The Volterra International Design Workshop was organized jointly by the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation from July 29 to August 8, 2015 in Volterra, Italy. 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 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.
The focus of the school teams’ pre-workshop research was on their universities' hometowns. Following the general theme of the workshop, the students studied the relationship between and mutual impact of the availability and distribution of fundamental resources (energy, water, food) and city development.
The lecture series was designed to give students insight into the history and the contemporary problems of Volterra, as well as to present a modern vision of architectural research and practice. Beyond the general introduction and the historical tour of the city, the Volterra theme was further advanced in the presentations of the Director of the Pinacoteca in Volterra, archeologist Alessandro Furiesi (on water management in Volterra from antiquity to modern times), architect Andrea Bianchi (on the deterioration of the Tuscan landscape caused by the industrial use of land in Volterra territory) and the president of the social cooperative “La Torre” in Volterra Marco Bruchi (on the problems of garbage removal and recycling in the Comune of Volterra).
A connection between the context and the goal of the workshop was provided in lectures by Dean Will Wittig and Professor Wladek Fuchs (University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture). Finally, James Timberlake gave two highly inspiring talks about “Making of an Architect”, as well as his firm's design and research philosophy and most recent projects.
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, and it is bordered by one of the main streets bypassing the historic center. Currently used as a municipal parking lot, the site presents great potential for a much more significant role in the city's urban fabric. The functional program of the project was branded as an “Ecological Forum”, a city district focused on the ecological values of urban living, and complementing the historical urban core of Volterra.
During the workshop, the students and professors were divided into three mixed groups, to generate and test multiple concepts. An additional level of design insight and inspiration was offered to all groups during the project reviews by James Timberlake, Will Wittig and Giulio Pucci (University of Pisa).
The workshop concluded with project presentations, a discussion, and a public exhibition at the Volterra International Residential College. The projects generated a significant amount of interest and discussion among the city officials and residents who came to the exhibition. The site and its current use is a matter of significant public interest in Volterra. The work presented at the exhibition has been clearly seen as a valuable voice in the discussion about potential directions for the city future development.
Two primary notions permeated the final presentations and discussion among the workshop participants. The first was the importance of research in design, and the value of design as a form of research. The design outcomes of the workshop have clearly identified a direction for further studies at the scale of the entire city. This would involve the vehicular traffic pattern inside and around the city, and the potential for a green belt around the medieval center of Volterra – instead of the existing chain of parking lots. Thus the design ideas formulated this year have become the first step in research toward next year's workshop.
The workshop was also an excellent experience in teamwork and design collaboration in an international context. 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. Considering the nature and the character of the contemporary architectural practice, collaborative design work should be considered an essential part of professional education. After all, the most important quality in an architectural office environment, and one which can be built only through a genuine and continuous collaboration is – in the words of James Timberlake – “the collective intelligence”.