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.

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.

Studio 4: Book

August 7, 2010

The Studio 4 book is done! It has actually been done for a while, I just did not realize…

If you are feeling lazy (and I don’t blame you) and have no idea what I am talking about, I recopied what I wrote in my previous post:

This studio also will result in a book that we are publishing.  The book will be available at some point in the near future, and will contain each project of all three studios of my class.  Each studio has about 10 kids, so the book will have around 30 different projects documenting the project’s start as a prototype to its end as a city.  Because each studio made their own “city” made of 10 different projects placed like patchwork across the site, the book will also have information about the logic that went into each site.  Also, because we were making a book at the end of the semester, this studio was also a lesson in standardized representational techniques.

It is available here:

http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/courtyard-housing/11033022

Again in Design Like You Give a Damn I found myself another excellent case study to compliment the Emergency Tents. This one I had seen before both in class and mentioned in other places, but Design Like You Give a Damn gave me a more comprehensive look.

So, in 2002, the Chile-Barrio Program created a new plan to house low-income families who were living illegally in parts of Iquique, Chile. The Chile-Barrio Program is a branch of the Regional Government of Tarapaca that works to upgrade Chile’s illegal housing problems. They hired the interdisciplinary design team Taller de Chile, which is a great firm that is made of architects, engineers, contractors, and politicians from the Universidad Catolica de Chile. The project was named the Quinta Monroy Housing Project, and the team was given a budget of $7,500 per one family house (including the cost of land). The most important goal of Taller de Chile was to build houses that could easily be added to in the future by the residents. The group also focused on the site itself and making sure that the project could be replicated in the future by the government.

In designing permanent housing projects, it is important to understand the end user. A designer must know how to create a building that uses the budget in the most effective and efficient way to get the most for the client. Keeping this in mind, the team held numerous meetings with the residents to understand what the most important needs were; in most cases, it was the ability to build additions on each unit. So the team decided to build smaller units first that had built-in future-use, and would allow residents to easily add on later. In building the project smaller in the beginning, the $7,500 could be spent more efficiently on a house that could be expanded over time as the residents earned more money.

The solution to this problem was a technique of building alternating single-story and double story units that could be expanded vertically. This allowed the site to become denser without overcrowding each unit. Within just four months after the construction of these houses, families had already begun adding to their units. Also, by giving the residents the potential to build additions, the project becomes an investment to the family. As they build on, the family has the ability to rent out rooms and make a profit, or to house a larger family without having to buy a new house.

Beyond this one unique element to the project, Taller de Chile also made sure to utilize a number of intelligent design practices that improved the quality of the project. Space was given for parking, roads, and walkways throughout the site, allowing for quick and efficient mobility through the area. The units were arranged in a U-shaped plan that clearly defined each housing cluster and created semi-public collective spaces for the residents. These spaces give, as the architect aptly puts it, “an intermediate level of association that allows surviving fragile social conditions [to exist].” The team also collaborated with the residents on building workshops that taught the families the basics to building and construction specific to their future houses. This enabled the families to have the instruction required in the future.

For more info, ArchDaily has a great write-up from which I borrowed a few photos.  Also, another great write-up:

http://www.archdaily.com/10775/quinta-monroy-elemental/

http://incrementalhouse.blogspot.com/2008/10/chile-quinta-monroy.html

http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/9/view/9253/earth-architecture-handmade-school-bangladesh.html

In Chad, in response to the Darfur crisis, a new project designed by Ghassem Fardanesh was first tested in the field. Plain white tents, arranged in a long grid, covered the desert where a refugee camp was set up. Although it may not have looked especially revolutionary or innovative, these tents were actually the result of a long process of design and development that was a blessing to the refugees and to UNHCR. Inventively called the “Lightweight Emergency Tent,” these tents were designed to replace the old canvas tents that had been used for over 20 years. Made of synthetic plastic and designed ergonomically to meet the needs of both the refugees and UNHCR, I think these tents provide an excellent first case study to study the economic, social, and material challenges of designing for the developing world and, in particular, for disaster relief.

When it all comes down to it, disaster relief is centered on one thing: speed. The faster temporary structures can get to refugees, the more successful they will be. In the past, canvas tents were sent quickly out to sites where refugees would be staying for longer periods of time and where materials for more permanent structures are not available. But canvas tents are heavy, costly, and deteriorate quickly. So, Fardanesh teamed with UNHCR and helped design a new tent. This tent first takes into account the social issues that are a part of any refugee camp: namely the need for privacy. The tent, sized for a 4-5 person family, provides fabric partitions that can be set up to create separate spaces for families to use. The tent itself also maximizes headroom by employing a tunnel shape, and has vents with mosquito netting to circulate air through the tent. The details of the tent are designed to create an easy manufacturing process, and the tent’s synthetic plastic material is durable and keeps the tent cool. The major economic advantage to this tent is its lightweight design, which helps to reduce all shipping costs dramatically.

