Saturday, November 7, 2009

Preliminary Thoughts on Microcosm Studio 2010

The first principle of the Microcosm Studio is: Design should always start with materials. This often strikes students as a strange dictum for a studio committed to aggressive experimentation with digital tools. How are these two aspects reconciled? After all, the digital and the material are fundamentally different, right? Many students assume that if digital tools play a significant role in a designer’s thinking, then design becomes formalistic, visually driven, and detached from the material realities of building construction. That is to say, to whatever extent one embraces the digital, then to the same extent one necessarily loses touch with the material. This assumption too often proves true in schools of architecture, as students use the glossy imagery of digital simulation to substitute for real understanding of how a design is made and inhabited. The Microcosm studio rejects the idea that computers necessarily cast designers into a fantasy world, and instead, it holds that computers grant powerful new control over material reality, when they are wielded properly.

In the conventional (non-Microcosm) approach, digital design starts with a formal idea (i.e., a parti) or some other kind of geometry, which is tested visually through various simulations (e.g., models, renderings) before finally being constructed out of materials. The dominant flow is from digital to material. The digital is formative, while the material is conclusive. Microcosm reverses this flow, moving instead from material to digital. Through hands-on experimentation with materials and through the iterative fabrication of prototypes, designers find new creative potential in materials that inspires formal ideas. Armed with this insight, designers then encode a material’s interesting properties and behaviors, using this information to generate and explore digital simulations. Insight gained from this second wave of experiments then facilitates the fabrication of more prototypes. The flow becomes an iterative cycle from material to digital and back to material again.

The project sequence for this year’s studio reveals that Microcosm is grounded in materials research, prototyping and a careful consideration of the interaction between material systems and human inhabitants. Digital tools are engaged intensely in this effort, but the question is how to engage digital tools competitively and to our fullest advantage as we reshape the material world.

Project 1: PANEL

The first project introduces students to a method of materials research and prototyping. The final product is a full-scale prototype of one panel for a proposed curtainwall shading system.

Project 2: JIG

In the second project students learn how to extend the exploration of materials into the digital medium, using parametric thinking and mass-customization to augment understanding and creative control of materials. The final product is a large-scale model representing a design for a pedestrian bridge across a forested gorge in Grant Park on the south side of Milwaukee, which will replace a deteriorating existing bridge.

Project 3: LOW-TECH

Armed with a new set of principles and methods from the first two projects, students will tackle an expanded version of the challenge presented in Project Two. They will explore the creative potential of a cheap, off-the-shelf building system such as aluminum siding, electrical conduit or wood stud framing. Through creative materials research, iterative prototyping and parametric analysis, they will transform a banal, low-tech building system into an innovative ceiling or partition system. The final product is a full-scale ceiling or partition prototype. Because it is made out of cheap "Home Depot" materials, the cost of the prototype will be comparable to the kind of pristine basswood model students often make in a conventional studio, yet these seemingly ordinary "Home Depot" materials will be transformed into a customized, exotic, compelling, architectural organism.


The first three projects focus on materials, building systems and the hands-on making of architectural fragments: panel, structure, ceiling, and wall. Project four shifts the focus from materials to space, asking questions about how people inhabit and experience buildings, and how designers can deploy material systems to offer meaningful habitation. The scale also increases to that of an entire building with multiple building systems and a program of spaces to be resolved on a real site. (The details of the program and site will be revealed later.)

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