About a month after attending the Columbia Building Intelligence Project's (C-BIP) Brooklyn Think Tank in February, World-Architects spoke with Scott Marble, director of C-BIP’s Integrated Design Studios, about how the program is attempting to transform architectural education. The interview also coincided with the end of the spring semester, the third and final studio in the three-year pilot, allowing the architect and educator to look back and see how the project and studios evolved. The interview, which took place at the Brooklyn office of Marble Fairbanks, is transcribed here, accompanied by illustrations explaining the C-BIP structure and examples of student work.
C-BIP Studio workflow diagram. All illustrations courtesy Scott Marble/C-BIP.
Can you describe how C-BIP started?
C-BIP started with discussions between Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) and Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope (then Oldcastle Glass), who had sponsored one of the first materials conferences
organized by Michael Bell five years ago. After that conference, which was very successful, they wanted to do something else. The original question was this: "How do we address the adversarial relationship that exists within our industry?" It was that simple. In discussions with Ted Hathaway — Oldcastle CEO and a great supporter of the program — the project developed into a structure with think tanks and research studios. It was set up as a three-year pilot, and we’re at the end of the third year now.
The idea was to have think tanks reaching out to industry, bringing in players from different fields to have focused discussions about topics related to the pressing issues of industry. These relationships would help set the context for the work in the integrated research studios. After the success of the first one in New York City, we decided to do them in cities around the world: London, Tokyo, Stuttgart, and Toronto were a few of the locations chosen. The international think tanks weren’t as connected to the studio, but some of the themes did find their way back to the classroom.
The studio part of C-BIP evolved during that first year when we were planning it. The idea was that we would not only look at ways to deal with more inter-industry relationships, but also look at what we felt was one of the core problems of industry: the adversarial relationships that existed. There isn’t a culture of collaboration generated in schools. Architecture schools (and engineering schools to an extent, too) revolve around the studio, and the studio revolves around an individual critic working with an individual student doing a huge project. There’s no sense of techniques for collaboration or organizational methodologies for collaboration. There is no culture of collaboration, as we called it.
C-BIP Studio element classification
One way to address this problem is to fundamentally rethink studio structure. Studio structure has been in place for at least 40 or 50 years, and it has not evolved at all even though everything around it has. Studio is still 10 to 12 students and one critic with students working on their own projects, so we wanted to rethink that. A big part of the studio was the way the students worked together. That was when we came up with this structure [outlined in the image above] where we had 30 to 35 students per group and three critics. There was a very interactive and dynamic relationship between the critics and the students. Each student in the first part of the project would develop a building component. We referred to them as elements. In the second half of the studio, groups would form, and students would apply the elements to a building strategy. The catch was that they could only work with the library elements from the first phase, and they couldn’t work with their own element.
Was there some back and forth, such that the original author could revise the design?
Yes. The idea there was a structure with the maximum amount of collaboration in as many different ways as possible. As a student developed their element, they were also working with groups who were using their elements in a building strategy, and they would want the element to do something that it didn’t do in its original design. They would come to the original author with a “feature request.” The author would have to revise the element and give it back to them so they could keep working on their building while at the same time the element’s author was working on a building strategy with an element that might be from a different student. The dynamic was fascinating. There was so much interaction. If you tried to map it, everybody was probably one link away from everybody else. We set up the structure to maximize that kind of interactivity, so people were working on different buildings at different scales in different ways.
C-BIP Studio workflow diagram showing elements and building strategies
So was the collaboration physical (face-to-face in the studio environment) and virtual (digital)?
These elements were pieces of parametric code, a very technically demanding prospect. The elements were designed to follow certain protocols in the way they were modeled in the computer, otherwise they wouldn’t work with other student’s elements. The studio was based in CATIA [Computer Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application, developed by Dassault Systemes and popularly used by Gehry Technologies], so the designs were very sophisticated and technically complicated. We were nervous about it, thinking that the technology would get in the way, but what we found out—especially in the second year—was that the technology was playing a huge role in how the students were interacting, in some ways because of the difficulty associated with the program. They had to all come together to solve these technical problems which created its own collaborative dynamic. But it was still all really face-to-face; the three studios were all in the same room. All of the students were mixed in together.
Each critic was responsible for a group of students, but in the second phase the critic oversaw students previously overseen by another critic. Even the critics were constantly collaborating, having to adjust the way we taught in response to what another critic was doing. That’s another thing that was very different for me with this studio; it’s different than team teaching, where you have six separate studios and you’re all doing the same project. This was different. Each critic brought something to the table about teaching and architecture. We merged it into this organization. I relied on the other two critics tremendously. I could not have done this by myself. At the same time we’re asking students to change the way they did studio and collaborate, we had to ask ourselves to do that as well. We could no longer be the critic that instructed the student on how to do things; we had to respond to each other.
