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UC students gain experience of a lifetime in Venice

A summer journey to Italy by faculty and students provides a lifetime of learning far from the University of Cincinnati classroom

The University of Cincinnati is broadening its impact in interdisciplinary areas of real-world learning and research that speak to the challenges found within urban living and cities throughout the world.

Architectural projects created by UC faculty and students that explore these urban challenges are featured during the 16th International Venice Biennale. The Biennale, which runs May 26-Nov. 25, 2018, is regarded as the world’s most prestigious platform for contemporary art and architecture. "Alchemy," an exhibit funded through the Simpson Center for Urban Futures, focuses on the societal challenges within the socioeconomic landscape of Cincinnati.

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/KVrRLrfmMl4?rel=0

“I would never have imagined that I would be involved in a project exhibiting parallel to the Venice Biennale,” says UC alumnus Chas Wiederhold.

Wiederhold, a two-time graduate of UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) who grew up in a rural community about 90 minutes outside Cincinnati, stood with recent UC grad, Chicago-born Brent Nichols inside the Giardino della Marinaressa, a quaint, shaded park nestled along the bustling waterfront of Venice, Italy.

The two classmates traveled to Venice for this year's Biennale, titled “Freespace.” 

“It’s an honor to come here as more than a tourist or a sightseer, and be responsible for something that can have an impact on someone’s life. It is truly inspirational,” says Nichols.

The two young men beam like proud parents. And beam they should. Wiederhold and Nichols, along with more than 20 UC students, designed and built a piece titled  “Alchemy,” now on display to an international audience during the Biennale. Each year more than 500,000 people from around the world travel to Venice for the Biennale and associated exhibits.

The design-build journey

The creation of “Alchemy,” which harkens back to the medieval process of transmuting base matters into gold, began with the design phase in January 2017. DAAP students were inspired by Cincinnati’s industrial history and socioeconomic evolution.  

Cincinnati-based Rookwood Pottery Co., Formica Corp. and Gorilla Glue Co. provided discarded materials used to build “Alchemy,” originally created for the first Architecture Biennial in Columbus, Indiana.

Nichols says students spent hours walking around the basement of Rookwood Pottery to hand-pick more than 1,000 discarded tiles for the project. “It’s hard to imagine when you step in, but every one of the tiles has a factory deemed error, whether in shape, color or form, and for me, not being a tile/pottery expert, it is unfathomable to know that I am looking at errors.”

Students divided into teams and developed a strategy to blend the tiles using a gradient of red and blue. They then added neutral and purple tiles to the gradient to create a waterfall of color.

Gila Banisral, an interior designer from Israel, spent several minutes walking through the “Alchemy” exhibit in Venice. “I was looking from the outside and was very impressed. Suddenly I came in and saw this beautiful and colorful thing. From the outside it is very monochromatic, but it has all these designs and colors. It’s surprising.”  

Justin Brown, a second-year graduate student in DAAP’s School of Architecture, spent much of his time creating the floor of the exhibit, which features a map of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods and illustrates the socioeconomic fluctuations among the communities. “Each quartile of the city is represented by a different steel — there is rusted, bar and galvanized steel and the rivers are made of copper. The rest of the floor is what we have been referring to as the ‘Sea of Formica.’”

Students gather outdoors in Venice, Italy near the beehive-shaped art installation they created

UC students gather near "Alchemy" in Venice. Photo: provided

Formica Corp. provided 4-by-12-foot sheets of material. The students cut the large sheets down to smaller one-inch strips and laminated them together to create the floor tiles. Words describing Cincinnati, such as “enduring,” “gritty” and “growing” — are etched into the 892-pound floor. A piece of brass shines in the heart of the map, representing the location of UC.

“I think in this process we have really taken elements of the Midwest that weren’t valued before and given them new life and new value,” adds Nichols.

Wiederhold says the community partnerships and involvement from Cincinnati Public School students and middle-school students from Columbus, Indiana, helped create the meaningful “Alchemy” narrative. “High school students from Cincinnati Public Schools wrote poetry describing the city of Cincinnati. There are a lot of phrases and one of my favorites describes the duality of life in the Midwest and life in Cincinnati. It says, ‘Two different worlds could live on the opposite sides of the same street.’”

