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250 AGA: An online design investigation by Amery Calvelli

Week five - “The relevant sections of the Code of Hammurabi.”

Code of Hammurabi
Image: istock photo

 

The Code of Hammurabi is a collection of legal precedents by King Hammurabi of Babylon who ruled 1792 -1750 B.C. The 282 laws were engraved onto the facade of a seven-foot-high stone monument and carved in cuneiform, one of the earliest Sumerian forms of writing. Michael Sorkin’s inclusion of the code in his essay of what architects should know is both curious, and speaks to a connection of social and ethical implications that result from designing and building. To explore the relevance of this code in today’s terms, I caught up with Edmonton-based litigator Avnish Nanda whose boutique law firm Nanda & Company is focused on public law disputes in Alberta and British Columbia.

The Code of Hammurabi is written in “if, then” form: “If one steals cattle or sheep” or “If one loses something.” It outlines rental prices and market exchanges, “If bad weather takes over...” “If anyone be too lazy...” or “If an agent is careless...” each outlining how to retrofit a balance of equality. There are codes that are related to construction and building, which might be considered the more “relevant” codes for architects to know, but our conversation also explores how not to lose sight of an ethical lens when considering the responsibility of design to “first, do no harm.”

There are parts of the code that are uncomfortable and appear severe, nearly four millennia after it was written. In our interview, Nanda calls attention to how a code of law reflects society’s values and we touch upon how this has evolved over time.

 

Week four - "How to turn a corner. How to design a corner. How to sit in a corner."

Photo of two men walking on floor tiles
 Photo © BERK OZDEMIR 

 

Negotiating a corner alters the experience of a space. Corners offer a transition. In the time of a pandemic, the phrase “to turn a corner” has a hopeful ring of change. Turning a corner while driving forces one to slow down before altering the vehicle’s direction. This week we’ve taken the three phrases from Sorkin’s essay that consider corners: “23. How to turn a corner,” “24. How to design a corner,” and “25. How to sit in a corner.” Joining me on this journey are Principal Jan Kroman and Intern Architect Cody Johnston of RPK Architects. While this exploration is far from conclusive, we managed to widen the lens of how corners are defined and how they function within the built environment: from the corner as an object to the corner at the scale of the street. Can corners represent emotion? A composition of our email ping-pong is below. 

AC: Starting with a definition of a corner, what is it? 

JK: To me, a corner has an implicit decision and therefore, action. What that action is doesn’t have a singular definition; it can be a change in direction, pause or even return. A corner breaks the consistency of experience (wall, street, surface).  

Corners exist where material(s) or concepts change their direction in a decisive manner. Two vectors (items with both direction and length) are needed to create a corner. Whether these items can be said to originate or terminate at a corner is inconsequential to its existence but inform it’s experience. 

Which Way Now? 

AC: What properties should a corner have in order to confirm that it's truly a "corner"? Is a corner a good thing, or not always such a good thing? 

JK: I would argue that corners exist when a choice needs to be made by the person experiencing the divergence of two vectors. This choice can be explicit or implicit. The corner of the table needs to be avoided, the corner in a room concludes the boundary of the space, a corner on a street asks the question which way now?  

CJ: Fundamentally, the function of a corner is to transform an experience. I would argue corners are only perceived in time, and they are not made of vectors, but of planes. Without time, a corner is just an edge. Corners as vectors is more of a drawing reference, associated with an energy or flow you want to give a space. 

JK: I’ll always defer to the man with a physics degree (when discussing vectors)—I think we’re more in agreement than not. Vectors to me imply time. They have a strength and a direction, and are flaccid unless we understand that vectors start and end implying a duration of time. I know that I am pushing the term but it’s an abstraction that’s important to me when considering larger scale corners. The bend in a river (a natural corner) speaks to the forces that shape it and the time required to create it. 

As for the strictness of corners versus their friendliness based on geometry, I would examine the term “strict” further. Corners need not be physical meetings. Materials can be held short allowing the mind to fill in the gap or corner as it were. Light, sound, perhaps even smell can break through these implied corners even if their geometry isn’t full of radii.  

