Tianjin City Building

In September, Studio Urbis was asked by the Hexi District government in Tianjin, China, to prepare a conceptual design for four sites divided by an intersection of a 12-lane arterial highway and six-lane “local collector.”

We took this project on as “research” into the problems of superblocks with increasingly wide roadways and setbacks that predominate contemporary Chinese development. This current pattern reinforces boundaries between sites, with each development discontinuous from the rest of the city. Our strategy was to extend the pedestrian fabric of the district into the form of the buildings as three dimensional paths that move through multiple levels of all four sites and span the river of cars. The city of Tianjin, agreeing with our analysis of the district, has accepted our proposal for an expanded pedestrian environment.


Winner of an international competition, Limelight, a temporary installation, was conceived to celebrate one of England’s beloved champion trees at Westonbirt Arboretum.
David Meyer
A bird’s eye view of the installation in early summer; Inset: A basswood model of the design, illustrating the simple earthwork surrounding the champion tree. (David Meyer) Enlarge [+]

Meyer + Silberberg created an earthen “medallion” that calls people to the tree and then provides them with a perfect spot to sit in admiration of the country’s grandest sycamore maple.

The idea called for a gesture that would complement the tree without detracting from it. It felt like we were not so much creating a landscape as revealing one. That informed our decision to create the form using nothing but dirt, grass and light. The design exemplifies two ideals that are central to my studio and teaching. First, the importance of concept, and second, the importance of mindful execution.

Limelight quickly became the talk of the festival and the design received the “Visitor’s Choice” award–high praise from the most passionate gardeners in the world.

David Meyer
Left: The axial view of the installation from the front in late summer, when the meadow has grown out and a path has been mowed that draws one into the installation.; Right: A visitor enjoys the solitude while gazing up at the sculptural structure of the tree. (David Meyer) Enlarge [+]

Volumetric Evolution: 21 Point Manifesto

  • SOLITAIRE: Logic, Numbers, Science, Inner Process
  • LIVE FEED:  History, Theory, The Living, DNA
  • GNAR: Epoch, Speed, Velocity, Extremism, Gravity
  • CONTINUOUS NON-ORIENTABLE: Surfaces, vert-mass, Façade, Earthwork, mega-form
  • N-BETWEEN: X-Ray, Parallelism, perpendicularity, Adjacency
  • BLACK ON BLACK: The Hidden, mini-mass, Built-in, Storage, folded shadow
  • PLASTICS: Folds, Lofts, Pulls, Strokes, Vectors
  • PRISMATICS: Crystal, Rhomboid, Reflection, Translucency, Multiplicity
  • CANTILEVER: Time, Structure, Action, Extension
  • FLUIDITY: Contour, Wire Frame
  • PIGMENT: Color, humanity, Art, Programmatic fluctuation
  • CAMOUFLAGE: Anti-pattern, Transparency, Overlay
  • STAR SKY: Vertical movement, Roof Deck
  • SYNTHETICS: layering, Skin, envelope
  • KNIFE SPACE: Feasting, Cooking, Devouring, Kitchen
  • SEVENS: Proportion, Eroticism, Sexuality, Model, Structure
  • RHYTHMICS: Instrumentality, Music, Sound
  • PLASMATICS: Anamorphous, Biological, Nostalgia, Blood
  • CINEMATICS: Projection, Wall, Sequence, Event
  • TECHTONICS: Building, forces, Texture, Fabrication, Construction
  • RE-EVOLUTION: Eternal Recurrence = Again + Again + Again

Experimentation is a conscious aim of Volume 21: Office for Architecture. A critical awareness of the ‘envelope’ of architectural practice chases us toward a series of motivations, procedures and strategies for working. The ideas are active in research (design process), technology (fabrication and construction) and pedagogy (writing and teaching).


Keith Plymale
Speed 101–A study of acceleration, speed and ‘collapsed’ perspective. A museum competition in Nor-Cal was developed using analogous process methods  used in construction: material lamination, spatial layering and de-lamination for fabrication & construction.  [project collaboration with Michael Tauber] Enlarge [+]
Keith Plymale
Ponte Dell ‘Anzelo’ Lungo — A conceptual bridge spanning the Giudecca canal in Venezia. A 21st century ‘hybrid’ program for a city within a megaform, like its 1591 sibling; the Rialto, the span is to be as luminous, thin and translucent as physically possible. Enlarge [+]

Strange Attractions

Arriving by automobile to most American cities the exit ramp marks the boundary between fast and slow. The city street grid connects park, plaza, lot and yards.

