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  • Isabella Paola-Rose Etna

Spotlight 10: Louie (Luyao) Zhang

Spotlight aims to promote student and graduate work in design. We recently caught up with Louie Zhang, M.Arch student at the Melbourne School of Design to discuss his recent participation in the Sauerbruch Hutton studio as part of the Venice Studio; 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 Sauerbruch Hutton studio asked students to reconsider the M9 Museum District in Mestre. Mestre is located on the mainland of Italy and connected to Venice by a 3,850m bridge, the Ponte della Libertà. 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): Your project ‘Curating Mestre’ is centered around the water transportation system in the Venice region. Could you tell us about the message of the project?

Louie Zhang (ZH): The provided condition and starting point was quite pragmatic. Mestre, in relation to Venice, has always been the arrival and departure spot to and from the island, historically via water by the River Marzenego, since the 14th century via the Canal Salso, and from the early 20th century onwards by land traffic after the construction of the Ponte della Liberta linking Venice and Mestre by road and rail. Our site was identified at the present day Via Guglielmo Pepe and Forte Marghera, a wide but unbusy boulevard that was created by filling in part of the canal in 1933 as the expediency of the bridge between Mestre and Venice made transportation by water redundant. The boulevard, separated by a large median strip, tends towards the historic centre of Mestre at one end and Venice/the lagoon, down the Canal Salso, at the other. stretching about 800 metres long and 40 metres wide. The exercise here was therefore to presuppose a touristic infrastructure of transportation by boat between Venice and Mestre along the Canal Salso - a return to water transportation, if you like, and then looking specifically at its end/start point of the boulevard as a site of transvaluation and rejuvenation that both pragmatically facilitates the “end mile” of this proposed water link in terms of infrastructure, as well as curates the contextual urban fabric which leads into Mestre’s Historic centre in terms of architecture.

Alissa Ricci (AR): Juan-Lucas Young was your studio leader from Sauerbruch Hutton

- the architects behind the M9 museum in Mestre. We're interested in your experience working with Juan and how his methodology shaped your project.

LZ: Juan, as well as Andrew Kiel and Bettina Magistretti who were co-leaders of the studio, had been awesome to learn from and work with during the two short weeks of studio. Perhaps different to some studio leaders which people might have come across at some point or another, they never seemed to infer any stylistic requirement nor typological precedent to the architecture or the drawings we were producing, yet there was a rigor to his recommendations of method in terms of contextualism, visualization and representation, specifically tying back down to the idea of experience and realism. A favourite technique that our group had developed at Juan, Andrew, and Bettina’s behest, particularly benefiting from our site being a streetscape, was to work through google street view, taking a screenshot, then working through crude collages to constantly test our ideas. This “designing through perspective” was one of the first studio projects that I’ve worked through where neither the plan nor section was at the forefront of the design process, and to me was an extremely fruitful, energetic, and rhythmic way of exploring architecture.

IE: Do you think the M9 Museum and its concepts, methodology or thought process influenced your project?

LZ: Definitely. The form and materiality of the M9 Museum derives from a foremost consideration of circulation around the centre of Mestre, dividing the museum volumes to create a link from the Via Brenta Vecchia towards the pedestrian zone of the Piazza Ferretto,lining this link with a dynamic tiling that presented as a material palette of mestre, in motion and promoting motion. These considerations of movement, context, and abstraction in the M9 museum translates to our project. The pragmatics of movement and circulation was the first item of resolution for us: the promotion of pedestrian infrastructure and the necessary but considerate removal of vehicular traffic, the turning points of the promenade’s curvature, the opening up of sightlines that aligns with different speeds and modes of movement - these were the most basic points of consideration when fleshing out the programmatic layout of the project. Materiality was also informed by the museum’s tiling: alternating carpets of gravel, rustic concrete strips and fine stone paving along the promenade each respond to different urban conditions that present on either side. In this sense it transcribes the rhythmic qualities of the surrounding architecture onto a traversable surface that encourages movement and embraces the context.

AR: Part of the brief in the Sauerbruch Hutton unit was “bringing the flair of Venice to Mestre”. Could you tell us about your interpretation of the brief?

LZ: Mestre, in part for the establishment of the M9 Museum and in part for the saturation of Venice island with tourism, has taken on a more prominent role as destination in its own right, morphing from a discrete entity that resembles a landing step into something that is more continuous, resembling an extension. Our understanding of “bringing the flair of Venice”, then, is to translate some of the enduring qualities of Venice, especially its experiential qualities in terms of the promenade architectural per Le Corbusier, into Mestre. This doesn’t necessarily entail the transplanting of the gondolas and the canals, or the piazzas, of course not, but rather an attempt at creating architecture of transvaluation that replicates their speeds of movement, the reflectiveness of these interstitial spaces, or the intensities of publicness within a more “normal” space such as Mestre.

