“How do cranes get to the top of a building during construction?” “How long does it take to get a building built, from start to finish?” “Are modern buildings made to last as long as the Egyptian pyramids?”
These were some of the Art Ready students’ questions addressed by Otis Berkin and Julia Tate of Sage & Coombe Architects, during a presentation highlighting both practical and conceptual aspects of the architecture field.
We began by looking at the wide range of structures designed by architects throughout history, emphasizing how architects have responded to various social and environmental forces, while also shaping the world around them. We looked at iconic monumental projects from the Egyptian pyramids to the Empire State Building, and recent large-scale initiatives such as new High Line park in NYC. The presentation also addressed how climate and other local needs shape everyday living structures, such as as igloos in cold climates and houses on stilts in areas prone to flooding.
This section of the presentation also emphasized how architecture, like art and design, can be influenced by ideals of what constitutes beauty, or what constitutes an ideal society. In 1950s America, a uniform and “machine-made” ideal for housing led to the building of Levittown, considered the country’s first cookie-cutter suburb, as well as the unadorned, slab-like towers of urban public housing.
Architect-inventor Buckminster Fuller introduced another ideal: using architectural innovation to control environmental conditions, to the extent of proposing building a “geodesic dome” over Manhattan. Julia and Otis used the example of Fuller to show that architects, especially the most idealistic or conceptual ones, “don’t always get to build their ideas.” Today, however, many architecture offices, including Sage & Coombe, are undertaking environmental (or “green”) design projects, incorporating elements such as green roofs or more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems in buildings and making important contributions to a more environmentally-sustainable future.
Today, perhaps another ideal in architecture is the potential of technology to generate designs that could never have been drawn by hand, such as that of Rem Koolhaus’s Central Chinese Television CCTV, Beijing, whose complex, textured structure was calculated by a computer program.
These examples helped reinforce the fact that architects must work closely with both various computer modeling programs, and structural engineers, city agencies, developers, and contractors; a work of architecture is always a collaborative process. When one student asked if architects need to do a lot of math on an everyday basis, Otis said, “It definitely helps to know some physics and calculus, but because we work with engineers who do a lot of the calculations, I get by with basic math.”
We also looked at some of Sage & Coombe’s projects, ranging from public works (such as park pavilions and libraries) to museums and community centers to private residences. Sage & Coombe incorporates many graphic elements in its projects, but these artistic touches are often as functional as they are decorative—for example, in an upcoming Staten Island track and field house project, decorating all-glass surfaces with silhouettes of people and animals not only reinforces the building’s identity; it helps prevent birds from flying directly into the glass.
The last segment of Julia and Otis’s presentation used both pictures and props to show how a building actually gets realized, from start to finish. Like artists, architects often start with a simple hand-drawn sketch. To become a fully-built structure, however, this sketch must go through many stages: various computer programs turn it into a digital rendering of what a proposed building will look like in its surrounding environment, which is presented to clients for approval. Sometimes 3-D models and material samples are also prepared to show clients. Once a client approves a design (sometimes after many revisions depending on budget and legal factors), detailed plans for each section of a building are generated for a final “construction set.” To answer one student’s question about how long buildings take to get built, Otis explained, “it can take anywhere from a few months (in the case of a small residence or gallery space) to many years (in the case of something like a large public building).
Working with Sage & Coombe architects as mentors, Art Ready students can potentially experience most steps of this process firsthand; in the past they have been challenged to design buildings for actual project sites assigned to Sage & Coombe, drawn diagrams, and built small 3-D models.
Finally, Julia and Otis discussed how an architect’s career path is usually considerably less open-ended than that of a fine artist or independent designer: it involves enrolling in either a 5-year undergraduate architecture program, or a 3-year graduate program, and spending several years gaining work experience in a firm in order to be qualified to take a series of 7 different exams to become a licensed professional architect. “It’s a lot of long hours and a lot of work on the computer,” admitted Julia, “but you also get to do things like go to meetings with clients, and inspect construction sites to see your buildings getting built, and that can be really exciting.”