Costumes were about as far from first-year M.Arch minds as sleep was last week as we approached October 31st: for us, the culmination of a month of fabrication for our second project of the semester. It was also the day of the open house for the architecture department, and our projects served as an exhibition for prospective students.
After exploring basic architectural model-making and becoming accustomed to the design process at MIT in our first project, this second endeavor launched us into full-scale fabrication, which for our class included everything from sheets of foam to 36″ balloons. The prompt was to begin with a structural typology (monolith, catenary, thin-shell structure, etc.) and create an installation based on those principles that formed a geometric primitive.
My group began by exploring the relationship between vaults and tensile structures but soon found something exciting in the realm of plaster-painted fabric. Experimenting with a variety of formats and materials, we ultimately fastened our fabric to a wood framework, dipped it in plaster, and pulled it into tension to scaffolding. Once it dried, we could cut the fabric easily with a hand saw, which revealed a cross-section of the fabric folds, and would hold its own weight. We did one test that even supported itself six feet.
For our final design, we attached fabric panels to a rectangular volume that was offset in a cylinder, which in the installation was defined only by the cut ends of the fabric. Since, per our material tests, smaller panels of fabric with more folds can stretch further than larger panels, we panelized the rectangular volume with a gradation that reflected this structural requirement.
My undergraduate degree is in studio art so in theory constructing something I’ve designed was nothing new to me. The process of developing this installation, however, was nothing I could have prepared myself for. The scale of our piece was the first of many hurdles: at 8 feet tall, my short-to-medium-height female group had to navigate quick maneuvers with drying plaster with a variety of step stools and ladders. At this size, we also had to account for the weight of the plaster and our unevenly weighted installation (due to the offset rectangular volume). Then there was the issue that none of us had experience with the materials we were using. There were myriad mistakes involving finish nails, proper hammering technique, and stripped screws before we finally, successfully put together our inner framework. And since MIT is an urban campus with limited indoor work space, our plaster pouring had to happen outdoors. With the fast pace of the project, this meant we spent many nights mixing and applying plaster outside in 38 degrees with spotlights to light our work. Though those particular evenings were somewhat miserable, we immediately forgot about them when we assembled our installation in the South Corner of Building 7. The feeling of finally getting to step inside a space we’d been envisioning for four weeks was invigorating, and, I think we’d all say, entirely worth it.
And following are images of the other fantastic projects our class produced: