Graduate Architecture

Posted May 11, 2020
  • Architecture Lecturer Ezio Blasetti supervises the fabrication of a carbon-fiber structure at the Weitzman Robotics Lab earlier this year.

The Optimist’s Venice Biennale Preview

Update: On May 18, 2020, the organizers announced that the 17th International Architecture Exhibition will run from May 22 to November 21, 2021. For updates on Weitzman's participation, sign up for Design Weekly, the Weitzman School's e-news.

The theme of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, “How will we live together?” has assumed a new significance as the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the globe. As health concerns led to shutdowns in Italy, the Biennale’s opening was postponed until August 29, but the Weitzman School stands to be well represented if the landmark event can take place.

Richard Weller, professor and chair of landscape architecture, Meyerson Chair of Urbanism, and co-executive director of The McHarg Center, was selected by the Biennale’s curator, Hashim Sarkis, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning to MIT, to present work as part of the One Planet exhibition in the Central Pavilion. Weller is presenting three projects which reflect ongoing landscape architecture research at Weitzman. Three members of the faculty in the Department of Architecture are exhibiting at satellite venues: Winka Dubbeldam, Miller Professor and chair of architecture, Lecturer Ezio Blasetti, and Associate Professor of Practice Ferda Kolatan.

Although Weitzman faculty and students have presented their work in the recent past—Dubbeldam, Kolatan, Eduardo Rega Calvo, and Graham Professor of Practice in Architecture Marion Weiss participated in 2018—this year’s cohort is bigger than ever, says Winka Dubbeldam, Miller Professor and Chair of Architecture.

“This is the first time that Penn has a massive presence,” says Dubbeldam, who also directs the Advanced Research and Innovation Lab at Weitzman. “I’m super proud of that, and very excited and extremely grateful to our sponsors.”

Dubbeldam’s firm Archi-Tectonics won a competition in 2018 to design the Asian Games Park for the 2022 games in Hangzhou. That work informs an exhibit at the Biennale from Archi-Tectonics that Dubbeldam says is focused on the changing meaning of architecture amid evolving environmental pressures, and on “anomalies in architecture and how anomalies can create identity and character for a building.”

Dubbeldam also helped secure sponsorships for a seminar led by Lecturer Ezio Blasetti focused on carbon-fiber fabrication that showcases the School’s Robotics Lab, which will result in a large carbon-fiber pavilion being exhibited at the Biennale. The seminar is sponsored by Lemond Composites, Dropbox, and TCR Composites, and Via Domani is a partner on the project. Blasetti taught previous versions of his seminar, which is focused on algorithmic design, at both Yale University and the Pratt Institute, and says the pavilion that’s planned for the Venice Biennale will credit all the students who’ve taken the seminar. Various components of the pavilion were to be fabricated in the Weitzman Robotics Lab and at the Pennovation Center, and then shipped to Venice, probably in an air crate, Blasetti says.

“The pavilion is a good size, where you start to showcase things like real scale, instead of just making models or objects,” Blasetti says. “The students are learning a lot from making things but also making them at a real scale.” The original plan was to fabricate components in late March and ship them to Italy during the first week of April, but those plans became unworkable when Penn restricted on-campus activities to life-sustaining work. Meanwhile, Blasetti procured a desktop robot from the School that students can operate remotely to experiment with carbon-fiber fabrication on a smaller scale. Work in progress has been documented at

For Ferda Kolatan, associate professor of practice in architecture, the Biennale is an opportunity to showcase images from a series of three research studios he’s led in the last year and a half that are focused on architecture and urban design in Istanbul. One of those studios was focused on a set of old and new buildings that form the architectural backdrop for a marine port, one was focused on experimenting with new garden types at an old shipyard near the Golden Horn, and the third was focused on an old marketplace with a courtyard and colonnades near the Grand Bazaar. All three were centered on the notion of “oddkin,” developed by Donna Haraway, distinguished professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz. Kolatan’s studios are also sponsored by the GAD Foundation, a spinoff of the Istanbul-based firm Global Architecture led by Gokhan Avcioglu.

In the studio, Kolatan says, students “look at infrastructure and architecture that is monumental or religious and they keep parts from both and create a third type of architecture that has very mundane elements like infrastructure, like pipes, like pieces of roadwork and street lighting, and create new hybrids that bring those elements together with something that we recognize as ornamentation, or the kind of architecture that we usually value on a higher level.” 

For design faculty, being selected to participate in the Venice Biennale is prestigious recognition. And it’s also a chance to explore and debate design ideas on a much larger-than-normal scale.

“The Venice Biennale of Architecture has always worked as a showcase for the world in terms of architectural discourse” says Ezio Blasetti. “But the more important connection about the Biennale is that more than half of the visitors are non-architects … there is a big opportunity to open up the discourse to a much larger crowd.”

“The only thing we can hope is that it actually happens,” Dubbeldam says.

The students participating in Blasetti’s seminar include: James Andrew Billingsley, Ren Bolai, Xuechen Chen, Gordon Cheng, Patrick William Danahy, Bingkun Deng, Sijie Gao, Kevin Jed He, Li Jiewei, Nikolaos Fillipos Kalantzopoulos, Xuefeng Li, Huajie Ma, Atharva Ranade, Rebeca Sanchez, Sami Samawi, Shangzi Tu, Bohao Sun, Zhenxiong Yang, Yingzhi Chen, Jean Yuan, Haochun Zeng, Tian Zhang, and Zhe Zhong.

The individuals who are helping fabricate Richard Weller’s presentation include Weitzman alums Chieh Huang and Nanxi Dong, and students Tone Chu, Emily Bunker, Rob Levinthal, Shannon Rafferty, Lucy Whitacre, Lujian Zhang, Allison Nkwocha, and Oliver Atwood.