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Learning Through Space: Heritage Buildings as Classrooms in the MantovArchitettura Experience

Posted on Sep 24, 2019 by in issue #10 |

By Federico Bucci and Elena Montanari
Politecnico di Milano


Learning Through Space: Heritage Buildings as Classrooms in the MantovArchitettura Experience



In the present scenario, while education programmes need to confront with new challenges – especially ensuing from remarkable socio-cultural changes modifying cognitive processes and behaviors, and the pervasive integration of digital tools (Stromquist & Monkman, 2000; Prensky, 2001; Tyner, 2014) – the promotion of specific experiences in heritage places is being pointed out as an effective strategy, capable of enhancing the potentialities and overcoming those issues related to the ongoing dynamics.

Along the 20th century, the role of historical sites in the education of the general public has significantly grown in both quantitative and qualitative terms. On the one hand, the improved opportunities for short and long-distance travels have expanded touristic routes, even in less accessible areas, and boosted the possibilities to get acquainted with heritage places and manifestations. On the other hand, the increasingly ambitious agendas of the institutions which focus their mission on specific cultural scopes (i.e. open air museums, ecomuseums, local ethnographic museums) are offering a particularly wealthy set of occasions and instruments to visit spaces of memory and to experiment with the various forms of traditional knowledge and knowhow, also benefitting from the new possibilities provided by digital tools. These phenomena evolved within the overall framework of the gradual raise of interest for heritage.

The emergence of memory, history and heritage as crucial concerns in Western societies is one of the key cultural and political phenomena of 20th century (Huyssen, 2003; Misztal, 2003). In the last decades, they have become the object of a higher level of awareness and public interest (e.g. the late modern period has witnessed an exponential expansion in the categories and numbers of objects, places and practices which have come to be defined, listed, conserved and exhibited as heritage), a growing collective involvement. For instance, today, larger proportions of the population are committed in cultural heritage by participating or working as volunteers, collecting historical objects themselves, or supporting organizations through memberships), broader debates and research (e.g. significant flows of funds are now dedicated to this field, such as those the European Union’s Research Framework Programmes have been providing since 1986), a number of musealization processes, and new dissemination activities. These also relate to an upgraded understanding of the potentialities in triggering positive social impacts: heritage is indeed being widely investigated as an instrument to assert stability and continuity in a shifting socio-cultural context (Anico & Peralta, 2009, p. 63), to enhance community building through sense of place (Davis, 2011; Schofield & Szymanski, 2011), as well as to foster multi-cultural encounters, mutual understanding, integration and social cohesion (Ashworth, Graham & Tunbridge, 2007; Montanari, 2013).

In this “age of memory”, historical sites and buildings often become the venue of experimental education activities dedicated to the general public, and addressed to a more and more heterogeneous audience – from children to elderly, from tourists to migrants and “new members” of the communities –, exploiting the direct contact with material and immaterial heritage traces to raise awareness and enhance cultural and identity-shaping discourses (Fitch, 1990). Nevertheless, while the interest in these outreach projects continues to grow, the opportunities specifically designed for students committed in heritage studies, museology and architecture – who are among the categories that would mostly benefit from them – do not seem to be particularly expanding, probably drawing on the reduction of financial resources and the consolidation of formal structures in academic education.

Challenges in Architecture Education: Learning from Space

In such fields as art and architecture, the learning process entails special difficulties, as it does not merely imply the acquisition of notions and methods, and rather includes the assimilation of peculiar skills based on the development of creativity, sensibility and spatial intelligence, which can only be nurtured through complex and diversified activities. In particular, the nature of architecture education requires direct experiences, also including those that can only be carried out beyond the confines of the classroom (Rogers, 2005). Visiting urban and natural environments, exhibitions and museums (Dewey, 1938; Falk, 1983; Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989; Falk, Dierking, 2000) enhance spatial cognition, provide constructive flows of information, train critical thinking, boost motivation, and improve perception, visualization, and sketching abilities (Eshach, 2006). These outcomes are maximized when field experiences take place in heritage buildings and sites, and in general in all those spaces that witness the vision, knowledge and know-how of past and present masters in art and architecture: the time spent in these wealthy environments can operate as a catalyst to absorb important lessons, raise awareness and enthusiasm, and provide critical and creative stimuli (Clarke, Kuipers & Stroux, 2019).

