The practice-based secondment at Onsitestudio 1 started in September 2020. At that time, the covid-19 pandemic seemed to give a respite. The intention was to use the investigation as a pilot case to identify and test a methodology that could be repeated with other practices. The definition of a model could, in fact, allow to extract a corpus of consistent sources and therefore facilitate the comparison between different ways of practicing architecture.
Unaware of what could have happened, the initial idea was a five-months ethnographic research 2 divided into three phases: a first one made of observation –behind the scenes– to gain awareness and formulate a position; a second one of interaction, in which once I had acquired a certain awareness of the dynamics of the study, I would have moved on to confrontation through interviews and surveys with different actors; and a third in which I would systematize the data collected in the two previous phases.
The first two months actually went according to plan. I attended the office twice a week and followed the in-progress activities: site visits, internal and external meetings with clients, archive investigation, day-to-day observation of the office routine and design processes, but also collateral activities such as lunches and coffee breaks –which in hindsight turned out to be among the most important moments in which anecdotes and a more intimate dimension of the office dynamics emerged.– (fig. 01),
From the very beginning, the objective was not to follow a project vertically but rather to move transversally, attending as many different activities as possible. The research, in fact, interested in the studio's method and approach, aimed at observing both the actual design process and the subjects that influence it, i.e., to name a few: the office space, the positioning of the studio within the larger spectrum of the discipline, the background of principals and employees, their relation with the academia, the communication with clients, consultants, and a general audience, and the networking or the system of recurrent collaborations with whom they relate.
Since the end of October, the pandemic situation has worsened, and the restrictions imposed by the Italian government led Onsitestudio to close the office by transferring the activities online. (fig. 02),
At that moment, Onsitestudio decided that it would not reopen until spring.
At that moment, I understood that the characteristics of flexibility and adaptation to the contingencies of an ethnographic research should have been implemented more than ever.
At that moment, the methodology necessarily had to change.
No more social interaction. The web-cam has become the only intermediary and a window into the private lives of employees, collaborators, and clients. An office email was created for me to keep track of activities and connect anytime with whomever I wanted. No more two days a week defined a priori, but total freedom of action to the point of having experienced following several meetings simultaneously. I have been very kindly copied me several times in internal and external emails to guarantee a greater understanding of the process; and I was given the credentials to access the online server to keep abreast of the various projects’ progresses and work organization, besides being allowed to analyze the past projects placed in the "archive" folder.
The access to the server was of great help to understand the firm's working method.
It has let tacitly emerge, among others: a transparent, horizontal, and non-hierarchical structure in the design process, with folders equally accessible to everyone –from the directors to the interns– favoring an active part in the design process from anyone;– a prevalence of urban projects and office buildings for private clients, real-estate companies, and corporations; a recurrence of historical references with a particular interest in post-war Milanese architecture –adopted either in the design process, in their writings, or in the communication of their work;– a representation that reminds an in-between Swiss and Milanese schools 3 attitude; and recurrent collaborations –both with consultants and architects– based on shared similar agenda and interests, outlining the networking within which the office operates.
With hindsight, I also realized that my practice-based background has tacitly influenced and helped managing the investigation. Angelo Lunati and Giancarlo Floridi –Onsitestudio's principals– and I already knew each other before starting the investigation. To better say, until September 2020, we never introduced ourselves, but we were aware of our respective activities: their office and Fosbury Architecture, my collective of design and research. Angelo and Giancarlo have been teaching for years at the Milan Polytechnic where I studied, they have been professors of some of my colleagues, and we share common acquaintances. I didn't know the details of their work; nevertheless, the shared networking gave me an idea of the milieux they belonged to. An intuition that was confirmed since the beginning of the investigation through tacit but consolidated codes among practitioners, such as, to name a few, the graphic character of drawings –both in terms of design and graphics,– the type of references, the interests, and the issues raised.
While on the one hand, my practice-based background 4 implicitly directed what to look for to achieve the final purpose (i.e., investigating the codes and conventions that characterize the design process of a studio); on the other hand, I had to make a great effort to make explicit aspects which until now I had reflected upon in my daily practice, but not in analytical terms. I.e., I never wondered on the reason of a particular reference. Still, I knew that looking at specific ones rather than others could reflect the belonging to a certain network, and a clear positioning within the discipline at large.
To sum up, my personal embedded knowledge combined with the ethnographic research made possible to identify in detail the various elements interfering in their design process.
In order to systematized the investigation, the collected results and evidences have been combined into a draft publication.
Inspired by Marcel Duchamp's Green Box (fig. 03), the envelope – ocher in color as one of Onsitestudio's dominant palette hues– has been used as a container for heterogeneous and differently characterized materials –from primary sources to edited contents– to guarantee multiple reading levels. The main product contained is a fanzine structured in the form of a glossa enriched with a series of marginal notes in textual and iconographic form.
Without any radical ambition, the only reason for conceiving and designing this fanzine was the need to let emerge the complex and implicit aspects of a multi-layered investigation whose study could become an essential instrument for both architects and critics. Relevant to the point that I believe such analysis could be proposed as an integral part of the curricular work experiences that academies require to students. It could be a valuable tool for pupils to assess their work experience in the making and constitute a tool of first-hand sources for researchers whose study orients towards practice and critique.
More in the immediacy, this seems a suitable instrument for the reflection, investigation, and transmission of the other practices identified by the research. As a sort of publication series –one per case study– this could enhance comparison 5 between them, an aspect on which the research places importance as it is considered capable of strengthening the peculiar characters and codes that distinguish the implicit knowledge of each.
Yet, some open questions are still to be deepened. I.e., as typical of ethnographic processes, the surveys can't be defined a-priori, on the contrary, they will be shaped and restructured based on each case's needs and availability. This could mean that some offices will offer more openness and flexibility, while others less. In this perspective, if the data and starting conditions are not the same, does it still make sense to think about comparison? Also, what narrative tone should be used? What if it changes as a way to reflect an additional aspect embedded in each office's distinctive way of working? Finally, how should my auto-ethnographic 6 experience as a designer be –or not be– reflected in each of these stories?
Figure 1: Excerpts from onsitestudio in-person ethnographic investigation held from September 2020 to February 2021.
Figure 2: Excerpts from onsitestudio digital ethnographic investigation held from September 2020 to February 2021.
Figure 3: Marcel Duchamp, The Green Box, 1934 © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021.
Milan-based architectural firm led by Angelo Lunati and Giancarlo Floridi: http://www.onsitestudio.it/.
Yaneva, Albena (2009): Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Rotterdam, NL: 010 Publisher.
Which, among other characteristics, are recognizable by very clean, black and white wireframe drawings, desaturated collages, and carefully-made maquettes.
Practicing both as employee in various offices –ranging from Rem Koolhaas’ OMA/AMO to Stefano Boeri’s Multiplicity.lab passing through the Het Nieuwe Instituut, MVRDV and The Why Factory, among others,– well as with my collective Fosbury Architecture.
Werner, Michael and Zimmermann, Bénédicte (2006): “Beyond Comparison: Histoire Croisée and the Challenge of Reflexivity,” in History and Theory 45, no. 1, pp. 30–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/35....
- Chang, Heewon (2008): Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.