Revisiting Wright

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Many posts ago I eluded to a rather embarrassing moment in my career development, but never quite disclosed the full story.  Months later, an experience has prompted me to tell the story in-full, if only to set the scene for a recent trip I took with Knoll and several other local Denver designers to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, studio, architecture school, and in many ways, complete Xanadu in the Arizona desert.

 So here goes…

If the diversity in age and educational background of my M.Arch class is any indication, it’s evident that a calling to become an architect finds people at many different ages and stages of life. From a 40-something former computer programmer to a 30-something friend that had studied medicine and law before deciding on architecture (rounded out with classmates including a physicist, mathematician, and environmental designer,) our past vocations and interests ran the gamut of possible professions and passions.

My calling to become an architect came twice. First, as a young child with a preference for building with blocks rather than Barbies, and consistently requesting that my parents and I go for walks to “look at houses.” Throughout school, when given an open-ended assignment, most of my papers were written on various architectural topics. From a research paper on Julia Morgan to a humanities project in which I “recreated” Frank Lloyd Wright’s sketchbook over a 10 year period, my love of architecture remained present throughout my academic development.

All this changed when I discovered school “politics.” After pursuing school president and working on some local political campaigns, around the time to apply to college I decided confidently on the George Washington University, where I might hone my skills in the sociopolitical sphere.

Fully accepted and with my first deposit in place, my family and I went on a last hurrah family vacation during spring break of my senior year. My parents had planned a great trip to Arizona- exploring Phoenix, Scottsdale, staying in a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel, and later exploring the stratified landscape of Sedona.

Where it all began...

Where it all began…

One stop on our vacation led us to Taliesin West. Fast forward from parking to sitting in the first stop on the tour; Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal studio. As a full group of about 25 people looked on, our youthful 80 year old docent began explaining the unique environment that Wright created. Several minutes into this speech I began to cry. Not quiet, muffled tears, but true, loud, ugly sobs.

In perhaps what might be one of the very few epiphanies I might have in this lifetime, all of my ambitions and aspirations to become an architect became apparent at this moment.

To the chagrin of my younger sister, and the beckoning calls of my mother that I was already accepted at GW and that I should not apply to the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, I left Taliesin with a complete change in mind and attitude regarding my future academic and professional course.

While I ultimately did not attend Wright’s school (and was consequently not required to build my own dwelling place first semester), I did end up pursuing art, art history, and English in college, all the while building a portfolio to attend architecture school on the graduate level.

Currently I have one more ARE and I will finally be allowed to say that I fulfilled a dream to become an Architect (with a capital A!) rooted in a meandering path and a powerful moment of understanding.

As you can imagine, given the opportunity to revisit Wright, I felt both trepidation and excitement. Would I feel sentimental, inspired, or-least desirable—underwhelmed? Having been taught to accept and give constructive criticism at a moment’s notice, would I feel critical of a place that at one time felt magical for reasons both tangible and inexplicable?

Thankfully upon experiencing a tour as an older version of my rather consistent self, I felt both the nostalgia I had anticipated, as well as a deeper connection to why the tour had been special the first time around.

The man himself...

The man himself…

While I am not a Wright zealot by any means, being in an environment entirely curated by one individual’s subscription to a specific way of life communicated through design still proved to be visually and conceptually fascinating, especially given the small chance a place like Taliesin could ever be realized in today’s society (building code alone would drastically change the aesthetics and proportions.)

Wright’s vision to create an environment that is school, residence, museum, not to mention a living laboratory that continues to facilitate experimentation and a special appreciation of nature, art, and culture remains highly relevant.  In most architecture studios today, these principles remain an important cornerstone in how designers think about thoughtfully integrating nature into the built world (and vice versa.)

As we drove to the airport from the landmark, I felt appreciative of the opportunity to see something of personal significance twice in my life, not to mention at vastly different stages of life. Not only was it a moment to reflect, but also a moment to acknowledge that for me personally, intuition and accepting life’s obvious and subtle cues remains an equally important part in decision-making as reason.

