An Inconvenient Studio


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The studio was given an opportunity to self-organize and operate around a self-defined mission and brand, as well as a set of advanced technology and design topics. Inconveniently, no preconceived design projects were given to the students. No deadlines were provided. Instead, a vertical studio consisting of 13 graduate and undergraduate students and two instructors was turned into an entrepreneurial think tank (inconvenient studio 2009) with an organizational structure that evolved through practical as well as academic needs. The students were asked to come up with projects and project time lines through collective dialog,

exploration and consensus as well as developing and choosing roles for themselves for tasks such as direction, fundraising, archiving and recording work, and public relations. The studio needed to be an agile and adaptive organization to maximize its reliance on the collective intelligence—identifying problems through research and developing proposed solutions through design. As an organization, the studio was allowed to consider failure and conflict as inherent conditions of any system. Instead of handling them top-down, the studio was allowed to go through the natural cycles of learning from failure and conflict-resolution as part of the learning process.In spring 2009, An Inconvenient Studio was conducted at Ball State University with an aim to innovate through active strategies in environmental design (in distinction to passive design), digital technologies, robotics, interactive architecture, and collaborative design approaches that challenge conventional models of studio education. Known by many names (interactive architecture, responsive architecture, smart environments, intelligent buildings, situated technologies, and robotic architecture), these new technologies hold tremendous promise for the future of architecture.

The studio attempted to function as a network without boundaries, expanding the reach of the institution and embracing the larger world into the fold of knowledge creation. In this sense, the group was seen as an organized collective enabled by communication, information, and design technologies to innovate, not only architectural projects, but the architecture of ideas, processes, techniques, and materials. Managing the complexities of a holistic process for designing that fosters team-oriented and multi-disciplinary design innovation in a complexly connected world, requires the embracing of new technologies and organizational “experiments” in academia or in practice.

Understanding the transformative potentials of new technologies requires experimentation within an organization that is able to form and reform by opportunistic alignments and a resilience to adapt to change. All members of the think tank were encouraged to leverage ideas, people and learning from anywhere in the world through their individual networks. This studio benefited from many alignments with multi-disciplinary and external collaborators, as portions of this “inconvenient” studio were taught in collaboration with the Institute for Digital Fabrication, CASE Design, University of Waterloo and Pratt Institute. At the end of the semester, the students put together a small public exhibition of their work at Ball State’s Indianapolis Center, along with chronicling their learning experiences in a book (link forthcoming).

For information on some of the final products of An Inconvenient Studio, see the links below:

“Arcus Animus”

We also think that the students’ process is equally interesting. Brief descriptions of the studio’s earlier work and prototypes follow below.

Initial knowledge-building began through structured play exercises–brief open-ended provocations were provided, followed by making and testing, and finally “playful” demonstrations of the “works-in-progress”–all in very quick fashion. At the beginning, in the spirit of iterative prototyping, experimenting, and failing, the studio was tasked to explore the creation of prototypes or “Legobots” that could behave according to a small set of stimuli and rules. Tasks were given for the organism to perform without prescribing how the tasks were to be accomplished. LEGO NXT kits were useful for developing these prototypes quickly–the kits have predesigned connection systems, are easily assembled, modular, re-configurable, and packaged with sensors, microcontrollers, and actuators all driven with a visual programming interface. Failures were abundant as the students quickly found the limitations of these kits. For instance, sensing ranges for light, sound, and proximity had to be discovered and carefully controlled by physical location and direction of sensors, as well as by calibrating and fine-tuning the programming.

Interestingly the small teams quickly customized the LEGO kits, including modifying and integrating mobile phones (with blue-tooth technologies), affixing lights and drawing instruments, or creating several Legobots that worked in tandem to accomplish particular tasks or behaviors. The LEGO NXT software allowed the students to program the Legobotic behaviors through a visual interface without the burden of learning a particular scripting language. An important point to note is that most of the students had little or no programming experience when they started the studio. This interface provided a robust framework for beginning students to program and test complex behaviors while introducing the fundamentals of scripting, such as linking numeric parameters to functions, creating conditional statements, and looping–all enabled by quickly testing the outcomes. Similar to the LEGO programming, Grasshopper modeling was used as an introduction or precursor to slightly more advanced procedural modeling using Rhino Script (introduced later in the semester). The parametric capabilities of Grasshopper helped some of the students design custom, laser-cut components to extend the capacity of the LEGO NXT kits for specific behaviors such as “aiming” the directionality of sound sensors.