The Scale of a Corner 

AC: Corners may force a change in direction. A corner might be a place to duck into while avoiding chaos or noise, even. 

JK: I would argue that the properties of corners as perceived by humans change dramatically with their scale. A corner on an item, a beveled edge of a desk for instance, speaks of different relationships than a corner in a room. A street corner again presents a different set of experiences and implied philosophies.   

  • Corners as objects that are smaller than human scale can speak to the qualities of the item. Does the object care for us with softened corners? Does the corner expose efficiency or utility with sharp edges? 
  • Corners at the human scale are generally preoccupied with containing our built-environments: physically, visually or psychologically. The preoccupation is often with “breaking the corner,” synonymous with vast expanses of glazing that merge interior and exterior space. 
  • Corners at the urban scale, paradoxically, move from containing space to being preoccupied by latent possibilities. Coming to a corner, or meeting at a corner is about choice, opportunity, and future potential. 

CJ: I agree, corners have different perceptions at different scales. However, I am almost brave enough to state that the emotion associated with corners remains somewhat consistent, wherein rounded is more ergonomic and a strict corner more harsh, no matter the scale. 

The corner has emotional baggage. A corner is easily unpleasant: 

  • Facing a corner in a timeout 
  • Facing a corner in an elevator, to reduce the spread of COVID 
  • Backed into a corner, physically or philosophically 
  • Collecting dust and dirt 
  • ​​​​​​​Fear of what might be around the corner 

A corner struggles to be pleasant: 

  • Sitting in the corner of a restaurant, however you must face outward
  • ​​​​​​​As a dwelling. I think of caves as corners, or how bedrooms are typically in the deepest ‘corner’ of our homes 

This complexity of the corner makes it curious. 

AC: Depending upon how it is occupied, can a corner function as both "pleasant" and “unpleasant"? 

JK: One of my more memorable corners no longer exists. It was located near the NA Books on the eighth floor or so at the MacKimmie Library at the University of Calgary. Looking out over the campus towards Nosehill Park - two planes of glass met in a corner. I would pull up an old tattered chair, occupy this little corner—my million dollar view for the hour, and in equal parts pouring over architectural tomes, procrastinating with starting my linear algebra. Recently this building and indeed this corner have been renovated into a curved approach. It certainly is stunning from the outside. I have yet to experience it in person. But when I do I wonder, will it be as personal, as intimate, as my two pieces of glass meeting at 90 degrees? 

Corners and Time 

CJ: Time enables the perception of a corner. A river bend, a cliff’s edge, a winding trail in the forest, a turn in a corridor, a corner of a library—all these are perceived in time. Viewing these corners from a map or an architectural drawing is not perception, merely an understanding of the geometry. The corner without time is static. Adding the dimension of time, we are making corners dynamic. I will argue that only once we add this element, corners become emotional. 

The pleasant corners of our past, the experience with the MacKimmie library for example, is largely due to the safety and security a corner provides. The pleasure that comes from sitting in the corner is knowing he won’t have to get up and move, until he chooses to. How that corner is designed is what establishes the time and safety component. If that cover of the library was too hot, cold, dark, or dank the corner may not be so pleasurable. The role of a corner has to be thought of while designing. 

This, I think, is the fundamental component a designer has to ask themselves when designing a corner. Is this a corner to pass by? Or is this a corner which needs to be enjoyed? We are asking the question of how a corner is perceived in time, this is the basis of design for a corner. We need to allow ourselves as designers the right to design a corner with the intention for repose. And we need to know when we need to make a corner flow. 

Corner in construction
Photo of a corner in construction for Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective, by RKP Architects. Photo © Jan Kroman. 

 

Week three - “The insulating properties of glass. The history of its production and use. And its meaning.”

