Factory Studio, Spring 2011

Spring 2011

Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Network Architecture Lab

Professor:             Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D.
Assistant:              Leigha Dennis
This studio reimagines the factory for the twenty-first century, setting out to understand the architect as a builder of not merely physical edifices but also social, conceptual, and technical structures.
If modernity is defined by mass production, then the factory is modern architecture’s definitive typology. Early factories were widely understood as sublime, sites of awe and horror that could only be overcome by the exertion of human reason. Spurred by this challenge, from the eighteenth century onward, architects and social reformers envisioned rational and just factories, not merely workplaces but rather centers of human habitation, places of joy in labor, and envisioned societies built around them.
Today, the factory evokes images of structures either converted to art museums, lofts, or abandoned to decay. With factories outsourced, design has all but abandoned re-imagining this critical site of human activity, the one truly new building type of modernity. Our interest is to use architecture and the most advanced thinking in network culture to construct new and better ways of life. In doing so, this studio is engaged first and foremost with institution building and shaping of social behavior.
The studio topic emerges from research into how we can navigate a landscape defined not by scarcity but by over-abundance. The very model of economy—the management and distribution of scarce resources— is undone by overproduction and overaccumulation. 19 million housing units are vacant in the United States, 345,000 in Ireland, 340,000 in Dubai, 1.5 million in Spain and 64 million in China.[1] Such stark figures call into question the very premise of building. What is the purpose of building—no matter how sustainably—when it means only more excess that must somehow be consumed?
The overproduction in housing has been accompanied by the overaccumulation of capital and overconsumption in advanced countries. The result is a bloated economy that cannot easily restart itself. Even as the stock market gyrates upward, unemployment levels in this and many other countries remain at Depression-era levels. Anticipating the current economy continuing its downturn for a protracted period of time, we feel it becomes crucial to imagine a saner economic structure than the current one. Deriving through financialization and conspicuous consumption based on debt is sheer madness.
We set out is to ask not only how architecture can continue to function in this condition but also how it can play a transformational role in it. This studio sets out to re-envision productivist thought for the 21st century, aligning itself with earlier projects targeting the relationship of production, design, and society such as the Gothic Revival, the Arts & Crafts, the Deutscher Werkbund, Russian Productivism, the Bauhaus, the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm, and the Counterdesign movement.
Against a cynical world in which architects—and even studios in schools of architecture—have unabashedly agreed to serve and authoritarian clients, we believe in a new ethics.[2] Against all hope, we ask if it is possible to produce a new morality of objects. We reject the self-expressive and performance-based models of design that dominate today as incompatible with a post-scarcity society. This studio’s central task is the invention of an ethics of design appropriate to network culture.
Students will develop centers for small-scale manufacture and distribution. These centers will eschew a corporate model for a commons-based model, providing infrastructures, enclaves, guilds, or clubs in which individuals and small groups can work. Our intent is to envision such centers as means of reinvigorating local economies even as they provide models for life in societies if and when our current economic system collapses.
Beyond the ambitions of the studio at a societal level, we hope to provoke thought about how graduates of architecture can thrive in an economy that is likely will never again provide traditional positions in sufficiently large numbers to employ them. In envisioning the new factory we will look also to new institutions established by architects or artists—like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Center for Land Use Interpretation, Telic, Center for Urban Pedagogy, Temporary Services, and the Public School. We will also look at new cultural forms emerging on the Internet such as crowdsourced initiatives, open source projects, piracy, online help forums, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and maker culture that offer alternative models of social interaction.
Where Margaret Thatcher’s dictum about neoliberalism, “there is no alternative,” seems to rule, we say, “no, there is an alternative” and set to envision it in concrete terms. Within the network economy, these our factories are meant to embrace short-run, generally high-technology (although not necessarily or exclusively high technology) production. In alternate economic models—or in a severely protracted downturn—these factories may be repurposed for the purposes of retrofitting and repairing existing products.


