Friday, August 30, 2013

Getting lost, evolving

Our short trip to Paris was instructive in many ways. Finding ourselves in a slightly bewildering physical space had its frustrations and benefits. With map in hand it was easy enough to find our way. We could in fact walk block to block buried in the street guide to Paris and "find" anything we wanted. Without a map we were in some ways more carefree but also more likely to get lost. 

I guess having a program to follow when you travel is a good thing. But experimenting with the landscape is better. The unexpected turn, following a bit of wall that looks interesting, deciding at the last minute to peek into that murky courtyard, all of these lead to discoveries and memories. The process is "time consuming" but following the map too closely consumes your ability to experience. 

Looking for ways to teach science to my undergraduates I've stumbled upon the fact that I don't "write" lectures and labs. I design them. This came as a bit of a surprise because I never thought of myself as a designer. The labs I prepared for this semester are designed to let students get lost. This is radically different from the way labs have been taught for centuries. My labs for this year are designed to help students experience internal cognitive landscapes where getting lost is the goal. Stumbling around in that landscape I expect that students will build experiences that help them grow intellectually. 

We'll see how it works. I have a smart bunch this year and they've been programmed to follow instructions, memorize well, and produce top level academic work. Lets see what happens when frameworks are looser, discovery trumps memorization, and deliverables are as "small" as a tweet. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ancient Paris

At the bottom of Rue Mouffetard sits the church of St. Medard, a 12th century site. Across from the church, like in many places we've seen, lies a fountain. As you walk up the Mouffetard there's a mural depicting a girl at a spring. Just up from that a bas relief of a person at a well "le bon source." How long ago was this a village? How long ago did a spring run here? What was on the site of this church? Its fountain? How did people use this space? I begin to imagine the wild landscape of humans here when the ice retreated and the climate moderated. 

I see a sign for les "Aranes de Lutece," the sands (or arenas--their floors were made of sand) of ancient Paris. Without a map it takes me some minutes to find it, but you can easily follow the road signs for walkers, progressing from one to the next. There, tucked in a corner not far from the Jardin des Plants is the ancient 3rd century arena, a stone structure surrounded by the contemporary city. Imagine this place in Roman times! I spend time there exploring and then trying to connect to the Internet, which is supposed to work in all the Paris parks and works in some. 

On the way out the Paris mosque and then a beautiful double stairway with an "eau de Paris" fountain as its focus, and all around a wall of flowers. You climb to a street roughly perpendicular to Rue Monge: Rue Rollin. Lovely and quiet, closed off to traffic, a slight bias inward to the center where storm water drains. Here was the home of Benjamin Fondane, Romanian-born poet and philosopher deported from here and assassinated at Auschwitz. 

I walk up the Rue Rollin to an elementary school. Like all the public elementary schools in Paris, it displays the required plaque commemorating students who were deported, and like Fondane, murdered in the holocaust. I walk back the way I came, stop at Fondane's house again and than at the "Place Benjamin Fondane," just at the top of the staircase.

I wonder as I look Rue Monge below and a corner butcher shop: Was this the last thing Mondane's eyes set upon as he was being forced down these stairs? 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Forms of Paris

The forms of Paris follow architectural plans laid down over centuries. Plazas, vistas, lines and spaces, curves and walkways all planned with a planner's intelligence. What is design and what is the designed landscape? Landscape is something people build, experience, and change. Designed landscape is a space experienced through the interpretive framework of the designer. I can appreciate the city as it speaks to me in its designers' language. 

Here at La Villete the plan is open, the spaces inviting and fun, but the constant here is in the vision that belonged to the builders. And it remains their vision. Old bright red metal follies, now closed, introduce some variation. People and nature add another dimension of movement, change, and uncertainty. But the place is as designed as the plaza in front of Musee d'Orsay, which we rejected today because of the huge line of tourists massing at its entrance. 

What then is "open design?" Is there, can there be such a thing? It seems to me that the less certainty, the fewer the prescribed (or proscribed) pathways, the more you can participate intuitively with a design, the greater the opportunities, the more "open" the design. This holds not just for landscapes. It's the reason we use iPhones instead of Blackberries. Does it make a difference?

In the bowels of the subway this morning, a place where we had to change routes (the line we wanted toward La Villette wasn't running), we were grateful for the single path we had no choice but to follow. So getting from one place to another, maybe it's best to reduce randomness. What about exploring the city?

My question has to do with "vernacular" spaces, like the village spaces I want to explore in Sri Lanka. Vernacular landscape is no more "open" than the planned facades and byways of Paris. In fact it may be more "closed," especially for the people who live in it. But it expresses something unique. Reading the genius of a vernacular landscape is different from reading the genius of a professionally designed landscape. Reading the genius of people is different than reading the genius of architects.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Paris: some impressions

Still only here 24 hours. How can you hope to get below the surface. We have found ourselves on many tourist streets as the "must-sees" are covered one by one. These I could skip without a qualm. 

