AA Visiting School Slovenia: nanoturism
Aljoša Dekleva

Nanotourist strategies in Vitanje, July 2014

 

The AA Visiting School Slovenia is an experimental teaching and research programme, as a part of the AA Visiting School (AAVS) at the Architectural Association, London, organised for the first time in the summer of 2014 in Slovenia. It is open to students and professionals worldwide, who wish to further their knowledge, practice and skills in architecture on short and intensive courses that engage with the local environment and its current architectural and social issues. Nanotourism is set as a central topic of research and development of AAVS Slovenia.

 

What is the AA Visiting School?

 

In 1847, the Architectural Association (AA), the precursor to the AA School of Architecture, was originally set up in London as a public forum where architecture was discussed before it was designed. It was initiated by ‘a pack of troublesome students’[1] who were opposed to the traditional Victorian routine of educating future architects and who wanted to learn their way with a free thinking philosophy. Since then and over the course of the following century-and-a-half, the AA School operated as an independent educational institution that fostered many new ways and concepts of teaching architecture. AAVS is a rather fresh programme, faithful to the initial principles of the AA that works as an experimental programme where different possible ways of teaching and studying architecture are developed in specific locations around the globe. Developed over the past six years, it is an embodiment of, and extension to, the AA School’s ‘unit system’[2]. It is based on one simple premise: AAVS tutors, who act as programme directors and set the course agendas are either current or former tutors or students of the Alma Mater, based in Bedford Square, London. The AA’s international character of carrying out a very diverse range of agendas, with tutors and students originating from different backgrounds all over the world, make the AA Visiting School programme very different from the simplified comparison to ‘educational colonialism’. Quite the contrary, each Visiting School programme pursues its own distinct, highly focused agenda, rooted in a specific context and connected to the indigenous society of each location, and is led by AA tutors with local provenience and experience. That makes the AA Visiting School a very bottom-up, locally oriented and participatory programme – a true example of nanotourism.

 

Why anotourism and what is it?

 

Searching for a relevant research and design topic for AAVS Slovenia, while facing the new realities of the Slovenian economy and landscape, we realised the potential of tourism as one of the few industries that is still growing regardless of the turbulent conditions in the global market economy. Slovenia is one of the smallest and most naturally diverse countries in the world where only some of the tourism investments have really managed to relate to Slovenia’s rich natural and cultural potential. Many of them have fundamentally failed in setting their focus on enabling the visitors a fully integrated experience of its diverse contexts. These investments have brought about the extensive diminishment of natural resources and have led to counter – sustainable tourist development strategies on an already small and fragile territory. Too little attention has been given to the idea of extreme local experience tourism, based on the principles of ‘SMALL, LIGHT and GREEN’ ideologies[3], where visitors can experience ‘extreme architectures’, placed meticulously with subtle intervention into specific surroundings, aimed at magnifying the user experience of individual travellers or even provoking them to participate. The fascination with the growing phenomenon of tourism has to be considered carefully. To start the journey into the exploration of its potentials, we gave the research topic a name: nanotourism. To answer the question, whether smaller-scale, non-intrusive ways of promoting tourism already exist, the AA Visiting School Slovenia teamed up with Ljubljana’s Biennial of Design (BIO 50) and its curator Jan Boelen[4], in a multidisciplinary research process that explored the possible futures for design. Nanotourism was one of the Biennial’s eleven research topics where its definition and potentials were developed over the course of six months, in collaboration with the international group of young professionals[5]. The BIO50 nanotourism team presented their work in progress at the mini conference that kicked off the AAVS Slovenia course, highlighting a possible definition of nanotourism, the research of existing examples and development of several case studies[6] of nanotourism. The students were prompted to react and respond with their own view and development of the topic of nanotourism in the context of KSEVT and Vitanje. Nanotourism was defined as a new, constructed term describing a creative critique to the current environmental, social and economic aspects of tourism. It is a site specific, participatory, locally oriented, bottom-up alternative. It operates as a social tool to stimulate mutual interaction between the provider and user by co-creation or the exchange of knowledge. It is not about scale, but a projected ability to construct responsible experiences from the bottom-up, using local resources. It stretches beyond tourism: it is more an attitude dedicated to the improvement of specific everyday environments, and a strategy aimed at opening up new local economies.

 

Why Vitanje and KSEVT?

