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Pedagogy: Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology, Canada

An architecure school physically plays with the poetry of form writes Matthew Barac on the unconventional learning style at the University of Manitoba’s CAST laboratory

The cross-braced steel rig is craned into position a few inches above the concrete floor, expertly guided by two young men and a woman wearing hard hats and protective gloves. Holding bolts are released and the framework, which supports a fibre-reinforced concrete bowl cast onto a polyethylene fabric tarpaulin, is rotated 180º about its hozizontal axis prior to being raised up onto props.

The upturned bowl is released from the rig and – in the moment of truth – the tarpaulin, formwork that has become rigid during the casting process, is drawn off to reveal a vault which looks almost like a skirt, rippled and stretched where the fabric mould has been pulled taut and distorted under the weight of the cement shell. High-fives, and boisterous cheers from a handful of onlookers, give a clue to the true identity of the group: not factory technicians, but architecture students.

However, the building in which this prototyping experiment is taking place doesn’t look much like an architecture school at all. And that, according to founding director Mark West, is a measure of its success, for the Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology (CAST) – a research unit and teaching laboratory at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture – aims to engage with the muscle of technology, the guts of construction, and the nuts and bolts of factory processes as an antidote to the tendency, in architectural pedagogy, to remove students from the realities of making buildings.

To this end, CAST comprises not only the studio and workshop spaces conventionally associated with design tuition but also a destruction testing facility – a strong-floor and hydraulic press. Students explore the structural properties of materials as well as their own capacity for invention, finding out how their designs for columns, vaults, and buildings perform by testing them to the limit. Making and breaking things is, says West, an essential dimension of the playfulness necessary for creative innovation. ‘If you don’t play you only produce what you already know.’

“High-fives, and boisterous cheers from a handful of onlookers, give a clue to the true identity of the group: not factory technicians, but architecture students.”

The design of the centre, a 500m2 building funded by a combination of public and private grants and industry sponsors, responds to this notion of playfulness. Part factory, part sculpture studio, part showroom, part laboratory, it also calls to mind a grown-up kindergarten – a ‘sandbox to play in’, says West. Interactive and easy to read, the learning environment emphatically rejects the clinical, institutional, solitary world of headphones and laptops that most other schools have become.

Model-making, the core design methodology, pushes students to identify building components and to think in three dimensions. ‘The 1:1 section is our default design drawing, and it goes straight up on the wall, rather than on a screen which has no real scale. We painted the (workshop) walls black, so we can draw on them directly. We call it CAD: Chalk-Aided-Design.’

Students on the two-year professional masters course (MArch) – the equivalent of the UK diploma or RIBA Part 2 – are offered a choice of studios each year, and CAST anchors much of the design tuition. Inspired by the pioneering structural practices of Gaudí, Dieste and the Guastavinos (Sr and Jr), first year MArch student Andrew Puiatti’s project for an orphanage and circus arts school in Moshi, Tanzania, envisaged a multipurpose inside/outside theatre nestled beneath the vaulted canopies of two soaring, geometric, masonry and cast concrete trees. The funicular structure, developed using a physical hanging-chain model, provides a dynamic, complex space using very basic construction materials and means. Andy mocked up moulds for the two masonry unit types required, and fabric formworks for crucial connecting and transfer components.

Aleksandra Chomik’s final-year project, for the selective demolition and rebuilding of a brick farmhouse and outbuildings in her native Poland, explores the poetics of loss, displacement and inheritance. Her proposal sought to straddle the territory between performance art and architectural reconstruction, generating a number of spatial conditions over time rather than a finished object.

The scheme depicts a slow, deliberate process of exposing, un-building, compensating and reconfiguring, incorporating temporary props, storage arrangements and scaffolds, and leads to a series of fabric-formed, fragmentary, anthropomorphic columns – her own ‘orders’ – which she calls ‘muses’.

Idealised as a synthesis of technique and poetry, architecture is more often trapped in its own silo. CAST bring together the cultures of art, architecture, engineering and construction in a hands-on setting that promotes play between them. This unlocks new ways of thinking about the business of making buildings.

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