Extra Space, Extramural

A projector and some creative programming make a way for landscape architecture students to connect safely.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

Roberto Rovira, ASLA, mapped the surfaces of FIU’s School of Architecture building to identify spaces that could accommodate projection and physical distancing. Image courtesy Roberto Rovira, ASLA.

More than a year into remote learning, Zoom has proven itself to be an adequate stopgap for basic instruction in university classrooms. Many design students even have benefited from the platform’s ability to collapse distance, making it possible to engage with students, guest lecturers, and critics from anywhere. Where Zoom is woefully insufficient, says Roberto Rovira, ASLA, the chair of the landscape architecture department at the Florida International University (FIU) School of Architecture (SOA), is in enabling the kinds of side conversations and ambient observations that are so much a part of the studio experience. “Those incidental conversations, the peripheral awareness of how someone is solving something, [are] why we have studio environments in the first place,” he says.

As students trickle back to campus—this spring, FIU moved to a hybrid teaching schedule in which 20 percent of classes are held in person—Rovira is piloting a new program designed to safely reintroduce a social element into remote learning. Launched in February 2021, SOA in the Park, or SOA(P) for short, will transform the school’s architecture building into event spaces that use the building’s various facades as projection screens. Using a high-powered projector and speakers purchased with funds from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (created by last year’s CARES Act), the building’s various outdoor spaces become stages for evening lectures, film screenings, and design workshops, with future programming determined by student proposals. (Events are BYOS, “bring your own seating.”)

Rovira identified four total “stages,” including one within the building courtyard. Image courtesy Roberto Rovira, ASLA.

The setup is not intended for seminars or studio courses—among other factors, projection simply works best at night—but rather for the kinds of extracurricular events that have migrated to Zoom or have been canceled altogether, with the hope of safely facilitating informal interactions among students and faculty.

To identify which spaces could accommodate projection, Rovira mapped every surface of the SOA building’s exterior and consulted with FIU’s outdoor events staff on equipment needs. Although he hopes the program will outlive current safety protocols (he’s already identified a more permanent setup, projecting onto a courtyard wall through the glass of the building’s model shop), Rovira says the goal this year was to be as tactical as possible, “meaning portable things, using Wi-Fi and portable audio, having it be something we can set up and take down on the fly.”

Florida International University design students attend an outdoor film screening, part of a new initiative called SOA in the Park. Image courtesy Roberto Rovira, ASLA.

Timothy A. Schuler, the editor of Now, can be reached at timothyaschuler@gmail.com and on Twitter @Timothy_Schuler.

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