Sean LALLY speaks on architectural pedagogy in the ’90s and early ’00s versus today, employing speculation to overcome preconceptions, the productive swerve away from precedent (both architectural and not), material energies, and much more.
images, clockwise from top left: All work from “These Go Up to Eleven,” Third Year Graduate Options Studio, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Assistant Professor Sean LALLY, instructor. Students Maren ALLEN, Mark CUNNINGHAM, Brad FOWLER, Julie GRISMANAUSKAS, Maged GUERGUIS, Kim HIBBEN, Charlie MATHEW, Evgeniya PLOTNIKOVA, Gibrann RUIZ, John SOHN, Tao TAO, & Ricky WILLIAMS; project by Evgeniya PLOTNIKOVA, detail; project by Maren ALLEN, detail; “These Go Up to Eleven,” overall installation view. Photo: Matthew MESSNER.
suckerPUNCH: Could tell us a little bit about the recent studios and seminars you’ve been teaching?
Sean LALLY: A lot of the work, in terms of my teaching, generally falls between design studios and core curriculum, which has a lot to do with energy systems—that is, with trying to figure out how to use various forms of energy as a building materials. The core classes are a part of the technology sequencing. The most obvious parallel to what I’m trying to do with those classes would be to compare it to what architects do with geometry, where people look at different ways and software packages for exploring form and geometry, then go into production via milling or 3-D printing, then try to figure out how assembly works, and so on. I’ve been trying to take on that concept, but push it toward a different range of materiality. Not through geometries that mediate the environment around us, but with material energies that alter the very makeup of our environment. The students start with the most fundamental aspect of design, which is working in the units of measurement required to engage these material energies. So, even just in the most basic sense, you’re trying to figure out what the units of measurement are when dealing with the electromagtic, thermodynamics, acoustics, and chemical properties. At a certain point, after pushing things forward and learning more about them through lectures and readings, the students are eventually getting into little design projects. Except instead of geometry, surfaces, and construction methodologies, you start thinking more about how you can create one-to-one mockups in which you’re using these energy systems to create space. I think it works really well with the students because I tend to have them first in the core sequencing and then later, in the research studios. The second time around they have a knowledge base behind them, so we can start thinking about what those implications might be at bigger scales. So the studios are much more speculative. If the core sequence is more analytical with physical prototypes to test that knowledge, the research studios are more speculative.
sP: When you talk about that knowledge base, is there much of it that is also a kind of technical knowledge? Is it primarily enabled by technique, or is this more of a conceptual approach?
SL: When we get to the design studios, it’s definitely much more conceptual. We’re basically trying to figure out what the implications are when you start using a different way of organizing space—that is, if geometry isn’t the way in which you create boundaries, but instead it’s through the gradient properties that are the hallmark of energy. At the end of the day, architecture is really all about how you create a boundary. We tend to do it mostly with surface and geometry as a way of creating difference in between one room and another room, or one space and another space to create hierarchy. If you switch that out for the more gradient condition you get when working with energy systems, what then become the implications? So in the tech seminars the students create one-to-one, full-scale prototypes because they have to try to not only visualize it—both by understanding the history behind it and sometimes by working with simulation programs in the computer—but try to understand how they behave in their physicality outside of the computer.
To give a quick example, the idea is that usually the students start off having to create one or two spaces in a volume, using geometry to separate space; then they have to create two or three more, but it has to be done with an energy system. So how do you break up that space, but not do it with surfaces? When you jump to the studios, it’s much more speculative. There we try to move beyond focusing on technology as it is today, realizing that if we can daydream about what the ramifications might be, the technology can catch up. So in the tech seminar it’s more about understanding what is available now and how you can study it and test it, and in the studio it’s much more about bigger objectives and about focusing more on the next five to 10 years than on today.
sP: That speculation is something we noticed, specifically in some of the work from the seminar “Returning Home.” There is definitely this sense of near-future science fiction, that what’s proposed is not necessarily 100 years in the future, but allows certain leaps in order to enable or open up new territories. Could you talk a little bit about that stance and the productivity which comes out of allowing for speculation—that it’s not just speculating on a new project, but assuming advancements, whether in technology or even in cultural attitudes toward building?
