The Island_A Completely Autonomous System

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Collage, Students, Texture

The Island_A Completely Autonomous System

Francesco Nicolai


Historically, islands have always been entities closed in on themselves, fully separated from the mainland. On many occasions, islands have been used for different aims, sometimes as fortresses, sometimes as places of exile, and other times as prisons. Designing a University on the island of Poveglia is a great challenge: previously used as a place for quarantine, as a place for plague victims and later for the insane, this island was always dedicated to isolation and until now has kept to itself.

My design approach is based on the concept of a place that can live completely in autonomy. My idea relies on exploiting all the features that the Island provides: ruins and dense vegetation, aiming to valorise this magical environment. The project is the superimposition of different levels, each one with a different function: five new buildings cantilevered over a catwalk, which works as a communication axis. These new buildings, sustained by pillars merged with vegetation, leave space for the pre- existing buildings and host spaces dedicated to the university. The main goal is to preserve and respect the essence of the island.

The buildings are spread in such a way as to maintain natural light; two of them are built over a part of the ruins in order to retrain and emphasize their importance; the other three are in the north-eastern part of the island and are purposely higher. Here we can find student accommodation, classrooms, library and multi – purpose areas. The latter also have the function of being a filter between different spaces and create a tangible gap between the different parts.


In order to recover a link to the past I chose to reuse the pre-existing buildings, which are renovated and assigned to university functions: inside them, you can find offices, laboratories, a canteen and exhibition areas.

The octagon is the sixth entity in the project. A spot, apparently unused, where the open-air Auditorium will be located. All the new parts of this project are touched by a catwalk, which becomes a ring around the island, functioning as a main communication axis. At the same time, it is an apparent border; on the ground level the pillars that support the catwalk merge with the vegetation, while at the main level we have a distribution of movement. The catwalk is a pier closed in on itself; a terrace over the sea, yet still inside the Island.


Who influences you graphically?

I think that there are many factors that influence how to represent an idea, being either an architectural project, a design ptoject or a simple drawing.
First of all I think that the people around you give you most of the cues and  the suggestions, infact they are the first to appreciate or not your work; as a second thing there are the figures that constantly surround us, going from digital platforms, passing by the magazines. Just think of the amount of pictures that we see every day on our computers through social networks, blogs and other way.
In my work, all these factors are critical, but if I have to be more specific I would say that the graphic findings in some projects of koolhaas such as “Moma Charrette”, the project “Breuninger” or the “Chu Hai College” have influenced me, as well as the graphic of SUPERSTUDIO. Living in Belgium, I really appreciated  the constant work of the Office KGDVS especially some of their projects as “Agriculture school” in Leuven and one of their latest work, “Campus RTS in Lausanne.”and other offices like DOGMA and XGDA.
Other peoples influenced me, I really like the Drawings of James Stirling, the watercolors of Steven Holl, the visionary ideas of Yona Friedman and Archigram the collages of the office FALA Atelier and the Italian office 2A+P.

What is the potential and use of the aerial view?

I believe that the use of aerial view in some cases permits the best understanding of the project, its structure and composition of the order of its greatness , its affinity to what it has around and the relationship between the various elements that compose it.
Through aerial view, we perceive the paths, the intended useand the organization of the project, the light areasand shadows and all the crucial issues.
Howeverat the same time I think that this technique is not enough to exhaust the representation of a project, because the aereal view alone limitsthe spectator to a single point of view, and you never arrive at the full knowledge of the design’s intents. In most cases the aerial view infact remain a view in two dimensions and this inevitably involves a limit.

Recently there has been an a growth in the appropriation of figures from Magrittes’ paintings, why so? What is the reason of using these silhouettes within your images? 

I think that the appropriation of figures from paintings, being these dated or not, is due to the need to change the “regular” shape of architectural design. I believe that an abstract figure can push who see the work to go further on the thing he is watching, to ask questions, like the one you made me, and this in the architecture field  is already a good result; Magritte have a very broad production of paintings that represent characters put in abstract frameworks, this can be a reference point in the preparation of a collage.
Also we have to think about the use of this technique from architects who are a source of inspiration for many other people.
I try constantly to convey in my drawings a feeling, a mood, besides the design aspects. The use of the figure comes from the painting “The schoolmaster” used in the collage for the” Entre deux Ponts “project has exactly this purpose, in this way I can communicate the mood that comes crossing this point of the city, we can perceive the state of contemplation and reflection .
At the same time being the only human figure present in the collage, motionless watching the building, we are encouraged to ask ourselves questions on the latter, and about the sense of the entire project.


What dictated the choice of views and drawings you chose to reveal each project? 

When I start the representation of something my approach is highly focus on transmission of feelings, I like to think that the design will be balanced and works as an image as well as the architectural production. This is fundamental to me, I think that the power of a picture is immense and it able to increase the value of what you are designing.
For this reason, I set myself the goal of communicating various sensations in the viewers of the drawings. On one hand I would like that the audience felt themself inside the work, that they felt the same feelings that I feel inside me; on the other hand, I wish that they understood the meaning, from where  the project came, how it is structured, how it evolves, that is why I sometimes use compositions apparently more technical as may be a section or an aerial view, and other times I put the subject at the height of the beholder, and I try to bring the viewer to interact with the design.

You talk about islands and isolation, to what extent does the architects construct like this or do you think he is part os a continuum?

When I began to reflect on the island’s role in the project of University Island, I wondered if it had to maintain a relationship with the city or if it should be a separate entity. When I started designing the building, I realized that I had more opportunities to stay in touch with the city of Venice, with all the things that surrounded the island, with the sea. I chose to be part of a continuum in this project, but not in the material sense of the word. I tried to establish a contact by the heights of suspended buildings that overlook the city, through the use of a walkway that spans much of the island and permit long walks on the edge of the sea, a pier, from where you can go down the campus or stay on to contemplate what’s beyond the island. These solutions mean that you generate that feeling of continuity between what is planned and the context in which it is inserted.
I think that Architects operate to arrive to be a part of a continuum, Architecture like other arts is a constant research to continuity.
I believe that it is impossible to develop an idea alone in a status of isolation, working in team is important and maybe essential.



Francesco is a young architect who graduated from “La Sapienza” in Rome with two years of experience in Belgium at “Ecole d’Architecture la Cambre et Horta”.
He lives in Brussel where he works at the “Office 9 architecture and urbanisme”.


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