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Andrea Matta

The city in the university:

the Mastercampus experience

Drawing of the original plan for the university settlement of Parma.

Drawing of the original plan for the university settlement of Parma.

The fundamental role that a university currently plays in European cities requires a rethinking of the sites occupied. One of these being the campus. The Mastercampus project experience encourages reflection on some key elements to understand this type of settlement and the relationship established with the reference city in the light of fresh European needs and opportunities. 

Parma's university settlement, located outside the city to the south, was created in the Seventies, in a historical phase, after that following the Second World War, when new suburbs were being developed. An increase in the demand for education and other factors linked to the economy and the city's planning strategies were determinant in the decision to arrange for an area of prevalently executive facilities where the university, as a peripheral campus-style settlement featuring student residences - would constitute a fundamental component.
However, a successive change in planning decisions in the Eighties betrayed the initial coherent layout in which the settlement matrix consisted of “[…] a three-dimensional orthogonal fabric developed using synthesis models for the form determined by the mathematical elaboration of performance data”.[1] This “scientific design procedure”[2] was never adopted, instead what prevailed was construction using separate isolated pavilions with adjacent parking facilities and a road network as the only link between them, without building student residences, except for some recent ones outside the university area.

The visible result today is the shortage of communal services, the total absence of meeting places or a reference point where students and lecturers can meet, in addition to the lack of a network of pedestrian paths to rationalize the outside areas with the departmental pavilions; private means are king, and the fact that the spaces have not been organized means, once again, the prevalence of empty spaces devoid of quality; in this case green lawns that are a “no-man's-land”, like any other anonymous contemporary suburb.

But despite these problems that show an evident “deficit of urban planning”[3], over time important departments for teaching and research have established themselves inside the area's seventy-seven hectares, “with hundreds of lecturers and researchers as well as thousands of students using the 117,000 m2 of buildings every day”[4], thereby forming a university community of great potential, which demands a much more specialized settlement.  

The University of Parma's Mastercampus project aims to free up this unexpressed potential, drawing on the tradition of Anglo-Saxon university campuses, and first and foremost by turning the Via Langhirano settlement into a peopled place, and not just during the daytime. But living in, particularly on a university campus, becomes an action that must take on an intellectual condition. Indeed, unlike other urban contexts, by its nature a campus is inhabited by people who are dedicated in various ways to education and research; lecturers, researchers and students form part of that academic community with “a propensity for self-reflection, analysis and conciseness, […] in a position to use sophisticated analysis and design tools to transform their own habitat”[5], with positive results for society at large. 

For this reason, the project takes the University of Parma Science and Technology Campus “[…] as an ideal model to experiment with the creation of advanced scenarios for the future city in general, namely, regarding social, cultural, economic, environmental and quintessential identity aspects”.[6] If it is true that a university is an institution dedicated to research and discovery, and if the city, particularly a European one, is by now notably influenced by a standardizing globalized world that tends towards goals conditioned by the knowledge economy and technological innovation, Mastercampus employs European Union guidelines for international competitiveness and seeks to interpret what are new needs linked to research and development, reinterpreting the campus settlement type from a heavily experimental point of view, while enhancing local peculiarities. 

To do so, the choice is twofold: opening up to the city, increasing institutional relationships with the Municipality of Parma (from boosting infrastructure links to organizing cultural events) and setting up relations with manufacturers, who could find space inside the campus itself; intensifying the international exchange network, broadening relations on various levels and becoming more attractive by increasing know-how.The whole system, like the Mastercampus Science and Technology project itself, is part of the Mastercampus Strategy that also involves all the other University of Parma settlements inside the city. The result, an overall picture with remarkable potential including benefits for the citizens and the surrounding area in general, as has already happened with the opening of the CSAC Museum and the numerous activities that have been launched. 

