Category Archives: Book Review

Book review – Small Scale: Creative Solutions for Better City Living

There are many spaces in our built environment that are consciously designed and fall within the bureaucratic scope of local government. The architect designs the buildings and the immediate surroundings of the building. The landscape architect designs the “natural” areas and other parks. And the urban planner lays out a larger plan that is assumed will provide a better cohesion between the destinations and the circulation within the built environment.

But there are those spaces, almost accidental in a sense, that are realized after its surroundings are developed. Sometimes they are defined by their boundaries, other times they are identified by an object or an event. These spaces typically reside in the peripheral of the design focus of the architect, landscape architect, and even the urban planner. These are the spaces that are chronicled by Small Scale: Creative Solutions for Better City Living.

The authors – Keith Moskow and Robert Linn – categorize the projects into three categories: service, insight, and delight. The projects dedicated to service play a more functional role within their respective programs, whether it’s a pedestrian path and demonstration space symbiotically attached to the underside of an existing vehicular bridge (Marsupial Bridge, Milwaukee, WI), a four-story high tower that dispenses rental cars (Zipcar Dispenser, Boston, MA), or a security measure against potential vehicular terrorist attacks that actually eliminates the need for unsightly and cumbersome barriers (Tigertrap, Prototype Design). The most famous project listed within the service category is The High Line in New York City, which transformed a dilapidated railroad bridge into a nature-inspired linear park.

The other two categories – insight and delight – seem to dwell within the same realm of form without a purely utilitarian function. The insight projects combine art with a sense of social commentary or awareness (such as Sidewalk Series or the TKTS Booth), whereas the delight projects are formed more on a pleasing aesthetic with a subordinate purpose (Canopy and The New York City Waterfalls).What these projects remind me is that art does not have to be something displayed indoors with a paid admission. Art can occupy our everyday world, and can easily become part of our daily routine.

The hardest part of designing anything for the built environment is having too many variables. Design suffers greatly when every alternative is an option. It’s when designers face strict parameters concerning budget, scope, construction limitations, and the surrounding built environment that design can elevate itself above the mundane and find that harmonic balance between form and function.

Dense urban environments lend themselves well in providing a test ground for reimagining, repurposing, and reinventing small-scale design. The authors have provided an intelligent collection of projects that will provide inspiration for anyone solving a large problem for a small space.

The problem of customization

The practice of architecture has a lot of problems, but the one problem that is sometimes an asset is the issue of customization. Look around at where you live, what you wear, what you drive, and everything else you consume and you’ll discover that hardly any of those things are truly customized for you.

You probably live in a developer built neighborhood, and before you purchased the home you got to tell the builder what kind of cabinets you wanted, if you wanted wood floors are carpet, or if the basement was to be finished or not. But the truth is the family that lives two doors down from you have the same house as yours (oh, but they went with the additional single-car garage with the optional man-cave work bench). Your car. your clothes, and even your food was selected from a predetermined “menu” that allowed minor level of customization (like picking the color of your car, the size of your shirt, or the amount of crushed pepper on your steak).

This idea came to me while reading an essay called “Innovate or Perish: New Technologies and Architecture’s Future (David Celento) in the book Fabricating Architecture. (Link to book) The problem with customization is that it’s time-consuming, typically more expensive (more time = more money), and generally hard to get right. It’s usually easy to make a decision when you only have a handful of choices, but when the number choices creeps towards infinity things get very complicated.

An interesting argument the author makes against the case of customization is the concept of branding. There are a multitude of reasons why we buy the things we do, and one of those reasons is the perception that the product conveys. If you’re familiar with Consumer Reports, you’ll know that Range Rovers are the biggest pieces of junk on the road. Look at the reliability chart and the road test scores for any Range Rover model, and they will typically rate well below any other manufacturer’s model. But people still buy them, because Range Rover exudes a sense of financial success.

(You can probably attribute Range Rover’s success to its marketing department, and the fact that they sell their vehicles at a premium price. If Range Rovers sold for twenty thousand dollars they would be considered crap, but since they sell for over forty thousand dollars they’re an exquisite status symbol that’s a piece of crap.)

The problem with having a truly customized item is that there’s nothing to compare it to in regards to status. Having a house customized for you does exude a status symbol worthy of the patrons at the local country club, but is it more than the person that bought a house in a newly built New Urbanism neighborhood that was furnished with Martha Stewart finishes?

Does this mean that the future of practicing architecture involve working at design firms associated with high-profile branding icons like Martha Stewart, Candice Olson, or one of those contestants from the myriad of reality design shows? Are we as a society perfectly content with three choices and are no longer interested in having anything customized?

Book review: Digital Fabrications

The design and construction of architecture has progressed minimally since the early 20th century.  Architects and other designers created drawings representing the architecture in various two-dimensional views, sometimes clarifying the design with the aid of a three-dimensional scaled model.  The architecture, despite the level of customization implemented, typically required the use of standardized construction methodologies and off-the-shelf building materials.  The design and construction of our buildings have yet to evolve and embrace the use of three-dimensional design and fabrication that’s been used for creating almost every other technological advancement in society such as our phones, cars, planes, and even our shoes.