SL: Absolutely. Quite often when we think about energy, we think about it either as a fuel or as that thing which fills the interior of an existing building—a kind of comfort or the reflectivity and atmospheres that bounce off things. And we tend to think of it in relation to efficiency modeling. Meaning, design your building and then test it later to see how cost-efficient the design is in terms energy costs. We don’t really give energy any responsibility as a building material to create those physical boundaries that organize space, with their own aesthetic qualities and shapes. So when we think about innovation when it comes to energy, we generally think about mechanical systems, solar panels, and so on. We think about the mechanisms and devices and how we can make those more interesting, but we don’t think about the materials and we don’t speculate on what those things could be in the future. And that lack of speculation is strange, because it’s so ingrained. As architects, it’s what we’re best at: we speculate.
When we work with geometry—whether we’re sketching in Maya, Rhino, foam, or whatever it may be—we always ask for more than is available. We always span a little longer than we think is possible; we always ask for a higher degree of transparency than we know is available. We always do this. We always want larger pieces of unbroken surfaces without knowing how we’re going to fabricate them, but then we reverse engineer and try to figure it out afterwards. When we start thinking about these material energies, we don’t do this. We generally default to our preconceived notion of them. Because, at the end of the day, this isn’t a discussion about switching one material for another, but about realizing that when we work with these energies, which behave as gradients not surfaces, there will be implications spatially, organizationally, socially, and so on. So it does have that element of science fiction, or of stretching the imagination, but I think that speculation is necessary to overcome that hump, the preconceptions that I think are so ingrained in us when we’re talking about energy. I think it also can take the pressure off technology a little bit and allow you to start thinking more about the ramifications on lifestyle. That’s what really good science fiction does—it doesn’t focus on what the new gadgets and widgets are, but starts thinking about how, for example, two people are living differently or about what their relationships are like to their environments. I think if you can do that, then you can backtrack a little bit and start figuring out what things are needed to make that happen. So it’s more like storytelling, in a way, and then going back and figuring out how we can build those stage sets within our lives to make them possible.
sP: The other thing we found interesting about the work we saw from “Returning Home” was the constructed imagery that the students created and the way in which they were really rethinking representation, beyond just doing a simple, traditional rendering or model shot. What do you see as the role of those constructed images in the work of your students?
SL: Those are physical models that the students fabricate and work on. After the models are photographed, they’re layered in Photoshop, Illustrator, or whatever other mechanism the students want. And I think a lot of the reason that goes with those is, for me, when someone can see the physicality or know that something is real, whether it’s a model or a built piece of a project, in a weird way there’s more believability to it than when it’s only Photoshopped or sketched out. And I think what it does for both the students and the viewer is it ties the work back to some form of reality—that is, you can’t leap too far. You’re building these little models where you build the systems, you pick the scale, you photograph the condition, and you can kind of storyboard out in advance. You can take two or three shots from one model, and that’s your project. So the question becomes: How do you play everything out with two or three shots? You’re not doing 30, so there’s more of an investment in the imagery and in what it’s doing. In each image there’s a lot of time spent trying to figure out everything from what’s foreground and what’s background to what social organization it is that you’re trying to tease out and how it’s played out. And then you go in with Photoshop or whatever other techniques you have and embellish that.
sP: It’s also interesting that the studio and seminar work seems to have a lot of ideas about color as a kind of coding. You brought up the gradient, which is perhaps one way to let some of those materialities come through visually. But the projects also seem to have these almost curated atmospheres to them. And we know in your own work color is also something of importance—coloration never seems to be white or just a simple, left over decision, but seems highly determined. Can you discuss that much as a studio? Or, how does it come about that you never end up with basswood models or simple, white prints?
SL: A lot of it has to do with the visual spectrum of these energy systems. And the biggest limitation, to be honest, is that they’re not all visible. So when you’re talking about olfactory senses, or you’re talking about sound, or you’re talking about different ranges of the electromagnetic field, you can’t always see them. So the question is: What becomes their aesthetic? What is the shape of architecture when it’s not done with surfaces and geometry? How do you show the shapes of energy? And that’s actually a big issue within the larger project, not only in conveying energy systems through representation, but also in conveying them to an audience if they ever get to the actual space. Once you’re in the space, the tactility of the skin and how it influences things are a bit more approachable, but when you’re creating an image it’s really tough to get that across. So a lot of the work is basically trying to figure out how to represent something that isn’t always detectable visually. And that’s difficult. So at some point you do rely on color and you do rely on something visible like condensation. You can’t see humidity, but you can tell when warm air hits a cold glass—then, all of the sudden, you see condensation. You can’t really see heat, per se, but on a cold day, when there’s an exhaust fan in the city infrastructure and you see green grass growing in a snowfield, you know something is going on there. And these are basic examples, but the question is: How then do you show the implications in the way people either interact with or come in contact with each other when you potentially can’t see the materiality itself? So that’s often where the color comes in, is in trying to signify something that is occurring or in trying to amplify a condition and juxtapose it against something else.
