University of Minnesota School of Architecture
critic: Adam MARCUS
suckerPUNCH: Describe your project.
Adam MARCUS / Modular Variations Studio: Instrumental Variation is the product of an undergraduate studio taught by Adam Marcus at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture in spring 2013.
The studio, part of the school’s Bachelor of Design in Architecture program, is part of an ongoing research project into the role of variation in contemporary approaches to design and fabrication (see Modular Variations, Prototype 1). The general premise of the studio—that buildings are made of parts, and that it is the architect’s task to select, design, and organize these parts into a coherent whole—was interrogated through a series of collaborative, design-fabricate-build projects that explored ways for variation to be employed (or not) in design and fabrication processes. These explorations were conducted in the broader context of architecture’s still somewhat nascent embrace of computation and digital technologies, which easily enable mass customization within both design and fabrication processes, and which have, in recent years, contributed to a staggering ubiquity of formal differentiation within architectural production. The studio’s research culminated in a full-scale wall prototype that foregrounds the issue of variation not as a given byproduct of the technologies we use, but as a designed, intentional, and instrumental strategy to advance specific architectural goals.
The tension between standardization and variation—what parts are the same, what parts are different—was investigated specifically through material practices of molding, casting, and tiling. These processes, typically associated with systems of standardized repetition (such as the ubiquitous concrete masonry unit), nonetheless have vast potential for accommodating geometric and material variation. Instrumental Variation embraces this potential volatility by permitting the variation inherent in such material processes to be expressed, rather than suppressed. The primary challenge was to develop rigorous logics for deploying such variation in a controlled and intentional manner. The studio sought to develop a synthetic balance between what David Pye calls “the workmanship of certainty” (the predictable, standardized output of machine processes) and “the workmanship of risk” (processes that maintain a trace of human labor, which Pye identifies as the source of craft). Rather than completely rejecting modernist paradigms of Taylorist and Fordist mass production in favor of unfettered mass customization, this research instead suggests a methodology of tactical modifications to standardized processes of production that allow for a measured re-introduction of risk and craft into the mix.
The final built prototype, installed on the exterior terrace of Ralph Rapson Hall, consists of 66 structurally repetitive yet individually unique cast concrete modules. The final custom-fabricated molds incorporate a flexible latex bladder that provides a controlled means for producing variable apertures in the cast modules. Incrementally rotating the mold’s hexagonal faces increases the twist of the internal bladder, and the resulting void in the cast module decreases in size. This adjustability allows for reliable and rather precise modulation of the aperture’s radius, yet of course the material performance of the concrete as it cures within the latex bladder maintains a degree of unpredictability and geometric variation from one module to the next.
Throughout the process, parametric design and digital fabrication tools were strategically leveraged to iterate in form finding, generating fabrication instructions, and directing the assembly sequence of the wall. A constant feedback between physical testing and digital modeling enabled an integrated approach to computation in which the technology is used to augment an architectural agenda rather than determine it.
sP: What or who influenced this project?
AM: William Morris’s repetitive yet seamless textile patterns, Erwin Hauer’s masonry screen walls, Miguel Fisac’s experiments with flexible formwork, the series of P_Wall projects by Andrew Kudless/Matsys, and tiling projects by Daniel Widrig.
sP: What were you reading/listening to/watching while developing this project?
AM: Reading: David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship; John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice; Mario Carpo, The Alphabet and the Algorithm.
sP: Whose work is currently on your radar?
AM: Nieto Sobejano, FAT, Matter Design, yo_cy, SPORTS.
Additional credits and links:
The studio has documented the entire semester’s work in an online publication; further documentation is also available on the studio blog and Variable Projects’ project page.
Instructor: Adam Marcus.
Students: Elizabeth Adler, Sam Anderson, Holly Hodkiewicz, Emmett Houlihan, Erik Jackson, Thomas Kuhl, Adam Lucking, Jonathan Meyer, Nickolas Mosser, Elliot Olney, Jorie Schmidt, Alicia Smith, Christine Stoffel, Christopher Tallman, Rythm Unnown, Sharanda Whittaker.