Back to the Future
With one foot in the 19th century

With one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st, the most innovative young firms are tempering their love affair with the computer with a healthy respect for arc welders and chop saws. William Menking looks at why the future ain't what it used to be...

In their Williamsburg workshop, FACE erected a prototype of a moment bay a rigid freestanding component before the application of its stress skin. They are offering these components as a completed house for clients or as a prefab system for other architects and designers. Their 2004 Branford Point residence (below) is based on the system.

When pictures of the Korean Presbyterian Church in Queens by collaborators in Chicago (Douglas Garafalo), Los Angeles (Greg Lynn), and Cincinnati (Michael McInturf) were widely published in 2000, the building was recognized not just as formally innovative, but representative of a new model of practice. Architecture magazines joyfully crowed that the future had arrived, and that it was curvy and collaborative. Two years later, in an article in Architectural Record, the critic Michael Speaks claimed that architecture had changed fundamentally, but this time, it wasn't about form or process. From now on, architecture would follow the contours of the economy.. He pointed to the Dutch practice UN Studio, which claimed to have created the first virtual office that included finance people, management gurus, and process specialists as well as designers. Those methodologies are still important, but architecture keeps changing, and for some of the most interesting young firms right now, it seems that past is prologue. They embrace a working model that incorporates a workshop as an integral element of their design practice and philosophy. For such design/test/fabricate firms, the Eames studio in Los Angeles in the 1950s and the workshops of 19th century designer-builders are as influential as the possibilities of CATIA.

In the New York region alone there are scores of young architectural practices fabricating in workshop lofts in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other small towns in New York and New Jersey. A regional sampling of the better known of these firms include the architects FACE, Sharples Holden Pasquarelli (ShoP), Veyko, Freecell, and Bill Massie.

Speaks' claim that the economy is driving changes in architectural practice was true for some of these firms when they were starting out. FACE, a Brooklyn-based office created by Todd Fouser, Reuben Jorsling, Joe Godsy, and Sean Tracy, began as a design workshop in 1994. We wanted to develop our own projects from prototyping to fabricationnbut on someone else's dime,, said Tracy. They believed that fabrication was a more lucrative and interesting route to success for young designers than working in an office producing reflected ceiling plans. Early in the firm's life, it worked with Steven Holl and Vito Acconci on the design development and fabrication of the faaade of the Storefront for Art + Architecture. Other similar collaborations included partners such as Hodgetts + Fung, Gaetano Pesce, and Nam June Paik.

For members of the DUMBO-based firm Freecell, the choice to work in their shop as much as at their computers is a philosophical one, and informs the way they design. Principal Lauren Crahan, who has worked at Rafael Viioly Architects and Weiss/Manfredi, explained that it makes the firm integrate it's thinking about structure, material, and form in a way that would otherwise be difficult: On big projects, the process was typically linearrfrom schematics to design development, then all right, time to detail it.' This approach is more of a stew, in which you have to consider all the pieces at once.. Associate Corey Yurkovich added that fabricating also makes sense on a practical level. You can solve problems in a way that you just can't on a computer,, he said. It is the shop versus the dream world of design.. No one at Freecell (which also includes principal John Hartmann and associate Andree Pogany) is a closet Luddite, of course: I'd never say throw out the computer,'' said Crahan, but at the end of the day, AutoCad can't satisfy your curiosity..

To guide the contractors building the camera obscura ShoP designed for Greenport, New York, they provided a drawing that looks more like assembly instructions for a child's model airplane than standard construction documents. Each structural member of the camera obscura is numbered and corresponds to the drawing.

The Philadelphia architecture workshop Veyko evolved out of a day job founder Richard Goloveyko had at a British car restoration shop while studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. I was always more interested in the physical making of architecture, and it seemed a natural step to open a workshop rather than to go to work in an office,, he said. He formed a partnership with his wife Lisa Neely who, according to Goloveyko, prefers working from an overall sketch down to the details, while I work from details and materials up to an overall scheme. Our designs meet halfway in the workshop..

The Troy, New York, shop of architect Bill Massie is an outgrowth of his work as a graduate student at Columbia, where he was always fascinated with materials. Massie recently purchased a 12,000-square-foot building near Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute (where he teaches) and has divided it into a 7,000-square-foot shop and a 5,000-square-foot office. He intends to produce component parts of entire structures in his shop and ship them to the construction site, ready for erection. He has done this on several projects, notably his own Big Bend House in Montana, for which each curving structural member was machined in his shop.

Architects going back to Michelangelo have used models as both a design tool and presentation technique. But what makes today's workshops unique is that they can quickly fabricate models directly from laser milling machines and build one-to-one full-scale models. According to FACE's Tracy, In-house fabrication allows us to quickly see the limitations of a design and the complexities of its construction.. FACE can design and fabricate a steel column, send it to another shop to be treated with a protective surface and then mock it up back in their studio. ShoP's Gregg Pasquarelli was emphatic: Our workshop is not just for models and representation, it is a design tool.. It may come as a surprise for young graduates of architecture schools, where paperless studios reign, that SHoP (whose other principals are Chris Sharples, William Sharples, Coren Sharples, and Kimberly Holden) requires all architects coming into the firm to be able to free hand sketch, draw in 3D on a computer, and build in 3D in the shop. ShoP is growing rapidly and is about to add 3,000 square feet of new workshop space, allowing it to do more full scale modeling and prototyping. With several large-scale commissions in the office, such as the new building on Seventh Avenue for the Fashion Institute of Technology, they are also poised to prove that this working method can succeed at a much larger scale.

This trend is driven in part by an architect, fabricator, and contractor's ability to communicate via computer (and we're not just talking email) during every step of the design/build process. Further, these firms realize that technology now allows for mass-customized and differentiated parts that can create tailored forms for the price of a standard building. However, because of the newness of these forms they must be tested in a shop before they can even be prototyped. ShoP's Camera Obscura project in Greenport, New York, shows the potential of this thinking. The entire structure was designed and fabricated (by outside subcontractors) in pieces, and the builder was given an un-dimensioned but numbered plannjust like a child's plastic model airplane directions. The pre-cut and pre-tested pieces reduce the risk of communication glitches between designer and builder, and make sure the project is completed on time and without the usual designer-contractor problems. For his Big Bend House, Massie was able to create a full-scale template of its mechanical services in his shop. He then laid the template on the ground and poured concrete around it, leaving necessary voids for the placement of mechanical systems.

Sparks fly in Freecell's DUMBO workshop as architect John Hartman cuts the expanded metal mesh of Moistscape, which was installed at Henry Urbach Architecture last summer.

One can imagine that one day some of these firms may feel constrained by their shoppi.e., designing only that which they know they can fabricateebut for now, young workshop- based firms are raising expectations about the potential of this model to impart a more tactile, material, and less generic feel to architecture. Some complain that the computer is causing architects to distance themselves even further from the prosaic needs of building. With every new project, these firms are pointing the way back.