This spring semester 2020, architect Wonne Ickx from PRODUCTORA was invited to teach a studio at RICE University in Houston, Texas as the Cullinan Visiting professor. The studio was called 'Pyramid Schemes' and combined an interest in the early XXth Century housing projects by Henri Sauvage, with a project site in Mexico City and an analysis of the related local conditions. The studio started out with quite some travelling forth and back between Houston and Mexico City, including a week-long study trip of the RICE students to Mexico's capital.
What started out as a normal visiting professor routine, quickly turned into something else, due to the surge of the coronavirus. Early March, one of the employees on Rice's Campus was diagnosed with COVID-19 (likely infected on a cruise ship that travelled the Nile River in Egypt in February) and the University promptly cancelled all in-person classes to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. All teaching faculty immediately got access to a brand-new ZOOM account provided by the University.
Like so many other (or all?) architecture studios around the world, the messy atmosphere of model making, intimate interpersonal meetings and lively group discussions in the studio spaces were quickly replaced by long and dry hours of ZOOM meetings. Students started to work from home and met their teacher, or teaching assistant, twice a week for personal or group feedback. All and all, things worked out relatively well...
Another difficulty that had to be overcome was that the studio brief and design methodology was strongly based on physical model making. The School of architecture, however, had forbidden teachers to ask students to work with physical models: while digital modelling, and computer drawing could primarily be done from home, the elaboration of physical models would require forth and backs to the model shop, the laser-cutter or 3-d printer and would require numerous trips to the local arts-and-crafts store. Physical model making was, therefore, off the table.
In an attempt, not to completely lose the physical model as part of the design exercise, students were asked to simulate, to feign a physical model: to create an image that would look as much as possible as if a physical model had been produced, but the whole image had to be engineered in virtual space. A playful exercise in simulation. Students invented specific backgrounds, accidental spots of shade, disregarded tools, studio-lighting or leftover masking tapes... to make their images look as realistic as possible. Lots of effort was spent in avoiding the pristine quality of the digital assembly: walls were places slightly off-grid, handrails were bent or received a minor fold, glue remnants were digitally applied and uneven joints were carefully crafted into the virtual realm. Some of the scale figures, were stuck intentionally inclined, or even appeared to have dropped flat. After some weeks of experiments and rendering, the studio finally had its desired physical model back...
Studio Instructor: Wonne Ickx (PRODUCTORA) / Studio assistant: Heather Rowell /
Studio Title: Pyramid schemes / CULLINAN VISITING PROFESSORSHIP STUDIO, SPRING 2020, RICE UNIVERSITY - SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE / Students: Kayla Bien, Emilia Cavallaro, Rachel Kim, Dani Latif, Tian Liu, John Rudd, Shikun Tang, Alfred Wei
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