Sunday, June 20, 2010

'Disco' at the GSD

I'm one week into a summer program at Harvard's Graduate School of Design (career disco). My brain is a bit frayed from 14 hour days attempting to resolve design problems in foam board. However, despite the lack of sleep, the degree of immersion that the program requires has kept me abuzz.

(from The View on Harvard GSD, Vol 1)

The 6 week program is designed to provide an introduction to architecture, urban planning, urban design or landscape architecture. The core of the program is the design studio, where we're given assignments of increasing complexity. After completion of each assignment we pin up our work for an informal critique with our instructor, fellow students and guest critics. The experience mimics the structure of an architecture graduate program, which is centered around the studio environment as well.

Most of the participants are quite young (still in college), though some, like me, are here to contemplate a career change.

(The View on Harvard GSD, published by Tank Magazine.)

First off, some background: My undergraduate degree is in Comparative Literature and Spanish Literature. I have no design background, aside from some light Adobe Creative Suite dabbling and a passable ability to draw and paint. As evidenced from this blog, I am a typography geek, obsessive about interior design and fashion, and possibly, a future architect.

Initial impressions:

- I'd heard legends of studio culture - sleeping 'feet to head' with one's studio mates, all-nighters, frantic deadlines and the like, but nothing really prepares you for the actual experience. When on day 1 I found myself in the studio till 10:30 or so, obsessing over a simple intro project, I began to understand studio culture on a visceral level. Another pleasant revelation: I love the work!

-The complexity of the problems posited by architectural study, the layers of metaphor and meaning, the divergent reasoning required to arrive at your personal solution are what drew me to architecture. AND (I think) that although a good deal of hubris can get wrapped into this process, the beauty of architecture is that the opus is ultimately about making a solution that works for people, that is determined by program, and that hopefully makes life better and easier for the inhabitants and visitors to that space.

Responses to the Curriculum and Lectures:

-Leland Cott was our first lecturer. Mr. Cott teaches at the urban design school and is a principal in the firm Bruner/Cott. Since a core component of design school is the pin-up and presentation of one's work, he shared invaluable tips on how to present well. The information was applicable to anyone who has to speak publicly -- generally one shouldn't turn one's back on the audience, or gesture awkwardly, or speak too quickly, ect. However, I would have liked that he spend more time talking about his work.

His firm's body of work includes much restoration or renovation. He told us the story of how he received permission from the George W. Bush to take on the restoration of Hemingway's house in Cuba. Approval finally came after Senator McCain recalled his fondness for Hemingway's characters, despite earlier resistance because the Cubans had been his interrogators in Vietnam. (And also, due to the obvious political reasons and the economic embargo, of course.)

Cott's renovation work engages in very clear dialog with its surroundings. He shared several projects in which he was asked to design within or around and on an existing, older structure. The resulting projects take their visual cue from the surroundings, paying a particular attention to the tectonics and allowing the history of the buildings to show through.

I particularly liked how the original brick was showcased in the interior architecture of the Mass MOCA conversion project:

I'm curious about how one balances designing within the existing vernacular and adding more contemporary elements when creating a converted or repurposed space. Also, working in Boston, a city with such a distinctive visual signature, presents numerous opportunities for newer building to reinterpret traditional uses of materials such as red brick, and riff on the city's more classic aesthetic.

I also attended John McConnell's lecture on American architectural history and the walking tour of Harvard Square. His lecture provided a refresher on some art and cultural history that I hadn't touched since college and also provided some vocabulary and context to a current reading - Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. I found Venturi's text at times difficult to get through because I wasn't familiar with all of the building terms (triglyphes, metopes, pediments...), so reviewing the major epochs of European architectural history was useful.

Harvard Memorial Hall
(American 'gothic' - the Swedenborg chapel)
The walking tour around Harvard square included a look at buildings from several time periods, but most were from the late 18th and 19th century. I wasn't as familiar with the Gothic and Classical revivals in American architecture and how those movements aligned with political activity and the larger framework of art and literature of the time period.

Queen Anne 'stick style' house

What I'm reading:

I haven't had too much time to do extracurricular reading, but here is a sampling of what I am perusing:

Informal, Cecil Balmond -- "...chaos is a mix of several states of order. What is an improvisation is in fact a kernal of stability, which in turn sets sequences that reach equilibrium."

Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture -- Robert Venturi

A View on Harvard GSD, Vol 2

Design Drawing -- Francis DK Ching

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