RISD architecture  /  advanced studio  /  spring 2010

skin deep:  tilting the field

The cells in the skin of the human body have the remarkable capacity to transform sunlight into vitamin D, an essential nutrient to our thriving and growing.  Without it our skeletal system deteriorates, and bones become weak.  Certain plants use their ‘skin’ to breathe light as we breathe air:  photosynthesis is a metabolic pathway that uses light to translate carbon dioxide into nourishing organic compounds, releasing oxygen as waste.  The class will look at the capacity of the skin of a building to harness light and nourish life within, resulting in case studies for a new building typology:  the vertical farm.

The semester will be spent investigating existing 20th c. mill buildings and other underutilized infrastructure in Providence for potential as environments for growing, harvesting and selling food. Students will work in groups to analyze and then reconfigure existing structures to develop a rich and varied day-lit environment indoors.  The building will be modified into an environment for growing, harvesting and selling food.  The program will be a ‘vertical farm’ and marketplace, with offices and incubator spaces for new food products.

Light and its very real relationship to an interior will be studied and then crafted through subtractions and additions to the existing structure.  Existing and hypothetical growing technologies and infrastructure will be explored and deployed to illustrate the potential for ‘cradle to cradle’ food cultivation.  The program will address (and question) food farming in all its aspects:  initial nutrient generation, light, air and water requirements, sustainability, community and labor, infrastructure, harvest and the market/commerce of harvested foods, food waste and compost.   Students will investigate these infrastructural, cultural and formal issues through the architectural problem of reusing and re imagining existing underutilized urban infrastructure.  Light and its judicious deployment via a ‘subtractive’ architecture will be essential.  Close attention will be paid to the ‘skin’ of the building, i.e. its system of enclosure.

In an effort to further their specific knowledge of daylight, students will also be able to collaborate with a lighting designer and expert from Parsons New School in NYC.  A workshop at the beginning of the semester will introduce light and energy modeling software, and certain concepts particular to the program of the vertical farming will be addressed.

The studio will also explore the problem of real-world constraints on this type of food production system, and will partner with students at Brown University to analyze and map factors relevant to this type of building program.  Students will also meet with local growers and community groups to explore a full-scale ‘seed’ project as a research and development tool.  Final projects have the opportunity to be presented to city and state agencies in an attempt to encourage support for full-season urban agriculture as a building program.  Students will also be able to enter projects in the 2010 International Velux Award for Students of Architecture competition, with the theme “Light of Tomorrow”.

At its core, the studio proposes that the professional field (of architecture) needs tilting.  Students of architecture are leaving school to enter a society much transformed and inhospitable to the traditional entry-level mindset.  Young architects are uniquely poised to become active participants in the transformation of not only the profession but of status quo systems in contemporary society.  Our food system is undergoing much renewed interest and scrutiny.  It is the locus for many contemporary debates:  health, environment, environmental justice, sustainability, local vs. global, community, fast vs. slow.  Concurrent with architectural explorations of vertical ‘fields’, students will put their skills and sensibilities towards more systemic problems, at the local level and beyond, to invite the potential tilting of their own future.

click here to see the class blog


February 6, 2011