23 February 2009

For the Sake of the Environment: Anish Kapor, Anthony McCall and Industrial Design

In a recessionary / depressionary climate, with work load at an all-time low, we offered our services to a leading European kitchen fabricator to instigate a new product line. With no background in industrial or product design, we parlayed our experience in museum casework to tackle the project.

The directives were for us to come up with a new design direction for a high to mid-range kitchen with efficient design features and unitized configurations, coupled with low impact materials in fabrication and long-term life span of the product line.

At the outset we decided to repudiate some of the standard approachs to kitchen design, which we did not know much of anyway. As the design program developed, it seemed to get harder and harder to jettison them, as the old school thinking of modular design and "Modular" concern for proportion held up to more and more scrutiny. Eventually, we found alloying opposites would best serve the design - and even more, the end-user we had in mind.

What we saw as the sequestered formats of kitchen layouts, were merged with less defined edges to the design; where we saw too much of the robust and angular forms, that have become the industry norm, we countered with curvaceous lines. In this comparative design process, we became keenly aware of the complexity of the kitchen environment and that user-comfort and efficiency could not be sacrificed.
Once the kitchen design passed an early programming phase the Pennisula System, as we called it, was tested against the human body to produce scale analysis and to develop the increments of the design vocabulary. From this we developed a design based on convex and concave curves on the vertical axis to create the paneling forms and surfaces.

We preferred to stay away from the gimicry of double-curature forms that are epoused by most CAD operators, and seek a design based on the simple geometry of an intersecting line and a curve. The artist Anthony McCall's seminal solid-light film from 1974, "Line intersecting a Cone" and his more recent work "Doubling Back" 2003, served as an ideal confirmation of parametric design (not to mention visual and physical awe).
From McCall came the "tear-drop" forms of the upper glass cabinets. From the sculptor Anish Kapor, came the concave base cabinets, that respond to the curvature of the body, as well as efficiently responding to how we lean against forms, reach above, and arch ourselves. Both artists inform our approach to how forms and surfaces are viewed, defined by projected light and in the reflected weight of monolithic materials.

In a sense this design, viewed in a drawing section, is a projected image of the body and efficiently responds to our movement and posture. From a design perspective the inward curve has the added benefit of slightly off-setting the front faces of the cabinets, so that they are less susceptible from springing open by their release mechanisms. (The hands-off hardware, now offered on most high-end kitchens, provide a smooth (and stealth) assistance for all drawer openings, lift and door sliders).
For the free-standing wall cabinet, the design is in the concave surface itself, used vertically as opposed to the horizontal concave forms of the counter base that acknowledges, once again, the visual explorations of the Kapor's work. The very slight visual distortion, very minimal and highly atuned to materials used - both reflective and matt - is a constant source of wonder in his work. Used and transformed in our design, we reinforce the human form and physical experience in the home environment.
The cooking experience must be both a tactile, visual and sensory experience – which informs the materials we have proposed for the kitchen line. Behind a liquid-crytal wall unit -transparent or opaque at a touch - sealed to maintain energy and climate control is a wine storage unit, a dry storage, even possibly a portion of the refrigerator, that allows us to view a healthy diet of choices without opening the cabinet – for the sake of the environment.