Therefore, in Mastercampus, project and methodological strategy are interwoven. To free up all the unexpressed potential and condense an integrated platform has been set up of disciplines, knowledge and techniques that includes a project breakdown by sector, supported by specific proposals drawn up by research groups under the guidance of university lecturers and researchers.A non-stop dialogue and exchange between the main players who live in and foster the university settlement has therefore allowed awareness of the needs and amounts necessary to design the project's masterplan, with the aim of providing a qualitative display, conferring a formal sense to the quantitative and functional distribution.
In this case, the final form is reached by intervening in an already built area, making use of the densification technique[7], hence “building within the built”. In redesigning the settlement matrix the intrinsic historical-geographical nature has been borne in mind, aware of being between the city and the countryside, inside an area where signs of centuriation are still evident. 

These presuppositions are methodologically interpreted via architectural and urban composition. The main space of this renewed city part, the nucleus of the whole intervention, is symbolically the urban component par excellence, the Piazza, where the communal services are to be found, such as the campus market, the canteen (RistoraNet), the Science Bar, the student halls of residence and the Science Centre, constituting a critical mass sufficient to make the place a centre of attraction for the system. The attempt is to achieve a balance between centripetal and centrifugal to establish space that is defined but at the same time is not perceived as closed. 
The Piazza lies at the intersection of a cardo and a decumanus as a reminder of the historical-geographical context the campus is part of: the north-south axis links an external residential part – now absorbed by the system, consisting of other services such as a supermarket, a gym with swimming pool and a multiplex cinema, while taking advantage of many existing car parks to reduce vehicular traffic inside the campus neighbourhood – and the Food Sciences Court, which, seen from the Piazza, constitutes a perspective focal point that attracts users to its centre and links it to the Food-Labs located to the south, and after a gradual reduction in the density of the buildings, then opens up towards the surrounding countryside.  

The laboratory-residences – spaces for research into food products, a major propulsive theme of the Emilia region's economy – constitute a filter between the campus's “urban quality” and the open countryside; the idea being to avoid planning barriers, to avoid closing off the campus, while the ordered layout of the buildings and the relative proportion of the spaces between them determines being inside or outside the complex; instead, the east-west axis links the sports area to the west with a stretch of countryside to the east, where other Food-Labs are situated.  

The entire system is completed by an axis which from the Food Sciences Court heads towards the western entrance to the university campus; other spaces are joined onto this, such as a small, pre-existing corte, some departments, and above all the new Innovation Centre. This is an incubator of companies that permits close collaboration between local enterprises and university researchers, thereby activating another of those levels of relationship already discussed – between city and university.  

Mastercampus' objective is therefore to go beyond the concept of the “campus” as it has always been understood; while starting from this settlement type, it aims to establish itself as a model urban neighbourhood, a new settlement that dons the characteristics of a city, with some of its kinds of space, while respecting the prevalence of university functions, users and inhabitants. With respect to other historical cases, where the campus entered the city, formed a part of it, or even generated it, here it is the city that is entering an existing university campus. 

The Mastercampus project experience encourages reflection on certain conceptual nodes that prompt broader reflection on the themes of architecture. 

First and foremost, it is important to start from the tradition of Anglo-Saxon university campuses. Wishing to establish a university settlement as a campus by including residences for students, researchers e lecturers, means wanting to be part of this tradition, and it is important to grasp the characteristics and spirit that distinguish it. 

As we know, this type of Campus was born in the USA and is universally identified with its most mature example, namely, that of Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia; here a community sprang up of lecturers and students who inhabited the place, aided by the presence of the large central lawn as a community meeting place, and the Rotunda, the latter a main perspective vanishing point and a space of knowledge open to everyone.  

Living in encourages the formation of a community that enjoys close contact and shares in the mission it has been called on to carry out. In fact, the rational study of and search for scientifically demonstrable truths presuppose an experimental approach; for this reason we might say that “community” and “experimentation” are two vocational characteristics of the university, and in this case can be defined and represented through a precise settlement type. 

