the west and Porta Garibaldi to the north are set to be matched by development at Porta Romana in the south, all linked through by new green circle of parks and landscapes.

Porta Romana
Porta Romana site with Prada Foundation tower visible on left
Site Plan

My studio comprised 21 students, 20 of whom were female. We started work on Saturday 19 June with an intro to the context behind the project and the city’s plans for transformation. A public competition for the athlete’s village has already been held and won; I did not look at this, not wishing to taint my thinking. Sunday followed with an extended exploration of the site on foot.

Student research reports

Students worked in teams to develop a collective proposal that addressed all scales of operation. Initially divided into seven groups, we asked them to research a series of topics to develop a deeper understanding of the site’s character and how it could respond to the changes expected of it over the next 50 years. Students explored themes of urban development/historical analysis, demographics, flexible housing models, sustainable futures, topography, ecology and construction techniques.

Students presenting their research topics - pin up
Students presenting their research topics - digital presentation

Sharing these issues, we then split the team into three groups of seven people. Working at three scales (home, block and masterplan) we spent a day and a half developing solutions in response to our knowledge of the site gleaned earlier.

At the end of one week we had a template urban plan, a set of rules for block sizes, heights and relationships to the street and a range of flexible housing types suited to old and young, families and singles, shared households, students and athletes. This gave us a menu for a set of facilities that would make this a true neighbourhood, all set in a landscape with something to offer all comers and resilient to the inevitable effects of climate change.

Students working at 3 scales: home, block and urban plan
Students working out the heights of adjacent model sections

The culmination of the studio was the production of a model of the proposal at a scale of 1:200. This was no small feat because this meant a size measuring 5m x 2m. To complete it, students reverted to their original groups comprising three people. The eastern half the site was divided into six strips and, just as in a real site, each group had to negotiate with neighbours on the elements that crossed this divide, be it landscape or building.

Students working on the model
The model taking shape!

Absurdly ambitious, the students rose magnificently to the challenge. After 12 days from the kick-off event, the final model came together as a stupendous record of a whirlwind collaboration.

The finished model @ 1:200 scale
The 6 masterplan strips

It is extraordinary how much can be achieved by 21 people over the course of less than two weeks. The students were hugely positive, energetic, intelligent, resourceful and skilled. They threw themselves into this with enthusiasm. Many said they had never worked collaboratively before, but really appreciated how much benefit it had.

While I was keen to stress issues of climate change and its inevitable effects on building culture, human comfort and demographic change, students did not appear familiar with these issues. This is concerning, not only because places like Milan will be so affected by these issues, but because it does not appear to already be part of the curriculum. As the generation that will be tasked with finding solutions to the mess previous generations have caused, it is essential they be equipped to do so. Also notable was how few of the Visiting Professors seemed to take this challenge on board.

A celebratory group photo at the end of MInDS studio

What I found, however, was students eager to understand the issues, and curious about where to start. That is the greatest argument in favour of these international workshops: to open minds to new ideas, ways of working and concepts – and the traffic is two-way. I spent the weekends walking the streets of Milan with my guidebook, learning about how the city plans to develop and how it builds on the existing. Milan holds its treasures quietly but proudly, and time spent exploring them was richly rewarding. Working with the students was a privilege. Thank you POLIMI for giving me the most memorable experience!