With a thorough working knowledge of the LEGO systems, the teams realigned to create scaled-up, reactive prototypes able to inhabit specific sites and engage human behavior. Scaling up involved many more difficulties for the student teams such as amplifying forces and movements, while minimizing weight. Initial ideas were drawn or modeled in parallel with drafting statements about each team’s project intentions. While parametric modeling was initially used by some of the teams to model a first design iteration and simulate it’s behaviors, the students quickly met the limitations of their software under strict time constraints. In these cases, physical prototyping proved to be the critical method of driving the design and innovation process. Most, if not all, of the design changes and development occurred through the building, testing, and modifying of full-working prototypes. This iterative feedback loop greatly enhanced the students’ awareness of each project’s performance related to materials, weight, scale, forces, and movement. The projects that underwent the most prototyping, from very early in the process, were the most successful in terms of negotiating site, kinetics, detailing, and experience.

One such project, entitled “Bloom,” sought to blur the distinction between canopy and enclosure with opening and closing light-weight petals which hovered over head. Crafted from steam-bent wood and rice paper, the petals contracted to define a small, intimate space within an otherwise open atrium by sensing human occupation while interpreting sound levels. The contractions were driven by a small servo motor via cabling and gears–the actuating system was not entirely resolved, but worked sufficiently for demonstration. The device, itself, drew a sizable crowd for demonstration. As a prototype, it served it’s purpose well by engaging the audience physically, but also engaging the audience’s imaginations. The “Bloom” was critiqued, not as a final product, but rather as a snapshot within a larger work-in-progress. Speculating on what the Bloom might “become”, the critique quickly became an impromptu brain-storming session about possible future trajectories for the idea. Some speculations even shifted scales for ideas from very small “products” to massive urban-scale interventions. In this context, students discover the value of critique and criticism, not as measures of right or wrong, pass or fail, but rather as essential feedback mechanisms for design and innovation.

A different project, entitled “Twist”, used custom-made drive belts to twist stretched-cloth panels in patterns. This project attached to a linear expanse of windows and sensed passers-by in an adjacent hallway, twisting and opening sequences of panels to reveal sunlight and views to the surrounding campus. The project consisted of a modular, expandable kit of parts that were laser cut from acrylic. All connections were achieved without traditional hardware, underscoring the importance of tolerances and details. This modular, “plug-in” design and assembly logic was key to testing and improving the installation’s performance. Sets of components formed modular assembly systems such as framing systems, stretching systems, pivoting systems, twisting systems, etc. If one of these systems failed to perform, particular system components could be redesigned and fabricated quickly, while ready-made to plug back into the larger whole. This partitioning of functions and systems enabled adaptations to particular component designs with minimal interference or redesign of the entire prototype.
During design reviews the students were faced with many questions: could it get bigger? is it a product or commodity to be sold in the market place? perhaps it could become a facade system? could it be used as a retrofit for existing buildings? could messages be printed or projected onto it? After reflection from these critiques, the larger, over-arching question became entrepreneurial in spirit—how could this project potentially generate revenue? This is no trivial question, in fact it is an inconvenient question to be posed in a design studio setting. In the spirit of innovation, the generation of intellectual property should be seen as educationally and financially valuable opportunities to engage business and entrepreneurship programs in interdisciplinary partnerships–the instructors intend to experiment with this in future studios.

Deepak Baniya
Elizabeth Boone
Eric Brockmeyer
Adam Buente
Luke Christen
Brandon Hoopingarner
Brad Horn
Paul Konwinski
Yevgen Monakhov
Brianna Newton
Kyle Perry
Daisy Winkler

Mahesh Senagala
Joshua Vermillion

Collaborators + Partners:
CASE Design – Dave Fano, Steve Sanderson, Federico Negro
Philip Beesley, University of Waterloo / Philip Beesley Architect, Inc
Brad Rothenberg, Pratt Institute
Ball State Indianapolis Center

Donors for the Morpholuminescence project:
Buente|Buente Architects
Capstone Real Estate
LHI Lighting Sales
Ridout Plastics
The Estopinal Group
VPS Architecture

Selected work from An Inconvenient Studio:

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