thomas kelley at isu

October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

IMG_0725Look now, indeed… Honored to have Thomas Kelley, one of last year’s Rome Prize Fellows in Architecture, come lecture this week at Iowa State.  Thomas’ work with his office, Norman Kelley, is consistently provocative, dealing with the gulf between representation and experience through illusion, allusion, irony, and intentional missteps, among others.  In our all-grad seminar on Tuesday, Kelley talked about the difference between “bad” and “wrong,” noting that the former is irredeemable, while the latter often leads us in to new territory.  Their recent project, Wrong Chairsengages viewers by introducing errors into otherwise easily recognizable Windsor chairs, giving our minds a buzz of discontinuity while we figure out what the problem is with each one.  In other work, drawing itself becomes the material for finding inherent contradictions in the way we represent space on a plane, or the way our mind jumps to regular or perfect patterns when in fact the world presents us with anything but.

Students, of course, ate this up.  But Norman Kelley’s work goes well beyond provocation–Kelley cites references in his work ranging from Aldo Rossi and Sebastian Serlio to Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk.  And these figures are mined both as raw material–student work that blew up line weights in Hejduk’s classic Wall House drawings were transformative and honorific at the same time–and as conceptual inspiration.  Kelley was careful to point out that one can slice a Serlio drawing (digitally, of course…) into pieces for a collage and at the same time engage it to uncover deeper content than lines and patterns.  Paying attention, in other words, rather than mere sampling.

At some point in Rome last year, I mentioned to Thomas that hearing him speak was like watching a street magician who, at the end when you reach into your pocket for a tip, pulls your wallet out of his sleeve and hands it back to you with a smile; the trick you were watching wasn’t, in fact, the piece de resistance, but rather the setup for the real head scratcher.  This week, it felt like the wallet was bursting full when it got handed back…Their forthcoming monograph/manifesto, eyecon, is worth looking for…

‘native modernism’ at the art institute

October 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

8_18I’ll be sharing the stage with Robert Bruegmann next month at the Art Institute to discuss Chicago’s most underrated skyscraper period–between the wars, long after the alleged decline of the “Chicago School” but before the arrival of Mies.  As readers know, I think this generation deserves better–the classical and art deco structures of the 1920s and 1930s were often just as technically rigorous and expressive as those of the earlier generation, but the architects of the period were dealt a far different hand in terms of materials and systems.  In an era of electric lighting, powered elevators, riveted construction, and  natural ventilation, the solid skins and pyramidal massing of these towers responded precisely to the palette of materials and the functional desires that inspired and focused skyscraper design and construction.

Sponsored by the Architecture & Design Society of The Art Institute of Chicago and AIA Chicago, the event will take place in Fullerton Hall on Tuesday, 4 November from 6:30-7:30pm.  $10 A&D Society and AIA Chicago members; $15 general public; free to students with a valid ID.  More info here…

arch 603 selfie

October 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Back in Ames in time for field trips to the University’s major performance spaces.  We’re lucky to have a couple of acoustically amazing rooms on campus–the 2700-seat Stephens Auditorium, where the building staff let us wander around for a couple of hours and speak (or sing!) from the stage to hear what a finely tuned space sounds like, and the Martha Ellen Tye Recital Hall, which at 300 seats is less impressive on the inside, but does have a roof that’s part of the tour.  Fun bunch, this..


chicago river tour, nu version

October 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

IMG_0696Some of my best days on the job have involved unusual vehicles.  Helicopters?  Top notch day.  Chicago River tour boat?  Not quite as speedy or as vertigo-inducing, but this was a pretty good day this week.

Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering offers a three-course sequence in architecture for students who want to explore design.  In 2010 I chipped in, helping Larry Booth with a few lectures and desk crits, and they’ve very generously invited me back every year or so to talk about skyscrapers or to sit on reviews. This year, the School offered a two-hour boat tour to its students as a way of highlighting the architecture course, and they asked me to be part of an all-star tour guide team.  That’s structural engineering professor David Corr talking about lift bridges and concrete counterweights there, and we were joined by historian extraordinaire David Van Zanten.  Between the three of us, we covered what we could–the tour flies past given the density of stuff to talk about.

