Recap :: Research as Practice

Process at RadLab ǁ Image:
 By Rand Lemley, BArch Candidate

Design is research. This attitude can be seen throughout centuries of problem solving, from the evolution of the pyramids at Giza to the incremental improvements of the iconic Eames chair. Design as research sounds like such a simple idea, so simple that it is easy to forget that we, as designers, are continually adding to a body of knowledge with each iteration of each project, whether it be in sketch, model, or built work. Research is often associated with white coats and laboratories, but designers often work outside the stereotypical research environment using the same model of experimentation and repetition. At a recent symposium at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, entitled Convergence: Research as Practice, local designers spoke about their approach to work and how their work benefits from and adds to a working body of knowledge.

RadLab layout. ǁ Image: Rand Lemley
Matt Trimble
Matt Trimble, founder of RadLab, says his office is a blank canvas that has myriad possibilities and has tremendous freedom to fail. RadLab is a design and fabrication shop that has partnered with the BAC in digital fabrication workshops and classes. Using a combination of six-axis robotic arms, water jets, and more traditional woodworking tools, they often turn out radically textured projects. Of the designers who spoke that night, Trimble’s office is set up most similarly to a traditional laboratory -- with some fun test materials as decoration. RadLab took a former dress factory and warehouse and divided it into four sections, each with a distinct purpose. The separation allows the dirty work of the woodshop and machine milling room to stay separate from the more delicate work in the clean room by using the high-ceilinged design office as a buffer and filter.

The crib being milled. ǁ Image:
To see the research in practice, Trimble explained three projects. Recently his office has been experimenting with constructing materials prior to cutting with robotics. The first time this technique was used, RadLab laminated a series of sheets of wood together, then milled a crib space for a toddler from the mass. Using their experience from the lamination, the team took it a step further with their entry for the Fort Point Harborwalk bench competition. They joined reclaimed wood pieces together to form a large bench block, which was then milled into its final shape. The result of both the crib and bench show a stark contrast between the raw and cut material, and provide a base of knowledge from which the team can make larger projects in the future. The third project was a sole for New Balance running shoes. RadLab poured a seemingly random rubber sole for the shoes using a map of pressure points on runners’ steps. Experimental data directly influenced the final design.

Moving bookshelves at Orange Labs. ǁ Image: Rand Lemley
Alex Anmahian
Alex Anmahian is a founder and principal at Anmahian Winton Architects. For him, creation and research form a cycle which constantly inform each other. Design is deliberate, unpredictable, practical, and specific, while knowledge is a result of the process, not the aim. Design is all about reconciling contradictions. One project that illustrates this concept is Orange Labs, built in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA. The client was a research and development think tank that needed privacy, yet at the same time desired a way to bring the outdoors in. Anmahian achieved this by using atriums to penetrate deep into the building. The atriums were planted with bamboo, which has grown thick to conceal much of the work indoors. Anmahian also created an intimate meeting space that transforms into an auditorium lecture hall by mechanically sliding bookshelves outward, again showing how design reconciles contradictions.

Harry Parker Boathouse. ǁ Image:Jane Messinger
The Harry Parker Boathouse for Community Rowing Inc. is perhaps the most well-known project by Anmahian Winton. To drive the project, Anmahian asked the question, “how do you dry hulls fastest in a longhouse?” which led to using three forms as inspiration: tobacco houses, hangars, and billboards. Tobacco houses are used to dry tobacco leaves after being picked and served to give organization to the boathouse. Hangars have a changing form that is used to house vehicles. The idea of a transforming building inspired the louvres that line the boathouse and allow varying amounts of airflow, depending on how widely they are opened. Anmahian used billboards as an inspiration because of the site’s close proximity to the Mass Pike. The iconic form of the boathouse now serves to provide instant recognition of Community Rowing and its mission.

In the discussion portion, Matt Trimble commented on the role of the “15% rule” in his office, saying it can be problematic, yet is fully invited. The research provides a framework for practice. Alex Anmahian replied by saying that all his work was the type provided for in the 15%. When asked privately about the role of folly in their work, Trimble said that each project is a form of folly, and if something doesn’t work for one project, the idea is often recycled for later use. Anmahian gave a similar answer, adding that each project has elements that won’t immediately work, but instead go into the office’s bank of ideas. Forms and techniques often resurface later, when they can be put to better use. From these answers, it is easy to see that research is not confined to the lab; rather, it is an integral part of the design process that, even if not instantly applicable, can be used in later designs.