architecture online and offline, between the sea and the sky – an article by anne-sophie gauvin and mario la malfa (sep 2014)

architecture online and offline, between the sea and the sky

This story is about a summer workshop, at the same time it’s a stepping stone along a more complex path we’ve taken researching transformations in contemporary educational models.

It’s an interesting and fascinating world.

It can, at times, be a bit scary and overwhelming.

Over the last four or five years, we conducted quite a few experiments. The mechanisms are now more finely tuned and keep improving. We often make mistakes that we then correct in subsequent iterations. It’s a true learning-by-doing, tested on our own skin.

Last summer we held this workshop, starting it online and completing it offline.

The overall result has come out (we think) remarkably well. Hence the wish to share our accomplishments with the readers of this website. To communicate with more people, gather new ideas, feedbacks, opinions.

It’s an ensemble of projects, posts, digital and analogue interactions. It’s a flow constantly in the making. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, says:

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

It seems like a poignant and clever remark.

How expensive can this education be?

What education are we referring to?

Compared to what kind of ignorance?

These are the questions we try to answer with our experiments, investing our energies and our passion. It’s a long path. Here’s a report on last summer’s stint in Syracuse.

We’re waiting for your comments.
Thanks in advance.

Stefano Mirti


We asked Mario La Malfa and Anne-Sophie Gauvin to tell us what happened last summer in Syracuse and on the on-line platforms. Here’s a detailed account.

We also have to thank Francesco Librizzi for his extraordinary energy, which gave us results that were unimaginable and beyond our hopes.


Shortly after the end of the Design 101 MOOC (or: Massive Open Online Course), we (Whoami) sent out an open invitation to join our architecture summer camp: Architecture, Between the Sea and the Sky, led by Francesco Librizzi and Stefano Mirti.

As for all our other courses, the summer camp mixed online and offline activities. From July 14th to 31st 2014, it took place online on a Google+ community and continued “offline” in Syracuse, Sicily from August 4th to 9th 2014. In Syracuse, the Impact Hub Siracusa hosted us and Gyproc Saint-Gobain sponsored our building materials.

Students could choose either to enrol to both parts (online and offline), or to only one of the two. The online part was free while the offline part had a participation fee.

A new way of learning and teaching

Conventional teaching models appear outdated. In the past, knowledge was transferred following a vertical flow: the teacher was at the top, passing on what he knew to the students below him. This model is not up to the task anymore.

Language is changing.

The way in which we communicate is changing.

Our minds are wired differently than they were 20 years ago.

New and social media have invaded our lives and, whether we like it or not, they have been shaping the way in which we think, communicate and understand things around us.

Setting up a community

There is a significant gap of communication between “traditional” teachers and students. They do not speak the same language. This is a phenomenon we are very interested in.

How to transfer knowledge today, if teachers and students speak different languages?

We believe that one of the ways in which this can be achieved is if knowledge travels within the classroom following horizontal flows. By shifting from a vertical model to a horizontal one, some boundaries between teachers and students get blurred. A teacher remains a teacher, but enters a dimension in which his students are enabled to become teachers as well. In this “horizontal” model, the teacher empowers his students to question, share, stimulate and activate the rest of the class. In other words, we could say that the teacher’s role can be intended as that of a game moderator.

He sets goals, moods, parameters of success. He provides students with tools and references, presses the “play” button and crosses his fingers, hoping that some of these elements will be absorbed and reinterpreted in intelligent ways.

When the vertical model shifts into a horizontal one, the classroom is transformed into a community. A community made of teachers and students, working together towards a common goal, stimulating collaborative and open attitudes.

A system that works online and offline

With the use of new and social media, flows, exchanges and interactions between teachers and students can now survive outside the classroom. Conversations can spark (or be continued) outside the former boundaries once set by factors such as time and space.

In every course we make, there is always an on-line part and an off-line one. We believe it is essential to work on the back and forth between virtual and physical encounters.

What are the ingredients?

