Venice with an architectural twist

What do I know about architecture? Practically nothing. What do I know about students? A lot … because they are my passion. Here I am in Venice, Italy, witnessing the extraordinary transformation of five students from the College of Architecture.

Eight months ago, Patricia Oliver, Dean of the College of Architecture, cornered me at a University event to tell me that her students were planning to enter a competition of the highest international prestige – Venice Biennale, the granddaddy of them all!
“It will be the first time in college’s 50-year history that we are dreaming this big,'” she said. I like big dreams so I encouraged her, wished her good luck and told her that if you are successful, I will join you.

Two months ago, I got a message from the dean informing me that they had indeed made it to the Venice Biennale. I congratulated her and told her that I would try my best to be with the team.

Recently, Dean Oliver revealed that the exhibition is so prestigious that the renowned developer Gerald D. Hines, whose name our College of Architecture bears, had decided to attend. Now, I had no choice but to reshuffle my schedule and attend.

I arrived in Venice on June 5, my fifth visit to this dreamy city. During my previous visits, I had seen every tourist site worth seeing – from San Marco Plaza to the Rialto Bridge – many times over. I had taken photos of every church and villa from every angle and had paid ridiculous amounts to take short rides in those storybook gondolas. So, this time my attention in Venice was completely focused on my students and Mr. Hines.

First of all, Mr. Hines didn’t just attend the opening, but he was on hand for every event. I felt 6 inches taller just walking next to him because everyone, including the curator of the exhibition, stopped by to pay him tribute. I did not know these people, but the constant clicking of cameras that surrounded them was more than enough to confirm their importance in the world of architecture.

The exhibition included a Who’s Who of architecture. Twenty three venues were part of the Biennale and displayed the works of the masters. I could not believe that our students were here. Not only were they here, they were given one of the most prominent places on the Grand Canal next to Rialto Bridge to display their ambitious project. Thousands of people visited their exhibit every day…they stayed, asked questions and admired the work of our dedicated architecture students!

Our students’ project was truly masterful – taking Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and developing it so that every negative (pollution, abandoned land, and toxic brown fields) is converted into a positive (a school for the blind, farm land for inmates, a green manufacturing facility). In their proposed plan, Buffalo Bayou becomes not only an example of sustainable development, but also a place where people want to gather to eat and watch boats and ships glide by.

It goes without saying that this experience will transform forever the five students who are here. I was told that some had never travelled abroad before this trip, and that a few of them had barely been outside of Houston. And here they are, rubbing shoulders with the best in the world and getting undivided attention from Mr. Hines himself!

I am leaving from Venice with immense gratitude for the faculty who made this possible for our students. I also commend Dean Oliver for thinking big and aiming high.

As for myself, I have learned more about the discipline of architecture in these three days than I ever thought possible. My travels will no longer be the same. I will always be thinking about how spaces affect our behavior and how buildings have the power to transform us all in one way or another. It took one more visit to this lovely city – and the inspired efforts of our students – to teach me that.
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