Dar­ing to Ask Why Not?

Out­ra­geous ar­chi­tec­tural premises. An ap­proach that looks 100 years into the fu­ture. Why the WHY FAC­TORY at TU Delft in the Nether­lands may just be the most rad­i­cal de­sign pro­gram in the world.

Azure - - CONTENTS - By Maria Elena Oberti

At TU Delft in Hol­land, the Why Fac­tory chal­lenges the or­tho­dox­ies of tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­tural train­ing

“We in­vent the fu­ture,”

Javier Arpa of the Why Fac­tory, the ar­chi­tec­tural think tank and re­search cen­tre at TU Delft in the Nether­lands, is telling me with­out irony. We are stand­ing at the top of a tow­er­ing set of tan­ger­ine-hued steps that es­sen­tially lead nowhere. The stairs, which dou­ble as stu­dent seat­ing, as­cend to the top of what’s known as the Tri­bune, a three-storey struc­ture hous­ing the Why Fac­tory’s main of­fices as well as rooms for meet­ings and lec­tures.

It is the first week of Septem­ber and there’s a fa­mil­iar ten­sion in the air: that un­mis­tak­able mix of anx­i­ety and an­tic­i­pa­tion that marks the be­gin­ning of a new school year. In such a heady set­ting and atop such a lofty perch, Arpa’s words sound more than plau­si­ble. In­deed, en­vi­sion­ing the hith­erto im­pos­si­ble as pos­si­ble is the Why Fac­tory’s m.o. Led by Winy Maas, found­ing part­ner of the Rot­ter­dam-based ar­chi­tec­ture firm MVRDV, the un­ortho­dox in­sti­tute was es­tab­lished in 2007 as a com­po­nent of the Mas­ter of Ar­chi­tec­ture, Ur­ban­ism and Build­ing Sci­ences pro­gram in TU Delft’s ar­chi­tec­ture fac­ulty.

Part hands-on stu­dio and part “fu­ture mak­ing ma­chine,” it em­braces an un­con­ven­tional – to say the least – ap­proach to de­sign ed­u­ca­tion, en­cour­ag­ing stu­dents to think not as ar­chi­tects, but as aliens to this world. That means the cur­ricu­lum is struc­tured around a lot of fan­tas­ti­cal “what if” sce­nar­ios that em­pha­size look­ing be­yond the re­stric­tions of the present to a lim­it­less, un­bound to­mor­row.

What if, for in­stance, our bodies had an in­tel­li­gent sec­ond skin? What if ma­te­ri­als could cater to our ev­ery need or we could re­design the en­tire planet? All are ques­tions that have been posited to and ex­plored by Why Fac­tory stu­dents.

“I think that de­sign­ers,” says Ti­hamér Salij, a Rot­ter­dam-based ar­chi­tect and aca­demic who (with Maas and three oth­ers) was among the Why Fac­tory’s in­au­gu­ral fac­ulty, “have the abil­ity to look be­yond the ex­ist­ing and to push the lim­i­ta­tions of re­al­ity into the imag­i­nary. And I think that the imag­i­nary – think­ing in [terms of] fic­tional sto­ries – stands at the core of any de­sign process or prac­tice.”

The Why Fac­tory’s whim­si­cal set­ting en­cour­ages such spec­u­la­tive the­ory. De­signed by MVRDV af­ter a fire de­stroyed the fac­ulty’s orig­i­nal premises in 2008, the vividly tinted Tri­bune may be the clos­est thing ar­chi­tec­ture has to the Wonka Fac­tory. A bea­con as well as an ad­min­is­tra­tive and teach­ing fa­cil­ity, it’s sur­rounded by a 195-square-me­tre open-plan stu­dio in which first- and sec­ond-year masters stu­dents work from flex­i­ble fur­ni­ture de­signed by Richard Hut­ten. Made specif­i­cally for the Why Fac­tory, the work­sta­tions can be eas­ily moved or dis­man­tled to ac­com­mo­date con­fer­ences, ex­hi­bi­tions and other such events (of which there are many).

