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Jeffersonian geometry

Features | July 1, 2008 | By:

Architecture students at the University of Virginia abandon traditional construction methods. U Virginia founding father Thomas Jefferson would be proud.

Each spring, University of Virginia students embark on a journey with Professor Earl Mark to discover the widening horizons of fabric architecture. Building on a curriculum-wide focus—including units in landscape and other courses—this fabric only studio is in its second year. Through existing sites and ecologically driven briefs, Mark inspires his students to “rethink material connections, forms and physical assemblies on a fundamental level.”

The approach is a fluid oscillation between conceptualization, virtual modeling and physical prototypes through three assigned briefs. The “rigid architecture machine” leads to the articulated skeletons that support and animate a design. The “soft architecture machine” initiates tension membrane construction, and the “hybrid structure” is their final project. Because Mark emphasizes innovative rapid sketching over rigid building blocks, each student moves through the cycle of sketch, prototype, computer model and testing—including wind tunnel—several times. Also unusual, physical prototypes precede computer modeling to keep efforts grounded in real materials. Sewing, handwork, and even origami play key roles.

“The opportunity to learn from and collaborate with other disciplines is one of the more intellectually rewarding characteristics of working in fabric architecture,” Mark says. So, the course includes a one-week field trip to Maine, where students connect with masters and manufacturers. The 2008 studio, for example, enjoyed exceptional access to major tension membrane production facilities, boat builders, sail makers, and engineering labs at UMaine.

Though this class might seem to belong at the initiation of an education, Mark is convinced that reconnection to material and the “ah-ha” of elementary assembly is the best preparation for graduation. And, while the professional rewards may still lie in the future for most of Mark’s students, one enterprising graduate plans to pursue patents for her studio efforts. All hands on deck—the future captains of our industry are about to set sail.

Paula Feigum writes frequently about art and architecture. She practices interior architecture in Chicago, Illinois and Charlottesville, Virginia.

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