 

The community of Vitanje, a small village strongly connected with nature and with a strong local character, recently gave grounds to the project of KSEVT – The Cultural Centre of European Space Technologies. The old community centre building was removed and thus provided space for the new building of KSEVT, that was envisioned to facilitate the research of Space technologies and raise awareness of the work of Herman Potočnik Noordung[7]. Replacing the integral infrastructure of the local community, it was designed as a hybrid building containing both, scientific and community programmes in order to bring together community life and the idea of ‘culturalization of Space’. KSEVT, a collaborative architectural project[8], features a series of interlocking decentralized rings that lie on top of each other to create a continuous interconnected structure of spaces. It integrates offices for researchers in residence, a main exhibition space, round multipurpose hall, entrance foyer and series of small and differentiated spaces for local community associations. It also contains two sets of changing rooms with showers that work as fully equipped infrastructure for the adjacent sports field. Since its inauguration two years ago, KSEVT has attracted over 25,000 visitors per year with its exhibition related activities, while Vitanje, a community of 600 inhabitants, has not fully taken advantage of either the recently built community centre nor the substantial turnover of people coming to their town. The course of AAVS Slovenia was an ideal opportunity to revisit the building we co-designed, to thoroughly experience its performance and to extensively learn about its ways of existence in the social and physical context of Vitanje. The complex relationship between the building and institution of KSEVT, and the community of Vitanje served as an important topic of investigation and improvement. The round multipurpose hall has transformed itself into a 24/7 studio where we explored and exploited the building of KSEVT and its underused infrastructural and cultural potentials for possible manifestations of nanotourism. Could it perform as a local resource catalyst or as the reception of a ‘dispersed hotel’[9] in Vitanje? Or could it even be a hotel on its own? AAVS Slovenia: nanotourist strategies A three week research, design and make course focused on the strategies of nanotourism, allowing participants to engage in a wide range of projects: from site-specific micro interventions at a 1:1 scale to holistic strategies for existing contexts. Adapting to their specific setting, the students had to develop projects that had to materialize in actions or structures that would be temporary or permanent, ultimately seeking to create a comprehensible, tangible and novel experience of the building and institution of KSEVT and Vitanje. The students researched and gradually progressed through three clearly defined entities: Place, User and Material. Place, as an understanding of space, culture, territory, time, visibility; user, as a representation of social organisations, psychological values, individual and collective motivation; and material, as a physical resource for making, with characteristics such as geometry, tactility, manipulability, structure, texture, availability, contextuality … While identifying, targeting and intensifying individual specific elements of each entity, it was crucial to develop an understanding about the emerging correlations among them. Stimulating and designing mutual influence and dependencies between place, user and material, they developed an explicit conceptual common ground for each project. We aimed for interventions that would provide both the spatial and social triggers which would initiate a change, with the ambition for temporary or long-term spatial and social integration and participation. The key teaching agenda of AAVS Slovenia is to research and promote the process of creation that stretches beyond ‘design’. The process is equally as important as the final project itself. A simple process diagram was introduced to the students at the beginning of the course: ‘research’, ‘design’ and ‘make’ activities have to be successively organised in a recurrent process to create a closed circle that has to be perpetually repeated to generate refined, specific and sharp results. Following this bottom-up process of design development and starting with initial elements of research, decision-making and prototyping, these had to be gradually organised at higher levels of understanding, in order to produce more complex structures and holistic design solutions. Each following iteration of the process loop produced simply better results. Exhibition hotel in KSEVT, Accommodation Strategies in Vitanje and Objects of Activation were three proposed topics that stimulated students to develop and test, at a scale of 1:1, four strategic projects:

 

HangOut Vitanje – Communal XL Lace Hammock

 

Although KSEVT has changed the status quo of Vitanje, its visitors often leave the place right after they see the exhibition. HangOut Vitanje responded to this issue by researching and devising alternative accommodation strategies and activities, giving KSEVT visitors or local residents a reason to explore the area for a longer period of time – from some hours to several days. HangOut Vitanje proposes an intrinsic experience of renting out a bag kit with a site-specific, XL lace hammock and a map with a set of site suggestions to explore. New discoveries can be noted and uploaded to the project website, where personal spots of interest can be shared. Custom lace hammocks were produced by a reworked traditional bobbing technique to fit specific sites and conditions. They offer a possibility of accommodation and space for activities, while all  infrastructures, including the renting service, are available at KSEVT. They represent an alternative to the conventional vision of a hotel or campsite.

