ALF 06

David Garcia – What Exists is a Small Part of What is Possible

I was asked to talk about education and as Linas says in [his] introduction , I am active in different places: besides being an associate partner at Henning Larsen and having worked for Foster and Partners, I have been teaching since I finished my studies. I taught at three institutions for 8 years–The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, The Bartlett School of Architecture and Lund School of Architecture. I also realized that my practice has become a kind of teaching institution on its own. From such a perspective MAP (Manual of Architectural Possibilities) is also some type of a school. Therefore I wanted to look at myself as an educator, asking–how do I teach, what do I teach and why do I teach?

I tried to organize my teaching activities, in which I use different definitions for how and why I do it. For example, for the last five years I do workshops instead of running a studio in the Royal Danish Academy. Those workshops are seven days of very intense work with a very specific scenario and agenda. At Lund School of Architecture I am heading a design studio for Extreme Environments and Future Landscapes masters course. Our studio specializes in this field and the course spans throughout the full semester. I teach undergraduate students in Unit 3 of a bachelors course at the Bartlett School of Architecture, where there are always two semesters. The span is thus very long , which also means that the mode of teaching  is subject to  changes over time. MAP on its own lasts six months, from day zero to the date it is sent to the printers. The studio of the Extreme Environments and the Institute of Architecture are sort of parts of each other. The projects that we do there often get a lot of students and interns engaged. They have become a very interesting dimension of the education, actually not only for them, but also for me.

Workshops

If I had to give a tagline for these workshops, it would be “Education as a Positive Disruption“. Why do I say that? The workshops that I teach at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts normally take place at a time when students are starting to form an idea of the building that they would like to design. Usually they have been to the site and tried to define the program. But they have not yet gotten very far with their drawing.  The agreement is that they come in and create a bit of chaos during the workshop period. What type of chaos? It goes in different directions. Usually one works more or less on one’s own during the semester project–that is the tendency in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. You have time to negotiate and discuss your ideas, you think a lot, you draw. But sometimes it gets difficult to get those ideas onto paper. My attitude is to do the exact opposite–in order to provide the students with a broad pallet of different tools, with which they can  react to a project scenario or a methodology. So we concentrate on one aspect of every project, we put everybody together in one room, we work 17 hours a day for seven days, although it is less in reality–there is introduction on the first day, the last day is for the critique–so actually they have five days to do this. We work backwards, almost like reverse engineering–what is it that you would like to focus on, what is it that you would like to do, and then just do it. I would not want to talk about it, if it is not built in front of me. I do not want to hear about it, if it does not have any shape or form. The idea is to use your hands as direct tools to establish a dialogue within your methodology. We believe that tasks can also teach very directly. If you are thinking, “I want this façade to move and react to sunlight”–fine, but next time we see each other, I want to see something that does that, and if you have a problem, then we will try to figure it out. Very often I do not even know how it is going to be done, but we together find out technologies or solutions that would make it possible to do that. For four or five days it is a room that is very difficult to be in for everybody. But I also noticed that when people are working very close to each other, they inform each other. They see what each one does, share decisions or they help each other, one has tools that the others did not use, solutions that some discard, others picks up. Proximity and density are often amazing tools to stimulate a design process. In a way, you almost have to suspend disbelief and ask everybody to go into this unwritten contract that we are going to try and go by these rules for these seven days. It does not matter if you hate it at the very beginning or if you are fascinated by it, the idea is to embrace another way of doing architecture or generating methodology, which you may or may not use afterwards. At least you have another pallet in your toolbox, another way of doing things.

