Heather ROBERGE speaks on her recent studios and seminars, topology’s role in challenging Platonic solids, the status of precedent and history in architectural education, extradisciplinary case studies as a route to new architectural knowledge, and much more.
*Image courtesy the author. Physical model, “Reimagining L.A.’s Union Station.” Research Studio, UCLA A.UD. Assistant Professor Heather Roberge, instructor. Students: Kim, Lee, & Nabi.
images, clockwise from top left: section, “Reimagining L.A.’s Union Station,” Research Studio, University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Architecture & Urban Design (UCLA A.UD). Assistant Professor Heather Roberge, instructor. Students: Kim, Lee, & Nabi; developed patterns, “Reimagining L.A.’s Union Station”; detail of pan connections, TechCore, UCLA A.UD. Assistant Professor Heather Roberge, instructor. Students: Barnes, Boyd, Kwong, & Liechty; Final installation, TechCore. Various students and professors. All images courtesy the author.
suckerPUNCH: To start, could tell us a little bit about your recent studios and seminars?
Heather ROBERGE: I will start with the studios. I have taught a series of three or four studios focusing on massing as a disciplinary problem; in particular the courses studied the way in which shifts in geometric sensibility alter one’s approach to massing. The studios began with my interest in garment making for its methods of geometric control. These methods depart from the solid geometric logics long associated with building typology—that is, garment making introduces new techniques for describing surfaces that don’t belong to a geometric primitive or platonic solid. The series started with a studio titled “Fabric Fantasies,” which asked: What kind of massing constructs are possible using fabric as the primary modeling tool at a representational scale? The next studio, titled “Chasing Skirts,” took a midrise building type and deployed fabric wrappers in order to problematize the relationship of the midrise to the ground. A one-year research studio, titled “Sheet Logics,” focused on a large urban development. The site was an existing transportation hub at Union Station in Los Angeles that is currently under master plan study by a team lead by Grimshaw [Architects]. Students were asked to consider the impact of surfaces on the public spaces of nearly 30 acres of new mixed-use development and to study the character and qualities of the spaces between massing figures. One of the reasons why that was of interest to me was that, both in my practice and in my technology and fabrication seminars, we have done a significant amount of work trying to translate more complex topological surfaces into subdivided, constructed surfaces. Garment making introduced a way of exercising developable control over a surface without limiting the distribution of surface area in space to planar or polygonal geometries. In fact, what garment making does is it allows one to control and choreograph the distribution of surface area in space with a precise understanding of surface area. This is a powerful technique for beginning to rationalize and control surfaces using 2-D patterns and drawing, rather than digital modeling, as the first step of project conception. At the root of this work is the belief that spatial organization, building technology, and aesthetic experience are each transformed by novel distributions of form and geometry.
At a different scale, that of building assembly, another studio offered at UCLA, titled “TechCore,” explores the relationship between material, geometry, and force. TechCore is a fabrication intensive studio, integrated into the core curriculum, where students select one of three material logics—polymers, metals, or concrete—and use this material logic to develop a cladding strategy. Students construct prototypes for facade systems that incorporate conceptual, tectonic, environmental, and material concerns through the lens of a half-scale wall section.
sP: Wasn’t it a couple of years ago that you taught the fabrication seminar “Between the Sheets?”
HR: Yes. This seminar brought together digital modeling and superplastic aluminum manufacturing to speculate on the performance and aesthetics of panelized facade systems.
sP: So it seems like that has also been an emphasis for you, to have large-scale fabrications as the output from the seminars, not just visualizations.
HR: It’s true. I haven’t taught that seminar in a few years, but to my mind TechCore shares a similar sensibility with my tech seminar courses in that there’s an interest in understanding the decisions that one makes across scales. We study the relationship between tectonics, geometry, manufacturing, and material behavior as these coalesce in architectural assemblies.
sP: It has been interesting over the last year to see a number of studios bring back primitives. We’re curious whether it’s perhaps a way of maintaining control, or whether it’s also a moment of rethinking what massing is, which is something you talked about as being important. We talked with Tom Wiscombe, Hernan Diaz Alonso, and Marcelo Spina, and in the last year all of them have had students bringing in, whether it was a sphere or a cube, these base primitives. It’s interesting to see that reaction to the work of the last few years, which had become more formless, abstract, or weblike. Is your use of primitives coming out of a reaction to recent work, or is it just something you see as a good control within your students’ projects?
HR: I would say that I typically don’t ask students to start with primitives; however, I can speculate on your observation. The formlessness of digital design has resulted in the underdevelopment of architecture as a spatial practice. Returning to primitives is a way to recuperate this missing aspect of architectural design. In my studios, I’ve attempted to do this using large physical models and developed patterns. When primitives are present, they are used as an armature onto which other surface description is attached. This quickly breaks down the ordering principles of the primitive. As a scaffold, primitives are certainly useful.
Part of the description of the studio is to, in what I think is a differently controlled way, introduce students to the role that topology plays in challenging Platonic solids. Platonic solids have, by definition, congruent faces made of regular polygons. In order for faces to remain congruent, the face is typically planar. If one is interested in studying geometric character across a surface, one must depart from primitive geometries. This allows the introduction of multiple geometric scales both within a surface and at its edges. In this way, surfaces can operate at multiple scales simultaneously without conventional notions of part to whole.
sP: Within those studios where you’re dealing with sheet logics, are there any specific precedents or lineages that you show to your students? What do you see as the role of precedent and history within those studios and, just out of curiosity, are there certain things the students are feeding back into the mix that are outside of the traditional canon?
