Saturday, June 20, 2009

Week 1: Career Discovery Boot Camp

Last week was my first week and first foray into architecture. Only it wasn't a foray so much as a full blown waterboard immersion. Initially I was inspired; here we would be introduced to architecture and its design process, go on a wild ride. Over the course of one short week, we had learned to construct a cubic-shaped model (first image below), talk about the quality of spaces, and construct an architectural project consisting of a stair connecting two spaces. This last project involved everything from initial conceptual work in sketch and watercolor forms to building miniature sketch models out of bristol board to making a final model and its accompanying plans. Some days lasted longer than intended (I was at the Graduate School of Design [GSD] for 17 hours one day this week), and I definitely had multiple moments where I felt clueless and lost and also had one moment where I just broke down sobbing, anxious, restless and trapped. But the week culminated in a day of final critiques where we were exposed to other people's projects and we got to learn a little more of the process of design and how we could refine our own.

Welcome to the GSD, trial by fire in architecture.

I definitely consider myself to be a person who likes to know how things work before I plunge into a project. Thus, this week has been thoroughly disorienting. But I have learned a few things for sure.

The greatest lesson from this week that I have learned is that of knowing when to throw away your ideas and move forward in the design process. Previously, in my writing, I had always done very little editing, waiting for the moment of inspiration and forging ahead with clarity. In architecture, or at least in this process of design at the GSD, I am learning that you have to try things out, throw them away, forge further ahead, ambling through the jungle of design, every now and then stepping back to see your work, your ideas and try to be objective.

Let me show you/walk you through this week's project and tell you what I've learned through it.

We started with a task: bring in a staircase done by another architect. From this staircase we were instructed to extract an idea of the space it created. My staircase was the organically-winding one designed by Frank Gehry's for the Art Gallery of Ontario. The idea I extracted from it was the concept of intimacy. When you use this circulation device at the AGO, you feel surrounded, almost enclosed by the ascending space.

From the idea inspired by the staircase, our group leader, Quilian Riano, asked us to sketch the idea abstractly, explore it conceptually, let loose. We subsequently tried to continue looking for the idea in real spaces around campus. While Quilian loved the sketches I did, I wasn't exactly sure what I was doing, I felt lost, suspended in a conceptual space I didn't understand, without a view of where I was heading.

From these sketches, Quilian further asked us to explore the conceptual world of our idea and create a watercolor and three sketch models from that watercolor. I meandered into my watercolor, trying to follow the few guidelines given and reinterpreting my creation into 3D mock spaces to see what they created. I was captivated by my little yellow squares in my watercolor, thinking that they represented the moments of intimacy because they were sided closely by variations of the same colour. I then created models that mimicked those moments in the watercolor.

It was only at this point that we were given the real-world prompt for our staircase project. We were to build a staircase or circulation path from a tall space to a long space. I struggled to make the 1/8 scale model (1 in. = 8 ft.). I wasn't really sure how to create an architectural space. I wasn't sure what questions to ask so that I could build such a space. So I designed a little path but it didn't really inhabit the tall space, so I started over, and failed and then had a break down and then went back to the spaces in my watercolor to start again.

I then had a moment of inspiration to create small enclosed spaces of intimacy to be juxtaposed against larger wide-open spaces. I created a few little corners juxtaposed with wider spaces/landings. The little enclosures were meant to hold artworks, with the final moment at the top of the stair looking into the long room which would be a long gallery salon-style, filled floor to ceiling with art.

So the week brought me from foamcore to bristol to bass wood, from exacto knives to olfa blades, from sketch models to watercolors to drawings and plans. I was fully immersed in architecture without really knowing where I was. My mother very astutely compared it to learning a foreign language. It was as if I was thrown into the country where I knew nothing and asked to communicate. So I definitely struggled. I was thrown into the conceptual framework without having an idea of the final destination.

During my final critique I was praised for being able to inhabit the conceptual part of the project, finding a language of circles inside parentheses as a way of communicating intimacy. Where I failed, and I quite agree was in translating those sketches into architectural spaces. I did manage to create one space of intimacy in my final model -- that moment at the end of the long suspended hallway that looks into the longer gallery. The critics thought it had really succeeded because it was only at that moment that I had a specific purpose (or program) for that space.

An idea that kept coming up was the idea of architecture as a 'language'. This idea, inspired by Sartre and his contemporaries, expresses that architecture or math or someone's individual behaviour all represent languages. We are in essence trying to find our own language, finding the coherent system of elements that will make up our vocabulary and fill our imagined projects.

My task now is to more quickly get to the architectural moment and really work them out, figure them out, figure out how to shape spaces starting from an initial and seemingly disconnected idea. In the next project I will make that leap from Concept to Form/Architectural Space while more closely holding on to the Program for whatever it may be. Onwards we go, hopefully shedding the 17-hour days. The discover goes on...

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