Why is this interesting? I think it is empowering for the student to believe that whatever he or she imagines might be possible. At the very beginning, they all think “I cannot build that” and after only five days reality is there. For example, one of the students was working at a site close to a lake. She was fascinated by how the structures and the walls were seeking and taking in humidity, creating crystalline structures. She wanted to see what happens if those structures of crystals were very big and started to take over the space. I showed her how different crystalline solutions could grow in front of you. Then she started to play with different sizes, how those spaces could be inhabited. She made films about how these crystals are growing and the different spatial qualities that can be appropriated. It suddenly reminded me of actual crystal caves underneath Mexico. Suddenly we realized that what she thought was a way to test possibilities, nature has done in thousands or millions of years. I think that the architectural language, established by the growth of something that is not necessarily in the same tradition of how we design spaces, can be very original.
I have to say that, throughout the years at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, I have created some kind of a tradition where people understand what they are getting into when they are going into this workshop, they understand that they are not going to sleep for a while. Although it was difficult in the very beginning: students could get very upset and be very irritated and would try to report me to the dean. It happens sometimes. I think that it must be due to another type of context, a tradition that has embedded their understanding of what education or work is. But most of the time it is fantastic and we learn together. Many of the times I do not even know how to find a solution for their idea or their vision. We have to go on this journey together. I have to start calling all the scientists or mechanics I know and say:  “Hi, I have this student who wants to do this crazy stuff! How do we do this?”, and sometimes we just cannot come to a conclusion and that is fine, it is not a problem. I am not so interested in if it works in the end or not, but the fact that you are engaged fully in the desire to achieve that idea is very important. Other times there are things that seem impossible to me and students surprise me and realise them.

Extreme Environments and Future Landscapes

Extreme environments is a theme that is of great importance to me. I have to say that extreme environments have nothing to do with disaster scenarios. I am teaching a master course at the  Lund University for fourth and fifth year students on extreme environments. I call it “learning by research and speculation”.

First I would like to explain why extreme environments are interesting. Unless you are willing to live in a space suit, you are going to have to engage with the difficulties of our environment. Some of them are very extreme. It does not have to be about weather. We know what happens during an earthquake in, for example, Haiti. Our surroundings are more and more often characterized by scenarios where people suddenly have to live in an unbuilt space and recreate their environment. 

We have scenarios which are constantly repeating. People keep living in Louisiana despite knowing that they are going to be hit by a hurricane at least two or three times during the season. Resilience is incredible and I do not understand why  architecture maintains  the same gestures, we keep building the same way. We do not change infrastructure to prepare for flooding. There are amazing new realities that we are confronting, not necessarily only because the climate is changing. There are simply so many of us, we are hitting our own footprints and tripping on them. A volcano in Iceland explodes and traffic is completely paralyzed, because it just takes the heavyset communication road. Then everybody realizes how much we are dependent on something as fragile as an airplane. There are collapse scenarios because sometimes we build too fast or on foundations which are unstable.  I was in Tokyo during an earthquake in an old home from the 1950’s, all in wood. I could see the whole building just moving back and forth, the whole wooden structure was flexible. If some element cracked, the Japanese joinery system made it possible to remove it, get a new one, slide it in and lock it in. But when you step outside, you see a cracked modern building façades of concrete and glass which have to be torn down. You start thinking: “what happened there? Did we lose something in the process? Are we forgetting that there are systems that are more resilient to a certain type of extreme scenarios?”

There are thousands of square kilometres covered in plastic for growing tomatoes in Malaga, south of Spain, or some places in Italy. How absurd is that? Why? Can this be something else? If it has to be covered with plastic to grow tomatoes, can we cover it with something that acts differently? That is an extreme scenario, in my opinion, an artificial extreme environment, where I would like to envision alternatives on how to grow vegetables. We also extract so many resources. We need energy and then we do not know what to do with its waste. We have Onkalo in Finland, a plan for a huge depository of nuclear waste. What are those spaces? What are those extreme scenarios? Is there something more to it than just a garbage dump? We have oil and we pump it as much as we like–the process looks like a floating city sucking the Earth. We also know what happens when something goes wrong there. This is what really interests me, because it is “my backyard”, it is my reality. In Lund everybody is doing projects in their backyards–on nice farmland, in a beautiful Swedish landscape. I cannot imagine being a student in this world and not be a part of the rest of the world and invest as much care for it as your own backyard. That is the intention of this master course.

I will give you some examples of student projects in this course. One is working with Chernobyl and radiation. The other one with Lake Neva, where there is extensive  pollution and hypoxia. Another one is working on dunes and landscapes that are in constant movement, researching how to build with sand. Another one is working on a high student transient population. 40 % of residents in Lund are students, so half of the population disappears every year and something new comes. That is an extreme scenario, when your social context is replenished and changed.

