The Project as a medium for trans-disciplinarity

I carried out a STSM  at the faculty of Architecture of the University of Roma Tre, with the aim of investigating current interdisciplinary practices within the academic curricula of the department of Urbanism. Hosted by prof. Simone Ombuen, I researched ongoing and potential efforts to bring disciplines together in the development of research and academic projects around resilient cities and sustainable urban development.

I arrived in Rome in the middle of March, in an unusually pleasant weather, especially for someone like me, coming from a much colder Amsterdam. With the help of prof. Ombuen I had arranged a series of very diverse activities, that would help get a closer look at dynamics occurring inside and outside the university around the theme of my STSM. In a city like Rome, sadly portrayed by the media through the current state of degradation and inexorable decay, I arrived with the hypothesis that if moments of collaboration between disciplines happen, they would probably occur also informally, around personal initiatives. Therefore, I tried to leave room for informal interactions, discussions, chats, with master students, PhD researchers and professors. With the same aim for spontaneous interaction, I also managed to approach local administrators and active members of NGOs. The recently renewed faculty of architecture provided with a vast amount of open spaces and cafes all around, while the shining sun of March gave me the perfect setting to my meetings.

On a bench in front of the library, I had a very interesting conversation with a Master student in urbanism, which told me about his involvement in Retake Roma, an NGO involved in bottom up projects of urban decorum. They clean graffities, plant trees, pick up trash from the street.

In one of the classes in the new pavilion of the faculty, I presented my work to last year students in urbanism, and then I sat with them during prof. Ombuen’s lesson, taking notes with a certain nostalgia. 

In a bar next to the faculty, right at the entrance of the local market, I shared a coffee with two PhD students that are developing their thesis with a transdisciplinary approach. One learned water engineering modelling software to test the design of urban parks as a measure to counteract urban flooding. The other was implementing her knowledge of geotechnologies to apply it to soil remediation projects within urban planning.

In the aula magna of the faculty I assisted to the lectio magistralis of prof. Carlo Olmo, invited to speak about history of architecture in relation to the very idea of a European Union.

In a local restaurant, eating a fantastic carbonara, I had long discussion with an old friend, active in the Association for the Common Goods, an organization collecting Roman NGO’s involved in bottom up urban renovation projects.

In one of the most private rooms of the faculty I had an interesting conversation with the head of the department of urbanism, on how to bring students and universities in a closer interaction with local administrations, challenging academic projects to solve real issues.

Prof. Ombuen assisted me with encouraging participation during most of those meetings. During the last one, he formalized a thought that it was already present in me, even if still blurred at the time. In our last conversation he mentioned an article that was soon to be published in the journal of the department of urbanism. The article was about the importance of the project, as a tool of discovery and exploration. Promoting a research by design approach, the article was explaining the value of explorative design projects to find unexplored solutions. I was myself quiet familiar with the theme of research by design, since it consists of one of the core practices of my professional activitie. Nevertheless, the way the article was framed opened a valuable lesson for my investigation on transdisciplinarity.

Each one of the people and the initiatives I encountered during the mission were successfully blurring the limits of their disciplines, and reaching out to experts in diverse fields to carry out a project. Their determination to complete their project opened the way to informal interactions, spontaneous and effective in a mostly hostile context. The university only provided a setting for those processes to happen, without particular effort or models, leaving room for individual initiative.

This reflection leads me to a conclusion that might seem banal, but it is still fundamental. To bring disciplines and different expertise together, we might not need methodologies or complex structures. We might only need shared practical goals and the determination to reach them. Common objectives, complex problems to solve.

We might need projects.

by Luca de Stefano