August 30, 2011

Building Art, Practically

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While the rest of us were basking in the summer sun, Karen Chi-Chi Lin ’13 and a group of Cornell Architecture students and professors were researching, designing and building a schoolhouse in South Africa. As part of Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD), the group partnered with Education Africa to build a 6,000 square foot Early Childhood Development Center over the last three months.

With previous designing and building experience in Bangladesh, Lin was the graphics and branding sub-team leader and editor-in-chief of its 200-page reference book prior to the trip as well as the logistics officer for the project. This past spring, she was named a recipient of the Udall Scholarship, recognizing students with an interest in environmental public policy. She recently caught up with the Daily Sun to share her experiences, architectural struggles of the project and thoughts on architecture as an art form.

The Sun: The summer after your freshman year, you designed and built a pavilion in Bangladesh. How were you able to get this opportunity?

C.L.: I got an internship that was based in Bangladesh, at a place called Panigram Resort — basically ‘water villlage.’ It was supposed to be a sustainable eco-hotel and I was the architecture intern. At that time, they didn’t have enough money to start construction yet so the resort had to get sponsors. I had to design and build this pavilion for this luncheon event that the resort would host to get people on board. They let me have free reign in terms of the budget. That’s why I got involved with CUSD and I really want other people to have that experience.

Sun: So, the resort let you design and build this pavilion? That must’ve been really difficult. How did you go about doing that?

C.L.: Luckily, I took Structures first, a required course [in the Architecture school.] I built a lot of models with bamboo toothpicks, and I ended up using a lot of bamboo, so I figured that was okay. I ended up building it on the riverfront, and so it was on water. When we started, it was monsoon season, and when we ended, it was after monsoon season, so the rivers flooded up and the pavilion was floating on water. I did have the help of local craftsmen and engineers, who helped me with the structure. Because of my limited Bengali, I was only able to ask ‘thik ache,’ or ‘okay?’ Then, they could respond ‘okay’ or ‘not okay.’

Sun: So, what was your role in the Schoolhouse South Africa project?

C.L.: I was on the team during the whole process. For the most part, I was involved with graphics, all of the design elements… the branding, the graphic design, the brand design, a lot of the photos… I guess it would be considered branding; how our organization is framed in the public eye. I also worked with material procurement and was part of the group that designed and built in South Africa this summer.

Sun: Once your group got to South Africa, were you able to implement the design effectively?

C.L.: It’s very rare that a student project is actually built. Student projects tend to be a proposal for an idea… the projects are not nearly as polished as real-life building documents. With those expectations, with that kind of time frame — one semester — it was really challenging. Especially because we were just second-year architecture students working on designs drawings… We submitted our approval drawings two or three weeks into the summer. Luckily, the city of Johannesburg was one of our partners and we had good relations with them. It was definitely really difficult; when you update one drawing, you have to change other drawings. We never had a complete set of drawings.

Sun: Were the locals receptive of the building of the school?

C.L.: Yeah, there’s a video online where a police officer swung by. He said that education is key because it lowers crime, which is a huge problem in South Africa, and this is the first official preschool in the this neighborhood. They were all very excited, but we needed to talk with crèche [the local preschool] leaders and community leaders.

Sun: Did you see the project primarily as just filling a need, or were you also taking into consideration architectural concerns?

C.L.: There aren’t just two choices — usually, it’s practical design versus artistic desgn. There were a lot of things that we had to consider: first of all, community outreach — talking to the religious community because they play a big role in the neighborhood we were in. Obviously, because we were working with the Architecture program at Cornell, we had to make sure that we were not limiting the students to design something that is merely functional, but to design something that they would be proud of. We also had to keep track of public relations in Africa and in the US, for the marketing side of it as well. So, all of these different things came together… above that, we also had to be roommates; we had to be good friends and co-workers to each other.

Sun: Was there a struggle between aesthetic designs and practical concerns?

C.L.: Yes. [Laughs] One of the big features of our school are these circle windows. At the end of the day, when we ran some lighting analyses, we found out that there was just simply not enough light for a good classroom environment. The easiest thing would be to just punch more windows into the wall. But, Andrew Fu ‘14, the designer, and his team, decided that we didn’t want to add more windows. So, we decided to angle the roof at a certain way, but that didn’t work — there wasn’t enough light. So, we decided to have two circle windows, which, at the time, we didn’t think that we’d be able to afford. So, there was a lot of back and forth in terms of money, engineering and aesthetics.

Sun: During the project, did you consider the architecture of the building as an art form?

C.L.: I don’t know how you would define art, but through architecture, we were designing for something. With art, you’re making art for a statement — which I guess is designing something too. For this project, we were designing a very real something for 80 kids. It’s art because it’s trying to give a message as well. I mean, honestly, we could’ve just built four walls out of concrete. We put a lot of effort and research into the project because we want it to be clear that we believe that education is very important. This message is very important; we want people to come to the building and be attracted to it. I’m very scared to say the word “symbolic,” but I think it is an iconic and symbolic building.

Original Author: Chris Leo Palermino