C-BIP Studio element - Light Void
When did engineers give their input? During the crits?
Each year we’d have a technical consultant team of anywhere from four to eight people. Those consisted of software consultants to run the CATIA side of the studio, environmental engineers, and a few mechanical engineers. We brought in structural engineers more for benchmark crits than day-to-day work. The influence of these other disciplines—engineers and other consultants that you would typically work with in an architecture firm—was probably not as strong as it could have been. That is something that we’ll probably evolve as we move forward, but it was important for us to figure out how to change the culture of the architecture studio first. Lots of schools will put architects and engineers together and run integrated design studios. In my experience, they never really come out with anything quite different in the end.
In the Urban Design program at City College we did a project that had urban designers, architects, landscape architects, three different studios trying to work together. But ultimately there was very little collaboration.
This is the challenge for architectural education: figuring out a way to really change the model. Industry is asking for it. They’re looking for new ways to work collaboratively. They have their own methods which are evolving—we looked at and responded to these—but our assessment was that the actual task of designing the organization of collaboration is never really dealt with. Before we could really bring engineers in as part of the team, we had to have a system of collaboration first, otherwise we’re going to sit around and do the things we’ve done for years and years. I feel like we have that in place now. The next version of this experiment would be to bring other disciplines into the heart of the project. Right now it’s just architects collaborating with architects for the most part.
Has it infiltrated other studios?
It has. Students that have been in C-BIP have gone on to do some interesting things. What we’ve heard is that C-BIP alum have a completely different sense of how they think about work and collaboration. Many studios cultivate this idea of sole authorship, and it creates a mindset that is not conducive to a collective intelligence. People that come out of here and go into third year are eager to know what others are doing and eager to work with other people. That is different.
C-BIP Studio element - Light Void panel options
A couple things come to mind. First that there are still individuals designing something, the elements. I’m also thinking of design-build, the best examples of collaboration that exist to date in academia, such as Rural Studio and the University of Kansas. Regarding C-BIP, is there a fabrication component?
Every year the students want to bring it in, and we want to bring it in, but it’s just too much to do. We’re still following the semester structure (sixteen weeks) in which the students already have to do so much. Bringing a legitimate fabrication component to C-BIP would require another semester, really. We’d like to get to it but not at the expense of what we want to accomplish. It really takes every day of those sixteen weeks. Learning CATIA, which usually takes somebody two semesters, takes only four weeks in C-BIP because we have such great support from outside consultants. The fabrication part is important but not for the core objective of what we’re doing. The core is not about the physical but about setting up a collaborative structure and exploring new ways to work with parametric software. It’s very different from any of the design-build models that I’ve seen.
One of the references that David Benjamin, one of the other critics, likes to refer to is the open-source model of production. It’s a loose affiliation, but it’s a more appropriate and relevant model than any design-build comparison. With open-source, you have this very dynamic and agile team working on something with clearly articulated protocols and rules, but very collaboratively and very technologically based.
C-BIP Studio mid-rise residential building strategy
Do the elements, modeled in CATIA, carry intelligence about their performance along with them, like a BIM model? I’m not familiar with how CATIA works, but it seems like it would make sense to have this.
I’m no expert in CATIA—that’s why we really rely on consultants—but the principle is that the elements are not just physical parts of a building. The elements have physical attributes, but, more importantly, they are knowledge and information. In other words, they have performative information and intelligence built into them, and they can have any kind of intelligence that a student wants to embed into them. What happened in the first year was that people were just putting one element next to another element, winding up with a building that was like a collage. Not great. In the second semester, we ended up with elements that would parametrically link to other elements, so there was a much more integrated sense of how they worked together.
In the third year a lot of the students were literally designing nothing but an interface between elements. With a library of 60 elements from the first two years at their disposal, they realized most of the elements had already been customized and tweaked. So they began designing interfaces between elements: a sunshade device and a light shelf to bounce light into a building, for example. When a parameter in one is changed, it changes the parameter of the other; it becomes a workflow of information. It’s phenomenal; I was surprised.
Surprisingly, students are willing to say that architects don’t need to design form: “My invention is to make these two things work together.” Students are trying to deal with cross-ventilation, water retention, and gray water capture, among other things. They’re not only designing technical elements but aesthetic, architectural output. They want to make it nice; that’s why we’re architects. We challenge them to not lose sight of the fact that it needs to have an important impact on the city. It’s not just an exercise in engineering.