IMG_0691I got to spend a bit of time with students in the architecture program as well.  Prof. Booth is using the Du Sable Park site–the same one my studio at ISU is using this semester–but they’re putting a 200-story tower on it, a suitable scale for engineers.  It’s always interesting to see how the discipline can be approached from a strong technical background.  Usually, we worry about beefing up students technical knowledge without putting the brakes on their creativity or energy.  The challenge in these courses is to get students to think beyond structure and construction, which they’ve done with striking success.

The weather was spectacular, the drive back the next morning included the lunar eclipse and blood moon in the windshield most of the way home, and I’m sure I learned more from the boat tour than I taught anyone…for sure.  Thanks to all involved for a great day out on the water…


big and tall

October 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

posterSo, this is happening…My new position as graduate director is going to keep me from the design studio next term, but I will be teaching a lecture course on Construction History.  Big and Tall will look at the economic, social, and technical contexts of building through history, starting with the ancients and running up to today (or as close as we can get in fifteen weeks).


shameless boosterism…

September 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 9.30.30 AM

Des Moines Municipal Services Center, Neumann Monson (

A great evening last night as I got to host the AIA Iowa’s annual awards banquet and remind myself about just how good things get here.  The local NPR station is running a series this week on how surprising Iowa is to visitors–what, you didn’t know that Des Moines regularly gets ranked as the best city in the country for young professionals?  That Ames and Iowa City both regularly make top five and ten lists for best college towns in the country?  But to those of us who live here, these things are never surprising–the state is a great place to live and work, and the architecture community here isn’t so much small as it is intense.  And the work that gets done here is consistently good, inspired both by place and by the times.

This year’s Honor Award for Design went to Iowa City/Des Moines firm Neumann Monson for their Des Moines Municipal Services Building.  This is a classic Iowa project, a public facility, done on a municipal budget, with no dramatic forms or flying object but instead a simply conceived, well-diagrammed, and immaculately detailed volume that is full of good spaces for people.  It’s facade reminds me (of course) of Nervi’s Palazzo Lavoro, but it’s really just a nicely designed solar screen that Neumann Monson’s designers realized held the potential as a signature for the building and thus for the city.  Marlon Blackwell, the Awards program’s outside juror (also a great speaker and, thank goodness, a good sport about being called upon to spontaneously talk about the winning projects) described it as “resolute” at all three scales he found important–urban, architectural, and that of “the hand.”  Couldn’t agree more.

That building, though, was just one of a number of projects recognized for design excellence and sustainability.  Not to mention three national recognitions this year for Young Architect, CACE Executive, and a COTE award for BNIM’s Iowa Utilities Board, which has proven itself over the first two years of its life as a genuinely efficient building that is also an extraordinary place to work.  Only fitting, too, that BNIM’s Des Moines leader, Rod Kruse, won this year’s state medal of honor.

There is in all of these projects an ethic that may not be uniquely Iowan, but is nevertheless characteristic.  Kruse talked about the state’s architectural forefathers–Chick Herbert in particular–whose careers continue to set the tone here for practice based on a profoundly ethical approach, an attention to detail and to people, and a genuine sense of collaboration.  Walking in to the dinner last night, I realized that even as a peripheral member of the practice community, I knew most of the people in the room one way or another.  ISU is the only architecture program in the state, so our alumni make up a huge percentage of the practice here.  But it’s also true that the profession is profoundly engaged in what we do in Ames, sitting in on reviews, hiring our students, attending alumni meetings and being involved in all kinds of more casual ways.  It’s a great community with which to be involved, and I was honored to be present to help hand out recognitions to the most remarkable examples of the last year or two.

grasshopper, galapagos, and smoking laptops

September 19, 2014 § 4 Comments

VilloGrasshopperScreenshotMore and more presentations at architecture and engineering conferences look like this, these days–the use of parametric modeling, genetic algorithms, and feedback loops is promising to revolutionize the problem-solving end of the design endeavor.