07 February 2009

The Life and Death of Parametric Design

The apparent wizardry of much of the software available in the design and engineering fields is now widely understood to be the paragon of a certain design genius. Such practicing luminaries of these tools, and even great talent, as Zaha Hadid or Gage/Clemenceau, have served up such seductive images, that it is easy to forget that there was a time when this form of parametric design was almost impossible to deliver and very time consuming to produce.
Scaled drawings, individually punched-in attributes and modified geometries took days to number crunch and to visualize the resulting design. Then this would all start over, with a single modified parameter. In today’s case, it has become so easy to shift each and every parameter of a design, or a form, that the constraints in testing them are almost absent: in complete reversal of how parametric design first developed – think of the complex forms of the Sidney Opera House roofs by the late engineer Peter Rice – a step-by-step optimization of a form or a structure defined in two, then three coordinates, that is now possible by simply sliding a cursor any which way on a mouse pad.
But the apparent loss of constraints is not always liberating, not always good for art. The Nouveau Roman championed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, or Films by Jean-Luc Goddard, not to mention more contemporary artistic practices by Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor, Do Ho Suh, show us constraints that are voluntarily meshed with the practice itself and the work is stronger on account of it. This cannot be said for much of the hyper-dexterous forms that Maya and Rhino provide for designers when, if ever, they are built. Only in very deft hands – among them Hadid who has long proven her ground now, with such seductive works as the Alpine railway stations in Innsbruck and her bridge in Zarazoga; and Ben Van Berkel in his exceptional Mercedes Building in Stuttgart or more modestly his Changing Room at the Venice Biennale; or in Thom Mayne’s up-coming Cooper Union Building clad in a warping perforated skin – have we seen the promise of late blooming parametric design at its best. In less thoughtful or experienced practices, those that have jettisoned constraints for the pure seduction of form giving, we find ourselves wanting. In any case, many of these projects remain un-built. As practicing architects, but also as a citizens of our public spaces, we can only give an inchoate praise to these attempts and hope many of the finer or younger practices will come back to what the profession needs today, what our cities need and the public demands: parametric design that integrates the changing parameters not of whimsical forms, but of the complexities of life, energy and program. The software to respond to the needs of “just-in-time” building practice – efficient, low embedded energy and as green as possible - that steps beyond the stulifying apothegms of the blob design world as we know it, has not been created. And for good cause: it is found only in the unique, epistemic structure of the human mind, where all great parametric thought takes place.

Post Script: Drawing on our background working with engineer Henry Bardsely at RFR in Paris, founded by Peter Rice – the long time collaborator of Piano – I hold on to some of my earlier experiences in parametric design; on other aspects I have had to re-think their validity. Clearly time, materials and energy were at their least effective in the early years of optimized structural design, structural glass, fink structures, cable-net spans and such; But in the development of genuinely handsome and efficient projects that relied on novel approaches to enclosure, spanning material, bearing nodes, well, here standard practice physical models, silly-putty forms and wax castings came in handy and fine projects built as a result. I was fortunate to have had to pick-up, where Pete Rice had left off, for the detailed design stages and building of his last posthumous work for the glass structures of the MUDAM. The structural cast nodes on this project, and how they work as part of a two-way sparse truss with unique star-burst cable tie backs, and water-cooled shading screen, were developed in the old school of parametric design, and they have still yet to be matched 10 years later.

06 February 2009

Drawing is Thinking: Concept Sketches by I.M.Pei


These sketches are an unfurling of sequentially produced thoughts on paper for the Musée d’Art Moderne in Luxembourg (MUDAM), beginning in 1991 through 2000.

Over the course of a decade I worked closely with Pei on several designed museum projects and kept an active archive of each sketch he made from the first day of design meetings through site visits on the construction site. The MUDAM project was the longest spanning project in Pei’s practice – outdoing the JFK Library project which took 14 years to complete – on account of the inchoate government ministries involved.

I.M. Pei's almost ethical imperative to never show an incomplete project - an unrealized design or a work in progress, as he felt architecture must be judged as a physical experience - has largely kept all of his unbuilt designs, not to mention conceptual
sketches, unpublished.

These sketches, then, offer a rare opportunity to see his mind at work. They are a record less of the source of the completed design - the struggle with the arrow-head shape of the historical fortress on which the museum was built - but of the action of the architect's hand, exploring and resisting the imposed geometry of the site and his own design principles.

It offers a fresh look at the trials and errors, small puzzlings and geometric victories of the architect’s musings, which would later become the backbone of the completed building, opened to the public 16 years later, in 2007. Visit an earlier blog entry on the MUDAM project on this site, and visit the full collection of drawing on arcspace at http://www.arcspace.com/architects/freed/pei_sketches/pei_sketches.html.

To rebuke those that see an architect's "napkin sketches" as mere curiosities, look again.
Here we can see an experienced mind flirting with the lines and geometries that have marked much of his built work, done with the same wonderment and pleasure as that of a child: the personal markings of an inquiring mind.