Friday, October 30, 2009

Solar Decathlon 2009

The solar decathlon 2009 is over and yes –Team Germany won – of course. It seems like in soccer, or according to Gary Lineker’s definition of it: “Soccer is a game for 22 people that run around, play the ball, and in the end Germany always wins”.

Joking aside, Team Germany’s second consecutive win was well deserved. I only hope that energy conscious Germany takes it right and won’t become too hyper about it. With all respect for the European efforts for energy efficiency this competition is nevertheless initiated and held nowhere else but on the turf of that country often considered indifferent to energy issues by many Europeans.

In fact I am one of these critical European souls and can only report that consciousness in the US has changed in breathtaking pace over the last couple of years and the Solar Decathlon competition is only one good example.

The crowed seemed to confirm this and came out numerous, willing to wait in line an average of 45 minutes for any pavilion, even in unseasonably chilly weather, overcast and rainy at times – not at all sunny as the event title implies.

Innovation however is to be found in the engineering part rather than in the architecture. The program, a one bedroom studio with reference to a caravan or trailer home, does not really address the way the majority of us in an average four person household lives hence I am afraid that the potential of the competition actually remains overlooked and with it its contemporary outfit.

I wished people went home and thought - oh I really liked what I saw let’s redo and update our homes because they don’t suit our times any more. Yet the residential home market proofs me wrong. It seems that our residential customs are the hardest to crack open. People like such events - but not that much that they would change their own homes and habits.

Perhaps it’s time to raise the bar on the competition and expand the program towards a two to three bedroom single family prefab house. (Prefab only for cost consciousness and freedom of site. A thriving prefab market exists but it has never had its brake through say like an iPod – equally utile, well designed and desired quasi by everyone.) I believe by combining the notion for energy efficiency, customization and applicability for the majority of US households and its urban integration the results were outstandingly innovative, groundbreaking and will bring the change necessary for a more healthy, natural and sustainable lifestyle.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Material Matters II

It’s amazing how smells evoke memories from the past – moments we totally have forgotten about until a similar smell triggers our recollection. The other day I came across a scent that reminded me vividly of the apartment of my great aunt in which I spent much of my childhood - It was a mind boggling sensation. Another fragrance I am attached to is the smell of a particular cleaning detergent which I encountered when I first arrived to the US at the YMCA hostel in New York City. I was so excited about the new impressions that I must have forever recorded this smell with the particular moment.

Smells are thus one of these contingencies that matter enormously in our common spatial experience. There are many such contingencies - health, mood, agenda, company, light etc. but fragrances’ and also sounds have this exceptional power of immediate access to our memory. As far as sounds go, Pavlov’s experiment to conditioning dogs to sounds is a good example for even scientific proof.

At architecture schools it is often talked about how we experience the world with all our senses and yet it is exactly the academic realm that can hardly fulfill its ambitions because it is bound to mere visual judgment. It’s a dilemma that our common design tools, drawings, card board models and renderings, won’t allow us to simulate actual experience or contingencies of our quotidian doing.

So how is it at all possible to work with scents in design? Well, using air fresheners is not a solution because these are artificial. They would be what ornaments are to the visual world – mere decorative embellishments. The same way I prefer to exposed natural materials as opposed to hiding them behind veneered finishes the same way I favor the real smell of materials over artificial flavors – the same so in foods.

Unfortunately the smells are strongest when the materials are fresh - in the making – on the construction site, for instant cutting wood, pouring and drying concrete, welding steel etc. As construction advances and the finishes go up usually the smell of paint dominates everything else – and considering the VOC level – this kind of smell is not even desirable for our health. Then, after completion when air conditioning and ventilation start running these flavors disappear in no time at all. However, if air exchange is mismanaged, underperformed or aged, the smell of occupancy takes over and produces this funny flavor that again will be registered by many people and maybe recorded forever in their memories.

One way to start a discussion may be collecting associations of spatial flavors similar to discussing perfumes or wines.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Technical Architects vs. Design Architects

The concept of splitting our profession in a design department and a technical department - how it’s done in my office - is still alien too me. The way I was taught design is that everything depends on each other, the structure, the spaces, the form, the materials, etc. Everything ought to ‘makes sense’ to support the overall design idea – sort of like the Aristotle approach in which something is right when you can’t add or take away from it unless for the worth.

I agreed however to join the technical department in my office and have since then worked solely in construction documents and construction administration. I was determined to learn all about construction, materials and ‘real’ spaces. The design department tent to work crazy hours on mostly image production, learning more about graphics than anything else. I was determined to break the common architect’s curse; I wanted to be paid for knowledge not for labor.

The price is though at times. I crave to design and for soul mates among my colleagues. Yet the folks in the technical department don’t talk much about design – let alone read about it. So, while I make my experience I suffer from lack of inspiration. But I am still convinced that working on the technical side makes me become a stronger designer at the end.

What cheers me up is taking one of my favorite books off the shelf, browsing and picking a project I really like and studying it, the plans, sections, details and photos. (By the way the El Croquis series are still my favorite magazines because their documentation is very complete sometimes including even model images and detail drawings) Other than that I may browse to an office website whose work I like, pick a project and study it. The best treat however, is to visit one of my favorite buildings which is of course is not always possible.