“There are a lot of ur­ban de­sign and ar­chi­tec­tural stu­dios that teach how to de­sign for to­mor­row,” says Arpa, a pro­fes­sor, the­o­rist and TU Delft grad­u­ate who joined the Why Fac­tory as its re­search and ed­u­ca­tion co­or­di­na­tor in early 2016. “What we’re in­ter­ested in is what hap­pens af­ter that – not to­mor­row but af­ter to­mor­row.

That’s what de­fines us.” A for­mer ar­chi­tect who worked for sev­eral years as edi­tor-in-chief of the Eu­ro­pean de­sign pub­li­ca­tion a+t and as a cu­ra­tor at the Ar­chi­tec­ture League of New York, Arpa is a well-known fig­ure in the world of de­sign academia, fre­quently trav­el­ling the globe to give talks on ur­ban and ar­chi­tec­tural pos­si­bil­i­ties. For him, the date that de­sign­ers should be fo­cused on is not next year or even 10 years from now, but 2100.

“That’s the date I keep us­ing,” he says. “It’s not what plan­ners, de­sign­ers and ar­chi­tects are plan­ning cities for [right now]. Plan­ning is usu­ally done for five, 10 or even 30 years into the fu­ture. We want to go way be­yond that.” This aim sets the Why Fac­tory apart. Ranked among the top ar­chi­tec­ture pro­grams in the world, TU Delft’s two-year Masters of Ar­chi­tec­ture, Ur­ban­ism and Build­ing Sci­ences takes four semesters to com­plete, each one four months long. Ev­ery Septem­ber, the fac­ulty out­lines all of its streams for in­com­ing stu­dents. Based on th­ese pre­sen­ta­tions, the stu­dents choose the top three stu­dios they’d like to be placed in that year. The Why Fac­tory is one of the most pop­u­lar. Stu­dents in their first year there fol­low a

cus­tom­ized cur­ricu­lum in­clud­ing two his­tory-of-de­sign cour­ses, a sem­i­nar, a work­shop and stu­dio work. Ad­vanced stu­dio mod­ules take up the sec­ond year. Ev­ery se­mes­ter at the Why Fac­tory is launched with a “what if” ques­tion.

De­pend­ing on the year and the num­ber of stu­dents en­rolled, there could even be two. This se­mes­ter, the ques­tion that has been posed is: “What if hu­mans could fly?” Whether or not hu­mans can or ever will fly isn’t im­por­tant, says Arpa.

“I’m sure there are sci­en­tists out there who will say that that’s im­pos­si­ble, but I don’t care. What if we could fly? What would our cities look like then?”

Based on the hy­poth­e­sis that hu­mans do have this abil­ity, stu­dents re­ceived a brief and a state­ment on ur­ban life un­der such cir­cum­stances. Their task is to come up with a de­sign pro­posal for this fu­ture and to de­velop sci­en­tific re­search to sup­port it. In­cluded in the brief is a pre­lim­i­nary out­line for a book that will be printed at year’s end by nai010 pub­lish­ers as part of the Why Fac­tory’s Fu­ture Cities se­ries.

(The 10th and most re­cent book in the se­ries was 2017’s Copy Paste, a paean to “the past as a vast archive on which we can and must build.” Other ti­tles have in­cluded Ab­so­lute Leisure, The Ver­ti­cal Vil­lage and Hong Kong Fan­tasies.) “The books are a big part of what we do – they’re how we start our stu­dios,” Arpa says, re­fer­ring to the fact that each pro­posed book’s ta­ble of con­tents, es­tab­lished early in the year by pro­fes­sors, serves as a guide­line for the stu­dents’ re­search.

“One of our mis­sions at the Why Fac­tory is to share and spread knowl­edge,” says Arpa. “We don’t want our re­search to re­main within the world of academia. We want to reach the gen­eral pub­lic, for peo­ple to re­act to the work we do.” Be­yond the Fu­ture Cities se­ries, the stu­dio dis­sem­i­nates its re­search through a com­bi­na­tion of work­shops, panel dis­cus­sions and such ex­hi­bi­tions as this past sum­mer’s Coder le Monde (Cod­ing the World) at the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre in Paris (see side­bar on page 084).

