3.1: conflagration of ideas
4.023, FALL 2019
[ introducing: myself, concussed ]
I smashed my head against a concrete pillar right at the beginning of this assignment. It led to a rather unconventional and occasionally distressing progression through the remainder of this course. A lot of my worst tendencies as a designer were brought to the fore, and I will be entirely transparent about those flaws on this and the following page. I am thankful for the opportunity to be confronted with this challenge and have learnt much that I will be able to bring into my future projects, including a fresh awareness of my weaknesses and how to approach them in a more holistic, systematic manner. In the meantime, my [ concussed ] or [ moderately distressed ] thought process [ will be represented thus ]. The normal text is me, in hindsight, attempting to rationalise some of the alarming decisions made by the pink.
One of the main errors that I made was changing my vision for the goals of the project several times. This largely occurred because I felt I had to adapt earlier design decisions to accommodate a different program or incorporate conflicting feedback. In recognition of this, I have structured the following in order of these Ideas. Let us begin!
The site we were given was in south Cambridge, on the bank of the Charles River. It is within walking distance of MIT and considered a wetland conservation zone. (More information on the site here). Our task was to design a site with a program that combined public and private use, in response to Cambridge's increasingly dense urban population. Ideally, it would contain an educational component. There should also be engagement with the surrounding environment, including the riverfront.
Our first assignment was to design a sketch model depicting our initial ideas for the project.
[ I'd been unable to work/think properly for an entire week, my short-term memory was dysfunctional, and I had spent most of the time sleeping, chatting with friends, and performing inane chores. I had no idea what kind of project I was going to design, and the thought of creating a complex program was daunting. So when the due date for the sketch model came up, I defaulted to some of the architectural forms that most inspired me — Hadid/Yansong-style flowing, parametric curves that defied hard edges and permitted flexible programming. I could figure it out later. ]
Idea #1: Wandering In Nature, With Nature, To Be One With Nature
The native name for the Charles River is Quinobequin, which means meandering. It loops, twists, and doubles back on itself several times as it makes its way to the Atlantic, crossing through 23 cities and towns, 35 municipalities, and several world-class universities. Today, it is an artery of both natural life and human recreational activity. I wanted to honour this heritage in my design.
The primary idea in the sketch model is to bring people closer to nature by making it more accessible. Ribbon-like concrete paths, like rivers, loop across the wetland reserve, intertwined and inextricable. I wanted to minimise the effect on the landscape while allowing the greatest penetration, so imagined that these could be supported on narrow pylons. Concrete has the additional benefit of being self-supporting when in catenary forms, which again limits the impact on the ground. To prove this latter effect, I did some small-scale tests with plaster and canvas. If left to dry as hanging sheets, when inverted, the tension forces that formed the arches translate into compression forces, making the structure completely self-supporting.
[ I completely forgot that we had to accomplish a program. Could a program fit into the spaces underneath the arches? Maybe I could put the homeless there. I would have loved to have been able to help the homeless by designing some sort of affordable housing, so that became my initial program. It would require digging into the landscape and building more solid foundations, but perhaps the environmental effect was being offset by the humanitarian benefits of the project as a whole. ]
GRASSHOPPER AND RHINO
Idea #2: Affordable Housing And Recreation In One Package
Realising that I had to develop program-spaces, I refocused my efforts from developing the language of the ribbons to creating appropriate spaces for habitation. This took the following form:
I had spent much of my summer working for Mediated Matter, a lab in the MIT Media Lab run by Neri Oxman. The project I was working on emphasised the use of parametric scripting in informing design decisions. Excited to use the tools I had become familiar with, I took inspiration from the geological processes that shape real river beds to develop my artificial concrete river. (Special thanks to Megan Guenther, an EAPS major at MIT, who lent me her textbooks!)
River rocks are distributed along a riverbank by size and weight. The largest rocks will be deposited higher up the bank, further from the river, while the smallest rocks and sand particles are found in the river itself. Using a 3D model of the site, I generated a spherical packing arrangement where the spheres decreased in size according to their elevation and distance from the Charles. I then used these spheres as a starting point for drawing 3D curves, which then became ribbons. As the ribbons moved away from the residential portions of the site, they became smaller and less undulating, returning to their initial state as paths. Thus, there was a seamless transition from the structure that people walked on and the structure that they lived under.
[ I guess now I had to design houses... It would be nice if the homeless could choose what kind of living condition they would be in. For instance, a travelling individual might only need a home for a night, whereas some might want a more sustained sense of community. Perhaps others had children or partners that they wanted to stay with. All this would require adaptable housing. ]
Because I had designed the ribbons based on spherical space, it made sense to me to design the houses in a modular fashion. If I could replace one sphere with architecture, then I could resize it to replace all the spheres.