IE: Your project research touches upon the deconstructivist idea of “palimpsest”, why was it important to stay faithful to the 14th Century historical bounds of the site?

LZ: The notion of palimpsest is here simply a descriptor of the historical stratas upon which the site sits, from past to present. The attractiveness of reading the site as such is the sensitivity that it entails, the fact that the site in all of its historical transformations resembles an artefact that displays its past trajectories and future propensities that deserve to be uncovered. Viewing the site as such the architectural intervention we pursued a minimal act of curation in three manoeuvres - excavating the past by excavating the canal, embracing the present by embracing its surrounding urban fabric as it exists, and revealing potential futures by means of intensification of publicness to promote the generation of the event.

IE: Your project focuses on three actions: “excavating” is the first, specifically excavating the roads and parking lots that cover the historic Canal Salso, built to facilitate the transport of goods in the 14th Century. As Mestre evolved into a car-oriented city in the mid-20th Century, parts of the pre-existing canal were covered over. Could you tell us about how these events played into the project?

LZ: The term “excavating” was something we considered extensively: that apart from a historical display, what was it excavating towards? The canal was first created for the transportation of goods and the exercise of political control - purposes that are nowadays neither very useful nor feasible, so why bring it back? For us the value of excavating the canal came from its potential to afford a slow, effortless, and experiential mode of movement by boat that captured the sense of idleness and gentle dilapidation of the particular segment of the promenade. Here the excavation of the canal is thought of as a restoration that borrows from history, where as the ends of logistical transportation has become replaced by a means of appreciation and leisure, the infrastructure of the canal takes on a new value to exist alongside the road, which is necessary, and to erase the parking, which is unnecessary. A synthesis of sorts, if you’d like.

IE: You have chosen to use isometric drawing to present the final outcome of your project, how does the visual outcome tie into the development of your project?

LZ: Isometric drawings help to show the relationship between buildings and ground fabrics - in our case what already exists - the various buildings which line the promenade, from rationalist structures to two storey vernacular buildings - and what is proposed, the various ground fabrics corresponding to these surrounding conditions. Here one is perhaps best shown in section, and the other in plan - the isometric is simply an effective combination of the two.

AR: The winter studio was shorter in duration and ran in a virtual format. How did you find this format and do you think the sense of studio culture was compromised?

LZ: There are always compromises, particularly in the virtual format. This year, the studio ran with individual groups working on projects separately during the day, and at the end of each day the class came together for discussion and presentation. Here the groups are resigned to working amongst themselves, the exchange of ideas between groups is limited and perhaps opportunities that would otherwise arise at sporadic run-ins at the MSD are lost. Nonetheless, as for class structure and communication with Juan, I had found this aspect ran smoothly.The intensive environment of the studio also pushed us to keep our design process grounded without wandering towards over-conceptualization, as we were required to make concrete design decisions consistently within the two weeks.

IE: Has taking part in this studio influenced your own methodologies or introduced you to new ways of thinking and designing? What have been some pivotal takeaways?

LZ: From the studio I’ve gained a degree of confidence to work virtually, and that working iteratively in this virtual mode is perhaps particularly beneficial as ideas are raised and resolved quickly and effectively. Again I’d like to bring up the use of perspective before plans and sections: it forces you to think about exactly what's there through these street view images - before and after design, while constantly increasing one’s familiarity with the site. This becomes quite motivating, to work towards the realisation of a project, as I believe, design projects should be realised, and not stay on paper.

AR: After completing this studio has your understanding and view of Venice, Mestre and the region changed?

LZ: It is an interesting angle to see Venice through Mestre. Prior to the studio, my impression of Venice is that it is complex, somewhat delicate, beautiful and almost mysterious. The online investigation of Mestre gave a sense of the quotidianess of the urban fabric, the fact that it is not impervious to dilapidation, to becoming edgeland, drosscapes, that it is in fact lived in and not simply viewed.

IE: What's next for you?

LZ: I am hoping to work in the industry in Melbourne more, not just to further my understanding of architecture, but also to solidify the process-based way of working and thinking in design, which is something that I am just getting to grips with now. Within architecture I’m becoming more interested in working within larger environments, landscapes, perhaps, rather than architectural objects, some niche where natural morphogenesis could play a role in design, particularly in relation to ideas of intensity, differentiation and entropy.


Interview Credits:

Interviewed by Isabella Paola-rose Etna & Alissa Ricci


Project credits:

University: Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne

Year: 2021

Project images provided by Louie Zhang and Yuki Lo

Follow Louie @louie_arch and Yuki @yklo.yk on Instagram for more updates

For more information on the upcoming Venice Studio programmes open to undergraduate and graduate students please visit


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