MAKING MANIFEST: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ACTUAL IN THE DIGITAL DESIGN PROCESS

E. Carraher

University of Utah (UNITED STATES)
We believe that making concepts manifest is critical to students’ ability to comprehend, synthesize and utilize principles of design in their work. For instance, it is more difficult for beginning design students to understand how two lines on a page represent a wall if they have never built or closely studied an actual wall. The same is true for abstract principles when students have no reference for these concepts. This does not mean that complex tools should not be introduced at their fundamental level early in students’ architecture education. By pairing actual with virtual processes and making the parallels between the two apparent, we find that students are able to more quickly grasp intricate concepts, thoughtfully utilize complex tools and comprehend how principles can translate across media and disciplines to inform their work.

Through case studies of student work, we will present the process, framework and results of a model that has proven successful in fostering effective integration of digital technologies and computational design concepts into a first-year architecture studio project using collaboration (both amongst students within the studio as well as with other departments on campus); contextualization of concepts; actualization in material reality; and iteration through multiple cycles of actual/virtual translation.

The project charged students to develop a Parametric Screen using computational design and digital fabrication tools. The method of letterpress printing was presented as a parallel system the students could explore through empirical means, both as a technological precedent and programmatic component (i.e. the design was to be used to rehabilitate an existing building for a new letterpress studio) to help them more-easily comprehend the computational design principles. Both processes can be seen as having similar frameworks and requiring consistent logics to be legible as an overall composition.
During the project, students were introduced to the history and principles of the craft of letterpress and visited the University’s Book Arts Studio where they saw several types of presses in action. They participated in the printing process themselves and learned about setting type. Through study and analysis, the students – working in groups – began to identify elements of letterpress printing that they translated into architectural language. These elements were then given form and further developed computationally.

The students were constantly asked to iterate between developing their projects digitally and physically. They modeled joints, explored materials and were exposed to digital fabrication as a way of most directly making virtual information physical. The final models for the project were 4’ x 8’ full-scale mockups of a section of the students’ screens produced using a combination of traditional and digital means.

By learning complex processes like parametric design through the lens of an analogous system such as letterpress printing, the students were able to make connections between similar logics used by both methods. We believe the high quality of the student design responses proves the value of the model and are working to expand it as a consistent method for introducing students to digital technology in a grounded way.