Friday, April 29, 2016

Learning By Making – Future Practice with Assemble

August 20th, 2010

A line of people extends around the block, waiting to be seated in an abandoned petroleum station turned temporary cinema, “Cineroleum,” on the hoof. It is a guerilla public space that leverages the transformational quality of movies to vitalize a literal urban transformation. It’s no coincidence that the film showing tonight is Rebel Without a Cause. The participants are undoubtedly directing their angst toward the 4,000 abandoned petrol stations scattered across the United Kingdom. However, the 20 students responsible for the Cineroleum are also setting themselves in opposition to static architecture and its inaccessibility to recent graduates saddled with debt.

A few weeks earlier, the graduates, not all from architecture school, pony up £100 each and coordinate their vacation times to make something happen. The group rallies a large volunteer labor force and then orients itself to demonstrating how to realize the project, publishing an instruction manual as they go. Designing for unskilled workers requires the team to pare down the design to its bare essentials. Plywood seats are made from simple templates, exterior walls from sewn construction fabric. An unavoidable, hand-labored quality infuses the work.

For the performance, the team don reflective suits made from the same façade material and orchestrate the cinematic event, revealing the project is as human as it is building. The metaphor being, “we are our work.”  At the end of each showing, the curtains are lifted up and the participants are reintroduced to reality, but left with the after-image of the possible transformation.

Coming to terms with the success of their new-found agency, the group forms an architecture practice: Assemble. Their second project again combats transportation infrastructure, designing another theatre to reactivate space under a highway overpass. The same ethos is carried over; mortar-less brick is threaded through rope and walls are temporarily constructed from building scaffolding.

Still unsatisfied with the status quo, alternative models for sustaining their practice are pursued in the form of a cooperative artist studio where they lease space to artists and work themselves. They win the 2015 Turner Prize, an award traditionally reserved for artists, to inject a substantial prize earning into a neighborhood revitalization project in Liverpool, England. They capitalize on the handmade industry of their work, carving a niche for residents to make craft products for an age that again craves them. Assemble continues the tradition of making architecture for teaching, but adapts to a modern playing field.

Further Reading:
“UEL Architecture Lecture Series,” January 10, 2013


Friday, April 15, 2016

Learning by Making – Human Industry with Aalto

Muuratsalo Courtyard

May 31st, 1940

Finland, along with most of Europe, is suffering a severe housing crisis due to continued war. Alvar Aalto escapes to the United States, but continually devises ways to help from afar. To take advantage of his charisma, he crafts a speech to conjure support for a rehousing effort by intriguing American university involvement.

“These problems can be solved by setting up an Institute of Architectural Research, where we can experiment with flexible standardization, permitting variation in spite, or rather because of the fact that the building components are mass-produced.” (Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: The Mature Years (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 34).

Aalto proposes coursework that includes construction as a fundamental part of an architect’s training. He looks to mobilize a student corps to rebuild Finland. The project falls through, but Aalto puts idea to practice with two housing projects: one at MIT and the other at his summer retreat in Muuratsalo.

Baker House, MIT Dormitory

Baker House, Detail and Interior

While experimenting with the Baker House, an MIT dormitory, Aalto is unhappy with the 
consistency of American bricks. He instead contracts the worst brick maker in Boston to take advantage of the maximum variability of product. The bricks are fired in a wood kiln, which scorches the surface and reveals its creation, and no bricks are rejected for appearance.

Aalto expands on the idea at his summer retreat in Muuratsalo. He feels it important that an architect take advantage of experimenting with his own home, especially because the client will definitely be cooperative, if not tolerant of failures. In the courtyard, he conducts an experiment with 50 unique patches of brickwork to qualify the aesthetic and performance of different patterns. To this point, Finland has been largely free of industrialization so Aalto is wary of how standardized building components will affect architecture and, therefore, society. Yet he recognizes that mass production will be necessary to rebuild his country. In his vacation retreat, Aalto ponders how to reconcile technology with the rawness of his countryside.

Muuratsalo Courtyard Detail

Muuratsalo Approach and Interior

Aalto, Deep In Thought

Further Reading:

"Muuratsalo Experimental House / Alvar Aalto" by Megan Sveiven

Friday, April 8, 2016

Learning by Making – Maybeck's Mistake House

It’s rare that architects are able to experiment with architecture. It involves risk and the unknown, not anything a building should embrace. To do this usually means an architect needs to put skin in the game to realize their aspirations. In this evolving series, we will look at projects that try, and sometimes fail, to expand the boundaries of design for our cultural benefit.

June 16th, 1931

Bernard Maybeck climbs on top of what appears to be a thatched roof, actually made of sprayed cement, with a pail of chemicals and a paintbrush. The solutions he carries have been mixed by the chemistry teacher from Principia College, where this experiment in architecture is taking place. Maybeck surveys the roof and daubs the wash in appropriate places, aging the appearance.