Something tells me Wright might agree.

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: A Multidisciplinary Approach To Architecture

Partners

Audrey and Alex Worden, recent Boulder transplants and multidisciplinary designers

Is Boulder the new Brooklyn?

I had to ask myself this question after my first meeting with recent Colorado transplants and designers, Alex and Audrey Worden. Co-founders of the Boulder-based design firm, Studio TJOA, Alex and Audrey left their jobs at Enclos in New York and moved West after Alex landed a job with Studio NYL, a progressive structural engineering firm based out of Boulder, Colorado.

With hopes of finding home in a new city with the presence of an emerging design community balanced with a tangible ease of living and creating, in the few short months since their move Alex and Audrey have already become contributors to the design, parametric, and maker communities that continue to grow rapidly both in Denver and Boulder.

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Lily pad by TJOA

With Alex’s background in architecture and Audrey’s education in product design, Alex continues to explore the synergies between architecture and structural engineering for NYL, while Audrey continues to explore design, fabrication, and representation through a wide range of scales and media.

Having both explored alternative career paths than their traditional architecture and design backgrounds might prescribe, Alex and Audrey serve as co-authors of this week’s post, exploring the benefits of multidisciplinary architecture and the opportunities it might provide…

Thanks Alex and Audrey! – Beth Mosenthal, Assoc. AIA

 Guest Post: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Architecture

by Alex and Audrey Worden

Entering the field of architecture requires years of study, beginning with a foundation comprised of core classes followed by a concentration in art and design, culminating with an intensive focus on architecture. Through this process, the general field of vision becomes narrower and more myopic. Following undergraduate studies, designers generally join firms whose focus is not just on “architecture” in a general sense, but rather a specific practice area such as commercial, residential, transportation, healthcare, etc., design. As a result designers tend to become more specialized.

However, what many students of design education are learning is that there are many career paths that can be launched from a design education.

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“ExpressGlam” product design

The skills learned in an architectural degree program are transferable to many different disciplines. These can include engineering, construction, industrial design, animation, fashion, graphic design, or manufacturing to name a few.

With a wider skill set, designers can be more flexible, often finding meaningful work outside of the traditional architecture practice. For example, after graduate school Audrey worked for a few years as an industrial designer for a branding firm, practicing skills in packaging, product displays, digital and CNC modeling, photography, and photorealistic product rendering. This opened up the opportunity to design a perfume bottle. Such a chance is widely valued by designers and architects of all kinds, but it all came about through the skills Audrey had fostered after studying architecture and digital fabrication.

TJOA_LilypadIn graduate school, Alex took a different approach to his studies. In his thesis, he proposed that the textile technique of crochet can be a perfect analog to the digital parametric tools architects have begun to use and explore. Alex then used the skills he developed from his research of integrating textiles and tools like Rhino and Grasshopper to join a facade contracting firm, Enclos. The experience gained as a facade designer has not only allowed him to gain an in-depth understanding of building enclosure systems but see how parametric modeling can aid in the optimization of the whole construction process from design through field installation.

These types of diverse design experiences can influence a designer’s thought process. For example, having knowledge of structure can streamline decisions during initial design phases, thus saving both time and money as the project progresses. Knowledge of materials and fabrication techniques gained from the industrial design field can allow designers to push the boundaries of these capabilities, extend the life of the building, or make routine maintenance easier.

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These facets of the design field can be learned a multitude of ways and for an infinite number of reasons. Specifically, we both deviated from the traditional approach to architecture. By working at a facade contractor, Alex had the pleasure of working on some high profile projects designed by a number of architects. The biggest benefit to working at Enclos, was having the opportunity to work with many different firms and getting a chance to help them realize their designs. By taking a M.S. Arch., Audrey could specialize in digital fabrication instead of the traditional M.Arch approach to a graduate degree. This allowed for a less rigid approach to architecture, while still being anchored in the field.

