RATP Bus Center, ECDM Architects

Assignments are based on three models of practice in architecture: writing, design, and presentation. In addition to weekly readings and discussion, assignments will include a material focus (intro), a weekly journal, a material interrogation (mid-term), as well as a case study paper and related presentation (final). For assignment grading criteria, please see course requirements and policies.

  • Class Participation (15%)
  • Material Focus (5%)
  • Weekly Journal (20%)
  • Material Interrogation (20%):
    model (10%), drawings and presentation (10%)
  • Material Case Study (40%):
    presentation (15%), draft paper (5%), final paper (20%)

Material Focus

This is an early assignment intended to introduce material-related analysis. Select a provocative work of architecture that for you demonstrates an innovative application of a particular material. Select two images of this project: one that shows the building, and one that shows the material detail you would like to discuss. Print each image on letter-sized paper, landscape format and bring the images to class. Prepare a few brief talking points (3 minutes maximum) to describe the particular significance of this material application. After class, please post your material focus as your first journal entry (see below) for week one. You will need to convert your talking points into a written description. Include both images in your post, and select one to be the feature image.

Weekly Journal

“We need criticism that connects us to a building’s references, emotions and texture, not only its news value.” — Alexandra Lange

You will be expected to write one blog post every week as a way to practice disciplinary writing in a low-stakes format. You are to publish your posts on the course website, which may be found at Each post must be at least 200 words in length, but not more than 500 words (unless specified on rare occasions). Each post must also have at least one feature image, and may include several additional images. Feature images must be exactly 750 pixels wide and 380 pixels tall; all other images must be between 470 and 750 pixels on each side. Please find images that have at least this native resolution (rather than scaling small images up, which will produce digital artifacts). Visual literacy is one of the important goals of this class; therefore, I expect you to select your visual content as carefully as you select your words.

In terms of content, your posts should focus on innovative material applications in architecture. Your writing should extend beyond disciplinary boundaries, addressing knowledge areas such as building technology, sustainability, design, history, theory, economics, and sociocultural themes. The case studies presented in Material Strategies can serve as a basic model of writing about material applications, and we will discuss other models in class. You are welcome to choose material topics in alignment with current class discussion (concrete or plastic, for example), but this is entirely optional. The website has a basic set of material categories; please select the most appropriate category for each of your posts. Occasionally, I may introduce special writing topics throughout the semester according to the needs of the class.

This will be no conventional blog. In your weekly writing efforts, you are to employ analytical or argumentative thinking. In a description given by educator John Bean, “such writing is initiated by a problem or question and is typically characterized by a controlling thesis statement supported by a hierarchical structure of reasons and evidence.” (Bean, Engaging Ideas, p. 23.) Although you may take a less formal approach in this assignment than you would for a term paper, your writing must demonstrate active thinking and the evaluation of multiple and often opposing views. Some of your questions may be unresolved, but your position should still be clear, and your claims adequately justified. Please cite your claims appropriately and provide links to your sources.

Note: The drawback of the popular blog format is that it is not often used as a platform for critical thinking. However, unlike many websites, our blog will not be a vehicle for simple reporting (merely conveying facts), and certainly not for re-blogging (copying and pasting content). Like all assignments, your work in this exercise must adhere to the University policy for scholastic dishonesty. You must therefore do your own work and cite your references. Quoting is allowed, but must be designated as such and credited appropriately.

I will invite you to access the course website for the purposes of authoring, editing, and publishing your posts. Your post must be published prior to 8:00 am on Friday of each week. This schedule will allow me to review your post over the weekend, as I will select a few posts each week to discuss in class. In addition to your posts, you will also be expected to comment on at least five of your colleagues’ entries during the semester. Your response must meet the basic requirements for word count, citations, and critical content, but need not include any images. Because your response is expected to be critical in nature, your aim might be to undermine the author’s argument; however, you can also expand upon the author’s argument or add a new and related argument. In any case, be sure that your criticism is constructive and that you strike an appropriate, diplomatic tone. By the end of term, you should have written fifteen posts and five comments.

Material Interrogation

In this two-part assignment, you will 1) conduct design research on an innovative material detail using a physical model and 2) present your findings with a series of analytical drawings in class. Based on the material strategies and effects listed in the introduction to Material Strategies, select a provocative material detail of sufficient technical complexity for analysis.

