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Designing at a Distance A School in Lausanne

On behalf of all the students and the professors, we extend our thanks for their support to: The Ikea Foundation of Switzerland Anina Hitz and SwissNex Boston Holcim US swiss international airlines EPFL Department of Architecture RISD Department of Architecture And for their participation, to: Andrea Bassi Alexandre Blanc Mark Cottle Lauren Crahan Claudia Ford Beth Garvin Inès Lamunière Lisanne Lavanchy Sylvain Malfroy Bruno Marchand Pari Riahi Philip Ryan Remo Steinmetz Andrew Tower

Copyright © 2009 Rhode Island School of Design Department of Architecture Printed by Cogan Designed by Livia Veneziano Fonts: Scala Sans, Swis721 BT



Tranzendentale Obdachlosigkeit Lynnette Widder


A School in the City Matthias Bräm


Ian Armitage


Vincent Bauer


Cassandra d’Alessandro


Claire Davenport


Stefan Di Leo


Chelsey Limbird


Brian Rubenstein


Nick Simposon


Damir Vukovlajak


Seth Wiseman


empathy and abstraction: designing at a distance in lausanne

To work at a distance to a place requires a considered balance of approaches, all in acknowledgement of the separation between the architect and the place, culture, context in which he/she is working. Work in this studio at the Rhode Island School of Design in Fall, 2008, was charged with employing “abstract” approaches (ones based upon generalized methodological tools) and “empathetic” gestures (ones aimed at approximating a specific empirical response in both the author and the user of the work). At the same time, it is important to recognize that these two ways of working are equally valid, equally constructed, each with particular psychological affinities for author and audience.


Switzerland, including as a professorial assistant at the ETH Zürich, and was familiar with both American and Swiss approaches to teaching and design. She had, however, only visited Lausanne once. Matthias Bräm (until 2007, Professor for Pedagogy and Research, Zürcher Fachhochschule Winterthur and Director of the Institute for Construction-based Design) lives and works in Lausanne, and was trained in the Swiss educational system. The interplay between the two pedagogic contexts, and the two different degrees of engagement and knowledge with regard to Lausanne underscored the students’ need to evaluate, adapt and apply the instruments of design consciously throughout the semester’s explicitly shifting demands. Finally, the excursion to Lausanne from November 20-26th, 2009, was invaluable to consolidating these experiences and considerations. It was both a trip to verify projects and to overlay supposition onto reality, and to confront difference in point of view and value. Through the generosity of the EPFL, the students had access for the week to a studio space in which they could immediately translate their observations into project development. Walking tours of the city provided by Matthias Bräm and Sylvain Malfroy, lectures by Bruno Marchand on the Lausanne housing tradition and by Alexandre Blanc on the work of Bakker Blanc Architectes, a trip to the Nestle headquarters in Vevey, and a hike through the Lavaux vineyards provided an intense and focused set of insights during the students’ brief stay. The excursion culminated in an equally intense and focused review of all the work with Bruno Marchand, Head of the EPFL Institute of Architecture, and Professor Andrea Bassi.

For this reason, the work of the semester focused on the threshold in the design project between “inductive” and “deductive” work, between information gathering and analysis, and the moment in which that is crystallized in projective speculation. All these criteria hold for any process of architectural design; but the fact of distance forces the confrontation with their limitations to an extreme. The subject of these approaches was a topographically and urbanistically complex location in Lausanne’s city fabric, at the halfway mark along the funicular that connects its lakefront to its central station. It is a neighborhood characterized equally by the gracious, wide streets and multifamily houses of the 19th century and by the smaller parcel structure and houses of earlier settlements. The site’s anomalies also include a modest but well-crafted Modernist building that accommodates small commercial uses along the street and rear-yard access apartments. Into this site, students projected a school whose program included diversely dimensioned and accessed spaces, but was also highly charged with personal and social meaning. The challenges of reading, modeling and coming to terms with the complexities of the location was paralleled by the need to understand the specificities of a place the students knew only through mediation until our visit in November, three weeks before the project was to be completed. The intent to use a remote place as the basis for considering the intellectual process by which an architectural project is developed was mirrored in the interplay between the two professors who co-taught the course. Lynnette Widder (Associate Professor and Department Head, Rhode Island School of Design) had worked for several years in


