The shutdown interrupted the work of schools, including departments of design and architecture. And it has brought out new meanings and experiments. What now? There will be a return to the classroom, because design is about physical presence, the experience of the body

The shutdown interrupted the work of schools, including departments of design and architecture. And it has brought out new meanings and experiments. What now? There will be a return to the classroom, because design is about physical presence, the experience of the body.

A living room as a backdrop. Bookcases, a sofa. White walls, a door to the right. A television tuned to Canale 555, showing the images of a fixed video camera on Piazza San Pietro. Why that location? “Because I’m in Rome,” says Paolo Ferrarini, “and to teach online it is fundamental to tell about yourself, your life. To convey humanity, shortening the distance, to make up for physical absence. This made me more real, and it helped me to understand the needs of the students, their hunger for contents and reflections.”

Paolo Ferrarini is a professor of research methodology in various design schools in Italy. One of the hundreds who in a few days contributed to the digital acceleration of university teaching. An evolution that happened almost miraculously, to the surprise of everyone. “Not really a miracle,” Ferrarini responds. “Designers seek solutions and find them. It is an attitude that creates skills to effectively respond to emergency situations. Design DNA has made it possible not to abandon a generation of students who are learning the foundations, of life and design, in a remote system. We will be talking about this for years.”

Technical drafting and empathy

Every school has developed these programs in terms of its own spirit. Workshops, research and reviews did not stop, Ferrarini remarks. The semester is coming to its conclusion online. Some students have completed their degrees, others have finished their exams. But the interesting aspect is the space of research this confinement has contributed to create. The experience has produced unexpected considerations, reassessing the theatrical aspects of teaching, the capacity to find creative solutions to all situations. For example, to build a small homemade structure for placement of the camera of a mobile phone in order to show drawings. Also from above, as would happen in a physical classroom. A trick described in the instant book Re-Azioni  prepared by Claudio Larcher and the department of design at NABA, Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti‎. A collection of thoughts and activities that have made it possible to recognize the contours of a collective effort of intelligence, in order not to abandon the students. Whether the matter at hand is technical drafting, empathy or invention for the most effective long-distance teaching. Riccardo Blumer, director of the Accademia di architettura di Mendrisio, has constructed one of the most radical teaching projects in this sense.

Online or on stage, architecture is taught outside the classroom

“I began teaching in smaller schools and universities,” Blumer says. “I had a certain amount of freedom of choice, which enabled me to work on exercises I felt were important. Architecture has a public aspect, of relations. I brought the students out of the classrooms, outdoors, on beaches, in urban squares.” The exercises and practices then became performances, physical experimentation, in which the body, seen as an individual and a collective organism, measures the experience and translates it into information.

The theatrical side, also in Blumer’s case, turns out to be effective. “I am fascinated by the circus,” he says. “A ring of 7.5 square meters in which everything happens, crossed by the thrusts, the centrifugal force, the dynamics that are not perceived by the spectator but influence every spatial choice.”

Starting from the body

There is a clear similarity here to the computer screen, a boundary that reduces information and mitigates non-verbal communication, foreshortening all the important information for the relationship. “This is a theme that will bear further reasoning: how to be together, geographical presence, the density that happens in those public and collective rituals that seem to be necessary for our society.” Blumer suggests the need to see design and its teaching as a practice in which every aspect of the human being is included. Even that of the pandemic.

“I am working on a video performance with my 140 students, obviously online,” Blumer explains. “The theme is articulation. The idea is to experiment with the movement of the arms, the hands. To work on a shared tempo, 4/4, that stages the movement of the limbs through a project, contained in synchrony.” Where does all this lead? To the design of a handle. For Blumer, design is an extension of the body and its functions.

Desecrating the rules of the digital

A body, somehow negated by distance. “The digital is not the transposition of physical space,” says Sara Ricciardi, who teaches Social Design at NABA. “It breaks down the ordinary and it becomes necessary to find a way to put it back together, through different exercises and practices. For example, allowing students to use the contents of your desktop to construct a lesson.” An exercise that interrupts the boundary and makes virtual space more fluid. Designers are people who continuously construct ways of coping with emergencies and crises, she believes. And it is this attitude that enables them to improve the status quo. Also by disrupting the uses of the digital dimension. Is it possible, then, to do without physical presence? Obviously not, everyone seems to agree. We need to return to classrooms, laboratories, streets, as soon as possible. “Because design means being there, feeling the presence of the body,” Sara Ricciardi concludes.

Cover photo: Automated Architectures’, Riccardo Blumer, Biennale di Architettura di Venezia 2018.