Maybeck conceives this project as the Sample House, but the workers refer to it as the Mistake House and now so does everyone. Its purpose is to test all construction techniques before applying them to the rest of the campus. Maybeck has been highly experimental with his detailing in a great effort to make the building appear time-worn. Mortar is scraped deeply or left oozing out in places to compare effect; acid washes etch surfaces and oxidized stains accentuate detail to act out Maybeck’s painterly vision. Simply, it is a proving ground for materials and processes and serves as a reference for the nuanced construction techniques while he is off site.  

There is a serious philosophical underpinning to Maybeck’s rustic experimentation. He hints in writing to his assistant Edward Hussey, “We are to make a College City of homey homes instead of stereotyped jails from which to turn out individuals instead of automatons…” (Robert M. Craig, Bernard Maybeck at Principia College (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2004), 444).

Fundamentally, Maybeck understands a tenant of democracy to be the acceptance of individuality. He also believes that architecture can impart morality to inhabitants. These two ideas converge with his idiosyncratic detailing, a reminder of his upbringing in the Arts and Crafts movement. A campus, full of impressionable minds, is critically important to Maybeck. The Mistake House materializes a dense aspiration for teaching through architecture.

Further Reading:

"The Mistake House" by Michael Imber

Monday, December 21, 2015

Bethlehem Christmas Trellis

To kick off the holiday season, SFA worked with volunteers at Payrow Plaza to construct the city’s inaugural Christmas City Trellis. The idea was envisioned by SFA in response to the Citizens Christmas City Committee challenge, “Will you be able to raise money to support the purchase of energy efficient, pre-strung, artificial Christmas trees?” The Trellis project will do just that, by displaying and selling ornaments as part of a new, annual holiday attraction.

The Trellis is made of three major components: the frame, the chimes, and the personalized ornaments. Each year a different artist will design the ornaments and presentation to encourage renewed donations. To accommodate this arrangement, the frame is modular so future installations can grow and vary as desired. The 2015 ornaments are inspired by fusing the shapes and characteristics of two familiar holiday symbols: a star and a candle.

The team decided an acoustic installation best resonated with the brief because the sound serves as another layer of ornamentation. Of course, an important consideration for chimes is that they need to be musical. Salvatore Verrastro, a principal at SFA explains, “We didn’t want the Trellis chimes to make noise; we wanted it to create and build harmony. A significant amount of research went into how we could specifically design each of the chimes to sound a note within a complex chord. If the wind plays the chimes, the notes will sound intentional, and visitors can experiment with the chimes to create a song.”

The Trellis was unveiled during the Bethlehem Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony. Of course, you’re all invited to visit until January 10th. Big shout out to everyone involved from SFA including Christie, Elliot, Vanessa, Dan Silberman, Clint, and Sal!

Thank you to all of our collaborators and partners who played an integral role in the success of the Trellis:

Air Products and Chemicals, Inc.
Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce
Brey Krause
Citizens Christmas City Committee
City of Bethlehem
Szoke Brothers, Inc.
Waitz Corporation

Monday, January 5, 2015

SFA News - Dan Silberman Joins Spillman Farmer

We are feeling rejuvenated and excited for 2015 with the exciting news that Spillman Farmer’s former intern (and recent Philadelphia University graduate) Dan Silberman, will be joining us full time! Among Dan’s many accomplishments is his first–place win in the 113th John Stewardson Memorial Fellowship in Architecture competition.

John Stewardson was a prominent Pennsylvania architect who is credited with the English Gothic Revival, an architectural style that inspired many of his firm’s (Cope & Stewardson) collegiate buildings. The Stewardson Memorial Fellowship competition, founded in John’s honor, is the most prestigious competition for students in the state of Pennsylvania. To be eligible, undergraduate students must be in their final year pursuing a degree in architecture from an accredited school of architecture in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Each year’s Stewardson participants are tasked with developing a complete solution to a particular design challenge within a rigorous 10-day time frame. The challenge in the 2014 competition was to develop a design involving mixed-use residential, commercial and arts facilities that would foster a sense of community within Philadelphia’s Francisville neighborhood.

Dan Silberman's design, Canvas, was selected as the winner of the John Stewardson Memorial Fellowship competition.

Dan’s design, “Canvas,” created an identity for the neighborhood through a bold storefront, whose modular façade-panel system could display community-based artwork, films, or news. 

Rendering from the Canvas submission, looking NW on Ridge Avenue

“Ridge Avenue, once a busy commercial corridor is now basically a small highway that connects the surrounding suburbs to the city,” Dan said. “My submission was designed to take advantage of the corridor’s potential for public communication by creating an opportunity to broadcast information about the neighborhood, the artists within the district and the new shops to those pass by every day without knowing the potential value and significance of the neighborhood.” 

Rendering from the Canvas submission, depicting the studio and upper residences of the site

Dan’s design also included a shared plaza and garage, and residences on the upper levels of the mixed-use complex.

In their written comments, the competition’s 2014 jury praised Dan’s design for the way it blurred the existing facades with layers of new construction, making it nearly impossible to distinguish old from new. The jury members said that Dan’s design would bring new life to the site and encourage a diverse and vibrant lifestyle within the neighborhood.  

