Big Ideas Inside the Suprastudio
By Greg Goldin
Published Jul 1, 2015 8:00 AM
In the hangar where Howard Hughes built the "Spruce Goose”, UCLA architecture students are designing an almost unimaginable future.
Beneath the soaring ceiling of the hangar where the Hughes H-4 Hercules (“the Spruce Goose”) was built in Playa Vista, an academic experiment is under way. Nearly 10 miles south of Westwood, amid largely uncompleted or unoccupied high-tech office buildings, a trio of off-campus architecture studios is assaying chunks of the future. Will buildings become kinetic? Will people travel in pneumatic tubes? Will Los Angeles become Shenzhen?
If the setting — inside the remnant of Howard Hughes’ aerospace acropolis in the heart of L.A.’s “Silicon Beach” — is unique, so is the program.
It’s called IDEAS, a name that was meant to be an acronym but never got a formal conjugation. The concept is simple: Airlift students out of their academic cloister and parachute them into a postindustrial precinct, and the institutional trappings fall away. Let the kids play. This has meant not only escaping Westwood, but also stepping outside architecture’s traditional boundaries to explore fields as disparate as bobsleds and off-the-grid, micro-energy technologies. As Hitoshi Abe, chair of UCLA’s Architecture & Urban Design (AUD) Department, puts it, “The world of architecture from the inside is way smaller than the way the outside world is looking at architecture. With IDEAS, maybe we can redefine our profession and open up more interesting opportunities.”
The IDEAS platform began two years ago, with architects Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and Greg Lynn in the starting lineup. For the students, each of whom already held one master’s degree in architecture and would earn a second, this was a chance to collaborate with two Pritzker Prize winners and two Venice Biennale Golden Lion recipients. An uninterrupted year, rather than the three 10-week sessions (a traditional academic quarter system), is devoted to a real-world problem, with a real-world client. The format extends the AUD department’s 10-year-old Suprastudio, which links companies such as Disney and Toyota and cities including New Orleans and Cap-Haitien to graduate-level courses.
This year, Mayne’s students are plotting a sustainable future for Los Angeles, while Lynn’s are using robotics to morph buildings. Craig Hodgetts, on the architecture faculty since 1972, has joined the roster, exploring the possibilities of Hyperloop, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s proposed alternative to the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bullet train.
Pulsating With Promise
As you walk the length of the hangar, you begin to comprehend just how different this space is from Perloff Hall, the department’s home on campus. By far the largest part of the hangar — an area equal to five football fields — sits empty beneath a single seven-story roof. All that raw emptiness, sitting on the opposite side of the lab’s 39-foot-high walls, pulsates with open-ended promise. Hodgetts describes the vibe as “amplitude.”
Still, this is a classroom, and its 58 students — divided among the three studios — have collapsed the allotted 13,000 square feet to dollhouse dimensions. Frail-looking architectural models — most the size of cake boxes and made of chipboard and plastic and Styrofoam — take up half the length of one side of the room. Two perfectly round, lightweight wooden cylinders — full-scale mock-ups of Hyperloop fuselages — are crammed into one corner. In the middle of the room, twin 15-foot-tall robots — purchased from the failed Fremont, Calif., solar photovoltaic enterprise Solyndra — seem to be menacing each other in a warm-up to a one-armed boxing match.
Space That Reconfigures Itself
It’s the first week of April, and Lynn’s 14 students cluster around a quartet of plastic folding tables, catching up after spring break. Lynn has spent two decades examining digital technology and architecture, playing around with 3-D printers when they were as large as Volkswagens, and pioneering the use of animation software to draw the biomorphic forms that became known as “blob architecture.” He also fell in love with computer-controlled robots, fabricating unusual objects that have made his reputation.
Then he fell out of love. “Frankly, I’m just bored to death of fabrication,” he says. “The topic has the best minds in the field working on it. But I still love the robots.”