For those readers not in the loop (see what I did there?) these programs generate and evaluate forms based on a defined set of parameters.  At its simplest, you can throw in a number of criteria for, say, a structural element, hit ‘run,’ and the programs will generate semi-random schemes, test them, rate them based on fitness for purpose, eliminate the under performers, and cross-fertilize the more successful schemes with one another to see if combined traits will perform more successfully.  It’s a neat technology transfer from nature, borrowing evolutionary biology to evaluate complex spatial and formal problems.  The results are often surprising, or at least far more nuanced than those of human labor–by running hundreds or thousands of iterations in a day, instead of the one or two that a designer might sketch out, the “design space,” or range of solutions on offer for consideration, is both broader and better informed.

This year’s IASS conference has, if anything, been the year of Galapagos, the genetic algorithm software that pushes and pulls the parameters in Grasshopper to produce formal results in Rhinoceros.   The Structural Morphology working group in particular has presented a half-dozen or so case studies in how these programs can be used to very quickly produce and evaluate designs for structural elements and systems, and the results are impressive–and a bit disappointing.  I’m interested in how process and product determine one another, often iteratively, often recursively–Nervi’s whole career can be seen as an evolutionary process in which four basic techniques get refined and tested in subtly varying circumstances, improving and becoming more efficient by small but crucial steps each time.  So I’m fascinated by Galapagos in particular, and truly excited to see what it’s capable of.  The first glimpse I had of this was in 2010, when I was a visiting faculty member at Northwestern, and one of SOM’s engineers came in to lecture on their use of proprietary genetic algorithm software to find ideal structural forms.  The potential is incredible.

But the potential is also still way out there.  One of the things that became clear as paper after paper presented the results of doctoral work in this area was that design, like biology, is pretty complicated.  The number of variables in determining the most fit shape even for a simple structural element are deceptively large.  Sure, there’s an ideal structural shape for a beam, say, but as any SCI-TECH alum knows, the cost of making an ideal shape might outweigh the cost of extra material in an almost ideal shape.  The labor market may further add costs to one material or one method of connection.  And the building type might suggest a further set of variables in how the shape integrates with other systems.  An open-web joist, for instance, might be better in a laboratory that’s heavily serviced by ductwork, since its permeable.  Or, as I found out in my days in practice, a dumb one-way concrete slab might work better for vibration control than any steel structure.  Quantifying all of that starts to increase the time required for all of these genetic algorithms to run, and pretty soon you run up against the limits of what your machine can do.  As one presenter put it, “laptops start smoking after a while.”

This became even more clear in some of the more ambitious projects to try applying Galapagos in particular.  The program seems to be very good at finding shapes or forms that involve two or three variables, but in the case of a double-skin facade, for example, or even a fairly simple braced frame, it becomes apparent that the “design space” is a lot larger than it might appear at first.  The double-skin facade project found a structurally efficient pattern, for example, but stopped short of even considering solar gain, ostensibly the rationale behind such a system in the first place.  And the braced frame project, while it produced a really elegant profile, didn’t go the extra mile to find out what would happen if that profile were now used to figure out the wind loading, firing off another round of digital selection.

Moore’s law being what it is, computing power will eventually catch up with these problems, and the days of hundreds or thousands of iterations will seem much like the days of drafting on an IBM 486 (remember watching the line draw from A to B slowly across the screen?  Mesmerizing).  But that power might very well run up against other limits that we don’t quite realize yet, and once again we’ll be left with intuition to tell us a) when to stop, and b) what to do with what the outputs tell us.  At the moment, these tools seem most useful as suggestions–things to look at as we contemplate a design space that’s more intuitive, not quite as large or refined, but more easily retrievable.  And that’s probably the takeaway–there are amazing things out there now, being played around with by clever grad students, that will in fact revolutionize our problem-solving abilities.  Like any tool, though, they’re not likely to take over the world, and they still seem best placed as adjuncts to an engaged, nimble mind.

Which, if anything, is even more promising.


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