Ipso Prestbro | from Graphisoft USA

by Louis Postel

ArchitectureBoston Expo (ABX) 2016 last November was, as expected, the busiest, bustlingest building industry event in the Northeast.

And yet by closing day November 17, the aftershock of the national election had cast a pall over this liberal city, a gritty, torpid weather insinuating itself into the chasms of its convention center. Architects between workshops trooped past the exhibits, thoroughly glazed, emotionally whacked, assiduously avoiding eye contact with vendors, who themselves were beginning to fade after three days on their feet meeting and greeting

“Why bother with eco-engineered wood products when the top gun insists climate change itself is a hoax?” asked one ordinarily upbeat attendee. How about Rem Koolhaas’s oft-tweeted critique about there having been too much emphasis in the profession on designing cities at the expense of rural, red state areas? What meaning to give the national AIA and its “tone deaf” position, followed by a video apology, asked others.

Where, then, was the joy of creation? Had the Design Muse herself somehow flown the coop, snuck off before closing with a handcart to her van in the Harborside parking lot, there to sail for parts unknown? Hardly — she was right there all along, gamboling within an arched pavilion on the right side of the Exhibit Hall.

“See, it jiggles, it’s got the J-factor!” exclaimed a spokesperson for Make Tank, the group behind the project, shaking its spokes and hubs for good measure. Indeed, the irony was not lost on most observers: an arch, the very symbol of power and permanence was now rockin’ an’ rollin’ like Chuck Berry at the Roxy, as perhaps no structure that had gone before.

“Tessellation patterns like Bucky Fuller’s dome studies with their rigid hubs require a lot of complex math to figure the angles. We wanted to know, could we use flexible connections, nodes that can accommodate various load paths, allowing the arch can find its natural angles?” said architect and MakeTank founder Brad Prestbo, 43, about what makes the structure unique. Prestbo’s day job is heading up the Technical Resources Group of Sasaki Associates in nearby Watertown, Mass., and in Shanghai.

Sasaki Associates itself has a proud history of multi-disciplinary innovation, going back to the landscape architect and planner Hideo Sasaki (1919-2000) who gave New York City one of its first pocket parks. Why the Town of Lexington, Mass., where this modern master once lived and Prestbo now happens to live, has found it necessary to rip up the centerscape Sasaki so carefully designed is anyone’s guess. Design Muse, where art thou now that the pall has mushroomed far beyond ABX and the Boston Convention Center?

In June, The Boston Society of Architects, sponsors of the ABX show, gave Prestbo its brief: create a pavilion that exemplifies the latest in think/make culture, do it in a 10 x 20 footprint, and do it in three months. Fast, as in Ipso Prestbo!

And one other thing: when you call for volunteers, if less than eight show, forget it. “So, we had over 40 show at that first meeting,” said Prestbo. “Everyone saw the opportunity to build rather than just talk about building. We held charrettes, pinning up different tensile structures. We even had a Brontosaurus. Though people started calling me Captain Buzzkill, it was very important that the design process not be the Brad show. We were careful to encourage lots of voting, nominations and seconding of nominations.”

While Prestbo’s daughter and a succession of others gleefully scaled the arch, it would collapse under the weight of 200-pound guys, springing up again with a little re-jiggling. The profile of the nodes became critical to holding the form, key to making it flexible but not so flexible the whole thing would collapse. Prestbo and his Merry Make/Tankers started out using pourable silicone to cast the nodes, but found that the silicone wouldn’t bond properly to plywood. Polyurethane, however, loved plywood. A shot of styrene at the center of 150 nodes added just enough to make it possible to control the degree of flex.

Once MakeTankers realized lap joints between the plywood slats would wiggle themselves apart in such a dynamic structure, they used a CNC cutting machine to fashion ingenious spring-lock connectors. If the Brontosaurus was ruled out, these multitudes of large-jawed mini-crocodiles took up the slack. “They were something a woodworker could never do,” Presto said. Wood blocks, in case you were wondering, stabilized the arch’s feet.

