The Diverse Faces of CED

One of the core missions of the College of Environmental Design is to provide access to an extraordinarily fine university education and college experience, regardless of the financial circumstances of the students we recruit, teach and mentor. Part of this mission is to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to come to CED. At the undergraduate level, for example, we have particularly sought to increase access for students of color, as well as those who come from low income households, are immigrants, or are the first in their families to go to college.

These efforts have been led by Susan Hagstrom, Director of Undergraduate Programs, and Renee Chow, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs. Several strategies have been important. They include aggressive recruiting via the CED website, social networking, and visits to high schools and community colleges. Adviser Omar Ramirez serves as Undergraduate Diversity Officer, working with campus on larger student recruitment strategies. And, since peer-to-peer relationships are always persuasive, Susan and her advising team created the CED Admissions Ambassadors Internship Program, that mobilized current CED undergraduates to speak to high school and community college groups, talk to prospective students, and chat with them on the web.

CED students
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The results have been striking: CED is now home to UC Berkeley’s highest percentage of students coming from households of modest means, indicated by their eligibility for Pell Grants, as well as the highest percentage of historically underrepresented minority students and many immigrant and first generation college students. In 2012-13, 48% of CED undergraduates received Pell Grants, 16% above the campus average. Our unique student body creates a rich and vibrant community within the College of Environmental Design. Also enlivening our community are growing numbers of out-of-state and international students.

UC Berkeley’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Program insures that students coming from families with modest household incomes ($80,000 or less), do not pay tuition or fees. But the financial constraints of many CED students present distinct challenges for them: according to UC Berkeley’s Financial Aid Office, in 2014, the average family income of CED Pell Grant recipients was under $25,000. And, because CED offers design-based majors, our students face additional costs. They need an up-to-date computer that can run design and animation software, and are also required to purchase modeling, building and art supplies and to print and plot (in 2 and 3 dimensions) to complete their projects and their degree programs. Architecture majors, for example, spend on average more than $3600 per year (excluding books or computer). This amount constitutes 15% of the average family income of CED students who receive Pell Grants.

New CED Digital Fabrication Lab
New CED Digital Fabrication Lab Enlarge [+]

Thus almost half of our 570 undergraduate students struggle to cover both their living expenses, and the added costs of a CED education. This situation directly impacts their performance in school. As one student wrote to us, “Coupled with costs for model-making materials, each project becomes an extremely expensive endeavor. It not only takes hard work and dedication to thrive in the major, but also the ability to afford printing and material costs.” Sometimes students are forced to make untenable choices; as another student explained: “Due to limited amounts of personal funds, I have had to choose between paying for materials or lab fees, or paying for living expenses. In the past, I have chosen to pay for groceries and rent instead.”

As dean, I am committed to doing my utmost to deploy existing resources, and generate new resources, to insure that no student is compelled to go hungry in order to succeed at CED. So, we have created an Access Fee Waiver Program for Pell Grant recipients. This program offsets a portion of facility access, use and printing fees. While this existing financial waiver program is helpful, we know it is not enough. In an effort led by Assistant Dean for Infrastructure and Information Technology Patty Mead, and our Fabrication Shop Manager Semar Prom, with an Innovation Award from the UC Berkeley Office of Equity & Inclusion, we are also opening a Materials Store. At the Materials Store, students will be able to conveniently purchase a range of course-related materials and supplies, at reasonable prices; some of the proceeds will go to enlarging our Access Fee Waiver Program.

If you would like to contribute to either of these efforts — by providing Access Fee Waivers ($500 each) or supporting the Materials Store — please contact me at

CED Update

Every day, there seems to be another news story about the dire state of higher education in California. With state government facing record deficits and the economy still struggling to recover, the University of California has been hard-hit with successive budget cuts.

UC Berkeley, despite its status as the system’s flagship campus, has not been exempt from resource reductions and staff layoffs. Funding from the state’s general fund now accounts for only about one-fifth of Cal’s budget; for the first time ever, both the share of funds from philanthropic support and the share from student fees exceeded contributions from the state. We are indeed living in interesting times!

Continue reading “CED Update”

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 [+]