We are treated to graceful streets and architecture but more memorable are the side streets, away from the grand arc of the Seine and its monuments. 

Why does a road curve or widen here? Why are these houses set back from the sidewalk? What is the meaning if the placement of this church? The small questions that accumulate and blossom here on the Rive Gauche are more important and more lasting than the Paris that is polished for our consumption. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Interpreting urban form and making connections

For several days during the MDS intensive students experienced the dense urban landscape of Boston and Cambridge. My intention was to provide an exercise in observation and a chance to stimulate people's imagination. Boston is like nowhere else in the United States and our crowded, sometimes cranky old city has seen many iterations of growth, decay, design and re-design. It is some of these layers, what George Hargreaves would call the urban "palimpsest," that I want my students to detect. 

We are lucky to live in a city that is densely built and densely used. Our transportation-rich environment provides a high degree of mobility and connectedness, so that our geographical area, physically contained in any case, seems smaller because of our ability to get around in it. Students were also impressed with the cluster of amenities in our immediate environment, ranging from gardens and museums to universities, restaurants, and of course Fenway Park. 

So yesterday as I visited the student groups who were preparing their final presentations I was struck by one groups's approach. They decided to hang their "sustainability" hat on the concept of "connectedness." Their approach to site design was based on the connections within the site, as well as connections between the site and the dense urban fabric within which it's embedded. I found this to be a refreshing and creative approach. What's more, I was amazed when the students related their concept to the work they did with zometools. 

During our Zometool exercise this group built clusters of clusters meant to represent the densely-packed connectivity of an urban space. They interpreted their space to go beyond just the physical space of the city. Their clusters came to represent communications, information, and social networks in the city. An amazing "connection" between concept, model, and plan. 

This is an excellent example of the kind of meta-conceptual work our students can perform in the deeply engaging and interactive learning environment of the intensive. Great work you guys!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Teaching design students about materials and sustainability

So I'm in the middle of our in-town "intensive" session for the Boston Architectural College Master's Program in Sustainable Design. Our first site visit was to North Point in east Cambridge. North Point is a work-in-progress, a planned community-green space that was sparked by the completion of Boston's Big Dig. I've written about it several times in these posts.

Our second field visit was to the Boston Fens, just a few steps from the BAC and what I consider to be a 19-th century iteration of the process now underway at North Point. City, nature, people, landscape and its myriad interactions. It surprised me that students liked the Fens more than North Point. They felt comfortable there, connected, and inspired. Maybe it was because we got a little closer to nature.

I had a chance during our walk to stand under a leafy maple tree for a short discussion with the students. We noticed that the leaves were fluttering happily away in the wind, and I asked them to do a little thought exploration on how the leaves could function so well for the tree at the same time as they are light and airy, made up of almost "nothing." We discussed briefly cellulose and lignin and what they do in plant systems, but only very briefly. This is not a botany class.

An hour later I had the students busy at work in our homeroom/laboratory where they engaged in an extended experience with zometool building pieces. Four groups ended up creating four distinct projects, with various shades of focus, noise, and fun.

One of the projects really surprised me. The students built catapults with the zometool, an unexpected outcome to say the least. But when they presented their work they discussed it in terms of materiality: How much catapult action did they get for the size of their structure and the number of pieces used? Their conclusion: The structures performed the same regardless of size or number of pieces...a great preliminary experiment in the use of materials in the built environment.

I asked the students how they came up with their design and their premise. Again I was surprised when they told me it related back to our study of leaves. How people make connections, how they relax into learning, how nature speaks to us in a "biophilic" sense, all of these are questions I'd like to pursue more. What lessons should we keep in mind when we design courses about design?

Monday, August 12, 2013

How do students build ideas?

Are ideas the same as structures? My students at the Boston Architectural College taught me today. No. You can build a "structure" but it may represent time, communication networks, or a trajectory of development.

I set students loose with the Zometools and our session went far beyond my expectations. Here are some of the notes I took on the process:

1) students sit in their working groups, the same groups as they'll do projects with the rest of the week.

2) immediately, a few of the students start unpacking and manipulating the building pieces. 

3) some people ask me what I mean by "rules." It becomes apparent to them soon that rules come with the first few minutes of handling the Zometool building pieces. 

4) lots of talking, which sounds good natured. 

5) lots of "what if we..." and "why don't we."

6) next: strategies, let's put this here and see if we get...״

7) four out of each group of five seemed to be actively working. One out of each group seemed engaged, but quietly observing, seldom talking. 

