By Rennie Tang & Houston Drum

Just wanted to report back on a morning spent listening to an impressive panel of jurors that included Alan Berger, Dana Cuff, Jeffrey Inaba, Karen Lohrmann, and Hernan Diaz Alonso amongst others. Led by Thom Mayne, Suprastudio is about envisioning the future of American cities. Each student chose a city and presented intelligently researched data delivered in bold graphic quality ready for publication, basically setting up an argument for a problem of their own creation; this was followed by an urban scale proposal that attempted to address the problem and provoke a dialogue around it. Cities chosen were Toledo, Flint, New Orleans, and Tuscon.

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In a nutshell, all the morning proposals tended to revolve around a general agreement that cities should turn into infrastructures for green technology. Notions of shrinkage, infill and skinning were brought to the table, prompting counter arguments about what happens to the rest—behind the skin, the already filled, the unshrunk. More specifically, strategies ranged from large scale gestures such as using vacant buildings in Toledo as scaffolding to hang curtains of thin-film solar panels which doubled as surfaces for art and corporate logos, to ground-up socially imbued agendas like filling up vacant lots in Flint with community gardens and street markets.

While embracing green technology as a kind of future paradigm for the American city makes sense, the social consequences and architectural opportunities were left largely unquestioned, which was disappointing given that the studio taught by Thom Mayne. Although architecture was not the point of the studio, its unfortunate absence was apparent towards the end of each presentation where students attempted to demonstrate that the big urban gestures do operate at a human scale. Photoshopping silhouettes of solar panel canopies as shade structures over a street market seemed unsubstantial in comparison to robustness of the urban moves. While it is wonderful to see architects engaged as strategic thinkers rather than just form-makers, it would seem appropriate as architects to eventually turn the conversation back around to what they are experts at, which is architecture—not economics, engineering or urban planning. It would have been nice to see them draw upon their own specific skills sets to shift the conversation to a whole new place. Some comments from critics that stuck in my mind were:

“I’ve seen this proposal a thousand times in Landscape Architecture schools all over the country.”

“There is a tendency to smear green…”

“What if you took the photoshop away?”

Then again, to make up for the lack of architecture in this studio I simply had to step into the next room to witness full scale prototypes of innovative building facade systems. I will let Houston elaborate…

As a former Suprastudio student and UCLA Architecture Graduate, it is always exciting to come back and see what both Suprastudio and the rest of the department are accomplishing. Alongside Rennie, I was perplexed by the lack of architectural investigation in the Suprastudio work. Something you would not normally expect from Thom Mayne. One thing we do know is that it was very intentional on his part, but as to why he went this direction I don’t think anyone can be sure. With 30 weeks for one studio, I had fantasized about in-depth architecture/urban planning proposals that seek to prove the propositions their exquisite research led them to.

A little background on Suprastudio: It is a year-long studio for M. Arch II students (those who already have a B. Arch), led by one of three “starchitect” professors. These are Neil Denari (who was my professor in the first Suprastudio ever), Greg Lynn, and Thom Mayne. The intention of the program is not to reiterate what was learned or taught in undergraduate school or even the M. Arch I program. Suprastudio is supposed to be an environment where everything is taken to the next level, or even multiple levels above everyone else. While Neil certainly accomplished this task with our group, it was disappointing this year to see that one of the best-of-the-best architects and professors did not setup the program to achieve the same results.

At this event we attended, RUMBLE, the entire department of architecture and urban design perform their reviews on the same day, in one building. This has created an archi-culture phenomenon, where large crowds of expert jurors, professors, professionals, and observers come to see the work every year. There are juries and reviews in just about every room and hallway throughout Perloff Hall. You are always reminded how big of a deal this event is when you pass by Peter Cook or Frank Gehry in the hallway, not to mention seeing Thom Mayne get scolded by Jeff Kipnis in front of a crowd of people. Whether observing the review of the full-scale façade prototypes, or catching a glimpse of Greg Lynn’s review, or sitting in on Neil Denari’s Geo-Graphics studio review, it is clearly evident that there is this passionate culture for design, theory, technology, and representation embedded in the faculty, students, and the department. Their collective goal is to be the absolute best at everything involved in the profession. From the renderings, to the graphics, to the models, to the intelligence behind the projects, it is clear that UCLA is certainly achieving its objective.

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A Short Synopsis of Neil’s Geo-Graphics Research Studio

This studio focused on a hyper dense redesign of Westwood Village, while investigating the integration of sustainable technologies into advanced media and advertising systems. This created a blatantly apparent conflict between production and consumption, and the synergetic dependency that exists between the two. The dialogue at one point grasped onto this cosmic battle, and it was made clear that consumption cannot occur without production, and there is no point in producing something without consuming it. The decision to create a new Westwood Village was an appropriate choice of scale for the 10-week studio, which allowed the students to be forced to address the parameters of urban planning (circulation, zoning, density, form, etc.) without having the extra responsibility of researching and integrating larger scale infrastructure and transportation systems into the schemes. The solutions in this studio were well-researched, aggressive, urban and architectural solutions that challenged many of the notions of typical city-planning, particularly challenging the Los Angeles model. The studio also focused on a correlation between product design and urban design, which led to a very graphical, personal and relatable scale to the form of the dense city architecture. From a studio of Neil’s, I expect nothing less than to see exotic form, high-level representation, and intelligent schemes with a practical rigor that allows the projects to maintain a realizable status. My expectations were fulfilled.

Read more about Rumble on Archinect.