Border Park Pavilion
Borden Park Pavilion exterior and interior views. Images courtesy of gh3*

 

The third week of an exploration into the “things” in Michael Sorkin’s essay brings us to the question of glass. While there are lessons in the material’s insulating properties and production, how can we tap into glass in terms of meaning?

To consider this question, I caught up with Pat Hanson, a founding partner gh3* to discuss a pavilion in Borden Park and an engineering building, both in Edmonton, that employ glass in an innovative way. A prevalent building material in the urban realm, glass cladding can often seem dark, even appear black or green. But how can glass be used to integrate a sense of curiosity, or even play?

Border Park Pavilion
RTC#3 exterior views, courtesy of gh3*

Borden Park Pavilion, completed in 2013, is situated in response to axial and meandering paths of the park, and a geometry of the landscape from traces of classical forms: an earlier carousel and a bandshell. The pavilion’s glass exterior of inverted and upright triangles reads as transparent from the interior as one scans the 360-degree outdoor landscape. An inverse reading of the glass on the exterior is one of opaqueness, a mirrored effect reflecting the activity in the park. In our interview, Pat describes how the mirroring was produced and the details behind the heating and cooling effects explored. Our conversation reveals not only her studio’s exploratory material quest, but the intention behind the juxtaposition of transparency and opaqueness. The pavilion represents a gesture of play and the capture of time—marking the movement of people enjoying the park, the wind brushing through the trees, or a change of season. In sunlight the structure blends into the landscape, at night, it can become a lantern.

The Real Time Control Building #3 (RTC#3) is a monitoring station that measures wastewater. It’s classified as an “infrastructure” building and part of what makes the city’s water system run smoothly, helping to reduce untreated runoff returning to the river source. Located off Jasper Avenue and overlooking Dawson Park, the drum-shaped building is sheathed in glass block installed in a zigzag pattern. Seeking a connection to everyday materials, and noting the popularity of glass block in the 1980’s in Edmonton, Pat describes their studio’s interest in developing a double-skin by using the block. Often infrastructure buildings are hidden, and by conceptually bringing water service forward into public view, the design was grounded in ideas of telegraphing, or representing what was below-grade, which resulted in paving patterns at ground level. The glass block is particularly white, an effect achieved by selecting a glass with low iron. The result is a sense of mystery: one is attracted to coming closer to make sense of what is inside. For a technical building of engineering purposes, this effect is particularly appealing in fostering a stronger connection with the production and function of clean drinking water.

Without digressing into the history of glass block, an unrelated precedent to note is the Glass Pavilion by German architect Bruno Taut, a temporary pavilion in the shape of a polygon that was designed for the Cologne Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition in 1914.

Listen to the interview with Pat Hanson here.

Borden Park Pavilion: the passing of time. Video courtesy of gh3*.

Week two - “The modulus of rupture.” An interview with Jake Chakasim 

Jake Chakasim WAPIMISOW
K. Jake Chakasim, WAPIMISOW: Trickster Builds a Nest for the End of the World, 2020, charred tipi poles, locally sourced materials. Installation view of Nests for the End of the World, Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, 2020. ©Jake Chakasim, courtesy of the Artist.

 

Welcome to the second week of an investigation into what architects know. Responding to Michael Sorkin’s essay, “Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know,” each week brings a new post that can be found at #250AGA. This week we look at Sorkin’s item number four: “The modulus of rupture.”  

The modulus of rupture often references material strength, stress-testing a material to determine its pliability or how a material bends. But in less literal terms, can it be understood as more than simply a physical measurement?  

To answer this question, I sought out the knowledge of K. Jake Chakasim, an Indigenous designer/planner from the Attawapiskat First Nation. His Weypiskosiweywin series and the artwork Wapimisow, currently in the Nests for the End of the World exhibition at the AGA—each of the works draw out questions of displacement, movement and cultural identity. The Weypiskosiweywin structures recontextualize the notion of a renewed typology derived from an Indigenous understanding of the North and were built with off-the-shelf wood that was “stressed” and bent into place. One results in a sweeping, curvilinear pavilion for performance. Another structure, a teepee situated in Anishinaabe territory, addressed the notion of cultural infringement: by placing a teepee where it does not belong, on Ojibway territory. The design reframes a cultural connection with the site. The work Wapimisow is constructed with teepee poles, bent plywood, skins, bones, and trapline taping that teases out ideas of reflection, both in terms of identity and in form. 