8) lots of laughing and also lots of focus

9) lots of "oh! That's this!"

10) kinetic work, symmetry and asymmetry being compared, trading of blocks within groups. 

Each group presented their product. I asked them to share their process, viz., how did you come up with this idea? How did your group solve problems? What were the rules that evolved as you did this work? Did you play the same role in this work as you did earlier today in group projects? Do you want to retain/change that role?

Lots of further discussion comparing sites we've visited, conceptualizing ideas about sustainability, planning, perception of built environments. 

A productive and in many ways surprising time! Would love to get student feedback on the experience!

Simple Structure:Complex Function

Today I will have my BAC graduate students work on a problem that is at the heart of sustainable design: how do we make simple designs that fulfill complex functions?

As a botanist I am well acquainted with plant form and function. It's no secret that plants have evolved very simple forms that accommodate very complex functions. The amazing thing about plants (and other organisms as well) is that the more they have evolved, the simpler, more compact, and more streamlined their designs. 

So here's the challenge. After a short warm-up walk through a great urban design, the Boston Fens--a few steps from the BAC, we'll return to the lab to do some work. 

I will set the students to work with the new Zometool building modules we bought specially for this project. There are many amazing things about Zometool. One of them is, that as you start building a structure you begin to establish "rules" for how things fit together. What you wish to accomplish is dependent upon the rules you set up. So first, I will ask my students to be cognizant of, and jot down the "rules" they establish. 

Second, Zometool is great for individual or group work. I will ask students to work in their small groups of five, the same groups that they will work in to present projects at the end of the week. I want this to be a kind of warm up group experience because the rest of this week's intensive becomes well, more intense in a group sense. 

Finally, I will ask the groups to build me simple structures that can perform complex functions. The functions can be imaginary. Students can build landscapes, transportation systems, urban agglomerations, even abstract shapes. But they have to be prepared to present on 1) their "rules" and 2) their structure--how it is simple and how it will work in complex ways. 

I will have a couple of microscopes around with plant specimens available. People can refer to these as they wish, or just space out at the microscope to take a break from all the "making." In a broad sense they can use plants as a design model but I'm hoping to apply plant design in its broadest framework--a simple structure with complex functions. 

My goals for this project are many. Group collaboration, tactile work, relaxation. But an unspoken goal is in the embryonic development of this week's project. Keep it simple. Look closely at the site. Feel it and work from within it, rather than imposing your ideas. Don't rush to slap on green roofs and green walls. Sustainable things aren't fads. Sustainability means sticking around. And plants have done that for about 350 million years. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Letting students loose

There's so much we want to share with our students. So much they have to learn and be exposed to. Such a long pathway to critical thinking in whichever academic discipline. This week I'm engaging with the wonderful students at the Boston Architectural College, masters students who are here in Boston to study sustainability. Sustainable things are things that stick around and as American cities go Boston is a great example. It's old, it's layered, it's been through so much, and I'm proud to say that from Boston we export all kinds of important things: ideas, entrepreneurship, and design.

How to get all of this across to students from all over the country, all over the world who are tired and challenged, here to learn, but burdened with a lot of work?

With my students at Boston University and also with my students at the Boston Architectural College, I've found that in some situations, the less you say, the better. People were just in lectures for more than three hours this morning. Now they're coming on the T to Lechmere station where we will meet to introduce them to the wonderful urban project of Northpoint.

I want them to see all they can. I want them to sense these surroundings and try to make meaning of them. I want my students imaginations to be sparked, and I want them to derive inspiration from a site that really is inspirational. Personally I've got most of the answers. But that's not what it's about. 

I need people to notice the little things and the big things, the pathways and the vistas, the water plants and terrestrial plants, and the huge transportation system that surrounds this enclave. I'll have to point some things out. But I want students to notice things on their own. Some of the students will talk among themselves, some will dawdle, and some will throw me questions that may not be relevant. My role as a guide to this spot is to point, sometimes silently, and let them take apart this environment for their own understanding.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Teaching Complexity

The world we look at may seem simple and understandable a a glance. But it is underlain by all kinds of complexity.

Part of my job as a scientist is to teach my students an appreciation for that complexity. It's not easy. It's not that young people aren't hard wired to look at their world critically. They are actually superbly equipped and ready to practice a detailed analysis of the world around them. 

It's just that the things we look at as scientists, for example patterns in nature, are not as immediately interesting to them as other kinds of patterns--patterns of behavior or fashion for example. 

So how to teach complexity? In a few weeks we start school again. My undergraduates will come in fresh with summer, full of energy, and ready for a challenge. I think I'll give them something to do with their hands. 

I bought a few of these great Zometool sets. Their components are extremely simple. Deceptively so if you consider everything you can build with them. Hmmmm....something like the building blocks of life.