-I apologize in advance for the length of this article.
I am not an engineer nor an artist. I’m not a carpenter, welder, mechanic, graphic designer, nor an architect. And presently, I’m not even employed. At this point in time, after much retrospective, rationalization, post-rationalization, analysis, manual and mechanical labor, and 10000+ steps of stairs, I feel incredibly proud of the permanent Ceiling Installation at The A. Alfred Taubman Student Services Building Welcome Center. The latter, by the way, makes for a longer than usual title to be given to an equally complicated (overlong) professional project of design. As it stands, the project was never named, but it has become quite the conversation piece around campus, and even garnered the respect or lack-thereof of a nickname. Dialogue has always been welcomed. Such a project as many completed by the makeLab, tends to get our best abilities, the ones that we pessimistically believe we don’t possess, out of us. Thus, I become the engineer, the artist, and everything else inside and outside of architecture.
It’s important to note and to thank in advance all the people involved with this project, from Assistant Professor James C. Stevens for bringing forth the challenge, to my better half, Blerta Lici, for helping (free of charge) during the installation stages, as well as, Wayne Guo for helping one of the days with louver installation. Many people contributed to the project’s design iteration and critique. Prof. Martin Schwartz gave his expertise on lighting, and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Ralph Nelson, shared his view on materiality and design editing. Lastly, let us not forget the unique/quirky, but equally important, input of the average freshmen walking the hallways during the late evenings.
Starting in mid-February my partner, Steve Kroodsma, and myself had been engaged in an unusually challenging and complex project. It was offered to the makeLab early September of last year by the university and the CoAD, at which point, it was presented to my partner and me by makeLab director, James Stevens. I remember in great detail during our first meeting (of which we’re not supposed to talk about) how the problem was described with great frustration. Alternative solution samples were also presented, which amounted to high costs and bland, boring, and frankly inappropriate installations for an architecture school. Since the construction of the A. Alfred Taubman Student Services Center, the University Welcome Center has seen many bright and warm days; sometimes, too bright and maybe uncomfortably warmer ones, prompting space occupiers to voice their concerns for the under-utilization of the space. It was uncomfortable to work in, while sometimes impossible to run slide shows through the white projector screen. Such challenging issues required a lot of thought and planning to overcome. Thus, we embraced our “Technological” middle name, and decided to give the school something that will define not only what we do, but inspire others’ ambition for good design.
At the finish line, I’d like to explain step by step the arduous process of designing, planning, constructing, assembling, and installing the baffled ceiling. More importantly, the project highlighted the collaborative nature of our work, and the notion that the correct partnership can yield great results. Tolerance and mutual respect between colleagues is sometimes more important than talent and craftsmanship. Our peers make us better, and make architecture better.
Sketches, drawings, and 120 renderings of the sun simulation in an individually constructed 3D Rhino model, yielded the necessary data to construct a three-dimensional volume that resembled a strangely distorted pancake. Each rendering represented the sun exposure image burn on a selected construction plane selected between the existing super-strut structure above and the suspended light elements 24” underneath it. These images were generated for every hour between 9:00am and 6:00pm (daily occupancy period, when natural light affects workflow), on the 21st day of every month for the current year. The renderings were not only important for identifying the problem, but also for comparison with images generated in simulations of the project’s final 3D model. The accumulated data and sun simulations influenced 85% of the final formal design, reinforcing the makeLab philosophy of bottom-up approach in design. The availability of a sprinkler fire suppression system (implemented with the love and care of any contractor-architect collaboration), required that any installation, in the form of a suspended ceiling, should have 50% openness or permeability to meet the fire code. The success of this project was solely dependent on its performance and functionality, hence, using available construction floor plans and taking new measurements would eliminate further derailment during the installation phase. Yet, even the plans provided had discrepancies and of course no fire suppression system included. To circumvent such problems, we had to avoid the erratic placement of the fire suppressant pipes and elbows completely. (images below)
During the design phase of the project, we decided to emulate a scenario, where the project does not become a static fixture, permanently obstructing maintenance to the space and building structure. Formal flexibility, practicality, and the ability to disassemble with relative ease were important criteria that fit the goals set for functionality. Choosing ¼” Low Density Fiberboard as the base material for milling, ensured that components would be light in weight and flexible to bend around corners and obstacles during the transportation and installation phase. One of the main disadvantages of LDF was its fragility. Given the nature of our project, where every piece milled on the CNC machine would be unique in size and shape, damaged components would be unnecessary derailments to the main objective. However, the right partnership and meticulous handling of tasks assured that everything went smoothly and quicker than expected, given the number of people involved.
Choosing the correct color to paint the custom louvers was a stage of much debate in the makeLab and outside, as it represented more than just aesthetics. The appropriate color, would ensure the absorbance and diffusion of direct light, as well as, keep contextually in line with the space. A different shade, tint, or hue could possibly create a darker than desired environment. In conjunction with the new structure’s lower than original ceiling plane (8’ from the floor), a darker color would suppress/shrink the volume and possibly diminish functionality during presentations and formal events.
Manufacturing of 171 individual puzzle-like pieces yielded 66 different louvers that had to be glued, sanded, and painted, in limited working space. To be noted is the louvers’ characteristic for never giving away the final design form or application as they lied in the basement hallways beside student activity and curiosity. During the drying of louvers, hardware was assembled through a simple mechanism that Steve and I came up with to exponentially cut down time (and minimize human casualties). (video below)
The installation phase was surprisingly easier than expected. With a little help (again many thanks), we were able to adjust for miscalculations during the planning phase and improvise on space limitations. The final product will ensure that no matter what aesthetic impact the ceiling has, it will first and foremost accomplish the goals we set.
We never uttered the words “it looks cool” (although it did). We never shared our project as an artistic expression of our post-undergraduate employment frustration (although it maybe was??). We never intended to make architecture without meaning (although meaning has its own viewing platform within the public, and thus, it morphs). Someone, somewhere, even started calling our ceiling “the cloud” or even “the hills?!?”. Anyhow, that innate ability of architecture students to ridicule the unusual or the new (even when it looks repetitious), had me thinking about something that I generally don’t come across too often. It emphasized the possibility of letting a project reveal itself to the public, rather than through words and diagrams. Here is an opportunity to observe the success (or failure/redundancy) of a project through its performance. The people who will never read this blog entry are the final critics perhaps. The possibility to discard preconceived ideas, and allow first impressions to fuel the curiosity is what I took out of my undergraduate education. This project is what I leave behind.
Designed & Built by
Pandush Gaqi & Steve Kroodsma
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