If the Design Muse seemed non-committal at post-election ABX 2016, she, or he, made its presence known to Prestbo early on. Around Princeton, N.J. where Prestbo grew up, Toll Brothers and other homebuilders were rushing in, buying up farmland, and turning them into acres of construction sites.

“Toll made a big playground for us,” recalled Prestbo, “with real trucks, giant mounds of dirt, skeletons of houses we converted into fortresses. Later, when I was around 16, I started hanging out with the crews building the frames, asked a lot of questions, while pointing out what I felt were ‘mistakes.’ Fortunately, the crews were tolerant. And also, by that time in high school, I started working for an architectural firm, stacking blueprints, filing product literature and other sexy stuff. ‘This can’t be what being an architect is like,’ I told myself.”

Indeed, at Syracuse’s School of Architecture, the Design Muse began revealing her joyous, make/think side for real, bodying forth at the tail end of a studio session. “Our professor had us construct a model of a single-family home with 4” x 4” cubes, using X-Acto blades and rulers. He then proceeded to take everyone’s first cubes and put them through a form. Either they were too loose or too big. Really getting the thickness of the material in your hands was key. Only two of us got it right; a guy who eventually dropped out and myself.”

After five years at Perry, Dean, Rogers, highlighted by a collaboration with Stephen Holl on MIT’s Simmons Hall, Prestbo joined Sasaki where he’s been for the past fourteen years. But, as in those high school days filing blueprints, the Design Muse played hard to get. “Sasaki was trying to find a place for me. I was just a drafter, or project architect. Then one day, about ten years ago, one of the partners took me aside. He said he’d been watching me, and noticed that I had a real knack for helping younger people succeed. That’s how I see our Technical Resources Group, as a platform help people grow.

“For the longest time, we were married to Revit. For new hires this was tough. They’d already spent five years learning Rhino/Grasshopper for shape making, an under-utilized ecosystem of zoo animals. All those skills were atrophying — which I saw as a missed opportunity. I started championing a Visual Programming Practice, but the upper management remained firm,” Prestbo explained. Then, finally, Sasaki’s intransigent BIM manager left. Once again, recalling Asher Benjamin and the Master Builder days of yore, fabrication came to itself as an integral part of the design process, but now equipped with high-tech tools.

Now prototypes regularly emerge from Prestbo’s FabLab, where computationally rich programming breaks everything down into easily made components, from park benches to pavilions, even a chicken coop in Sasaki’s backyard garden. “The prototypes allow us to test things out first and at the same time increase client engagement while decreasing their fears,” said Prestbo.

If this is Captain Buzzkill, a gentler, more-ready-to-be-helpful giant would be hard to find. And as for his Merry MakeTankers, had the Design Muse texted about what’s for ArchitectureBoston Expo (ABX) 2017, or has the Design Muse set her heart on jiggling a red state out the West?

Is There Life Beyond Sustainability?

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA

The 140-bed hospital complex stops time, like a long-lost friend you run into where you’d least expect to. In such a surprise occurrence, past and future appear to come to a standstill.

Here, just outside Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, it’s impossible to ignore that the site once held a police outpost in the whirlwind of mass murder.

Kaleidoscopic images of those days in 1994 bring forth anguish and terror as if they were happening today. At the same time, in this stillness, one can’t help but rejoice at the sight of the new hospital building and the national, multi-ethnic renaissance it embodies. Read more

Mix Master

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA 2016

In his Crown Heights, Brooklyn, studio last year Charles Goldman was reading the New York Times. After weighing its symbolic value as a “spreader of information,” he launched a series of “plop sculptures” out of mashed issues of the Times. “Then I left a bucket overnight by accident,” Goldman recalls. “In the morning I kicked it over. The contents had become solid, and I kicked them out of the bucket.”

Charles Goldman

At that point, Goldman realized he had happened upon a building block of recycled waste— “in fact,” he says, “an entire building system.” He could replace sand and gravel with his own recipe of newspapers, CDs, dryer lint, junk mail, electrical wire, Styrofoam packing, Latex paint chips, and credit cards mixed with 5% Portland cement to make…Re>Crete.

