By Mark Zeh
Last September, as the strength of the current financial crisis was still revealing itself, 13 architecture students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design began a provocative one-semester studio program titled GINA Studio. The program was undertaken as part of a $1.5 million endowment from RMJM Architects, a UK-based international architecture firm with U.S. headquarters in New York City, to establish the “RMJM Program for Research and Education in Integrated Design Practice.” The intention of this endowment was to address the need for an expanded curriculum in the teaching of the practice of architecture. RMJM’s endowment was matched with $500,000 from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
“Our intention was to create synergies between design and architecture with our endowment,” states Peter Schubert, North America design director for RMJM Architects. “It’s not news that architecture anticipates automobile and product design-architects just haven’t taken full advantage of that yet. Working with students is always inspirational, since their thinking isn’t constrained with any knowledge of building codes, materials properties or the limitations of contractors.”
The GINA Studio was the result of conversations between Chris Bangle, then chief of design for BMW Group, and Frank Barkow, one of the principals at Barkow Leibinger Architects in Berlin, Germany. Both were curious to work with students to find new applications outside of the automobile business for the membrane technology that had been developed for the BMW GINA concept car. GINA is an acronym that stands for “Geometry plus an Infinite Number of Adaptations.”
“Frank and I met when he had won the competition to design BMW’s Design and Concept Center. Unfortunately, the building has remained unbuilt, for a variety of reasons,” Bangle states. “During the process of commissioning the work, I’d spent quite a lot of time talking with him about the GINA philosophy (at the time the concept car still hadn’t been revealed to public), which was driving a lot of our design thinking.”
“After the BMW Design Center project was put on hold, we’d again met in Berlin. During that meeting, Chris and I talked about the relevance of revisiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s seminal ’Broadacre City’ vision,” Barkow says. “Wright’s concept had been a new form of living, where integration of the auto into city planning enabled homes to be built on large lots far from the urban core. Mixed land uses were envisioned for the one-acre allotments for each housing unit. Of course, suburban allotments ended up being a lot smaller, so a number of the potential benefits of Wright’s concept were never realized. We felt that the philosophy of flexibility underlying the GINA Concept was a good basis for re-imagining the American suburb and the relationships between people, houses and automobiles. We were challenging the students to create more-relevant suburban spaces, within the current sustainability and economic contexts.”
Barkow handled the day-to-day teaching duties of the class, while Bangle assisted him and reviewed the student work. “My role was really to shake things up,” Bangle explains. “I only visited the students about four times during the studio, so I introduced them to the GINA Philosophy and showed them presentations about the technology and concept films about how it could work and so on. My role was really to show them information from the viewpoint of a car designer.”
The timing of the program turned out to be very good, with respect to providing students with strong external context to rethink the suburb and the way people live. “I was literally standing in front of the students, showing them newspaper headlines like ’American Suburbs Dead,’” Bangle says. “It’s hard to exaggerate how extreme things were starting to look in the fall of 2008.”
We’d decided to emphasize the sustainable and adaptable aspects of the GINA Philosophy and technology,” Barkow says. “Remember that at this time, gasoline was $150/barrel and issues of environmental control, energy efficiency and sustainability had become serious topics of conversation.”
The studio yielded fantastic work and introduced some themes that are powerful in digital culture now. “There was a concentration of work around the theme of expandable, adaptable modular base units that seems like it’s tied to the Transformer culture,” Schubert says. “I was also impressed with the redefinition of modularity that the students expressed. In the past, modularity was about efficient use of materials and mass-production methods. Now the students are using it as a means of controlling their environment and as a means of personal expression.”
“One of the most powerful take-aways that I got from this work is that using the ideas of flexibility and movement, the house becomes a conduit to understanding your environment,” Bangle says. “Another was that flexibility could enable social interactivity with your neighbors. There were scenarios where one person’s wish for a particular configuration may overflow into the volume occupied by a neighbor’s house, requiring negotiation between the neighbors.”
“Kinesis is really the Utopia of architects,” Barkow says. “A flexible skin that controls the building climate and light levels enables new kinds of relationships between people and their spaces. The students really embraced the power that digital fabrication and production gives the architect. Now mass-production doesn’t mean Levittown-style, cookie-cutter houses anymore-this technology really enables mass customization.”
“The materials palette will require more development to enable any of this, though,” Barkow says. “There’s just nothing around that can be applied in an architectural context, or even in the original automotive context, that has these performance properties yet. There’s actually quite a limited number of materials available to architects working with membrane structures.”
The GINA Studio was a one-off class at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Both Barkow and Bangle said they’d enjoy the chance to repeat the experience.
“I’d like to see the work from this studio supported with a longer-term engineering project, to give it some teeth,” Bangle says. “To me, it would also be interesting to free the students up to take more chances-they took their work very seriously. I can imagine developing this studio further,” Barkow says. “It would be better to do it over two semesters, with the students delivering films at the end. That would give the students more time for concept development, rather than putting the focus on creating the deliverables.”