Study Abroad Spotlight: Urbino, Italy

By Nicole Chavez

(December 7, 2011) -- For the Fall 2011 semester, 12 UTSA students embarked on the College of Architecture’s first-ever study abroad trip to Urbino, Italy. The Urbino program is one of two full-term, study-abroad programs for CoA students — the other is in Barcelona, Spain — which have been chosen for their extraordinary histories and cultures, influential art and architecture, and rich atmospheres conducive to creativity and learning. Prior to the launch of the Urbino program, CoA students had the option to experience Italy through participating in the Castiglion Fiorentino program. At the Urbino location, a World Heritage Site notable for its historical legacy of independent Renaissance culture, students and faculty study in the walled city in the Marche region of Italy.

Urbino developed and thrived in the 15th and 16th century, especially under the patronage of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482, and former resident of the Palazzo Du-cale. The city, nestled on a high sloping hillside, yet only 45 kilometers from the Adriatic Sea, retains much of its picturesque medieval aspects. It hosts the University of Urbino, founded in 1506, with which UTSA has a MOU for teaching, learning, and research activities. Students are housed and provided studio space just outside the city walls, in a campus facility designed by renowned architect Giancarlo De Carlo.

Dr. John Alexander, a CoA Associate Professor who led the Urbino program with Lecturer Darryl Ohlenbusch, said the President of the University, Carlo Bo, fostered an intriguing relationship with De Carlo — the genuine symbiosis between Bo and De Carlo led to the protection of the historical context of Urbino and its territory on one hand, and the development of the facilities for the university on the other. Thus, the residential colleges were built outside the town, and Alexander describes them as interesting experiments in modern architecture. He recounts solutions within the buildings that take advantage of the topography and views, create social spaces in different locations by having people’s paths cross, and enliven space with natural light.

“In Urbino itself, you’ve got a wonderful historical context,” said Alexander. “There’s fantastic countryside that has been preserved well, and there are also outstanding examples of modern architecture. It’s an amazing setting for architecture students.”

In addition to being an inspiring architectural environment, Urbino is also a socially enriching setting. The UTSA contingent was surrounded by Italian students, which led to better immersion and created an international experience in which the students developed personally. Alexander describes Urbino as a college town in which the UTSA students were comfortable spending their weekends; plenty of social activity and benefits like a movie theater put them at ease.

“It was wonderful to see students who were initially nervous about spending a semester in a foreign country embrace the outward bound experience and realize they can thrive in unfamiliar settings,” said Alexander. “People are people after all and, though Italy is vastly different from the United States, the ways in which it is different are actually quite enlightening.”

Alexander said the academic program developed for the students was based on a design studio he co-taught at UTSA with Prof. Jon Thompson, in which students were engaged in a study of historical examples of classical architecture (mostly in the King William Historic District), Louis Kahn’s approach to the classical tradition, and his employment of certain principles of the classical period. After the crash course in Classicism, the students read essays that Kahn had written, analyzed Kahn’s modern buildings to identify the classical principles utilized, then attempted to bring classical goals into their own modern designs. Alexander considered the process worthwhile to take to Urbino, adding a history of theory course and a drawing and watercolor class, which gave the students some experience in the media that were used in a Beaux Arts education.

“Rather than being an isolated design studio within a larger curriculum, it turned into a full immersion in Italy by studying the historical architecture, using it, then finding a way to analyze it critically and bring desired principles or goals into the students’ own modern designs,” said Alexander.

Ohlenbusch taught the second half of the Urbino semester, while Alexander took the initial shift. Under Ohlenbusch, the students were introduced to architects from Milan who took over De Carlo’s practice after his death. The architects gave a presentation of De Carlo’s sketches and drawings, which included the campus students have been living on, and led a tour of two De Carlo projects in the city center. The students’ work over the course of the semester culminated in the presentations of their final projects, in which they displayed schematic and detail drawings rendered in watercolor for an Arts Academy building in Urbino. Thanks to coverage by the local Urbino newspaper, Il Resto del Carlino, the student presentations were a high-profile public event within the city. Regional architects and other professionals in the field attended the student presentations and offered critical reviews, while the City of Urbino and the Il Resto del Carlino participated as well.

“It was a learning experience for all of them,” said Alexander. “They certainly learned about classical design in a few short weeks, but I think it also gave them some insight into the design process in general, whether or not they ever utilize the classical system in an overt way in their designs. It might be years down the road, in graduate school, when something suddenly clicks and they begin relying on some of these lessons.”