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Studio NYL Wall Assembly Study

 

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NYL Rendering

Our chosen paths have offered us the flexibility to design on a multitude of scales and explore many different mediums. Our diverse work experience has influenced our approach to design and our ultimately our decision to relocate to Boulder from Brooklyn. We both wanted to live and work in a place that is welcoming and has a community that fosters progressive thought and design. The plasticity offered by the skills we have both cultivated has allowed Alex to join Studio NYL as part of their SKINS Group and Audrey to move her practice, StudioTJOA to Boulder and begin working with groups like Boulder-based Live Architecture Network and aiding other firms with parametric and visualization needs. TJOA_HoneycombJust as the decision to go into architecture is hopefully owned by each individual, it should be remembered that each designer can choose how they want to shape their professional career and praxis. It should be noted that a hands on approach to learning the different facets of construction and design can have a more meaningful impact through practical application rather than study guides, flashcards, and exams can provide.Who knows, if you deviate from the path, you might come across something you never would have thought you would enjoy.

 

“The Problem with Parametricism”- Guest Post by Bill Allen and Tobias Hathorn

Is Colorado the last to jump on the parametric bandwagon?  Here is Bill and Tobias’s demystification of the parametric design process and its seemingly limitless iterative possibilities.. (and by the way, the answer is no, Colorado’s grassroots design community is already on board, with 1-2 people per firm that seem to be familiar with the tools, as well as a handful of fabricators and engineers locally.)  Is that going to be enough to push Colorado’s design forward in terms of form and fabrication?  The jury is still out, but as I see it, the more tools our design and construction community has in their repertoire, the fewer limitations they might have in creating designs that transcend the limitations of software and machines to create design that responds to the needs and potentials of the 21st century.  – Beth Mosenthal, AIA Colorado blog contributor

“The Problem with Parametricism”  by Bill Allen and Tobias Hathorn

Is parametricism the new bee’s knees?  If you have attended or taught at any University in the last 5 years, you are well aware that the University is pushing this idea of parametric model building with their students.  They are using such tools as Grasshopper and Dynamo coupled with Rhino and Revit.  Students are coming out with this knowledge in technology, however you may ask yourself the question as an Architect in this industry, is any of this really applicable to what I do day to day?

Undulating BeamsThis idea of parametricism is in fact is not a new concept at all, but in recent years has definitely become more main stream.  My journey began about 6 years ago when I attended an ACADIA parametricism conference in 2011.  I saw much value in the process during the conference, and decided to build my first parametric model using grasshopper.

My most recent parametric building….(clear throat)…“table” was a Design After Dark project with our team at OZ Architecture.  We used grasshopper to parametrically model a unique profile for every carpet tile.  We also programmed the tool to tag every carpet tile with a unique identifier and layer for fabrication of the table.

Build Table

You may be looking at these images, and saying to yourself, “well it only makes crazy curvy non buildable forms.  It’s great for making a wavy table, but there is no way that this can be applied to buildings”.  Well, allow me to enlighten you on some projects that I have been fortunate enough to work on.

 

 

 

Parametric vehicular canopy using adaptive components and dynamo

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Parking garage façade intended to simulate the mountains in Breckenridge,  Colorado

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The Challenges:

These are the challenges I have come across personally when pushing and implementing these concepts in an architectural office.

  1. “It’s not buildable”

Inevitably when I show teams these types of projects, the criticism that comes up is that you can’t document it (or you will spend a long time documenting it) and you certainly can’t build it.  Tools like grasshopper actually offer us some amazing utilities to help us design functional and buildable forms.  Just one simple example of this is the planar test.  How planar is an object?

Planar

Also, digital fabrication has come a long way as well.  Rather than issuing “shop drawings” we can issue a “shop model”, and fabricate directly from a model.

