Thursday, July 01, 2010

Columbia Building Intelligence Project Think Tank

“Architecture schools may cease to exist in 10 years’ time,” proclaimed Mark Wigley, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) in New York. You would think this might be cause for concern, but he was positively fizzing with excitement.

Wigley was addressing a high council of building industry leaders in the second Think Tank summit of the Columbia Building Intelligence Project (C-BIP), an ambitious strategy to bring industry closer to academia. This day-long conference was the second in a series of events in which urgent issues facing the building industry are hammered out, alternative models debated and new research shared – with the aim that ideas are filtered back to students in the Integrated Design Studios at Columbia.

The Heston Blumenthal of architectural education, Wigley has been quietly pursuing a series of experiments since 2004, concocting unlikely combinations of students and staff in his research-led studios. “I like to see the school as a laboratory,” he grins, describing programmes that have mixed architects with students of engineering, real estate management, preservation and even healthcare.

The debate at C-BIP wasn’t quite so radical, as throughout the day age-old battles between architect and engineer were reprised, the ills of our medieval procurement systems railed against, and short-sighted clients admonished for their risk-aversion. The curious format of a “private conversation”, with speakers oriented with their backs to the limited public audience, provided an apt metaphor for the closed nature of the industry, while students were conspicuously absent – they’ll have the pleasure of watching it all on DVD.

Cutting through the technocratic posturing of SHoP architects’ Chris Sharples and the environmental systems fetishism of CASE’s Anna Dyson, Hanif Kara stole the show with a vociferous polemic against everything Columbia holds dear, namely the faux-science of “parametricism” and the evils of techno-jargon. Revealing the emperor’s new clothes, he argued that “most automation tools are being used by architects as weapons to produce images that don’t mean anything to anyone”. He warned that their appropriation and misuse of real engineering terms and techniques is leading to a tidal wave of mediocrity beneath a flimsy facade of innovation.

The meaning of collaboration was also a recurring theme, with Wigley arguing that disciplinary divisions must be strengthened before cross-over can happen, and mischievously calling on the architect to become “more annoying” in the role of collaborative agitator. Arup’s Mitsuhiro Kanada proffered a more conciliatory way forward, revealing software he had developed to facilitate a common language between architect and engineer, including the real parametric process which allowed Sanaa to construct its paper-thin Serpentine pavilion, and Toyo Ito to build his multi-curved concrete walls.

Finally, Columbia tutors Scott Marble and David Benjamin concluded by showing what all this talk was leading to, in the form of the first batch of work produced by the C-BIP studio. Taking PlaNYC’s carbon-cutting ambitions as a target, the students developed a catalogue of 30 environmental components with a “parametric range” to retrofit a series of New York’s ailing buildings. Rigorously modelled in CATIA and subject to endless BIM calculations, these studies were no doubt worthy, but sadly symbolic of the concluding indictments of the day: that with their role progressively fragmented and outsourced, architects are desperately trying to reclaim authority by usurping the tools and techniques of science; and that collaboration does not mean trying to do someone else’s job.

Originally published in BD, 16 July 2010