How to destroy Architecture... and have some bright new ideas (Part 1)

How to destroy Architecture… and have some bright new ideas (Part 1)

In the early 20th century, a young Austrian composer named Arnold Schoenberg came to believe that it had become impossible to write any new music, because our ears and brains were too deeply ingrained with the sounds and forms of the old music, particularly the old harmonic structure. To overcome this neural habit, Schoenberg invented a composing system – known as Atonalism – which had a simple rule to aid in breaking away from the old sounds. The composer had to use a 12-tone row, a sequence of each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale – all of the black and the white keys on the piano. He had to use each note in the sequence given by the row before he could return to any previous note in the row. Kiss your old harmonies goodbye.

Needless to say, the result was unlike Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, in the extreme. It divided audiences sharply. But to focus on the audience is to miss an important aspect of the concept: it was a tool for composers to force them out of their comfort zone, and make them hear with new ears. They could then take their new freedom and move beyond the strictures of the 12-tone row, and compose things that brought their audiences new harmonic (and a-harmonic) musical experiences.  (For a good example of a composer can successfully integrating those wild revelations courtesy of  Schoenberg with the European music traditions that preceded it, skip ahead 100 years to the work of American composer Todd Machover.)

Geoffrey von Oeyen, a designer and faculty member at the USC School of Architecture, seems to have discovered a 12-tone row for architects.

His workshop event and exhibition last fall, Performative Composites: Sailing Architecture, [] was the kickoff for a semester-long studio of the same name. The studio began with a study of contemporary racing sailboat design, a field now dominated by composite materials. The students then had to take what they had learned about the way composites are used in boats, and apply it to architectural problems.

It turned out to be a very effective way to destroy architecture as we know it… and have some bright new ideas. The students had to be architects, designers, inventors, fabricators… and of course, visionaries.

Von Oeyen points out that boat design is much more responsive to its environment than house design.  “The way most houses relate to the environment is pretty dumb,” he comments. “The way houses are designed now, the mechanical systems are doing the work that the house could do more sustainably through solar collection, the ability to cool itself passively, etc. We have windows that open and close, but we also have air conditioning. How can the building be different to enable us to save energy, save water?  We’re trying to make a house perform at a much higher level, without the weight and the machinery.”

Von Oeyen referenced Le Corbusier’s 1923 manifesto, “Towards an Architecture,” where Le Corbusier looked to industrial design, to vehicles and aircraft, as pointers towards what a truly 20th century design aesthetic might be.  Von Oeyen posited that modern, composite boat design might be a good 21st century analog for that process.

Von Oeyen also insists that this freeing of the mind from old architectural habits does not mean completely open-ended change is desirable.  Knowledge may build and evolve, and technologies may advance, but the human needs that Architecture must address still persist.

“Le Corbusier wasn’t looking to make a discipline other than Architecture,” explains von Oeyen.  “He was looking to remake Architecture itself. He wanted to affect the discipline of Architecture, not move outside the discipline of Architecture. I’m not hoping to find an alternate pathway that leads away from Architecture or what buildings are supposed to do, but actually find ways to fundamentally remake the way we conceive of buildings in our culture. You can’t throw baby out with bathwater. At the end of the day, there are still going to be buildings, and there are a lot of lessons we’ve learned as a culture over the past 3000 years.  We have to be mindful of those disciplinary lessons and ideas as a culture, we can’t just toss them. At the same time that we might have to re-invent certain construction paradigms, certain design paradigms, there are some cultural ideas that we have to be careful not to toss away.”

The semester-long studio recently wrapped up with a presentation of the student projects, to which was lucky enough to be invited.

It was music for the eyes, and for the mind – a new, challenging, sometimes startling music.

The students had to produce three projects: an emergency shelter, a single family housing concept that carried forward some of the concepts of the emergency shelter, and an elaboration of that single-family concept into a multi-family housing scheme. They were initially teamed in fours for the emergency shelter project, then partially re-teamed for the other two projects.

They did research. They did form and function studies, many of which were realized in miniature on the 3-D printer. (Frankly, they went nuts on the 3-D printer, with the school’s encouragement.) They produced designs, including drawings and 3-D printed models, and in some cases, full-size sample components executed in carbon fiber composites.

One factor that soon emerged was that the student architects not only absorbed the lessons of how composites can work, they absorbed a good dose of the architecture of sailing, as well.

The emergency shelters – being collapsible, fabric-based structures – were heavily influenced by sail technology and rigging methods. They also showed the strong impression made by the hyper-efficient use of living space inside a boat.

The single-family units – hard-walled structures – bore more influence from the design of the boat shell.   The concern with maximum space efficiency also persisted here in a number of cases, despite the less restrictive space possible in a house. A number of projects featured integral furniture coaxed out of the composite walls or floors, as they might be inside a modern sailboat. Several groups were also attracted to the notion of a wind-scoop as the engine of a passive ventilation system, a reliance on the wind that is perhaps more appropriate to sea than land.