1. Model
Construct a physical model of this detail between 1 1/2” = 1’-0” (1:8) scale and actual size (1:1) using materials of your choice. These materials should be either literal, representational or abstract. Your model should address an important set of intersections—such as a corner, floor, head, and/or sill detail—and should be designed to come apart to reveal internal assemblies during your in-class presentation.

2. Drawings and Presentation
Produce a series of drawings to accompany your model. You should have at least one descriptive drawing (communicate what exists) as well as at least one interpretive drawing. Interpretive drawings could represent important processes, systems, material flows, construction sequences, or precedents in science, technology, or art, for example. You may select your approaches for these drawings freely, so long as they expand the intellectual territory of your detail, allowing us to appreciate particular material strategies and effects in a new light. Consider this effort as a design problem that advances a clear argument about the way in which we should understand the deeper meanings of your selected material application.

Create a 10-minute presentation (Keynote, PDF, or Powerpoint format) about your work to share with the class. The presentation must feature your drawings, and may include additional project images and photographs of your model (optional). In your verbal description of this effort, be sure to convey a clear argument about how we should interpret your detail.

References: Michael Caldwell’s Strange Details provides a good conceptual starting point for material detail selection. Look at architecture journals such as Detail and The Plan for good project sources and sufficiently descriptive technical information.

Material Case Study

This two-part assignment consists of 1) the development of a research paper that investigates particular material applications that have transformed the architectural project, and 2) an in-progress presentation of your research to the class. A draft of your paper will be also required for peer review and discussion (see schedule). Like your weekly journal, this paper must exhibit analytical or argumentative thinking, with a well-developed logical structure and appropriate claims and evidence. Your goal will be to develop and explain in writing and visual documentation a well-reasoned personal position on the role of transformative technology in the built environment, including a framework for critical evaluation of the technology and design applications employed, and to defend your position while acknowledging its weaknesses and limitations.

1. Paper
Write a 3,000 word paper that satisfies this requirement and includes sufficient images and drawings to explain your analysis. You will submit this paper in two phases: a) as a 1,000 word draft for review (see schedule), and b) as a final InDesign document at the end of the semester that is formatted according to a class template (to be provided). This final submission must include a pdf version in addition to the original source InDesign document and linked image files. Please zip all of your files and submit them to me via a free transfer service like

You may use one of the following models of research papers for your work, or you may feel free to develop your own model.

Focused Case Study
Analyze a notable disruptive material application in a single significant project. For a good set of case study precedents, please refer to Michael Caldwell’s Strange Details.

Comparative Study
Compare the application of a particular material in one post-1850 modern precedent and one post-2000 project.

Trajectory Study
Compare the application of a particular material in several projects built during the modern era, tracing the application’s technological and artistic development through time.

Comparative Application Study
Compare the application of a particular material in one project with a similar application of a different material in another project, demonstrating the transference of method.

Application Proposal
Analyze a notable material application in one or more significant architectural precedents and develop your own set of original design details in the spirit of this application. In this model, only 2,000 words are required, and emphasis is shifted to the design content. (This approach may be used to connect directly with your design studio work.)

Example: Suppose you choose a trajectory study. Your category might be glass, your precedent could be Norman Foster’s Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters, and your contemporary application might be James Carpenter’s Blue Glass Passage. The focus in this case might be the development of structural glass applications. Your charge would be to: 1) analyze the major material innovation represented by your precedent building relative to the particular technological, environmental, and social characteristics of its time; 2) analyze the material innovation represented in your contemporary building relative to the important technological, environmental, and social characteristics of our time; and 3) develop a thesis that traces the chronological development of a particular disruptive application between the two projects, highlighting the fundamental challenges and opportunities in your material category based on your findings.

2. Presentation
Create a 15-minute in-progress presentation (Keynote, PDF, or Powerpoint format) about your research to share with the class. The presentation may include photographs, drawings, diagrams, and video content as necessary to explain your work. In your verbal description of your project, be sure to convey your thesis statement and supporting structure of reasons and evidence. We will use discussion time in class to explore your chosen topic and clarify the direction of your research.

References: In addition to sources like Michael Caldwell’s Strange Details, look at academic journals such as Architectural Design, ARQ, A+U, the Journal of Architecture, the Journal of Architectural Education, and the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research for good models of scholarly research in architecture.

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