The Spring 2009 Tectonics Studio was the first course that I taught at Tsinghua University. I was teaching as a visiting professor at the invitation of Prof. ZHU Wenyi. The course was conceived of as more of a construction and/or design/build studio. The difference is subtle but significant. It has to do with how we understand what the teaching objectives are. The construction studio has as its objective, to teach students how buildings are made. The design/build studio has as its goal to provide students with the opportunity to design something then face the challenges of how it can be built by doing it themselves. The tectonics studio has as its goal to challenge students to emphasize the characteristics and properties of materials as a primary form generator. While the outcome from all three approaches to this kind of “hands-on” studio can be similar, the method of teaching and the values we communicate to students are not. When I arrived at Tsinghua the approach leaned towards the construction and design/build type of studio.

When I first joined the studio there were 4 professors and 16 students. The 2009 Tectonics Studio was one of 5 studios that was offered to 3rd year students in the 2nd half of the Spring Semester. Students selected the studio by lottery. Out of 100 students, 16 were assigned to the studio. It was not a popular studio.

The project was to design an outdoor pavilion using mostly found materials. The pavilion needed to be 2400x2400, provide shelter from the sun and the rain, allow for people to stand under it, and provide a place to sit. The students divided themselves evenly into 3 groups. The studio involved solving the design problem, lectures, experimentation, fabrication and installation. Students first met with their instructors to discuss an approach to the problem. 3 distinct approaches emerged: one was based on using discarded plastic bottles; another was based on using found wood; the other was based on using cardboard tubes. Each approach had its own challenges. The bottle group struggled for weeks first trying to figure out how to use bottles as a structure (they settle on a kind of “space frame”), then how to attach the bottles together (they discover a way to use bottle caps and 20mm MDF), and finally how to attach the outer plastic sheet to the structure (bottles screwed into the structural hubs) and how to attach it to the ground (a custom made steel bracket). The others struggled with similar issues. The found wood group found that they could not find enough regular pieces of wood that fit their preconceived idea (they bough wood from a crating company), and then they needed to solve for cross bracing (they integrated the bench into the structure so the back provided cross bracing). The paper tube group decided on a tensegrity structure, and in doing so came into direct contact with the complexities of building such a structure. Two problems they ran into was how to attach cable under tension to a cardboard tube (insert a piece of wood into which to attach hardware) and how to deal with the slenderness ratio of the cardboard tube (bundle them together).

The studio was truly a success. All of the students faced the problem of having a concept and a vision for what their design should look like (mostly from a Sketch-up model), and then dealing with the properties and characteristics of real materials that often do not “want” to do what they wanted them to do. The entered into a dialogue with the materials, sometimes forcing the materials to behave, and sometimes adjusting their design. By the end of the studio, there were the beginings of a new enthusiasm for making stuff emerging in the school.

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