Dan’s first-place win earned him a $10,000 scholarship to study architecture abroad. During his travels, Dan visited many of our favorites, including many works from Peter Zumthor and Carlo Scarpa. We had the opportunity to watch Dan grow over the years – as a student and an intern. He is a thoughtful and mature designer, who is well-suited for the rigors of Spillman Farmer. We’re excited to hear more about Dan’s travels (and hopefully read about them in upcoming blogs!) once he settles in – and we’re also looking forward to seeing how his experience abroad will inform his thinking and design.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Material, Process, Product - Repurpose, Recycle, Rethink

Last year, Spillman Farmer’s entry to the inaugural Playhouse Design Showcase and Competition was awarded first place. While we were humbled by the recognition, we knew that when this year’s competition rolled around, we would need to make some changes to minimize our materials, streamline our process, and improve our product.

Our fascination with the module of material took us down an interesting path. We wanted to develop a structure that was light and easy to assemble: an eco-friendly structure that could be configured by a child without any tools, glue, or fasteners. To build the structure, we wanted a singular, durable material that could be used as the structural system, the walls, the roof, and the furniture: cardboard. Cardboard not only fits all of these criteria, but has already been established as a kid-favorite (perhaps to the chagrin of parents everywhere, when they realize that the toys in the cardboard box aren't as popular as the cardboard box itself)! 

Playhouse Design Concept
Prototype Models

Exploration with cardboard is not new; international architect Shigeru Ban has been experimenting with paper architecture for nearly three decades. Ban used cardboard tubes from textile factories for disaster relief shelters. Using paper tubing for frames helped save money, prevent theft, and conserve the local trees.

Our cardboard tubes, originally headed for the landfill, came from large-format roll paper stock from our friends at Print-O-Stat. We began to develop a cloverleaf module of friction-fit tubes to help influence the overall form. The cloverleaf plan morphed into a structural totem, which eventually became the walls. The same cloverleaf module used in the wall pieces became the structural diaphragm for the roof. The connectivity of material allowed for an incredible play of light.

View of the playhouse's ceiling from the interior

The final construct reminded me of Swiss architect Sigurd Lewerenz’s chapel designs at St.Mark’s and St. Peter’s in Sweden, and the Swiss Pavilion at the 2000 Expo in Hannover, Germany by architect Peter Zumthor. The notion of using one material everywhere in search for what is essential is reminiscent of a primitive style of building.

Spillman Farmer's playhouse at Christkindlmarkt

As we reflect on the process, we are in awe of the possibilities of this construct, the module, and the discipline of working within the inherent restraints of a material system. Great design is informed by restraints and rules, and quite often, designs with the most restrictions and rules yield the most innovative design.

Our playhouse, along with the other participants’ entries, are on display at Christkindlmarkt starting today! Visit the festival between now and December 21 for your opportunity to see and explore the playhouse designs.

The Spillman Farmer design was built by Spillman and sponsored by:
3 Cubed Studio

Thursday, October 23, 2014

SFA News - SteelStacks Wins Global Award of Excellence

We are excited to announce that Urban Land Institute (ULI) has selected the SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus as a recipient of their 2014 Global Awards for Excellence.  

The SteelStacks campus is a 10-acre campus dedicated to promoting arts and culture in Bethlehem, PA. The SteelStacks campus recently won a Willard G. “Bill” Rouse Award for Excellence from ULI’s Philadelphia chapter, and was named a finalist for the Global Awards in June of this year along with 23 other projects worldwide. The campus includes developments such as Levitt Pavilion, the ArtsQuest Center, the Visitor's Center, and PBS39.

Spillman Farmer’s work designing the ArtsQuest Center is not only an integral piece of the SteelStacks campus, but also a key component in the revitalization of the abandoned Bethlehem Steel property. The ArtsQuest Center has achieved much success since its completion in 2009, receiving accolades such as a Silver Medal from the American Institute of Architects’ Pennsylvania Chapter, an A+ Award in Architecture and Urban Transformation from Architizer, and recognition as a Top 5 Cultural Building of the Year by ArchDaily.

In total, 13 projects from around the world were recognized as recipients of the 2014 Global Awards for Excellence, six of which are located in North America. SteelStacks is the only North American project located on the East Coast. According to the ULI website, each of the winning projects exemplifies a “high standard of excellence in design, construction, economics, planning, and management.”

The Urban Land Institute is a global nonprofit education and research institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. Established in 1936, the Institute has more than 32,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines. Head over to ULI’s website to see the full list of winners.

More information:
Urban Land Institute

SteelStacks Campus Buildings:
ArtsQuest Center, Spillman Farmer Architects
Levitt Pavilion, Wallace Roberts and Todd
Bethlehem Visitor's Center, Legacy Architecture & USA Architects

The SteelStacks Team:
Spillman Farmer Architects
Wallace Roberts and Todd
Legacy Architecture
USA Architects
Boyle Construction
Alvin H. Butz, Inc.
Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority