This post is in part inspired and helped along by a collection of long discussions with fellow architecture student and good friend Cesar Duarte. And while this is only a working draft of this concept, I wanted to post it to get it out there for the time being:

Innovation: Innovation in Architecture exists as a spectrum. On one side, a pragmatically innovative kind of architecture, and on the other, an abstractly innovative architecture. These two extremes manifest themselves inherently within all architecture, but no where is it as obvious when looking at the pedagogies of different university curriculum. The difference between my alma mater, Northeastern, and say Columbia or the GSD as an example of the difference between:

  • Pragmatic: Inside-the-box innovation.

and

  • Abstract: Outside-the-box innovation.

Both are methods for discovering innovation, and each one takes an extreme stance in architecture.

These two extremes of innovation are in effect the two methods for navigating the changes taking place in society. To shortly summarize, the first, grounded approach is one that “pushes” change along based on what we already have within a discipline. Think of squeezing innovation out of the efficiencies found in real-world sites, codes, programs, or toying with existing technologies and materials to discover innovation. The second abstract approach is one that “pulls” change based on what is occurring outside a discipline. For example, squeezing the most innovation out of digital representation or out of current trends in art and society. (Note: this distinction is made outside moral grounds (that is to say that both can be moral or immoral). Note 2: it also of course does not investigate the third pedagological approach of “no-innovation”.)

The question now is: which will be the approach to bring us forward as a society and as a discipline? Do we want to push or pull change in architecture? Do we want to improve upon what we already have, or do we want to invent something totally new? Do we rely on manifestation or representation to carry us forward?

Lets look at some examples. Today, perhaps it is an environmental moralism that asks for our attention. In Europe, this is already apparent. Environmental architecture is thriving. And it is successful. This is not because a few architects made some great buildings or because of some new flashy advertising scheme. And it is not because a few efficiencies discovered in material sciences and building technology. It is successful because of a balance of the two kinds of innovation. This integration was not found in either the “manifestation” or the “representation” approach, but rather in a balance of the two; a pushing of both inside-the-box and outside-the-box innovation simultaneously. Or lets look at Corbusier’s social housing projects. He truly does synthesize real-world problems of building codes and social issues with innovative, abstract architectural concepts. Integration. Synthesis. Balance. The answer is simple.

But as you know, thats not all of it. There is also this little thing called quality.

Quality: Before choosing between pragmatism and abstraction, we must consider the other half of architecture. Architecture is not only the product of innovation; it is a product of quality. Similar to innovation, quality also exists as a spectrum:

  • Physical: Inside-the-box quality.

and

  • Abstract: Outside-the-box quality.

On one end is the physical, on the other is the abstract.  Physical quality is found within raw architecture through detailing, efficiency, form, material, construction, or even through the codes and politics that define any project.  Abstract quality can take many different directions in architecture, ranging from a moral, intellectual, or social quality. But here too, balance is required. You could have a spectacularly built and designed building, but if it lacks soul, it will not be successful. Or of course, the reverse is true too – if a building was designed with true intent and social meaning but was built like crap, it will not be successful. In quality, it is easy to see how a single minded approach is an unsuccessful one. It takes the synthesis of both to make up the foundation of any great work.

So, now that we have some fundamentals to work with, do we rely on manifestation or representation to carry us forward? And do we look to abstract or physical quality? I think it is clear that both must find balance for true movement to occur. Left alone, singular paths will lead to dead ends. The two fundamental characteristics, innovation and quality, are the building blocks of architecture. Innovation is the forward movement of architecture, quality is the substance itself, and both require simultaneous harmony and balance. To successfully continue forward as a society, as a profession, and as individuals, we must re-balance the scales.

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Paints

August 19, 2010

One final unedited photo from the Minolta.

Great Photography Blog

August 19, 2010

I really appreciate photographers who are both casual and unconventional. Nidhi at Unworn is both of those. I check her blog often just to remind myself of the kind of photography I enjoy. Her photos are not epic, and probably would not be found in National Geographic. But to me, they are so much more powerful. They are that quaint kind of beautiful; the kind that reminds us of the everyday beauty we all live in.

Photos: Maine

August 16, 2010

Minolta SR-T 101 (ISO400 film) w/ 50mm f/1.4-16

It works! Some unedited photos taken on the new Minolta a few weeks ago in moosehead lake, maine. I don’t have a battery for the light meter yet, so I had to take all of these blind. They turned out ok though.

Studio 5: Part II, Thesis

August 15, 2010

Throughout the studio, Jeff and I worked on and constantly revised a manifesto that revealed our fundamental design processes as well as the heart and soul of our project:

As a studio, we have been collectively exploring the concept of flexibility and future or nextuse.  However the concept of flexibility does not prescribe anything, since flexibility can be achieved in a many different ways.  We needed to take a stance on the situation. We needed to define our attitude.  BC’s current image is one of history, tradition, and age – indeed, another Age – superimposed on a a mid-late-century infrastructure.  This is evident to the campus-goer, who can perpetuate the iconic western image of studying under a tree in the quad while being supplemented with electric power!  This timid sprouting of the new is what currently represents Boston College’s attitude.

