Touched / Untouched


This project is based on the idea of touched and untouched layers in landscape. Touched is where the designed moments happen, and untouched is where a project keeps the hints of its site. Touched is important because it’s the way people sense a place, like traditional Chinese garden is designed through different moments rather than a master plan. Meanwhile, untouched is where it keeps hints of a place and enriches the designed layers. Chinese painting uses a lot of blank spaces, because it wants to utilize the paper texture as part of the whole drawing. Landscape design is always infiltrated in a complex context with unique and various information. It includes not only history, culture, geology, hydrology, environment and also experiences. However, many times, those layers and information are covered, abandoned or eliminated through our design.  What I want to achieve in every project is using my design operations to uncover and articulate the rich and hidden context of each site. Therefore, the process of design is always a dynamic interaction of untouched site context and touched design moves.

By analyzing what’s the important hints and information in this post-industrial site in Milan, I select the old railway as the untouched footstone for spatial and element design. Touched moments are formed by untouched railroad through shape, materials and rules of design. Untouched ecological process, atmosphere, texture is then framed by all those touched design elements. To remind people about the unique quality of this site, untouched field are bought into two major open spaces embedded in the tight urban fabric, the entrance plaza and the waterfront square. By doing this, the project tries to build up an interactive relationship between the touched and untouched layers in landscape, and brings a whole new perception towards the traditional Italian open space.


What prompted the project?

This project is one of the optional studios at UPenn’s MLA program. There were other options but I choose this one for a specific reason. Italy and China are both cradle of civilization, but now they are all facing the challenge of endowing the old with new. I have always been interested in re-present traditional Chinese landscape in modern context. So by choosing this studio, I was trying to find some methods and attitudes that could also be helpful for my future design career.

What informed the choice of Milan as site? What defined the specific interest in its railway?

Over centuries, Milan is the symbol of complexity. It’s the center of art and architecture, but also the hub of transportation and industry. But now its transportation and industrial infrastructures are facing challenges. Many of them are not functioning anymore, leaving blank spaces in Milan’s dense urban area, fencing out the urban neighborhoods from each other. There were 7 abandoned railyards in Milan, all of them could become great opportunities to transform city’s public space, activate and tie back the urban context together. Porta Genova is among the 7 railyards, and it’s the one interests me most. It’s the regional railway connects Milan with 8 small towns, important Cereal-zootech agriculture filed, Po Plain eco-region and Ticino River. So just like the mapping shows, tracing the information of this railroad is a process to re-represent the history of this regional railroad, bringing value and story of the whole region into this post-industrial site.

When talking about site, did you visit this? What tools and mediums did you use to acquaint yourself with the latter and how important was this for the development of the project?

As this drawing shows, when we visited Porta Genova, we were trying to better understand the urban context, different edge conditions and materiality of this unique site. I draw quick sections to understand important edge conditions between canal and railroad. Some quick collages are very helpful to re-imagine spatial relationships among site features. Photos are useful to capture texture and materiality in site. And data calculation gives me a very objective understanding of site’s composition. All of these observations decide my spatial organization and design language on this site.

When formulating the drawings how do these speak of the very attitude of the project itself similarly to Chinese drawings?

This whole project is based on the idea of “ touched and untouched ”. And this idea has close relationship to traditional Chinese paintings. Usually in Chinese landscape paintings, there are lots of blank spaces which are left intentional to represent texture of the paper, water, sky, clouds and other environmental atmosphere. Even though left as untouched, the “empty space” still tells stories and information. And it is the interaction of empty and solid that forms the reading of every Chinese painting. Back in this project, by proposing large ecological and agricultural fields as “ untouched ” history and regional information of this railroad, those untouched fields formed “touched” spaces for new programs and connections that will serve the neighborhoods.

You talk about generating a new open space, how did you confront yourself with the importance of the piazza? how does your project situate itself in relation to this?

For me, piazza shares a very similar situation as traditional Chinese garden. Both of them are beautiful spaces. Of course they are great and important design languages. However, to match with contemporary context, in terms of functions, new development conditions and people’s demand, they have to find a new way to transform themselves. In this project, by centering large ecological fields, I was trying to bring a new perception into traditional piazza. Instead of a pure hardscape, it could be a juxtaposition of cultural and nature, Milan City and Ticino River, urban regeneration and railroad history, touched and untouched.

How and to what extent do you see this method of working as an architect extending into other projects

Playing with the interaction of touched and untouched has already impacted some of my latest projects. Each site has totally different conditions and hints, so this method still has a lot of spaces to be developed. But I am glad that I am trying to bring Chinese philosophical concept into my design method, it will be a long way to go, but eventually this may be the way to define myself.

What would you say is the architects most important tool?

For me the most important tool for architects is always remember to look back. Look back on site’s history, look back on your own culture, look back on your growing experience, and even look back on your previous projects and drawings. They may connect as one clue and lead you to a new start.