Amery Calvelli: What do you look for in identifying material to represent your ideas? 

Jake Chakasim: Embodiment. I truly look for a sense of embodiment that speaks from a place—not to a place. Rather than thinking about a place as somewhere to arrive, much like Western precedents approach place, my Indigenous (Cree) identity speaks from the story and language of this land, a temporal understanding of place. This may seem counterintuitive to the non-indigenous mind. When I hear others use the term “sensibility” in the context of finding a connection to a place, it feels like there is a search for meaning, because they know in themselves that their immigration story comes from someplace else—perhaps, Europe, Asia or elsewhere. As a result, new stories are 'blanketed' over the Indigenous story of North America.   

So when I hear the term “modulus of rupture” I understand it to be another application of Eurocentric/Latin derivation - modus/modulus, meaning "small measure.”  But as we know, this once “small measure” continues to result in the occupation, conflict, and forced displacement of Indigenous people on our own lands and it really hasn't stopped. It’s an experience I’ve come to describe as a type of “domestic displacement.” As a result, our Indigenous migration is now part of the global diaspora. 

AC: How do you look at stress-testing a material? Is this modulus of rupture simply a physical act? 

JK: As a stress-testing material expression, I've referenced the bending qualities of the boreal forest as a metaphor for the work I create. The way in which Northern Cree societies have made structures on the land is indicative of the embodied relationship we have to these places. We've learned “to bend before breaking.”  It's the true embodiment of being resilient.    

As a critical response, I'd say we've mastered the notion of a “module of elasticity” before the arrival of a “module of rupture,” and that our material culture has memory and continues to find ways to be expressive in the places and spaces we now find ourselves in—from the rural to the urban and now the global.  Are we limited by it?  No, we're all richer for it!   

AC: The “module of elasticity” is a refreshing approach. It’s more aligned with true memory of a place, plastic memory. 

JK: On another level, there is this “dissonance gap” that occurs—an “opening of knowledge” that is offered.  It’s hard to feel this, particularly with design’s reliance on technology because it’s one step removed from the immediacy of being a builder or designer who works with their body.  That's what I call encountering the “spirit of place” or the “ethos qualities of place”—more precisely, Indigenous values expressed through a performative and embodied understanding of materials. Can it be described as “encountering” the distance of a whisper?  In some ways it can, because the notion of spirit and breath are one-in-the-same. Opening the grains of the wood, bending them, feeling what the grain has to offer is a sensation that transmits through your body and muscles. We call that OSHICHIKEYWIN—to bend it from the body, it flows and carries a moral principle and a relationship to that place.  

AC: That’s interesting. We make many assumptions about how we inhabit a place. The relationship between physical and psychological sensing, or “being”, even, is overlooked, I think. I like your idea of “opening of knowledge.” Perhaps it allows us to not only feel more connected to the earth, but to sense difference, even? I wonder if we have lost touch with how to adapt to change? 

JK: Others from afar have never really comprehended this type of relationship to place because they are either caught up in their own extremities—historically trying to escape an Old World for the so-called New World which only and often happens to occur on Indigenous Lands—or they're simply trying to make sense or reconcile their understanding of who they are and what they have become on Indigenous Lands.  

Wapimisow is on view in the Nests for the End of the World exhibition through September, 2020 at the AGA. 

K. Jake Chakasim, WEYPISKOSIWEYWIN. ©Jake Chakasim, courtesy of the Artist.

K. Jake Chakasim, WAPIMISOW: Trickster Builds A Nest for the ​​​​​​End of the World, 2020, charred tipi poles, locally sourced materials. Installation view of Nests for the End of the World, Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, 2020. ©Jake Chakasim, courtesy of the Artist.