As highlighted by many authoritative voices (Cubberley, 1921), travels and reality experiences have been acknowledged as fundamental activities since ancient times, and the visit to monuments and historical sites has soon become a pivotal part in the formation of humanistic scholars, artists and architects – especially after the consolidation of the Grand Tour tradition, starting from the 17th century; Trease, 1967). This theme can be recurrently detected in the memories of many architects (from Karl Friedrich Schinkel to Frank Lloyd Wright, from Le Corbusier to Tadao Ando, just to mention a few), who in various epochs, have documented their field work and the influence it had on the development of their vision and skills.

The impact of these experiences is evidently increased by the intensity, duration and eventual reiteration of the visit. Especially during the formative years, the prolonged attendances of particularly inspirational places improves the possibility to better understand and assimilate crucial lessons and stimuli. For students in architecture, this opportunity can sometimes arise in the urban spaces as well as in the schools, libraries, galleries and auditoriums they inhabit during their studies (Bingler, 1995; Tanner, 2000), which sometimes are housed in architectural masterpieces. The frequent permanence in these spaces can evidently produce a deep impact on their education. This issue can be easily confirmed when talking with those students who have attended the Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade do Porto, designed by Alvaro Vieira Siza, who is unanimously recognized as one of the leading architects contributing to the development of contemporary Portuguese architecture. Another example would be the Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da Universidade de São Paulo, which is a manifesto of the peculiar design approach of João Vilanova Artigas, a leading figure in the evolution of modern Brazilian architecture culture, whose influence on the younger generations currently working in San Paulo is widely acknowledged – as highlighted during the interviews with Angelo Bucci (SPBR arquitetos) and Martin Corullon (METRO arquitetos). Also, Louis I. Kahn’s art galleries in New Haven (i.e. Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Art Gallery) have represented important “classrooms” for various generations of students attending Yale University. As reported by New York based architect and alumnus Andrew Berman, the hours spent in these spaces, absorbing precious lessons from the collections as well as from the magistral spaces designed by the modern master, have played a major contribution in the development of his spatial and cultural sensibility.

Another way to create this opportunity is to exploit the high potential of heritage buildings and sites as learning environments – as experimented by the School of Architecture, Urban Planning and Construction Engineering at the Mantova Campus of Politecnico di Milano, where the spaces designed by leading Renaissance masters were turned into eloquent classrooms for contemporary students.

The MantovArchitettura experience: innovative didactic in heritage spaces

Politecnico di Milano is a worldwide leading scientific-technological institution. Since its foundation in 1863, it has fostered high quality and innovative teaching and research activities in Engineering, Architecture and Design. The university is organized in 12 departments, four schools and seven campuses located in Milan and in other Italian cities. Founded in 1997, the Mantova Campus was conceived to combine the scientific expertise of Politecnico di Milano with the values of a territory characterized by an outstanding cultural and architectural heritage – also witnessed by the 2008 inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Together with Sabbioneta (the nearby “ideal city”, built and designed according to humanistic principles in the second half of the 16th century), Mantova is internationally acknowledged as a major heritage site, in virtue of the exceptional testimonies to the urban, architectural and artistic realizations of the Renaissance produced by some of the most important 15th and 16th century figures (i.e. Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Mantegna, Giulio Romano), who arrived here owing to the enlightened patronage of the ruling Gonzaga family. The city is thus celebrated as the “capital” of the Renaissance and continues to play a prominent role in the dissemination of this culture through the promotion of its rich network of heritage places and manifestations.

Drawing on the potentialities of this context, the Mantova Campus promotes innovative teaching and research activities especially focused on the enhancement of cultural heritage through contemporary architectural design interventions. Through its Bachelor of Science in Architectural Design and its Master Programme in Architectural Design and History, the School aims to educate future generations of architects to an aware and efficient approach to the multi-scale opportunities and challenges in the field of preservation and planning in today’s heritage cities, shaping and promoting ground-breaking and inter-disciplinary theories and practices focused on the interplay between conservation and transformation, which is considered as the only possible strategy to foster a sustainable evolution of historical centers. In 2012, these goals coalesced in the activation of the UNESCO Chair in Preservation and Planning in World Heritage Cities, which was established at the Mantova Campus to foster the experimentation with new research, teaching and training activities through the enhancement of dialogue between specialists in contemporary architecture, international cooperation, and the development of innovative strategies and tools.

