Making Competence // Matt Cadel

5/19/2014

Technological advances have had a strong hand in shaping how Architecture is practiced and how it is taught. Computers have become ubiquitous; drastically altering the landscape of almost every profession, architecture included. Architecture schools have become testing grounds for the latest and greatest computer programs with courses dedicated to the sole purpose of teaching these programs. Without proficiency in at least the most basic programs, students couldn’t fit into the structure of how firms operate today. Students push these programs to the limit of their capabilities, which generally lead towards projects emphasizing formal and aesthetic qualities. The increasing focus on virtualism promoted by architecture schools have lead to an increasing manual disengagement. Even hands on processes that have been historically linked to architecture schools (e.g., model building) are being reduced to gluing together a kits of parts cut out by a laser cutter. Or all manual labor is taken out of the precess and the model is 3-d printed. As these technological advancements continue to manipulate the curriculum of our universities, the applied value of intimacy associated with manual labor is lost. 

Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci-Arc) pushes virtualism in architecture to its limits. I visited their facilities in the fall of 2010 with a group of other Kansas State students. We were astounded by their amorphous shaped buildings and 3-d printed models. The school promotes a different approach to architecture than Kansas State but begs the question- What is the intended goal of this approach? Kansas State has a reputation for teaching architecture rooted in pragmatism, while Sci-Arc looks to question the status quo.   Eric Owen Moss, Sci-Arc Director, states “ Sci-Arc’s job is to make the people that make the radical.” I do believe Sci-Arc students have an understanding of practical, functional architecture, they just choose to disregard it in search of innovative processes; technologically, conceptually, and tectonically.

Sci-arch is an extreme case for allowing technology dictate what a design becomes. This semester, I participated in a digital fabrication course taught here at Kansas State. The course focused on the capabilities of Grasshopper; a graphical algorithm editor integrated with Rhino’s 3-D modeling tools. The beginning of the semester focused on learning grasshopper’s interface and basic functions. As the semester progressed, we began trying to use the program to design park amenities for a new development neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. Some students were able to utilize grasshopper for their designs while others took a more conventional route. The pictures above illustrate one of the iterative process of  a bench design using grasshopper. The idea was to take a simple profile and extrude it along  various sin curves in two dimensions. This project’s end goal was to produce something usable, embedding practically into the project. The computer program then becomes a vehicle that must be driven to a practical solution instead of an open ended conversation.

Sci-Arc’s programs utilize the process of digital fabrication in many of their courses. They provide their students with the most advanced machines and techniques, including robotic arms. They describe their “robot house” as a means to “create unprecedented emulation, simulation and animation environments in which computational geometry, material agency and fabrication logistics merge.” Dwyane Oyler, of Oyler Wu Collaborative, is a graduate of Kansas State and the Undergraduate Thesis Coordinator At Sci-Arc where he has taught for 10 years. Speaking with him, he expressed interest in the value of manual construction and its role in the advancement of knowledge or expertise of the architect. Oyler has lead many design build projects at Sci-Arc and said, even though they sometimes lean towards using digital methods of construction, they use what makes sense for the project. Digital applications of construction are useful explorations providing extreme precision, but are the benefits associated with manual labor lost? Speaking as a member of the design+make studio, I have gained knowledge through laborious, hands-on processes that has made me think differently, not only about detailing, but about design as a whole. Through these processes, I believe it has made me a more well rounded and competent designer. 

Written by Matt Cadel