Digital Fabrications identifies and reveals more contemporary means for potentially constructing architecture based on the integration of digital design and digital fabrication.  The book focuses on design-build experimentation at a one-to-one scale, demonstrating how two-dimensional materials can be applied to create three-dimensional forms.  The digital fabrication techniques discussed in the book include sectioning, tessellating, folding, contouring, and forming.

Sectioning, the act of creating a three-dimensional form by connecting a skin (either actual or implied) over closely placed parallel ribs, has a long history in the construction of ships and airplanes.  Of course architecture is a static object compared to ships and planes, so the shape of a building is not nearly dependent on kinetic forces as much as the shape of a ship that cuts through waves and a plane needing to create enough lift to become airborne.  Digital Fabrications illustrates many projects including Digital Weave (University of California, Berkeley/Lisa Iwamoto) and [c]space (Alan Dempsey and Alvin Huang) where the utilitarian methods for sectioning provided a means for minimizing the amount of materials used and maximizing the strength of those materials, with the final result being a structure that’s elegant and fluid.

Tessellating, which aesthetically resembles a mosaic composition, is a collection of pieces that fit together without gaps to form a plane or surface.  To get a better visual of tessellating look at a soccer ball and see how the entire surface of the ball consists of pentagons (usually colored black) and hexagons (white).  By its very definition this method includes brick and stone walls, mosaics, stained glass – any surface consisting of smaller pieces.  The primary difference between historical and contemporary tessellating is that digital technologies give us the ability to create divergent doubly curved surfaces.  Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, created before computers, is a great example of a doubly curved surface but it’s also restricted to a uniform curvature based on the geometries of the smaller pieces.  Digital technologies allows for an architecture to consist of skewed planar and curved surfaces constructed of homogeneous parts.  Before computers a project like Helios House (Office dA and Johnson Marklee & Associates), because drawings and models would probably not be able to convey the exact measurements of certain angles and dimensions, would most likely require ad hoc design decisions at the construction site and its precision would be accidental at best.  The book illustrated many examples of the modulation of building materials being implemented by lesser known architects, and I was pleased that it did not include the more obvious examples by more well-known architects such as Gehry and Libeskind.

Folding, the simple act of turning a flat surface into a three-dimensional form, can be best described as an exercise in architectural origami.  The act of folding a material increases stiffness and rigidity, and in essence makes a surface more structural.  Of course the structural ability (including the elastic and plastic properties) for the surface relies greatly on the characteristics of the surface material.  The method of folding in and of itself is straightforward, but the examples from the book demonstrate projects that incorporate other methods such as tessellating and sectioning.

Contouring, unlike the other methods, is subtractive in nature.  This technique reshapes a surface and creates a three-dimensional relief by removing successive layers of materials.  But just like the other methods there are many historical examples of this method that include stone carvings and wood reliefs.  The method of contouring has not been fully embraced since the advent of the Industrial Revolution because the traditional practice of carving usually required more time and money than most mechanized processes.  Incorporating digital processes into the design and construction of contoured surfaces allows for a consistent form and quicker production, as well as control the type of texture on the surface.  Bone Wall (Urban A&O) is a great example of implementing contouring to create a highly complex and fluid form (2,592 control points, parametrically linked) constructed of detailed pieces of foam.  Contouring is inherently wasteful of material, and because of its subtractive quality it’s not conceivable to create an entire building by carving it out of a solid material.  What it does provide is the ability for creating unlimited types of physical and visual textures.

Forming is a ubiquitous method used for such things as packaging, cell phone, car bodies, and anything else made of plastic.  For architecture the method of forming usually was relegated to the use of concrete.  Digital technologies, as it relates to architecture, allows for the design of more intricate forms as well as the ability to better connect pieces created from multiple forms.  The examples in Digital Fabrications range from creating art to structural experiments.  The project that intrigued me most was the Virtual Model to Actual Construction (William Massie), a concrete wall that involved embedded CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled)-routed plywood ribs.  Massie used the digital method to question a standard construction practice for forming concrete and in the process began to develop a potentially new aesthetic for concrete.

The means by which these projects were realized are within the reach of many practicing architects and design students.  There are computer modeling programs that include commands that unroll a virtual curved surface (Rhinoceros) and turn a free-form surface into a collection of flat pieces for simple fabrication (Lamina Design and SolidWorks to name a couple).

Of course the computer gives architects an incredible resource for creating buildings, but the same can be said that these computer programs allow the ability to create something that merely looks cool rather than respond to programmatic, climatic, and other issues that inform how the architecture will be used.  Just because we as architects can crumple a piece of paper, scan the crumpled form into a computer, and calculate the structural loads upon a larger scaled version of the crumpled form doesn’t mean we should be creating a built environment consisting of abstract forms without purpose.

Because Digital Fabrications concentrated on the experimentation of these fabrication techniques and the processes of creating forms using these techniques, I didn’t feel that the book was just another architectural image catalog of abstract forms with descriptions encoded in archi-babble.  The book was written in a concise manner that was sufficiently descriptive and intelligently thought provoking.

The history of architectural design usually conveys advancements in construction technology.  The design and construction of our built environment has been long overdue for an evolutionary change that reflects our current digital technologies.  Lisa Iwamoto provides a glimpse into the future of architectural design and construction.  Digital Fabrications illustrates how architecture will embrace and thrive with computer technology.