5 Projects: Interview 2 / Adam Tomski

5 (student) Projects: is a group of projects completed at Yale University’s School of Architecture by 5 young architects during their graduate education. Each of the 5 projects are sited in New Haven on or adjacent to Yale’s campus. Each project focused on an institutional building, loosely defined by program, type and context. These commonalities became a framework for discussion that illuminated individual polemics and debate about experimentation in today’s architectural landscape. Despite the initial appearance of diversity within the set, each architect sought to address a common set of ideas emerging at Yale and perhaps within the discourse of architecture at large.

Primarily addressing the legacy of Postmodernism (in its various guises and forms), each sought an architecture that engaged historical memory, local context and an renewed concern for communication and legibility. Each was interested in an operable or speculative way to use history and its associated culturally established values, meanings and forms to produce new bodies of work. In that sense, each sought a contemporary way to learn from the past that would have particular resonance in today’s social, political, and cultural milieu.

The identity of the group of 5 is meant as a provocation towards two related issues: the desire for individuality and expression by today’s younger generation of architects inculcated by media and secondly, the desire for consensus within discourse on what counts today as critical & theoretical concerns for architecture. The aspiration behind the interviews and feature is to reveal an internal discussion which demonstrates an effort to clarify and identify a set of ideas that underpin contemporary architectural production. The feature and interviews were organized and conducted by Alexander Maymind.

We featured the first interview yesterday. Read the second one after the break.

Interview 2: Adam Tomski (critic: Keith Krumwiede)

Your project is a new institution for Computing and Arts on Yale’s campus. Let’s talk about who the building is intended for and how that constituency might receive the building.

This building is a forum for people who are inventing ways to apply technology to the arts (examples provided later). The program asked for spaces for work (building things, studios, labs), exhibition (galleries), and performance (theater). There is also a public component (cafe) and a stated imperative to get this public involved and interested in the products of this hybridized center for computing and the arts.

Since this program denies the possibility of a purely typological solution, part of my concern was to figure out a way to foster the clashing and overlapping set of interests that typically follow around the program components of display, performance, since they often trample on one another. The prescribed relationship desired is one that “fosters innovation”, a dubious ambition that I think architecture has yet to truly address. So therefore the question became: can architecture make people care about each other in an institutional setting?

Therefore my strategy was to do the opposite, reacting to a program that connotes cooperation, and instead making cooperation apriori difficult: All three heterogeneous activities (as well as those undiscovered) find their locus somewhere within one giant multi-valent room. It causes the heterogeneous activity within to violate boundaries, bleed onto one another, and require a rigor of discourse-and-schedule to allow things to function at all. It turns the act of innovation, of producing new ideas and forms of technology into a huge ongoing discussion.

How does the idea of a large public room potentially open and reconfigurable deviate from what you observe about most institutional buildings on Yale’s campus?

Spaces of this dimension are valuable on a collegiate Gothic campus like Yale’s. Buildings are typically long and narrow, usually partially surrounding a fenced court. Forms of public life usually take place momentarily, or until some assigned activity has ended. From what I can see, any other room of this dimension on the campus is used as an auditorium. They have a stage or podium at the front with stationary seats oriented toward the speaker. The activity in this space is prescribed, and limited to speaking, looking at a screen, listening and sitting still. It’s no place for children, certainly.

The room in my project, in tandem with the program or schedule of activities, the charge of “innovation” that go on there, should yield a situation that denied the possibility of top-down control. The use of the hall will be always changing, and more importantly must be under discussion.

Consider these scenarios: The young lady who has been building a 35 foot robot will be forced to crush her professor’s experimental string quartet on the floor next to her so that it may dance and be free. The man with the 100 foot saxophone cannot practice at full volume while the ballerinas are practicing. A student organized film series is projected on the room-sized Anish Kapoor.

Schedules are great ways to exchange knowledge and start conversations. One is keenly aware of the products as a result. It is also to be a place where things are made or assembled rather than simply exhibited. It will be a place where work happens. It is not intended to be enclosed and hermetic, but leaks out in all directions: The floor is an extension of the sidewalk. The exhibition hall extends upwards, indeterminately into gantries, lighting trusses, wires and cables.

In that sense, the project is ultimately a piece of infrastructure that enables this giant event space to function and be adaptable. What is your approach to form? Let’s discuss the references, especially the nature of the facades.