Two weeks ago, Fast Company published a piece that asked Andrew Dent, the curator of Material Connection, the world’s largest materials library, for some recommendations on the latest and greatest. Right up there with advanced 3-D printing compounds, environmentally friendly ceiling tiles, and multi-color chrome coatings, Dent proposed Re>Crete as one of the 11 Exciting New Materials Designers Should Watch. Since then the article has gained ever-greater traction online, with architects and engineers calling Goldman at his studio, hoping to turn his conceptual product into something they can use in the concrete sense.

And why, indeed, not?

C&D (Construction and Demolition) debris amounted to 534 million tons in the US in 2014, the last time the EPA counted, 70% of which was concrete, with an additional 14% asphalt concrete. That’s a lot, more than enough to keep a conscientious architect up at night, while inviting the possibility of regulatory pushback.

“I don’t have an end-game in mind,” Goldman says. “People call and I’m interested in seeing what happens.  Re>Crete uses what’s around, what’s local, and it can adapt to many uses. Here in Brooklyn, it’s one thing. In India, I can imagine it would be quite another, a very different recipe. As such, it’s very much a 21st-century adobe. I see it used for home building, or high-end furniture, 3-D printing of entire cities using Re>Crete, or perhaps I’ll simply make the molds along with the recipe” he adds, standing between the cement mixer, paper shredder, and wood chipper in his yard. The chipper, he explains, is for the Styrofoam packing.

The mixer churns all the ingredients for an hour before the concoction is poured. Early tomorrow morning, in fact, Goldman, 50-ish, will go out hunting through the streets of Brooklyn with Banks, his German Shephard mix, filling his backpack and occasionally his little white Toyota pickup with more junk to feed the machines in his yard. He will then head into Manhattan where he has been teaching art at Parsons for the past nine years.

“Newspapers and junk mail are pretty easy to find,” he says, “but CDs, wires, and credit cards are harder. If I see a pair of hot pink headphones lying in the street, I pick it up right away. Now that my friends know what I’m looking for they call with leads. I’ve even thought of turning the front of my studio into a collection station and designing special collection carts.” As Goldman told Steve Davison writing in Art-Hack last summer, those collection carts may come in handy in a post-apocalyptic world, “where we are forced to create our natural resources out of the detritus of civilizations that came before.”

Before we get to that scary place, the question remains how to bring Re>Crete from the conceptual stage to the construction phase. Baby step one occurred with an exhibit, residency, and research program called Charles Goldman: Re>Crete> (Factory) at UMass Amherst’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Young sculptors, engineers, and environmental scientists teamed up to see if Re>Crete could be manufactured on a consistent basis. Goldman found himself having to change from right brain to left brain, a feat he says he enjoyed. To make what he considers a concrete version of Eskimo ice blocks, he realized the molds had to be a lot stiffer. And while that stiffness was achievable, getting the blocks to weigh the same presented a greater hurdle. His hunch is that letting the blocks set in winter cold may have thrown off the results.

Goldman is also quick to point out that Re>Crete doesn’t come out smooth like regular concrete. If the cement ratio is off just a bit, one ends up with pockmarks, the building blocks of 21st-century ruins. Concrete and its minimalist surfaces have appealed to Goldman since he was a kid growing up in Berkeley. There he first encountered modernist architecture, Mario Campi’s 1970 “Brutalist” art museum of 1970, now gravely imperiled. “I first went to look at the paintings,” he recalls, “but then found the building itself was far more interesting.”

Later, in the 1980s, Goldman combined his early interest in minimalism and Brutalism with folk art, particularly environments made by outsiders. High in the Mojave Desert, he visited one of the most renowned Folk Art Environments, Hula Ville, where he struck up a friendship with its creator, Miles Mahan, who was then in his 90s. Sandblasted signs, abandoned dolls, anthropomorphic Joshua Trees, a mini-golf course edged with buried bottles were freighted with a symbolism that resonates with Goldman to this day.

Newspapers that spread information, credit cards that hold our identities and finances, packing Styrofoam for sending goods around the world—all are light things with weighty impacts on our culture in the form of Re>Crete blocks. Whether such blocks can possibly mitigate the impact of 534 million tons of demolition debris is a question architects and engineers are weighing seriously now, or soon will be.