[ The size of these living spaces meant it would be much more expensive to build the necessary thin-shelled concrete architecture than I had expected. So perhaps it would be appropriate to make some of the concrete forms into dormitory-style housing instead, to fit in as many people as possible. ]
[ Not all the modules were large enough for dormitory-style housing, and it would be difficult to make them financially worth it. Perhaps some of the modules should be made into modern, family-style housing, while the remainder was small apartments. ]
[ Maybe those modules could be AIR-BNB's where the wealthy pay off the price for the rest of the apartments? ]
(Side note: it is quite interesting to revisit my thought process here. What a train wreck. And we haven't even gotten to the worst of it. Hilariously, even though it seems so clear now, at the time I was confused as to why I was confused. Yay, head injuries! The most positive thing that came out of it was a reasonably ok short story I wrote to fulfil more of the communication requirements of this course. Of course, it was meant to identify the program that my design fulfilled, and nail down the exact concept. In that regard, I failed the brief. Utterly. I had fun writing it, though!)
Idea #3: The Barracks And The A-Frame
I spent far (far, far, far) too much time figuring out how to fit conventional architecture into unconventional forms. On the plus side, I learnt a lot about the tedium of adjusting line weights in post-processing and the difficulty of making all the things I wanted to fit into a certain space fit. My favourite takeaway was the lesson of the wet-wall, which allows plumbing in a building to be consolidated in a single wall. My least-favourite but most memorable takeaway came during the crit, when I was reprimanded for designing:
a) an exterior that did not take full advantage of the idea underlying it (e.g. the windows looked cut-in and not like they were a consequence of the architecture.)
b) an interior that did not match the exterior in the slightest. My adamant clinging to existing building conventions (e.g. the A-Frame) hindered me from celebrating the existing, shell-like forms.
Both of which were valid critiques and ultimately informed my design for the better.
[ I have to re-do everything. I have two weeks left in this course. ]
Idea #4: Conservation and Education
Throughout the design process, I had carried one idea from the previous assignments with me: the concept of an aviary. I feel strongly about conservation and the necessity of educating people about foreign ecosystems. This doesn't just include the large, charismatic zoo animals we're all familiar with, but also the small creatures that die as a consequence of habitat destruction and never get a shot at the spotlight. So, I had incorporated a bird habitat in the front portion of the barracks (as I now called the dormitory.) The realisation that I cared more about the aviary than the housing at this stage in the project led to a couple of radical decisions:
[ I scrapped the idea of affordable housing. This entire thing was going to be impossible to build due to the outrageous expense of building the structures I had designed (so much for thin-shelled concrete architecture being cheap). It gave me the freedom to shift the focus of my project in order to consolidate a couple of the ideas I had been trying to juggle within it. Focusing on just one or two rather than a half dozen allowed me to actually finish the project. ]
I still gutted the interiors of the A-Frames (note: the critique received above) and changed the program of the first few floors of the barracks from living to conservation education and labs. I kept the penthouses on the top floors, but they were not the primary focus, and only intended for very brief residence. The A-Frames were replaced by specific, artificially-maintained habitats: savannah, bamboo forest, mangroves. People could move between them on external ribbon-paths, travelling from the Boston exterior to the exotic, tropical interiors. Rather than seeing animals in cages, I made the cage into a small replica of the animals' native habitats and brought people in to be fully immersed. The barracks became a viewing platform for a multi-storey rainforest, populated with diverse creatures that might be overlooked in a normal zoo. The cafe (a different building that I haven't mentioned before. Used to be a "community space".) became a site for education where children could see scientists at work in glass-walled labs, browse in the library, and wander through an extensive tactile natural-history exhibit.
To be entirely fair, I kept a measure of the original living plan of the A-Frames. Each of the small habitats had a piece of parasitic architecture inside of it, its form based off the vernacular style of locals living in the respective regions. These were single-family apartments that could be booked overnight or for a couple of nights, to give people the sense of truly living in these places, breathing their atmosphere.
The final version of the project was a way of bringing exotic landscapes to Boston, allowing people to experience them without travelling, and raising awareness for animals that are otherwise overlooked. By educating people on nature and its history, and allowing a smooth transition to the outside, where the Boston wetlands — with all their own unique colours and wonders — await, I wanted to give people a greater appreciation for their own environment, too.
This was a long semester for me. To give a sense of it, here are some writings from immediately after the final crit, as I was reflecting on the challenges I had experienced: [ "The aftermath of production gives me a sense of emptiness, a void where there was frantic activity. Often, these voids are simply forgotten, but I want to use these blank walls as a canvas for reflection before they dissolve into a fog of memory.
One of the things I know about myself is that I am very much an artist who is learning to be an architect. Occasionally I will make choices for aesthetic/emotional reasons rather than analytical ones — this is a trait that was definitely exaggerated by my concussion. If I make these kinds of choices early on, they can affect the entire language of my project, decreasing its efficacy and the degree to which it succeeds. In the most damaging cases, such choices can lead to extreme stress and frustration further down the pipeline. ]
I certainly approached this project with too much emotion, particularly around the middle to end. Studios are stressful for everyone, yet this semester was the first where I seriously doubted being able to produce a final outcome because I did not know where I was going with the project. I'm incredibly glad it ended up going somewhere, particularly when it got to a point where I was able to use some of my skills in collage and painting to bring parts of my vision to life. That allowed me to regain the confidence and drive I needed to finish the job.
Thanks to everyone who stood by me throughout this. This felt very lonely at times, and your eternal support and love really helped me through to the other side.