  1. “I don’t want to be a programmer”

Below is a screen shot of the script I used to create the table with the carpet tiles I illustrated earlier.  No doubt at first glance an architectural designer could be turned off by the interface.  Give me Sketchup he or she says.

Grasshoper Script

The interface does take some time, but keep in mind that building an object parametrically gives you the ability to create an enormous amount of design iterations simply by moving graph mappers and slider bars.

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Additionally you can optimize your building design using Computational Design Iterations with Galapagos.

  1. “There’s no community”

With the advent of the internet and meetups exploding, this is no longer the case.  Grasshopper has its own community website at www.grasshopper3d.com.  Additionally in Colorado, we have created the Rocky Mountain Building Information Society (RoMBIS)  Boulder/Denver Meetup.  We recently hosted a discussion around the topic of “Construction and the Utilization of Parametric Technologies”.

RoMBIS Boulder RoMBIS Boulder (NYL)

In conclusion, I believe that there is a vast amount of resources and processes that we in the greater Colorado area have not even begun to scratch the surface on in the context of parametric modeling and Building Information Management.  I would like to invite you personally to come geek out with us at one of the RoMBIS meetups either in Boulder or in Denver.  Our meetups provide food, beverages, and knowledge.  Through your participation, we as a community will have a greater influence on the direction of our society and our industry.

 

 

Visually Speaking

It’s been an interesting week in my architectural career.

I just returned to my hotel after a very full day of working in our Regional Office in Los Angeles. My time and efforts have been spent compiling a drawing set for one small building within a very large development. In the next week I will spend here, that drawing set will be reviewed by several local and remote teams, redlined and reviewed numerous times, and eventually sent to the client and contractor abroad for construction.

Shortly thereafter, this project rooted in Western iconography and imagery will literally rise from the dust in the Middle East.

As the set is issued, I will remain, in many respects, a world away, likely sitting in an ergonomic task chair and ready for my next coffee break. Yet despite physically being a “world away,” the reality is that I am only one instant message or real-time email or lync call away from our Dubai office, or any other remote office that is currently engaging in the next phase of production or shift in this large undertaking.

Having spoken or indirectly worked with colleagues from our Costa Rica, Bangalore, Dubai, Las Vegas, Denver, and LA offices in the past few days, it is fair for me to say that it is projects like these that confirm that architecture is a universal language. Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of these interactions has been that the questions and solutions being communicated are being translated first and foremost through the medium of drawing.

This aspect of architecture as a universal language is one important aspect of why I decided to pursue architecture as a profession. How tempting it is to think that the world we are living in, while globalizing and in turn shrinking, might become that much smaller to a community of designers and architects willing to share their (literal) views of what the developing world will look like?

For those who have been trained to look at a plan or an elevation, a detail or an axonometric drawing, whether you are in Prague or Poughkeepsie, I have always liked the idea that despite spoken language barriers, architects are seeing the same thing. In turn, our world feels smaller, and our networks become stronger than ever when we enable the sharing of cross-cultural viewpoints and a wide range of highly different but equally informed opinions.

While construction methods and measurement systems may vary (thank you Google, for your inches to millimeter tool,) I imagine that this way of working which includes utilizing drawing and technology that facilitates an easy sharing of drawings across continents and time zones will continue to become more and more prevalent. With this comes a broader sense of shared responsibility, knowledge, and strategic development.

Where regionalism fits into this global dialogue, I haven’t yet decided. But, in a time when the world can feel cold and often divided, the idea that drawings and technology make the sharing of ideas and information both easy and enjoyable instills hope that we will continue to push ourselves to build thoughtfully and consistently across continents and physical boundaries.

 

 

If Architecture Were Optimism

In the last year or so, reading or watching the news has become a game of roulette. Taking my chances, I scan pages or flip channels hastily in an attempt to avoid disturbing imagery and narrative in favor of landing on something meaningful and at least slightly optimistic.

