Category Archives: archi-talks

Discussions with professionals about architecture and design.



Spotlight on Urban Design Studio 

by Nancy Bryant

An Interview with Professor David Sabatello

nb: David, you’ve been teaching our Urban Design Studio for a number of years and have proposed complex and challenging sites and themes for our student’s before. What makes this project unique?

ds: The theme was developed following a suggestion by Professor Allan Ceen who has a unique knowledge of the urban history of Rome, and verges on the idea of designing a multifunctional structure, dedicated to public events, on the site of the Galoppatoio (horse riding facility), an area adjacent to the Villa Borghese, the extraordinarily beautiful urban park, which was initiated in the mid16th Century by Cardinale Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V, as a Patrician suburban residence for the Borghese family. The Galoppatoio was not part of the original perimeter of the Villa but was acquired by the Borghese family and incorporated in the Villa only in the nineteenth century. The Galoppatoio was completely demolished in the late 60’s for the construction of a vast underground parking garage designed by the famous Italian Rationalist Architect Luigi Moretti and is now an abandoned 100.000 extension of grass, resting on top of two levels of underground public parking. The Villa Borghese was initially designed as a formal Italian Renaissance garden centered on the so-called Casino Nobile the extraordinarily graceful late Renaissance mansion of the Borghese Family. The  villa was completely re-designed, in the eighteenth century, in the style of the English Landscape Garden by Prince Marcantonio Borghese. The only remaining legacy of the initial Renaissance design are the Casino Nobile and the surrounding Secret Gardens which are enchanting formal gardens, surrounded by high walls and accessible only from the Casino itself. The Casino Nobile is now the Galleria Borghese, a museum that houses one of the most important art collections in the world. After a very complex history, this family mansion was transformed, after the unification of Italy, into a public park. There is an area of Villa Borghese, called Piazza di Siena, in honor of Siena, the city of origin of the Borghese family, which was designed in the late eighteenth century in the shape of an Ancient Roman Circus, and which was to house public festivals and celebrations like the famous Piazza del Campo in Siena. Piazza di Siena  has been the location for a very prestigious international horse jumping contest and other equestrian events for the past eighty years. Unfortunately, in recent years, the area has hosted other events such as open-air discos and impromptu markets and fares that have caused severe damage to the integrity of the landscape. So the situation now is that of a beautiful, monumental, public park which is often subject to abuse due to the many urban events which take place in the park itself when only a few meters away, the Galoppatoio, which could be an ideal location for all those events, is totally abandoned.  So our idea is that of dedicating this space to an Eventarium (meaning the place for events) which we decided to articulate into three functional units: one dedicated to the equestrian activities; another dedicated to the idea of a museum of Villa Borghese (which has been developed by the municipality and never brought through successfully); and finally, an entertainment/commercial center so as to create an environment where all these things can take place without invading the historical section of the Villa. We told the students to approach the project theme as the design of a contemporary landmark inside Villa Borghese, which should establish a dialog with the existing landmarks, ranging from the Casino Nobile to the nearby Aurelian Walls and the Villa Medici, originally the suburban residence of the Medici family and now the headquarters of the French Academy in Rome. So, the overall field of activity is very complex and very exciting because the students have to be aware of a very wide variety of issues: from structural coherence with the underground parking, to integration with the naturalistic features of the park itself, and with the idea of creating an impressive contemporary landmark within a very qualified historical setting.

nb: Talk a little bit about your initial conversations with Professor Ceen in developing this design project for our students.

ds: It was “as usual” between Allan and I. You may know that Allan and I know each other from my high school days, he was my young math professor then, and we reconvened three decades later at the Pantheon Institute, by sheer chance. Allan and I have this very cordial and intense relationship and during one of our “academic lunches” he asked me if I had any ideas for a new studio project and threw this Eventarium proposal on the table and I immediately said “WOW, this is great! Let me work on it a bit.” I did work on it, I did a lot of research on the subject and re-contacted Allan to exchange a few opinions on the draft syllabus, and it all went down very easy. Although, I must say, from the very beginning our main preoccupation was that we may be asking a bit too much from the students. The final result proved to be ambitious but very exciting and the student response was fantastic.

nb: Can you tell us  how Professor Ceen  was instrumental in elaborating the project theme from a cartographical point of view, which is  Allan’ s area of great expertise?

ds: We gave the students a vast and articulated project cartography. Allan provided us with a series of historical maps, which showed, for example, that the Galoppatoio, which is now considered part of Villa Borghese in effect, was not. Allan also provided us with a series of photographic investigations, that he has carried through the years, which show the decay of Villa Borghese. You know, Allan has become a sort of  urban freedom fighter, who denounces every attack against the urban integrity of this city  on the part of speculators. So he really gave us an important contribution

nb: Tell us how the collaboration with the OLIN Studio fits into this picture.

