City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.

Scott Marble is an architect at Marble Fairbanks and a teacher at Columbia and others. He talks principally about the shifting nature of architectural craft from an educational perspective. This is timely as although many of our previous speakers teach too, few had addressed it explicitly.

Marble starts by drawing a diagram, a u-bend of a curve indicating the historical relationship of architectural design to industry. At the left, he indicates a high point of the Dymaxion House, by Buckminster Fuller, when design and fabrication are closely aligned. He then descends to a low point of the manufactured housing that followed, before tracing an upward curve to our current position. He says this is evolving practice, and that his curve is hardly a scientific representation but it’s interesting that he places it at the same level of Dymaxion nonetheless.


Marble then runs through what he sees as key shifts in design at the moment. An interesting set, and beginning to be quite familiar, when view from a position looking across multiple disciplines:

form -> performance
products -> process
master builder -> collaboration
design -> management
representation -> communication

He particularly draws out this point of design becoming more akin to a management practice, and is clear that this isn’t something to be afraid of, but to embrace creatively. (We share a few words about this afterwards, as it reinforced my own beliefs that you can’t design products effectively without redesigning the organisation. That this view across the context of the product, and attempting to shape that too, is fundamentally relevant and also a valuable creative challenge.)



Marble picks apart ‘designing design’ and ‘designing assembly’ too, noting this expanded context of seeing the assembly process as part of the product design within architecture. (Again, echos of Matt Clark’s talk yesterday, and the sustainability panel.) He suggests we have to think deeply about the process of designing architectural systems, at this point, rather than the more simplistic view of building.

By way of explanation, Marble takes us a breakneck pace through a project of building a slide library at Columbia (which can currently be found under ‘Current Projects’ at their website). Although he dwells a little too long on the details of form and material, as any architect might (save Lebbeus Woods perhaps), Marble principally takes us through the process they went through, and the context of the project. It’s interesting to hear so much talk of the project management (oh members of my previous project management teams will laugh at this) and then the entire organisation around the slide library itself. In architectural education, the academy typically separates itself from the profession, and this project deliberately blurs things more. It’s interesting that he sees the site of Columbia as something his architecture students should engage with, professionally, noting that many other schools don’t.

He then went on to show an interesting slide that showed “the network of people”, all the various companies involved in a typical project, from contractors to specialists to engineers to financiers to lawyers. This wider view of the project was interesting. For what it’s worth, the Slide Library itself seemed interesting, and the algorithm that creates spacing for holes is fascinating.


Marble closes by suggesting that the architectural profession needs to reinvent itself, and by illustrating these connections, networks, processes and structures around projects, he presents us with a usefully wide contextual view.

I asked about management, and how they practically address this, within teaching? Do they do organisational theory or management theory, say? He replies by saying that they tend to emphasise group work as much as possible, whereas most traditional architectural education has tended to reinforce the idea of the lone master builder, the auteur. But he also points out that it’s not just a pragmatic issue – this sense of management as a form of design – but that it has very necessary creative aspects to it. He suggests that students may be more aware of this than faculty.

Another question is on performance systems and digital design. Marble states that, in the 15-year history of digital processing, from early 90s when it really kicked in, there was a real emphasis on form making in architecture. Not concerned too much with efficiencies. Now that has swung towards optimisation and performance (as in energy efficiency) – which is just a repeat of modernism in a sense, although quantitative. The end game of that is questionable. We can find a balance between decorative, or qualitative, aspects and performance-based optimisation.

Enrique made a point about design assembly, noting the 1940s oackage house system, where the design specified that a person did not have to lift more than x pounds in order to assemble it. Marble agreed on the importance of this, stating that “the assembly process should be part of the design process. In terms of the Slide Library, the building just fitted together like Lego.”


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