Students research only at the very beginning of the course. This approach is inspired by MAP. It is very interesting when you get students to research first instead of going to design right away. New questions arise during research processes and their design decisions are informed by our research discoveries. They are informed by some type of fact. They are taking informed decisions. For example, a student researching Chernobyl started with the location of Chernobyl, charting different villages around, distances between them and their radiation percentage. He found out that there are people who are returning. The facilities are still open and there are about 3000 researchers working every day in Chernobyl. This is the  first radioactive catastrophe which allows us to see the effects of such an accident. He looked at the global  conditions  regarding nuclear stations–the quantity  and distribution in the world; nuclear process of fission, the dangers and assets of that, how much uranium there is. He started to look into effects of radiation on your body. The air in Chernobyl is not that bad, but the ground is irradiated. You can breathe the air fine, but caesium stays in the ground and that is a problem. But people are coming back to Chernobyl and that is the reason his project started to become a reality. They were planting potatoes in the land which is irradiated, just because people wanted to go back to their hometown. Also tourism is increasing in Chernobyl. There you have an architectural question: there are no facilities for the locals to grow potatoes in safe ground, there are no facilities for visitors or tourists to stay that is not irradiated by caesium. The researchers have to go 500 kilometres away from time to time when radiation levels are too high, because there are no housing  facilities that are properly  protected. That student chose to work on a  project that consists of a series of elevated landscapes–new earth elevated on top of the old, with some research units underneath and space where people can grow their potatoes. That started to define his project and this is perhaps the most important point. Research poses a series of questions, it is the methodology we use in MAP. We choose some of those questions and start to define the answers: “Would it be interesting to do that?”, or “Can architecture propose a solution?” as an alternative and critical approach to the problem.

The Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 3

The Bartlett School of Architecture is an amazing institution with a long tradition.  It is in a way characterized by learning without  limits and there are so many different studios. Some of them are extremely pragmatic and aim to take very specific decisions and solutions. Others do only virtual production and films. Others are engaged with momentary effects. There you have a huge spectrum of different possibilities of reacting to your reality that surrounds you without putting any limits on yourself and asking - is this what you want to do? Prove it, try it and take it to its limits. At the Bartlett bachelor unit there is a lot of on-site work, which is a tradition of the school. For instance, we went to Venice to explore floods. Venice used to be flooded two or three times a year, but now it is every single day in November and December. Usually the flood reaches the level called acqua alta - when the sea rises almost two metres. We wanted to understand what that is like. Not only through pictures, but by  going there and finding out what happens when your street disappears and you do not know the difference between the street and the ocean. We were engaged with a series of studies and experts to understand the topography and topology of the streets in Venice, and how some streets are protected and others could easily flood.

It is fascinating particularly from an architectural point of view, because of the realities people in Venice deal with. There are realities that you can design. There are realities that make us understand our world differently. The projects that come out of research are much more radical. The students tried to inhabit abandoned oil rigs as stations for housing; recycle contaminated water; create waterfalls that would be part of the landscape. What was important was the method – how to engage experience with space.

Studio

Another place, where we do a lot of learning and some teaching as well, is our studio. I call it “learning by building or experimenting”. It is often a shared experience–there are interns, other architects in the same boat. We go together and we see where it will take us.
I will tell you about one such idea: the Weaving Project. It is one of those “what if?” stories. Many of the individual projects conducted  research that did not lead anywhere–we crashed into a wall, but we learned something. Others had a better ending. But this project started when I was fascinated by the  very old tradition of weaving and the structural rigidity and strength of woven baskets. Usually they are manufactured for very specific and functional aims–to carry fruits or stones, to catch fish. What fascinated me was this rigidity that originated from the geometry and the material. There was no glue, no screws, it all works by friction. One day I came across the work of some Japanese weavers who were breaking away from the functional tradition of the basket.  The question arose very quickly - what if this would be a new way of making structures? What if we could weave a structure? What if we could use this as a way of inhabiting a structure, would that be possible?

