Ruinophilia & Pentimenti – Chinatown Milan Case Study

Arguably, the conception of ruins has long shaped western architecture historians’ origins narrative dating back to antiquity. Largely shaped by a distinct visual culture and optics of the “ruin gaze”, the ruin has largely been associated with romantic imagery possessing its own metaphysical charm. This studio takes the notion of ruinophilia as a starting point for generating design interventions in Milan’s old Sarpi district, otherwise known as Quatiere Cinese. The studio takes on Svetlana Boym’s premise that nostalgia offers a productive means to engage with issues of collective memory, displacement, and urban renewal, embracing the contradictions of modernity. Boym also highlighted the link between contemporary ruinophilia and reflective nostalgia, remarking that ruins lead one to contemplate the past that could have been as well as the future that never took place. The studio will also borrow from the critical lens of Chinese art history which offers up an alternative representation of the past, readings of site, building and visual memory. The Chinese notion of ruins is deeply internalized and is less overtly tied to visual remnants, but evoked through absence, voids, and allusions. In the context of preserving Chinatown, and the stereotypes of cultural heritage often associated with visual signifiers, the studio seeks to challenge conventional attitudes towards adaptive re-use, heritage preservation, and cultural production. Originally selected as the prime location for Chinese settlement (dating back to 1929) due to the courtyard-tenement housing typology which was well adapted for the artisans/merchants in the garment industry, today’s Sarpi area’s spatial demographic changes are posing cultural tensions due to the commercial activities outgrowing the limitations of the urban fabric’s density. Referencing the concept of pentimenti, “defined in art history as a presence of traces of previous work”, students are encouraged to exploit a “different logic of the ruin, which is not romantic… but a form of toleration of disharmony.” Students are asked to design either housing or a hotel/hostel within a defined site in the Sarpi district. The class will tentatively travel to Milan as well as Bologna. Weekly assignments will be given ahead of desk crits and pin-ups and students will be evaluated based on conceptual clarity, experimental representation, and design execution that bridges the scales of urban design, architecture, and interiors. We strongly encourage the act of making and building physical models as a design methodology.