The UC team used copper pieces from a recycling plant in Columbus, Indiana, to conduct a tangram exercise with students from a nearby school. The students were asked to create hieroglyphic images representing what they care about. The numerous images, including flowers, dogs, monsters and hearts among others, were then pressed into wood salvaged from a 150-year-old Cincinnati church. The pieces of wood are woven together to create a wall that gently wraps around the tiled structure.

The copper images also serve as a clever augmented reality tool. “Alchemy” visitors can download an app to their smartphone to learn more about Cincinnati through the eyes of children. “You can use your phone to scan them as a QR code,” says Wiederhold. “They play poems by the students while showing you video of the city to express the duality of experiences…to show different ways of living in Cincinnati.”

Kaira Peyton, a Chicago filmmaker and photographer, says the “Alchemy” exhibit provides an interesting narrative that touches upon the social and economic landscape of urban cities. “The different colors and tiles seem like a meshing of different people and communities. I can see how they all come together to form this beautiful city of Cincinnati.”

Two students spell out "UC" with lights in the dark

Students share their UC pride in Venice at night. Photo: provided

Packing up and shipping out

A group of 14 UC students, including Wiederhold, Nichols and Brown, traveled to Venice with Terry Boling, DAAP associate professor of architecture. They arrived days ahead of the Biennale opening to carefully reconstruct each feature of the “Alchemy” exhibit inside the Giardino della Marinaressa.  

But the true challenge came weeks prior: cataloging, packing and shipping the thousands of pottery and Formica tiles, individual pieces of the wood wall and metal framework along with other materials needed to rebuild “Alchemy.” The attention to detail needed to complete the necessary paperwork to get through customs was a little unexpected.  

“It took a lot of patience, a lot of organization, communication and some large U-Hauls,” Nichols says. “The amount of effort it took to get from the Midwest to Venice is inspiring.”

For Nichols and Brown, the trip to Venice allowed them to travel outside the United States for the first time. Not only did they explore a new part of the world and wander the streets of the most architecturally renowned city in history, they also gained real-world academic experience that few other students do.

“We grow up in academia learning about the Biennale and hearing about this global show-and-tell of architecture,” Nichols says. “And to be even mentioned in the same breath is a real honor.”

“Being in Venice and seeing what we are next to…the Pakistan exhibit. It’s a whole country, and we are just a little university. People are telling us it’s the greatest one they’ve seen. It is mind blowing,” Brown says. “It’s the highlight of my educational career… it’s very exciting. It’s what I will brag about at Thanksgiving now.”

A beehive-shaped art installation made of tiles that are white on the outside and colored inside

“Alchemy” was originally created for the first Architecture Biennial in Columbus, Indiana. Photo: provided

Advancing the Biennale experience

The display of “Alchemy” during the Venice Biennale caps Wiederhold’s academic career at UC. He began as an undergraduate in 2009 and enrolled in UC’s Graduate School in 2013 to continue his educational studies and gain the real-world experience needed to further his career.

“The University of Cincinnati’s master of architecture program has really allowed me to gain the best of practice because of co-op,” Wiederhold says. Now an alumnus, he recently accepted a position with an architectural firm in Cincinnati. He says his theory knowledge and real-world practice, like the Venice trip, will allow him to drive new designs throughout his career.  

Additional UC graduate students will have an opportunity, much like Wiederhold, to travel to Venice in the fall. The Global Arts Affair Foundation, which hosted the “Alchemy” exhibit, is holding a symposium in October for academics to gather during the Biennale and discuss the emerging philosophical themes within contemporary art and architecture.

The Design Futures Council is hosting “Leadership Summit on the Future of Architecture: Preparation, Practice and Posture” also in October. The event, held in conjunction with the Biennale, will gather architectural leaders from around the world to discuss the future of architecture and its impact. UC students will present their research to attendees and participate in the discussion — a lesson far from the Cincinnati classroom.

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