C-BIP Studio mid-rise residential building strategy, iteration
So the studio designs elements toward PlaNYC. Can you talk about that and any plans that there might be to get the city involved?
From the beginning we were interested in PlaNYC. The idea of dealing with retrofits—building adaptation as opposed to new buildings—fit into our agenda of collaborative work because you’re already dealing with somebody else’s project. That part was consistent with our broader approach of having students work together. We also just thought it was a great way to take the work that existed at the scale of a small building component and have it have broad scale impacts because it’s about the whole city, not just one building. For many reasons PlaNYC was a great fit for what we wanted to do.
Early on we worked with the city a little bit. They knew what we were doing, and we had some people from the Mayor’s office come to some of our reviews and participate in the conferences. We continued to revise the studio as PlaNYC updated but that was about it. We haven’t actively engaged the city in a way where they’d look at it and see it as useful. My guess would be that it is too speculative for them. So there hasn’t been as much of a coming together between us and the city as I’d like.
I’m wondering if the election next year throws PlaNYC into any doubt?
That’s an interesting question. It’s definitely had an impact on a lot of policy. In our firm we’re doing a public project [pointing to Glen Oaks Branch Library
]. It started before PlaNYC, but we’ve definitely seen changes in what we have to do in response to new codes and requirements by the city. PlaNYC has already had an impact. Some of it won’t go away, because it’s been put into policy, but some of the goals may change when Bloomberg moves on.
C-BIP Studio public school building strategy
Speaking of your office, do you see your experience at C-BIP moving into what you do? Do you see what you do to be already more collaborative than other firms?
We are certainly interested in a model of practice that we think is cultivated by this type of training. My talk at the Brooklyn Think Tank was about a new model of practice. Instead of trying to create a consolidation of expertise into a huge aggregate firm, my ideas focus more on small firms that network together on a per-project basis. The thesis is that it’s more conducive for innovation when working as smaller entities that have the ability to link together in loose ways than it is to bring all that expertise under the umbrella of one company and try to innovate from within. In my presentation I compared Google to OMA. It’s interesting because Google was the startup par excellence, but the only way they innovate now is by buying up other companies at great cost. OMA, on the other hand, is set up to literally produce other firms.
C-BIP Studio public school building strategy, light scoops iteration
One of the questions that comes up is regarding the future of the architect. Is he or she a specialist or a generalist? Listening to you describing C-BIP, it seems like something else, where students can build highly specialized interfaces but also make them beautiful, or do other things with them.
That’s been a real challenge for us in C-BIP. Technology puts pressure on society by giving us a huge amount of metric-driven data that we often take as truth without questioning its genesis. Students fall into this trap of becoming myopic. When they’re designing their elements, they’re specialists on a little product, so their ability to synthesize—one of the unique skills of architects—and think holistically about things is something we constantly have to remind them of. They need to zoom back out and see the bigger picture and then zoom back in.
These days the AIA Billings Index is so important for architects.
Even things like LEED. All of our clients want to know numbers. They want metrics; we’re a metric-based society. That’s a reality. So the pressure that puts on us as architects demands a specialist mentality because you need to know something in depth. But at the same time the ability to zoom in and know one thing in detail and then zoom out and synthesize, that’s the future of an innovative architect. For many years architects have existed on the outside as generalists. The thing that’s happening in industry with specialization begins to ask the question: “Why do we need that architect?” If we have a facade designer, a planner, an engineer, an expeditor, a code consultant, and a spec writer—all of these specialists that do their respective tasks really well—why do we need the architect? I think we do need the architect, but I don’t think you can just exist out here as a specialist. What we’re trying to teach these students is the ability to zoom way in and get into this element and understand how it goes together and then zoom way out and try to put it to work.
C-BIP Studio element evolution
Are there plans to share the information from the pilot, be it through book form or a website?
The intent was to do a publication at the end of three years—a record of the pilot program—but we’re also interested in developing an Internet-based version of it. For instance, we now have a library of 90 elements—30 from each year—and also what we call an “element scrapyard,” pieces of an element that didn’t quite make it, but may still be useful code for someone else. We have all of this knowledge and intelligence. The next interesting version of the program would be to collaborate with another school on a studio. All of this stuff is online, so there’s no reason why we couldn’t have a couple of studios at Columbia, one at UCLA, and one at Rice or wherever all sharing this information, learning from each other, and collaborating. We wouldn’t just be doing a video conference every week but really working within this structure that we set up to use all of this previous work, add to it, and continue to grow. For us that’s the more interesting sharing possibility that would be consistent with what we’re doing.
Interview conducted by John Hill