or may not be contained in the physical imprint, left to the interpretation and use of indeterminate others over the course of an unforeseeable period of time. This is at the heart of architecture’s impossible “urge to be at home everywhere.” It is the dream which animates the drawing and the model, the concepts of scale and descriptive geometry, and any transcendental claims made on behalf of design. Abstraction, or the method of appealing to the universal in any thought or thing, and empathy, or the projected validity of individual perception and sentiment, are the two intermingled routes we as architects take in the process of approximation we call our discipline. It is not a simplification to say that American education, like American culture, errs on the side of the individualistic/ empathetic. Exposure to a more insistent deployment of abstract methods - urban massing studies, typological considerations, absolute registration of spatial conditions throughout all available orthographic projections, consistent diagramming - was not easy for the students this semester, but it made possible the degree to which the otherwise inconceivable variety of work was conclusive. If a work of architecture cannot be conclusive in an academic context in the means over which it is master - that of the drawing or model - what would that imply for its entry into the world? What Lukàs had intended to describe philosophy might well apply to architecture, at least from the architect’s point of view, that it is “a sign of the essential difference between the self and the world, the incongruence of soul and deed.” This is, at least for me, its emotional resonance and why the problem of ‘Designing at a Distance’ retains its meaning.

Tranzendentale Obdachlosigkeit Lynnette Widder February 2009

The spoken languages we might adopt as adults - whether we knew them as children or not - are those in which we find emotional resonance. My language is German, and the emotional resonance I initially found was located in a phrase written by the Romantic poet Novalis and quoted by the Hungarian critic Georg Lukàs, writing in his adopted language of German: “Philosophy is really homesickness. It is the urge to be at home everywhere.” Lukàs gives this urge another name, “transcendental homeless.” The origins of architecture in forming boundaries, making space, resolving shelter or mimicking nature through technical mastery depending upon whose speculations we chose to believe - would seem to make it the antipode to homelessness, transcendental or physical. But the problem of ‘Designing at a Distance’ indicates immediately architecture’s quandary as a predictive method of working. The drawing can approximate actuality with greater or lesser accuracy, and can guide or be subsumed by the process of realization. The architect’s (or architects’, to speak more accurately about the way in which the discipline actually functions) vision of the spaces and forms to be realized may 7

A School in the City Matthias Bräm February 2009

A School in the City In 2007, Lynnette Widder invited me to teach a design course with her at RISD; its purpose was to consider “Designing at A Distance.” I accepted the invitation with great interest and now have the pleasure of being able to look back - at a distance - on this course and the design projects generated in it. As a professor at RISD, I have come to know an thoroughly active and creative Department of Architecture. Our course’s topic was a school in the city (Lausanne). It was great engagement that a noticeably broad spectrum of projects were developed. I find the projects’ level of architectural content at the end of the semester, 8

study was also meant to sharpen the insight that a city of long-term value does not arise from a sequence of individual design events - even if those events attract our (short-term) attention.

and the learning process completed considerable. The fact that the projects’ representation was not entirely conclusive in all cases seems acceptable against this background. Designing at a Distance meant that the perception of the site during many weeks of the semester was only possible based upon drawings, images and texts, in other words, selectively and abstractly. This translated into a corresponding perceptual distortion especially with regard to the geometry, activities and atmosphere at the site, much of which could still be corrected by means of personal experience towards the end of the semester. Had this personal experience not been possible, however, it would have led to considerable shortcomings in the case of several projects. Designing at a Distance was also significant because I, as a professor, come from a Swiss design culture, which has clear differences to an American design culture. The following is intended to reflect on the (productive) tension between the two approaches.

