ArchitectureBoston Expo (ABX) 2016 last November was, as expected, the busiest, most bustling 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?
by Louis Postel for Graphisoft