The main reference comes from Marcel Breuer’s Becton Engineering building a few blocks away on Prospect Street, and Breuer’s approach to institutional form in general (including the Whitney Museum in New York City). The Becton building is a simple volume of relentlessly repetitive concrete modules, with a book-ended ground floor parti. It addresses the street and sidewalk with a tall loggia and five enormous, faceted piloti, with entrances at both ends. So experientially the building has an irregular, monumental, crystalline base, holding up an extremely regularized facade. the short elevations are virtually vacant, reinforcing solidity and directionality of the volume

My design also is based on a gridded, book-end parti, and is similarly a simple rectangular volume, But I reverse the street presence by providing a visually empty covered walkway, vacant of columnar support or barrier between the pedestrian and the street. One’s gaze is directed inwards toward the exhibition space through an expansive, unencumbered, thin glazed membrane, and the intense and stunning action within. The cellular rooms, labs, and studios on the upper floors looking out to prospect st., extend from the regular grid to a series of individuated, faceted openings within the thickness of the facade. Each one is different, tuned to the light levels appropriate to whatever heterogeneous activity is taking place along this facade. The totality of the facade is now like a series of jewels facing Prospect street.

It also adopts certain formal conventions from the auditorium or theater. The typical theater sandwich goes like this: Wall, angled seating, proscenium (arch usually), stage, screen, staging area, Wall. In contrast, the sandwich of this project works like this: sidewalk, cafe, ambiguous staging area (which is the exhibition hall itself), proscenium, courtyard. The Exhibition hall is collapsed programmatically with the backstage, so it is simultaneously a place for work and preparation as well as for performance. The ceiling level or fly-space is a warren of cables and infrastructure, with an indeterminate end. It contains the library, classrooms and private space for study. When you’re on the floor of the exhibition, as you shield your eyes from the arc welder, you are not simply a spectator, or someone looking passively at art. You are trying things out, possibly lending your opinion to works of art in progress. The room is one giant, expanded backstage, where everyone is part of the action: Students on the catwalks above, technicians hanging lights, visitors on the ground, workers moving sculptures.

The space has fixed seats like a movie theater overlooking the hall on the second floor. These could be divided up and enclosed to be used for holding a gathering for class, eating lunch, or just quietly watching the giant robot being built in front of them. Any attempts to punctuate the process of “innovation” with presentation are perhaps brought down from the religiosity of “art hanging in a gallery”. Things can be half presented or half finished. The hall should excite and frighten.

Given your own background, what sort of intellectual debt is helpful to understand where the ideas for the project were spawned? Which architects in your own personal collection are crucial to the formation of this project?

Joan Littlewood & Cedric Price, Reyner Banham, the Smithsons, Art is work, Working Class. I spent a lot of time in factories growing up, working with my father, learning how to work with metal, learning how to fix things, crawling inside machines. I think there is something within the unencumbered, unfinished, and non-precious environment of the factory. Anything in a factory can be cut in half, or picked up with a forklift and mounted to the ceiling at any time. It engenders a kind of fearlessness in the people who use it. Its a great space of bricolage. In particular, I think the Smithson’s Huntstanton school applies this vocabulary to a space of childhood education and discovery.

How does your project manipulate precedents, specifically Cedric Price’s fun palace?

This project undercuts one of the main political messages of the Fun Palace by making it look like “a thing” or “a building” and a monumental building at that. It was a reaction to the symbolic power of public buildings and the authority they engendered. The Fun Palace was conceived an open framework for a new type of theater that turned the common person in the audience into a player. Stocked with an initial kit of parts, walkways, bridges, platforms, lifts and pulleys, any individual or group had the ability to operate these systems, reconfiguring it for whatever purpose they could invent.

How is the project speculative? How is it pragmatic?

I think my attention to facilitating the movements of art and people, providing the essential equipment to put people off the street close to Yale’s fantastic collections, and make it easy to move large and precious things is pragmatic and an earnest attempt to solve a problem. I also think the massing and capitulating kindly to the context the campus was pragmatic. It is the largest volume I could fit on the site, and the height matches the buildings around it.

What is your attitude towards the expression of structure in this project?

Exposed steel and the truly unfinished, back-of-house tectonics is contrasted with the solidity of a contextual stone exterior to seem more like armature. There is a great disjunction between the message of the exterior and the way you feel when you’re inside. The structure in this project is used in two operative ways. The first is in a rational manner, gridded, exposed, pragmatic, supportive of moving gantries, etc. The second expression is intended to conceal, confuse, and obfuscate the plane of the ceiling. This visually divides the flyspace from the theater below, acting as infrastructure for lighting, audio, and set support. But mainly, this third level, inhabited by students and technicians, is transformed into a visual forest in which library reading rooms and the student classrooms are nested. There is an ecstasy in this dense, complex, and rational solution to large spans.

How does your project address monumentality?

I think monumentality can be used and subverted, in fact, the monumental applied to the totally ephemeral, fleeting, adjusting, reconfigurable, temporary nature of activity, only foregrounds and strengthens the contrast.

About this author
Cite: Sebastian Jordana. "5 Projects: Interview 2 / Adam Tomski" 19 Apr 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/128890/5-projects-interview-2-adam-tomski> ISSN 0719-8884

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