Materialisms and Excess

First-year drawing studies of skin of hand and forearm (unpeeled) to understand geometric folds and surface relationships. Student work from Architectural Design 2, ARC 1302, Summer 2009. Instructor: Bradley Walters.

Waste not, want not.1

Austerity is in the air.  Excess is out; efficiency is in.  Quantitative measures supercede the qualitative just as performative and operative strategies displace poetics and play.  And in these historical moments, the serious obligations of professional practice are often drawn into the academy.  The balance shifts from open-ended speculation to applied, “shovel-ready” projects that are clear and comprehensible to clients, capital markets, funding agencies, professional organizations, and/or future employers.

At the same time, however, we continue to practice and teach within dense, media-saturated environments.  These create conditions in which differentiation becomes an important criterion for recognition and/or relevance.  Newness, novelty, innovation, and difference continue to occupy privileged positions within cultural and architectural discourses.

Rule-based, algorithmic, and parametric models rise within the discourse in part because of their abilities to bridge precisely these worlds.  We are able to construct broad relational and/or behavioral rules and then deploy these in such a way that heightens local specificities.  Digital fields, logics, and constructions are able to simultaneously be both ubiquitous and unique.

Digital design, construction, and fabrication tools create new possibilities for both materials and the spaces shaped by them.  They have also allowed for the imagination to occupy diverse scales simultaneously, or in some cases, to inhabit and study these scales in alternative sequences.  Life within our digital circuits and screens is good.

With these advances, however, have come some unintended consequences.  While the power of great ideas to multiply across many scales is enhanced by these tools, it is also possible for small ideas, writ large, to profligate.  Today, the simplest doodle can almost too readily be presented as an installation, assembly, building, or urban plan.

The ability to move rapidly from concept to construct introduces complications at the scale of the material intersection, and more importantly, at the perceptual scale of occupants.  We see this in practice as well as in the academy, where absent intentionality leads to incomplete and/or incoherent architectures.   The spatial/material detail is left in the margins, an accidental resultant or merely ‘technical’ solution in service of the larger doodle.

One of the more interesting aspects of practice today is that what can be drawn and/or imagined is largely possible.  Dizzying heights, extraordinary cantilevers, and a perpetual parade of unexpected geometric forms are not only possible but are being constructed every day.  The proliferation of new materials further extends the world of possibilities.  For students accustomed to seeing the novel and unexpected published daily, Louis Kahn’s questioning of a brick seems particularly antiquated.  With the exception of certain life-safety issues, technical constraints are seen as largely irrelevant.  With unlimited resources, anything is possible.

Resources, however, are not unlimited.  Nor are they singularly-focused. Contemporary design practices are marked by the diversity of issues which the work must address.  The evaluative criteria are complex and often contradictory, invoking any number of theoretical, historical, social, political, environmental, ethical, economic, operational, and schedule-driven considerations.

In the design process, environmental concerns pose particular difficulties.  “Sustainability” itself is a broad terrain, involving numerous competing goals.2  Depending on the specifics of a project type and location, for instance, locally-available materials may not have a high recycled content, low embodied energy, or meet optimal goals for indoor air quality.  They may not consist of rapidly renewable or certified wood materials.  Often we seek to bring high volumes of ventilation air into buildings while simultaneously working to maintain strict humidity and temperature measures inside the building.  Daylighting, so critical for reducing building lighting loads, is often positioned at odds with the need to have a highly efficient and well-insulated envelope.

In almost all scenarios, waste is anathema.  It is seen as that which is not wanted, the excess, the under-utilized, and/or the ineffective.  In response to calls for “zero waste design,” this paper proposes three specific trajectories to inform the teaching of beginning design: the matter of making, eccentricities and excess, and operations of resistance.

Beginning with the material itself and working with a family of operations, there is the possibility for formal and/or spatial possibilities to emerge, rather than being imposed on the work. There is a tactile learning process at work, one that engages the full body as well as the physicality of the material itself. This is a particularly useful method of working with beginning design students.

And as we introduce digital tools into our first year curriculum, it is important to move as quickly as possible beyond the computer as a one-to-one instruction- and/or operation-based tool. There is a need to create a condition of learning wherein excess data can be generated, where “digital garbage” not only can be produced but where it can multiply and propagate across the work of a studio.

Whether digital or manual production methods are employed, this condition of excess, of making without yet knowing, is important for beginning design. It creates a charged environment, one in which ideas themselves can mutate, and where poetry and play can emerge amongst constaints.

 

Acknowledgements

At the University of Florida, the curriculum is a shared project of the entire faculty. The present work should be seen as occurring within the context of a thoughtful curriculum that benefits from the work of many hands. The curriculum continues to evolve, and it is hoped that this document furthers that mission.

Thanks to the students and to the many others who contribute every day to the vibrancy of the discourse at the University of Florida School of Architecture.

Notes

  1. Proverb, origin unclear. Generally attributed to John Wesley Letter of 1772 (“he will waste nothing; but he must want nothing”) but also similar to “willful waste makes woeful want,” dating from 1576. Source: Waste not, want not. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Houghton Mifflin Company. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Waste not, want not (accessed: February 11, 2011).
  2. Part of the difficulty in evaluating environmentally responsive design is the ambiguity around precisely what it entails. There are many competing systems for evaluating environmentally responsive design, but the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Rating System developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) is one widely recognized set of standards. To see the LEED 2009 for New Construction and Major Renovations Rating System (Updated February 2011), go to: http://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=8868
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