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.”

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