Output from the 2014 Intro to Architecture program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. This four-week intensive was very much about process rather than product; the visuals here should be seen through such a lens.
Background: I’ve always had an affinity for architecture. In my junior high school shop class, we had a two-week module dedicated to manual and digital drafting that has always stuck with me. There was something satisfying both about constructing a series of perfectly ruled lines and curves and semi-circles that ultimately would become a plan for a room or a house, as well as every single element within a building having a very specific notation and relationship to the whole. That feeling of some kind of notational-to-physical totality has always stuck with me.
So when I was looking around for my annual design tourist sojourn—as I’ve taken to calling it—the Intro to Architecture program at Columbia GSAPP seemed like a great opportunity.
Drawing Exercise: For our first project, we were told to visit two sites in Harlem between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave., the first a Compare Foods grocery store on 138th St., the second the Alexander Hamilton Playground on 140th St. The intent of these visits was to observe the environment and sketch out anything that we saw to be interesting or engaging about the spaces and their people.
My first set of drawings that resulted from these site visits mapped the relationship between space—both as a physical and abstract construct—and how people move and interact within those spaces, as well as affinities between individuals and groups. The mapping of these various relationships revealed the unseen spatial barriers (as denoted by dotted boundary lines in the drawing) that people unknowingly construct.
The day that I visited these sites was a very hot New York summer afternoon, so many of the children in the streets and playgrounds took to shooting each other with makeshift water cannons by simply filling plastic water bottles and squeezing them at one another. Aside from being a pretty ingenious solution to a hot summer’s day, I found the nature of these water streams to be fascinating. Thus, my second drawing sought to investigate the nature of a stream of water—its various vectors, bifurcations, and collisions.
Modelsode: Our first modeling project was a mechanical contraption that was to have a minimum of six discrete movements, produce an intentional sound, make a record of itself, and last at least 12 seconds.
After scouring nearly half a dozen junk and knick-knack shops in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, I had amassed a collection of computer fans, wiring, and an old touch-tone telephone, among other things. I then went about the task of seeing what could be put together, testing different combinations of mechanical, electrical, and structural components.
Since I had several computer fans and small electric motors I hooked up a series of 9 volt batteries to these components. Through experimentation I was able to make two systems—one constant, one inconstant—that worked both with and against each other: one system of fans rotated to make sounds and mark paper, while the other system—consisting of two small DC motors—used one motor to turn a paper spool (i.e. a recording) and another to actually short-circuit the current running to the fans. The resulting contraption was all at once smooth and jittering; slow and quick; elegant, coarse, and wholly fascinating.
Systems are typically meant to be homogeneous, well-oiled mechanisms, devoid of any inconsistencies that might alter the forward motion of their function, whatever that may be. While this contraption constantly got in its own way, it did so in the most interesting, and almost seemingly intentional, ways possible.
After this process of model-making, I then proceeded to make a detailed drawing of the model, mapping several of the movements as well as a quantitative diagram of the sounds produced. Learning how to properly draw in isometric perspective and all the foibles involved with the technical-visual disconnect with such a perspective—how has nobody come up with a CAD plugin for iso views? There have to be at least 1000 threads on various fora asking about it—was most definitely a challenge. These drawing would become a pivotal element in the next part of the process.
Building with straws: For the next phase of the program we were each given a set of Strawbies, which are flat plastic connectors meant to couple plain plastic straws together in dozens of configurations. For the construction of this next model, I began to play around with these connectors and built up a few typologies. Simultaneously I looked to the drawing from the Modelsode project and began to layer different drawing crops onto one another. By drawing over these “remixes” I was able to tease out a visual language that could be used to describe the nature of connections between different straw segments.
I became interested in the nature of expansion & contraction, and the looseness or tension inherent in each. By continuing to work both with the models and visual diagram language I was able to refine three modules that could then be plugged into one another at several points in order to yield different movement types that played with this concept of tension. The addition of surfaces inside and between these modules also added a new dimension.
Thinking about the nature of tension reminded me of the surface tension of water. This contractive tendency of water is such that it can support objects denser than water itself. While it was only at the end of this whole process—the second to last day, in fact—that we even started talking about programming, this rumination of water got me to thinking that perhaps this space that I had constructed would perhaps make a suitable waterfront venue with the ability to expand and contract in order to accommodate different building programs.
Lessons learned: Inherent in this process was the idea of “right” and “wrong” in design. What I was building—and indeed the project prior—didn’t necessarily have a “correct” way of being built; I was the one setting the parameters of what was to be built, as well as the criteria by which it was meant to be judged. Given all of this subjectivity, I was really forced to go outside of my conception of design “correctness” since no standard criteria could really be applied. As such I had to constantly seek new questions and approaches as opposed to seeking answers. I had to suspend any idea of taste and force myself to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I had even written out somewhere the phrase “if you find yourself doing what you might normally do, go and do the exact opposite”. Find yourself making symmetrical cuts? Make one shorter. Worrying about making neat drawings? Fuck some part of it up. But always endeavor to figure out a way to make these asymmetries beautiful somehow. This idea of being comfortable with being uncomfortable and to make beautiful mistakes became the biggest takeaway from the entire summer.
Massive thanks to GSAPP for providing the venue and facilities for such an invaluable experience; to studio critic Brian Smith for his insight and constant pushing; and to Wade Cotton for all his assistance and complete willingness to field what must have seemed like stupidly simple questions.