17 June 2010

The Final Days

After a night of celebrating and a late morning recovering from the vicious combination of sleep deprivation and drinking, I return to school Friday morning more out of habit than necessity.  The third-year studio's reviews are on the last day or two of the semester so almost all the other students have left the city for summer internships and travel.  (I haven't found a job yet, but I will be traveling to Costa Rica for a week after graduation and then I am moving to New York City.)  The building is eerily vacant and quiet.   Our studio's work is still pinned up in the lower gallery.  Old coffee and cookie trays sit just as we left them the afternoon before as if awaiting another jury.  Adding to the strangeness of the moment, as I start to take  pictures to document our presentation, without a word a group of Asian film makers appear and start to document me.  The cameraman crouches over me as I lean in to get a well-angled shot of our model. 
    I feel like a survivor documenting a catastrophic event.  On my way up to the third floor I walk through the second year studio.  It seems to confirm some calamity;  models, acrylic, paper and cardboard strewn across the desks and floor.  The trash cans are overflowing.  Climbing to the third floor, I finally find signs of life. 
    I see my friend Adam who volunteers to help me move out of studio in his car, I accept, but with more than a week left before graduation, I can't quite bring myself to move everything home so soon.  I like my graduate student life and I'm not quite ready to accept that school is over.   Leaving my desktop computer behind gives me an excuse to come back at least one more time.
I pass the week playing tennis and meeting up with friends each night for various events--a raucous night of karaoke, burgers and beer, or a house party with dancing and ping pong.  The following Friday--the deadline for students to get their stuff out of the building-- I return to Meyerson Hall to retrieve my computer.
      As I pack, the studio passes through my mind--it was better than I had hoped.  Balmond and Snooks' dedication to, and curiosity in, the non-linear design process had taught me if not to completely believe in it, at least to continue to explore atypical possibilities for architecture even as I start to work with the constraints of clients, budgets and city regulations.  And even though our team had a strained relationship and a less than stellar final review, a round of handshakes after the critique confirmed that we are all still friends.  Further, Balmond's encouraging words following the jury will inspire me for some time. 
    With the computer in hand, and another car-owning friend waiting at the back door, I finally leave the building. 

20 May 2010

The Final Review

Architecture reviews start notoriously late, but Roland gave the studio strict instructions to be ready at ten o’clock in the morning because we have a tight schedule and an impatient jury.  It is 9:40, and Dwight and I can’t get in touch with So.  When I left the studio four hours earlier, we agreed to meet at 9:00 am to pinup our drawings and set up the model.    I ask a friend to track So down while I drag our hundred-pound wood model down to the room where we are presenting.  Dwight is still upstairs finalizing the digital presentation.  Ten minutes later, Dwight has finished exporting the presentation and we are pinning up our two boards.  I get a text from So—“Sorry, In a cab, will be there in five.”   But before So shows up, Roland asks us to start because the group that was suppose to go first isn’t ready.

       As Roland is introducing the jury, So rushes in visibly upset and apologetic.  We settle him down enough to run through the presentation and discuss our speaking order before Roland announces “With that I will turn it over to the first group.”   We introduce ourselves and I start. Unlike the mid-review, this time we have the presentation in the right order with the process before the result.  We get to the first video, and the student changing the slides for us plays the video while I discuss the movement of the dots.   I ask him to play the video again but instead he flips to the next slide.  When we ask him to go back he misunderstands and advances another slide forward.  The jury looks annoyed as So runs back to the projector.  We move on hoping to get the jury’s attention.  Dwight explains the sticks and their aggregation and alignment to physically define the spaces.  As we show some renderings of the interior and exterior spaces, So uses the wood model to explain how we intend to physically connect the sticks together and eventually make them into a building.  Satisfied with our presentation we await the jury’s reaction. 
      Perhaps a little overconfident with our work, (Cecil and Roland have been consistently pleased with our project and progress,) I am surprised by the first comment from one of my previous professors Jenny Sabin:

     “Would you clarify some of the conditions that take place with this construction system?  How do you distinguish structure, partition or floors and windows?”

       Tom Wiscombe of Emergent Architecture says that he likes the effect of the building, the order of the interior compared to the fluffiness of the outside, but do we really think this system is organizing space in a way that creates a functional school of design.  I reply that the while the spaces may not be organized in a traditional fashion, they are accurately sized to the numbers of people who would be using them, and the variation in spaces in the building would accommodate all of the programmatic needs of a school of design.  He seems unconvinced and continues. He says that our design appears much more like a pavilion than a true building.  “Do you really have any structure or enclosure?”   
      Balmond steps in to redirect the conversation in a more theoretical direction.  He dismisses the structural concerns citing the wood model and the redundancy of the system, and then suggests that because of the redundancy, the users could actually move the sticks around and change the interior spaces as needed.  Balmond’s ability to think realistically and conceptually at the same time, I believe, is the secret to his success as an engineer and designer.  As the review wraps up, the conclusion of the jury is that our stick organization is successful, provocative, and beautiful, but most of the members still seem skeptical that the dots will really form spaces in the building.   
       I listen to the other reviews with some interest, but mostly I am just relieved to be done.  As the jurors depart, Cecil approaches Jim and me, and in his typically blunt fashion says “I think there were two interesting projects this semester…well done.” 

