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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.

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Marieh Mehrannezhad M.Arch.II ’15 in the robotics lab, where the work is inspired by Cirque du Soleil. Photo by Elena Zhukova.

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

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Craig Hodgetts in the prototype of the Hyperloop, which would travel five miles in 30 seconds. Photo by Elena Zhukova.

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.”

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Aysu Unal M.Arch.II ’15 and Professor Craig Hodgetts inspect the Hyperloop capsule. Photo by Elena Zhukova.

So now Lynn’s students are using custom software developed for the film Gravity to get those robots, which move at an alarmingly fast eight meters per second, to turn static architecture into dynamic space — space that reconfigures itself the way the staircases shift and swing in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. First, the students model an idea on the computer. Next, they make a physical model. Finally, they attach it to the robot, which is the puppeteer.

The inspiration comes from Cirque du Soleil, which Lynn describes as “the most sophisticated company in terms of integrating robotics into buildings.” The troupe’s Kà stage, in Las Vegas, employs “a robot that lifts a hundred kinds of things. A giant stage moves, spins, rotates, pivots and lifts up in the air,” says Lynn, who has seen the show more than a dozen times.

The studio’s work is less about specific design choices than about making large volumes move. Just now, it’s theaters. And do they move: Cargo-sized storage containers extrude from balcony-height walls; circular platforms revolve to ease orchestra seating; a tumbling marquee rolls from the lobby to the stage, becoming the proscenium. In one model, a clutch of glass-enclosed rooms performs a sequence of interlocking maneuvers, converting an open-air plaza into an enclosed building. Things move up and down like the keys on a player piano. Some are reminiscent of a 13th-century drawbridge; others, a bird unfurling its wings.

All About Solving Problems

While Lynn’s studio is deeply enmeshed with tangible objects, Mayne’s is awash in data. As part of UCLA’s campus-wide, interdisciplinary “Grand Challenges,” his students are describing how Los Angeles might achieve 100-percent renewable energy and locally sourced water by 2050.

Mayne, whose work is famously uncompromising, relishes taking mega bites out of meta issues. With Eui-Sung Yi, a principal at Morphosis Architects, Mayne leads UCLA’s Now Institute, which has been looking at the intractable problems of 21st-century cities — culture, congestion, clutter, collapse.

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Thom Mayne atop architectural building blocks outside the IDEAS studio. Photo by Elena Zhukova.

IDEAS extends the pair’s investigations. Yi and Mayne have been guiding their students to fashion a tight presentation — ideally, to pitch to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The students’ job, Mayne says, is to take the “macro and make it micro. In my own work as an architect, if you can’t get it out in five minutes, you are done.”

It’s time for a periodic run-through. The students have set up a semicircle of chairs facing a temporary white wall onto which they’ll project the latest version of their proposal. A group of architects, engineers and UCLA officials are here to comment.

“We understand that these are insane goals,” Mayne begins, as images about energy use flash onto the screen. A flurry of graphs and diagrams follows, the kind you’d expect to see at a RAND seminar, not an architecture class. In fact, there’s barely a building on view.

Things come to an abrupt halt when a key slide illuminates the wall. A flowchart of sorts, it is intended to convey at a glance where the region’s energy comes from, how clean those sources are, and how the energy is used. This is supposed to be the macro made micro. But with all of its arrows and statistics, it is an inscrutable fog.

Los Angeles architect Bill Fain, who knows a thing or two about compressing big ideas into small packets, notes that the numbers don’t add up. “You’ve got more than 100 percent with all these kinds of energy here,” he says. For the next 10 minutes, the slide is shredded. And so it goes, with Fain and Mayne cheerfully exchanging staccato volleys.

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Shijie Zhang M.Arch.II ’15 at work on a model of the Hyperloop station. Photo by Elena Zhukova.

Mayne suddenly interjects the core lesson. “When I was working on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut,” he begins, “never once did we talk about architecture. The talk was all about problems. Safety, security, functionality.” Mayne’s voice is soft, but his contrarian message is clear. “The huge problem with the architectural community is that they go into a room and all they talk about is architecture. Nobody wants to hear about that. The artist architect is dead,” he pronounces. “Today, you’ve got to produce a viable argument — economic, cultural, political. That’s what the kids need to learn.”

Erasing The Jitters Of Staggering Change

While Mayne eschews the aesthetic, Hodgetts embraces it. “Our job is to domesticate the dark implications of super-high-speed travel,” he says, referring to his studio’s work on Hyperloop. A lifelong car buff, Hodgetts relishes the notion that design can erase the jitters that naturally occur upon entering a totally enclosed, pilotless capsule and being sucked down a tube at roughly 760 miles per hour. With 100 capsules in the vacuum-tight conduit at any given moment, the potential for disaster — when it takes just 30 seconds to travel five miles — is staggering.

Then there’s the temporal and geographic psychology to overcome. At those speeds, you could get to San Francisco faster than you can get to Disneyland from downtown L.A. by car. Distance and time are shattered.

These are big ideas to fold into a design. “I find myself repeating to the students Charles Moore’s mantra: ‘It’s just as difficult to design a spoon as it is to design a city,’” Hodgetts says. His studio has been forced to consider nearly every aspect of Musk’s bold proposal. They did route studies based on land acquisition values, contours and topography, constraints on turning radiuses, and G-forces. They surmised the exteriors of the pressurized capsules. They pictured the interiors for the windowless ride (at those speeds, the landscape whizzing by would be a blur or, worse, an inducement to hurl). And they looked at station design.

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Greg Lynn. Photo by Elena Zhukova

Many concepts emerged: Hemispherical vacuum chambers. Deceleration airlocks. Helical corkscrews to ferry capsules between arrival and departure levels. Elliptical seating. Virtual realities that give riders a “view.”

Hodgetts’ personal favorite? A passenger adjusts the temperature at her seat “with a big body motion, not a little button. Then it turns into a video mirror where she puts on her lipstick and fluffs her hair. To me that was like, whoa. That absolutely jumps the virtual wall between technology and human activity,” he says.

That, Abe says, is exactly why the IDEAS lab exists. “The Greeks originally defined architecture as the ‘grand technology,’ which meant the unity of technologies. Technology keeps advancing. So you have to keep redefining yourself or our profession will only be about how to stack the bricks.”