sP: Some of the students’ narratives are almost these fictions to go along with the projects. It seems there’s a layer not just of speculating on the materiality and the systems, but also of speculating on the way in which the project would be used or its agency.
SL: Those narratives are done really early in the project. Quite often architects take a precedent, geometry, or a list of programs from a brief and then go through a series of techniques that allow them to walk through a process of design. The idea of these narratives is very similar, but it’s done through the expression of actions and reactions with an environment. That way the students can actually have something at stake before they jump into design. It’s almost like using a different muscle toward the same end goal—hopefully you experience something different along the way that you can bring to the table.
sP: Speaking of precedent, how do you see history, theory, and precedent in your teaching, and where is it productive for your students’ work?
SL: It absolutely is. It’s a tough question. In the tech seminar, every week there is a series of readings—we’re looking back to people who were doing similar work and trying to follow the trajectory of why we think the way we think, what assumptions we’re making, and why we make those assumptions. And that includes everything from the advent of modern air conditioning at the turn of the 20th century to contemporary artists doing installation work. So precedents are really important. What’s interesting about it, though, is that pushing the project forward through architecture offers a little bit less in terms of actual precedent that students can look to, which is sometimes difficult. Most often what the students do pull from are artists and installation-scale work. The students then have to make the leap in terms of what that precedent does architecturally—that is, the students have to figure out what happens when that precedent isn’t on the interior of a gallery, but is instead within the city and it has to actually take on a serious role and a serious amount of responsibility architecturally.
sP: The seminars and studios that you’re teaching are definitely not your run-of the-mill core curriculum. That said, we’re curious if there’s certain baggage that the students come in with, a resistance that you kind of have to get them over, or if there’s any positive outside contamination which they bring in from other experiences or cultural touchstones.
SL: Ironically, in the core curriculum classes and in the tech seminar things are actually a lot less difficult and there’s a lot less baggage. I think, just because it’s a core class, the students believe it’s something they have to do regardless of what’s put on the table. So there’s really not a whole lot of baggage, except occasionally, when people don’t seem willing to make a leap beyond “green” architecture, sustainability, and efficiency modeling. I think quite often that discussion of sustainability gets thrown in as a counterpoint, as if availability to energy sources and storage isn’t involved in what I’m discussing. It doesn’t have to be seen as something that’s either one or the other. If you use energy as an architectural material the idea of being responsible or efficient with it isn’t off the table completely. The point is simply to say we can do more with it. As architects we do more than simply defy gravity, right? We do more than just make buildings stand because of safety conditions. We go far beyond that every day and that has pushed us constantly. So the question is: Why aren’t we doing that with these materialities associated with energy? Why are they always just mimicking an ideal day? Why is it always an ideal day on the interior of a building? Why is it about the efficiency of the fuel? Those are all certainly important to consider, but the question is: Why can’t we, and why shouldn’t we, go beyond that? If anything, that’s usually the biggest hurdle to overcome. In the core that actually doesn’t come up too much, and that has always kind of surprised me. It’s usually in the design studio where that issue arises a little bit more, perhaps because we’re so ingrained in our use of surfaces and lines. Nearly all of our techniques for design—whether software, pencil on paper, physical models, and so on—they all begin with a surface that acts inevitably as an abstraction for a wall. Getting students to overcome that is no small task, even for myself!
sP: Are there any major differences you see in the conversation today from when you were in school, either on juries or at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) specifically? Are there new conversations or new approaches to pedagogy that you’ve seen emerge in that short time?
