Video and Photo Survey of Architectural Masterpieces in Florence: Interview with Paola Giaconia

The Tuscan AngloAmerican Festival in Florence is an opportunity for American and British universities to open their doors to the fiorentini and demonstrate what it is exactly that these students do day to day in their studies here. When language can be a barrier between people, photography creates a third language through which American and British students can communicate their high regard for the city.

The “Video and Photo Survey of Architectural Masterpieces in Florence” exhibit in Palazzo Vettori, organized by Paola Giaconia, a Professor and Program Coordinator at Kent State University in Florence, will run from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm. The photos and videos taken by these students is an opportunity for fiorentini to see their captivating city through an American perspective.

The intensive four-day summer program available through Kent allowed the students to observe architectural pieces in Florence more closely; observing not only the building but also the environment surrounding it. Since the program was only about a week, the focus was not on the technique but instead on representing what they observed. For example, the American students noticed through these observations that social use of space is different in Italy from the United States, which they were then able to portray in their work.

Giaconia praised the students for their enthusiasm and the extra time they put into the project. Without being asked, they went to an opera house at night that they had previously shot in the daylight to understand the difference in the atmosphere. The students were even there at dawn, catching the sunlight playing off of the façade. It was clear through their actions and excitement that they were in Florence to truly understand the city, not to pass through like tourists.

She was also impressed at how well put together the collection was, since none of the students had previous experience in video editing. The depth of observation in the display is truly outstanding, as the American students were willing to acquire a new mindset and learn more about what was around them.

Giaconia, as a professor for American students, notices the huge difference between the approach to architecture that American students have compared to Italian students. Although they are in the same field, the education in each country is very different. Italian architecture students have more of an extended analytical approach before they begin designing. In the United States, American students begin designing almost right away with less analytical analysis.

This can be attributed to the different locations of the students. There is so much ancient and medieval architecture that exists in Italy, and therefore Italian architecture students are taught to be extremely respectful of their surroundings. In America, oftentimes architecture students are working in suburbs without historical relevance, which allows them to proceed with a project with little analysis.

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The Professor of Architecture admires this boldness in American thinking. Giaconia observes that at times the Italian analytical process can go “out of control” to the point of over-thinking, which makes the students afraid to continue.

Giaconia studied at the Politecnico di Milano as an undergraduate, the city where she is from, and then went to the United States for her masters degree, where she continued to work for six years. Reflecting on her experiences in both countries, she found that architecture was more of a challenge in Italy because of all the red tape. Often, it is not possible to create something new in Italy because of the strict mindset that aims to protect the old. This is important, but Giaconia emphasized that Italy should not be “frozen in time.” Even Brunelleschi’s famous dome, a symbol of Florence and recognized by people all over the world, was not accepted at the time it was built because it seemed too extravagant to the people. Many Italian architects lament today that there is hardly any contemporary architecture in Florence, because many projects are denied. In Los Angeles, however, Giaconia noticed that it was the complete opposite. Even in Milan, there is a layering of architecture from the medieval times to the 19th century to now. But, she asks, “what happened in Florence since the medieval times?”

Many other European cities, such as Paris and Barcelona, have achieved this successful layering. They still have their medieval masterpieces, but also incorporate the new. It is not necessary to destroy the old, and if new masterpieces are not built in Florence then essentially it is a missed opportunity.

For example, years ago there was an international competition in which many talented architects from around the world were invited to create a new exit for the Uffizi museum. A Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki, won with a brilliant design, however it was put on hold for political reasons and still has not been implemented. Of course the architect was disappointed, but she remarked that Italians are used to their projects being blocked because of the strict mindset that exists.

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Florence has “endless potential,” and when American students with their bold and fresh ideas present what these possibilities are, then fiorentini themselves can understand what they are capable of. Giaconia posits that American students can be extremely creative because they are not held back by history. However, there are times in which she must mediate the boldness and stress that an architect has to be knowledgeable about the project.

When these cultures and perspectives are combined, however, Italian and American architect students would make a perfectly balanced team of boldness and analysis to create the masterpiece of their generation in Florence.

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