“In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. To go from one place to another you have always the choice between land and boat: and since the shortest distance between two points in Esmeralda is not a straight line but a zigzag that ramifies in torturous optional routes, the ways that open to each passerby are never two, but many, and they increase further for those who alternate a stretch by boat with one on dry land.”
The assignment: Create a vision for the city of Esmeralda from Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities using only white foam core cut into rectilinear forms.
This is the first project for our studio course. Suddenly– we have hardly even moved-in, our desks are still empty and without character– we have work to do. This is our home for the next year. In the studio next door, the second year MLA students reside and down the hall are the architecture studios. But this is ours. T-squares and razor blades and 4 foot sections of 1/4 inch thick foam core. Make a landscape.
There’s a lot of pressure with this type of assignment. Is it really illustrative of the fabled city of Esmeralda? Are we keeping in mind the concepts of design like compress/release or prospect/refuge? Do the linear elements work with the planar ones? Does the scale of the design intimidate the viewer or make one feel uneasy? Is the design integrative? Original? And why can’t I cut foam core in a straight line?Start with a blank field. Lay a rectangle somewhere on that plane. Add a strip, a square, another rectangle. Change the angle a little. Does this seem like an “invisible city?” Change the direction again. Add a square. Read the passage again: “…torturous optional routes…”? Add another strip. And another. Look at the person sitting next to you. Oh, she’s got it. Now, that’s interesting. Look back at your board, exchange a rectangle with a square. Wipe the board clean. Maybe a cup of coffee will help.
It would require about ten hours of work to represent Esmeralda. I thought about the time I spent in Fes and tried to replicate the labyrinthine passageways. I reflected on my time in Venice as I carved canals and bridges with my exacto-knife. I remained conscious of how a visitor might move about the space. Why, if I were 3/4 inch tall and in that model, would I choose to sit there or walk here? Do the passageways propel the pedestrian? Does the landmark make someone want to sit and ponder for a moment?
Using pins to hold the shapes, I balanced squares on strips. As the space began to fill, I returned to the themes I’ve learned in the last week: Vantages, transitions, directionality. Unity with diversity. Finally, with the same deep breath I take when I make the first line of a drawing, I glued the first piece. Ten hours.