UB Graduate Students Design Metaphorical Home for "Water-Souls Longing for the Sea"

Release Date: October 7, 2003 This content is archived.


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Students participating in an architecture graduate seminar in Barcelona, Spain, over the summer were encouraged to rethink the concept of surfaces from a surrealist perspective.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The process by which architects are trained involves a complex mix of architectural history and philosophical concepts of space, time, place, analogy and "re-making" that is difficult to describe.

Architecture is about the built environment, however, the very environment we inhabit. So we know what buildings are, how they function (or don't function), how they make us feel comfortable or not, contextualize our place in the scheme of things or don't, represent abstract ideas well or poorly and create an experience that is memorable or barely noted by those who pass through. But how do the desired results evolve?

Occasionally there is an opportunity to examine at one time and place just how an architect-in-training learns such things as how to articulate meaning; engage the unexpected; think metaphorically; employ light and shadow; use materials, and engage the history of a building's larger environment.

The 10-week, three-course summer graduate seminar conducted in Barcelona, Spain, by the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning is one such opportunity.

The annual program, run by the Department of Architecture, revolves around a specific theme each year. Students are asked to experiment with specific theme-related concepts and, ultimately, to weave them into a functional structure that satisfies specific location and use requirements.

The 2003 Barcelona seminar was titled "Surrealism, Scale and Surface." Its instructors -- Bonnie Ott, Jean La Marche and Beth Tauke, all UB associate professors of architecture -- used surrealist strategies of production to force students to reconsider their notions of "scale" and "surface."

That exercise not only extended the possible uses of these strategies in architectural design, but the use of surrealistic imagery itself in designs by each student for a metaphorical haven for up to 50 old mariners to be located on a site near the sea outside the city of Barcelona.

"Essentially," says Ott, "the purpose of the seminar was to force students to do things in a new way -- a way that did not reflect what they wanted to do; to make them work through a difficult and frustrating creative process."

LaMarche's agenda was to introduce the students to the structures of surrealist thought and examine how they were manifested in art and literature. He focused on Spanish surrealists, although the international movement comprised writers and visual artists from many cultures. The students used the knowledge they acquired in LaMarche's course as a basis with which to explore the impact of surrealism on architecture.

The course taught by Tauke gave this year's seminar its name. She introduced the students to practices the surrealists used in their creative process, and how contemporary shifts in our understanding of "space" and "surface," such as those precipitated by surrealist thought, relate to social and cultural design practices.

Tauke asked the students to develop a series of surfaces related in some way to the city of Barcelona. As they walked the city looking for surfaces, they were required to defy the expected by rolling dice to make such primary choices as where to turn or whether to look up, down or sideways. After selecting surfaces to work with, the students were required to alter them using strategies employed by Spanish surrealists Buñuel, Dalí, Gaudi and Tapies -- juxtaposition, translation, deformation, simulation, mathematical perturbation, and the like.

The resulting surfaces were of one, two or three-dimensions; constructed of such substances as stone, rubber or clay, and drawn, modeled, woven of string, thread and natural materials. The visual and tactile elements of the final produce often was startling and their original inspirations unrecognizable. They disrupt our notions of what surfaces "must" look like or how they "should" feel, which was the purpose of the exercise.

Next, the students began the main project, the design of "A Residence for Retired Mariners," during an eight-credit course taught by Ott.

Here, their expectations again were turned sideways. First came several warm-up exercises, including the construction of a building inspired by "House of Windows and Doors," an uninhabitable but magical dwelling detailed in Borges' story "Chronicles of Bustos Domecq." The students then were introduced to Barcelona's Parc Poblenou.

Poblenou is an area between Barcelona's urban center and the Mediterranean Sea. Centuries ago, a Roman road occupied the shoreline site that during the 13th and 14th centuries was a maritime center. In later centuries, it evolved into an industrial area and more recently, into the site of an Olympic Village. The area's most recent incarnation includes the "Parc Poblenou," which comprises man-made sand dunes mounded over an underground roadway that leads to an extremely popular and crowded Mediterranean beach.

It was on this site that each student was asked to design a retirement home for area fishermen. They were to consider the area's history, the new surface concepts with which they had experimented and metaphors suggested by the opening lines of "Moby Dick" in which Ishmael describes his relationship with the sea as both "home" and "escape from home."

The "home" they designed, Ott explained to her students, was to be a place for those weary of their unsuccessful search for something akin to home at sea.

"The chosen site looks out over the sea -- the space of their unfulfilled dreams," she says. "Locating this longed-for paradise in a place the seamen had not thought to look compounds its surrealistic nature."

The resulting designs recall everything from a ship at sea to a collection of tiny, "ship-like" structures to a woodland garden in which tiny, mysterious homes are "hidden" by trees and other greenery. Students solved the problem in various ways -- some more successfully than others, in the view of their instructors -- but all in an original manner, stimulated by the disruption of their expectations.

Some structures clearly expressed the alienation that might characterize a seaman's relationship with the land. Others seemed an attempt to bring these alienated souls into closer contact with one another and with their new domicile.

Jose Louis Chang, for instance, assuming the seamen's comfortableness with small spaces, produced a tightly conceptualized design for small, boat-like modules that would house six or seven occupants each. His classmate Keoni Cho said the surrealists' automatic drawing strategy helped her develop the concept of a small village comprising individual homes that communicated a sense of aloneness, although each house could be perceived as an "individual moment" along a wandering wooded path lit by lanterns and fireflies.

The design of Luong Thanavuthiporn used the curves elemental to the current topography to obscure the houses he designed. He used heavy canvas or sailcloth, stretched between and over timbers from the deck of a boat, to make homes that are "on the land but of the sea."

Jon Spielman's design was a paradoxical attempt to make housing in a public park for people who essentially are isolates. He embedded continuous living spaces in the dunes and designed fence-like facades to communicate restricted access and ribbed hallways resembling the inside of a wooden ship.

Nick Cameron produced a design for pairs of housing "pods" and a man-made park that would obscure the highway into the city. His design also incorporated the Roman road -- excavated and exposed -- offering a sense of continuity with the area's ancient past.

Another project channeled the cooling wind into individual, mushroom-like houses located among the dunes; another designed a residence that was as much sculpture as dwelling place, and offered fantastic views of the sea.

Still another lifted the houses above the dunes and produced a series of public and private spaces that spoke to the human need to move back and forth between privacy and community. Some emphasized the shared pathways or created a liminal space (in what, geographically, is a liminal space), for "water-souls longing for the sea."

In addition to those cited above, the students who participated in the project were Andrea Widrick, Han Boram, Lonny Bradley, Stephanie Hiller, Jason Atkins, Keith Johnson, Jared Oakley, Chris Romano and Mike Singh.

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