Urbanist Jane Jacobs suggested that parks are mere abstractions without the streets that act upon them. In the same context are urban landscape types simply abstractions until we begin to think about the things and spaces that they touch?

Walter J. Hood
Walter J. Hood Enlarge [+]

This research project suggests that there can be spatial relationships between the freeway and the park, and that there may be an indeterminate system that can be derived from their relationship.

The public landscapes serve as case studies for cities with large-scale infrastructure (freeway) morphologies. Examining the various landscape types in each city (parks, plazas, streets, etc.,) reveals a simple set of landscapes that preceded the freeway as the governing morphology. In each city the freeway is superimposed onto a clear system of streets, squares and parks.

The attraction between the park and the freeway is facilitated in two scenarios.


The freeway and its rights-of-way are autonomous, fallow space in the city…a fence; a protected boundary; space set aside for future use; a planting zone to ameliorate and mitigate; a set-aside; a space for future expansion; a space for enlargement. Freeways never get narrower. They always get wider.


Large parks within the city are now an anomaly. Eight hundred or more acres in the middle of the city! Industrial sites no longer in use are yielding large parcels for park use…but most are at the city’s edge. By the end of the 20th century we are content with parks that are a mere one-quarter acre. Given this scale, parks can’t give structure to the city, to the neighborhood. They just multiply without a clear strategy. Everyone wants open space!


These studies suggest that parks and freeways can attract one another. This manifests in two ways: the park can strategically multiply itself or it can be enlarged. In either case a new city form manifests. Formally indeterminate, the scale and structure can now act upon the freeway–and in turn the freeway can act upon the park; a strange but welcome attraction!

Walter J. Hood
Walter J. Hood Enlarge [+]

Latent Form | Convex Hull

Ogrydziak and Prillinger
Core looking East Enlarge [+]

In studio, as in our own work, we are always most interested in the underlying formational logics or stories that govern a project’s evolution. The inaugural mark of design is always cataclysmic, a disruption that initiates a cascade of difference out of which form emerges.

This project examines the origin of form, the blurry line between something and nothing. We posit the base condition as an undifferentiated infinite universe, dormant with a set of rules for creating boundary states. The space is charged with a specific self-dividing logic based on the convex hull algorithm for spatial partitioning. The first move designates a core, an empty point in space. The next move, an emission from the core, bifurcates the universe. This initial division of space, a tearing open of the ground, creates an opposition that launches form out of nothing. Subsequent emissions and their bifurcations propel the accumulation of difference, an increasingly complex formal structure. Each generation of expansion disrupts the previous state, causing the whole system to lurch into the next state.

Ogrydziak and Prillinger
Core looking West Enlarge [+]
Ogrydziak and Prillinger
Section Enlarge [+]

Braided Screen

Maximiliano Spina
Braided Screen–Wire-meshed Rubber Enlarge [+]

Braided Screen is an exploration in structure, rethought as an attribute of the surface, rather than as its delineating boundary or frame.

The proposition seeks to design continuous, porous screen: a highly permeable envelope, structurally articulated as a lattice, in which its porosity and structure allow for the gradual modulation of the interior environment.

Conceived as a hybrid, operating in between the mass produced and the crafted as well as the inert and the malleable, the screen is designed to fulfill a wide range of architectural applications that respond to local conditions and desires, facilitated by its novel structural features, light-diffusing properties and an unprecedented cultivation of interstitial spaces within the screen. In this way, this project is an endeavor to further re-examine our ability to mass-produce non-standardized yet repetitive industrial components by synthesizing their conception, new serial logic and local variation and differentiation in series.

The design seeks to delaminate and thicken the surface to physically interweave different environments while allowing for formal and material continuity by employing a topological iterative technique that operates at various scales. Successive iterations of finer and finer scale surface striation integrate and articulate geometry, structure and material as the screen’s shape along with its modulation, or locally constituted architecture, change elastically. A number of patterns, a result of this technique’s infinite expansion through repeating convoluted configurations, were explored.

