Conversation with Alvin Huang
said by: Justin Pang (M.Arch 19’)
“The best engineers provide great solutions. The best architects create great problems to solve” - Hanif Kara
On an unusually hot October day last week, I was fortunate enough to join our weekly guest lecturer, Alvin Huang, for lunch prior to his speaking at DAAP. Typically, the lunch is held in the DAAP materials library; today it was held in a special outdoor project designed, organized, and built by the graduate program’s MArch1 students. They had constructed a sukkah (a temporary hut erected for the week-long Sukkot holiday, celebrated in the Jewish faith) on one of the University of Cincinnati’s McMicken Commons, one of the university’s main campus commons. The design consisted of a wooden structure well-adjusted to the topographical condition of the quad, with compelling cutouts in the wall and ceiling surfaces to let light in. The ceiling was adorned well with raw bamboo shoots that shaded us. I had attended several of these student-lecturer lunches before, yet this one seemed particularly intimate because of its unique setting, and the discussion even more engaging as a result.
Alvin Huang likens the way he runs his small practice at Synthesis Design similarly to how a football team is organized. In fact, when interviewing prospective new members of his team, he even asks if they play sports or sports-related video games to disperse his analogy. He believes that as the leader of an architectural design firm, it is imperative that you are catering to the strengths of each individual team member and channeling that in order to carry out the firm’s vision, simultaneously improving that team member’s own strengths. I think something that is often ignored in the architectural field is the democracy behind design; we are often conditioned to think that the intern is the least paid, most overworked individual behind the drawings and models that produce themselves in the face of the client. Not so in the case of Synthesis Design: Alvin did not seem to mind openly admitting that he is the only “unpaid or least paid” member of his firm, and that everyone does a little bit of something to contribute to the cause. His philosophy may be more relevant to firms similar in size and scope, but it is not impossible to think that the same kind of equity could be applied to larger corporate models looking forward. What was even more convincing of this method of thought was his citing of specific team members (even interns) that showcased strengths in specific areas (augmented reality, computational design, etc.) to further improve visions for their design.
Later on during the lecture, Alvin Huang presented the quote at the beginning of this column from Hanif Kara, and I could not help but realize how true it is: that designers are faced with creating solutions for a wide variety of issues but we often ignore the ways that the designer themselves can further bend the rules of a problem to work in the favor of effective design. Alvin broke down his talk into three chapters: “tool,” “technique,” and “techne,” all elements of a craft applicable to solving a problem. Alvin’s question from this observation was: “How can effective distinctions and conjunctive uses of tool, technique, and techne further improve the dialogue between problem and solution?” rather than sticking to a mere rubric of completion. Alvin covered a wide base of projects Synthesis has been able to participate in. However, to the point of the lecture, the first project presented stood out to me most on a personal level.
The project was titled “Durotaxis Chair” for Stratasys, a company that produces 3D-printing technology and advocates the use of rapid prototyping/digital manufacturing means as avenues of progressive design. The chair is simple in concept; it acts as a dual position rocking chair that undertakes upright and lounging positions, presenting itself as a blue/green mesh-like skeleton. What was more intriguing to me was the process in its actual fabrication process, and some of the resultant negative byproducts. Alvin and his team realized that the chair cost an exorbitant amount of money to prototype, mostly due to the unrecoverable waste the printing process produced in order to structure the remaining skeleton that would eventually become the final product. Approximately 70% of what was printed was excess material would have to be thrown out. As a result of this design problem and a pressing deadline, the team had to abandon the full-scale model and resort to a 1/2 scale rendition. Instead of lamenting about the seemingly inevitable setback, Alvin and his team asked themselves, “How do you design a 3D print than 3D print a design?” By altering the problem in their favor and realizing they could achieve the similar end goal with significantly less waste involved, they were able to come up with a generative process that was far more laborious but in the end made more sense, which they are further developing for a full-scale, more sensitively manufactured product.
Alvin’s approach to his work is unique, often algorithmic in method but always capitalizing on design and form first. He demonstrates that architecture is being innovated through new techniques, changing our everyday built environment and thus the way we see design. He also believes that we should embrace these changes until they fully evolve design into something we no longer notice as an unfamiliar set of techniques, but rather an embedded characteristic of design culture that we no longer find distinguishable. Through this practice and persistence in pushing innovative design strategies, Alvin Huang believes that our generation will achieve a new echelon of built environment that adapts to our world’s ever changing conditions and demands.
Below are some images of Synthesis Design’s work as well as a link to their webpages: