- Isabella Paola-Rose Etna
Spotlight 09: Lachlan Welsh
Spotlight aims to promote student and graduate work in design. We recently caught up with Lachlan Welsh, M.Arch student at the Melbourne School of Design (MSD) to discuss his recent participation in the BOLLES + WILSON studio as part of the Venice Studio; an intensive 2 week studio open to architecture/design students globally, run by the MSD in which academics, architects and students work together on major design challenges within the context of Venice, Italy. The BOLLES + WILSON studio asked students to “take architectural hostages from around Venice and redeploy them in new contexts.” Applications are now open for Venice Studio Melbourne free and open to students worldwide (8-18 January, 2022) and will be run in collaboration with MPavillion Melbourne, where the final projects will be presented to the public and a jury of experts over two evenings concluding the MPavillion program.
Isabella Etna (IE): As a part of the Venice Studio (July 2021 Summer School) there were a handful of studios on offer to students led by architects and academics from around the world where each studio had its own brief. Peter Wilson, of BOLLES + WILSON and the recipient of the 2013 AIA Gold Medal, was your studio leader. The brief involved students “taking architectural hostages and redeploying them around Venice” and “making off with bits made by others.” What was your experience in Peter’s studio and how did his methodology shape your project?
Lachlan Welsh (LW): Working with Peter was a memorable experience. He's an eccentric and curious guy. The way that he interprets architecture is quite unique. It was a real pleasure spending those two weeks hearing his feedback on our projects each day. He would show photos of his own travels in Venice, pointing out the tiniest details in the images that would interest him. He brought that same level of attention to reviewing our projects, elevating each student’s work by drawing out minor narratives. The brief that he wrote for the studio reflects his playful attitude. We were encouraged to steal pieces of source material from anywhere, no matter the quality or importance. These became the starting points for our projects as he encouraged us to treat them with irreverence and manipulate them to whichever ends we saw fit. This free and humorous approach set the tone for the class and several great pieces of work were produced as a result.
IE: Could you tell us about the message of your project “Campari x Scarpa”? It’s an interesting mix, a Palladian church built at the end of a plague, a tomb and neon alcohol signage. Would you agree that your project is a comment on the commodification of pilgrimages?
LW: The project began with an attempt to work with Venice as a context. Having never visited Italy myself I felt a sense of detachment from the city, as if viewing it from a distance. The dilemma of dealing with such a historic city soon became apparent as there seemed to be many unspoken rules about what can and cannot be done architecturally. Whilst many of these rules related to authenticity or local appropriateness, the city instead appeared to me as a hollow tourist destination bound up in mostly commercial logics. Tourist culture seems to have transformed the city into a commodified experience-object. For me, this was the starting difficulty with Venice. My project draws from two sources to represent local and tourist dynamics in the city. The first was Carlo Scarpa’s own gravestone at Tomba Brion, representing the authentic local Venetian. Contrasting with this was the iconic Campari sign on the coast of Lido which represented the commercial tourist side of Venice. The project takes these objects as symbols of two opposing dynamics within the city and attempts to reconcile them. The initial phases of the project involved determining how these two vastly different objects could come together. The gravestone, with its inscribed heavy mass appearing in a similar architectural logic to the rest of Scarpa’s designs, contrasting with the Campari sign, sitting lightly atop the Hotel Riviera, flimsy and artificial. The second part of the project involved locating this new hybrid object. Festa del Redentore is a pilgrimage that takes place in Venice each year across a temporary bridge leading to Palladio’s Il Redentore. This junction point between traversing the horizontal water plane and the vertical facade of the church seemed an interesting location to explore the hybrid object. Rather than a commentary on the commodification of pilgrimages the project is more interested in the commercialisation of public space. We are increasingly seeing temporary urban event spaces sponsored by large corporations, effectively branding public space. I was interested in critiquing the practice of private enterprise facilitating public spaces.
IE: The project is conveyed predominantly through nighttime views showing inebriated visitors stumbling across the temporary structure across the Giudecca, and carefully curated views of the Campari sign looking up from below. Could you elaborate on the formal project output?