In 2014 the UNESCO Chair launched its most significant instrument, MantovArchitettura – a cultural project revolving around a wealthy programme of workshops, exhibitions, conferences and meetings with the protagonists of the international architectural culture. Each year, during the month of May, these events move education activities out of the school and occupy the spaces that have turned the city into an invaluable stage for the formation of artists and architects since the Renaissance – Palazzo Ducale, Tempio di San Sebastiano, Casa del Mantegna, Palazzo Te, Teatro Bibiena, and various historical churches currently used to house cultural events (e.g. Madonna della Vittoria and San Cristoforo). These outstanding heritage sites become the classrooms where the invited architects and scholars set up a dialogue with students, and (since the events are free and open to the public) with the practitioners and all the citizens interested in exploring the past, present and future of architecture, from a perspective based on the understanding of history as a fertile ground to nurture the project of contemporary spaces.

The programme of MantovArchitettura combines various types of activities. It includes conferences from prominent international architects who share their experiences, lectures by renowned historians and critics, exhibitions aimed at displaying special collections or at investigating topical issues, as well as active education practices, such as outdoor workshops mediating innovative interactions with urban heritage, besides a specific seminar dedicated to senior students, which represents the conclusive step of the Master Programme in Architectural Design and History. This two-week design workshop is dedicated to the theme Antico e Nuovo (i.e. to the relationship between ancient and new). With the support of an inter-disciplinary group of local and visiting professors, students explore the topic through the development of a proposal for the requalification of special heritage sites in Mantova. This intensive experience takes place in the rooms of Casa del Mantegna, a worldwide famous iconic building, conceived by the renowned Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, and characterized by the application of classical principles (outstandingly evident in the inner courtyard). Today the interiors are usually employed for conferences and exhibitions. During the workshop the house is transformed into a design studio, offering students an outstanding workspace, inside one of the most appreciated results of the historical architectural culture.

All the activities promoted within MantovArchitettura immerse students and architects into particularly stimulating spatial experiences, which operate as catalysts to activate broader and deeper cognitive processes. The educative value of these initiatives is thus twofold. On the one hand, conferences, exhibitions and workshops offer new stimuli to learn or reflect on significant cultural issues. On the other hand, the heritage spaces where these events take place enhance the memorability of such experiences, boost motivation, and deliver further important lessons.

MantovArchitettura also plays an important role for the city: not only the project participates in triggering cultural promotion and place-branding (Richards, 2017), but it also engages the main heritage places as teaching and learning environments, actually unfolding and enhancing a proper vocation of historical centers. Mantova hosts other initiatives which turn urban spaces into stages for important cultural activities (above all FestivaLetteratura, which in the last 20 years has become one of the major national events dedicated to contemporary literature). Nevertheless, most initiatives exploit historical venues merely as beautiful backgrounds. The specific values of MantovArchitectura lie in the multi-layered integration of these places into the operation of the educative activity, in the peculiar format, combining a “formal” structure to “non-formal” environments (Rogers, 2005; Eshach, 2006; Vadeboncoeur, 2006) and the specific thematic nature of the initiative. Its main task is indeed enhancing education to heritage and architecture through the exploitation of the instructive and enlightening potential of architectural heritage places, and thus maximizing the role of these sites into the life of contemporary heritage cities. 

The working group in the inner courtyard of Casa del Mantegna, during MantovArchitettura

Questions for further discussion

The successful experience of MantovArchitettura highlights the value of (and suggests that further research is needed on) the integration between “formal” programmes and “informal” learning environments, especially in the architectural curriculum. How can the potentialities of these activities be further enhanced? Which could be the value of on-site experiences in other types of education projects?

Being education a particularly complex activity, part of it also occurs during various experiences and in the diverse locations of everyday life (not only in the strictly defined classroom). Is this issue sufficiently considered and exploited by education programmes? How could the potentialities of these implications be further exploited?

Can the stimuli provided by the experiences in heritage sites operate as a trigger to boost the students’ interest in culture and cultural heritage (and thus enhance the overall education process)? With which kind of innovative mediation can be experimented in order to achieve these goals?

Considering the digital-oriented lifestyle that contemporary students are gradually assimilating, which are the difficulties involved in the appreciation and effective participation in on-site experiences? And, how could these be further enhanced?


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Federico Bucci is Professor in History of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano, where he also serves as Rector’s Delegate for Cultural Policies and Vice-Rector of the Mantova Campus. In this venue, since 2012 he also holds the UNESCO Chair in Architectural Preservation and Planning in World Heritage Cities.

Elena Montanari is Ph.D in Interior Arhitecture and Exhibition Design, and Research Fellow at Politecnico di Milano. Since 2008 she has been involved in international projects concerning heritage and museums, and currently is focused on the activities promoted within the UNESCO Chair in Architectural Preservation and Planning in World Heritage Cities.



Photo credit: Ph. Giuseppe Gradella