by Alexander Cox 

This essay was an assignment completed as a reflection on a six-day excursion that was part of a six-week study abroad course entitled “Two Millenia of Structural Architecture in Italy.” The course was sponsored in July and August 2019 by the Princeton University Institute for International and Regional Studies. The course instructors were Maria Garlock, Branko Glisic and Sigrid Andrianenssens, all of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Princeton University. Scala Foundation co-sponsored the excursion. Margarita Mooney, Scala’s director and a professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary, participated in the excursion and led a post-excursion discussion with the students on engineering and liberal arts education.

The aim of this seminar was to track and  understand creativity in structural engineering in Italy in classical, medieval and modern architecture. The course also examined the intersection between technological advances and construction design across those time frames.

During the excursion, students learned about Italian architects designers including: Brunelleschi, Canova, Ducati, Dainese, Nervi, Michelangelo, Palladio, and Pisano. Sites visited included: churches, villas, cemeteries, factories, stadiums, and bridges. The class also examined up close: statues, sculptures, doors, motorcycles, and motorcycle safety equipment such as suits, helmets, shoes, and jackets with an airbag.

How would you describe the value of the excursion to this course? (visits to bridges, museums, villas, factories, etc.)   

The primary value of the excursion was to experience the buildings the way the architects intended us to. Whether created as monuments to God, places to live and entertain, or ways to travel, structures are inevitably built for humans to enjoy. Therefore, if we are able to see these buildings in context, we can learn more about the architectural process and get a better idea of the original use of these buildings. It also gave us a unique chance to talk to experts in their field while surrounded by the objects that they have dedicated their lives to. Being toured around a Palladio Villa by someone as excited as Guido, being able to ask questions of Lino Dainese while touring around his own factory, and witnessing Prof.ssa Paternò teach us to read buildings like stories were just a few examples of this in practise. There was also value in being taken to places off the tourist track. For example, if I had gone to the Nervi Tobacco Factory by myself, I wouldn’t have appreciated the importance of the structure, or even have been able to explore it as we did. Finally, and of less relevance, it was nice to be able to explore other cities in Italy and to enjoy the countryside on long bus rides.

Which part of the excursion (a particular place we visited, an object) struck you in a particularly strong way, something you will remember?

The Villa ‘La Rotonda’ was my favorite architectural site that we visited. As the apotheosis of Palladio’s work, I was particularly excited to hear Guido’s explanation of how this building inspired so many others throughout the world, and his enthusiasm made me feel enthusiastic, too. I wanted to see for myself what the secret of this archetypal villa was and how its influence is felt today. It seemed that every small detail of this house was taken with a care for cost but also the positive human experience. I loved the views of the nearby city and countryside that were enhanced by the four different aspects of the villa. Additionally, I felt the effect of it being rotated 45 degrees from the cardinal directions, so that every side of the house could receive some sunlight during the day. The Villa Rotonda embodies the humanist values of the Renaissance. On a different note, I was also intrigued by the other people who were visiting at the same time as us. Everyone had their own reasons for being there, and I wish I could have talked to them and found out why. Some were in the gardens drawing, some were fascinated by the smallest detail of the exterior materials. I think I could have learned a lot from these people if I spent time with them and found out what drew them to Palladio as well.

Was there anyone we met during the excursion who shared something poignant with you, or helped you see something you might have otherwise missed?

For me, in the most literal sense of ‘seeing something I might have missed’, the person who shared something special with me was Prof.ssa Paternò. When we were in the Palladio Villa Gazzotti, completing the workshop task, she told me to climb onto the window ledge and get much closer to the masonry in order to read the building more like a book. As she was pointing out individual parts of the bricks that revealed their secrets, it made me consider how many similar features in other buildings I have ignored in my life, and this experience taught me to be more critical when analysing the minutiae of the everyday objects around us. Additionally, seeing her devoting her life to one architect was an intimidating and impressive experience for us. I fondly remember when Richard, Branko and she were debating the purpose of removing an element from a wooden beam. You could tell the three were so invested in this one aspect that I would have otherwise ignored, and this lively debate for me portrayed the best aspects of academia.

Why might we want to know the biography of people who have made beautiful art or architecture?

I believe if we can learn about people’s upbringing and the conditions in which they grew up, we can better understand the art they create. For example, by knowing that Palladio went to study ancient architecture in Rome, we begin to see these elements in his villas of the 1500s. Additionally, the cities which these artists spent their formative years are also important from a social and political standpoint. The Medici in Florence, for example, were great patrons of the arts, and Florence at the time was the most important city in Europe. If someone was born in Florence, that gave them many more opportunities than someone born in the countryside. Another reason we study biographies is that of our own ego. We are keen to see how we compare to others, and if we could possibly achieve the same success. Hearing about a precocious artist gives us equal measures of amazement and jealousy that we don’t share the same talents. Finally, one thing I think that biographies miss and that we could do with studying more are the inevitable failures and collaborations that these people make on their way to success. Too often we get a rose-tinted view of someone’s past, but we could do well with learning what mistakes they made which then changed their life course, or the people we don’t hear about that are equally important to their success.

Any other thoughts?

Many thanks to everyone who made this trip possible. I think that seeing the great buildings of humanity up close is a valuable experience for everyone, engineer and non-engineer alike. I also think, even though we spoke in precept about the value of engineers studying the liberal arts, there is also a value in humanities majors being exposed to engineering as well. For example, the mathematical and scientific achievement behind a new bridge is often as important as the social and aesthetic aspect of it. During the course, I noticed that a particular method of mechanical analysis, graphic statics, was a favorite of all students, humanities and engineering alike, as a way of using geometry to predict how a structure will stay up. After that, whenever we would go for dinner, everyone would be commenting on particular arches or domes they saw around them, about their structural beauty as well as their historical stature. The future is multi-disciplinary, and very exciting.


Alexander Cox is a senior in Butler College at Princeton University, majoring in Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is currently working on his senior thesis on the intersection of Engineering and Earth History following field work in Western Australia.