Finding Inspiration From The Comfort Of Your Chair

John Noble

When I was in architecture school I had a professor, Udo Kultermann, who was legendary for his encyclopedic knowledge of world architecture. As one would expect of a resident authority on architectural history, he knew everything about Byzantine, Medieval, Gothic, Greek Revival and all the rest of the significant architectural periods and styles as well as all of the important figures throughout the course of history which was impressive, but nowhere near as impressive is his comprehensive knowledge of contemporary architecture. In a pre-internet, pre-blog world, he was able at the drop of a hat to refer us to the “well-known Estonian architect” or that famous multi-family housing project in Latvia or the coolest curtain-wall detail on a project in Chile. It brought not only a breadth and depth of innovation to our work, it showed us that creativity was happening all over the world and we could learn from all of it.

I have been thinking about professor Kultermann a lot this summer because I have had the fantastic opportunity to help teach an Advanced Graduate Design Studio at the DAAP at University of Cincinnati. We have been working with a group of students in their last studio before they begin their thesis, and the assignment has been like a dry-run for that next step. We began with an intensive period of urban analysis, followed by identification of proposals to address issues that we identified in the neighborhood. Those proposals turned into building designs and now we are wrapping up with detailed development of building and envelop systems – from demographics to scupper details in 14 weeks.

The process has been a familiar one, with the same steps along the way that I remember from when I was a student. But what has really struck me is the impact that access to the work of the world has made to the way in which one teaches and learns. When I used to ask Udo about a project, what typically followed was a trip to the library, where I had to track down that one obscure journal in which it was documented, usually in tiny black and white images with poor quality Xerox reproductions of a plan and two sections, all of which were practically illegible and almost impossible to correlate. Today, when I am trying to find a precedent to share with a student, as we speak I have them go to the architect’s web-site or do a Google image search and within seconds we are deep into the specifics of how the handrail attaches to the ramp or why one set of documents is more effective at conveying the central ordering concept than another.

Our students have brought to the discussion the rich texture of reclaimed materials in the work of Wang Shu, the green walls of the BIG incinerator plant in Amsterdam and the tracery columns of the Mediatheque in Sendai. We have looked at moveable screens on a Helmut Jahn building and compared them to the “curtain-wall” in Shigeru Ban’s Curtain Wall House. And we have evaluated a variety of different ways to detail a green roof, from thin and floaty to heavy and earth-like, as in the Lincoln Center Project by Diller and Scofidio.

The task of designing a building is a daunting one, involving high-stakes decisions with huge sums of money. It is easy to let those forces direct the process toward the lowest common denominator. But the reward for making the extra effort to find a solution that meets all the pragmatic demands AND satisfies the soul is the creation of places that become touchstones of their communities. It used to be that sources of inspiration were harder to come by, but for the architect with the requisite passion and curiosity (combined with a critical eye to separate the gems from the rest) the creativity of the world is no farther away than a well-crafted search.

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