 

KSEVT Outdoor Community – Social Design for Vitanje

 

The building of KSEVT was planned to contain both: planetary programmes and a local community cultural centre. The KSEVT Outdoor Community wanted KSEVT to play a bigger role in the lives of Vitanje inhabitants. Analysing their needs and issues, a set of site-specific socially engineered interventions were formulated in order to integrate the people of Vitanje with KSEVT and its assets. The team has organised an all-day public event named KSEVT-FEST, hosting a football tournament with madeon- the-spot goulash, large scale chess board games and open air cinema evenings: kinoKSEVT. Active participation of the mostly younger population at these events has clearly showed a critical need for outdoor social programmes related to KSEVT. To sustain such activities, the team has equipped active participants with DIY manuals and has built a series of simple, locally sourced wooden seats that represent  a physical evidence and the collaborative relationship between KSEVT and the local community.

 

Vitanje Expo @KSEVT – Community Exposition System

 

The team addressed objects of activation – in the form of structures, spaces or events – that connect the people of Vitanje and users of KSEVT on a social and emotional level. The connection was activated by a joint participatory exhibition of products by local craftsmen and of photographs taken by residents, based on the initiative of the team: local participants were asked to photograph the representations of KSEVT or Space in their own home environments. The exhibition took place in the multi-purpose foyer of KSEVT and coincided with the final jury and exhibition opening of the AA Visiting School. Vitanje expo @KSEVT has challenged the institution of KSEVT to open up to the needs of the local community. Materialising the exhibition setup, the team used semi reflecting foil to convert generic foyer lighting into spot-lights and rented local wooden slats, half-products of local saw mills, for a flexible, systematically organised and integrated exhibition system.

 

KSEVT hotel – From 2D to 3D Sleeping

 

How can KSEVT accommodate sleepovers? The site-specific added value to the KSEVT exhibition is the experience of levitation in an environment of gravity. The team’s field of research was the transition from conventional 2D sleeping to the experience of 3D sleeping. The KSEVT hotel offers two experiences. The individual version enables the researcher to spend the night in KSEVT by sleeping in a uniquely engineered levitation-suit, suspended in the central space of KSEVT. With the collective experience, a group of people is able to test 3D sleeping as an extended feature of the exhibition, where a set of pyramid shaped cushions support your entire body in a custom 3D position while asleep. The concept of the KSEVT hotel and 3D sleeping embodies the unique program of KSEVT – it fulfils the accommodation needs of the institution and furthermore upgrades an already unique visitor experience.

 

Conclusion: Feedback of local community and afterlife

 

The teaching and learning process at AAVS Slovenia is deliberately designed as an experience different from the conventional architectural curriculum. It is an opportunity to break away from the usual habits of thinking and making architectural projects. Engaging Participatory Action Research[10], employing ways of learning by doing and designing strategies, as well as social events, is producing a dynamic and challenging environment for the understanding and development of architecture. Processes involve the inclusion of local residents in co-designing and co-creating strategies and solutions. AAVS Slovenia understands architecture as a socially dependant phenomenon that involves social design principles and awareness to design for society. Students are facing intense group work that brings much more dynamic processes of creation, discussion and debate, to the foreground. Learning from colleagues that came from the other side of the globe is one of the most valuable student experiences. The vibrant activities of fourteen students with diverse cultural and educational backgrounds, in collaboration with tutors and visiting experts, have transformed and upgraded KSEVT and its relations with the residents of Vitanje to their full potential. Through a process of intense participation between students, local residents and visitors of KSEVT, the results of the students’ work during the AAVS Slovenia course have left their mark. Deep and intensive bonds that culminated in the crowded final presentation and exhibition opening have been established. The ‘KSEVT hotel‘ and ‘HangOut Vitanje‘ projects are ready to be fully working features that can be experienced by future visitors of KSEVT. Furthermore, the local media’s feedback communicated a very direct message to the public: Vitanje doesn’t need a conventional generic hotel, but can develop alternative ways of accommodation in direct relation to KSEVT[11]. The ‘KSEVT Outdoor Community‘ group mobilised the local youth, who took over the project’s activities and ran KSEVT Kino for the rest of the summer. In the context of Vitanje, the Church plays an important role in the community, with its representation[12] firmly built on top of the little hill in the middle of the town, clearly shows its dominant position. The institution and building of KSEVT set up a different context to this one-way condition: it introduced science as the counterbalance to religion in a contemporary balance of society. At the final presentation of AAVS Slovenia, it was very significant to see the Priest of the parish of Vitanje, setting foot in the building of KSEVT for the first time since the opening. He came to celebrate the opening of the local craftsmen exhibition, organised as a part of the project of the ‘Vitanje Expo @KSEVT‘ group, and openly spoke about this ‘historical moment’ of collaboration between the two institutions. Following the positive experience from the first course in Vitanje, AA Visiting School Slovenia will continue to address the agenda of nanotourism in diverse specific environments and communities throughout the country on a yearly basis. It will pursue the ambition of discovering new models of local economies, and will continue to offer visitors and locals the opportunity to deepen their knowledge, experience and understanding of the world.

