Outside Their Comfort Zones

Outside Their Comfort Zones

As architecture schools continue to grapple with new challenges and emerging technologies a major question keeps surfacing: How can architects help design the space beyond the building envelope?

Perhaps the most rigorous exploration has been taking place at UCLA’s MArch program, Suprastudio, an advanced year-long graduate course that examines architecture’s role in the urban environment. Past studios have been taught by Thom Mayne, whose students evaluated copious data from cities across the country, and by Greg Lynn, who partnered with Walt Disney Imagineering to envision otherworldly new parks and facilities.

This year’s course, taught by Neil Denari, focused on UCLA’s own neighborhood, Westwood, using it as a base for rethinking how architecture and urbanism interact. This is Denari’s second time teaching the studio. For his first studio he partnered with Toyota to envision future cities called “megavoids.”


Over the course of a year Denari challenged teams of students to leave their architectural comfort zones. He asked them to work at a much larger scale than they had been trained for as undergraduates and required them to start their process, not programmatically, but formally, and work backwards. The re-thinking of Westwood took into account major changes like the future addition of a subway station, but for the most part students started with a tabula rasa, filling it with their own graphic and urban interventions. At one review, Denari asked anyone holding on to concepts of piecemeal Jane Jacobs urbanism to leave the room.

But this wasn’t an exercise in throwing away integrated planning and the hard lessons that emerged from brutal modernist planning. Students were challenged to form their own perspective and take their own route.

“We were trying to incorporate a new way of thinking that wasn’t going to lead us down the same path,” said Denari. “It was less about overturning paradigms and more about being able to incorporate logic across a whole spectrum of things.”

That spectrum included elements as holistic as planning and as detailed as richly saturated graphics. All were carefully integrated to form a new type of urbanism that was neither organic nor modernist. The results were new neighborhoods that were all outside the mainstream of conventional urban thinking.

Daniel Hesketh and Jonathan Nadel’s project Remix City focused on creating what Hesketh calls “endless possibilities.” In other words, it included as much urban and architectural variety as possible using the least resources. Building modules were repeated, but in rotated or mirrored configurations across the site. The pieces, in turn, were suited to varied programs and scales, but always emphasizing fine-grained, pedestrian-oriented activity, despite the large scale of building. We didn’t want to fall into the trap of monumental scale or non-human plazas,” he said.


Starting from a formal perspective was “more daunting than I ever could have imagined,” said Hesketh. “We were floundering for a while, looking for something to work with. Our first instinct was to look at the catalogue of operations and parameters. In this case, you don’t know where to start.”

Of course the floundering was a big part of the course’s challenge, according to Denari. “If you’re operating with guarantees and securities we can’t really find something. Generally I try to operate that way,” he said, adding that the course’s year-long format allows plenty of opportunities for students to make mistakes, get frustrated, and eventually have things fall into place like puzzle pieces.


Lilit Ustayan, Chi Zhang, and Jonathan Louie’s project, The Continuous Environment: Applications on a 3D City, started with Westwood’s grid and investigated what form it would take if the automobile were no longer the major means of circulation. Closer to Wilshire Boulevard, the project was about intricate interconnection, with pedestrian passages and smaller, more fragmented building forms. As one moves north toward the campus it became more block-like with bridges connecting eroded and coiled buildings.

By focusing on the urban environment the team developed a feedback-like organizing principal: They shaped their buildings via an urban plan, and shaped their urban plan via buildings. “We focus on the building scale and project outward,” said Ustayan. “The process continually shifts between micro and macro scales. We continuously zoom in and out to test what we’re designing. Maybe in terms of mass and geometry and form you may develop a strategy, but it’s always testing it and not just accepting it.”

“Modernism doesn’t own alternative methods or abstraction,” noted Denari. “Tools and agendas shouldn’t be claimed and buried when phases pass. I think anything still becomes viable and I think the new and more supple arguments are ones that incorporate and exclude.”