Our attitude towards the problem of building on Boston College can be expressed simply as 51/49.  51/49 represents a system of two things in near equilibrium but with enough unbalance to break from the realm of mere potential, slowly towards actualization.  In other words, it represents a self-causing chain of events leading ultimately somewhere.  The diagram of the studying-tree with the source of electricity is the model where the potential of modernity is forever suppressed by the firm roots of tradition.  We want to reverse the ratio, placing 51 on the side of the forever-current Age: today.

This attitude is manifest in our architecture and in our master plan.  In our architecture we pursued and refined two things from the beginning: the beauty and honesty of tectonic expression and the flexible open plan.  Site/landscape design on the other hand, inherently far more temporary and “soft” than the architecture, could be more ambitious and imposing. It is the ability of masterplan thinking to anachronistically respond to the next use of a site that prompted us to design our site to not only be thoughtful but also suggestive.

I could speak for hours and across scales about our project, but because this post is already packed with insightful goodness, I will try to be short and succinct. The foundation to our thesis, architecturally, is our structural system. Using long-span trusses running through cruciform columns and taking advantage of the cantilever of the top chord, we were able to develop a structural system that is successful across disciplines. It is structurally efficient, it is inherently flexible, it provides a clear and logical open plan and circulation diagram, it is tectonically honest, and, to us, it is architecturally beautiful. The enclosure is then allowed to be free and act as a separate responsive entity.

Our site strategy also relates directly to our manifesto by tying in a larger set of scales to the fine-grain systems at work within our building. The project works to mediate topography, scale, site circulation, and the identity of the existing quad. Currently, there is heavy traffic that runs diagonally across the quad from the freshman dorms to the main campus. We were interested in controlling the approach from both access points. When approaching from the freshman dorms, you first walk along a hard concrete wall offering glimpses of both the building and the trees beyond.  This then gives way to a soft wall created by the canopy of trees on the lower level. The canopy gives diffused visibility of both the building and the approaching quad. When you move around the trees, you travel under the building itself down into the grid of trees that then offers a less diffused view distorted through the parallax caused by the trees themselves. You are then free to move any direction to your destination, whether it be a bit of grass under a tree or a class beyond. This entire sequence is balanced by the approach from the main campus, where you are given an understanding of entire project at once; the full open quad, the bosque of trees, and the building itself.

With this studio, like Studio 4, we worked as a class to make a complete archive of our projects in book form. The book will be available soon on Lulu, and I will make a post about it when it is. Until then, I posted the six spreads that will highlight our project. Enjoy!

Studio 5: Part I, Pedagogy

August 13, 2010

Studio 5, or Comprehensive Design Studio, is the final studio in the Undergraduate curriculum at Northeastern. As I write this, I am now, after many long and intense years, a diploma-holding graduate of the School of Architecture at Northeastern University. The work produced in this studio is the result of everything learned in the previous five years at Northeastern. Throughout this studio, we worked with a partner, and I was fortunate enough to work with my good friend, the one and only Jeffrey Montes. We were also lucky enough to be instructed by a professor and architect who was, for lack of better words, simply spectacular: Michael LeBlanc.

The thesis of this studio revolved around the idea of future/next-use and flexibility in architecture. The focus was to synthesis this thesis with the design and detailing of a fully worked-out project. To give some context, for precedents, we looked at old turn of the century brick mill buildings in the Boston area and Ando’s Mediatheque as examples of buildings that synthesized flexibility and future-use into systems and architecture. Our building needed to be responsive, sustainable, flexible, and long-use. The design needed to respond to site, to urban, climatic, and economic contexts, to spatial and programmatic needs, and to technical demands of material, structure, enclosure, energy management, ventilation (passive and active), lighting (natural and artificial), and construction, assembly, and future transformation and disassembly.

Pedagogically, the studio (similar to our Studio 4 housing studio with Tim) was reverse-engineered. That is to say, we designed prototypes of our systems (structural, enclosure, energy, circulation…) first, then aggregated, detailed, and refined it, and only then were we given our site, and finally our program during the last remaining weeks. Because of this time line, our buildings were inherently tested based on their future-use value. Much of the credit for the design of this studio goes to another Northeastern great, professor Peter Wiederspahn. The site was located at the dustbowl in the heart of Boston College’s campus, and our program was twofold – the building had to be able to individually house both an academic program with classrooms and offices and a student center program. By designing a building for two programs simultaneously, instead of just one, we were able to test just how flexible our project really was.

New Cameras

August 10, 2010

I am now the proud owner of not just one, but TWO new cameras! Luckily, they were both quite cheap. I first bought an old school Diana+! It takes 120mm film, and is notoriously made fun of for its inability to take decent pictures. But it is just these traits that make it equally loved and widely used by individuals everywhere. It is also an icon of the lomography community, which I admire quite a bit because of their Ten Golden Rules. I cannot wait to get it out and see it in action.

SECOND, I was lucky enough to pick up an old, used Minolta SR-T 101 with a nice fixed 50mm lens at my favorite local antique shop for $20. What a steal! So, I will be doing quite a bit more film photography than I am used to in the coming months. Be prepared.