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Fall 2019 Portico: High-Profile Studios Bring Taubman College Students Shoulder to Shoulder with Some of Architecture’s Best-Known Names

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Heavy Hitters

By Amy Crawford

PERHAPS MORE THAN ANY other type of building, America’s 1,800-plus prisons place function over form. And one function has historically predominated: keeping people in. That was obvious to Rinika Prince, M.Arch ’20, when she visited the Queensboro Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison in New York City, as part of a winter semester studio called Architecture of Incarceration. The studio was taught by MASS Design Group, the nonprofit, mission-driven architectural firm best known for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama.

“It was yet another assemblage of highly controlled spaces that were arranged and organized for the purpose of establishing control over the behavior and movement of people,” Prince says. The prison houses men nearing the end of their sentences, but she realized that its design did little to improve their chances of a smooth transition to the outside world. For her final project, she imagined a new type of restorative facility that felt less like confinement and more like a bridge to freedom. 

Michael Murphy, founding principal and executive director of MASS Design Group, worked with students on reimagining the architecture of incarceration.

“Prison design is a sub-sector of our industry that has received little academic or professional scrutiny — it is taboo, even,” says guest instructor Michael Murphy, founding principal and executive director of MASS Design Group, which is jointly based in Boston and Kigali, Rwanda. The studio, Murphy says, helped students “wrestle with the role that architecture and the design process play in perpetuating injustice, and conversely, with the potential for architecture to effect a radical re-imagination of justice.”

That potential, in one way or another, was on the minds of many of the students who took part in a trio of winter 2019 design studios that brought some of architecture’s brightest stars to Ann Arbor. In addition to MASS Design Group’s critical exploration of incarceration, French architect Clément Blanchet took his class to Europe to explore how new construction technology is making buildings more efficient and accessible. Meanwhile, Sir David Adjaye OBE, who designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and is one of the most acclaimed architects working today, guided a group of students in the pursuit of true silence.

“Having Sir David Adjaye in Ann Arbor was a humbling experience and a unique opportunity to observe the working/thinking method of someone who is so well respected internationally,” says Misri Patel, M.S. ’19.

The students’ immersion in Adjaye’s distinctive methods began with the first page of the seminar’s course brief, a polemic on modernity’s erasure of true silence: “It’s nearly impossible to find. The world is screaming with audible and visual distractions. Noise, calls, crowds, construction, cars, echoes, reflections, rings, tweets, texts, whistles, madness, and life. We’re suffering from the burden of hearing too much. We’ve lost it; silence.” Architecture, Adjaye asserts, can offer respite from this modern cacophony. But first, he and Associate Professor Catie Newell, who co-taught the seminar, challenged students to figure out just what “silence” means by seeking it out in the real world and learning about how different materials work to absorb sound. “We realized that silence is subjective,” says Maryam Alhajri, M.S. ’19, who collaborated with classmate Shan-Chun Wen, M.S. ’19, to design a sound-muffling screen that transforms into a nest-like enclosure, offering total auditory and visual privacy. “Silence can be visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tangible, or intangible,” Alhajri says.

In pursuit of elusive silence, Sir David Adjaye’s seminar examined how materials absorb sound.

The instructors were impressed by the range of their students’ responses to their unusual proposition. “Students worked extremely hard on developing intricate and clever constructions that allowed for a space of meditation and calm,” says Newell. “Working with David advanced the stakes. The students knew that all of their design decisions and proposals were going to be evaluated by someone with an incredible amount of experience and talent, so they pushed themselves, knowing the evaluation of their work was to be expert and generous.”

“Working with David advanced the stakes. The students knew that all of their design decisions and proposals were going to be evaluated by someone with an incredible amount of experience and talent, so they pushed themselves, knowing the evaluation of their work was to be expert and generous.”
— Associate Professor Catie Newell

On its face, the topic of the studio Clément Blanchet co-taught with Jono Sturt, lecturer in architecture, was a bit more every day. Organized in partnership with VINCI Construction, an international firm based in France, the studio asked students to imagine a fully prefabricated apartment building for a suburb of Paris. It had to be aesthetically pleasing, of course, but students also were required to take socioeconomics into consideration.

Christoph Allaz of VINCI Construction, center, and Clément Blanchet, left, at end-of-semester studio reviews in April. 

“Working within an academic setting, we were confronted with larger-reaching social conditions such as urbanization, overpopulation, and affordable housing,” explains Maksim Drapey, M.Arch ’20. “One of the most valuable, interesting, and at times frustrating aspects of the studio was the real-world constraints that had to be considered.” Like any good architect, Drapey used the constraints to get creative. His final project, a collaboration with classmates Zhipeng Liu, M.Arch ’21, and Cameron Williams, M.Arch ’20, was called “Vertical Neighborhood,” an assemblage of 50 modular units and several common spaces, which, he says, sought to avoid the anomie that can plague tower living and “encourage a more socially active urban condition.”

As part of the VINCI studio, “More with Less,” by Lovejeet Gehlot, Shahryar Beyzavi, and Austin Wiskur, re-aligns core wet walls to create more open space while decreasing construction cost.

Each studio asked students to consider the people who would be living in or with their creations, and many found pre-design work to be the most valuable aspect of their experience. The MASS Design Group studio, for example, involved workshops with current and formerly incarcerated people and staff members at Michigan prisons, and the class researched alternatives to incarceration, as well as the history of the prison business. “I knew conditions in prisons were terrible, but to visit these facilities and to read firsthand accounts of the mistreatment that occurs inside was infuriating,” says Maggie Cochrane, M.Arch ’20. “We were often overwhelmed by the political, social, economic, and ethical implications of the problem at hand, but by the end, we used this as momentum to arrive at a resolution.” It was a difficult experience, she acknowledges, but ultimately she was able to pour it into re-envisioning the Queensboro Correctional Institution with new glass walls, a facility that functioned more as a site for true rehabilitation — and which could one day be reused as something else, should the current system of mass incarceration be abolished. “I’ve found that there is not enough emphasis placed on architecture that has the power to heal and change lives,” Cochrane says. “This is what I want to devote my career too, and that’s why I was so excited about the opportunity to work with MASS this semester. It was far and away from the best studio that I’ve ever been a part of.”