The first project group, Nilgoon Fatehi, Mariana Varela, Joshua Dawson and John Milian, began with Hexatent, a nifty invention inspired by the concept that a sailboat’s mast is its ‘lifeline’ (in the sense of an umbilicus, not in the more specifically nautical sense of a rope thrown to a drowning man).  This notion was disputed by a couple of the jurors of the studio, who argued that the mast is more like the boat’s engine, or something else.  Be that as it may, the team had looked on it as a lifeline, and that led to a very interesting exploration in which the ‘sail’ got conceptually wrapped completely around the mast to become a tent.

The hexagonal tent is erected around a center mast that also brings in water and electrical power (the lifeline concept). The majority of the shelter arrives at the erection site packed inside a drum. The mast gets anchored into the center of the drum, and the tent is erected above the drum with an elevated floor. The ring that connects the tent roof to the center mast can be adjusted down, allowing the roof to pitch down towards the center and collect rain water, which runs into the barrel at the bottom of the mast. When the barrel is full, the ring can be raised slightly so the pitch of the roof is reversed and now sheds rain out over the sides of the tent. The tent fabric is engineered much as our composite fabric sails, thicker at certain areas to handle the greatest loading. A pattern of small photovoltaic cells covers the entire roof to generate electrical power.


A 3-D printed model of Hexatent.


Hextent-IMG_7067_USC-CR2-crop-web A 3-D printed model of the rigging that attaches the tent fabric to the mast.




Joshua Dawson and John Milian from that group went on to design Fiber Shell.  These guys took the idea of 3-D printing far beyond the design-tool function they’d used in class. Their  single-family unit is based on the idea of 3-D printing a full, house-sized shell and using it as a stay-in-place mold for composite lay-up.   The shell is, in fact, a double shell with a poche space between.  The outer shell turns in through the apertures (windows, doors) to join the inside shell into one continuous surface.  The poche space  gives a route for services (electrical, plumbing, etc.) as well as a space for insulation.  They incorporated the idea of the concave roof area for rain collection, and a similar funnel-like opening cast into the walls to catch wind for passive ventilation.


Form-finding for Fiber Shell.


Their extension of these concepts into multi-family housing involved stacking the units in a checkerboard fashion, bearing the weight at overlapping corners and creating outdoor spaces between the units.  The shared corner points also become the route for the shared services that run through the walls.Fibershell-IMG_7069_USC-CR2-crop-web

The second group,  Jaidong Chen, Rhe Seok Kim and Yoshi Takeuchi, proposed an emergency shelter they dubbed FlexTent. Borrowing concepts from sail rigging, Flextent has apertures in both walls and roof that can be adjusted – using rigging – to different conditions. The roof aperture can be hoisted up, pulling the roof into an inverted funnel shape that act as a ventilation chimney or a light well. It can be pointed down into the tent – like a proper funnel – to collect rain water. The wall apertures can be opened or closed to act as wind scoops for ventilation, or as windows for light and views. The adjustability of it – the customizability of it – was important to the designers: some degree of individuation is a necessity of the human soul, and should be provided by housing, even housing for refugees. Flextent also features stretched fabric floors, elevated off the ground for health and comfort.




The team of Rhe Seok Kim and Yoshi Takeuchi then went on to design a single family house with its own unique construction system, which they called Puff’d House. The walls are fabricated offsite in a soft condition. The wll assembly consists of two skins of carbon fiber pre-impregnated with resin (prepreg), with a fabric honeycomb core between them. Rooms are shipped to the jobsite with the walls still in a soft state, and the room compressed into a shallow silhouette of its final shape.  On site, the package is pulled open to the full size of the room, and the honeycomb gets inflated with air, giving the walls their proper smooth form.  Then the prepreg is cured (using ultraviolet radiation) to harden the soft walls into a permanent hard shell.  The rooms are puffed out – in a conceptual sense – from a central space,  as well as being literally puffed when the walls are inflated.


Individuality and customization, again, are important features. Rooms can be added to the central core in different sizes, to meet program needs of the individual owner, a type of mass customization. The smooth surface motif extends to the interior, with built-in carbon fiber furniture merged into the walls. (This rather uncustomizable element seemed at odds with the larger concept… but the efficiency of boat design seems to have seduced the students here.)   The light weight and strength of the whole are  important elements of the personalization of the house: one of the designers suggested that if a family has to move to a new town, they should be able to take their house with them.

Puff’d House is designed to be expanded as the family’s needs enlarge, too. It comes complete with a set of robot arms that can be brought out of storage and employed to create frame points for wrapping new walls and puffing out additional rooms.

The multi-family extension of this idea involves stacking the units vertically.  The robot arms come into play in a more significant way here, since they can be moved upwards in the structure and enable expansion both outwards and upwards.


3-D printed models of Puff’d House. The small one shows a complete unit, the two larger pieces are a unit that has been cross-sectioned.



Seating is integrated into the wall casting.


Puffd-IMG_7092_USC-CR2corr-crop-web Puffd-IMG_7094_USC-CR2corr-crop-web


Next week: The rest of the student projects.  Prepare to be amazed.