Open Figures: The Contouring of Architecture

OPEN FIGURES: THE CONTOURING OF ARCHITECTUREIncreasingly, contemporary architecture is faced with demands to produce buildings that evince both an immanent flexibility (read: multiplicity) and a clear identity (read: singularity). This very paradox is patently evident in this studio\’s program: a 471,000 sq.ft. multi-campus, multi-disciplinary public high school for Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Focusing upon three nested exercises, the studio will concentrate on an architecture in which the overlap of abstraction and figure produces spaces that are more catalytic than prescriptive, more provocative than conclusive.The studio will investigate what we will call \’open figures\’ and the processes of \’architectural contouring\’-a plastic version of regulating lines-that might generate them. The object of our research will be the design of architectural systems whose loyalties reside at the intersection of two seemingly exclusive ambitions: definition and indeterminacy. Our goal will be to take advantage of their combined effects upon architectural program, form, and materiality.For much of the last century, architecture has oscillated between two extremes, the first centered on the non-figural declarations of high modernism, in particular those called forth in the objective/abstract aims of early modernism (Mies\’s universal space, for example, or Le Corbusier\’s free plan). The second revolved around more figured propositions that relied upon such techniques as narrative, historical quotation, technological metaphor, and humanism. (as seen in the work of Louis Kahn, James Stirling, or Santiago Calatrava, for example).We will begin this studio with the assumption that to conceive of architecture in these twentieth century terms-as abstraction versus figure-is specious at best and paralyzing at worst. We will start the studio proactively with the assumption that design inherently involves the production of a spatial figure. Considered in one light, this figure can be seen as a limit condition, a prescriptive delineation of the relationship between space and program. From a more compelling vantage point, however, it is a prompt, a trigger for the functional, aesthetic, and technical life of architecture.Phase I: Contour SystemFollowing a one-week session during which we will develop research techniques, the first exercise will concentrate on the systemic organization of program across all six sub-campuses of the Perth Amboy high school. This research will emphasize the development of programmatic \’contours\’ at multiple scales (overall site, sub-campus, & building). The contours will be used to orchestrate functions, circulation, view, form, and building systems. Each student will invent a contouring system (a grid, topography, lamination, notational method, etc.) in order to produce, test, and refine a desired programmatic organization. This initial phase of the studio will be run as a seminar/workshop on research strategies and representational techniques.Phase II: Contour BuildingThe second exercise will focus on the design of a single sub-campus within the overall system developed during the first exercise. Each student will select a particular school from the high school\’s program list, which includes concentrations in visual and performing arts, liberal arts, business and industrial technologies, civics and public safety, environmental health, and, lastly, a 9th grade school-within-a-school. During this phase, the first-phase contour systems will be overlaid with the functions, walls, openings, circulation areas, and material systems of the selected sub-campus so as to foster a mutually accelerating dialogue between \’contour\’ and architecture.Phase III: Contour Close-UpThe final phase of the studio will concentrate on a contour close-up. Each student will focus on a small area