“We want to in­volve the gen­eral pub­lic or at least let the pub­lic know about th­ese top­ics,” Arpa says. “Only by shar­ing can we be­come ac­tors in the con­struc­tion of the world.” Be­sides ex­plor­ing those “what if” ques­tions, Why Fac­tory stu­dents take part in reg­u­lar sem­i­nars and work­shops avail­able ex­clu­sively within the pro­gram.

In the Fu­ture Mod­els Sem­i­nar, for in­stance, stu­dents de­velop their de­signs us­ing 3D modelling soft­ware and script­ing tools such as Grasshop­per. The aim of the sem­i­nar is to teach stu­dents how to de­sign by cod­ing.

“The soft­ware doesn’t al­ways work, but that doesn’t mat­ter,” Arpa says. “More than pro­duc­ing soft­ware, it’s about fa­mil­iar­iz­ing stu­dents with cod­ing.”

The Ac­tu­al­i­ties Work­shop, mean­while, takes the stu­dio out into the world. Con­sist­ing of short-term projects that of­ten last less than a week, it looks at de­vel­op­ing so­lu­tions for cur­rent ur­ban chal­lenges. This se­mes­ter, stu­dents will travel to the bustling port of Mar­seilles, where they’ll be asked to “take an alien’s point of view” while fab­ri­cat­ing vi­sions for the city’s mul­ti­cul­tural fu­ture.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the re­search con­ducted un­der Maas’s di­rec­tion at the Why Fac­tory of­ten trick­les back into his own prac­tice. “There is a cer­tain re­la­tion­ship be­tween what is stud­ied here and what is pro­duced by his of­fice,” says Arpa. The Poroc­ity project, which was shown at the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre and ex­plored the ideas of poros­ity and trans­parency in ur­ban set­tings, is one such ex­am­ple.

“The ques­tion was: ‘What if the city were to be com­pletely trans­par­ent?’” Arpa re­calls, not­ing that stu­dents then stud­ied ar­chi­tec­tural trans­parency in all of its past, present and (po­ten­tial) fu­ture forms. By the end of the year, the group had de­vel­oped a plethora of “por­ous” de­signs rang­ing from build­ings to ap­parel. MVRDV’S fa­mous Chanel bou­tique in Am­s­ter­dam, fea­tur­ing a fa­cade com­posed of high-gloss trans­par­ent bricks, opened a few years later, in 2016.

Ac­cord­ing to Arpa, a good de­sign ed­u­ca­tion is as much about cul­ti­vat­ing cu­rios­ity as it is about ac­cu­mu­lat­ing knowl­edge.

“What I hope to trans­mit to my stu­dents is the cu­rios­ity to learn. I’m sure all our stu­dents will grad­u­ate to be­come ex­cel­lent pro­fes­sion­als. But will they be cu­ri­ous? Will they look for al­ter­na­tive an­swers? That’s ul­ti­mately what I as­pire to the most as an ed­u­ca­tor.”

This phi­los­o­phy – what might be de­scribed as per­mis­sion to won­der in ev­ery sense of the word – comes from the top. “Winy teaches us to dream,” says Arpa. “It’s some­thing that in­spires me ev­ery day at the Why Fac­tory. You might look at a prob­lem and think, ‘Oh no, that’s im­pos­si­ble, that can’t hap­pen.’ And he’ll say, ‘No, let’s try – what if?’” the­why­fac­tory.com

FAR LEFT: A stu­dent uses Lego blocks to as­sem­ble “por­ous tower” mod­els dur­ing a satel­lite Why Fac­tory work­shop at Hong Kong De­sign Cen­tre in 2012.

LEFT: The Poroc­ity in­stal­la­tion on dis­play dur­ing the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre’s Coder le Monde (Cod­ing the World) ex­hi­bi­tion this past sum­mer in Paris.

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