There are many factors that need to be taken into account when designing housing for the developing world. Whether you are dealing with disaster victims or the extreme poor, the first thing that must always be considered is the end user. Disaster victims and refugees need things quickly and the poor and homeless need things cheap. Beyond that, it is a process of finding innovative solutions to the economic, social, and material problems that are a part of these projects. This is what the architect is trained to do. Our designer, Fardanesh, first tackled the problem of speed in his project by designing this tent to be lightweight and easy to manufacture and assemble. Beyond that, he then tackled the other challenges of privacy, space, air ventilation, durability, and cost. All of these challenges are the ones that can make or break a housing project. If these problems are not answered, the project will fail. Some refugee relief designs have failed because they cannot be transported quick enough, so by the time the shelters arrive, there are already other structures in place and being used. Other designs are too permanent and the camps become long-term communities that were never designed to be permanent. And others never make it off the drawing board because they are too costly. Fardanesh’s understanding of these essential elements made this project a successful housing project, and in turn, a successful case study to understand.

Structures 2: Tectonics

February 22, 2010

This project was an short investigation inspired by a project done in our Tectonics class to create a structure out of a single sheet of paper that was supported on only three points without cutting or ripping the paper. On this project, I worked with fellow architecture student and friend, Amy Vu. In class, we built an angular triangular structure (image attached) that looked like what would happen if Calatrava designed a Native American Tipi. Jumping off from this point, we were interested in purifying the form and simplifying the structure, since we had to fudge parts to compensate for the rectangular shape of a piece of paper. We were also were careful to keep a practical, real-world mindset through our development. We wanted the result to be something that could be built and assembled simply.

We began by understanding the form itself. We realized, through a series of study models and sketches, that the shape we were pushing for could manifest itself in any form within a spectrum of two extremes. One extreme was created from a trapezoid, the other from an equilateral triangle. The advantage to the equilateral triangle however, is that it could theoretically be folded into the form with no gluing/attaching of the two sides, unlike the trapezoid.

But, when we took into account actual material thickness, even the triangle could not fold to the shape we needed. We found our solution by cutting the triangle into three identical pieces, folding them into their forms, and then bolting them together along the top joint.

We also kept in mind potential real-world applications while designing. Because we cut the triangle into three pieces, it could be constructed, shipped, and assembled easily. We imagined that this structure could be used as a portable tent structure, with uses ranging from disaster relief situations to concerts, and could be made out of many different materials and implemented in many different scales.  More to come.

After thinking a lot about my last post on third world architecture, I wanted to write up some examples that can argue better than I could:

Darfur is home to over two and a half million homeless people, which is staggering when you think about it. In one refugee camp, I found a group that designed a pretty amazing and creative solution that helped thousands of refugees. The government would not allow any permanent structures to be built in the camp, so the group BOLD (Building Opportunities & Livelihoods in Darfur) found a different solution that could address multiple problems at once. They started a program that employed over 3,000 refugees in one camp (where grass was plentiful) to weave grass mats that were then sold for a small profit to a camp in North Darfur (where grass was not readily available).  These mats were then used with bamboo stakes to construct shelters for the refugees.  This program was made possible by understanding all of the material, economic, and social variables that existed and by designing a solution taking all of these variables into account.

Or in 2004, a young architecture firm in New York named I-Beam Design created an innovative housing design for displaced persons in Sri Lanka following the tsunami that hit there.  They employed only basic carpentry tools and wood pallets to create homes for many villages.  The use of wood pallets, which are usually seen in the shipping industry, was a new approach to an old material.  The firm used them in creative ways by filling them with different local materials to build floors, walls, and roofs. This approach was sustainable, easy to build, and affordable.  This innovation is now being used today across the world.  This is the kind of thinking that architects are trained to do, and is what we have to offer the third world.  Like all artists, we are trained to push our ideas in ways that have not been done before.

If you want another example, check out Samuel Mockbee and Rural Studio. I have always loved his quote, “Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor… not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul.” It really embodies a more personal side of the work that needs to be done in the developing world. 100 million people are homeless, and 1 billion people lack adequate housing. Those that do have shelter probably live in mud huts that are too cramped, tin shacks that leak, or wood structures that do not insulate.  Although these shelters may keep the rain off their backs (or not), they do little past that. Samuel Mockbee did one of my favorite projects of all time: the METI School of Rudrapur in Bangladesh, which is a school (images attached) hand-built by the village that truly embodies this meaningful innovation that I love.

I am also working through two case studies that I found in Design Like You Give a Damn (great book btw) to show examples of projects that allow us to begin to understand what makes a housing project successful in the third world. I have not done a case study in a while, and I thought that instead of diving into a discussion on why and how architects can work in the developing world, I would just try to show it. They should be up in the next few days.