The Program as Generator Some of the designs were strongly inspired by the particularities of the school’s program. Here, it was also possible to draw from one’s own experience and accordingly, several interesting starting points were found, such as those of Chelsea Limbird and Claire Davenport. Among several projects, one could observe that there was an inadequate consciousness of the meaning of spatial sequence into and within the building. The analysis and consideration of this sequence helps not only to organize the spaces in good functional order, but rather, is the instrument of a personal architectural staging of the project’s interior spaces. Focusing the Theme In the first portion of the semester, it was apparent that most of the projects did not have the capacity to focus on a clear, defined theme. Rather, they swam in the wake of numerous (potential) themes which could hardly be synthesized with one another and, to some extent, were contradictory. The critic’s work thus was concentrated on the crystallization of a single supporting PRIMARY THEME for the project. This theme was to be evidenced in architectural concepts as well as in form, physically (in model or drawing). The acribic work of focusing the theme is certainly the central responsibility of architecture pedagogy, and the effort dedicated to this issue was not, in my long teaching career in Switzerland, any less timeconsuming than in this case. What was, however, particularly noticeable from a Swiss perspective is the broad spectrum of themes, and the curiosity this expresses, among the RISD students. In recent years in Switzerland, it was in the choice of themes that I had often confronted strong preconceived ideas (often based upon precedent).

The Urbanistic Design The choice of our site was made consciously so as to necessitate the question of morphology and a dialogue with the urban context. This was for students more accustomed to American spatial openness a rather unaccustomed challenge. The complex context allowed for a large number of possible reactions: perimeter block, free-standing projects, low-rise as well as set-back massing - much was possible and much was attempted. The urban context model built by the studio at the scale of 1:200 offered the possibility of developing an urban spatial strategy through verification. The students’ consciousness that their project not only comprised the physically defined volume of their building, but in particular, also the SPACE between the building and its neighbors grew slowly during the semester by means of a consistent focus on this phenomenon. This 9


The basis of this project was a morphological reading of the site, which cross-referenced the particular volumes and forms to the disparate scales they created along the street. The organizational strategy foresees the superimposition of an L-shaped volume containing repetitive class and workroom spaces overtop of the larger, more volumetrically expansive elements of the program, such as gymnasium, library and cafeteria. In the end, this school responds formally to its unique urban context by partial setback of the upper floors of the school and alignment with the lineation of the adjacent building infrastructure. It presence on the street is modulated by carefully employing the slope and the sectional relationships it creates.

i a n

a r m i t a g e



The vineyard landscapes of the Lavaux region, which characterize the agricultural landscape most associated with Lausanne, provided the spatial essence on which this project built. Like a vineyard, the growth and development of education needs many specific aspects of the city to develop a healthy environment. Likewise, the experience of moving up and through a jagged terraced landscape was transposed into the school’s Virundeel truss structures. Lausanne’s zones of transition from public to private are built into the school, orienting the public spaces towards the south and the city street, transitioning northward to more private spaces. The exterior prefabconcrete system encompasses, protects and creates volumes for cultivation, resulting in terraced spaces, which serve as primary program spaces and voids for circulation and gathering.

v i n c e n t


b a u e r

c a s s a n d r a

d ’ a l e s s a n d r o

This project, which began with the study of the drawings, film and photographs sent from Lausanne and verified its position during the site visit, understands the city as dramatic movement against/along the terrain, framed views, and an intimate understanding of scale. As in an active elementary school program, movement and circulation is highlighted and exaggerated and ultimately acts as the backbone supporting complex programmatic needs. It is within this central circulation core that the relationship between figure and ground is redefined. 17



As one moves through the school’s envelope by ascending the first of its staircase landmarks, the dynamic playscape urbanism, which characterizes the school is revealed. Washes of light guide one through the undulating interstices that form the interior streets and blur the building’s singularity. An organizational system based on the interweaving of light cannons and structural grid points vertically links spaces that grow outward horizontally. Though the building’s layered dialogues maintain a high level of introspection, the punctures of light and their articulation at the exterior mediate between this child’s city and the one beyond. The integration of the light cannons into the building’s exterior works towards ameliorating between the scale of the interior city-like network and that of the immediate city around it.

c l a i r e

d a v e n p o r t



A search, which began with objectified moments and tangible space from the perspective of a child evolved as the process of developing the project focused increasingly on the volume of the building in the city. Based upon the decision to make a low, consolidated volume within the urban context, the project used a transformed courtyard typology to orchestrate experience. The internal circulation and distribution of program clarified the initial spatial intentions and organized the spaces of the school.