LW: The project was primarily an exercise of negotiating the two design logics. A massive engraved tablet for the tomb and the flimsy structure and industrial look of the sign with this lighting. The iterations that led up to this result were simply explorations in how one might bring these together. The composition of the final design is based around the junction between the Votive Bridge which intersects with the facade on an angle. I wanted to create a sense of strangeness through the visitor access by working with the axial approach from the Festa Del Redentore. The wedge shape of the double frame brands the church facade whilst also welcoming visitors across the water. It is an elaborate entrance and moment that occurs in the project. Regarding the nighttime aspect, I enjoy your interpretation of the inebriated visitors stumbling across the temporary structure. I imagined it being a hedonistic stop where one starts their journey on the pilgrimage but never actually makes it to the holy destination. One would be sidetracked at the bar instead. The lighting came from the festival which features a grand celebration of fireworks with boats out on the water decorated with lanterns. There was always this nighttime aesthetic to it in my mind. Peter told stories of arriving at the Lido coastline at night and seeing the Campari sign reflected in the water - this was something I felt important to incorporate in the project too. The project always seemed best represented at nighttime. There's something also about that night how neon signage and the glow comes to the forefront and the architecture recedes behind. That was an important thing to articulate; that this new installation comes to dominate and obstruct the original facade of the church.
IE: Cino Zucchi, director of CZA and professor of architecture at Politecnico di Milano, gave the 2021 Venice Studio Commencement Lecture. Could you tell us about his concept of “grafting”, and how else Zucchi’s ideas may have worked their way into your project?
LW: Cino gave the opening lecture for the studio. As I remember, it was about urban environments and different approaches to urbanism in the 20th century. The main idea that I got out of it was that of ‘grafting’. Cino defines grafting as the condition that all new architectural interventions in Italy have to face. That is that they have to face the weight of the existing architectural history and urban environment. He made the point that, when working in Italy, one must move beyond a kind of basic contextualism. One cannot simply look at the site and interpret it through a basic anecdote that then informs the project. Designers need to position any intervention from a deep ‘physiological understanding of place’ - hence the term graft. I thought this raised an interesting dilemma given the fact that I've never been there and we weren't able to get there in this studio. So this question of how can a project truly understand the physiology of a place with that distance in between resonated with me. My project could potentially be read as a superficial, disrespectful or a not-understanding of place. To local Venetians who would read my project, I appear perhaps as a drunken Australian tourist who wants to put a giant Campari sign right at a significant junction of a bridge to the church in a sacred festival. But whilst it could be read in those terms, I hope that the audience can see the project as embodying the strange local and tourist dynamics that play out in Venice. Perhaps the project does actually understand something of that ‘physiology’ that Cino Zucchi speaks about after all. The project turns Scarpa's grave into a commercial spectacle, borrowing the elements of the tomb and reconfiguring it into a pontoon with a pool, a Campari bar, and a wicker man. Scarpa’s name is front and centre in neon lights of the original Campari sign. My comment on Venice is that from the eyes of a tourist at least, one can never have a true or meaningful experience without it being turned into a commercial event. That’s why in this project even something as sacred as Scarpa's tomb is not safe from becoming part of the spectacle. It's tongue in cheek. Peter was worried that the Italian critics on the panel would be totally offended by my project. As it turns out they understood where I was coming from. There was something about the project that resonated with them. Alexei Haddad and Luigi Alberto Cippini of Armature Globale made some great comments that unpacked what it means to commercialise public space.
IE: Did you feel as though there was a wide interpretation of the briefing in the studio? Was Peter pushing you in the same direction?
LW: Upon reflection, there was actually a widely divergent group of projects that were produced for the studio. Given the mix of undergraduate and graduate students, it was really interesting to see how people at different points in their education responded to the same brief. Peter constructed what he called an “analog Panorama” of the Giudecca coastline. That was the scene into which we had to stage our projects. By the end of the studio we had a large collage featuring all the projects. It was a beautiful way to summarise the two week studio. If there was a common theme to emerge it would have been around the idea of ‘artifice,’ the artificial,’ ‘flatness’, and the image of Venice versus the local reality. I think a lot of students dealt with those issues.
IE: The intensive studio was only two weeks in duration and delivered through a virtual format. How did you find this format and do you think that the sense of studio culture was compromised?
LW: The virtual format was quite interesting. I really enjoyed the distance from the city that it allowed. I found it an interesting and unusual exercise to interpret the Venetian urban context and to try to understand Venice’s history, culture and what spatial interventions might mean, from a distance. Peter was quite funny at times. He is a great storyteller and would tell lots of stories about people he has interacted with over the years in Venice, including a bunch of famous architects. He would also go on Google street view and walk us around on a virtual tour. Given this access to Peter for the two weeks I tried to ask as many questions as possible. He's got a very unique view of architecture, art and design. It was a pleasure to hear about it.
IE: Last question, what’s next for you?
LW: Aside from finishing off the Masters program, I’m currently working with the Ian Potter Museum, completing research on their Miegunyah Collection. This work will be exhibited early 2022 at the Grainger Museum.
University: Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne
Years: July, 2021
Project images provided by Lachlan Welsh
Follow Lachlan on Instagram for more updates @lachlanwelsh___
For more information on the upcoming virtual Venice Studio programmes free and open to architecture students worldwide please visit https://venice.studio/vsm-2022/