For Oonagh Davis ’20, Cornell’s architecture program would have remained an unrealized opportunity, had it not been for a fortuitous change in her schooling during the senior year of high school. “I attended a high school in Cincinnati until the spring of my senior year. However, following a summer camp at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, I was offered the chance to extend my stay and complete my schooling at the institution. I accepted the offer.”
The experience of studying at a boarding school broadened Davis’ educational aspirations. She began considering institutions beyond those in the immediate vicinity of Cincinnati. Consequently, Cornell emerged as her primary choice for an undergraduate degree in architecture.
Creativity, Davis contends, should be the primary focus of an architectural project. During her time at Cornell, Davis has constantly sought projects and academic ventures that require her to be creative and to find innovative solutions to architectural problems. In the spring semester of 2018, Davis was recruited for a project led by Aleksandr Mergold, Architecture.
Spolia, Repurposing Architectural Structures
Davis had been a keen admirer of Mergold’s earlier works, which she characterizes as having sparked conversations on a variety of relevant issues—ranging from cultural history to green architecture. One of the program’s initial student members introduced her to the project. She was immediately drawn in by the focus on what she describes as an increasingly important element of modern architecture.
The project centers around spolia, a Latin term Davis defines as the repurposing aspect of architecture throughout history. As part of the project, Davis and three additional students have been assigned a structure, for which each student repurposes elements unique to each structure for an art exhibition in Detroit, Michigan—the Detroit Center for Design and Technology—during the summer of 2018.
Davis’ task is to analyze the Arles Amphitheater, a Roman amphitheater located in the southern French town of Arles. The structure was initially constructed in 90 AD purely as an entertainment space and played host to a variety of events, including chariot races and gladiatorial battles.
“Housing structures were built inside the amphitheater, and it eventually transitioned from being a purely entertainment-oriented venue into a fortress, housing a small populace.”
“Somewhere around the fifth century AD, the building began evolving into a community within the community. Housing structures were built inside the amphitheater, and it eventually transitioned from being a purely entertainment-oriented venue into a fortress, housing a small populace.”
This phenomenon represents an archetypal example of the organic repurposing of a historical structure; the amphitheater gradually manifested an impressively dynamic relationship with the local community. Davis says, however, that it has proven especially difficult to document this process of spolia in the amphitheater, due to the lack of relevant historical documentation about the structure. Even after sourcing the assistance of experts in medieval French architecture, Davis was unable to determine the exact structures built inside the amphitheater. Today, the arena has reverted to its initial appearance because the inner structures were destroyed over the centuries.
How to Represent Repurposed Architecture
The primary method Mergold chose to represent the repurposing of the structures is through columns constructed from concrete, wood, aluminum, and PVC. Each column is characterized by unique features, representing the spolia-associated characteristics of its corresponding historical structure. Davis, for example, is deliberating over the spacing of holes which she will drill into her column.
“Although a regular spacing of the holes can justifiably represent the uniform placement of arches across the amphitheater, I feel that an irregularly-spaced pattern would create a deeper level of engagement with the viewer. Moreover, the irregular spacing would also convey the organic, inherently unplanned process of repurposing, which has taken place in the structure over the years.”
Aware that the decidedly abstract nature of the columns may render it slightly difficult to draw an interpretive link between the historical structures and their corresponding columns, Davis and her team have decided to exhibit a series of drawings, highlighting the repurposing aspect of each structure over time—as informational supplements to the columns themselves.
“Spolia is, to me, the most important element of architectural study. A structure should be able to reinvent itself to meet evolving communal needs, and it is essential that we convey the successful repurposing of our chosen structures in the most impactful way possible.”
In addition to her research and curricular projects, Davis has been working as a teaching assistant at the Architecture, Art, and Planning Material Practice Facilities’ woodworking and metal shop since her freshman year. She also took a teaching assistant role in the laser-cutting lab in the spring semester of 2018. The chance to collaborate with and mentor students drew Davis to the teaching roles. Davis says that she is glad to assist younger students with several of the issues she faced herself during her initial years at Cornell. She views teaching as a way of giving back to the community.
Following the spolia exhibition in Detroit, Davis will be interning at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill LLP, an architecture firm in San Francisco. Upon the completion of her undergraduate degree, Davis plans to begin a professional career as a licensed architect. She says, however, that she may choose to pursue a graduate architecture degree in the future.