Our strategy for site navigates both physical and virtual space. We begin with a concern for situational ethics while plunging headlong into the problem of overabundance and unequal distribution.
The physical site for the studio is the greater New York metropolitan area. Gutted by high operating costs and decades of city policy that aimed to turn Manhattan into a control center for management and finance, manufacturing left the city, eliminating roughly 80% of the jobs in that sector. Instead, New York has become a “global city,” a key urban node in the worldwide financial network. Finance now accounts for some 35% of the city’s wages. The result is a city increasingly unaffordable to anyone but those engaged in the financial sector, ruled by its richest inhabitant who insists he runs it like a business and once dubbed New York “a high-end product, maybe even a luxury product.” We believe that this is not only inequitable, it poses serious questions of long-term sustainability.
As finance becomes further virtualized while the city’s telecommunicational base ages, and enclaves like Greenwich, Connecticut become home to more and more large investment funds, we question whether New York will be able to depend on financial interests in a decade. Nor are these issues merely local. The decline in manufacturing in the United States and rise of finance is a key factor in the long-term economic downturn we are experiencing.
Each student will be responsible for identifying a site.
Architectural strategies of coping with overabundance will also be explored in the use of large datasets that will be exploited for the purposes of site selection. Using information from the American Community Survey we will target areas in the greater New York area in need of economic development having potential to act as bases for the sort of institutions we are developing. In a series of tutorials, studio teaching assistant Leigha Dennis, will instruct students on the use of ArcGIS and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software as well as how to improve the raw maps output by this software in Adobe Illustrator.
As a step toward hypothesizing our institutions, we will collectively produce a large-scale map interpreting the New York City metropolitan area over the course of the first three weeks of studio and continue to use and refine it throughout the term


Having identified sites, students will devise programs for 21st century factories, specifically commons-based workshop facilities providing members with access to equipment, instruction, means of storage and distribution, and possibly living quarters and other amenities. These factories will set out to satisfy what Chris Anderson calls “the long tail of things,” employing high technology means such as CNC milling and 3d printing for rapid prototyping and small batch manufacturing. Students will develop process diagrams for the activities that take place within their factory and embed them within visual arguments for their projects.
Students will identify a set of possible programmatic elements that fit their factory, which will be roughly 15,000 to 60,000 feet in size (between 50% and 200% of the square footage of the Dessau Bauhaus building). Among these will be manufacturing center, media center, dormitory, common area, storage, shipping preparation, loading dock, and distribution.
Students will be asked to consider how their factories engage the megalopolis in which they are sited. In the wake of an era defined by the attention-seeking strategy of shaping, it is only appropriate to ask if architecture shouldn’t lose its singularity and obsession with performance. Can we develop architectural strategies aimed at producing less individualistic works that operate in a more ambient register, embracing formlessness instead of shaping, works that build intensity more subtly rather than giving it away all at once, works that question the boundaries between the city and the building rather than affirming them?
With regard to means of distribution, although this is not a requirement, it is plausible that some students may want to envision more complex forms of engaging the city through forms of distribution such as a kiosks, stores, or mobile units that might distribute manufactured goods throughout the city.
Students will be responsible for the structure and cladding of their buildings, deciding on systems that are economically feasible while appropriate to the work being done within. Students may turn to CNC milling, 3d printing, and other systems native to their factories but may also engage existing structural systems. Complexity will not be valued for its own sake. Projects are not limited to new constructions or empty sites but may also involve retrofitting existing structures.
This studio’s representational strategies are informed by its ethical ambitions. During the boom, ultra-realistic renderings and Photoshop-based montages dominated architecture studios. We propose that this sort of representation is inappropriate, corresponding to what Mark Fischer has dubbed “capitalist realism, a condition in which we are offered nothing but the present the eagerly wait for the next thrill the system has to offer.[3] Evacuated of any critical intent, such work only cements the false notion that modern technology has made communication transparent.
But more than that, if all architects produce a form of science fiction, then to paraphrase William Gibson, we need to remember that as we construct futures, all we have at our disposal is the moment that we are currently living in.[4] The moment we construct a future it starts to age rapidly. Since the crash, along with the development of technologies that were formerly consigned to an endlessly deferred proximate future such as near-universal wireless Internet, locative media, tablet computing, and touchscreen interfaces, it seems that we have exhausted the era of the next new thing, of rapid technological and cultural development and obsolescence.
Thus, envisioning the future through architecture forces us to follow Alex Galloway’s suggestion that “all media is dead media,” to understand that appropriate representational strategies that might resist capitalist realist representations might emerge out of a new understanding of what Gibson calls a “long now,” a temporally stretched condition out of which we can freely recombine material and representational motifs.[5]
Specifically, given our subject matter we might look to industrial processes, which have produced a vast body of drawings—from exploded axonometrics to cutaways to flowcharts to process design drawings—all more attuned to serialism and reproduction than architecture has ever been. Such diagrams not only offer rich territory to mine for representational strategies, their close study allows us to better understand the topic we are involved in. Precise, unshaded hidden line drawings, plan, section, elevation, and axonometric offer us a carefully and logically articulated system of delineation appropriate for a manufacturing facility.
In addition, appropriate architectural forms of representation responding to the post-bubble condition recession can be found in the representational strategies produced in Japan during the Lost Decade of 1990 to 2000. In contrast to the overly exuberant and formal bubble architecture of the 1980s, post-bubble architectural representation—particularly that by Atelier Bow-Wow—was restrained even as it toyed with the absurd, tending to produce extremely rich drawings that chronicled a proliferation of contextual quirks and impossible conditions as well as drawings embracing a video game aesthetic to explore superflatness and pixilation.
20% Attendance and Participation
Students are expected to attend studio sessions, be on time, and ready to discuss their work at every session. Students are expected to participate in group discussions, to cooperate with other studio members by offering criticism, advice, and good spirit.
Group meetings, regularly scheduled once per week allow us to share our research and constantly re-tune our method and approach to the material.
Students are expected to be at pin-ups and reviews on time with work ready to present. Students who are not ready at the beginning of the pin-up or review forfeit the right to receive criticism. Students are expected to contribute to pin-ups and reviews, both in terms of criticism and questions as well as by working in a team to ensure that rooms are ready to present in (adequate chairs, projectors, and so on).
Students are expected to maintain a tumblelog of their research at tumblr.com and to keep up with the tumbleogs of other students. All students are expected to mail the instructors with the address of their tumblelog by the second class meeting.
30% Concept
Students will be graded on the originality and rigor of their concepts. All students need a coherent thesis in this studio.
Columbia teaches in English. There is help available for difficulties with the English language in the university, but lack of understanding is not an excuse.
30% Execution and Presentation
A good concept means little if it is poorly executed or presented. Presentation and execution are not trivial, nor are they mere “polish,” rather the choices made in presentation and execution should inform, and be informed by, the concept.
Students are expected to render and present their work clearly, succinctly, and elegantly.
Work should be thoroughly and completely represented. A brief bibliography of books on design and presentation is appended.
A Brief Bibliography of Books regarding Design and Presentation
Elam, Kimberley. Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.
Hurlburt, Allen. The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books. New York: Van Norstand Reinhold, 1978.
Jardí, Enric Twenty-Tips on Typography (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2007).
Muller-Brockmann, Josef. Grid Systems in Graphic Design. Zurich: Niggli, 2001.
Samar, Timothy. Making and Breaking the Grid. A Graphic Design Layout Workshop (Beverly, MA: Rockport, 2002).
The Grid System, https://www.thegridsystem.org/
Tomato, Bareback: A Tomato Project (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press,1999).

