Today is a first – I am doing something that I told myself that I would never do … show you one of my projects from architecture school. Why the change of heart? I’m not entirely sure, maybe it’s the presentation I am putting together for a group of freshman architecture students … or maybe it’s because I found some of this stuff during my recent move and I got a good laugh after looking through my work. Anybody who has successfully gone through architectural school and had a little bit of time pass since graduation will tell you; all those awesome projects that you did while you were in school … they’re kind of silly.
Just realize that at some point in the early future, you will be embarrassed that you thought your work was so great when it clearly sucks.
#4 Design Studio: Top Ten Things you Should Know
Since I haven’t completely lost my mind, I am only going to show you one of my school projects and believe it or not – it’s a house. I only designed two houses in all my college years – the first house was done in my freshman year and the last one (the one I am showing here today) was in my last studio. The premise was pretty simple: design a house on a real cliff-side lot that has sat empty due to it’s difficulty to build upon. Another caveat we were given (or at least I was given through my conversations with my professor) was to use this – my final architecture school project – to be a commentary on my overall education.
Just your ordinary house project … so I decided to make a house based on a 3-dimensional tartan grid, full of cubes as the individual rooms, and where all interior walls and cubes were wrapped in mirrors.
That’s right, I said mirrors.
I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time going over this now 22 year old masterpiece, but when I told everyone about the mirrors they thought I was crazy. I believed then, just as I do now, that if you have an amazing view, you don’t orient each room towards that same view. This will diminish the impact of the view – making it commonplace – and over time you will stop noticing the view all together.
This house was basically a giant concrete cube that was opened on one corner with floor to ceiling windows (upper right-hand quadrant of the plans above). On the ground floor level plan there are spots designated for 9 squares – only 8 of which would actually be occupied. The 9th spot, which is located on the ground floor level in the quadrant closest to the windowed corner – would be left open so that the mirrors in the other locations could do their job.
The point of having the other 8 cubes (which contain bathrooms, bedrooms, office, etc.) and the surrounding ground floor perimeter walls wrapped in mirrors is that no matter where you would look, the mirrors would reflect your view back towards the only spot that doesn’t have a reflective surface … the 9th location and the glass window wall. The only way you could now avoid the view is to go inside one of the boxes.
It worked too – I built a mock-up of the mirrored cubes and their layout to prove it to the jurors and the professor. Pretty clever, right? Of course it’s clever, but this would be the worst house ever to live in. Super bad-ass project in theory but ludicrous as an actual project.
My apologies for the crummy scans – these are all 20+ year-old pencil drawings. They look pretty good in person but scanning and reducing them down here for your amusement isn’t doing them any favors. You can click on any of these images and they will open up in a new window at a much larger size.
The grade of the project site fell off very rapidly – part of the reason that this very real site had never been built upon. The two exterior elevations I am showing here illustrate the extremes between the entry side off the street – low profile and unassuming – as compared to the lake-side view where the full height of the project is on display. It should be more evident where the window wall is located in this lakeside elevation drawing.
Check out that section! Each room had it’s own clerestory, the air distribution was located around the perimeter (don’t worry about how that one cube in the middle would have been cooled – it is a student project). I also had skylights that ran above the circulation (shown angled between the cubes above) with rain and debris channeled to a guttering “system”, AND there were sliding fabric shades that would allow the owner to mask off the skylights should they choose to do so (shown horizontally brow the angled skylights).
Let’s take a closer look at one of the cubes …
BOOM!! Can you feel the magic? I should also point out that there is a lower level. I mentioned previously that there was a 3-dimensional tartan grid at work here, but let me try and explain how that actually works …
The rooms on the ground floor level were on a 9 quadrant grid but the main house was on a 4 quadrant grid system oriented vertically. (Has your head exploded yet?) On the 4 quadrant system, two were up on the ground floor, the third quadrant was a half-level down (accessed using the stairs between two cubes), and the fourth quadrant was a full level down access through a series of switchback ramps.
Structurally, the first 3 cubes (01 through 03) sat on the ground floor level (quadrants A and B). Cubes 04 through 06 sat halfway on quadrants A and B and cantilevered into Quadrants C and D. Finally, cubes 07and 08 sat on a single column and was held above quadrants C and D. Square 09 is a viewing platform and not technically a cube.
Did you forget that this was a house yet?
I thought I would include one of the photos I found of my model. There is something particularly cool about how I placed my house model into my site model. I basically built a cube out of particle board and cut at the line of the topography where the grade touched the house. Cube house with a cube site model … genius!
– but –
I only came up with this idea in the last few minutes because I had run out of time to build a proper site model. I needed to have this site model done, I only had about 20 minutes left before we had to have all of our work out for presentation, and a friend of mine had some leftover particle board that he had under his desk. This was the easiest thing I could think of and this is the first time I have EVER publicly admitted that before, not that it matters. Maybe it was because I had limited time that I had to find something particularly creative to solve my problem … if I had more time, I probably would have built a more typical site model. That brings us back to today’s actual topic:
Your Projects from Architecture School are Silly
I can look back on the project and to this day think I prepared an interesting and engaging project. Was it a good house? Hell no! Who would ever want to live in a concrete house in the shape of a cube whose interiors are covered in mirrors? But that wasn’t really the point of this project or what I took away from this creative process. College architectural projects are about ideas and concepts, not execution and practicality. I got an A in this design studio and during my final jury review, not one single person asked me about bathrooms or closets. Nobody told me that my garage doors were too narrow to actually work properly. And nobody told me that living in a concrete house in the shape of a cube whose interiors were lined with mirrors was a terrible idea. We talked about the concept, my thoughts on how to properly frame a view, how the light would work in each space – and most everybody played with my mirror cube model because few people believed my concept worked … which it only kind of worked. But that didn’t matter.
Your college projects will be silly because they are designed to make you think outside what you already know. They are also supposed to force you to evaluate your own belief system, your own understanding of how spaces work, and the things that shape your ideas. So if you get a chance to design a house while you are in school, designing one that is practical and livable probably isn’t on your professor’s mind.