Maximiliano Spina
Formation–Single and double Braids; Mockup–Construction process, Wire-meshed rubber Enlarge [+]

The braided screen uses a composite material, wire-meshed rubber, and a simple construction technique such as the torque, which allows the stranded surface to operate locally both as surface and structure in a varying continuum, from stiffness to pliability, responding in this way to changing parameters.

Opportunities in New Form Generation

Where does meaningful built form come from? What generates form that inspires the imagination, becomes memorable, and enriches our lives?

Questions like these have challenged the planning and design professions for millennia. Spawning much theorizing, especially over the last half century, this questioning has reached a level of urgency because powerful new digital design tools allow us to generate form previously unimaginable.

Harrison S. Fraker Jr.
Systems Recombinatio by M.Arch. student, Emergent Esherick Studio, Instructor: Tom Wiscombe Enlarge [+]

New computer software (like Maya and Rhino) enable the transformation of spatial geometries according to a set of “rules” or algorithms, generating emerging forms which would have been almost impossible to imagine without the computer and which gain meaning from an understanding of the steps of their serial emergence. The formal order and spatial geometries of previously separate building components, like skin and structure, a stair and floor support, the desired affinities between program spaces, etc., can be considered together. Their geometric “DNA” can be programmed to interact through a series of feedback “instructions” to produce a new “hybrid” spatial synthesis–a new combinational form.

Just as it is only possible to digitally conceive of these forms, the ability to construct such forms is only possible through the digitally guided manufacturing of their pieces. Through the computer, the object is not only the end result of its own generative history, but also its construction depends on the embedded geometric “DNA” in its digital record-process and products (in both thinking and making) have become co-joined.

At the same time as digital modeling tools have spawned a whole new wave of experimental form making, Building Information Modeling (BIM) software is making it possible to conduct detailed analyses of building performance on multiple levels. The software allows the three-dimensional construction of a virtual building. It assembles the building into “intelligent” three-dimensional “objects,” (like a wall, floor, roof or skin) which can be assigned physical properties, such as structural characteristics, thermal and light transmission values, acoustical characteristics, and cost, to name a few. By assigning specific properties to the building components or “objects,” it becomes possible to run powerful dynamic situation models. A building’s dynamic interaction with climate, its mechanical system operation and energy performance, its structural behavior, its acoustic qualities, its first cost and operating costs, and many more operations, can be simulated in real time. Different options can be tested. It allows for rapid prototyping of different alternatives with input from multiple consultants. Work on the evolution of a design can proceed almost simultaneously because changes and adjustments are propagated through the system automatically. All of these capacities, while available, are still relatively difficult to operate without extensive experience with the software and knowledge of building systems, but their promise is revolutionary for the profession and education.

Paradoxically, these revolutionary digital modeling tools only enhance, rather than negate, the last 50 years of theorizing about the generation of form. In surprising ways, they collapse or layer multiple theoretical propositions on top of each other and afford the possibility that they be reconsidered together. However, some theoretical practices have obvious affinities.

In his introduction to Diagram Diaries titled “Dummy Text, or the Diagrammatic Basis of Contemporary Architecture,” Robert Somol argues that the diagram has replaced the sketch as the primary generator of form. In contrast to Christopher Alexander’s “patterns” and Robert Venturi’s iconographic fragments, Somol points out that Peter Eisenman’s axonometric diagrams are self-referential; their subject is the emergence of their own form. He explains that Eisenman seeks to create an architecture that is beyond the organization of the program (Alexander) and free from associations (Venturi). Whether this is possible is a highly contested theoretical question. Nonetheless, Eisenman’s experiments, his “cardboard architecture,” highlight that understanding and meaning can come from formal diagrammatic operations–the serial tracing of a building or landscape’s emergence.

Clearly, the parametric generation of form through digital modeling tools shares many characteristics with Eisenman’s diagrammatic operations (not surprisingly, Eisenman’s practice has now become digital). It presents a puzzle; a sense that the form has been produced by a series of operations and has been driven by a hidden “code” that begs discovery. The end result fascinates by challenging us to imagine its prior conditions. The form engages our conceptual imagination.

