Urbino letter XXIII from Michele

(November 25, 2018) -- I’m hopping from desk to desk looking at student work. We are only two-and-a-half weeks away from their final presentations, and we have only one brief field trip left, an afternoon tour of a curtain wall manufacturer about 45 minutes away from Urbino by bus. This seems to be of interest to both the engineers and the architects, so I’m glad we’re ending on an agreeable note.

Just now the studio looks like every architecture studio in the world before final presentations, the students are bent over their desks, completely absorbed in their work and engaging in a well-practiced game of beat-the-clock.

They are looking down but for a moment I am looking up, I like to daydream a little, which the Italians call “da fare vela” (to make sail, or sail away).

My cruise will be brief, the window is full of unfamiliar faces, at least two dozen students about the same age as mine and three presumed faculty members. I suddenly feel like the chimpanzee exhibit at the zoo. They wave, so they’re not hostile invaders, I’ll go to the door and see what they want.

The oldest of the group steps forward. In a recognizably German accent he tells me they are students from Cornell University’s Rome program. They are staying the night in Urbino and have come to see DeCarlo’s famous work at the University. They’ve heard we are here and have come out for a look at our shop.

I invite them in for about twenty minutes of creative bedlam. The Ivy-leaguers are third-year students so they are a bit younger than the San Antonians, but are full of questions about the project, where we’re living, and where have we travelled. I pick one of our teams and ask them to do a quick summary, which, come to think of it, they’ve just done the previous evening for a visit by our new university President and two Deans. Later one of the students will ask me when Prince Harry and Meghan are coming. Very funny.

It’s a welcome interruption because young people tend to still be open to new experiences and meeting people in a way older and more reticent adults are not.

The Cornell faculty members include Giorgio Martocchia, whose ModoStudio in Rome is doing exceptional work, and Jeffrey Blanchard who is the Director of the Cornell Program in Rome. After a few minutes of conversation Blanchard and I realize we were students in Rome at virtually the same time and may have run into each other. There’s a ritual exchange of cards and promises to think about mutual visits in the future. They have things to do so we part company.

The next day I meet the students, as usual, at the marble fountain in the Piazza Della Republica. Another large contingent of students steps off the bus from the larger bus depot at Porta Santa Lucia, along with (I now know this look) a harried faculty member festooned with cameras, and an Italian student wrangler, much like our own Roberta.

Havoc ensues. One of the visitors steps in front of a bus causing a squealing of brakes and the thudding sound of Italian students falling to its floor on top of each other. At least one of the former collapsed gets off the bus throwing untranslatable curses and indescribable hand gestures. It’s all over in a second, the bus is pulling out, if he wants to walk home he can continue his editorializing. Fortunately, he opts for convenience and gets back on the bus, end of incident.

The faculty member marshals his troops and leads them in the direction of the Ducal Palace. Their Italian wrangler, an attractive dark-haired woman with a lot of bracelets (that make her hand gestures more emphatic) hangs back and crosses the piazza to talk to me. “So sorry, what can you do, this is just how they are,” she says in Italian, we chat for awhile, and I ask her where these students come from. “La Universita de Las Vegas” “Davvero?” (really?) is my startled reply. “Sei Francese?” She asks. “No maam, ahm frum Texas.” We both laugh at that.

She is formerly an instructor of English at the University of Florence, but has met and married a fellow in Ancona, and now manages tours along the Adriatic for various foreign schools, including, of course, Las Vegas. Don’t think it, don’t think it, don’t think it, I’m thinking … “Las Vegas has a University?”

“Yes, it does, and they have an Italian studies minor that crosses several departments, that’s why these students are here.” 

My surprise at the Las Vegas association is probably no greater than Cornell’s new discovery that the University of Texas at San Antonio has a well-established program in Urbino. This is sort of a cascade of potential snobbery from the top of the academic pyramid downward, and I’m ashamed of myself for being ignorant of the Las Vegas program, for all I know it’s wonderful. At any rate they are only stopping for the day and I doubt we’ll run into them again.

That evening I’ve decided to have a drink at Basilli and then find dinner somewhere. Jeffry Blanchard walks by and waves and I thank him for his card. I decide to go to Blasone again, it’s become my second home and the family that run it are always welcoming. I have a regular table now and am seated at it when two of the Cornell students come in. Their conversation meanders from architecture to their girlfriends, and, since they are third-year students, to beer and wine which they can legally purchase in Italy.