s t e f a n

d i

l e o



c h e l s e y

l i m b i r d

The city exists as a metaphor, a word. It asks for a knot, around which its threads are coiled. The child, the teacher, each a visitor, a wandering pedestrian - all students- enter the school at frayed ends. Interior and exterior intertwine program, light, view, air, from one space to the next. Two paths - one from the street, one from the internal courtyard - circulate, tie into the elided spaces of workshops, library, cafeteria and gym, then arrive at the hearths which characterize the reading room and each classroom. From the realm of the city to the world of a house, the school becomes an extension and exploration of education as a melting constellation of learning, a conversation over the tangle experience of space. 29




The building’s form plays against the surrounding perimeter block, introducing a foreign geometry as a reinterpretation and realignment of the open space left within existing conditions. By compressing the new built volume inward and rising vertically, the site is left open to provide park space. The importance of the inside-outside connection is reiterated on the interior by means of the transparent curtain wall, the open core and the exterior deck spaces that are discovered at the top of each flight of stair, which take advantage of important sight lines, shifting as one moves up through the building.

b r i a n

r u b e n s t e i n



n i c k

s i m p s o n

Some might argue that the definition of space begins when one object is placed in relationship to another object, bringing into existence a neutral space between them. If these objects change their proportions while remaining in the same location, they begin to transform the definition of space. Space is now active in its own definition. Using a this set of ideas for formulate spaces within the overlap or interstices of major program elements, this project laid out a set of structural geometries whose overlay produced the school’s major and secondary spaces. As these structural geometries developed sectionally, they acquired the capacity to accommodate the sum of the diverse programmatic elements required, from gymnasium to library to classroom to small classroom foyer. 35

This project was driven internally, not by the spaces of the city or of the foreign culture, but by a particular reading of the program crossed with a specific set of formal predilections. The rapproachement with the space of the city occurred, but only as the interior spaces gained their volumetric expression. As such, the spaces of a school reflect the processes and diverse ways individuals learn. The confluence of architecture and education should question the environment of learning, teaching and social interaction. Each space in this project is specific to the subject being taught. Through variety, experimentation and invention, each room and each space between, allows and promotes a conversation that will transcend individual subjects and compartments of instruction. The school is at once a body of distinct caverns and a composite of educational, empathetic, understanding. Picasso said, “give me a nude. Not doing a nude of a nude as a nude.” Similarly, this proposal seems to say, don’t make a school of a school as a school, just speak of a classroom, an art room, a music room, a cafeteria, and one can find a way of doing a school as is.

d a m i r

v u k o v l a j a k




s e t h

w i s e m a n

Inspired by Luigi Moretti’s volumetric studies of space, this building uses the organizational basis of a tartan grid to create a highly differentiated spatial experience by integrating large spatial changes throughout the section of the building. Organized around a single light well, circulation follows the lines of the tartan, read through thresholds, expansion joints, and material change. The sectional complexity of the entry sequences, which split views between gymnasium, lobby, reading room and central atrium, indicates the spatial potentials of this strategy. Perspective view and oblique movement divulge the depth and complexity created through a variety of spatial sequences. 41

All publications of the RISD Architecture Series are available for purchase at Available titles: Abstracton and Empathy: Designing at a Distance, Lynnette Widder ed., with texts by Ira Piattini, Andreas Wolf and Lynnette Widder (2006) Alumni Travel Award 2007 with comments by Barry Bergdoll, Lauren Crahan, William Ryall and Lynnette Widder (2007) The Making of Design Principles by Kyna Leski with texts by Silvia Acosta, David Gerstin, Nader Tehrani and Lynnette Widder (2007) Alumni Travel Award 2008 with comments by Brian Callahan, Philip Ryan, Allan Wexler and Lynnette Widder. Skin Deep: The Enclosure of Buildings by Anastasia Congdon, ed., with texts by Anastasia Congdon, Tim Eliassen, Kyle Gaffney, Tim O’Neill, Jill Stoner and Lynnette Widder. Alumni Travel Award 2009 with comments by John Hartmann, Lauren Kogod and Ada Tolla (2009)

ISBN 978-1-60743-672-0

Designing at a Distance  

RISD Architecture Fall 2008 Advanced Studio Instructor: Lynnette Widder

Designing at a Distance  

RISD Architecture Fall 2008 Advanced Studio Instructor: Lynnette Widder