What’s left? Right - blogging about it!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Material Matters I

It has always fascinated me how we perceive things differently from a distance. Figurative paintings for instance appear seemingly realistic from some 3 feet away but when stepping closer, we notice that the subjects aren’t actually painted realistically. Painters who work close to their canvases mastered abstract stroke and color techniques that create an illusion in order to meet our familiar perception of reality. Similarly familiar to this phenomenon are makeup artists who learn to apply makeup to performers with exaggerated facial features in order to increase the visibility for the audience. Or another example that left great impression on me is from a children’s book ‘Jim Knopf’ by Michael Ende in which appears a quasi giant, a character that occurs extremely tall from far away yet shrinks with decreasing distance and eventually reaches regular height when being close by.

Architects may as well take advantage of this far sight effect and explore similar techniques in designs, particularly when it comes to the exterior skin of buildings, the materials, modular, scale, textures, colors, joints and connections.

Eero Saarinen’s terminal at Dulles International Airport for instance appears white from the distance, like exposed white concrete. Well, the concrete is actually grey. The surface however is bush hammered and exposes white aggregates - a last minute fix to remedy the poorly executed architectural concrete. From the distance the sprinkled aggregates become increasingly dominant over the grey background and make the building appear white. What a wonderful effect.

Or the other day I came across a close up photograph of the shell from the Sydney Opera by Danish architect Jørn Utzon. I always pictured white tiles and a grey hairline pattern. Well, the photograph revealed how wide the joints actually are in order to appear as grey hair lines in the greater picture - they are inches wide and black.

Musing about this topic I tried to remember the color of the Eiffel Tower? I have been up there many times and yet I couldn’t quite remember the actual paint color. I thought it was red but it might be as well brown or grey? And yet no matter what color it may be, in context with the Parisian skyline, the tower actually appears colorless.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Renderings vs. Physical Models I

Recently I have found a lot of pleasure in working with 3dmax. In a way it feels like painting because it is very much about creating the illusion of reality. When creating a scene the concerns match the ones working on canvas such as plasticity, light, reflections, refractions, materiality, colors, textures and composition. If there is a difference – well - I am missing the smell of oil paint, the brushstrokes, mixing colors and of course working physically. But it is not my intention to say 3d modeling may replace painting - I rather want to express my newly gained pleasures in a media that I have been struggling with. In fact I used to think that a physical model is always the best way to verify a design physically. So throughout my recent findings I would like to give credit to both types of modeling. Renderings turn out to be strong to arouse empathy to what it is like to be in a place from the human scale and perspective, certainly a weak point of the physical model that we tend to watch from above and always with a scale factor. Also related, physical models have difficulties to express materiality and usually end up uniquely colored depending on a material that is better for modeling than for representation such as cardboard or wood. A big plus of physical models though is how they make us understand tectonics. We understand how material reacts to gravity, connects and braces each other. We also experience their limits. This is the big weak point of renderings in which slabs, walls and columns usually float in space without required loads, support, bracing and connections. In fact it is dangerous to only rely on a rendering because we may be misled and an attractive concept turns out to be very difficult and costly to construct. As a matter of fact we need both media to make good judgment over our designs that are to represent the invisible forces idea, light, and gravity. Therefore renderings are good for light studies and materials, and physical models are good for studies of physical matters.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

BIM vs. Drawing I

BIM to conventional drawing compares like watching a movie based on a novel.

Reading a novel is a creative act. Our imagination is challenged to conjure up the imagery that is based on the story. We imagine the setting, the characters and are free to add what has not been mentioned by the author - letting alone the act of interpretation. Watching a movie is consuming a readymade imagery. In fact it is hardly possible to picture anything differently from the screen when seeing a movie first and then reading the book.

Drawing a plan thus is a creative act as well. The architect is challenged to imagine space in his mind therefore the lines on paper/ screen are signifiers representing volumes. Drawing is a speculative act that exposes itself to surprises the minute it becomes physical through a model.

Designing with a 3d model is an act of immediate and precise spatial confirmation. The architect consumes a readymade imagery instead of creating it.

‘So much the worse for those who lack imagination’ writes LeCorbusier in ‘Vers Une Architecture’. He thus highlights the ultimate skill that makes a good architect - the ability of spatial thinking. Well - I suppose - the good news is that no matter how imagery is created at the end it is also the architect’s judgment that decides over good or bad architecture.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On concrete I

I often struggle to explain non architects the appeal that architectural concrete has on me. The discussion usually goes: concrete is cold, unfriendly, grey, associated with bunker architecture and only architects like it anyway. Well - what is left for me to say? But I like it? Of course that’s not satisfying enough and who has confidence in the taste of a nameless architect anyway?

I then try concessions. I would agree that - yes concrete has often been employed with very little empathy towards occupants and with lack of proper scale. The material has been suffering exploitation of a building construction industry that sees profit in it rather than aesthetic qualities. I try to make the point that the problem lays not in the material itself but in its employment. But even with help from prominent examples it remains a difficult discussion especially when it comes to residential architecture. Well - can’t teach old dogs new tricks - I guess.

Then, over Memorial Day weekend, we drove the coastline south from Los Angeles to San Diego. We stopped in Laguna Beach where we looked at some original Rembrandt edgings and we stopped at the Salk Institute by Louis Kahn in La Jolla. The concrete was in excellent shape and its sharp edges were just stunning. The jointing perfectly described the buidlings modular, scale and told the tale of its making. Puzzling over these things I thought that concrete is really the most artistic of all building materials. It is the making as much as the final matter that is absolutly fascinating. It is the media of a sculptor who designs the negative form in which the actual sculpture will be cast. I instantly related to the Rembrandt edgings we saw earlier. For his edgings Rembrandt had to think in the negative that is to cut out the part that wasn’t going to be seen on paper. Just like Rembrandt, Kahn had to think in the negative that is to design the formwork to achieve the final outcome.

Everyone left the building very happily.