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.

21 April 2010

Time to Review

Walking up Cresent Street to Balmond’s offices on Tuesday morning, the anticipation is high. Finding the building, located on a dead-end side-street, turns out to be quite difficult and only adds to the tension. Once inside, Balmond’s personal assistant escorts us to a plain room on the ground floor where salmon sandwiches and sparkling water await us. She encourages us to set up our laptops and prepare for the review. Having only seen Balmond in our studio where he whisks in and out, his office seems like the lair of some mystical creature.

       At two, Dwight saves our final PDF,(there are no drawings for this review, everything is digital,) and we are escorted to the Advanced Geometry Unit’s floor. There, surrounded by models of buildings we recognize--OMA’s Seattle Public Library and CCTV building in China, and Toyo Ito’s Serpentine Pavilion, the review begins. Education by architectural review is unique. Few other fields determine the success or failure of a student's work by a subjective and informal critique. Surrounded by a hum of activity, like athletes performing for Olympic judges, each student or group of student’s takes their turn. Andrew Saint, author of Architect and Engineer, describes the scene:

[The jury is] that day-long blend of ritual and endurance-test that is the central act of the studio-teaching calendar. Students pin up their work or set out their fragile models, dally, listen, disappear for a while, look in again, and finally, often falteringly, one by one present their ideas. Teachers and visiting critics fidget or frown, according to their lights, before giving vent to shrewd or arbitrary utterances. Between, there are long pauses. Everything runs late and seldom in the right order. Tension is high and exhaustion great, because many students have been up all night finishing their work. The crit can be formative, devastating, illuminating, initiating, alienating or just plain boring. In terms of the engineers, as a means of conveying skills or facts, it is neither systematic nor rational. Rather, it is an exercise in rhetoric for a calling that must be groomed to persuade.

       Roland introduces the jury. Besides Balmond, the jurors include Roland’s partner, Rob Stuart-Smith, Daniel Bosia and Peter Jeffries from the AGU. The first team presents an algorithm that organizes the movement of people through space. Similarly to our team, this group has written an algorithm to generate one architectural element, in their case the circulation, and use that to control the design of the other parts of the building. A mesh enclosing the circulation will define the shell of the building. Then they will use a vine-like structural system to hold the two parts together. The presentation drags on—rather than the suggested ten minutes, the group talks for half an hour.

      The jury listens patiently, asks questions and discusses. While this team's code for the circulation is quite complex and beautiful, (they have a former computer science major on their team,) the jury finds that the work lacks cohesiveness. Daniel Bosia states that the vines are lacking the number of points necessary to generate a believable structure. After watching a video three times of the meshing system wrapping the circulation paths, the jury seems uncertain what to make of it. Conceptually they like the project, but are unconvinced at this point that the elements can come together to make a building. As the discussion wanes Roland looks back to me and announces “You guys are next.”

13 April 2010

London Times

At eight in the morning on Saturday, our studio of fourteen lands at Heathrow—tired and hungry from seven hours on the plane, but excited about visiting the city and the offices of the Advanced Geometry Unit.  Business class must make the trip much more tolerable, otherwise, I’m not sure how Cecil Balmond could stand the trans-Atlantic flight every two weeks or more.  It takes us three and half hours to get from the airport to Paddington Station, then via the Underground to Tottenham Court Road.  Heading up the long,  steep escalator to the street, I start to recognize the place.  
                We are near the Architectural Association, one of the best known schools of architecture in the world where architects such as Zaha Hadid, and Rem Koolhaas studied in the 1970s.  I attended a three-week summer program at the AA in 2006 and used this Underground stop almost every day.    My interest in non-linear design was first piqued by a presentation that summer by architects Ben Aranda and Chris Lasch.   
                Fond memories of my friends from the program fill my head as we walk past the AA buildings in Bedford Square and finally reach the Langland Hotel.  We drop off our bags in the luggage room and with me leading the way head out for a proper English breakfast:  greasy sausages, runny eggs, and the always strange baked beans.  We attempt to visit the nearby British Museum to see Norman Foster's roof addition, but the jetlag overwhelms us and we retreat to the hotel for a nap.  
Four small twin beds—two separate and two joined by full size sheets await myself and three roommates in our converted attic.  The toilet and the shower are down the hall.  It is not luxurious, but for twenty pounds per person with an English breakfast included we are happy to deal with our penthouse suite: Some of the other students disagree and move down the street to roomier accommodations. 
After our extended nap some of us head out toward Trafalgar Square, determined to see the city despite Tuesday’s looming review.  Though I had been to many of the buildings before,  I see Lloyd's of London for the first time and am shocked to find that Richard Rogers' "high-tech" structure is concrete.  We also see the Tate Modern Museum the Millennium Bridge, and Big Ben before finding a pub for fish and chips and another strange English side--mashed peas. 

07 April 2010

Building Towards a Building

"Like the standing wave in front of a rock in a fast-moving stream," John Holland, a pioneer in non-linear science writes, "a city is a pattern in time." The analogy captures the emergence of organization that my team desires in our building. Rather than a city, we are designing a school of design. The rules, like the rock in the stream, constrain the pink and blue dots to form green groups. And now that the dots are moving around according to the rules, we can start looking for the waves.

After a week of adjusting the rules, we are not making waves. Dwight and So are losing faith in the process. At the beginning of the semester Balmond told us to “Be careful to reevaluate assumptions.” Now I know why. Roland still believes in my algorithm’s potential, but suggests that we add additional rules so that groups of dots form clearer organizational patterns. Initially many locations are equally viable, but just as people make a path through a woods by the repetition of use, we hope to designate rooms and their function by repetition.

Dwight and So are working on the walls and structure. They have reduced a process called a diffused limited aggregation--the process by which coral reefs are formed--down to just an aggregation. Much like dust or snow, in our process, points move around randomly and collect around any object or group. Rather than forming just an enclosure for the whole building, we want this aggregation process to make the walls and floors. The aggregation collects around the group spaces to create walls, and as they develop they limit the movement of the students and faculty. The two systems will interact until eventually they reach a point of stasis.

Will they really reach that point? I don't know, but I know that during his last visit Balmond insisted that we have renderings and drawings resembling a portion of the building for the mid-term review. We have a lot to do before Friday when we will fly to London to present to members of the AGU(Advanced Geometry Unit,) Cecil Balmond’s team of engineers, architects, mathematicians and programmers for our mid-term review .