[1] Adam Quinones, “America Has 130.7 Million Housing Units. 18.8 Million Are Vacant,”Mortgage News Daily, November 2, 2010,      https://www.mortgagenewsdaily.com/11022010_q3_homeownership_and_vacancy.asp, Frank McDonald, “345,000 homes vacant, says report,” Irish Times, March 5, 2010, https://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/0305/1224265631515.html, Vincent Fernando, “There Are Now Enough Vacant Properties In China To House Over Half Of America,” Business Insider, September 8, 2010, “Spanish market will need at least four years to deal with property glut, experts predict,” Property Wire, December 22, 2010, https://www.propertywire.com/news/europe/spanish-real-estate-glut-201012224794.html, https://www.businessinsider.com/there-are-now-enough-vacant-properties-in-china-to-house-over-half-of-america-2010-9.
[2] Kazys Varnelis and Robert Sumrell, “Advanced Studio V: Evil,” Columbia University, https://www.arch.columbia.edu/work/courses/studio/f09-evil.
[3] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative, (Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009).
[4] Scott Thill, “William Gibson Talks Zero History, Paranoia and the Awesome Power of Twitter,” Wired Underwire Blog, posted September 7, 2010, https://www.wired.com/underwire/2010/09/william-gibson-interview/all/1.
[5] Alex Galloway, “Cory Arcangel (Beige) and Paper Rad’s The Mario Movie" (2005)https://www.deitch.com/projects/press_text.php?pressId=29. Michael Parsons, “Interview: Wired Meets William Gibson,” Wired UK posted October 13, 2010, https://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-10/13/william-gibson-interview.




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Detlef Mertins

It’s with great sadness that I have another death to mark. Detlef Mertins, former Chair at Penn, who played a formative role in my career by hiring me for a semester at Penn, has passed away.  

Deltef was a brilliant scholar and a good person. I truly enjoyed my time teaching for a semester at Penn with him and deeply appreciated how much he believed in me. 

More at Archinect.  


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