Canadian Architect


[e]Merging Realms

A student-organized symposium at ryerson university highlights the use of computational tools in emerging design-research practices.

March 1, 2014
by LeeAnn Pallett, Kathryn Douthart and Antonio Cunha

Text LeeAnn Pallett, Kathryn Douthart and Antonio Cunha

“Innovation comes from the bottom up,” says Stephen Kieran, a founding partner of KieranTimberlake, an influential practice operating out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “This is where students change the profession. As an employer, if you don’t embrace the tools they use, they won’t want to work for you. It starts in the schools and the profession catches up.”

Kieran was one of four panellists who participated in ar.chi.tect [redefined], a recent symposium organized by Ryerson University’s Master of Architecture class of 2015. Held at Toronto’s Design Exchange, the evening event aimed at critically assessing emerging modes of practice within the AEC industry. The panel also included Tom Bessai of Denegri Bessai Studio, Hanif Kara of London-based structural consultants AKT II, and Jonathan Mallie of New York-based SHoP Construction and SHoP Architects. 

Throughout the discussion, a common theme became apparent: today, students and young professionals are fundamental drivers of change in the architectural profession. Critiques of the architectural discipline have periodically pointed to a disconnect between academia and professional practice. The perceived formal whimsy of academics and the stale pragmatism of practice sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. The panellists considered how recently, that divide is being bridged with a mutual acknowledgement of relevance between academic and professional realms. 

KieranTimberlake is one of an expanding swath of cutting-edge practices that centre on research and inquiry. A central element of their office organization is a multidisciplinary research team. A number of specialists, from material scientists to software developers, engage with the design process for not only buildings, but also a range of products. The practice has successfully developed building technologies and software, including Tally™, a Revit plug-in that allows architects to monitor the performance of their projects well into the occupancy period. Innovations like these are poised to redefine how we conceive and construct. This is evidence of the multidisciplinary potential of architecture firms today: some are not only designing buildings, but also crafting tools for design.

This design-research methodology has also found its place in Jonathan Mallie’s work at SHoP Architects and SHoP Construction. Mallie says successful practice is about “unlocking value”–taking a critical approach to design and asking why and where inefficiencies exist, in order to achieve superior quality and value. These critical inquiries, traditionally bound to the confines of postsecondary institutions, have now become core values in practices such as SHoP.

Kieran makes note of an “arms race” in shop culture throughout North American schools of architecture, where students are increasingly apt to design through making. In schools such as Ryerson, academic projects are no longer necessarily culminating in two-dimensional drawings and representational models. They are becoming more experimental and are increasingly informed by an iterative dialogue between the virtual and the physical. Issues of communications, economics, legal structures, logistics and performance are now common considerations in student design explorations. The wide availability of advanced computational and fabrication tools, along with an aptitude for how to effectively use them, have made it possible for students to engage these complex issues. In the process, they become better equipped to address the kinds of challenges that many ambitious design firms are now undertaking. 

Hanif Kara notes that the increased access to advanced computational tools is levelling the playing field. Small firms can now offer comparable if not superior services to medium-sized firms. It is through this window of opportunity that recent graduates have a high potential for success. Tom Bessai’s studio is exemplary in this regard, with its focus on using digital design and fabrication in an in-house lab to experiment with new methods of making. From the education side, Ryerson University’s “zone education” initiative capitalizes on students’ fluency with digital tools by facilitating sustained connections between interdepartmental student groups and industry partners. Together, these collaborators develop innovative student projects into real-life entrepreneurial ventures. The Design Fabrication Zone, a joint initiative between the Department of Architectural Science and the School of Interior Design, is one such incubator for ideas. It aims to strategically propel digital design and three-dimensional production into the worlds of construction and business innovation. 

The boundaries between pedagogy and practice are blurring as research, design and construction become equally relevant in realizing both academic and professional projects. It is students and young professionals–the people that Kieran refers to as those at the “bottom”–who are redefining the profession. As the critical discussion concluded, a member of the audience asked the panellists where they find joy in practicing architecture. As Master of Architecture students, we find joy in bridging a narrowing gap, knowing we have the potential to transform architecture into a discipline of [e]mergence. 

LeeAnn Pallett, Kathryn Douthart and Antonio Cunha are Master of Architecture candidates at Ryerson University.

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