In fact, as Maria Cristina Loi reminds us, the academic village at Charlottesville was given the “[…] name campus as university/colleges had been called in general ever since colonial times[…]” while through this project, Jefferson provided a complete definition; not only from a terminological point of view, but because in this new institution, “[…] campus meant communal activities, a city in microcosm, a generative nucleus of the city growing around it.”[8] 

Curiously, a settlement deliberately designed outside a city, an “academic village” in fact, is found to be a container of one of the urban principles. 
This idea of lying outside the city is an aspect that Canella found in all university settlements, which he defined as anti-urbanism.[9] In his studies on universities in the late sixties, Guido Canella stated that “The fundamental trait that marks the university settlement, right from its establishment as a specific physical entity in the Middle Ages, is segregation from the city.”[10] Hence, being inside or outside the city matters little. The university isolates itself; study and university life must not be absorbed by urban life. However, as we said, it is equally true that inside university premises a rather intense community life is generated in any case.
However, the latter is not enough to define the settlement as a city, or as happened at what appears to be the first example of a campus in Europe, the Ciudad Universitaria de Madrid[11], we cannot actually speak of communal life; in this case, as in others from the same historical period, “the term university city is totally anachronistic, referring as it does to population numbers and large-scale interventions, rather than a social knit”.[12] 

The Madrid example is however symptomatic of a European attitude, that of recognizing cities as the ultimate degree of representation for a civilization. But in the present condition, the modern concept of “city” increasingly tends to fade, both as regards form and structure. Contemporary urban development, which has taken place piecemeal compared to the classic European settlement mould, has even led to the theorizing of concepts such as the Anticity, dominated by that disaggregation so typical of the urban sprawl phenomenon. And so we have gone “beyond the city”[13], but this only provokes an “object condition”[14] for architecture, with a lack of relational logic, which is the only thing that can foster community (i.e. social knit), not to be confused with the thrall of consumers who head for those shopping malls used as mass catalysers.However, in latter years, in Europe, it seems that there has been a “new request for cities emerging from a re-launching of the urban role in the face of the nation-states crisis […].”[15] This fact can only re-launch the city, as it is understood in Europe, above all in the light of experience as to how the settlement phenomenon evolved. 

The European Union itself, from the ToledoDeclaration onwards, has promoted the city on a political plane, particularly in the fashionable sense of the Smart City, seemingly the fruit “[…] of understanding settlement quality as mere performance, for example as regards energy, transport and communications, and the environment. A set of factors which, albeit of the utmost importance, are clearly insufficient to constitute a city […]”[16]. 
The Smart City falls within the objectives of Europa 2020, financially backed by Horizon 2020, which aims to foster research and development on the theme.
This direction undertaken by the Union brings out new competitive needs at a global level, in which the university component is called on to play an important role; no longer on its own, estranging itself from the rest of the surrounding context, but necessarily by means of synergistic partnerships with all the other players of the worlds of production and research linked to technological progress, and with the municipalities in question. 

Hence, there must inevitably be a renewal at both physical and conceptual levels for the campus settlement type and the difficulty lies in maintaining certain original characteristics along with the (necessary) desire to give urban representation to what our own times demand, such as having to quickly find solutions for rapidly evolving contexts influenced by the pursuit of new economic, social and environmental dynamics etc., without jeopardizing the educational viability (for the new generations) of a university site like this one.
But as Gardella said, in reference to architecture, “The only way to have authentic continuity is to change. Continuity does not consist in immobility, but in constant flowing, and flowing is analogous to that of the water in a river: if the water stagnates, the river, the architecture, becomes a marsh.”[17] Therefore change does not necessarily interrupt an idea, a concept, but makes it possible to strengthen it, to scrape away its surface layers to rediscover its essence and give continuity to the substance that triggered it through the introduction of new components that represent an updating and revitalization. 

In a nutshell, we might say that the sense of a university site lies in the constant search for knowledge and the characteristic way this is done: not only through individual study, but above all through the exchange of information, the encounter and continuous dialogue between the players in this mission, within an ongoing process that tends towards a discovery of hidden truths, constantly trying out innovative solutions. In the monograph Campus and the City, an attempt is made to elaborate theoretical concepts that steer a renewed image of the university campus as a place for a Knowledge Society integrated with a city.[18] 

Opening up to the city, then, harnessing it and relating to the world outside in general, both with respect to existing situations, and a newly founded campus, presupposes reasoning over where it is, the position of the settlement with respect to the local surroundings. In architecture, positioning, as far back as Vitruvius, has always had importance with respect to something else: to the environment and the solar cycle; to lines of communication and supply (such as watercourses, road or rail axes). But today, if it is true that we are heading towards a knowledge economy, the positioning of centres of erudition and experimental research becomes absolutely crucial with respect to the city and production facilities, and vice versa. Depending on the distance between these centres, further reasoning is required. 