ds: The fact that that this theme, which has a very strong landscape architecture component, should happen in the moment in which we are inaugurating this very, very exciting collaboration with the OLIN Studio and in particular with partner Susan Weiler is not only a fortunate coincidence, but an extraordinary opportunity to expose our students to an extremely qualified contribution by one of the most prominent Landscape Architecture offices in the world. I am enthusiastic about how the collaboration is working, in fact, when I first spoke with Susan about this project, she said “Oh wow, this has got to be the best project in the world. I wish I could have it in my office.” I’ve been working with her for quite some time now, I can see the enthusiasm and competence which she puts in her dialog with the students, and the students adore her. You know, although I started my career  as an architecture professor and have never abandoned the teaching activity, my background is also strongly professional, so I tend to bring my students to cope with their themes  in a cultured, yet professional way. I am convinced that what is often lacking, in a purely academic environment, IS the contribution of qualified professionals, who bring pragmatism, strategic thinking and, especially, technical expertise into the picture.

nb: Tell us more about the way in which the students respond to the Eventarium and the kind of work they are asked to produce.

ds: First of all, let me take the opportunity to congratulate all of my students, because all of them, regardless of which university they belong to, are always extremely responsive to the stimulus which a city like Rome exercises on someone who has never been here before. They are very young, and often do not have a personal heritage of foreign travel, so this experience can be somewhat traumatic from that point of view. They are plunged into design problems, which they probably don’t have, to face in their traditional university experience, but they are responding with extraordinary enthusiasm. If the question is “How is the course working?”, my answer is that all of our courses generally work very well, but this course in particular is a little “Academic Nirvana”, if I may use the pagan term in a longtime pagan city like Rome. As far as the course program is concerned, in the first phase of the project, the students form three person design teams and each team is asked to produce in-depth analysis of the urban context. And so they did, and with a lot of rigor,  both in the past Fall semester and now. Following that, each team produces what we call a “Comprehensive Urban Design Proposal” dealing with the distribution, massing, and connections between their project and the rest of the city. In the second phase, each team member takes on the design of a specific functional unit and develops it at the architectural scale. So far we have seen some very interesting work and I am anticipating some excellent projects for the Spring also.

nb: What are other considerations for designing the Eventarium?

ds: The point is to make the students understand that what we were asking for, in terms of master planning, is not a simple regulatory plan, but an actual formal  design gesture at the urban scale. The challenge  for them is to give a unified formal expression to a design intention, which involves three independent units, which will have to be developed without contradicting the initial group proposal. In fact, in the second project phase, I ask the students to continue working as teams regardless of the fact that they are working individually. So, in certain terms, they are asked to find a harmonious balance between individual creative freedom and design integrity of the whole. A condition which is similar to that of a professional urban intervention in which you are designing a component of a master plan, which is subject to the “urban planning and architecture prescriptions” which the master plan carries. I must say that the students put it under control immediately and we have proposals, which are quite bold  but never arbitrary.

nb: This project is fascinating to me. I think you were very clear about what the objectives of the project are. Talk a bit about the setting of formal reviews.

ds: In reviews, I make it a point to always have accomplished professionals present. I think it’s an added value for the students. People who come from a professional world, and a particular one like that of Italy and Rome, have a different point of view and tend to make comments which are often unexpected by the students. But the students appreciate them because they highlight aspects of their projects, which traditional academic jurors may tend to consider secondary. What I generally do, is ask my jury to write comments about the various presentations and give grades to the projects, which I then examine carefully before elaborating my final evaluations. My grades, especially at Midterm, are always presented to the students in a very articulate and structured manner so as to make them understand the various components of those grades and allow them to improve those aspects of their work, which need further development.

nb: This is a new theme for the Urban Design Studio. Based on what you are seeing now, do think that this site and the project itself, are something you will continue to work with?

ds: Absolutely. Because it’s a learning experience which goes in the direction of interdisciplinary integration. I am interested in reuniting the various disciplines, which now populate our world. The separation of architecture from landscape architecture, or from urban design for that matter, may be convenient from the point of view of professional specialization, but when we speak about the formation of the young architect, I’m not sure that this breakdown is educationally productive. I think that, at least at undergraduate level, the students should be exposed to a larger integration between the various disciplines. I’ve always asked myself why should a landscape architecture student be excluded from the knowledge of architectural issues? In favor of what? And, vice versa,  why should an architecture student not develop a satisfactory knowledge of landscape architecture when it is obvious that architecture is in the landscape by definition – whether the natural landscape or the urban one. It’s still a landscape, right? In the past decade, I have elaborated a basin of possible project themes, which were all very significant, and different from one another, but as we use them, repeatedly through a period of time, we refine them more and more. Through interaction with the students, we realize what is really feasible to ask of them, what is unrealistic and  in the meantime we develop our ability to transfer ideas and suggestions in the right manner, and in the right direction. Teaching is always a reciprocal experience, a two-way street connecting student and professor. You know, communication is everything in life and if a professor does not communicate efficiently, he is not doing his job.