This article describes my experience of a hands-on atelier during the Second International Summer School in Reggio Emilia, N. Italy in June 2012, ‘The Reggio Emilia Approach to Education: the dimension of Research and the Hundred Languages of Children.’ It was published in ‘The Challenge’ journal of the Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange.

City Ateliers*

The City Ateliers remain for me the most vivid amongst many memorable Summer School experiences. These ateliers, like those in the Reggio schools, are designed for wonder, experiment, expression and discovery – truly learning environments for head, hands and heart. Most importantly, it is also where one experiences the essence of the Reggio approach - the pleasure of learning together.

Five ateliers were installed within the voluminous spaces of the newly completed Loris Malaguzzi International Centre (LMIC), each focussing on a specific topic and language: ‘Ray of Light’, ‘Microlandscapes Transformed’, ‘Faded Beauty’, ‘Aeroplastico’, and ‘Images & Drawings in 3D space’. In the green hills and forests of Ligonchio we also experienced ‘Drawing from Nature’, ‘Body, Movement & Dance ’and ‘Wave to Wave’ (hydroelectric power). Over two weeks every delegate had the opportunity to participate in four different ateliers. I want to describe one of the most surprising - and one that introduces us to yet another ‘language’ of experimentation and expression.

Choosing one atelier to explore was difficult, and on selecting ‘Aeroplastico’ (‘sculptures in the air’) I found myself together with three other equally puzzled participants in the middle of an empty cubic space. The space was defined by four large columns, the floor and a metal grid overhead. Atelieristi Max Ghirardi & Alberto Bertolotti explained that this ‘air cube’ is a space to work inside. Carefully arranged on the floor all around was a surprising array of materials: metal springs of all sizes, magnets, elastic rope, coat hangers, hooks, wire mesh, weights. The materials suggest choices and we start experimenting - tentatively - each on our own. Springs of all kinds were connected to the overhead grid and weighted down to the floor to form vertical structures – built from the top down. Elastic ropes were stretched across the space in all directions. Suspended transparent structures were created using wire mesh panels and coat hangers. Experimenting with magnets of various sizes and strengths, we discovered ways of connecting and moving elements through the space.

In time, the materials (and we) rubbed up against one another and together we looked for the ‘patterns that connect’ our discoveries. Further experiments were then devised which led to more questions and explorations. The ‘space’ became chaotic as it filled with our experiments and the group paused to consider the central intent of the atelier, and to consider how we might express the essence of ‘aeroplastico’. We removed everything, returning to the cubic void and then simply connected a large coil of wire which curved and looped through the air. Magically, this graceful coil continued to gently vibrate - animating the whole space.

As a designer, I found the design of this apparently simple, interactive setting inspirational. But it was only at the end of our time that I realised its subtlety. I was puzzled to know why our coil continued to shimmy long after we had installed it. I looked up and understood why - the corners of the grid ceiling were not rigidly connected to the columns but by springs! Such thoughtful design creates learning contexts with boundless possibilities.

In every aspect of development and design, this atelier embodies the Reggio approach to learning. It was derived from observations of children and natural phenomenon. The atelierista, Alberto Bertolotti observed that children find enjoyment in building, then destroying and that crashes are a vital part of children’s explorations and an objective. As he said, children develop their understanding of the properties of the materials through the challenges they offer - as they pile up blocks and discover how tall before a crash. There are distinctive phases in building – destroying and re-building. In all the schools there are places for construction where children can create with their friends and they have a strong aesthetic characteristic.

In this case, the atelieristi explained, we wanted to explore instability as part of constructivity. How is it possible to create unstable constructions? This led to hanging constructions in empty space – we then had to find our research field, how can we organise this? If we consider the air, it is untouchable. A perceptive area – the air/empty space can be turned into material – go with the properties of the materials - their weight and substance – the air is transforming the materials removing their identity – we then add other forces/processes – gravity, friction.

  Alexander Calder c 1932 Mobile

Alexander Calder c 1932 Mobile


Alberto was initially inspired by the suspended, kinetic sculptures or ‘mobiles’ originated by the American artist Alexander Calder, in the mid-twentieth century. When he first proposed an atelier based on this provocation, it was met with puzzlement - the idea was appealing but how to implement it? The rigorous research and development process – typical of all the ateliers - was explained to us by Alberto and Max - in order to understand better how to conceptualise this space, to characterise it, we spent a long time experimenting and collaborating with specialists from the arts and sciences. The grid was tested in many different spaces (not only in Construction Areas) and this generated different responses – micro & macro proposals. Initially many different materials were offered but through close observation these were gradually reduced, as the atelieristi stressed . . . the important thing is curiosity to explore the meaning of materials and to understand this ‘language’.

Physical setting for ‘Aeroplastico’ in Loris Malaguzzi International Centre

Materials for ‘Aeroplastico’ in Loris Malaguzzi International Centre

Children at first had difficulty using the grid because they are used to building from the ground up – but this was from top to bottom – or from side to side. The idea which originated in Alberto’s school has been reproduced in other schools – indicative of the dynamic links between all the schools. In their introduction to this session the educators referred to the origins and significance of ateliers within the educational project of Reggio Emilia. For over fifty years the culture of the atelier has constantly evolved. This is because ‘the atelier and atelieristi shape experiences where brains, hands, sensibilities, rationality, emotion and imagination all work together in close co-operation’ (Vecchi, V. 2010 p2 Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia).

And where the aesthetic vibration, as Loris Malaguzzi said, ‘can become the activators of learning – how they are able to support and nourish kinds of knowledge not based uniquely on information; and how, by avoiding simple definable categories, they lead to the sensitive empathy and relation with things which creates connections’ (Vecchi, V. 2010 p6 Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia).

In daily practice the two, usually separate cultures of teachers (education) and atelieristi come together in rich exchanges with the children. Reggio now have an even stronger emphasis on nourishing this constant research and exchange and see it as crucial to the professional development of staff.

Ateliers were originally conceived for children in the schools, but with this more recent extension into the community they are available to citizens of all ages, and reference was made to Reggio educators observations of the different approaches taken by adults and children. These City Ateliers are seen as enzymes/catalysts - activating the energy that is already in the city and contributing a new way of developing the culture and economy of the town and a contribution to the political debate (Maccaferri, E. (June 2012) International Summer School). They have also enabled a re-conceptualising of ateliers within the schools.

Through our experience of several very different ateliers during the Summer School, a pattern emerged of interaction and discovery with one another and with the exhibits. Initially people experimented alongside one another but alone. In time, this led to the whole group excitedly exchanging ideas and then analysing their findings to arrive at a common code and a plan for further experimentation or expression. Intrinsic to the experience is curiosity, self-discovery and co-creation of understanding. The enormous significance to me of this challenging but pleasurable approach to learning is the possibility of not only building meaningful knowledge and skills, but also of building personal relationships of respect and trust.

Our experience was thoughtfully orchestrated over an entire day. An initial overview of fifty years of constant evolution of ateliers in schools and city provided a strong context for our later direct experience. At the end of the day, our findings and those of the atelieristi who accompanied each group, were presented to all the delegates. Our atelieristi were pleased with our findings and I thought that it was significant that people returned later to continue their experiments and discussion! As one participant appropriately said, ‘my ideas about construction have ballooned!’

*The Reggio educators also refer to City Ateliers as Citizen or Urban Ateliers (we might term them public or community ateliers).

Mary Featherston 2012
Designer specialising in learning environment design