Materials Lab Puts School of Architecture on the Cutting Edge
Hands-on education. Because professionals make, rather than merely think about, the built environment, the School of Architecture has developed a hands-on pedagogy: learning by doing. From its innovative structures curriculum—in which students build-and-break components in order to develop an intuitive sense of building physics—to our design/build studios, the SoA’s educational environment is analogous to the world of practice and construction. What makes this approach possible is the Materials Lab, one of the best facilities in any architecture school in the country.
The MatLab is an extension of the School’s pedagogical mission: to teach and research through material exploration. Comprising 9,000-square feet─the entire footprint of the new addition (CAPLA East)─its professional equipment can handle almost any material encountered in the built environment: woods, metals, concrete, ceramics, glass, and plastics; processes include hand tools, wood and metal machining, welding, laser cutting, vacuum forming, industrial sewing, kilns, digital routing, and 3D printing.
Unique and State of the Art
“It wasn’t always so,” says MatLab Manager Paulus Musters.“The original shops were crammed here and there in the original 1960s building (CAPLA West) and in houses north of Speedway. Some tools were outside. We needed space; we needed equipment; and we needed a vision.” That vision came from Professor Emeritus Álvaro Malo, Director of the School from 1997–2006, who integrated a focus on “making” into the curriculum; the space came in 2006 with the design and construction of CAPLA East.
By every measure—size, technology, infrastructure, and investment—the SoA maintains one of the top material labs in the country. “Our space was conceived as a laboratory. It was designed to efficiently and safely house a multitude of tools. Other schools, even well-funded ones, often have to make do with retrofitted spaces or even simple wood shops; their infrastructure is not set up for exploration,” says Musters.
An artist and sculptor who trained at Pratt and Columbia, Musters became the MatLab’s founding Manager in 2006. In addition to making sure the labs are operating smoothly, Musters helps students think through their designs before fabrication. His experience in construction and, as a founding partner in a company that designs and fabricates exhibits for science and children’s museums, Musters was ideally prepared for his role. “I am a maker and a teacher. It’s my pleasure to work with students, some of whom have never picked up a hammer, and start them on the way to becoming craftspersons who can make anything they dream of, out of any material.”
Undergraduate Advisor Sasha Wilson conducts tours for prospective students. “Many applicants have targeted UA because of our Materials Lab. With a desire to learn by making, they find in CAPLA an amazing resource linked to a curriculum designed to exploit it. Even with prospective students who aren’t exactly sure what architecture school is all about, a tour of the MatLab simply lights them up and gets them excited about studying here.”
Testing, Analysis, and Iteration
A perennial problem in schools of architecture is making connections between courses and design studios. We do this really well at the SoA, as exemplified by our structures pedagogy. “Around the country and across decades, students take courses in building structures but simply cannot apply the technical lessons acquired in a classroom to their work in the design studio,” says School Director Robert Miller.
Assistant Professor Chris Trumble has developed a highly innovative structures pedagogy that makes structures visceral. At the UA, just like every architecture school, students learn about structural principles (along with calculations that allow them to estimate forces and structural components). But at our School, they develop an intuitive understanding of structural forces because they iteratively design, build, break, and analyze physical structures in the MatLab. Says Trumble: “Students can practice flowchart calculations for eternity and still not have a genuine understanding of how forces act on buildings. But if they go through the iterative process of conceiving structures, in specific materials, subjecting those to measured forces until failure, finally analyzing the performance—and then redesigning the same component until its performance improves—then you have a student who can innately understand how building physics work. You can’t underestimate how powerful such a ‘fluent vision’ is to an architect.”
Design/Build: the Art of Making
Since the late 1980s, schools of architecture have been developing an approach to teaching design called “design/build.” An early proponent of this pedagogy, Director Robert Miller is happy to finally have an opportunity to support a deep, iterative, curriculum that teaches design through making. From introductory fabrication courses in 2nd and 3rd years, to structures courses, to the advanced design/build studios, the School does more than give students an experience of building; it gives them a level of skill that changes how they design. “When students begin to understand that materials change in response to moisture and temperature, that the art of fabrication involves anticipating error, they begin to get that design is a matter of expressing a perfect conceptual realm through an imperfect material one,” says Miller. “Through design/build studios, our students conceive and deliver small projects to actual clients. We are making the world a better place through design, with social as well as aesthetic impact.”
The School’s design/build program started with the arrival of Professor Mary Hardin in the late 1990s. Her seven completed DDBC homes (with more underway), designed and built by students, test innovative construction techniques and are equipped with energy sensors and water monitors for post-occupancy analysis. As demonstration homes, they offer case studies on improvements in design and construction practices to professionals as well as the public. All houses have been sold to low-income families through local non-profit housing organizations. Combined, the DDBC Houses have won more than a dozen regional and national design awards.
From those beginnings, the program has distinguished itself with a portfolio of completed projects, most of which have won design awards. Chris Trumble’s students have completed an innovative play environment for the Arizona Children’s Association (AzCA), two site-specific bus shelters for the City of Marana’s Civic Transit Center, four innovative bus shelters for the City of Tucson, a pair of furniture installations at CAPLA, a Sustainability Laboratory and Urban Garden for City High in Downtown Tucson, and The Gridshell Pavilion, a redevelopment of the main entrance to CAPLA WEST.
“Design/build projects offer students the opportunity to negotiate reality; comprised of people, materials, fabrication processes, gravity, budgets, schedules and most importantly people. Students cultivate precious skills and knowledge to better prepare them for the critical and professional practice of architecture,” says Trumble. “My student-centered pedagogy challenges, and empowers, students to negotiate real world conditions and constraints, while teaching them to identify and responsibly seize opportunities to translate their ideas into reality.”
The Future: Digital Fabrication
“It’s a very small club, the people that do what I do,” laughs Musters. He’s right. Musters and colleagues are inventing a 3D printer for concrete and ceramics. It is widely believed that building parts, and eventually whole buildings, will be printed.
While digital fabrication, the conjunction of 3D modeling with additive and subtractive manufacturing processes, is in its infancy, it has already transformed the construction industry. In the late 1990s, only world-class architects had software that could send designs direct to world-class shops for building-component fabrication. Today, such technology is available to all architecture firms, many fabricators, and most contractors in the US. But while most architecture schools teach digital design, few can teach digital fabrication at a high level of innovation and with broad application. We can.
So what’s next? Musters talks to his peers in the “very small club.” “Robofolding,” he says without hesitation. “That’s robots that bend and shape materials in a way that would be impossible with conventional tools.” Asked if machines are taking over in architecture education, Musters is adamant: “No way. Students still have to learn the fundamentals, the process, the qualities of different materials, and how connections are made…the tools simply provide more and better ways to explore the process of making architecture.”