Back in 1968 Nuno Portas had already highlighted that the university is a social means and that education often proceeds more in spaces outside educational ones than in actual classrooms;[19] coffee bars, canteens, communal spaces in libraries, are all places that assume a certain importance in swapping know-how. In the same way, we could shift the statement to the urban level and consider means of transport, road networks and infrastructure as possible venues for learning and exchanging information. Hence the tendency should be to allow freer circulation of knowledge to pervade the whole of society, increasingly avoiding the specialization of particular places, without losing their prevalent characteristics, however. In the same essay is an interview with José Martins Barata, keeping to the same logical thread, exploring the possibility of a university development such as the creation of a model city image, expanding the question to embrace the whole educational system, one that begins to insert students into society from school level onwards, to achieve participation mediated by the filter of the university.[20] For this reason, to be able to replicate certain urban dynamics, it is clear that architecture plays a precise role within the settlement.

In Mastercampus, as we have said, the city enters the university campus, i.e. the urban component penetrates a settlement with a specific and exclusive function; in fact, once again, it is the city and its future that we need to discuss. The Parma project recognizes in the campus a “rediscovered” urban place, where advanced scenarios for the evolution of the city can be tried out, and to do so, it tries to build the departure ones, proposing a new road for the architecture of this type of settlement, redefining and structuring the area with a new basic layout, through the compositional identity methodology for the European city, made up of lines, spaces laid out through the juxtaposition of buildings, precise distances and ground planes, to build an urban scene made up of figures with new characteristics that help build a new nucleus for the settlement; nonetheless without abandoning the large green open spaces often to be found on university campuses, which constitute here a gradual relationship with the rural context to the south of the area, contributing to the shape and general definition of the new model urban neighbourhood. 

Today, therefore, the theme of the university campus is not so distant from that of the city. This will probably prompt the opening of a new architectural and urban debate, with those points of view, such as economic, on sustainability, specialization of knowledge and technology, that often “distract” architects, assimilated once and for all within the architecture of the university campus (but not only).
But it is important, above all, to spark “architecture's analytical moment”[21], by analysing original examples, advanced campuses and the European city in general, to extract significant patterns that might concisely constitute a departure point to propose a new European university campus model, recognizing in the organization of space[22] and in its formal definition (in the sense of an act of defining, limiting), one of the qualities belonging to this type of settlement; it is equally interesting to understand how, through architecture, this definition and general form can supplement the new necessities to relate to the city in question and its surroundings – bearing in mind its position – as well as the needs of functional flexibility and internal relationships between buildings and open spaces, that seemingly contradict and undermine them.

[1] As a starting point to analyse the current situation and the tradition of university settlements in Parma's case, an exhaustive explanation of the Mastercampus project and all the activities set in motion with the Mastercampus Strategy, reference should be made to the writings of Carlo Quintelli in “Mastercampus: il campus come quartiere urbano modello”, a dossier produced by Mastercampus-Lab for the presentation of the project, University of Parma, June 2014 and the website:
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] To develop the concept of urban densification, reference is made to research carried out as part of the PhD programme under the guidance of Professor Carlo Quintelli, consulting the following theses:N. Montini, Tecnica di densificazione attraverso le centralità urbane di parti di città, Parma, 2015A. Nolli, Tecnica di densificazione attraverso le centralità urbane in sistema di relazione policentrico, Parma, 2015P. Strina, Tecnica di densificazione attraverso le centralità urbane di tipo metropolitano, Parma, 2015 
[8] M. Loi, Thomas Jefferson, 1734-1826.Primo Architetto Americano, Turin, 1993
[9] G. Canella, L. Stellario D’Angiolini, Università, Ragione, Contesto, Tipo, Bari, 1975
[10] Ibid
[11] P. C. Calvo-Sotelo, translated by Joan Martha Costello, The Journey of the Utopia: The Story of the First American Style Campus in Europe, Nova Science Publishers, Hauppauge NY, 2005

