Constraints and (maybe) TMI

It seems I can only visit dornob about once a month, because when I do, I end up going through about a month’s worth of posts. Some are just sort of ridiculous, but others bring up questions about design and architecture.


So yesterday, I ended up looking at Monolab‘s urban townhouse – what the firm calls “Body House”.  Monolab’s website provides a lot of diagrams, earlier models of the project, and construction photos, along with your standard finished photos, sections, and computer models.  Pretty much, they fill you in on the program, the site, etc., and give you some insight on their decision-making process (even MORE can be found here, page nine).  It’s an interesting project on its own, and one of the few online that includes process work.

The post on dornob brings up two interesting points of discussion that I felt were worthy of a continued discussion here, the first of which is about constraints.  They bring up two: budget and site size.  But it reminded me of one of the fifth year’s thesis projects from only a few weeks ago.  Her project statement began with the quote, “Art thrives on constraints and dies of freedom,” and dealt with how existing buildings in downtown Pittsburgh could serve as the constraints in the creation of a new type of public realm.

As students, we deal with a different set of constraints.  We usually aren’t too concerned with cost, although it might come up in a final review.  And, though we’ll be expected to know more about how things actually work in future semesters, we were often encouraged to ignore the fact that some type of construction was impossible.  But we do have to worry about the site’s limitations and the program our assignments call for.  Yet, we are also sometimes encouraged to break even those rules.  So what type of constraints are beneficial, and when do we decide they can be bent one way or another?  Are the limitations we impose on our own projects more or less important than these real-world constraints?  Thoughts?

The dornob post also discusses the level of understanding that comes out of a project like this:

Filled with unique and angular lines and spaces there is no single viewpoint from which one can fully appreciate this home, from outside or within. Sleeping and bathing spaces are situated in central concrete node surrounded by open spaces for living, cooking and dining – but the house is as much about circulation as it is about staying in one place.

In some ways, this house can be best (or only) really understood via drawings and models which illustrate the design process and the intended hierarchies of space and structure, solid and void within the overall plan – but perhaps this layer of complexity is a happy accident adding to its mystery.

As I said before, Monolab provides an unusual amount of process work on their site, presumably so people (architects? journalists? cyber-pedestrians? or maybe just the firm itself?) can better understand the Body House project.  To what extent is this actually necessary?  Should the architecture be immediately understood, or understood at all?  Is it important that your reasons for design are explained in the final product, or is it more important that you understand your project DURING the design process?  When you look at a building, do you ever really “understand” it?  And should you?  Or is it a better goal to create a design that provokes a response that is formed more like a question than an answer?


2 Responses to “Constraints and (maybe) TMI”

  1. 1 Mike
    2009/05/29 at 6:59 pm

    Hey look its my final project! Joking, but oddly they are after similar goals, and went about it in a similar fashion.
    But my take on those questions as you ask in that last paragraph, Talia, is that that particular project as you have quoted them is difficult to understand from one view. However, you do bring up a good point that maybe complete understanding of a space is not necessary. It reminds me of first semester and Professor Damiani’s presentations, and how he favors the idea that architecture should be understood. That through rigid geometries, classical proportions, and clear spatial definition, the space could be understood by anyone, outside or in, architect or client. Even what we drew in the perspective part of Professor Cooper’s class our assignments featured the idea of “bays”. These units that a space could be broken down and abstractly outlined to set up the frame work of the scene. Almost all the buildings on campus especially the UC and those buildings are very regular. If you stand at the end of that exterior walkway and through counting the bays, without moving, you could accurately estimate the length of that side of the building. So, what then if the space can’t be understood? What if things are not orthogonal? What if any angle isn’t just 45, or 30 or 15? Imagine trying to draw the space, create a presentation that would let others be able to understand it the way you do. And this is why I referenced my final project because these are the same problems I dealt with. After those questions at the end of your post, I almost wish I could go back and redo my presentation entirely and just say that my project was not meant to be understood in the first place! Why then should I explain it, if its main goal is to confuse, disorient, and make the client flip out?

    And because I now had more time to think about your first topic of discussion. I really do not know, and there is no way to tell it seems. As far as in studio and what we deal with on a day to day basis, I do wish that constraints were maybe more explicitly enforced, however, a student may come upon a well thought out reasoning for going out-of-bounds, but this is where it gets a little gray. And the quote of art dying of freedom is true, constraints require critical thought to navigate through them, and this is where I believe great design happens. It reminds me of the firm you and I (and a number of jolly ole’ pals) visited in NYC (www.dbnyc.com). Their Black and White building (459 west 18th) dealt with the issue of new york building codes, and how in order to get light down to street level, towers were required to have a step back from the property line after so many feet going up. This was a constraint, as all building codes are. But not only did they satisfy the code they used the code the central idea of how the building took form. It’s simple, but not the most obvious choice.

    On a completely unrelated note: does html work in comments? I didn’t want to risk having a bunch of <href="http"//…. hackzorz showing up.

    Good post, never heard of dornob. Hooray more blogs to read!

  2. 2009/05/31 at 8:10 pm


    Haha. I totally forgot about your final project, but yea, it does embody some of those ideas. Regarding architectural goals, I’m not sure it’s necessary that the profession as a whole agrees on one, but the needs of individual projects and the pursuit of personal goals can certainly result in intriguing design. And maybe a space CAN be “understood” insofar as* it cannot be “understood” – it is recognizably confusing or disorienting or insane, and the implications of that are somehow implied by the space itself. That doesn’t make much sense. Oh well.

    I think I was at a loss some times last semester when we had less restraints, or the project prompts were more ambiguous (and then had to generate my own constraints…and I don’t even LIKE to follow the rules), so I agree that constraints are more than important to the decisions we make – one constraint, as you mentioned with DvB, can become the basis for form or program.

    As for dornob, I have to thank Phyllis for that gem of a site. :D

    Html works sometimes in comments. For links, it should be fine. (And if you put the entire link in on its own, with the http:// nonsense, it will also automatically make it an active link.) Images don’t seem to work for me (maybe it’s my Mac?), but I know they have for other people.

    * I died a little when I typed this phrase.

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