A Portrait of the Sharples Re-designers

img003For Professor Min Kyung Lee of the Art History Department, architecture is not “strictly a technical practice,” but is rather about “being able to produce and come up with an idea … [to] find an aesthetic and functional and socially and environmentally responsible way of addressing” any problem. Skilled architects, then, design their own buildings as much as they capture their clients’ and their own imaginations. Extending this mentality to her Contemporary Architecture course, which is “not meant to be a pre-professional class,” Professor Lee charged her students with constructing a vision of a place we are all too familiar with: Sharples Dining Hall.

Lee, attracted by the idea of contextualizing her course in college discourse, structured it as “a pretty unique opportunity to involve the students” in the development and implementation of the campus master plan. What better project than to get students brainstorming a Sharples re-design, a project that would be the “most useful and the most relevant for student life,” according to Lee.

Students thought so too, and over 40 applied for the 12 available spots in Contemporary Architecture. Overwhelmed by the interest, Lee interviewed all 40 “applicants” instead of conducting a random lottery. By asking the candidates questions like what skills they would bring to the course and why they wanted to enroll, Lee filtered out students who either did not fulfill the prerequisites or lacked “interest and an energy for the issue and architecture more generally.” Left with mostly art history majors and minors, she then created three groups with “gender parity and…diversity in years.” Once her task force was assembled, Lee welcomed them to one of the most unconventional but enlightening courses of their Swarthmore career. She divided them into three groups, SharpMore, the Swarchitects and Collective Sol, and charged them with answering two questions: What is Sharples and how can the space be improved?

Their task was broken up into three phases: research and analysis, design, and exhibition. In the first phase, reflective of the theoretical reading and study done in the class, Lee’s students took on a “different kind of analytical perspective” each week, with the goal of broadening their preconceived notions about architecture. They identified materials used to build Sharples, investigated its social relations with its surroundings, and charted circulation patterns and conducted sound analyses within it. By doing so, the students became intimately familiar with Sharples and its staff as well as with the breadth of architecture as a discipline. Their research complete, the groups entered the design phase, generating ideas and plans for the space that addressed some of the issues they had identified in phase one.

Once plans are drawn up drawn up, students enter the final and perhaps most dangerous phase of their projects, the exhibition phase, where they will curate their own exhibits for the general public and give a formal presentation to the administration, including the Vice President of Facilities and representatives from the Scott Arboretum. Seated on a panel, the administration will be “extremely receptive,” Lee predicts, eager to hear the suggestions of the “primary users of the space” — the students.

What exactly did the groups come up with? Much like the tale of Harry Potter, the resulting projects featured at Kitao Gallery this past Friday, ranging from “the abstract to the digitally concrete,” as Lee puts it, are as distinct as the houses of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Slytherin.

SharpMORE: The Sketchers

In their vision to take SharpLESS to SharpMORE, circulation, visibility and general feng shui take center stage. Rebecca Contreras ‘13 recalls her group “huddled around a table sketching…trying to mediate our ideas and play and bounce them off of one another in a visual way.” Challenging themselves to come up with a new sketch every week, SharpMore focused on ways to improve the congestion in the serving area and the two narrow passageways leading into it, as well as fixing the building’s overall lack of natural lighting. These concerns were identified by sound and traffic pattern tests: blasting “No-Diggity” by Blackstreet at 3 p.m. on a weekday, sitting in the kitchen at closing time haunted by the low hum of machinery, and hustling around the narrow passageways recording their steps were integral parts of SharpMore’s research.

Their exhibit blends three photographs of the front, back and main room of Sharples by sketching them over a large glass installation. In each sketch, they added glass lightboxes which would bring natural lighting into the kitchen and dining areas. Defending the public display of the sketches, Nicole Vanchieri ’13 explains that while SharpMore “did want to present a refined idea of our design but we also wanted to evoke this idea that … this is still a sketch.”

In the center of the main dining room, a large lightbox would be installed, enclosing a small tree or some other greenery. To give visitors a sense of the structure, SharpMore assembled a glass installation which was propped in the center of the exhibition. “We wanted something eye-catching,” Rebecca explained. “If we are going to be in the center, we are going to put something in the center.” The installation successfully captures the viewer and the essence of SharpMore’s vision.

Swarchitects: The Philosophers

The Swarchitects came up with a design that Lee described as “the most abstract.” Bringing to our attention that we “take for granted the auditory quality of the space,” Professor Lee said the Swarchitects wanted “to capture and engage in a more sensorial aesthetic experience.”

Daniel Cho ’13 confirmed that sentiment, saying that Sharples is not “a bad building, it’s not an ugly building. We just thought it needed a facelift.” To really see the space, the group, comprised of many photographers, took photos which revealed Sharples’ less appreciated qualities, such as its “rich colors.” The Swarchitect’s most driving question was what collective dining meant for them. Blending a discursive analysis — What is Sharples? What is collective dining? How is fine dining different from Sharples? — with a sensorial one — conducting sound tests, sitting in spaces and evaluating the way they felt in them — the Swarchitects utilized their kinesthetic experience within the space to create of a design for its improvement.

For their exhibition, the Swarchitects brought in a table from Sharples and asked visitors to sit at it, drawing on the idea that “on one single table, in one building, there can be three different experiences.” Each row had a different set of lighting shining on it, and visitors put on headphones, each of which was playing a “unique recording to each space” chosen to create the feel of the large room, the middle room, or the small room in Sharples. To actually display their designs, they printed them on pieces of paper meant to resemble placemats. Through these sensory techniques visitors could imagine what it would be like to dine at the Swarchitect’s “new” Sharples.

Collective Sol: The Graphic Designers

Collective Sol is distinguished by their exhibition. Set at the far right of the Kitao Gallery, they installed an iPad Keynote presentation, a chalkboard, and a homemade “green wall” adorned with real plants, vegetables and flowers. As senior Miranda Geraci-Yee’s group has “always been into creating computer design presentations” for other assignments, “it seemed natural to create a Keynote presentation as our main exhibit component,” and as their “design hinges on the idea of interactive and engaging spaces … we wanted to not only exhibit a digital presentation but to make an interactive map of our space,” she says. Clicking through the presentation, one was able to view layouts of spaces next to Collective Sol’s new vision of the same space. It was like a virtual tour.

Collective Sol incorporated the chalkboard and “green wall” to represent their two main goals, “a chalkboard for wellness and a green wall for sustainability.” Their plan would include spaces for live action cooking, digital displays of nutritional information and more natural lighting. Similarly, a greenhouse would allow Swatties to “grow vegetables and herbs all year-round,” and a more easily identifiable waste management system would be put in place, consisting of “trash, recycling and composting receptacles.”

Professor Lee’s Contemporary Architecture class, by being both an art history and studio art class, breaks the categories of both disciplines. It asks its students to lead class and re-envision and re-design campus space, blurring the lines between theoretical and practical learning, student and teacher. Most forward-thinking is the class’s emphasis on teamwork. While the thought of the group grade being one’s only grade would make most Swatties cringe, all the students I interviewed relished the process of teamwork. While Geraci-Yee acknowledges that “collaborating with three other minds proves difficult sometimes,” she has faith that Collective Sol’s “end design is truly a product that represents the collective aesthetics and ideas we have formed throughout the semester.” Contreras admits she lucked out with the members of her group: “One person would have a glimmer of an idea, a seed and someone else would run with that and it would get really chaotic but we would compromise.” Defending the teamwork component, Professor Lee said she structured her course as an “experiment in learning” and that “collaboration is a central part of designing.” More generally, “anything you do is always going to be with other people.”

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