06/22/2011 12:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Thoughtful Making of Space

Week three of the Saturday High architecture class at Art Center College of Design. Today I want to concentrate on the concept of shaping, defining space. The quote by Louis Kahn: "Architecture is the thoughtful making of space" is very appropriate. In addition, I need to introduce the following vocabulary:

space-the three-dimensional field in which objects and events occur and have relative position and direction. It has a defined shape and a sense of boundary.
proportion-harmonious relation of one part to another or to the whole with respect to magnitude, quantity, or degree.
scale-a certain proportional size, extent, or degree usually judged in relation to some standard or point of reference.
human scale-relative to dimensions of the human body.

We start with a mind map, a warm-up activity that they need to get into the habit of doing. I put the words "Good Designer" in the center of the board with lines radiating from it. Then I ask each one of the students to come up and write down one descriptive adjective. Of course, the first one is "creative" -- that's obvious to them. Then someone writes "alternative." I need to clarify that one. Basically, it means "flexible." They think a good designer is "conceptual, smart, has a good sense of style, attentive, organized, open-minded." We brainstorm together and come up with "passionate, optimistic, empathetic with human needs and desires," and "someone who is able to confront a blank piece of paper."


Irene's mind map of "simplicity" in her ideal room


Tyler's collage of "contrast and paradox" in his ideal room

Last week we worked on developing a parti for their project. Today each one of them has to share the results of the exercise. Going back to the mind map we have just developed, I push my high-schoolers to give their concept more weight and thought, to own it. Sam's is about flow; how does she expect to manifest it? The answer: "No barriers." Tyler's is about contrast and paradox. It sounds like he carefully considered every aspect of his complex design. Ian's project is about facing the view. His three-dimensional representation of the parti is clear; he is focusing attention on the lake adjacent to the site. Mack's family is interpreted with a giant hearth.

Two students were assigned to share their favorite piece of architecture. One is absent, another one -- forgot. Good thing I have brought my own materials! They have never heard of Louis Kahn. I show them Salk Institute, Kimbell Art Museum and Yale University Art Gallery. They gather around me, and it feels like I am performing a religious rite, revealing something sacred, tremendously important. I want to share my sense of awe and reverence. This is the heart and soul of architecture, in my personal humble opinion, and I want these kids to get infected with my enthusiasm.

Louis Kahn believes in the "act of making" as a symbolic way of conveying the building's true nature. As a matter of fact, Khan postulates that it is his moral imperative to expose methods of construction. Convinced that carefully designed joints are the ornament, he insists that there is no need for further embellishment. I tell them about it while weaving in the ideas of designing in plan and elevation.

In preparation for today, I put together a little model to teach them about human scale. There are two foamcore figures inside of a space. One is almost as tall as the height of the walls, while another is quite tiny. Then there is a removable ceiling plane -- flat and pyramidal. I encourage Sam, who is standing right next to me, to squint her eyes and get this little thing right in front of her face. I complete the space with the flat roof first and entice her to imagine herself as the big person inside. She says that it feels "claustrophobic." As a little guy, it feels "overwhelming." I switch the overhead plane to a pyramid, and immediately the perception of the space changes -- a cell turns into a room. Everyone looks inside and tests the difference for themselves.

The idea is to demonstrate that good designers have to go back and forth, think of the space in three dimensions. They can refer to a hand-out with basic information about plans and elevations while embarking on their next assignment which is: Draw a plan and at least four elevations of your "ideal room" on tracing paper. I tell them: "The good thing about tracing paper is that you can overlay your ideas with ease." I walk around the classroom, clarifying, helping, provoking.

Ten minutes before the class is over, everyone pins up their work. John's parti is following the sun. He talks about sun's vitality that necessitates an "open plan" allowing sun to be seen from anywhere. Martin has taken his concept of the perimeter to the next level of delineation quite nicely. It seems that he took a cue from maestro Kahn, great inspiration! After all of them present, I notice that one girl is trying to avoid being put on the spot. I turn to her: "Sophia, what about you?" She replies: "I don't have anything to show." Very gently I insist. Sophia's is about accessibility and in her plan she accounts for future needs, not yet anticipated. She says that she does not know how to show a sliding door. I promise to explain it next time.