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New Technologies and Swiss Trains

Lake Lugano
This August, I attended an international architecture workshop at the i2a (International Institute of Architecture) House in Vico Morcote, Switzerland.  A joint project of Columbia University, the Politecnico di Milano and the University of Shanghai, the workshop focused on how we can use digital technologies in tandem with existing infrastructure (in this case, a small commuter rail line) to enhance our experience of urban space.  My Italian partner, Giovanni Nardi, and I proposed a large-scale parcourse for the train line to provide commuters with an easy way to take their daily exercise and meet people.  Each station would have a different fitness activity, as well as showers, lockers, and amenities to facilitate exercise; the train itself would have an exercise car with stationary bikes, elliptical machines, and other equipment that could be used en-route.  To encourage commuters to meet up and form athletic teams, we proposed a smartphone application that would show what facilities are available, who's using what fields and when, and which groups need more players or are looking to start teams.  At the terminal station, Ponte Tresa, we proposed an outdoor gym on the station roof, including a glass-bottomed pool that would allow swimmers to watch the trains coming and going from the station.  The app could also help users plan their fitness routines, using the very reliable train system (a train every 15 minutes) as a way of structuring a workout.

The workshop was a lot of fun, although we had no reason to think any of our proposals would be implemented; we had lectures from a number of local architects who were also working on projects for the area, but not from the municipality.  This part of Switzerland is very beautiful and Morcote basically a resort town, but growth of the nearby city of Lugano, and the strength of the Swiss franc versus the euro in Italy, means that more and more Italian commuters are projected to come through this area to work in Switzerland.  Still, we enjoyed developing our somewhat fantastical proposal and thinking about rooftop pools and train station climbing walls.  You can see the results of our design work on my Tumblr page.

Heidi Weber Pavilion by Le Corbusier, Zurich
The i2a House, Vico Morcote
Working with a variety of international students was also a highlight of the trip - there were students from Italy, of course, but also international master's students from Brazil, Poland, Turkey, Bulgaria, and more.  Everyone seemed to have an easy time working together (the workshop was conducted in English), seeming to reflect a fairly consistent method of design instruction across these different countries.  I hope to post my thoughts about architecture school sometime soon - I have a lot of criticism - but it is fun to be able to work with students with such different backgrounds thanks to the similar training we have all received.

Further, I have to say that I appreciated attending an architecture studio that looked at transit and infrastructure as appropriate places for architectural intervention, and not just at your typical museum/library/public project.  As my professors keep telling me, and not just in history class, there are so few "designed" spaces in the US that if architects want to stay relevant, we should really be thinking about those places and not just prestige buildings.  Maybe what I'm learning is really dependent on my choice of professors, and I'm just choosing those I agree with, but it seems like what I learn in architecture school generally contradicts the predominant image/methodology of architecture practice.  I think architecture should be about the design of the built environment broadly, and that this is the way to increase the value and success of our built spaces.  So thanks, Fred Levrat and Oliviero Godi, for leading us in some really interesting discussions about the future of infrastructure and digital technology.


  1. I like the idea of a glass-bottomed pool on a station's roof where you can watch trains pass by under you while you swim.


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