19 May 2010

Stickin' to It

Although the members of our team fundamentally disagree about how to write the algorithm and the desired result, after some heated discussion we resolve to continue to work together in the interest of finishing the project.  One intention that we all agree on is to be the first project in Balmond’s studio to move from a theoretical idea to an actual construction system.  With a large scale wood wall-section model, we will show how our building can actually be built.  
       Otherwise, we compromise, keeping the building messier on the exterior, with more random unaligned sticks, while on the interior they will align more closely into parallel rows and functional interior partitions.  Once constructed, In order to create flat floors for the interior spaces, the densely packed sticks will be cut to the same height like freshly mowed grass.  Windows in our building will be made of translucent sticks incorporated with the wood ones of the same size.  Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Headquarters, our building won’t have views out of the building, but will still allow natural light into the interior.

       With a compromise reached, but just five days left, we have a lot of work to do before the final review.  Dwight works on the plans and sections in studio, while So and I haul the 6 30-pound boards for the model upstairs to the fabrication lab and start planing, joining, and cutting them into sticks. 

05 May 2010

Towards a Final Review

After the trip to London and a brief stop in Barcelona we are back in Philadelphia and Balmond meets with us to see what progress we have made since the review. "At some point pragmatics kick in and you have to go with it" he tells us. He advises us that the script can't design everything and we need to take the results and find practical ways of meeting the real world requirements of a building.

Balmond's advice is something that deep-down we know, but we hate to hear. Up to this point we have been optimistic about the non-linear process and we believe that through scripting we can design every part of the building. Having Balmond tell us that we can't script the whole process is like the moment as a child when you realize that your parents aren't superheroes. While So and I do want to have a building generated from the project by the end of the semester, we want to push the scripting absolutely as far as possible before we switch to traditional design methods.

We are focused on how we can get the script into a full building form with floors and windows by the final review. The sticks are now aligning into a beautiful and credible building form on the site; the exterior looks something like hair spiraling around the crown of a head. We have even worked out a construction system for the thousands of 4 by 4 inch by six-foot boards required to build it. But fitting glass between the sticks requires something far less standardized than an off-the-shelf glazing system and we can't get the script to form flat floors.

Dwight has been pushing So and I toward the pragmatic for weeks now and we have fervently resisted. We haven't reached the point of divorce, but there is definitely some tension in the group. For So and I, Balmond's advice is a difficult pill to swallow.

27 April 2010

Sticky Review

We are six slides into our presentation and the jury is staring blankly at the screen.  In a last minute disagreement Dwight, So, and I reorder our presentation to show a hypothetical building section before the process.  The jurors who have never seen our project before don't have any idea how we designed the building and wall sections we are showing them.  I fidget nervously as Dwight introduces the project.  Slide eight, a video of the groups of dots forming, seems to awaken the jury.   As it plays I fumble through a few sentences about the formation of groups by the "professor" and "student" dots  (After seven years of architecture school, I still haven't mastered verbal presentations.) So explains the algorithm for the stick creation and movement:  When a randomly moving particle touches the boundary of a group it forms a line.  Depending on its neighbors,  the new line adjusts its length and orientation and is then extruded into a 3D stick. 
Rendered images of the aggregation are followed by videos on slides fourteen and fifteen of the sticks aligning and stacking much like bricks to form walls. The jury finally seems interested as they watch the lines pivot back and forth adjusting their relationships. 

"How do you simplify this to get more out of the algorithm?" Balmond asks.  He is interested in the arrangement of the sticks, and how they could start to construct real walls.  Our project is the first to address the materiality of architecture and they want us to take the sticks as far as possible.  One by one, the rest of the jury also expresses their interest in the sticks.  Rob Stuart-Smith like them so much that he suggests we get rid of the group algorithm completely and focus on the one idea.  Removing the people doesn't thrill me at all and luckily Roland sides with me.  He believes that with more differentiation based on size or designated activity, the groups can directly inform the stick alignment and the aesthetic of the building.  Daniel Bosia, who with Cecil runs the AGU and was one of the first people to apply non-linear design to architecture ends our review excitedly: "picture millions of these little wooden sticks stacked and aligned into a building. "  Relieved, Dwight, So and I nod in agreement. 
The jury reviews three other projects without interruption.  The third and fourth projects have a mixed reception, while the last receives high praise for the complexity of the code.  As is typical with architectural reviews, the jury closes with a round of general comments and encouragement--advising that we should continue to tweak our algorithms while working toward a constructible design.  On our way out, Bosia stops Dwight, So, and I and once again complementing our work, he asks if we would be willing to do a short presentation for the whole AGU in the morning.  We gratefully accept.