Blasone’s son, and patient waiter, stands at attention while the Cornell gents pull out their smart phones and begin attempting simultaneous translation. After a heroic try, Blasone-the-younger interrupts and takes their order in English. I’m dumbfounded, I haven’t heard a word of English in any of my visits to this snug cellar restaurant. He sees my eyebrow arch up then comments when he brings me my dish, “I speak English, just not to you.”  I can’t imagine a more succinct example of Mache humor, it manages to be world-weary and acid at the same time, as if you, the object of it, are in on the joke too.

Thursday, our regularly scheduled field-trip day, we’re off the see the window and curtain wall factory owned by the family of the Director of our associated program office in Urbino, Mirko Marinelli. I suspect Mirko had a lot of fun when he was younger, but now he’s respectably married and settled into a house with a wife and two-year-old.

I’m excited to take the students to see the kind of generations-old business that is typical of those that litter the valleys of the Marche. If the work requires minute attention to detail and the highest level of craftsmanship, this where it would be found. The region is famous for the manufacture of designer clothing, Italy’s best shoes, and other leather goods, and, in this case, highly specialized building components for unique projects. It’s definitely ‘the only place in the world that does this’ kind of a business, and it’s still all-Marinelli directed.

We’ve taken a local bus to a little town called Cucinella. It is utterly unremarkable, most of it has been built since World War II and it seems to be a market town for nearby farms, and the supplier of workers for the its largest business, the Marinelli plant.

The plant is a little distant from the bus stop so we’re shuttling to it in a microbus, nine at a time. This takes three trips but when we’re all assembled Mirko’s father appears. He’s a distinguished and courtly looking man. His hair is gray, his sweater is gray, and his trousers are gray, but his greeting is warm and welcoming. The plant is an advertisement for itself, clad in a handsome curtainwall of dark glass, and with glass partitions within. We’re ushered into a huge conference room and presented with brochures and what the students call “free stuff,” pens and graph paper tablets which will soon reappear in the studio.

Mirko’s father leads the tour, starting with what is a huge surprise for me. In the lobby there is an impressive image of Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower, affectionately known in Italy as “Il Pierellone” (the Big Pirelli). The design team included Pier Luigi Nervi who would go on to design the 1960 Rome Olympics venues, and Marcel Breuer, one of the fathers of the International Style of modernism.

When it was completed in the late 1950s it was the tallest building in Europe, a title it held for quite some time. It symbolized Italy’s recovery from the war and the explosion of post-war creativity that led to prosperity still remembered as “il Boom.”

In 2002 the pilot of a small plane flew it directly into the tower. It wasn’t an act of terrorism. It may have been a suicide, or mechanical trouble. Whatever the motivation, the point of contact ignited a fire that badly damaged the exterior of the building.

The Pirelli Building is such an icon of Italian modernism there was no question that it would not be restored. The worldwide competition for the job was won by the Marinellis and their work is so seamless, it’s impossible to tell that the building had ever suffered any misfortune.

The tour of the plant with both Marinellis was a pure pleasure for me. They seem to be capable of assessing and producing glazing systems for virtually anything. On our visit they were assembling a window system for a building in New York. Although the plant is highly automated (including a pink robot), all finishing is guided by human hands. A technician was gently lowering 360 Kilo (794 pound) glass panels into the aluminum frames that were earlier produced by their same assembly line.

Upstairs, the offices are full of estimators and design engineers who are assuming the lion’s share of the design for building envelopes all over the world. It was a memorable experience for all of us, at least as memorable as the automatic espresso machines that litter the shop floor. Every time I turned around I found a small cluster of students in a state of rapture in front of these caffeine machines.

We thanked the Marinellis for their ample hospitality and shuttled back to the bus stop for the return trip to Urbino. It was getting dark but at least we wouldn’t have any competition for the seats.

A large, noisy group of students emerged from a café down the street from where we were huddled under a bus shelter. They were headed our way.

Las Vegas group?” One of my students asked. It was.

— Michael Guarino (Michele)

View a photo gallery contributed by students studying abroad during the Fall 2018 semester.