Mamou-Mani, Maker | Graphisoft USA

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA, Jan 5, 2017

Like explorers heading their tiny craft upstream, a pair of bicyclists float over the sands of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. A dust storm shrouds them from 60,000 more inhabitants of their pop-up metropolis at the 2016 Burning Man Festival, known as Black Rock City. While the bicyclists advance left, a 30-foot dream-like, flame-shaped apparition approximately 30 feet high appears to shift right. Read more

Messy, But Not Too | Graphisoft USA

By Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA | Feb 23, 2017

A 3,500-acre retreat in the Western Ghats of India: a 100-room lodge, a spa with 12 villas…cultural programming demonstrating the role of the music, art, and literature in promoting a sustainable way of life.

A  summons from the City of Philadelphia for growing grass over ten inches high around her house, as reported by Anne Raver in the New York Times, July 20, 2011.

A private park in upstate New York in the manner of an English estate: sculpted landforms, newly created bodies of water.

A private park in upstate New York in the manner of an English estate: sculpted landforms, newly created bodies of water.

A living water park in Chengdu, China, moving 200 cubic meters of polluted river water through a natural cleansing system every day, and one of the most popular parks in the whole city.

A winter garden for New York’s first LEED Platinum building: living green sculptures inspired by the fern canyons of Northern California. Read more

The Surly Strongman | Graphisoft USA

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA, November, 2016

If you are one to break into architectural studios in the middle of the night, think twice about breaking into dO|Su in Los Angeles. There, its principal Doris Sung keeps her collection of critters, self-propelled, self-assembling, super-smart thermal bi-metal robots — requiring no batteries, just space enough to perform their backflips, scooches, summersaults and other behaviors that collectively would freak out any intruder at 3 a.m.

But all is not fun and games for these acrobatic inventions. Read more

Page Nation | Graphisoft USA

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA / Archicad

How to reverse drastic declines in Facebook’s organic reach.

Let’s say you’re giving a lecture on architecture to five hundred of your most ardent followers. It’s something you care about deeply. Years in the making, multiple more-than-satisfied stakeholders, leading engineers working around the clock, advanced, sustainable technologies, major impact, along with a Pritzker thrown in for good measure. Read more

What Can Design Do, Really? | New England Home

by Louis Postel | Trade Secrets in New England Home| August 2016

Newton, MA-based architect and artist Lisa Reindorf and her partner Mitchell Goldman of Goldman Reindorf Architects have been consulting on a new film called Cortex with Josh Lucas premiering next year. Does not such a project point to the future of design itself, how the neurons and synapses in our brains shape the spaces we live in, and are shaped in return by those same spaces? And how fitting for Reindorf and Goldman to be the ones exploring this brave new frontier between architecture and neuroscience. After all, Goldman Reindorf just designed MIT’s Neuroscience Lab. Read more

Feel the Blur     

  by Louis Postel in Showboats International June 2016       

            

As luxury items become increasingly globalized and mass marketed, Ikat is leading the opposition.

On a field of snow and frozen mud, Uzbek horsemen of Central Asia play a form of polo with a goat carcass. Another stands apart, about to release a falcon into the crystal air. But it’s their splendid Ikat clothing that catches our attention.

For Ikat’s unique designs, born of a painstaking tie and dye “resist” weaving process, bring us from the tribal to the modern mega-yacht world in a psychic second. Ikat’s blurred geometric patterns are soft, its rhythms a quiet breath in a noisy world. Read more

Through the Looking Glass

Trade Secrets by Louis Postel, first published in New England Home, July 2016

Transparency. Transparency. Transparency. Now, more than ever, we want to know what’s going on. Not the appearance of what’s going on, but what’s really going on. Transparency, after all, is the stock in trade of the design profession: the play of light and shadow, windows and walls.

Is that handsome, silver-haired politician merely the tool of lobbyists? Is that proud, global-thinking auto executive cheating at every opportunity? Is America’s favorite, pinochle-playing Dad also a rapist? Read more