“As digital technology and cultural change speed up the timeline and compress the pedagogical content of a typical academic semester, a rigorous analytical process often remains the foundation of design logic for the experimental synthesis of projects, scenarios, and actual proposals. Just as the casting and recasting of contemporary culture occur at an increasingly rapid pace, so the dismantling and reconstruction of the design process continue to be primary subject matter in undergraduate core design studios.”
* Z. FINE, “Surface Active Matrix,” Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Jeremy CARVALHO, instructor.
images, clockwise from top left: S. Walsh, “Surface Active Shell”; R. de la Fontaine, “Inflected Crystallography”; R. BUSSOT, “Active Matrix Topographies”; I. S. SHIN, “Inflected Crystallography.” RPI. Jeremy CARVALHO, instructor.
As digital technology and cultural change speed up the timeline and compress the pedagogical content of a typical academic semester, a rigorous analytical process often remains the foundation of design logic for the experimental synthesis of projects, scenarios, and actual proposals. Just as the casting and recasting of contemporary culture occur at an increasingly rapid pace, so the dismantling and reconstruction of the design process continue to be primary subject matter in undergraduate core design studios.
The current scope of architectural education includes constant exposure to visual media, rapidly evolving digital tool sets, myriad theoretical positions, and increasingly eclectic methodology. Dealing with such a large number of preconceptions and nascent design methodologies often results in a rush to first define discrete problems, linear goals, stable constants, and extensive functional characteristics, then to make a series of conceptual jumps to rapid conclusions rather than carefully defining robust design experiments with nonlinear design logic.
In response to these pressures, design pedagogy can systematically delay, break, or slow down a preexisting design process in order to focus upon discrete sets of systematic relationships. At the same time, it can encourage the construction of multiple new layers of what might be called “scar tissue”—that is, design logic with increased capacity and flexibility. In order to develop a conceptual framework and experimental parameters for design, a large number of previously black-and-white assumptions must be productively smeared into ambiguity so that idiosyncratic experimentation within a highly specific range of parameters can be redefined.
Studio processes can create a kind of “inertial damping” through cumulative stages of delay and ambiguity, while at the same time generating structural, organizational, and material consequence in study models. For example, abstraction and suspension of a specific organizational typology may follow from focusing on a very limited set of performance or systems criteria, thus dislocating an initial analysis from its original spatial, structural, and organizational context. This process of abstraction produces a “grayscale” of multiple interpretations and results in a catalogue of tectonic consequences when consistently documented.
Through abstraction and delay, design studies produce synthetic attitudes and organizational possibility rather than immediate gratification of linear, singular criteria. Free from a fixed scale and from predefined behavioral codes, students instead work with a series of “sticky” synthetic models for design thinking that can modulate and combine new attributes rather than responding solely to static criteria. Ideally, models become manifold in their capacity to organize material flow without restricting the conceptual flow of potential schema.
From Digital Operations to Analog Models
If abstraction and delay produce a kind of productive ambiguity within models of design thinking, then the process of translation from digital model to physical model demands a series of analogous construction processes that remain free from full functional differentiation, but are able to incorporate technique and potential behavior to scale.
An analog model not only operates as a material diagram for physical processes and dynamics, but also applies construction techniques—for example, folded components with surface-active structural properties, skeletal framing logics, or composite membranes—that superimpose geometric order, modular assemblies, and systematic joinery.
Analogous physical processes are not only modeled with digital operations, but are also applied to systematic jig building, parametric framing templates, and recursive cutting or folding operations necessary to construct physical models.
Since construction and organization are conflated during these translational phases of design thinking, catalogues of “phase change” models often serve as compelling sketches for more developed project proposals. Fluctuation of focus between the abstract properties of “expanded field” research and the concrete properties of analog models invests resulting models of organizational systems with an open-ended nature that allows multiple interpretations and combinations. By combining analog systems models in multiple tectonic contexts, projects begin responding to conceptual, environmental, and structural criteria simultaneously.
Defining Slippery Order/Sticky Manifolds
Multivalent, turbulent design logic accumulates during the course of a semester and often will not cohere without the consistent application of diagrammatic constraints. Pursuing initially abstract analysis, in gradual combination with concrete project criteria, also produces a unique kind of conceptual friction that both degrades and ignites resolved projects.
Given this turbulence and friction, the capacity of a manifold analog model to derive conceptual resonance from conflict allows final projects to establish conceptual clarity without fixating on a single idea. Analysis that originates early in a semester-long studio is caught and bundled by project development, as design logic is translated into material and assembly logic. Analytical study models can then reveal and combine multiple attributes in varying contexts—for example, by providing design logic for an overlay of ergonomic code criteria with the consequences of digital code operations.
As a consequence, models can set up a slippery relationship between a large set of possible interpretations and a clearly defined but “sticky” conceptual scaffold. If the boundaries between dynamic and static conditions, as defined by architectural projects, are increasingly ambiguous, then representational models are as a result forced to carry more conceptual weight while at the same time attempting to cross the “uncanny valley” of simulation. In response to these conditions, a core studio model might therefore embody malleable but accessible design logics that can also modulate several forms of ideation and material flow, both static and dynamic.
image: B. DOBROLSKY, “Surface Active Waterfront Theater,” RPI. Jeremy CARVALHO, instructor.