This semester I’m chipping in to help teach our first year spring grad studio with ISU and Foster alumnus Andrew Gleeson. Andrew’s research (and design) interests have to do with order and ambiguity in 20th century modernism, so it’s been a chance to dive into the “ordering systems” and “use of precedents” NAAB criteria.
We’ve decided on a bread-and-butter approach, with an occasional slice of meaty prosciutto thrown in. The theme that Andrew suggested to connect the various charrette projects students are doing is “Grid/Grain,” asking them to investigate how the most tyrannical of ordering systems can actually be meaningful and even expressive. Their assignments have gone from taking a simple 20×20 grid and manipulating it to show various conditions—tension, rhythm, symmetry, disorder, etc.—up to the final assignment (yet to come), which will involve a small urban project in Des Moines. In between, they get a series of small residential projects, low-context to get them thinking inwardly about how architecture’s own referents are important ways of transmitting meaning and connecting to experience.
In one project, they were given a shipping container and told to design a studio apartment to fit inside. A pretty typical exercise these days, with the twist that we asked them to adhere, where possible, to a 2’ x 2’ grid. That matches the overall dimension of the shipping container, but it doesn’t match the interior dimensions, which offers a take on Alberti’s distinction between the lineaments of design—the pure, single lines of the diagram—and the mass of design, which are those lines represented in materials with actual thickness. There’s an inherent frustration in laying out a perfect grid and realizing that the material of the container itself basically mucks things up, and a good question then about whether you can establish a universal grid, or whether you’re better off thinking in terms of a module, and finding order where you can in a scheme where every inch has to count.
Other projects have been more straightforward; a nine-square grid house, which is an homage to the sort of thing we did as undergrads in the 1980s, for instance, and a pair of precedent studies with a gatehouse project at the end, asking them to distill one of their precedents into a smaller, condensed version that relates to the design principles of the original. But we’ve had fun with these, as well—the precedent studies asked them to simultaneously study a classical and a modern villa, looking for grids both latent and manifest in both, and seeing if they could tease out a dialogue between the two. Sometimes this was pretty easy—Palladio and Venturi, for example, speak to one another pretty fluently. Other times the luck of the draw produced something more difficult or intriguing—what Raphael and Peter Eisenman have to say to one another isn’t quite so obvious, but it’s also not unimaginable. The gatehouse project asks them to pick one of the two, but to continue the dialogue, so that Richard Neutra might have a gatehouse designed with just a bit of Inigo Jones in it.
Fun stuff, but with a serious agenda. We emphasize experiential qualities, conceptual thinking, and expression a lot in beginning design, and in the last generation or so this has come at the expense of those ordering systems and diligent precedent studies that NAAB still requires. Taking these seriously, instead of just throwing a copy of Frank Ching’s Form, Space, and Order on the desk, seems ripe for revival. Particularly since the tools we use today are so resistant to engaging with design minds—Ching compiled his book in an era when we still thought through every mark on the page and made our hands trace those shapes. Today, shapes are cheap, mental and physical labor-wise.
So we’ve proposed trying to instill some digital discipline as well. Assignments have to be finalized in Illustrator, and formatted on 20 x 30 sheets. This avoids the sloppy pinup technique of just slapping up whatever AutoCad or, god help us, SketchUp coughs up out of the printer. Each assignment demands a certain number of line weights and hatches, along with animation and thoughtfully placed text and grid lines. We’re sticking with black and white, too, and making rendering illegal. They’ll get plenty of practice with that in subsequent semesters.
A work in progress, but thus far a vaguely promising effort to develop the digital equivalent of eye-hand coordination while introducing some touchstones of composition and design, and talking about the rhetoric of architecture; how you form an argument, how you make that argument rigorous and evident, and how your drawings play a role in how convincing that argument is.