25 February 2010

If Termites Taught Architecture

Our studio met for the first time last Friday afternoon. The group included fourteen lucky lotto winners (eight Asians, six Americans, and only two females,) and a guy named Roland Snooks, Cecil Balmond’s assistant. Snooks is a scruffy youngish Australian, his black hair is meticulously styled—something like a peacock that just fought off a predator. Kokkugia, the name of his firm in New York, is according to his website " a reference to the desire to build the seemingly impossible," but perhaps more accurately represents the seeming impossibility of building for young firms. Like most architects under forty who teach at PennDesign (and many other architecture schools,) despite his talent and frequent publication, his designs have never been built. He has worked frequently with Balmond’s firm Arup on built projects.
Snooks’ first announcement was that Balmond would not be here for at least a week. His office is in London and it is rumored that he only comes to Penn five or six times a semester to meet with students. I have heard him lecture, but I have never met him personally. Roland's job is to run the studio from day to day. Despite Balmond's frequent absence, I wanted to be in his studio to explore non-linear design.
In the first meeting with Roland we spent six hours trying to define non-linear. While we never came up with an exact definition, it is perhaps the uncertainty of the process that provides its greatest potential over a traditional design method. From what I understand so far, non-linear design is a way of organizing a system without using a step by step process or a predefined hierarchy. Frequently used by nature to create incredibly complex systems, non-linear design imbeds simple repetitive patterns into individual agents whether they are cells or termites. In the case of termites, each insect has the ability to store a few rules that could be understood as “Go search for food”, “Go home” or “Build.” One termite alone would not produce anything significant using these rules, however, when the rules are followed by ten thousand termites, complex order emerges in the form of a ten foot tall mound with hundreds of feet of tunnels. Each termite is independently following the same rules—there is no individual architect to their home, yet the result is a structure that lasts for ten to fifteen years.
These instructions not only account for termite mounds, but also describe the growth of trees, the way-finding of honey bees and at a large scale--the organization of human cities. The beauty of non-linear design is that incredibly complex organisms can emerge from simple rules. The goal of the studio is to explore how, with the right rules, unexpected and successful results will emerge.
Balmond believes in the potential of non-linear design for architecture, despite the lack of precedents. Can you design a non-linear structural system for a building? Can you organize the function of the different rooms in a building non-linearly? I’m not sure, but we are going to try.

And Cecil Balmond is finally coming next week. Maybe.

10 February 2010

Studio Confirmation

A text from my friend Jim let me know that I did get into the Cecil Balmond studio. Having gone home for a nap which will be a rare luxury once studio starts, I hurriedly peddled back to school to confront the other major gamble of the beginning of the semester--claiming a space in the studio. One semester I missed the desk selection process and ended up in the main thoroughfare of the studio. By the end of the semester I had developed a scooting complex--always inching my chair forward so people wouldn't bump into me as they passed. This year our studios are on the third floor where there isn't a desk in the hallway, but there are definitely better seats--away from the doors and the constantly blowing air vents.
I located the Balmond studio on the floor plan on the west side. And in a frenzy of equally selfishly-motivated classmates, I claimed a wall-side spot--the other side being open to the floor below with only a half-wall -- with my back to the door and good friend Jim in proximity.
My final task was getting comfortable. The brand new desks last semester were so terrible that I spent the first week and a half of school modifying mine. The chairs only adjusted from too high to even higher, and the desk shelving bruised my shins at the ankle and knee. Both chair and desk were on wheels, so pulling yourself up to the desk brought both you and the desk half the distance to the other. I added five inches to the height of the desk with aluminum wheel-less legs and replaced the shin-beating steel shelves with a wood foot rest and side shelving, complete with a pencil tray. I didn't want to part with this desk. With a little more help from Jim, we brought the desk from the East side across to the new studio. My move was complete.

09 February 2010

Studio Royale

The lottery--every architecture student’s education boils down to it. It is the architecture department's method for dividing the class into each professor’s studio, and studio is the core of architectural education. The studio you draw shapes your explorations, focuses your interests and influences your thinking about architecture for the extent of your education and career. Today is my final architecture school lottery. And I want Cecil Balmond, a structural engineer.

It's not typical for an engineer to teach a design studio, but this is not a typical structural engineer. The Birds Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics and the Seattle Public Library are two better known projects of ARUP where Mr. Balmond is the deputy chairman. In addition to their built work, Balmond opened an office branch called the Advanced Geometry Unit(AGU) that explores new ways of designing building structure using complex geometry and computer programming. Their work forms the basis of his architecture studio at Penn and the reason I want to get his studio in the lottery.
For the lottery, students submit a ranking of all the offered studios, and the administration assigns the groups based on the rankings. In my class there are eight choices. The lottery is a process that I don’t think anyone truly understands, but it is intended to give as many students as possible one of their top three choices rather than giving half the students their first and the other half their fourth choice or lower. My chances for getting Balmond’s studio are about as good as winning from a Pick Four scratch off ticket. Not only is the selection based on making as many people as possible happy, but some students have priority over me because they were selected for the prerequisite class last semester. For me to be selected for the studio, enough of the students with priority have to rank other studios higher, and then I have to be randomly selected from the non-priority students that put Cecil Balmond’s studio first.

The rankings were due at noon, and now I wait. Results will be posted in an hour or two and they are final, no negotiations or alterations.