Texas A&M environmental design students studying abroad last fall in the small Tuscan town of Castiglion Fiorentino teamed up to reimagine the town’s piazza, or public square, creating a variety of proposals adding amenities to the space including an international university, a culinary school and restaurant, theater, gallery, hotel, apartments and shops.
Once a vibrant pedestrian and commercial area, the city’s Piazza del Collegio has seen a church and most of its businesses close; the piazza is now dominated by automobile traffic and parking, said Phillip Tabb, professor of architecture and leader of the Field Studies in Design Innovation studio.
The 21 participating students, housed just two blocks away at Texas A&M’s Santa Chiara Study Center, were tasked with creating proposals to breathe new economic and social life to the piazza, sensitive to the site’s existing urban fabric and layers of architecture.
“It’s a complicated site, with a web of streets, automobile circulation, variations in topography and complex triangular geometry,” said Tabb.
Students identified an ornate corridor, or loggia, in the piazza, automobile traffic and a nonfunctioning church contributing to the piazza’s decline.
“The loggia uses a vast area for no real reason or purpose,” one of the student groups said in its renewal proposal. “Its elevation creates a sense of focus on it, downplaying the plaza in front of the church. Vehicle parking takes up space in the piazza, forcing pedestrians to be limited in using what should be a public ground. The church building combines with the parking lot to impose a drought of economic activity for the stores that are still in the piazza.”
Students performed a pattern analysis of the site, evaluating its elements, including its building materials, slope, a fountain, and its church, for their effect on the space.
One group proposed the International Collegiate Learning Community, which would bring an auditorium, classrooms, library, dining hall and living quarters for students and professors.
Another group’s interventions included remaking the piazza’s closed church into a gallery, theater and studio and designing a bookstore and supply store in the piazza.
Caroline Vaughn designed an amphitheater for the piazza, which she said would combine elements of nature, seating and viewing to create a personal and relaxed way to interact with the visual and performing arts.
Jorge Cruz designed a theater to go in the abandoned church space.
“With limited space to work with, turning the church into a theater presented several challenges,” said Cruz. To include as many seats as possible, he designed a mezzanine seating level and rooms below ground level.
During their semester in Italy, said Tabb, students experienced a dialogue between immersion and reflection. Under these conditions, he said, the design process can be overloaded with information, insights, emotions and new feelings provided by the character of new environments, culture and experiences.
“Students engaged in a process, perhaps better stated as a collision, in their previous understandings of the world and the emerging vision resulting from their work here in Italy,” said Tabb. “Despite the wonderful ‘distractions’ afforded by this setting, the students were able to focus, synthesize and create informed designs.”