Graduate Architecture

Posted May 3, 2019
  • Archi-Tectonics’ installation at Aedes Architectural Forum, Berlin

Winka Dubbeldam on Digital Craft, the Dutch Mindset, and the Science of Architecture

On the occasion of her firm Archi-Tectonics’ exhibition at the Aedes Architectural Forum in Berlin, Miller Professor and Chair of Architecture Winka Dubbeldam talked to Design Weekly about her path to Penn, digital craft, and the demands on architecture. Entitled Flat Lands and Massive Things—From NL to NY and Beyond, the exhibition was on view at Aedes through April 25. Watch an interview with Dubbeldam, partner Justin Korhammer, and Berlin-based architect Almut Grüntuch-Ernst on Aedes’s Vimeo

What do you think is the least understood about architects or architecture?

As an architect, one needs to lead a massive team of engineers, consultants, and contractors. Here in the U.S., we’re thought of as designers. But design is only 10% of what we do. 90% is getting the design built, and that takes a large team, and you are designing something that people will occupy, so you are liable for the safety of many people. In other countries, an architect is seen more on the level of a brain surgeon, or heart surgeon. Even in China, being an architect is considered a Type A profession. 

What was your entry into the profession?

Initially I worked in a really great office called BOA, “Beware of Architects”. We worked mostly with Rem Koolhaas before he was “Rem Koolhaas.” Then I got headhunted by a company that designed lighting. They wanted someone to design their spaces and branding for fairs and showrooms—I think that’s where my interest in 3D branding as architecture comes from.

After I graduated, I came to New York to study at Columbia and then I worked for Steven Holl, Bernard Tschumi, and Peter Eisenman. I was working for Peter when the Berlin Wall came down, and most of our projects in Germany went on hold. I took a leave of absence, I did a competition and an exhibition and suddenly got a project for an art gallery on West Broadway in Manhattan. So, I started an office. I had a sublet for one table in a loft I shared with architects in SoHo, and sitting at my one table, I thought “I probably should have a name for the office, right?” I found “architectonics,” which meant the science of architecture. Since I was always working on multiple platforms, and because architecture is teamwork, I thought that was a great name.

What brought you back to academia?

When I started my office—in the same week, I think—Bernard Tschumi called me and said, “Do you want to teach with Ben van Berkel? He’s teaching but he can’t come the whole first month.” And I did. I think that was in the spring of ‘94. Then I came for a review here at Penn and Marco Frascari was running the undergrad program and he asked me to teach, and the next semester I was teaching in the graduate program, and I continued for eight years with one semester here and one semester at Columbia. Both chairs wanted me to be full-time, but I would always say, “I like both.” I was very much a free agent. Then I went to Harvard to teach, and Richard Wesley, who was then the chair at Penn [and now directs the undergraduate architecture program], called me and said, “Do you want to start a new version of the second MArch degree?” That was 2003.

How did you bring digital design into the program?

It was in the middle of the whole digital revolution. Sometime around 1998, I asked for Room 410 here at Penn, and we filled it with computers with Maya, and we started the first paperless studio. Not long ago, I was on a panel at NYU for the book launch of Vanessa Keith [principal at Studioteka], and she introduced me as her professor from one of the first digital studios. So, Penn was right at the forefront of the digital change in architecture.

After teaching digital design for a while, the one thing I was always worried about is that the computer is kind of a black hole. The students would make all these beautiful things, but they forget to pull them out. So, I was kept reminding the students, “Please print out on paper what you have, consolidate it, and then put it back in the computer because you’re forgetting half of all the beautiful things you’ve shown me already.”

That is why, when I started as a chair, I felt that the best way to teach students to model better and to test what they really have is to 3D print it real-time. I’ve never believed solely in pure presentation models, but I really believe in prototyping. The first year there was little bit of money left over in my budget, and I bought five or six MakerBots and placed them right in the design studios. In the old days, we never had models during midterm unless students were really focused on model making. But I think having the MakerBots right there has changed their attitude. They are much more in charge of what they have designed. It kind of brought back Penn’s focus on “making.”