Therefore, I was surprised today to find myself enticed by a beautiful, powerful image of the New York skyline on the cover page of the Sunday Times, only to read further to find a scathing article by Michael Kimmelman titled “A Soaring Emblem of New York, and its Upside Down Priorities; 1 World Trade Center is a Cautionary Tale.”

While the article lacked any mention of hostile takeovers or race riots, the negative tone of the article suggests that the newest, tallest building in North America “speaks volumes about political opportunism, outmoded thinking and upside-down urban priorities…It’s what happens when a commercial developer is pretty much handed the keys to the castle. Tourists will soon flock to the top of the building, and tenants will fill it up. But a skyscraper doesn’t just occupy its own plot of land. Even a tower with an outsize claim on the civic soul needs to be more than tall and shiny.”

Kimmelman goes on to discuss the building’s lack of mixed-use programming, pedestrian engagement, as well as a symmetrical, relatively generic composition that suggests “New York is a metropolis bereft of fresh ideas.”

“Stripped of prospective cultural institutions, as well as of street life and housing, the plan soon turned into something akin to an old-school office park, destined to die at night — the last thing a young generation of New Yorkers wanted…Mr. Childs faced a nearly impossible task: devising a tower at once somber and soaring, open and unassailable, dignified but not dull,” states Kimmelman, regarding the Skidmore, Owings, Merrill architect David Childs that designed 1 World Trade amidst many stakeholders and competing priorities.

Situating Kimmelman’s article in the context of the current media sphere and a recent Wednesday night in New York that I spent standing at the building’s base only to be told that “areas weren’t open to the public yet,” I am left with a relatively stale taste in my mouth. Despite living in a world where violent history continues to repeat itself and old and new battles are being forged daily in highly graphic means of representation, I still believe that architecture, in its purest form and definitions, should and must remain a symbol of unrelentless optimism.

While I can’t disagree that street level may not yet be deemed a success for 1 World Trade, I would like to make a general plea that critics’ switch their syntax and thinking in the way that both critique and candor are being applied to architecture.

In looking at the image in the Times, what drew me to the picture was the scale of the tower as well as the presence and strength that it holds in filling a long and painful void in the New York skyline. In this image, it is the gesture, not the detail that may be deemed most important.

To speak generally, all architecture projects are comprised of scales to consider and agendas to reconcile, areas for innovation and opportunity, and strategies considered that are already tried and tested. I can only imagine the list of priorities that 1 World Trade entailed, but am still celebratory of the feat that it was realized despite perhaps the greatest obstacles any project could possibly have—fear and memory.

Architectural projects resulting in buildings are a manifestation of hopes and aspirations. Many architects, as serial optimists and idealists, are still attempting to be brave and bold in a climate much like medicine and education, in which reporting and accountability often trump a general respect for creativity, innovation, and the idea that each project requires a unique approach and related outcomes.

As a current resident of Denver, a city that will double in size by the year 2030, I often drive around the city and find myself taking note of each new multi-family, mixed-use, office, grocery, or retail building that didn’t exist upon my relocation to Denver a little over two years ago. While I may not agree with the aesthetic or form of each development, I try to remain respectful that these projects are a result of growing and projected needs, and a general belief that as a city grows, its desire for resources, community, and transportation-oriented development will also continue to grow. Each of these developments is an optimistic response to a city investing in the future—perhaps the most optimistic concept of all.

I would argue that 1 World Trade, despite some mishaps and perceived “flawed” aesthetics, is still a successful symbol of stakeholders working with a lead architect and an architecture firm to create the most appropriate response to a tragedy at a discrete moment in history. This is the nature of creating a building meant to define a skyline view—i.e. a view that is most often captured by a two-dimensional photo in which a building is defined by its height and profile- two features that quickly become both icon and symbol.

While New York and its Financial District at street level will continue to organically change and evolve, I believe that the new tallest building in North America provides a moment of order and solemnity amidst the foreground of people, chaos, and life that remains the primary illustrative medium of any city at any given moment.