Advanced Topics Studio with Visting Professor, Steven Christensen

M.Arch.I, Third Year



This studio emerges from an interest in the problems that arise during the transition from design to construction, problems whose deadlines often demand solutions that may accurately be described as ‘reactive,’ or at worst ‘hasty’. In the academy, safely sheltered from menacing Gantt charts, these problems present a fertile ground for speculative research worthy of provocative claims and spirited debate.

Cladding remains a perennial challenge within the profession; while it is generally architecture’s most visible tectonic element, it remains our primary source of litigation and general nastiness. The challenges presented by cladding have become far more elaborate in recent decades, during which the discretization of curved surfaces (in order to clad them with planar materials) has become a frequent disciplinary concern.

The labor related to the design of these panels is increasingly farmed out to specialist consultants or, in many cases, handled directly by product manufactures and subcontractors, working in tandem during the shop drawing phase.

This studio will begin with a focus on these parts as well as their associated labor. It will wrest control over the design of the part from consultants and optimization software alike, based upon the conjecture that its careful consideration at the beginning of the design process might yield unforeseen wholes.


Often tasked with little more than tiling the plane3 or approximating curvature, the problem of discretization remains largely at the surface, on the exterior, and in the realm of the 2D and shallow 3D. However, an allied problem has existed now for millennia, on the inside, where despite its generative potential it continues to be misunderstood.

The coffer has played a variety of roles throughout architectural history: magician, instructor, liar, propagandist. In some cases the element may resist easy cognition, preferring to appeal directly to the perceptual intelligence.

For example, the regulating geometries of the Pantheon’s coffers, the best preserved early examples of the type, continue to generate debate nearly two millennia after the building’s completion.

The fact that they produce spatial effects is indisputable, even if the effects themselves remain unquantifiable.

In some cases the element may operate through pure deceit.

The coffers of Philibert De l’Orme’s Royal Chapel at Anet distort the appearance of the form of the dome itself, extending it skyward and making the concave appear nearly convex near the oculus. Robin Evans, who famously used photographic evidence to debunk earlier analyses of their geometric origins, was forced to revise his own revelatory assertions after an in-person visit.

Pier Luigi Nervi’s didactic coffers at the Gatti Wool Factory, on the other hand, appeal initially to the conscious intellect (at least to those in-the-know). Defined by what are perhaps the discipline’s best known examples of isostatic ribs, these coffers show us a diagram of the stresses in a thin plate, rendered in massive cast concrete (while their physical presence paradoxically redistributes the actual stresses in the structure).

A coffer is notably different from a panel as its presence lies in its absence; its existence as tectonic element is always dependent upon the things that surround it. While an acutely puritanical approach to the definition may limit the term to a truly subtractive entity - a void in a material that is otherwise monolithic or quasi-monolithic - many of the earliest examples of coffers were themselves created by crossed wood beams, opening the term up to broader applications (extending even so far as the spaces between the beams in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, to which the term is often applied).

In fact, to refer to these elements (whether subtractive or interstitial) as parts may seem an ontological sleight of hand. Yet it is precisely the dependence of coffers upon the material that surrounds them that makes them so worthy of speculation.

For the purposes of this studio, we will work with the most liberal definition of the term, allowing us to consider cases where the autonomy of the unit is challenged by the continuity of the elements that define its borders.


“We shape our tools, and thereafter, our tools shape us.”

- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

During the last two decades a number of tools and plug-ins have been developed that seek to expedite or even automate the discretization of so-called ‘complex’ surfaces. While we are interested in the manner by which these tools carry out their tasks, we are wary of the signatures they can leave behind in the work. Accordingly, we will seek solutions that are not conventionally parametric, that are guided by our own authorial intent and motivated by concerns that extend beyond mere ‘optimization’. Although there are plenty of tools that will help one find the ‘right’ solution, we are interested in the unusual effects and cultural implications that lie within the broad territory of ‘wrong’ solutions.


Steven Christensen