On display at the McGill University School of Architecture in Montreal, from January 5 to 26, 2015, the exhibition Protomoments: The New Work of Projective Architectural Objects presented the recent production of area, a design practice based in Ann Arbor led by Glenn Wilcox and Anca Trandafirescu, area’s principals and assistant professors of architecture at the University of Michigan. Trandafirescu also delivered a lecture to further elucidate their design approach and practice.
As explained by the architects, Protomoments is a neologism created from the words “prototypes” and “moments.” The objects of the exhibition could be considered smaller than full-fledged architectural projects, yet they are full-scale objects, not scaled models or mock-ups or full-scale tests, but “experimental ‘intermediate’ objects—prototypes—negotiating still unstable material, manufacturing, and technological domains.” They are architectural speculations, operative, and projective. They can change or evolve in time.
Entering the school of architecture, one could glimpse, at the end of the long corridor and through the gallery doors, an imposing freestanding structure. C-Lith, the centerpiece of the exhibit, is in reality so grand that the last segment could not be installed at the top, the already high ceiling not being able to accommodate the full height of the intended piece. Once in the exhibition room, two other large pieces were to be seen, Cutwork, an undulating foam masonry construction, as well as a large-scale shrinkable sheet plastic structure, It’s a wrap. Boards and video screens punctuated the surrounding walls, displaying the design and production processes of the three complex objects in the exhibition space. Additional panels described other recent projects and objects revealing more ideas, processes, fabrications, and assemblies.
c-LITH (2014), which stands for “carbon monolith,” is the largest of the three monumental pieces assembled at McGill and features an aggregation of original units of carbon fiber filaments developed by area. The overall structure appeared on the cover of Architect magazine’s R+D awards in July 2014, earning a citation for its material exploration of the potential of lightweight, high-strength material. Only three-quarters of the full structure could fit at McGill University, but the structure could actually grow even more. Coiled units of carbon fiber filament preimpregnated with epoxy resin are built by hand and then baked to become strong enough to be held in place by endplates. A video and a panel described in detail the fabrication process, which included disposable cardboard winding molds and jigs, for which cutting files were generated with a computer script, the hand spinning of the filament, kilning in an infrared heat lamp oven designed by the architects, and assembly.
The second piece in the room, Cutwork (2009–14), investigates possibilities in variable masonry blocks: eight layers of blocks smoothly transitioned moving upward, from larger to smaller, and from an oval footprint to a circular top, achieved through the possibilities of fabricating completely individual pieces with computation, using a seven-axis robot to hotwire cut foam casting molds. Although showing a variation made out of recyclable foam, the intention is to make a version out of fiber reinforced concrete. The assembly also explores the possibility of fitting glass or Plexiglas between the pieces, “the project aim[ing] to investigate both the efficiency of the system and its formal/structure/ornamental potentials.” The third object, It’s a wrap, manipulates and sculpts spaces and openings in a surface material typically used to winterize boats, a hands-on experience to control varying slots using heat torches. It is an ongoing investigation of heat tensioning PVC sheeting.
Of the five additional projects presented on boards, three could be described as inflatables or membrane structures, while two consisted of scripted building block assemblies. HOT AIR, realized in 2009, is a large inflatable temporary installation built in Timișoara to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the overthrow of the Romanian government. Characterized as an “inhabitable monument,” it was conceived as a low-tech exploration. Without using computation, the architects projected images on the wall to cut out pieces to be joined using a household iron. Two years later in AFLOAT, a flexible, freestanding structure assembled out of fiberglass and fabric membranes “to exploit and physically test the capacities of the combined structure and skin system,” the architects explored the limits of HOT AIR. A third project, Lumanotus (2012), composed of site-specific inflatables (a double torus, a large tower, and two other smaller components), were inhabitable temporary structures installed in Downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Here, shapes were cutouts generated through computation. A digital knife cutter and rolling heat sealer were employed. The anchoring of the pieces was integrated within the seams. The objects explored the possibilities for light manipulation and projections.
Flying Carpet (2013) was an example of the use of computer scripting in the formation of the elements of a “micro-architecture” for the Angeli Elementary School in Ann Arbor, responding to the specificity of interior site conditions, and providing the space for tutoring, small-group reading, or lounging. A script allowing for adjustments based on site conditions, or the size of the user’s body, was also employed for the fabrication itself, and wooden and steel elements were produced using computer numerical control (CNC) and water-jet cutting. Finally, TETRA/N (2010) presents a structure built out of a single detail fabricated on flat stock, becoming structural partly through a computer script based on a tetrahedral geometry, assembled from surfaces that became tridimensional elements. Changing inputs of the script can render different overall structures. “The visual effect is of a structure that is, on the one hand, highly ordered, rigorous and geometric, and on the other degenerates into near chaos, simulates organic growth.”
In the exhibition’s description, the architects of area propose that their prototypes could be considered three-dimensional drawings “that embody disciplinary aspirations for intellectual innovation between craft and (knowledge) making.” But can they qualify as architectural representations? In using computer scripting, CNC, water-jet cutting, or projections onto a wall to cut out building pieces, the need for construction documents is avoided. Is it then a question of representing the processes of elaboration? Through the videos, one could also read a certain longing for a return to craftsmanship and a renewed masonry through technology and advanced materials. If the objects themselves do not yet have full architectural applications laid out, they do foresee possibilities in terms of architectural language, let it be the manipulation of space through digitally fabricated building blocks, the conscious construction of self-supporting structures, and the manipulation of light and possibly sound in inflatable structures; attention is given to possibilities to occupy particular sites, to human scale, and a will to address public life and space through the structures. But are these highly crafted objects advanced architectural representations, or presentations?
The exhibition illustrates the will of an architectural design practice to explore computation and different tools of digital fabrication with a very hands-on approach: “how the digital and the hand come together.” As the title conveys, the objects presented do seem to be projective: if they are not developed through traditional representation, such as projective geometry, image projections are used on walls to cut out pieces or even in the end results, when colors, images, or videos are projected onto the inflatable pieces. Furthermore, the objects themselves are projective, as they project possible uses in the future, or “seeking objects” in the architects’ definition. They are architecture speculations—projects