On May 1-2 the USC School of Architecture held the sixth iteration of its all-school Blue Tape reviews, the culmination of over 60 studios run during the spring semester. Taking over Harris and Watt Halls and spilling out into the surrounding courtyards of the arts and architecture campus, the reviews projected the energy of the School through a diverse array of work. Ranging from the surrealist-mode projects of faculty member Laurel Broughton’s studio, “Stranger than Fiction”, to the full-scale façade installations of graduate studio 505B, taught by Yo-ichiro Hakomori, Gary Paige, Jennifer Siegal, and Patrick Tighe, Blue Tape challenges, critiques, and expresses the experimental and adventurous nature of the School’s pedagogy.
“Everybody is represented,” says Gail Borden, director of the graduate program in architecture. “All students and all faculty.” While earlier Blue Tapes were nomadic and held in spaces off-campus, for this one the goal was to bring it back home and have the architecture campus be the hub. “We wanted to create more of a mess on our own campus,” says Borden.
With over 300 invited critics, there was an intentional push to engage the full spectrum of projects and studios on multiple levels of critique and discussion. As Borden notes, “There was a conscious focus on matching critics with studios and to maintain an open, inclusive, and festival-like atmosphere.”
In speaking about what makes Blue Tape special, Borden says that while it is an important celebration, especially since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the School, it is, first and foremost, a dynamic learning environment. “If architecture becomes a mere intellectual pursuit then it is limited,” he says. “This is where all the edges of design, making, and construction bump up against culture in a rich dialog. It’s a little bit raw, it’s everything all at once, it’s risking something to advance the dialog about what architecture can do and what we can do as a school, what our students and faculty can do. ”
Qingyun Ma, dean of the School of Architecture, says Blue Tape is about a reciprocal engagement with Los Angeles and the School’s disciplines as transformative catalysts. “In many ways Los Angeles is still an unfinished city,” he says. “There are still a lot of voids in its tissue and many of our studios seek to address these.”
“It’s important for our students to understand that what they are doing is relevant and can have a significant impact,” says Alice Kimm, director of the undergraduate program in architecture. “For undergraduate students, who are still so young, this is an important lesson.” Kimm also says that the public nature of Blue Tape significantly ups the ante for students vis-à-vis their individual performance. “It makes them strive harder, be better, push farther. And in architecture this can result in unforeseen beauty, or novel and innovative spaces the likes of which we’ve not seen before, or ways of thinking about the world and space that are fresh and energizing.”
“We are feeling excited and extremely accomplished,” says Mariana Varela, a first-year graduate student from the 505B studio, as she puts the finishing touches on “X Wall” a multi-functional façade comprised of “drops” that perform in different environmental, aesthetic, and energetic ways. “We wanted to create something that activates the senses,” says team member Victoria Rice as she checks to make sure one of the wall’s mister nozzles is misting correctly. “What did we learn? That teamwork, communication, and prototyping are key. It’s been rewarding to work on a team like this,” she adds. “It really got our wheels turning,” says Daniel Lofgren, also part of the X Wall team. “It all began as an experiment so it’s good to see it exist in the real world.”
Blue Tape is not just about final presentations in the traditional sense. It is an unfolding process of discovery for everyone involved. The work, while achieving high-levels of resolution, expresses the potential for continued exploration. It also shows the evolution of the students as they move through the School’s programs. In faculty member Lee Olvera’s studio, “Truth in Making”, for example, the final projects, entitled “Shrouds”, conveyed the rough and even informal nature of materials and constructs that underwent transformations in the hands of the students. The students engaged visiting critics by presenting their work as personal journeys of spatial, material, intellectual, and emotional discovery. The studio became a form of storytelling through design and what is clear is that it will have a lasting impact on the students as designers and people.
Says Borden, “Work like this starts to address the metaphysical aspects of architecture, while still grounding designers in what’s human so they can have an impact on culture.”
“This Blue Tape showed how far the school has come in the past few years with respect to promoting design intelligence, design energy, and a fantastic design culture,” says Kimm. “Plus, we had fabulous light and, while it was certainly warm out, the SoCal weather was at its best!”
by Guy Horton