Disciplinary interests in architecture are both in flux and viewed by many as disengaged from the world’s pressing needs. This studio posits that this flux reflects the field’s unease as we collectively grope for architectural expressions that are both novel and fundamental and that it is precisely from architecture’s disciplinary obsessions that we create new ways to engage the world.

In this studio, we will consider the progression of increasingly eccentric, atectonic works of architecture over the last 50 years—a progression that put into question the ground as architecture’s stable substrate—and contrast it to current reactionary formal impulses. We will examine these opposing tendencies with the supposition that the urge to return to stability is both inevitable and made impossible by our recent past. The studio will seek out contemporary architectural expressions within this paradoxical dilemma.

The studio project is the new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. The museum has three physical components: the ground, which acts as a memorial garden; the interior exhibition; and the architecture. Charleston was the most important center for the importation and sale of enslaved Africans in North America, accounting for an estimated 40 percent of that trade. The museum’s site is part of the former Gadsden’s Wharf. Between 1806 and 1808—in the years of the trade’s most aggressive and brutal activity—it was the sole place the city permitted such debarkation. The planned garden, occupying the museum’s open site, intends to memorialize this tragic past. The museum’s mission is, “to re-center South Carolina’s place in global history, illuminating its pivotal role in the development of the international slave trade and the Civil War.” With the Center for Family History database and other interpretive displays, the museum is conceived as a non-collecting institution with no significant artifacts on display. Rather, these interactive and didactic features will serve as its content.

In architecture, attempts at explicit political expressions often result in built platitudes of indifferent form. However, characterizing any architecture as autonomous is also illusory. Executed in the midst of larger events, architecture is inevitably colored by those events, shaping—even if unconsciously—their tenor and sensibility. This studio, while not looking to explicitly express either the meaning of this museum or of our own fraught times, will, at a minimum, test the consequences of pursuing a disciplinary investigation as it germinates within the study of a charged project.

Our focus will be on the architecture itself as it negotiates between a hallowed ground, whose memorialization is a separate project, and interior content which, like the ground, is its own independent project. The architectural task is thus bracketed between the ground/meaning of the site expressed symbolically by the landscape architecture and the program/content of the interior expressed didactically by the exhibition design. Rather than see it as a diminution of architecture’s role, the studio will view it as a crystallized opportunity to negotiate the interrelationship of site, meaning, and content in the context of this evocative project.


This course has an irregular meeting schedule. 

Andrew Zago will be in residence Wednesday and Thursday Bi-weekly: August 29 and 30; September 11, 12, 25, 26; October 22, 23; November 6, 7, 20, 21, and for final reviews. 

The instructor will also be available via Skype to account for “off week” missed time. 

Click here for trip/travel information related to this studio.