Syracuse – ‘I first heard about this summer school a few months ago, on Formafantasma’s Instagram account,’ explained Alyssum Quaglia, an industrial and CMF designer who ventured to the Italian institution all the way from Seattle. The long trip, to her, was more than worth it. First held three years ago in Sicily, MADE Labs is still on the best-kept-secret stage but on the cusp of a breakout: co-curated by Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma along with Moncada Rangel Architects, it is perhaps one of the most daring design summer schools in the world.
Take the theme of the most recent edition, held from late July to early August, as proof of that. Welcome is a phrase that allows for many readings, particularly in a politically, historically and ethnically loaded spot such as Sicily. To the MADE curators, it stands for a borderless vision of design. ‘In our unstable, soul-searching, confused Europe, constantly questioning the essence of its shared culture within the expanse of its territory and its ethnic diversity, […] interdisciplinary exchange is simply a necessity,’ explained the group. ‘Indeed, the preservation of diversity goes well beyond the recognition of its beauty.’
In the hands of a carefully selected group of boundary-breaking tutors, the results of two weeks of workshops aptly defied categorisation. Instead, the final projects fiercely stood their ground by affirming the value of existing somewhere between a functional taunt, a provocative defiance of technology and environmentally provocative proposals.
Here are some of the most intriguing student projects from the 2019 edition of MADE Labs, mostly researched, assembled and presented on the island of Ortigia.
[+] LEOPOLD BANCHINI’S EAR OF SALVINI
Located on the Neapolis Archeological Park of Syracuse, The Ear of Dionysius was a cave-like prison built in such an acoustically precise that it allowed its namesake tyrant to listen in on the conversations of the political dissidents jailed inside. At least, that’s Caravaggio’s version – historians point to it actually being a water storage for the city.
To architects Leopold Banchini and Pierre Cauderay, their Ear of Salvini became a space where differing political visions could be listened to – Salvini, in this case, being the notoriously anti-immigration, anti-asylum deputy prime minister of Italy. ‘Architecture is about the action of building and creating social spaces,’ explained Banchini. ‘So we used the theme of the sea as a possibility to question the politics of what is happening in Sicily – from human questions to territorial questions.’
The resulting space was a raft where, through a dinner-performance, each member of the workshop got to discuss their views on the topic of migration.
[+] MATTEO GHIDONI’S THE BATHS
After the Greek and Roman eras, and particularly after the influence of a historically large Jewish presence, the island of Ortigia is historically known for its baths. In fact, Milan-based architect Matteo Ghidoni took his students to la Giudecca – Ortigia’s Jewish neighbourhood – to explore the underground facilities that made the flow of water possible. One of the most striking inheritances is a sixth-century mikveh – a bath for the religious ritual of water immersion – that was hidden underground to escape persecution.
For The Baths, Ghidoni and his students used water immersion in a similar way, this time in the district of Graziella – a working-class area currently inhabited by many North African immigrants. ‘The main element of the city, which gives you the impression of being welcome, is water,’ explained the Salottobuono founder. ‘So we wanted to provide a welcoming environment to people in the Graziella, through the element of water.’
[+] JORGE PENADÉS’ INTERNATIONAL WATERS
The first day of his workshop, Spanish designer Jorge Penadés asked something unusual of his students: he wanted them to consider topics, tools and techniques that are often overlooked in design. ‘The idea was to explore legality,’ said Penadés with a smirk. ‘I wanted to work with things beyond what’s ethically or morally welcome, but also with things that are a little bit more ambiguous.’ His initial brief, in fact, included terms such as fraud, scandal, scam and vice.
His workshop, thus, became a place to explore the idea of design limbo. That ended up becoming International Waters, a project that included a transitional water doorway that prompted people to consider being consciously stuck in limbo. ‘Radical freedom can only be achieved in an offshore context outside any possible national jurisdiction,’ he added.
[+] PIOVENEFABI’S DESIGN BALNEARE
For their workshop, Giovanni Piovene and Ambra Fabi came armed with Ugo La Pietra’s thorough 1980s study on the unspoken tribal attitudes and protocols of Italy's coastal towns during the summer. ‘Isn’t it odd, beach culture?’ asked Piovene. ‘We are at our most vulnerable in a beach town, sharing the sand with a million people, and we’re practically in the nude. So at the beach, we regress back to our most primal status.’
The duo’s students thus figured out ways in which to expand upon La Pietra’s jovial research: part of it was an equally jovial contemporary glossary, as well as a delimitation of individual, social and emotional perimeters under the sun.
[+] THOMAS THWAITES’ DISEGNO AD ABSURDUM
British designer Thomas Thwaites started his workshop asking his students to design useless items – for example, Australian multidisciplinary designer Estee Sarsfield came up with a sticky wallet that would make one’s money stupidly disappear.
That later became Disegno ad Absurdum, a collection of inflatable weapons – yes, inflatable. ‘We wanted to design the absurd,’ mused Thwaites. ‘When you think of “welcome” here in Sicily, you think of the migrant crisis… but what is driving that migration? What is the larger system? Can we use inflatable weapons to attack those larger systems?’