There are hundreds of different weaving patterns and we started to focus on the patterns that could manipulate and create architectural spaces. We asked: what would happen if it would have a foundation? What would happen if it would have to go underground? We were thinking of an architectural proposal and we found out that the more you curve the weave, the stronger it becomes. The more corners it had–the more rigid it would become. We started trying out different materials, such as laminated wood or plastic. We started to look at potential tests and it was a total fiasco, because the materials in question have properties that are very difficult to manipulate. That did not work at all even after we spent six months doing a virtual model and trying to make it work. But we got something out of it: an understanding of how the weave worked. We found out a way of achieving structure densities, because we could control the thickness and the widths of the materials that we were planning to weave with. It was used as a guide to go towards other types of modelling. We compiled an architectural proposal as a small pavilion and it was presupposed that we could do it.

Organizers of the exhibition “Notch”–Nordic and Chinese Cultural Exchange exhibition–looked at the woven structure that we had published on internet and they said, “Hey, David, can you do this for us? Next month?” I said, “Sure! Great, now I create a scenario, like I do for my students”. I am going to have to live by my own rules and we have to solve this problem.

I sent interns to do this and I think they did an amazing job. Bamboo became a very obvious choice in Beijing because of the amount of the material available  there, its cheapness, accessibility and the qualities it has. It was a learning experience, because we had to test everything and build it. In the end, we managed to do it. I still cannot believe it, but it was finally  standing in front of Kengo Kuma’s building for the festival. I think this is a good story not so much because it was built, but because we found ourselves in a situation where we had to do something, because we said “yes”. If I would have been less naïve, I would have said, “forget it, we have never tested this”.

Manual of Architectural Possibilities

MAP–Manual of Architectural Possibilities–initiated a lot of methodology that I have talked about today, which is based on research. I did MAP because I wanted to get all these crazy things we did in the studio out into the world. I did not want to do a webpage, it would just get lost–I wanted something that would be limiting for us, putting some constraints. The idea of MAP was to provoke discussion through the world of ideas, “what if’s” and the possibilities we were playing with. It was not about creating answers, solutions or any new movement but just to encourage a discourse and dialogue. I had a very specific idea of MAP–research before starting to design, collaboration with scientists and experts before starting to invent any type of space. We have very strict rules for doing MAP. There are three months of research, where nobody is allowed to draw. When questions come up, we get together and discuss what the relevant points are. We take those that are interesting to resolve, tackle and question through the language of architecture. We pick these questions out and start to develop projects. Some are ironic, some are critical, some are pragmatic. But the idea is to try to react to questions that arise from research. MAP is an A1 paper folded into a map. On one side it presents research and on the second side there are projects. I teach together with Peter Cook and I am very lucky that he writes the introduction for each issue.

In MAP 001 “Antarctica” we showed the geography, the topography, the bedrock and sections of Antarctica. We learned about how icebergs break off, vocabulary for icebergs, different types of snowflakes and how they are formed. Climate conditions that surround the continent. The flora and the fauna, cycles all the way to extremophiles, living beings that should not be alive, because they subside in  extremely low temperatures. The first construction and last constructions on  this continent. We also went into the political situation of Antarctica, which is very special. Everybody claims it, but nobody owns it. And what about building? How do you build there? Can you build with snow? What has been used? We charted every single base station that exists. Then we did a series of projects which react to these realities and questions that we encountered. MAP 002 was named “Quarantine”. Some might think–what does quarantine have to do with architecture? When we started to research, we found out that it was incredibly linked to architecture. There are always spaces of containment. It is about containing and controlling the movement of viruses, of individuals or animals with viruses. So it has everything to do with spatial constraints. We had a series of projects that engage with that topic in a critical manner.

To conclude, the experience of learning or teaching is something that permeates everything that we do, or especially what I do. I think that when I am in the studio or when I teach, it is not only about me teaching, but also about being taught. The more questions you ask about your environment, the more you doubt everything around you, the more courageous and interesting dialogue you are going to have with your reality around you. Because there is nothing sadder than just accepting things as they are and not questioning them. Thank you very much.

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