> People

  1. Teacher(s) choosing a theme, preparing a brief, setting the mood and establishing a timeline.
  2. Community manager(s). Community managers are part of the teaching team (or are chosen by the teaching team). Their role is to communicate the brief, activate the community, respond to questions, make sure the activities work properly… Then, when things go really well within a community, some members become managers themselves. This is nothing “official” (or planned by the teaching team). It is a lovely phenomenon that happens once in a while.
  3. Students. The students are found via all kinds of communication processes: online or offline. Talking, posting, sharing. Of course, the words and images used for communicating are key for reaching the right audience. In our summer camp, 68 people officially registered to the online part and 7 to the offline part. However, a total of 142 people joined the community on Google+. This is another nice and interesting phenomenon…

> Places for people to meet

  1. Online. A place for teachers and students to meet, interact and work together online. This can be a Google+ community, a group on Facebook, an e-learning platform… Ideally, this place should be open, social and designed for interactions.
  2. Offline. A time and place for teachers and students to meet, interact and work together offline. For the summer camp, this place was the Impact Hub in Syracuse… Ideally, this “physical” place should be equipped with proper WiFi connection. WiFi is an important ingredient for several reasons such as sharing the activities with the other community members (who couldn’t attend the physical meeting) and for documentation purposes.

> Interactions

  1. All kinds of them. The more the better. Interactions between the students, between the students and the teachers, and eventually between the community and the public.
  2. Social media. First of all, there needs to be channels on main social media that are managed by the teaching crew, to spread relevant news and updates from the community and it’s activities. Then, each member of the community should communicate and share their activities via their personal accounts. This way, they can receive feedback and become a source for content or inspiration to others. Using social media as a way for sharing content is one of the best ways to enable a community to grow.

The brief online

Every day for a period of 18 days, students had to complete a new assignment and post it on the Google+ community. The 18 days were divided into 3 missions of 6 days each: the Sky, the Sea, the In-Between.

In short, they were asked to observe, explore, reflect, measure, get lost and find themselves into the sky, the sea and the in-between, creating 2d images or simple 3-d compositions.

They worked on the conceptual and practical skills needed to develop, represent and communicate their ideas in the best possible way.

The students’ output online

Students were asked to gather their 18 images into a booklet. This booklet could either be digital or physical. The 27 booklets that were submitted can be found here.

The brief offline

The brief for the 4th mission of the summer camp was simple: to create space between the sea and the sky.

The first two days were spent getting to know each other, visiting the city and choosing the place in which we would create our architecture (by the sea, below the sky). On the third day, Leonardo Tasselli and Flavio Cazzulo from Saint-Gobain came to the Impact Hub to introduce us to the building materials they supplied us with: two types of drywalls and some metal frames. They gave us instructions, explained us how to assemble them in the simplest way, presented us the tools we would need to use in order to manipulate them properly. All of this was done “hands-on” building a small beach cabanon.

On days 4 and 5, in the courtyard of the Impact Hub, we thought / planned / designed / built our spaces. Each student created his very own micro-architecture. Very nice times, very nice conversations, very nice team work. Then, on our last morning together (day 6), we took our structures to the site we had chosen on the second day: an American military base from WWII, near Ortigia. A magical place and day under the stark Sicilian sun.

The students’ output offline

Seven site-specific micro architectures: a series of ladders (Mario Pertile), food-preservation devices (Viviane Becker), a concrete throne (Petra Tikulin), an observation bed (Rebeca Porras), a stair-chamber (Titouan Russo), a belvedere (Alessandra Farina) and a shade machine (Dragica Nikolovska).

To understand a little bit more the general “mood” of our offline part camp, here an album of pictures and here a short video.

The teaching materials

On the first day of each mission, we sent out an email with the links to a video and pdf with the general brief / exercises / inspirations / references for the 6 following days.  

On top of this, Francesco Librizzi made a nice introductory presentation on the first day of our offline mission in Syracuse, to get us all in the proper mood.

All the teaching materials can easily be found on the summer camp’s home page.

Thank you for your interest!


some visual imaginary to start.

dorothea measuring the sea

a pdf letter briefing the daily challenge

student’s “online” homework for mission 1

screenshots from the google+ community

viviane’s preservation devices

petra’s throne

mario’s series of ladders

dragica’s shade machine

titouan’s stair-chamber

rebeca’s observation bed

alessandra’s belvedere

the “offline” team at sunset, in syracuse, on the last day