SL: I think the biggest difference, in a way, would be what we consider materiality anymore. Obviously, in the late ’90s and early 2000s the fascination in terms of technology and how that could translate into manipulation of geometry and fabrication was huge. And in a weird way, you could make the analogy that the same mentality exists today; it’s just being pushed on a different range of materiality. Another big difference is the reliance on technology. At an earlier stage there was a fascination with the tool set and wondering what that tool set could do, and then playing it out without having a whole lot of focus on what that meant organizationally, socially, or spatially. So much of the technology used toward form and fabrication ended with buildings that duplicated double-loaded corridors and other well-rehearsed typologies. I don’t think questions of spatial typologies with spatial and organizational implications were very much on the table. It was more about production, the use of a tool, and the ability to fabricate and then implement that vision. I think the difference now is the work still takes the same interest in pushing those boundaries, but perhaps asks a little bit more what the implications might be. And those implications aren’t a one-way street. I’m not saying, “We do this, we get that,” but just folding social considerations into the discussion a little more; so that we realize when we tinker with how we define a physical boundary, it has implications. Making such a fundamental move from surfaces and geometries that mediate the environment to gradient boundaries of material energies which design the very energy systems that course around us is no small move, and it bucks the norm of how we’ve defined architecture (form, aesthetic, fabrication) for a very long time. And those implications could be great; they could really start changing how we define activities, what those activities are, and how those activities relate with each other. And I think that gives the architect a whole lot more relevance and a whole lot more fuel to be a part of many discussions that are pertinent today. When you realize that, and if you can play with such fundamental variables, you have the potential to offer something to a community in a way that they didn’t have before. The example I always use is that of a streetlight. For me, street lighting is an early version of these material energies in the sense that when you have that light, you create the ability for new spatial zones which have their own hierarchies and spatial implications. Streetlights produce commerce at night; they allow for nighttime recreation. They have all these potentials tied to them that can be played out. So if you take just the visible spectrum of light at night through street lighting, but then run it through a whole series of other materialities, what does that offer the city, the community, and landscape architecture? I think it just opens up a lot of possibilities to redefine what the field is and what we can do in practice.
sP: Along those same lines, do you see any weaknesses or gaps, or anything you would like to come more into focus in your own teaching or in schools in general?
SL: Sure. This isn’t something we’ve talked about to this point, but I often find the most fascinating things about offices are their business models. The way in which offices have to be very creative, not only in how they define themselves but also in how they seek work, how they set themselves up in terms of partnerships and relationships, and how they manage the creativity necessary to engage multiple disciplines is something I find to be the most intriguing but spoken about the least. I think that the profession of architecture and how it can be defined has splintered into so many different directions, primarily because it’s necessary for specialization. Today you have everything from companies that do nothing but facade construction to companies which focus primarily on team building. That breakdown of the different ways in which design and influence in architecture can go forward is one thing, but even how offices are being run to compete with growing markets is something I find really fascinating. Now, that’s not a class I’ve ever taught, but it’s certainly something I always find extremely intriguing. And I don’t know for sure if I’m saying that’s missing in education, but I definitely don’t feel like it’s talked about enough. I think when it does get talked about, people glaze over it as if it’s not worth the discussion. And I’m not talking about just students!
sP: You’re saying this discussion could be more exciting?
SL: Right. And I think when you talk to some architects about business models they get this glazed look, as if it’s a bad word or as if you’re conniving and hustling. But, in truth, that’s what we’re all doing anyway, whether you’re Photoshopping, building a model, or you’re putting together a business plan for an office. At the end of the day, you’re just trying to get someone to see the work so that it can gain the legs necessary to get to the next stage of completion. It’s interesting to me that people want to talk about the design ramifications, but no one wants to talk about how they plan on getting there.
sP: What are you most excited about for the upcoming year at UIC? Or, moving forward, is there anything you see bubbling up in the schools that interests you?
SL: Well, that’s an interesting question because I’ve just been out of academia for a year. In 10 years, last year was the first time I’ve been out of the loop with teaching, which has been a nice feeling. But I’m really looking forward to getting back to UIC. There are a bunch of new faculty members who weren’t there when I was a year ago. And from the photos people have been sending me from final reviews, it just looks like there are a lot of great things happening. UIC has created an atmosphere for discussion among faculty (in and out of the building) that is really refreshing. So I’m really looking forward to personally getting back in touch and folding back into that. Within larger education, I don’t know. I think, in a weird way, being away from it for a year has put a lot of things on pause, so I won’t really know until I get back into it what’s going to come from it. I’ve just really enjoyed being able to wake up every morning and direct all of my attention toward working on this new book. Stay tuned for that!