A simple Google search would tell you that more than 100 million people in this world are homeless. With a little more digging, you could find that close to 1 billion people (close to 1 in 7) lack suitable housing. And with just a little more digging, you could start to find people who are working to change that number.  There are tons of non-profit groups, government organizations, and individuals from around the world struggle to develop new ways of housing the homeless. But what about architects? I hear the word “housing” and expect to see it followed by “architect.” But in discussions of the developing world, it rarely is.

At first glance, architects may not seem like the right choice to solve this problem. Don’t architects only build fancy buildings that have no real relevance to the third world? The third world does not need skyscrapers. Why is it not the engineers who are building houses? After all, they are the ones who have the structural and material understanding that the developing world needs. They know how to build a house, and they can build it efficiently and economically. So why architects?

For me, the answer is found at the very essence of architecture. Architects design. Beyond all else, that is the heart of an architect. Design is about creating something that fits the needs of a user; architecture is about creating a space that fits the needs of a user. However, architects do not only design architecture, they also design processes, aesthetics, and strategies. This distinction is an important one to make when talking about architecture in the developing world because these traits are the ones that prove to be invaluable. Housing projects are simple to build; pile some concrete blocks and metal sheets together to form four walls and a roof, and you have a cheap house. Do it multiple times and you have a housing project. And if you get the help of someone who understands the trade of building houses, you can build a good housing project.  But that is only one fragment of a larger, often unnoticed picture.

Design is not something that is useful only to the elite; it is something that all people should be able to take advantage of. Architecture has no less of a place in the hut of an Indian villager than it does in a new museum for an American university, just as architects have no less of a place in Europe than they do in Africa. The reason architects are not often found in the developing world has to do with the essence of design; it is not a skill that is needed, only one that is wanted. In the developing world, it is hard to justify a want when there is already so much need. It comes down to a question of wealth. However, this problem of “want” can be addressed from either side of the spectrum, and there are many architects who have the means and want to give to those in need.

Architects who work in the developing world design structures that are applicable to the conditions and surroundings of their place. They do not only design the building itself, but also the processes that go into the building. There are economic, social, and material problems that need to be addressed and designed for, and all of these challenges present opportunities for innovation to the architect.

Zarathustra meets Architecture

February 17, 2010

There are many ways of categorizing architectural styles. One way is to use a spectrum on which one end there lies a kind governed by logic; one that is practical, realistic, engineering, systematic, sustainable. On the other lies one of emotion; the abstract, artistic, sublime. In our society, most architecture contains both to varying degrees. But it is important to remember that beauty is not found in the combination of both, but in the relative balance of the two.

I argue to all architecture students to be careful when they design. We are always told by society to “step outside the box.” The goal is always to be innovative and forward-thinking. But when the student asks about innovation, he or she is pointed to the starchitects; to an iconic, superficial architecture dominated by fluff.  To the layperson, “outside the box” is defined as flashy, rendered innovation with expensive materials and a stress of form over detail, of quantity over quality, breadth over depth. It is a box that is defined and governed by values found in our modern society. It is a box where speed, efficiency, and money are valued above emotion, beauty, and art.

It is unfortunate when students are unaware of the forces at work within the profession. They see an “Architecture Record” article of some Zaha project and decide that must be what architecture is! They then go off and copy, with no real invention, no real innovation. They don’t try to understand what it is they are doing. It is sad, in a way, to see people who don’t really have their heart in it; they are simply reproducing what they see everywhere else. At some point, they may stop and ask, “What if I try it this way?” But they would be told to go look at some famous architect. They would be told to make more renderings.  They would be told to tuck in their shirt and straighten their tie. And that would be the end of it.  True, meaningful architecture has no place in a society like ours. Perhaps this is a criticism of our society, or perhaps this is a criticism of architect’s inability to influence society.

But what of the students who do discover this innovation? What of the lucky few who manage to make it out uncorrupted? What if they decide to push for something more meaningful; an innovation not inspired by the superficial? Innovation that is not “outside the box” is not a concern in our society.  It does not align with, to be frank, our society’s capitalist ideals.  Our society wants either “iconic and emotional” or “mass-produced and logical”.

But what if innovation was applied to systems existing inside of the box? What if we challenge ourselves to deal with what exists instead of constantly inventing new forms. What if architecture pushed for a new definition of beauty in society? One based not on superficial, but on meaningful innovation; on the balance of logic and emotion. A kind that stresses depth over breadth, and quality over quantity. It is much harder to innovate within bounds and constrictions than it is to just invent new ones. But it is through this struggle that new opportunities and innovations are discovered.  It is here that will prove to be the battleground for our future as architects.

To the innovative student: this struggle has already begun. It has its roots in the high-performance/sustainability movement, but still lacks a true identity.  It manifests itself in all kinds of forms –  re-use, passive systems, future-use, and material sciences and research, to name a few.  It is here where meaningful innovation will be found in the future.  And it is here where I think we can finally rediscover balance in our architecture.