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