Spanning Lines of Longitude and Latitude

April 5, 2010

Essay by Iker Gil and Andrew Clark, editors of MAS Context University Works.


Mas issue university works cover opening

Beginning at the desk of the 1st year studio, architectural education drives students to think, create, produce, react, critique, absorb, challenge and reinterpret. Architecture studios hum with this energy of work. UNIVERSITY WORKS began with a dual interest in discovering what students and universities are working on, working with, working for, within a Dymaxion projection of our world.

We undertook the project as the continuation of two lines of exploration. The first, MAS Context, is a journal in which we address contexts that shape design and the world and create a platform for sharing knowledge and discussing topics. The second is the tradition of architectural publications recording and broadcasting the condition of the academic work. UNIVERSITY WORKS was approached both as a project in method, how to collect, curate, and understand a pixelated view of architectural work, and a project in broadcast, how to instigate discussion and draw new connections between students, schools of architecture, and universities. We strove for multiple means of representation and readings: an objectified print publication, a circulating document at the student-affordable price of free, and a location on the world wide web (where else).

It is a collection totaling 50 student projects, selected by 10 curators, instructing in 10 schools of architecture at 10 universities. It is a book raising the visibility of the students’ promising design work through distinguished curators’ selections from the schools of architecture.

Bookshelves of architect’s offices, architecture schools, and student studios include the publications of architectural student work. These are usually one of three forms: a school’s annual design catalogue; a jet-setting, visiting professor’s studio compilation; or, an encyclopedia of a multi-faceted project taken on by many students over several semesters. These works have charted new terrains and trajectories for the discipline by continuing to push the method, visualization and position of architectural design.

The architectural discipline awoke to the burgeoning force and project of globalization in the 90s, and UNIVERSITY WORKS is a response to this condition. It is a publication that seeks to go beyond the borders of one studio or project, beyond the margins of one school or country. As we begin the second decade of the 21st Century, UNIVERSITY WORKS sets out to explore cultures, contexts, and creations that span lines of longitude and latitude. Breaking physical boundaries is also a goal, and in some cases, we could say a need for most of the selected schools. European schools have the ERASMUS program (the European Union’s flagship mobility program in the field of education and training), and U.S. universities have their programs abroad. A few of the schools selected have travel programs: UIC’s semesters in Barcelona, Virginia Tech’s Chicago Studio and Parson’s work with the International Design and Architecture Program at the Faculty of Architecture at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Architecture schools are going beyond their building walls to stay relevant.

The selected universities are located on five continents. Out of this breadth, UNIVERSITY WORKS discovers distance or connection, difference or sameness, small divergence or escape velocity for these schools of architecture. They are schools with which we had strong connections, brief collaborations, close friends, or first conversations. The choice of university was largely driven by the choice of the curator.

UNIVERSITY WORKS is not a strict cross-section sampling that leads to an image of the director’s vision or press-ready position of any school. This is acknowledged in some of the of the curator’s introductions, citing for example the scale of the school as a factor of the heterogeneous production and vision of the school. Rather, the publication is more a lens from an insider’s view on the condition of the school. Curator’s subjective selection strategies include: a comprehensive view of the school, blue-ribbon winners, and traveling studios or distance projects. Their involvement in the development of certain works ranges from direct to nonexistent.

The selected projects in UNIVERSITY WORKS are comprised of programs and design challenges across the spectrums of scale, use, context, technique and representation. Included in the works are memorials and museums, mined Manhattans, methods of modeling, and multiple critiques of modernist design. In most cases, they are a set of hyper-contemporary resolutions to 21st Century challenges, while a few explore challenges and discussions the discipline has been experimenting with for half a century.

UNIVERSITY WORKS is a publication where the City is king — evident even in the selection of the universities. Many projects are situated in the urban context, deliver on challenges of restricted sites and existing histories, dialogue with conditions of higher densities and speculate on new metropolitan landscapes. However, they are projects, more than other student work publications in previous years, that respond with buildings and volumes, not only plans and diagrams.

Whether in visualization or approach, UNIVERSITY WORKS represents the shrinkage of time and space resulting in various levels of consistency in the selected projects. Among the schools, methods and approaches extracted from the student work, more are similar than different. The choice of representation and the style of visualization by the students’ highlight this growing sameness. This pseudo-monotony is also present in the absence of sustainability (embedded or the “Green Giant” variety), blobs or sinuous formal resolutions, and urban design as diagram.

Digital terrains are the driving force of the speed and frequency of intellectual and creative disbursement, keeping students attentive to the goings-on online. Software and Intel chips have made imitating and creating images easier. Daily doses are now hourly check-ins, while watching the RSS feed on the web has replaced afternoons in the stacks.

UNIVERSITY WORKS and the panel discussion we organized with architects and educators from around the world (currently based in Chicago) bring into question several issues of direction, presence, persona and influence; whether it’s the school’s position and its trickle-down effect or a mid-tier influence permeating upwards and downwards. Each level of the educational system has a position and an agenda: the university’s mission, the school of architecture’s direction, the professor’s refined, evolving project, and the developing pupil. Students work, professors work with the students, the school of architecture works the system, and the university keeps everyone working to pay the bills. UNIVERSITY WORKS is a point of departure, a first experiment in generating conversation and discussion around the conditions of schools of architecture. Refinements to this project’s method are certainly our aim. A discussion that arises from the publication is the role of the studio instructor and his/her acknowledgment in the establishment of the identity of the student work submitted. In addition, selecting schools with established connections, selecting a larger amount of schools and projects, considering cross-reference programmatic similarities instead of geographic differences are aspects to be studied for future efforts in presenting student work. They will produce different confrontations and parallelisms between the projects.

UNIVERSITY WORKS is intended to start this conversation among those in architectural education. Students should be able to produce their own tools in order to understand what other students are doing; professors should establish studios with strong identities at the forefront of the architecture discipline; and Directors and Chairs of schools of architecture should establish clear positions for their schools.

UNIVERSITY WORKS is our first contribution to this discussion.