Week one - “The distance a shout carries in the city. The distance of a whisper.”

Welcome to the first week of an investigation into what architects should know. Responding to Michael Sorkin’s outline of 250 things, we explore his fifth and sixth points about the distance of a shout or a whisper. 

Spiral staircase

Sound waves travel 340 metres per second, but measurement is not that simple. What conditions define how audible a shout or whisper is? “Every time you put up four walls and a roof, you’re committing acoustics,” said legendary sound expert Ewart (Red) Wetherill. Vancouver-based acoustical expert Barry McKinnon of McSquared recalled Red’s statement in response to a question I asked him of how far a shout carries. 

McKinnon tells me that measuring echo and the “reverberation time”—how long a sound takes to decay to one-millionth of the original sound level—reveals how we hear. A room’s volume, the ratio of volume to surface area, and how absorptive a surface is determine the “reverb” of a space. Sound is audible for nearly two minutes in this "oil chamber" in Scotland, reverberating off concrete. If you stand inside a closet full of clothes, it is considered “dead space” where there is barely a reverb. An empty gallery of concrete floor and drywall might have a reverb of two seconds, while a stairwell might last five seconds. “The Jack Singer [concert hall] is about 2.2 seconds in orchestra mode and 2.8 seconds in pipe organ mode,” he says. Traffic noise leaking through walls or a humming mechanical air system might bring the reverb negative, below ambient noise level. 

Measuring the distance of a shout depends on the environment. Someone shouting from a field on the Prairies creates spherical sound waves that expand outwards 180 degrees. Double the radius of this spherical wave, McKinnon says, and the wave surface will increase four-fold.  

When distance doubles, sound can drop six decibels. For sound to travel farther, narrow the sphere: cup your hands in front of your mouth to direct the shout. Corners gather sound, drawing from the floor and walls. Hearing a whisper while standing in a corner might be nine decibels louder than if standing in the middle of the room.  

For an extra-reverb experience, Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir sampled sounds from a decommissioned nuclear power plant in Lithuania. You can listen to a clip

See the interview with Barry McKinnon below. 

Introduction - Design Exhibition: Knowing Things 

 What Goes Up: The Right and Wrongs to the City (2018)
Cover Image courtesy of Verso Books

Over the course of the next few months, the Poole Centre of Design is exhibiting an online design investigation by Amery Calvelli, Adjunct Curator of the Poole Centre of Design. The idea germinates from an essay written by architect and critic Michael Sorkin. 

Michael Sorkin championed design that improved equity. Looking beyond form or function, he called for architects and urban designers to understand the effects of their designs. Use architecture to rethink incarceration as a system, he asserted, don’t just “humanize” a prison with a bit of design (2009). He called upon design to improve public good and to afford a right to the city. In March, Michael Sorkin succumbed to the coronavirus. A memorial streamed on Facebook was an outpouring of respect across the globe. Sorkin led the way for many, who feel impacted to continue lighting the path he forged. 

In a phone interview for a community radio show some time ago, Michael told me about his love of wandering, how the streets of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village created for him an ability to get lost, and thus, to discover. His essay, “Two Hundred Fifty Things an Architect Should Know,” poetically outlines a list of knowledge banks: from hydrology to the legal Code of Hammurabi, to fowl migrating patterns, to the sun at equinox. The list is written like one wanders—getting lost in knowledge and, finding diversions in the variety, while discovering anew.  

We’ll take a lens, weekly and online, to a few of the two hundred fifty things. There will be interviews and topical research. We’ll accumulate a list of items as we move forward, so that you can see the cadence of Sorkin’s list. The list is like a clarion call to architecture: to consider agency, to see through a facade of form and claim the responsibility for design’s effects on life. Follow the digital exhibition at #250AGA. 

Find the book: What Goes Up: The Right and Wrongs to the City (2018)  
Find more about Sorkin’s architecture and writing: Terreform
Watch Sorkin’s last lecture at the WAG

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