 

Programme Director:

Aljoša Dekleva

 

Programme Assistant:

Jakob Travnik

 

Tutors:

Aljoša Dekleva

Tina Gregorič

 

Co-tutors:

Jakob Travnik

Blaž Šef

 

Experts in juries and tutorials:

Vedran Mimica – profesor in prodekan za področje raziskav na IIlynois Institute of Technology, v Chicagu, ZDA,

Christopher Pierce – Architectural Association London, direktor programa AA Visiting School,

Jan Boelen – Direktor galerije Z33 – House of Contemporary Art, vodja podiplomskega programa Social Design na Akademiji za oblikovanje v Eindhovnu (Nizozemska) in glavni kustos BIO 50: 3, 2, 1 … TEST, 24. ljubljanskega bienala oblikovanja,

Miha Turšič – direktor KSEVT-a,

Dragan Živadinov – KSEVT in postgravitacijsko gledališče,

Boštjan Vuga – Sadar + Vuga arhitekti, arhitekt,

Vasa J. Perović – Bevk Perović arhitekti, predavatelj na Fakulteti za arhitekturo v Ljubljani,

Nikola Radeljković – NUMEN / For use, Hrvaška,

Nejc Matjaž – ONDU, Slovenija,
Blaž Šef – igralec, KSEVT, Vitanje.

 

[1] AA School of Architecture, Visiting School Prospectus 2013-2014, pg. 3

[2] Student life at the AA School of Architecture is organised around year-long design studios or ‘units’. This approach to architectural teaching and learning emphasises the development of comprehensive design projects where all aspects of architectural knowledge are embedded. Agenda driven project briefs are shaped by students working intensively in small groups in studio tutorials with AA tutors. (From AA prospectus 2014/2015)

[3] Such a concept has been emphasized in a recently finished project by Matevž Lenarčič, Slovenian pilot and scientist who flew around the world with an ultra-light airplane designed by Pipistrel, a small Slovenian aircraft manufacturing company. The project instilled these values under the name of Slovenia’s national brand, I Feel Slovenia, by undertaking high quality research in the most fuel-efficient aircraft in the world, the Pipistrel Virus SW. A local phenomenon of obsessive individualism has led to the emergence of small and extreme creative industries, operating in cutting edge technology and design.

[4] the director of Z33 – House for Contemporary Art, the head of the Master Department Social Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven and the chief curator of the BIO 50: 3, 2, 1 … TEST, 24th Biennial of Design in Ljubljana,

[5] Participants applied to the open call of BIO50 and were selected and invited to take part in the team.

[6] There were five case studies developed over the course of BIO50 process: Old School Ilica (Zagreb), BIO50 Hotel (Ljubljana), KSEVT Connecting People (Vitanje), Rajzefiber Biro (Maribor) and Routine Revolution (Krakow). AAVS Slovenia added to that four more nanotouristic projects in Vitanje.

[7] Herman Potočnik Noordung (1892 – 1929), a Slovene rocket engineer and pioneer of cosmonautics, wrote the

seminal book on Space technologies in 1929: The Problem of Space Travel – The Rocket Motor.

[8] KSEVT was designed in collaboration, by the following architectural firms: Bevk Perović Arhitekti, Dekleva Gregorič Arhitekti, OFIS Arhitekti and Sadar+Vuga Arhitekti. It was completed in 2012.

[9] A concept proposed by the case study ‘KSEVT Connection People’, where abandoned homes are restored and converted into hotel rooms, guest houses, inns or even luxury resorts. They scatter throughout different  uildings within the town, but they are overseen by one management. See alberghidiffusi.it.

[10] PAR is an approach to research in communities that emphasizes participation and action. It seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and following reflection… (Wikipedia)

[11] ‘Vitanje, samo hotela ne!’, Rozmari Petek, Večer, 26.07.2014, pg. 20

[12] Church of Holy Mother.

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