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Six Italian PhD Research Works on Architectural and Urban Planning


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Where is PhD research into architectural design in Italy headed?

From October to November 2014, two important meetings were held in Italy, in Parma and Venice, on PhD research into architectural design. The first one – held as part of the tenth anniversary events of the Festival of Architecture 2004-2014, more to do with architectural and urban composition and the high level teaching of these[1] – saw presentations of the research work (included in issue 30 of FAmagazine) alternating with debates on PhD courses in architectural design/composition. The second, more systematic in tackling the general problem of higher academic education in the various sectors of architecture, urban planning and design[2], took place at the IUAV in Venice with a two-day convention filled with operative cues.

Both occasions offered the by-now consolidated formula of presenting the research interspersed with debates focusing on both the research itself and the specific problems of PhD courses which, in Italy, have been affected, along with the entire university system, by a rationalization aimed substantially at cost cutting.

In view of the importance of PhDs (and post-graduates) in nurturing thematic reflections on design, FAmagazine has dedicated two monographic issues to PhD training in the discipline of the project, particularly of Architectural and Urban Composition. A first issue (this one) presents some of the themes extrapolated from the research work that the authors are carrying out (or have carried out) as part of their respective courses. A second one will deal with the problems of the PhD in researching the panorama of historical, cultural and social changes, while not forgetting those imposed by the above-mentioned regulations.

Two issues that will seek to implant the specific nature of Italian research into architectural composition/design on the international panorama.

The articles that follow will permit an assessment, albeit partial, of the status quo in high-level research into the compositional discipline in Italy.

Ever since PhD courses were introduced in Italy back in 1980[3] (whose task was mainly to train skilled researchers rather than university lecturers), the research developed on these courses led to highly significant reflection to discipline, for example, the relationships between architecture/city and architecture/territory, analysis of the tools and techniques of composition at different scales, and the principles of construction.

A research PhD is useful in very many ways: for the post-graduate student who, as well as a disciplinary preparation, will use the research results in ensuing years (in fact, in most cases, the PhD thesis is the first complete in-depth publication of the researcher and future lecturer); for Universities that see the growth of a pool of highly trained human resources (when not offering them real recruitment opportunities); for disciplinary research that sees the multitude of themes enriched and investigated following specific methodologies.

This research work, which, for the researcher, constitutes the test bench of an approach to research and teaching, is a window onto the future of university research, and as such, can offer an idea of a future direction in a precise disciplinary field. Moreover, we can evaluate its specific characteristics and assess these in terms of identity or recognisability at the level of single schools, or of an entire national system.

If this is true, albeit in a panorama limited to 5 PhD sites, we can deduce certain considerations from this issue of FAmagazine. However, it has to be said that if the responsibility for the selection of the sites is purely our own, the choice of the theses is that of the PhD coordinator whom we asked to identify a research work (finished or ongoing) that showed particular interest in a specific theme and used a methodological procedure exemplary of the PhD course in question.

Six Research Works

The first thesis presents the theme of disciplinary transmissibility in various contexts of schools of architecture as a moment for self-reflection, in which those who are learning to transmit can reflect on how to transmit. In teaching architectural design, the latter stands as a central moment of the learning, with the chief function of summarizing the compositional, theoretical and practical knowledge that constitutes an architect's training. Teaching is carried out following methodologies (tools and techniques) that are characteristic of each school (Bauhaus, rather than Valparaiso) but even more characteristic of one particular period of a school linked to a specific figure of lecturer/mentor (the Architectural Association of Alvin Boyarsky, or the Cooper Union of John Hejduk) as shown in Tommaso Brighenti’s thesis.

The importance of the relationship between theoretical manifestos and constructed works of architecture, or between criticism (or self-criticism) and project, is instead reiterated in the article by Emanuela Giudice, who identifies an abacus of compositional procedures following the line of a particularly happy debate of the history of American architecture (with important influences on Italy) enclosed in the only apparent conflict between Whites (Eisenmann, Hejduk, Meier, Graves and Gwathmey) and Grays (Moore, Venturi and Scott Brown).

