Condencity_15 empty space

As the long shadows of winter set in we are reminded that empty public space is often full of urban hope. Really, the 2008 completion and opening of the New Jewish Museum in San Francisco offers precisely that. Its emptiness striking; seldom unused at times, well designed benches stoically face Mission Street; awaiting. Having said this, it really is an inviting space. I’ve crossed this newly crowned plaza on a number of occasions over the past year since its grand anticipated opening. A hopeful public place and for once, a recently completed Daniel Libeskind project that doesn’t completely dominate context.

Importantly the argument for public accessibility over architectural form cannot be denied. Of course we need continued ‘building’ additions to our cities but we also need vacant, open spaces. Moments of silence where one can contemplate the perfection in not being something.
Architecture is important but so too is nothing being there.

The Education of an Architect

Adèle Naudé Santos, dean of the school of Architecture and planning at MIT, set to receive 2009 Topaz Medallion for excellence in education

Flashback to the summer of 2000.

It was the height of the dot com boom in San Francisco. Our small office at Adele Santos' studio was enjoying a momentary flurry of work for a dot com start up eager to build a clustered campus of buildings at the edge of South San Francisco. We were busy and happy. From time to time I remember us lamenting the displacement of small local businesses for pioneering internet start ups eager to cash in on the promise of quick profits. Looking back, everything as we new it then, was a temporary bliss.

I sat alongside Berkeley classmates Alice Roche and Jake Watkins that breezy SOMA summer. Every morning I was greeted by Petey the talking parrot. That bird hated me. Basking in morning courtyard sun, days spun by with great memories alongside. It was a balanced experience of critical design debate and creative production fueled with homemade tamales wrapped in banana leaves. We were nothing short of a professional family and Adèle was at the center.

Every young architect deserves a great intern period where skills develop and confidence is fostered. The summer of 2000 did just that for us ( I feel confident in writing). Adèle let us go to do what we did best. We built models by hand and computer, drew wildly free by hand. Feedback was critical but we were ultimately supported in our academic perspectives. At the end of the summer we had compiled a convincing schematic proposal for a series of buildings destined to forever live on paper.

It was an experience I will never forget.

The Gray between digital and manual

Graphic representation: 2001 Combined digital and manual technique, e. reeder Thesis

I spent the morning today as a critic reviewing design work by students at CCA (California College of the Arts) in San Francisco. The foundation of this introductory studio considered digital and ‘hand’ methods of drawing representation. The students were asked to compose an architectural spatial experience via computer modeling. Supplement to the task for many were hand drawn perspective studies and sketch diagrams. At such an early stage in architecture-design education students can easily be torn between process and final representation. To complicate matters the struggle arises of what tools to use. It seems endless the possibility of manual technique, digital, or a somewhere in-between production.

Unfortunately, to first year design students something is lost; either mired in computer application with the goal of "slick" graphic outcome or a lack of rigorous attention to craft by hand. Don’t get me wrong, some of the work I reviewed today was quite good. In fact the students were in some cases able to quickly grasp complex concepts in architectural space and possibilities for convincing representation on paper.

The question for me ultimately stands at a crossroads in time. Traditions of how we work and represent through manual ‘making’ (i.e. hand drawing and model building) and current trends in the digital realm should be carefully considered. Wonderfully there are institutes and classes, as devised by my friends Antje Steinmuller and Lara Kaufman at CCA that, critically question these two disparate modes of working. One could argue that pushing both methods ensures an understanding of concept and technique while at the same time developing needed skills for professional aspirations. Even more compelling though is how these methods might overlap and inform the maker of greater possibility in reading and understanding design process and architectural invention.

Let’s hope the students carry forth the idea that methods for representation, now more than ever, have multiple trajectories for working, with the opportunity to combine various ways of presenting design. 

Condencity_14 compact

Hong Kong Image courtesy K. Lau: colleague at archengine


The world around is that much closer to a fictional 'center'. New opportunities take shape where the condensed form has made space available. I've always appreciated the lessor of more; an efficiency of space, use and overall size. In essence the state of being compact.

Of course compact can be made extreme as exemplified above. Senses are forced to overlap, edges of privacy tangled. Moreover a repetitive redundancy by nature of proximity transcends what could easily be a deathly banal. What is to become of the tattered in-betweens?

The state of being compact presents the opportunity to combine. Boundaries are dissolved and flexibility becomes requisite. The chance of environment and constructed object to unite in intimate ways, through a careful and thought out interaction of all elements. There is plenty of room in the city to be compact.

The willingness to accept things and places of such form is definitely a cultural one. Consider in many parts of the world where geography and space limit the expansive tendencies common in many consumerist societies. For example, places in the far east are forced to reckon with limited land and available urban spaces. The results are denser realities and the social acceptance of such conditions.

There will come a time when compact is a necessity everywhere.