The idea that built form can have a diagrammatic emergence–that it is a phase in a phase-change process, is not a new idea. It can be traced back to insights about time and perception in both simultaneous (synthetic) and serial (analytical) cubism. It owes a greater debt, however, to the inspiration of the landscape and ecological succession, where everything is “in the making.” It was made visible by Lawrence Halprin in his RSVP Cycles, but further when he asked participants in his workshops “to draw the process which created a place.” The idea of time and process, as manifest in any site being a phase in a phase-change process, is central to current landscape-design discourse. But, it also begs many questions.

Harrison S. Fraker Jr.
DIGITAL WEAVE: SFMoMA Installation from Prof. L. Iwamoto Graduate Seminars & Studio: CAD/CAM TRANSLATIONS Enlarge [+]
Harrison S. Fraker Jr.
DIGITAL WEAVE: SFMoMA Installation from Prof. L. Iwamoto Graduate Seminars & Studio: CAD/CAM TRANSLATIONS Enlarge [+]

It eventually leads to other theoretical propositions beyond Eisenman’s. If form has a diagrammatic emergence beyond a static decorated diagram or collage, how do you know what phase in the process is optimal and represents the design that should be built? (a question posed by Michael Speaks). Can transformational operations lead to a formal “conclusion?” Do the transformative operations apply to the whole building (as in Eisenman’s projects), or can they be applied to parts “fixed,” against which the transformations are read? (See the work of Holl, Herzog & de Meuron). Other questions emerge such as: Where do the parametric algorithms come from? What different orders do they reference? (See Venturi’s iconographic associations). Is it inevitable that we read a previously unimagined parametrically generated form against its prior type (Colquhoun’s typology and design method)? What about the site and context? Can they be thought of as having their own emergence? If so, can the phases in their emergence be reconstructed, imagined or diagrammed? (“Contextualism,” Frampton’s “critical regionalism,” Halprin’s hidden processes). Can such diagrams reveal new insights, or hidden potentials, where a design idea can engage these “givens” to produce a new combination form? Also, what about the program–why should its “patterns” (Alexander, ironically Koolhaas’s Seattle Library) be excluded from the diagrammatic operations? All of these questions and their theoretical backgrounds may help answer the question about what phase in a phase-change to choose.

The answer to how one integrates all of these questions may also reside in the integration of these three-dimensional parametric modeling programs with BIM. Imagine that, as the 3D modeling programs spin out new spatial and material forms, BIM could provide empirical performance evaluations to help choose a preferred iteration. In this way, the environmental performance, the ecological footprint as a form generator, for example (see Olgyay, Fitch), can be integrated with other issues of form generation, including other theoretical propositions about the site, program, structure and construction referenced above. Thus, through the computer, theoretical design speculations and empirical analyses come together, enhancing the evaluation of a preferred solution. While we are still a long way from achieving full integration, we are getting closer and partial integration is already feasible. In the meantime, as the projects that follow illustrate, we are in an exciting time of experimental form generation. Each of the projects, along with some of the most notable examples of contemporary practice, are engaged in finding ways to make the diagrammatic generation of form not only have meaning within its own referential system, but also to create broader meanings beyond their internal logic. Finding those strategies and connections to broader meanings is as emergent a search as the diagrammatic operations themselves. For the promise of integrating 3D parametric modeling and performance simulation to enhance the generation of meaningful form, the practitioners and faculty involved in each must join forces in a concerted effort.

Harrison S. Fraker Jr.
Underfloor Air Distribution Design Guide by Fred S. Bauman Enlarge [+]

East Oakland School of the Arts

The deconstruction of an abandoned industrial arts building establishes a series of fluid spaces and dynamic surfaces that support the program of an East Oakland public high school.

The project reused an old and long-abandoned industrial arts building at the edge of the campus. Whether industrial or fine, arts are about making things, and the building celebrates this spirit of anticipation, of the unfinished, of evolving creative and productive energy. The design vocabulary emphasizes building as backdrop, students and their work as foreground. The resulting school is more fragments of walls than rooms, more patches of sunlight than institutionalized enclosures, more ambiguities of interiority than the explicitness of inside and out.

Jill Stoner
View into gallery Enlarge [+]
Jill Stoner
West end of north hall, with pivoting walls that open to gallery and courtyard Enlarge [+]


Cities of the future will need to be ever more interconnected yet also more self-reliant. To accommodate a projected doubling of population by 2018 while resisting further outward sprawl, the Bay Area and San Francisco together will require a new infrastructural network that is able to collect and distribute water, power, fuel, and goods while also accommodating the transport of residents and tourists.