[12] G. Canella, Ibid
[13] C. Quintelli, Oltre la Città, FAmagazine, year IV, no. 24, September 2013 
[14] Ibid
[15] C. Quintelli, City again?, in L. Amistadi, E. Prandi, European City Architecture. Project Structure Image, Parma, 2011
[16] C. Quintelli, Oltre la Città, Ibid
[17] F. Nonis in, P. Ciorra and A. Rosati (editors), FOOD dal cucchiaio al mondo, Catalogue of the exhibition, MAXXI, Quodlibet, 2015
[18] K. Christiaanse, K. Hoeger, Campus and the City: urban design for the knowledge society, Zurich, 2007
[19] N. Portas, J. Martins Barata, A Universidade na Cidade: problemas arquitectónicos e de inserção no espaço urbano, in “ANÁLISE SOCIAL” nos. 22-23-24. Vol. VI, 1968, pp. 492-509.
[20] Ibidem
[21] A. Rossi, L’Architettura della Città, CittàStudi, Milan, 2006
[22] Regarding the organization of space, see the essay written in 1962 by Fernando Távora, Da organização do espaço, Porto, 1962, also available in a facsimile edition, FAUP Publicações, Porto, 1982. Partial Italian translation by Giovanni Leoni: Organizzare lo spazio, in <>, LXV, 2001, n°693, p. 46-49.

(Various authors), La Regione Culturale. Ipotesi di un modello insediativo per l’Università di Parma, Etas Kompass, Parma, 1973 
L. Amistadi, E. Prandi, European City Architecture. Project Structure Image, Parma, 2011 
I. Calvino, Lezioni Americane, Mondadori, Milan, 1993 
G. Canella, L. Stellario D’Angiolino, Università, Ragione, Contesto, Tipo, Bari, 1975 
K. Christiaanse, K. Hoeger, Campus and the City: urban design for the knowledge society, Zurich, 2007 
M. Loi, Thomas Jefferson, 1734-1826. Primo Architetto Americano, Turin, 1993 
Fabio Nonis in Pippo Ciorra and Alessio Rosati (editors), FOOD dal cucchiaio al mondo, Catalogue of the exhibition, MAXXI, Quodlibet, 2015 
N. Portas, J. P. Martins Barata, A Universidade na Cidade: problemas arquitectónicos e de inserção no espaço urbano, in "ANÁLISE SOCIAL" n. 22-23-24. Vol. VI, 1968, pp. 492-509. 
C. Quintelli, Economia della forma urbana, FAmagazine, year III, no. 18, May 2012 
C. Quintelli, Architettura e Crisi: fori urbani contro garage?, FAmagazine, year III, no. 17, February 2012 
C. Quintelli, Mastercampus: il campus come quartiere urbano modello, Dossier presenting the Mastercampus project, University of Parma, Parma, June 2014 
C. Quintelli, Oltre la Città, FAmagazine, year IV, no. 24, September 2013  
A. Rossi, L’Architettura della Città, CittàStudi, Milan, 2006
P. C. Calvo-Sotelo, translated by J. M. Costello, The Journey of the Utopia: The Story of the First American Style Campus in Europe, Nova Science Publishers, Hauppauge NY, 2005
F. Távora, Da organização do espaço, Porto, 1962, also in a facsimile edition, FAUP Publicações, Porto, 1982
PhD thesis: N. Montini, Tecnica di densificazione attraverso le centralità urbane di parti di città, Parma, 2015 
PhD thesis: A. Nolli, Tecnica di densificazione attraverso le centralità urbane in sistema di relazione policentrico, Parma, 2015 
PhD thesis: P. Strina, Tecnica di densificazione attraverso le centralità urbane di tipo metropolitano, Parma, 2015 


Andrea Matta, graduate in architecture, is PhD student in “City and Architecture” at DICATeA of the Parma University. He is a member of Mastercampus-Lab and he worked in Mastercampus project in the same University. He's currently studing at FAUP, Porto.

Campus of the University of Parma, current state  - ZOOM

Campus of the University of Parma, current state