Most people know Archi-Tectonics for the firm’s innovative residential work, but you have a major new mixed-used project in China, the Asian Games complex in Hangzhou. Isn’t that a big project for a firm to take on?

It’s enormous. The table tennis stadium is 35,000 square meters (350,000 square feet) and then we have the hockey stadium that is 120,000 square feet and then we have a shopping concept in the form of a valley in the park that’s 200,000 square feet, all located in a mile long park. Normally, as architects, we have sub-consultants, but in this case I made every company that worked with us a full competition partner: !melk for the landscape design (Jerry van Eyck) and Scott Lomax from Thornton Tomasetti. That’s how we kept it collaborative, which is what I like. In six weeks, over the summer, we had to make this gigantic proposal, a movie and book. 20% of the work, and the SD phase — all had to be done in these six weeks! Melk is in the same building as our firm, and Thornton Tomasetti has a few projects downtown so they could pop in, so we all met every week. We had MIC, the famous Italian traffic engineer, look at all public access, private access, the egress rules, the fire department rules, and highway engineering.

So, infrastructure is a big part of this project?

Yes, in a way it’s very Dutch. Architecture school in Holland is much more geared to that— we studied not only architecture, but also the relationship of buildings to cities. When we think about a building, we also think about the city around it to figure out how the building would fit best and what the building’s impact on the city is. Our firm was one of the invited architects by Max Protetch to contribute to an exhibit for Lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center came down. Rather than submitting a design for a new building, we designed a game space for the exhibit where people could test what the impact of their decisions was on the city. I felt, after such a disastrous event, that it was probably not a moment to think about design, but to think about possibilities and the consequences of choices. The game was also exhibited at the Venice Biennale for architecture and was later bought by the Library of Congress in Washington!

Speaking of virtual reality, what’s the role of technology in studying architecture in 2019? For example, the Department of Architecture recently opened a robotics lab in Meyerson Hall to support your Advanced Research and Innovation initiative.

You have to remember that what we teach, as architects, is ahead of what the reality in the building industry is. We live at a time when we don’t separate technology from design anymore because, through digital craft, it’s the technology that allows us to transform what used to be a wall or a surface into something that is also pattern, that is imprinted with meaning. It used to be that if you were interested in technology you were not interested in design. But that’s completely erased by digital design and the way we integrate all now.

It sounds like you also push the envelope with your contractors or with your suppliers.

Oh, yeah. With my first building, when I was bending glass, I worked with a company in Barcelona. There was a time when things with them went quiet. They didn’t tell me, but they broke, I think, 25 pieces before they got it right. These were big pieces of glass! But they didn’t blink. Now they’re producing it all over the world. It’s just a matter of learning how. I also like to invite companies to work with our students at Penn. Companies like Cemex are a great inspiration for our third-year students and faculty, and we add a lot of design intelligence to the company’s research.

You’re now in your second term as the department’s chair. What are you most proud of?

I think because I was a practicing architect there were a lot of things that I felt had to change. The role of the architect has drastically changed since the mid nineties, and the demands are huge. We asked ourselves, “How do the students become critical thinkers, amazing designers, and leaders of highly complex teams?" We deepened the study of professional practice, history and theory, and integral structural design. We also cross-reference the courses and studios, integrating hard knowledge in the design process. We expect students to understand how to build, so we give them rigorous technical classes. But we don’t teach technology for technology’s sake. The technology’s there to make your design work, and to innovate the structures.

What I think that students don’t realize, before they come to Penn, is how varied the cultural influences here are. But you have to start acting global if you want to be global. It’s really important to open up to all of the different people around you. But what I think students do know is that our faculty embraces diversity. They embrace dialogue. We have the most dedicated faculty I have ever seen. I feel honored, honestly, to be part of the group at Penn, and that I’m allowed to be their leader for this period in time.