Studies of urban morphology, at the basis of a tradition of research carried out after the Second World War in Italy, lie at the centre of the article by Anna Rita Amato, who identifies an identical typo/morphological matrix in the development of the South American city, whether the outcome of scheduled planning, (definable as a formal or formally pre-arranged city), or the result of spontaneous processes of self-construction (definable as an informal city). This comes under the definition given by Guido Canella of “typology as an invariant of morphology”: in other words, the same courtyard typology that characterizes urban fabric and is identifiable as "invariant", would be responsible for urban form also in those cities built piecemeal, as in the case of informal Latin American favelas.

Then there are two articles, derived from as many theses developed in two different PhD schools, whose object of investigation is Auguste Perret's project for Le Havre, but from opposing viewpoints: that of the city by Andrea Calgarotto, and that of the territory by Antonio Nitti. Through Perret's project, Calgarotto's article verifies the concept of measure in the architectural design of the city. In particular, identifying a derivate, the right measure, as a qualitative more than quantitative value that can tie together the different parts of a project, both between one another and between the project and the city. A concept, that of the right measure, that recalls the notion of interesting distance coined by Solà Morales.

On the contrary, Nitti's article considers Perret's project starting from the relationships it establshes with the surrounding natural environment. Clearly, this is possible by means of an inversion between the fullnesses and emptinesses of Perret's project that, in a Colin Rowe style operation, are analysed in the project's “non-constructed”. Open spaces such as squares, streets, courtyards, etc., are related to the natural geography of the surrounding site introjected into the project's urban nature.

Beyond a different approach triggered by different research methodologies, what needs to be underlined is the continuing interest in the relationship between architecture and city, but above all in urban planning, in the sense of an architectural project for a large swathe of city.

Lastly, a thesis from Paolo Strina that was born out of a specific contingency; the financing by the European Community through structural funds for regional development, of a research grant for regeneration policies in the context of the cities of Emilia Romagna, entitled “Designing the built environment: new models of integrated quality for the compact city”.

The regeneration of cities proposed in the thesis comes about using techniques to densify the built space through the construction of new urban centralities; i.e. architectural organisms, built or otherwise, capable of catalysing the process of regenerating the fabric and, by osmosis, the city as a whole.

In conclusion, six theses that are a practical demonstration of continuity (as opposed to crisis) concerning the founding theories that the reformative masters of architectural thought in twentieth-century Italy (from Ernesto Rogers to Giuseppe Samonà and Ludovico Quaroni) have left the history of modern architecture – not just written and not just in Italy.

Enrico Prandi

[1] Architectural Compositiion in PhD Research, organized by Enrico Prandi and Marco Maretto, Palazzo del Governatore, 5 November 2014. Taking part were Dr Paolo Strina, Designing the Built Environment: new models of integrated quality for the compact city, PhD in Civil Engineering and Architecture, Architecture and City Curriculum, University of Parma – Dr Antonio Nitti, Geography as Monument. Auguste Perret's project for Le Havre, PhD in Architecture, University of Bologna – Dr Annarita Amato, The Architecture of Enclosures and the Contemporary City, DRACO PhD, La Sapienza University of Rome – Dr Tommaso Brighenti, The teaching of architectural composition, PhD in Architectural Composition, Polytechnic of Milan – Dr Emanuela Giudice, Lectures, Tools, Methods and Compositional Applications in Architecture between Whites and Grays, PhD in Architecture History and Project, Polytechnic of Turin – Dr Andrea Calgarotto, The Architectural Composition Plan: possible correspondences. Auguste Perret and the Rebuilding of Le Havre, PhD in Architecture, City, Design - Curricula in Architectural Composition, IUAV University of Venice, plus the lecturers Giovanni Marras, IUAV, Venice, Enrico Prandi, Parma, Carlo Manzo, Naples, Marco Trisciuoglio, Turin, Francesco Saverio Fera, Cesena.

[2] Changing Research, a national convention of Italian PhDs in architecture, planning and design, organized by L. Fabian and M. Marzo, Venice 19-20 November 2014 (Cf. link:

[3] Italian Presidential Decree 11 July 1980, no. 382. Reorganisation of university teaching, relative training band and organisational and teaching experiments.

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