Lisa Iwamoto
Hydronet, Lisa Iwamoto Enlarge [+]

Symbiotic and multi-scalar, SF Hydro-Net is proposed as an inhabitable infrastructure that organizes critical flows of the city. It provides an underground arterial circulation network for hydrogen-fueled hover-cars, removing higher-speed traffic from city streets. Hydro-Net emerges above ground at the waterfront and multiple neighborhood nodal points. Here, new architectures bloom at key locales in the form of opportunistic urban caves, reeds and outcroppings that link the above and below-ground worlds, fostering new social spaces and urban forms fed by Hydro-Net’s resources and connectivity.

Hydro-Net also serves to simultaneously collect, distribute and store freshwater, geothermal energy and hydrogen fuel. Built with automated drilling robots, Hydro-Net’s tunnel walls are structured using carbon nanotube technology. Algae ponds will reoccupy areas along the bay impacted by the projected 5-meter water-level rise of global climate change. This new aquaculture zone provides the raw material for the production of hydrogen fuel that is stored and distributed within the nanotube tunnel walls.

New high-density housing co-exists with this aquaculture zone as a forest of sinuous towers. Hydro-Net becomes a device to tap the vast reserves of water and power housed within the earth below San Francisco, storing and distributing energy and fresh water from existing underground geothermal fields and aquifers stretching from Golden Gate Park to San Francisco International Airport. Replacing today’s street paving that sends rainwater runoff into the sewer, new porous pavement allows rain to recharge the aquifer’s Hydro-Net also links to an array of fog harvesters, diversifying sources of water.

Ultimately, Hydro-Net sponsors new programmatic potentials in its underground nodes and above-ground tendrils, while allowing much of the character of above-ground San Francisco to be served and to evolve organically.

Lisa Iwamoto
Lisa Iwamoto’s “Hydro-Net” design won the History Channel’s City of the Future regional contest in January 2008. The timed competition asked several teams of architects to design how San Francisco should look in 100 years Enlarge [+]
Lisa Iwamoto
Iwamoto’s design then went up against other regional winners, from Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, in an online public vote to determine which design is the best in the country. Tune in to the season finale of “cities of the Underworld” on the History Channel on May 5 at 9 p.m. EST to find out which design wins the top prize! Enlarge [+]

Famous Trees: Emergence, Progression, Procession

Judith Stilgenbauer
Left to right: Plantings surfacing above the Memorial Wall, 228 National Memorial Park. Graphic by Judith Stilgenbauer Enlarge [+]

Dynamic and temporal elements distinguish open space from built form. Landscapes are not static; they develop and change. Processes in natural landscapes occur at various speeds. Some take millions of years, others minutes. Plant life reacts on the yearly pattern of seasons and the daily rhythm of night and day. Plantings evolve over the course of their lives–they grow mature, flourish, and decay. We perceive landscape through movement in space and time.

Environmental designers throughout history intended to control nature or to “enhance” its beauty by manipulating temporal qualities and slowing change. In contrast, many recent designed landscapes embrace a new aesthetic of ephemeral characteristics such as growth, spontaneity, and decay.

In the case of our “228 National Memorial Park” project in Taiwan, the metaphor of proliferating giant bamboo that will eventually surface above a memorial wall is pivotal to the design concept. Plants materialize the key idea of process in this new memorial landscape designed to achieve its meaning over time.

Comparing the situation in the 1930s with today, my “Famous Trees of California Revisited” project addresses the significance of 50 tree specimens in the natural and cultural history of California. In this publication, we intend to illustrate the development of the trees and their surroundings over the last 75 years, exploring how environmental awareness and our attitude toward design, nature, and preservation have evolved.

Judith Stilgenbauer
228 National Memorial Park; first prize, open international design competition, 2006. Project currently under construction. Graphic by Judith Stilgenbauer Enlarge [+]
Judith Stilgenbauer
The Lone Sentinel at Yosemite in the 1930s, Famous Trees of California Revisited. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley Enlarge [+]
Judith Stilgenbauer
Left: First California pepper tree at Mission San Luis Rey in 2007, Famous Trees of California Revisited. Photo by Janet C. Delaney. Right: Maunsell Van Rensselaer Collection, (2006). Photo courtesy Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley Enlarge [+]