HR: In these studios, students looked at projects by Asymptote [Architecture], Zaha Hadid, Greg Lynn, and Frank Gehry. And, without regard to what these architects write about their work, students attempted to describe the significance of the work relative to disciplinary knowledge of massing in particular. These practices were studied because their projects manage surface area in complex ways. Some works are rationalized by a digital technique, others by physical modeling techniques, and still others are postrationalized using raw computational power. Most deploy a minimum of two of these techniques. This is where my interest lies. We also bring in other forms of design as case studies for architectural production. We will look at industrial design and the impact of material, geometry, and tectonics on the design of a chair. Or we’ll look at a series of accomplished fashion designers to study the way they manage silhouette through patternmaking. I’m not sure my particular approach aligns exactly with the approach of my peers, it just happens to be one I find quite productive in teaching students how to design and how to develop a design problem to which a project responds.
sP: It’s always interesting to contaminate and bring things in from outside, and oftentimes it seems that it gives students traction. It’s almost easier, in a way, for them to start analyzing something like fashion or industrial design rather than trying to work on historical architecture projects. Do you find bringing something in from outside, whether fashion or industrial design, helps students make certain leaps? Is that something they can quickly grab onto to get some movement going?
HR: I think so, but they’re also quite capable of understanding architectural case studies. I think the difference is that some of the extradisciplinary case studies we look at are quicker routes to understanding a more narrowly defined problem. An architectural project is a response to so many forces and influences that distilling a single concern is more challenging for students. These multiple forces contaminate geometry in productive ways, but for young designers the influences behind these solutions are opaque. If one is interested in looking at developable surfaces and surface area, or at the problem of variable surface area in the construction of a nonplanar surface, it’s more expedient to look at garment making. In fact, most buildings, even by some of the people I referenced, at least partially conceal their underlying logics. The buildings have been contaminated, in a good way, with countless other forces and influences. I use garment making, industrial design, and so on as pedagogical tools not because I don’t have a deep interest in buildings or in building, but because I do. I’m interested in isolating a problem and studying its potential to have cascading implications in building. Many of the problems that I’ve confronted in practice are dealt with through future pedagogy—that is, in the framing of the problems I introduce in an academic setting. If I hadn’t had these kinds of problems, of description and translation in practice, then I wouldn’t necessarily be in search of alternative approaches to resolving those problems in the design studio.
sP: Along those same lines, what are certain larger interests the students are bringing to the table recently? Is there certain baggage, either positive or negative, that you see students bringing with them? What interesting things are they bringing in from outside cultures or industries?
HR: I see the things that students bring to the table in a primarily positive way. Students don’t have a philosophical concern about the use of digital tools in the solving of a problem. They are at ease with digital interfaces and digital material. There’s a fearlessness about the use of hardware and software that is quite different than when I was a student—we were just beginning to use digital tools in the design studio. Students are incredible technical problem solvers. They troll chat forums and find code to solve their problems or write their own.
sP: You said when you were in school there was maybe more of a wall to get over in taking on digital tools. Are there other differences you see, either, one, in the discussion that’s happening in schools today versus when you were a student, or two, in the attitude toward approaching pedagogy of your generation versus that of your instructors?
HR: I’ve been thinking about this, and it seems to me that when I was a student there was a very tight relationship between the theory seminar and studio. Oftentimes studios were taught with an associated, required theory seminar. There was a great deal of reading of philosophy, of poststructuralist theory, and of primary source texts written by architects. All of these things were meant to impart a particular way of interpreting the world. In studios today the problems are much more material and technique based. In some studios, I would say technique becomes an end in itself rather than a technique in relation to a field of knowledge that exists and shifts as new cultural production occurs within it.
One advantage I see to the current state of things is that the materialization of architectural ideas and points of view is foregrounded, and as a result there is a sophistication in terms of design description and design refinement that didn’t exist when I was a student. The downside, I would say, is when students become too facile and their progress slows down only under the pressure of technical difficulty rather than conceptual difficulty. In terms of design production, there is a robust and accessible image-biased design culture. It falls to those of us teaching design to ask students, and ourselves, to reflect on the cultural and political significance of design.
sP: I think “Why?” is oftentimes a good question to ask right now in academia. This continues off of your last answer, but are there any weaknesses, or tendencies, or topics at schools today that you would like to see shift? Or is there something that you hope comes into greater focus in the next couple of years?
HR: I would like to see more focus on the relationship of geometric decisions to material decisions and tectonic performance. Rather than focusing on abstract geometry as a problem in and of itself, there can be a close link in the teaching of design between geometric decisions, possible material manifestations of these decisions, and the tectonic impact of those manifestations across scales. Something I think is quite compelling about the degree to which fabrication was taken up by the academy is that students are much more aware of what issues arise when one makes something. But oftentimes students are making lightweight, extraordinarily part-intensive arrays without recognizing the economies and potentials of having parts join forces and work together to produce order at scales larger than the single part. This is a large blind spot in current teaching and one that I think we should throw light on. Otherwise, aside from installation work, it is difficult to bring this project into the world. There are many principles to learn and behaviors to understand about architectural assembly if we don’t accept the installation as the end product of fabrication.